Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Homes and Grading and California

Early this morning, I entered the grades for my second set of classes taught at the Fall Program or Freshmen. Done!

My course is focused on writing about place and how we connect to it, which resonates with these students who are often leaving home for the first time, though the typical freshmen experience doesn't really apply to Berkeley freshmen -- at least,  not the ones in my classrooms.

So many are the striving, and the children of strivers... people who have moved their families over borders, over continents. One of the challenges for me, as someone who grew up in close connection not the natural world, is that the students are often puzzled that we begin with Muir and Thoreau and Snyder -- to me, the idea of learning your ecology as a way of knowing your home place is so ingrained that I have to remember that these kids grew up swimming in backyard pools, not the ocean, driving on freeways, not Hwy 1 and dirt roads. But over the course of the semester, they get it, or at least consider what it means to feel a place's weather, climb its hills, and rest beside its streams.

I've structured the semester so that reflection is an inherent part of the ending, both for the students and for me. I look back over their reading journals and their observational journals. They reflect over the course as a whole to pull out the threads that became most meaningful. I love reading their reactions to the readings, and their own changing relationship to their new home in Berkeley.

A few times now, I've had students write about how meaningful this course became as a space in which to process their own sense of being lost and alone in a sea of driven pre-med, pre-Hass, pre-whatevers, surprised that books and writing could help them think through their own life.

I love these moments of teaching -- connecting through books, hearing students' earnest sense of their own growth, introducing them to Ondaatje, Adichie, and Toibin. I wish I could just sit with them and talk earnestly about their ideas one-on-one as their final exam, Oxford style -- though having ground my teeth to nubbins over my own oral exams, perhaps this concept would strike fear into the students.


I've also come to realize that I am using Irish Lit, Brit Lit, and ideas of exile and hybridity, etc etc to think through identity and belonging, but so much of the impetus of this course comes from my own fascination with origins and rootedness. Not surprising, I suppose, considering I wrote my dissertation about the literature of the place that my great-grandparents called home.

We're moving to Oakland, where my grandfather was born. We live in Berkeley, where my parents both lived. But I can't shake feeling that Bolinas is my home, that special, soothing, perfect feeling of being in my home, the smoke from the fireplace, the sea air, the rustling grasses, the stove I know exactly how to work, the basement I know exactly how to duck into. Everything else is a pale substitute I try to shape as much as possible to resemble my childhood home.

I feel like I'm always pining. But I've always been leaving. After school every day as a child, for gymnastics. High school in MV. College on the East Coast. Sloughing friends who knew me too long.

Is searching for home always trying to reclaim the past? Trying to pin back together those scattered leaves?

I remember how unsettled I was going to Dublin in 2006 -- just a year, and everything had changed. Green's bookshop was closed. St Stephen's Green's traffic pattern was reversed. No-one and nothing was where I'd left it.

Bolinas is always the same, or just slightly improved.  I never have to worry about the erasure that happens in cities.

But  if I can't reconstruct this past, can't even move home, where does that leave me? It seems pitiable to think of someone living an hour away as in exile from their home.

But it reminds me of the stories of fisher villages in Ireland and the coffee farms in the Western Ghats. Children leave to work in the cities. I left to work in the city. And the old places wither, aging into uselessness and ghost town memories and vacation homes.

Sometimes I think the worst thing to become is a tourist attraction, a place acting out parodies of real work for eager watchers.


I'm not sure when I became so obsessed with my home. I wrote my college application essay about the beauty and heart-sickness of my drive home to Bolinas, knowing I'd soon be leaving. I remember my English teacher suggesting I tone down my attachment to home as I applied for colleges on the east coast, concerned it would make me look unformed, immature, and attached to what was, not looking forward to a future of bracing, snow-carrying winds. I remember feeling like I could be at home in Ireland too, a real home, one that belonged to me through blood. Maybe it was after I gave up my idea that I could really live in Ireland that I took that yearning I'd attached to ancestral origins and attached it to Bolinas.

And, as always, what is it that I really love about it? Am I really that at ease there? Everyone my age is gone from there, and I have nothing in common with those left.

Will I find a place that feels this real and known and solid and settled? Will Van Dyke come to mean as much as Larch? When do we finally feel like we're no longer in orbit and have finally landed?

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