Monday, April 29, 2013

Had I But Known What Truths Emerge from Paradise Lost

Guest Post by: Liza Mattison

I'm not entirely sure how I passed my second semester of chemistry sophomore year, and part of me believes to this day that my teacher, who was as old as the hills and a shade less animated, mixed up my name with the girl above/below me and gave her my rightly deserved F in exchange for her hard won C. Poor lass has probably spent lo these many years in a life of thwarted dreams and regret because of it while I on the other hand proceeded to immediately forget what little I had ever gleaned in the first place and continue to not have not the faintest understanding of what a salt bridge is all about.

I’m fairly convinced our final exam was written in Sanskrit and after an interminable two hours, the swirl of ignorance clouding my thoughts offered nothing more, so I put away my pencil and calculator, handed in my test, and staggered into the daylight. As I did, the nebula of confusion began to dissipate and gave way to a strange clarity of mind. The torture of chemistry may have ended, but I realized there was still one last thing I had to do in order to put it fully behind me for good. So I marched down to the grassy banks of our campus pond to do it. “It” in this case means: “heave the thick, hardbound textbook that had served me so hopelessly all year long into the muddy waters of Paradise Pond.”   That’s right. I threw my chemistry book into my college campus pond.

Before hucking it over the bank’s edge, I inscribed a cute little poem in it. Right on the inside cover:
            And deeper than did ever plummet sound
            I’ll drown my book in the languid sea
            Where, perhaps, it will be found
            By the fish who can learn my chemistry.

I’ll admit I thought I was pretty darn clever riffing off the big S, and I congratulated myself for what I decided was a splendid integration of humanities and the sciences. I also regret to say that whatever hesitation I might have had about littering or befouling an otherwise lovely piece of water was dismissed just as quickly as the synaptic pulses could even form the thought. Not only would this be a cleansing act, a ceremonial ritual of healing, it pleased me to think that I would have this little secret. That just beyond the reedy marsh behind the boathouse, and unbeknownst to anybody but me, my chemistry book would lie in the muck undisturbed and unnoticed from now into an indefinite future. Lost forever to the world from that moment on. It was all so deliciously beautiful I could hardly stand it.

I dated and signed my name below the inscription in large, loopy, and (foolishly) indelible lettering and then heaved the thing in, imagining that it would sink like a little stone. Instead, for five horrifying minutes it sort of lolled and bobbed in the gentle current, its white ghostly pages lifting sluggishly in the breeze. Eventually though and to my relief, it did sink and slowly disappeared from sight.

Mission accomplished. I felt cleansed. Satisfied. Serene. My book, my mercifully short chemistry career, and my secret little ritual were all safely buried in the silent waters of Paradise pond.

Except that it turns out they weren’t. Because when I returned to campus the following September, a big brown gash tore across the landscape where the pond used to be. Because what I didn’t realize was that they drained and dredged Paradise Pond every so often in order to keep it a pond. Because it is actually not a pond so much as an artificially swollen loop of an otherwise small and unassuming river. As a geology major, I probably should have remembered this. As the out to lunch scholar that I was, I had entirely forgotten this little fact.

I rushed down to where I had heaved my chemistry textbook. The one with my name written all over it. In indelible ink.  What the hell had I done? Of course I couldn’t find it anywhere in the still damp mud. Was it even still there? Had someone found it and seen my name written on the inside cover?

Who cares, I hear you cry. It’s just a book. It’s probably not the worst thing those waters have seen. Well, you’re right, of course, but here’s the thing. Ready?

Despite being someone who had blithely tossed her chemistry book into a pond, I wasn’t at all ready to think of myself as a blithe sort of book-into-pond-tosser and I certainly didn’t want others to think of me that way. Because tossing books into ponds, blithely or otherwise, is, objectively speaking, littering.  And littering, objectively speaking, is a stupid thing to do. It is especially stupid when you’ve written your name on the about-to-be-tossed article.  And it is especially, especially stupid when you are on a beautiful campus whose powers that be take particular pride in said beautiful campus and have a habit of rebuking those who do stupid things that degrade said beauty of said campus.  I had been scolded before by these very powers that be for acting thoughtlessly, and so it was not entirely out of the realm of possibility that I might be scolded for my thoughtlessness again. (nb If ever you feel you have been unjustly ticketed by your campus public safety, then the right thing to do is to go to their office and explain your situation in calm, reasonable terms like an adult. The wrong thing to do is to stew about it while you are writing your check for the ticket because you are liable to write your payment out to “the weedy, clay-brained harpies at public safety”, which upsets them and gets you reported to your dean who writes you a stern letter of reproach and points out things about your maturity level that may very well be true but frankly sting just the same).

For an entire school year the pond was empty, and for that entire school year, I anxiously wondered if my book would be found and if I would be found out. Not as a clever and vaguely witty master of ceremonies I had fancied myself during that brief window of my actions, but as a hubristic little litterbug who was clearly not even that bright of a geology major. Was that really how I wanted to be seen by those who had offered me a place within their hallowed ivied walls? 

Before, it had pleased me to think that my little book toss carried a certain symbolism. Now I realized that it carried a lot more symbolism than I had bargained for. What had been done in secret was now literally exposed.  Or maybe it was. Maybe it was still safe. Would I be caught or would I get away with it? Would my reputation in others’ eyes be besmirched by this little episode? I couldn’t know the answers because the questions were undeniably out of my control. One thing though was for sure. The uncertainty of it all was quite unpleasant to live with.           

As it turned out, nobody did find the textbook, or if they did, nobody ever cared. Except for me. I cared a lot, because I discovered what I stood to lose from my own impulsiveness and the subsequent possibility of exposure. In hucking ol’ chem. II into the muddy waters, I relinquished control of the narrative of who I was. It was easy to think I was funny until I risked being exposed as thoughtless. It was easy to believe I was clever until I was forced to reckon with my stupidity. I was so taken with my own cleverness (and often what seems clever is just myopic stupidity) that I never considered what else might be revealed from my actions except maybe a stunningly rudimentary grasp of poetry. And anyway, I had assumed that like that old book, nothing more about the episode would ever resurface so who cared.

There are so many lessons and connections I could spin out of this cautionary tale: the dangers of plastering drunken or otherwise inappropriate pictures all over social media, the importance of always doing the right thing, the seriousness of thinking through your actions, the consideration you should show for others and for the environment, the inevitability of the past catching up with you, and I’m sure there are loads of others. But Aesop has probably covered it all before and much better than I ever could, so instead I’ll just leave you with two nuggets of advice:
1)      Think about the kind of person you want to be in this world and try to stay true to that ideal
2)      And for goodness sake, don’t sign your freaking name to a book if you toss it into Paradise Pond in Northampton, MA. Because––spoiler alert––they dredge the damn thing every now and again. Who knew?

This is a picture of Liza and I and our friend Joe (another Terrace Dweller)
lounging in the foreground. Never a dull moment.
This hilarious and oh-so-perfect post was written by the extravagantly talented Liza Mattison: a wife, MFA student, writer, former park ranger, and hostess of the blog Green Light. Liza is also what I call a Terrace Dweller*. Thank you, Liza, for your humor and insight and original poetry. You never cease to amaze! 

*To understand what a Terrace Dweller is, you'll need to read a much earlier post--but I highly recommend that you do because more of these dear people will be showing up, so it will help to have the background info. Now, if you read "The Terrace" you'll notice that Liza is not mentioned--that is because, while we were all up on the Terrace, Liza was wandering around Rome trying to find us. So, in acknowledgment of her effort, and because she truly is a quintessential Terrace Dweller at heart, she has become an honorary member.

PS: Tomorrow, in honor of the last day of National Poetry Month, I will be posting an original poem I wrote back in the days of yore (aka high school). You won't want to miss it!

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  1. Brilliant, as always, Liza, you hubristic little litterbug.

    Anna, what does it take to be an honorary Terrace Dweller?

    1. If I recall correctly, you dwelled with us on the Terrace in Spannocchia - You're already in, my dear (and don't worry, there's no "official" rules or criteria... or hazing. Apparently that's illegal.)

  2. When can I get the Spannocchia terrace back into my life? That was the pinnacle of terracing, since I never did actually make it to your trestevere one...(I was indeed wandering around Rome trying to find you. And also some Gelato place that Mary Waters was convinced was the best Gelato place ever. I think we found it, maybe. That was before we ended up over at the Vatican in the wee hours of the morning.)

    1. My word, you did get around that night! Well, at least you got some Gelato out of the bargain. and I'm hoping some day to make it back to Spannocchia--Karen and I are talking about doing a writers retreat there in a couple years (once we have our MFAs). We may need a guest speaker...

  3. Liza, brilliant as always! What else is there to say?


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