I don't miss the grind of being in graduate school, no way. But I do miss the place (Bennington, Vermont), especially--believe it or not--in winter. Of my five total residencies, I was there twice in January. The first one was the most extreme and magical. The second one was not as magical, but still I love the spare quality of a winter with snow.
After this mini-tour of photos, I posted half of the graduate log I wrote after returning from the January '05 residency--which also, significantly, marked the time I left my day job for good and began working for myself--now, almost 2 years ago!
The lovely campus, awash with snow:
The people that I miss (there are more, not pictured): From my Bennington "Graduate Log"--January, 2005:
"A lot has changed for me personally between June ‘04 and January ‘05, which feels as though it bears on the experience I had this time at school. For one thing, I had a very tough semester with (name withheld
), my professor. She does her job with the utmost attention and skill, leaving no stone unturned, if you will, and my tough time isn’t her fault. But I came the closest to doubting myself under her tutelage than ever before. Plus I kept writing fiction that was closer to the truth of my real life than ever before, and no matter how hard I tried to pull away from it, the same themes and characters continued to appear, seeming not to care that I was trying to make a work of art, and not allowing themselves to be shaped and crafted to a satisfying end, certainly not to her satisfaction.
Ultimately, though, I finished the semester knowing that I had to satisfy myself, and that as long as I looked to a mentor or any outside force to validate my worth or talent, I would continue to thwart myself.
And then, yet again, I lugged what were really only three items, but felt as though they had expanded to an impossible fifteen, down staircases, through Penn Station, past the pushy, irritable rush-hour masses and over that gap they’re always instructing you to watch (how, I ask, can you watch it when you’re busy figuring out how to lift three things with two hands without twisting an ankle?) onto the train, marveling at how much god damned work traveling to Bennington is. Fortunately I thought to bring a movie for the train ride, which made it pass quickly and lulled me back into complacency.
The weather, unlike the idyllic snow of last January was slushy, sleety and hard. A new poet, whom my friend Keith also chauffeured along with me, described it as “cosmic saliva.” That first day there it came hard and painfully, like little tiny, icy spitwads shot out of hundreds of straws. I complained to Tracy about it, since I had failed to bring an umbrella, thinking we’d have nothing less than snow, but she assured me, being a native New Englander, that like all things ephemeral, this too would pass.
A strange phenomena surfaced amongst us fourth semesterites. Within two days we were as exhausted as we usually get by the end of the entire residency. There was a noticeable feeling of energy falling flat, of having no real oomph, of being, I hate to say it, jaded. The magic seemed to have worn off and the sense that we had all survived a long semester loomed on our shoulders. But as the days passed on I realized that it was more than that. The flatness reflected a couple of things: One, now that we have been there a year and a half, are no longer new and can see the end ahead of us, some of the posturing we’ve done started to slide. Personally I can say that rather than keep up the dance of trying to get those people I have struggled with to like me, despite our obvious lack of chemistry, I let it drop and stopped playing the games. On the other hand, the reality that those people I really, truly care about and I will not get to spend four weeks a year together come the end of next summer, hit me very hard. I realized that on some level all of us were in a kind of denial, a withdrawing from the routine because it’s going to end sooner than later.
But then, three days in, I wrote this in my journal:“I keep having this feeling like, ‘hold onto this all, honey, while it lasts.’ I want to embrace the smells, the tastes, the interactions. The way the snowy commons looks from the lounge; the sound of murmur in the cafeteria; the various walks to the various buildings; the familiar pathways, the comforting views; the fetid smell of the pub and the clustered groups of smokers outside of it; the capsule feeling, that we are all somehow marooned on an island, that each of us is integral to the other’s survival.”
My friends and I discussed a thing that happens to us at Benn. There we are, completely out of the context of our regular routines. No jobs, no relationships, no responsibilities besides getting to things on time. And for hours every day, through the guise of writing, we hear lectures about the big subjects of life. Death and love, murder and rape, identity and art. All day long we muse and ponder these things, and our place as artists trying to offer something to the world about these things through words. It’s the equivalent, I’ve come to think, to that syndrome that occurs when one has been to too many museums, which can cause an actual physical sickness, an overstimulation of a part of the brain. At Bennington, many of us have to remember that we are happy and well-adjusted, because for two weeks we become moody and emotional, irrational and strange.And this, written after I graduated in June, '05:
"I told myself that I would soak it up, drink the place into my very cells so that I would never, ever be able to forget what it felt like crunching up the dirt pathway past the pond where the goslings were bigger this year, up to the remodeled carriage barn with its high ceilings and skylights. I promised myself that I would be able to smell the air—slightly sweet, but not floral sweet, the sugary taste of greenery in one’s mouth-- standing at the head of the commons lawn just before you take a running start and rush out onto its wide expanse of grass to the wall at “the edge of the world.” I promised myself I would never forget the slightly rancid smell of spilled beer and body odor in the commons lounge, the way the walls seem to ripple with ghosts of the girls who went there in the thirties, the way the little post-office seemed cooler than the rest of the building. I promised myself I would not forget the hum and drone of the cafeteria as we stood in line, clattering silverware against plastic tray, trying to guess what the most recent reconstituted meal really was. I hoped not to forget the endless bowls of chocolate pudding I ate, the slightly scary baskets of “bar food”—popcorn, pretzels and other assorted munchies that one felt compelled to eat even when it was disgusting. There are so many things I promised myself I would memorize, and you know what? I think I have."
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Sometimes I realize I have had more experiences than I have capacity to remember them all.