U is for University

U is for University

University, in the romanticized, rosy-hued lenses of my memory, seems to me to have been like a pleasant meandering Sunday afternoon drive through the quiet, shaded streets of old residential neighborhoods, where great old trees stand guard over dignified but slightly crumbling grand old homes of a past era. Along this drive I sometimes stop to wander a winding path among the trees of a bit of city parkland, gently tended by its gardeners to give the ironically safe impression of a wilderness retreat within the bounds of the asphalted urban jungle. At other times, I stop along the edge of a cliff and scramble down the slope to be enveloped for a moment in the cold salty-spray power of a stretch of wind-swept ocean beach, pounded by unrelenting surf which constantly moves and molds this sandy, log-strewn ribbon of wildness which the great city that hugs its shores has been unable to tame and civilize. I suppose these images derive somewhat from the setting of the University I attended, located on a rocky promontory jutting out from the great urban center so near and yet so separate, surrounded on 3 sides by ocean, and crowned by many acres of mostly undeveloped temperate rainforest that comprise its endowment lands. And then there are the actual beautiful old homes, where chancellors and presidents and other officials of education have lived, and, I suppose, hosted elegant old-fashioned parties for potential donors and successful alumni. There are also the great old traditional halls of learning, their classic architecture and ivied walls so commanding that the passerby seems to see them alone, hardly noticing the dozens of more pedantic modern structures that have grown up around them, as the University has developed and flourished. But the images of my memory also, I am sure, hark back to a moment in my life that was somehow simpler, with less emphasis on, and a kind of separation from, the so-called real responsibilities of the world of daily jobs and family life and commutes, though all those things still co-existed with my University learning.

Now my intellect rises up in mild argument against my memories, its serious librarian eyebrows raised in reasoned amusement at such foolishness, reminding me of the realities of grade point averages and honor rolls to be attained, and the hours of studying late at night, tedious lectures, and long term papers on obscure topics, multiple choice exams filled with trick questions designed by sadistically grinning test writers, and the daily grind of the life of the average student, living in small attic apartments, piling up student loans or furiously working part-time and summer jobs, living on a diet that in retrospect looks awfully like a mountain of empty generic brand macaroni and cheese instant dinners! Yet even those things I recall with nostalgic pleasure. Hours spent with Susannah Moody, lost in the world she long ago recorded in her journal, “Roughing It In the Canadian Woods,” the record of an English gentlewoman lifted out of her genteel life, and deposited unceremoniously in a life of startling challenge and adventure, in which, nonetheless, she came to relish and thrive. Frustrated, tired tears shed quietly, furtively, in Air Photo Analysis labs, as my brain struggled to understand and apply the intricacies of trigonometry. Dashing the ten minute walk from the Geography building to the Education building, in pouring rain, trying to arrive on time so as not to be marked late by annoyingly primary-level-minded education instructors who cared not that a colleague down the road had droned on far past class-ending time, leaving us poor students with only a minute to cover the several blocks to the next class. Wandering through mazes of tall, dark stacks of musty-smelling old books that comprise the great library of collected knowledge under-girding this mighty institution of learning; seeking, in yellowed old pages, or perhaps on blurry plastic microfiche sheets, or in great atlases and other heavy reference books, the quote, the snippet of information, the uniquely interesting idea that would make this term paper stand out from the rest, and result in that coveted A+ grade. And of course, a mid-day diet of slightly stale peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches swallowed in haste during the run from class to class.

Oddly enough, though, what overrides both memory and reason is emotion, in particular, a great, overwhelming sense of the simple yet utter joy of learning. And with it comes other memories from all through my life, times when this same joy would sometimes burst through periods of cold, damp, misty grayness in my life; while at other times this joy would linger long on the horizon of daily activities, shining its glorious light on a wakening world, like a snap shot of the moment of sunrise, suspended and held steady in the frame of a photo. Yet at other times this joy seems to have emanated from deep within myself, overwhelming me with its emotion, leaving me no option but to breathlessly, yes, joyfully, whirl and twirl and tango in its sheer intoxication. This is a joy that even at the moment of this writing, in the earliest morning hours of a Saturday when my reason tells me I should be peacefully resting, my one chance each week to sleep in, it awakens me in surprise, gripping me, inspiring me to sit up in bed, propped up on pillows, scribbling these lines, which have been rumbling around in my head and heart, on a scrap of 4 x 8 inch notepad, producing lines that look like a blur to my unspectacled eyes, and probably will turn out to be nearly undecipherable come morning when I put on my glasses and sit down to transcribe them into my computer.

Oh, how I love learning – the adventure of encountering new unexpected treasures of ideas; discovering and collecting bits of intriguing facts seemingly unconnected to anything useful yet joyful in themselves; turning these ideas and facts into application, so that the gardening encyclopedia, for example, suddenly becomes a huge, rich, juicy beefsteak tomato, freshly plucked in my very own garden from a dewy, stocky, deep green plant, and popped into my mouth, its amazing taste exploding onto my taste buds. Oh joy indeed! And finding solutions to problems in life that for so long have seemed insurmountable and unexplainable, but for which suddenly the light has gone on, and the puzzle pieces have fit together easily, bringing hope, relief, satisfaction, and, of course, joy.

University was a lovely meander down the streets of formal learning, and I’d happily do it again; indeed, I’ve always dreamed of going back to pursue that doctorate in historical geography that I bypassed in favor of my youthful eagerness to get a paying job; or perhaps to attend seminary and explore the deep world of theology, the greatest study of all, the study of the God from whom all learning and creativity comes. But I do not need to wait for some day, because I early on discovered – or perhaps never lost – that childhood joy of curiosity and natural inquiry, and that wide-eyed wonder of a world in which always there is something new and exciting and awe-inspiring, calling out to be discovered, to be pursued through the unexpected adventures that every new turn in the road of life offers, if only we are willing to keep our eyes and hearts and expectations open and alive.

Even as I sit here on my bed, I gaze at the wall beyond the foot of my bed, lined with shelves full of books and videos and CDs and notebooks and sketches, evidence of the winding trails down which the unexpected adventures of learning have taken me. There are French-language books of all descriptions, anthologies of literature from around the world, a dozen or more translations of the Scriptures ranging from a 150 year old copy of the King James version through to recent translations based on newly-discovered ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. There are encyclopedias and reference books, and beautiful picture books filled with copies of famous paintings, sculptures, and drawing; books on architecture and interior design; dictionaries and concordances and commentaries; hymn books and chorus sheets and guitar-playing manuals; gardening books and bicycle repair manuals; drawing instruction books and sketch books full of my own efforts at drawing; beloved children’s picture story books, and much more. And pulling them together is a collection of over 80 handwritten journals, recording highlights of my joyous, adventurous journey of life-long learning.

Perhaps to the reader this all sounds like a crazy dream, and so it maybe is in a sense, born as my mind has been woken from sleep by that joy of learning – and sharing – that infects even our dreams. But if it is dream, so be it. For so often it is out of our nightly dreams that our minds are opened to surprising new ideas; it is often in sleep that somehow the missing puzzles pieces of our daily problems seem suddenly to come together. It is often our day-dreams of hope and adventure that spur us on, that motivate us to take courage and step out into new uncharted paths, leading us into the wonder of brave new ways of thought, action, and attitude. And is it not the joy of learning itself that inspires us to build great schools and Universities, places to gather and record past learning, and to spur people on to new research and thought; places to share the collected knowledge and wisdom of countless past generations with a new generation, and inspire them to awaken within themselves their inborn joy of lifelong learning that will brighten their daily path, and motivate them, too, to dream new dreams and courageously step out into joyous new adventures of learning?

Norma Hill

Date: May 19, 2007

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