Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Place for the First Time

If you take a moment and glance at the top of this page, you will see that there are banner-words that are etched in digital precision across every lifelongfling that is posted here. It has been that way for a number of years.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The lines are from T.S. Eliot's poem cycle The Four Quartets, a text whose twists and turns of phrase have been food and drink for my soul for many years. Have you ever listened to a song and felt that the chorus and perhaps a verse of two suddenly clicked into line with your own experience, your own heart? Portions of these four poems have been like this for me - as if the shape of my inward being had been carved out to house the particular images found there.

One recent Monday, in morning-glory hours, I gulp down droughts of fresh coffee and pack my bags for a brand-new journey. Official forms scrawled with signatures, a plastic container of food, map of the building, an unfamiliar textbook or two, bottle of water. I also fill my mind, subconsciously gathering the flotilla of disembodied names gleaned from email lists and more distant impressions from now-long-ago interviews. Knots in the stomach made it difficult to disentangle worry from excitement. I grabbed the keys and burst into the sunlit present, ready to explore.

I will drive this road thousands of times. This is the first time.

I arrive at the school fifteen minutes too early, wondering if I should wait in the car for politeness, but others are quietly making their way inside. Oh yes, I don't park in the visitor's lot anymore. I belong here. My eyes run again across the native prairie-beauty that encroaches onto school grounds; deep magenta grasses sprouting out of cracks in the sidewalk. I wonder if they encourage that kind of growth here...I have ideas, vague shapes and forms of what I think this place will be like. It remains to fill them in with solid day-to-day reality.

I walk through unfamiliar passageways and remember how it all seems so big at first and grows smaller the more you know it. Tentative first steps into the faculty room and shy hellos. Feeling around for my place in this expansive, common room with many desks touching together, and then I see my name scribbled on a post-in note. There I am. Other things have been left behind. A box of Kleenex, a copy of Plato's The Republic, paperclip, and what's this sheet of paper? Handwritten across the top, I see the words:

"To the one who comes after." Under these words, a repetition: "Who comes after..." I have inherited a piece of paper with coffee stains and history, a kind of chain letter. I glance at the printed text below the mysterious hand-scrawls:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well...

I have been holding my breath and exhale. The final stretch of the poem, my poem, the lines engraved on my inner self. I look around for someone to tell. All unknown faces, and yet I must share this deepest of secrets with another flesh-and-blood being, and so I venture to explain to my brand-new colleagues. You're not going to believe this, but... Yes, I manage to convey some of the gravitas of this moment, and their faces register matching delight, startled into pleasant surprise, lifted eyebrows. Indeed.

I know this place, but I will not cease from exploration. I will continue to tramp through untouched stretches of waving Big Bluestem, thrust my face into the inky night sky pinned by points of ice, be wrapped up in the covers of well-worn books, and let the fireworks in my brain explode into ah-ha's and what if's and imagine what might happen's. I am stunned to have found a workplace that holds up a sense of wonder as a primary part of our vocation. Annie Dillard articulates it well:

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn't the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he'll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood,view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why (14, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).

This is going to be a good year.


Robbie said...

Well, isn't that just like the Lord to give you a welcome to a new place and a confirmation that it IS your place, with words that resonate in your very own soul. And to know that the one who wrote them down and left them for you to read, heard from that same Lord, and obeyed. God is too good to us.

Henry said...

The Lord is so good. The place sounds rich with wonder and good friends.