SEPTEMBER is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
--The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
Actually, Eliot's poem said April is the cruellest month, because it's supposed to be the start of Spring, the annual emergence from the dead time of Winter, but it wasn't a good April in 1922, when Eliot wrote the poem.
But as a member of the academic community, I'm going to go with September, the start of the academic year. And even as Septembers go, it's been a very rough September.
September begins a fresh, new academic year, and I'm often invigorated by it, seeing the bright, shining faces of students hoping for newfound wisdom and the pleasant murmurs of long-time colleagues, displeased at the end of summer freedom but pleased despite ourselves to be huddling together again as the weather begins to turn cold and grey.
But September is also a month that is as overwhelming as Eliot's April of 1922, breeding lilacs and raising hopes, mixing memory and desire, stirring dormant roots, but the activity is just making us more wet and more tired, rather than the hoped-for renewal.
There are endless new classes to prepare for, meetings and committees, and article deadlines. There are endless emails and to-do lists and community activities and upcoming conferences. And a beloved colleague just passed away untimely last week.
Add to that the political fiasco around DADT repeal, and the memory of endless ENDA fake-outs, and I just want to crawl back into my warm bed and stay there for a good long while.
Plus I have to move again at the end of this September, and I am so tired to death of moving.
Eliot wrote The Waste Land over several years, culminating in a manuscript completed in late 1922. It's a reflection of Eliot's disillusionment with the moral decay of post-World War I Europe. After the "war to end all wars," Eliot saw Europe going under. Of course, we all know now that the world was heading straight to the Armageddon of the racial purists, so that makes Eliot's poem all the more prescient. And it calls to me in the midst of my September.
He starts the poem with an epigraph of Petronius about the Sibyl, who bargained with Apollo, offering her virginity for years of life totaling as many grains of sand as she could hold in her hand. But, after spurning his love, he allowed her to wither away over the span of her near-immortality, as she forgot to ask for eternal youth.
'Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in
ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Sybilla ti pheleis;
respondebat illa: apophanein phelo
"For once I myself saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she replied, 'I want to die.'"
Eliot wants to die, and I get it. I don't want to die, but I'd at least like a bit of youth back so I can deal with the reality of September a bit easier.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
("I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.")
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
From what I gather, Eliot means to convey a sense of the decadence of Europe then, where aristocrats summer at Lake Starnberg, with nothing much to do but hang out and talk about their racial purity and their carefree childhoods, while Europe descended into economic and social madness.
Meanwhile, I'm working my tail off, day and night, can hardly find a space to breathe, waking up at 2am to unresolved worries, blogging at 3, and maybe that's a good thing, because, like Solzhenitsyn describing the gulags, you don't feel much like blogging here, and I haven't been.
Blogging over the past few years came as a sense of freedom, to speak to others of like mind, to bring us together, to stir us to think, to act, to be community. But this month, it's come with a sense of obligation, of burden, of debt. What is there to say at this point? The politicians are out there flogging their patent medicines, and meanwhile the patient grows sicker. The students are getting deeper in debt with students loans, and the jobs at the end of the rainbow don't pay enough to both eat and pay interest. My computer is making noises like Lindbergh taking off for Paris, and it will cost as much to fix it as to buy a new one, and I don't have money for either. The malaise deepens.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Yes, it's a waste land, and not much is growing here in this desert. But someday, there will be water, and trees, and condos, and a landfill, so have great hope, and fear not.
Here's a wonderful online edition of The Waste Land with notes that help explain some of the more abstruse elements.
I know the optimists among you are busy thinking of comments about cheering up and looking on the bright side. What makes T.S. Eliot great is that he is not afraid to speak of the dark side, and says it with that sense of decadence that brings a thrill of delight in disaster. If he put aside his reality and wrote about bluebirds and rainbows, we would never have heard of him, and rightfully so.
Yes, I know that this too shall pass and all that. I'm not so despairing that I'm ready to tie myself to the railroad tracks. But it's good know what you're feeling. When you can name it and know it, you can deal with it.
Years ago, I was clinically depressed for a year or so, because my life was not working, and I saw no way out. A wise therapist told me that depression is not feeling down. Rather, it's the absence of feeling, an avoidance of feelings, an attempt to avoid sadness by suppressing all feeling. I'm not depressed, because I am feeling my feelings. And I am moving forward on all fronts. Not as fast as I would like, nor as well, but steadily.
I had long avoided the title of "activist." I actually have no interest in activism. What I have an interest in is knowledge and learning. That's why I became a professor. My area of interest is workplace law and policy, and that led me into activism, when it looked like something could be done on the federal level about employment discrimination protections. Now that it's over, I'm glad to be done with it. I wish we had those employment protections, but as we don't, and are not likely to get them anytime soon, I am glad to lay down the mantle of activism.
I will still keep my hand in a bit. I like making a difference in the community. But it's time to put my efforts back towards the research and writing that I so love. In this realization there is comfort, that I have a direction, even if I can't go there right this minute.
And so, yes, September is the cruellest month. It's supposed to be full of hope, but this September is a mess.
And in that, there is hope.