There We Have Been

Uncommon.cc (a lovely little corner of the internet) sends out prompts to get the growing community to share stories. I was particularly inspired by this one: "What's your favorite room, past or present?" and so I'd thought I'd post my response here for posterity. In part, it's a nod to all the incoming college students descending upon Boston and Cambridge this week.

 

As a freshman at Harvard I lived in the T.S. Eliot room, 42 Apley Court. At the time, it was the only freshmen dorm located outside Harvard yard, so Apley was already set apart by distance, its regal lion door knockers, and its walk-in closets. But even among gilded splendor, the T.S. Eliot room stood out. A special plaque outside our door memorialized the poet who spent his youth as a philosophy concentrator there (presumably accompanied by a servant, as was standard in the Gold Coast dorms of that era). In my tenure, I shared the space with two other roommates. The tub in the marble bathroom was a luxury among dorms, and though the fireplace had long been closed off for safety, the mantle added a certain charm and gravitas to the room. In the winter, the old radiators clanged and clacked with dry heat. I couldn't help but picture Thomas Sterns Eliot, hunched over his desk, listening to the same rhythmic beats, looking out over the same fourth-floor view.

As lovely as it was, my ties to the room didn't really develop until I took a spring semester course with Peter Sacks covering T.S. Eliot's entire oeuvre from Prufrock to the Four Quartets. Carefully parsing each line for Eliot's rich allusions to the canon was a fitting initiation into the department that would become my home base for the next four years. Reading from my crimson futon, pausing to gaze out the window between the wrought iron scrolls, I felt as though I was really occupying the space I shared with the great poet through his words and his room.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
— from "Burnt Norton" in The Four Quartets

A synesthetic flashback tour

Another Uncommon dispatch answered. This time, Which album do you know best?

This prompt sent me on a synesthetic flashback tour through my iTunes archive of CDs frantically converted into MP3s one summer home from college, so I apologize for not being able to pick one. The albums I know most intimately brought me back to the places and devices where I got to know them. I have visions of rocking out to No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and Weezer’s Pinkerton in the privacy of my room on the Aiwa three piece speaker system that has moved around with me since middle school. And I picture the Christmas where I voraciously devoured the new Fiona Apple album When The Pawn… on my Philips CD player, shielding my moody teen self from family and wallowing in her carefully crafted lyrics that (of course) spoke directly to my unrequited crush.

Other albums have a vivid association with driving around in my crank-sunroof Volvo, like listening to Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever on constant repeat with my best friend and drumming along on my steering wheel bongo. I flash back to the moment a friend showed me that the speakers on my inherited car had been left/right imbalanced, and subsequently having my mind blown by the second half of the pinging electronic introduction of “Such Great Heights” on The Postal Service’s Give Up. And then I see the strip of road I was driving down when I first heard the arresting spoken poetry of “Hey Pretty” on our local independently radio station. I subsequently devoured Poe’s Haunted album and loved it for its strange, palimpsest of layered sound and narrative exploration. And then years later, discovering its book counterpart House of Leaves and hearing the words I had listened to so many times—”There’s someone knocking in the wall/was it like an echo/ ba da ba ba”—whispering from the page. Certainly uncommon, and appropriately uncanny.

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Artifacts that tie us together

I have really enjoyed reading and contributing to Uncommon this year, so I was honored when Brian asked me to write one of the year-end essays for the dispatch. Each one looked at listening, watching, and reading in turn. Here’s what I shared on reading:

I dreamt last night that I met Adriane Tomine. I had a copy of one of his graphic novels, but what I really wanted him to autograph was my framed New Yorker cover “Missed Connections.”

I can’t explain the dream, nor am I sure that I know what Tomine really looks like in person. But I just got back from a visit to New York where I was reminded of the image while riding the F train, with its vintage orange seats.

I have always loved this illustration. I think it’s meant to suggest something melancholy—the missed opportunity for connection, strangers passing each other on different trains, reading the same book.

But it’s also always stuck with me for the glimmer of a shared connection in that ephemeral moment. Books are the things we reference to start a conversation. They are shorthand for complex ideas, characters, images, contexts. They are the nodes that connect us. They offer common ground.

I realized how important a sense of place in reading was to me when I joined a “flashmob” of internet friends reading books together with 24-Hour Bookclub (spearheaded by Diana, who incidentally also introduced me to the Uncommon community). Sharing glimpses of our reading environment felt like we were all reading together, no matter where we were geographically distributed. And in our tech book club gatherings here in Boston, I’m always fascinated to see the variety of artifacts placed on the table when we come together to talk about our reading experience. The words we read are the same, but our contexts are different.

The books we love are artifacts that tie us together. They are units of culture and of commonality. We just have to look up from our paperbacks and our iPads every once in a while to catch who else is reading along with us. — Sara

Questions

Uncommon (which is a lovely little corner of the internet, thanks again to Diana for directing my attention to it!) asked for our favorite memory of summer camp last week. I wrote:

At the end of Girl Scout camp, the counselors handed out personalized awards to each of the girls. I was deemed “Most Inquisitive.” As this wasn’t yet in my seven-year-old vocabulary I asked, “What does inquisitive mean?” With my counselors’ roaring laughter, I quickly became aware of the irony, and it’s not lost on me to this day.

In some ways, I’ve never stopped asking questions…