On Longing, Part One

I’ve returned to Minnesota—lush, green, quiet; outside my third-story windows I see densely-leafed deciduous trees rather than apartment blocks or stony mountain ranges, and hear conversations of birds rather than motorcycles and the tramline. The return home is always a story of longing. Once one has made it back to one’s own Ithaka and satisfied that yearning for the familiarity of home, the hankering for a journey is stirred up again. (Tennyson gets this just right in “Ulysses,” understanding that Odysseus can’t stick around for long before the wanderlust will kick in and launch him on another odyssey. Don’t rust unburnished! Drink life to the lees!)

As soon as I return to peaceful Laurel Avenue in St. Paul I crave the ragged coastline just footsteps from my apartment in Athens.

A perfect time, then, to muse about longing: a state of being experienced physically as a pulling, a yanking on your gut, and emotionally as a craving, a tightening of the chest that we express as a tugging on our heart.  If I were a Buddhist I suppose I would find this longing something that should be transcended, but instead I see this pleasurable pain as the substance that keeps us living.

Greece is a place that induces longing. Lest you think I’m going on about this excessively, let me quote from an email I received from fellow Fulbrighters in 2011, a year after we lived in Athens: “I do NOT think that Greece lets you go after it gets into your heart and soul. It is there, it is lurking, wherever and whenever you turn. The drive to go back is eating both of us alive!”

There’s a pedagogical dimension to be explored as well. Instead of having students read a text on which they know nothing and lecturing at them to fill in the gaps, why not have them experience first? That is, when I teach in Greece, take students onsite first, to observe and explore and question and absorb, and then assign the text and let them be flooded with images of what they have experienced—and with longing for that experience, and for what they missed on their first visit. In other words, induce a longing to return to the place, a longing to read more, to learn more. Perhaps it’s better to leave a course feeling divine dissatisfaction than satiety. More craving, less coverage.

At Meteora, January 2010: One of my students getting a quiet moment of reflection (to be longed for later, played over in her mind).

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