The Raritan River flows gently southward, bedecked on either side by paths, one cracked red asphalt raised high above the waterline, the other muddy disintegrating soil strewn with the exposed roots of sickly trees. On one side, western, the vantage from which the students relax in over-comfy soporific chairs and procrastinate, there is a mass of technological construction, well sealed lightbulbs above aging tennis courts with absurdly high chainlink fences, brick structures for respite from the precipitation just blown through, right-angled walkways for the runners pacing ever up, ever down, seeking internal retribution for the pounding of their feet against hard human-made solidity. On the other, eastern, the distant wild side, green-brown patterns peek through stripped winter trees, offering glimmers of nature’s eternity in defiance of the structure and order thumbing its mechanical nose from across the river. The tension and rivalry implicit in the face-off cut by the swirling wind that washes the water down toward the vastness of the weary Atlantic, a body that will take these molecules to the shores of colonizers and their one-time slaves.
There is anonymity in critique, anonymity the vaunted valued safeguard against bias, nepotism, subtle hints of racism or sexism or clues to prejudice. But with the anonymity a lack of accountability, much maligned in this unseen framework of empty crackling air, the ability to levy lobs of vitriol or one-upsmanship with no fear of reprisal, repercussion, responsibility. How the increasingly popular sense that there is nothing larger or more meaningful, nothing beyond, nothing worth worrying about in the future, how it all conspires to reinforce the lack of any internal check. That what is within will remain forever locked, hidden, guarded for all time against the prying of other minds and thus the meaning is truly what we make of it and nothing has value innate or given. That there is something not only of value and meaning lost in this series of conclusions, but actually something of hope or inspiration that also vanishes, that in the futility of being able to get away with anything, there will never be anything worth accomplishing but what is presented in the falsely trumped-up over-filtered court of celebrity or fame.
“I’m giving one star for the originality of the idea simply because I can’t tell what idea is being pursued.”
Creativity is not rewarded in this format, originality and risk-taking not the quest of those who like stories as spoon-fed reiterations of the home movies they watched when they were barely toddling. There is something to the straight narrative, to the predictable, to the time-honored tradition, but these hackneys must be viewed with the same cynicism which the overly happy might view a moment of depression. “Isn’t life sad enough already?” they asked. Isn’t life truly predictable enough, dull enough, that not everything needs a clear sign, a roadmap, a series of bright lines pointing us homeward and within? Is there no room for the thought-provoking, the mind-bending, the exploration of uncharted territory? Not in this format, not at this time. And with that, as with every setback, the exploration of crossroads and goals and work/payoff risk/reward ratios and re-examination of the eternally damaged self. That every voice of negativity becomes a chorus, not just for me but perhaps for most, and that chorus fills its lungs and exudes glass-breaking arias of doom from which there is no hope but to shield one’s eyes against the flying shards and reopen them in the newly windswept ruins of a transparent gallery.
Giggling undergraduates walk in, creep up to the seats, plant a computer down before them to begin to gawk and laugh and compare notes on those they find attractive. It is the diversion of the moment, the best use of the opportunities given, perhaps just a way to bond and blow off steam while they ooh and ahh and chuckle in nervous embarrassment of the exposure of their most secret, twilit thoughts and desires. Does it change the narrative if I tell you they are girls? That they are guys? That they are straight? That they are not? Does a gendered perception color your vantage of what might be okay or what is harmful, harmless? Does it strike as frivolity, as necessary development, as something insightful or inciteful?
“I’m not even sure that unlivability is a real word.”
It’s not, perhaps, but it’s a concept, and what point is there in articulating the absolute rules of a grammar used to strap us to mast of the lack of innovation? The language itself can be a form of oppression among those unwilling to use it to elicit thought. A quest, perhaps, for the best paint-by-numbers regurgitation, a memory contest, a lesson taught in the old traditional style of read, listen, repeat. Dynamism as the enemy. Liveliness danced into the distance. The specter of spontaneity, surprise, unexpected revelation to be held at bay with so much garlic, crossed fingers, and gnashing of frothy teeth.
But this is only half of the story, maybe even less so. There was another whole perspective, one ready to advance the work, one ready to join with friends and holdouts and the lingering supporters in the belief that human creativity can expand beyond what has already been established. “This is a strong, original concept and piece. The editing is good. There are no obvious errors. I enjoyed reading it and am curious what the next chapter would bring in terms of connecting these images. Great work!” And the inevitable disappointment of that reviewer that there is nothing more to read, almost rising to match my own sadness of same, offering a breath of acknowledgment and hope in the face of capricious dismissal. And the inevitable wrestling match to follow, just spoken of in other contexts, the voice of shelves and counterspeech rising boldly against the droning narrative of worthless rejection and, worse, callous indifference and change of heart.
The train traverses the looping rain-dripped bridge in the distance, one of stone or concrete pillars dipping soggy feet in the duck-splattered water as it tours past the campus. There are countless people aboard, each of them contemplating their own mostly post-work discombobulation as they roll toward New York City in search of food and rest and the promise of waking on a Friday with a little more hope than this morning. And it is easy to contemplate these minds untouched and feel the abyssal futility of despair, the distance they each might be asked to climb from the mundane tradition of their lives in order to find something deeper, more valuable, a more lasting way to be the part of the change I wish to see in the world. And yet there is also their underlying humanity to consider, the adaptability of our species that turns each tragedy into triumph, each disaster into rebirth, each catastrophe into some sort of redemptive glimpse at the power of progression. That each person thereon, ensconced in seats in the fading light and perhaps their own fading consciousness, is nonetheless thinking, breathing, capable of greatness. That their mere movement across mile of repetitive track signifies a greater capability of movement across a mental landscape if only they were so prompted, so inclined, so awoken.
The birds come in, unseen in their approach, suddenly gathering to swoop to floaty rest on the half-land marsh of the water’s-edge trees. They will feed, commune, flap and settle, and eventually be scared by something, take to the air, and leave.
We are no better than the birds. And they are no better than us. Each living being seeks connection and comfort, meaning and sustenance. This place can fulfill us all, if only we care to let it. But to do so, we must all believe that such a thing is possible. It is obvious and innate before us, but we have to know how to look. You are, at this moment, walking in a metaphor. But the metaphor, however fake it may ultimately be, is more serious than anything else. It is a painted shadow of the world that carries more weight than all the rock beneath us.