Sunday, November 14, 2004

13 years ago

Must everything come full circle?

In history class last week we were discussing oral history, which sent me back to my days as an MIT undergraduate, when stumbling through the wreckage of my and countless other peoples' expectations I found myself a temporary haven in the field of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Archaeology at MIT! When I was in high school I toured Europe with a show choir called American Music Abroad (which I didn't realize at the time was a fundamentalist Christian front) - one of the kids in the group, a guy from Virginia, kept on drawing hoots of derision from the others, myself included, for claiming he was going to go to MIT to study Archaeology. We called him "Virginia" Richardson, like Indiana Jones; I don't even remember the poor kid's actual first name.

But here I was, a few years later, the living punchline to Virginia's joke, having decided to foresake what I thought would be my future in Physics and Astronomy for a life of bullwhips, idols, and... required anthropology courses, which immediately blew my admittedly fairly narrow mind I was so proud of at the time. It didn't take long for me to decide that I was more of a culture guy than a digging in the dirt kind of guy - and besides, wasn't all that science what I was escaping from by coming to the humanities in the first place? - and so I recast myself as a cultural anthropologist, looking forward to my first big assignment "in the field".

It came in the form of a summer NEH internship, during which I accompanied thirty college and university professors first to the University of Texas at Austin, where we learned the Aztec language both in its Precolumbian and modern forms, and then to the Universidad de las Americas in Cholula, Mexico, where we had a chance to mix and mingle with the million or so remaining native speakers of Aztec - or Nahuatl, as they call it. It was once in a lifetime opportunity I had snagged for myself by writing a paper about Aztec philosophy in the previous semester (the Fall of 1991, if I remember correctly). Not only did it catch my professor's eye, but it also ended up winning a writing prize for academic undergraduate papers that year as well.

I had poured my heart and soul into that paper. My sanity at MIT always hanging by little more than a slender thread, I lost myself in Aztec culture and found myself entranced and horrified at the same time. It was an interesting experience, getting to know a culture best known for its efficiency in the art of mass human slaughter (a technical brilliance which would not be surpassed until the Third Reich) and countless other acts of cruelty in the name of its religion inside and out. And although I'm not sure I came away from the paper better understanding a mind able both to compose breathtakingly beautiful poetry about the nature of the cosmos and sacrifice live infants to the Rain God, I was hooked nonetheless on these misunderstood Mexicans.

So off to Mexico, on a trip I would have truly enjoyed had I not been involved with my college sweetheart at the time. Instead of devoting myself to my Nahuatl and soaking up every ounce of culture that I could, I pined a lot and wrote more home/lovesick letters home than I feel comfortable owning up to on this blog. It's true what they say about a slave not being able to have two masters, and clearly I was at a point in my life where Aphrodite was more important that Apollo. Of course the relationship would ultimately prove to be a trainwreck, so I was left not only with unpleasant memories of lost love but of the path not taken as a dedicated Mesoamericanist as well.

For at the end of the summer I was standing at a crossroads - stay in Mexico, learn Spanish, and surrender to this world or return home to what I assumed would be a future with my intended. Had I understood at that point that true love would never have forced such a decision, that true love is always a thing which encourages, nutures, and inspires, my path would have been clear. But there's a lot of learning that's done only through doing - and doing wrong, for that matter - and I'm not ashamed now to say that I chose the safe and comfortable road which lead back home... to heartache and further academic turmoil, as it turned out.

That was a long time ago - plenty of enough time to make whole new rounds of mistakes and corresponding atonement. But why do I feel the old sense of excitement at the prospect of getting back "into the field" as my academic training resumes? Be it Mexico or Greece, the library or the classroom, I can tell that this time around the pieces will fit (perhaps it was supposed to take this long for me to honestly appreciate the bigger picture) and, more importantly, this time I will not find myself forced to choose.

True love will do that for you.


Anonymous said...

I remember that paper. "Flower and Song" or something close to it. Wasn't it? Good paper.


Tom said...


That was indeed the paper. One of the two term papers I've cranked out over the past decade and a half that I'm not ashamed of having written (the other was my Lucretian epic for Scully).

Going for the trifecta right now with a paper about the life and death of the Library of Alexandria. Wish me luck!