Today I walked to class through a gorge, gaining 500 feet in elevation along the way. Spoiler alert: I’m not in Kalamazoo anymore.
I’m in Ithaca, New York, a smallish city at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, named for Odysseus’s homeland and home to the stunning (and, by West Michigan standards, alpine) campus of Cornell University.
I’ve been here for thirty-six hours, and I’ve already decided to add “pretty campus” to my list of criteria for grad school locations. I’m quite sure it would do wonders for my mental health if my daily walk to class passed a waterfall. Plus, the combination of Gothic and neo-classical architectural styles on the campus makes me feel like I’m in some combination of Hogwarts and the Athenian acropolis—a place carved out for that special magic we call learning.
I’m here for possibly the nerdiest of all possible reasons (even nerdier than the phrase “special magic we call learning”): a workshop in which I’m learning to read and sing from medieval music notation. I’m one of twenty-five grad students and academics gathered here to parse the nittiest-grittiest details of breves and semibreves, plicas and perfections, Guidonian lines and Franconian ligatures. It’s great fun. I’d never thought I’d be singing fourteenth century polyphony at all, much less reading it off the actual medieval notation. You might just have to take my word for it.
Often, those of us who love things like fourteenth century polyphony have to defend them as being worth doing. We learn to talk about transferable skills that will make us employable in other (i.e., real) fields. We point out how it will inform our teaching of the classes people actually take. In Calvin-y circles, we spend hours discussing how understanding the songs and stories of others, even distant others, can teach us more about creation and equip us for the work of renewing it. (Fun fact: I wrote that sentence with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back. I may actually have been sleep-typing).
Here at this workshop, there’s no trace of that need for explanation and justification. There was no opening session in which we framed why we’re doing this. Instead, there’s just a communal underlying assumption that we’re here because this music is fantastic and we want to understand and sing it. It might help us with teaching or research or whatever, but mostly, it’s intrinsically worth doing. We learn to sing Perotin and Machaut for the same reason I’ve been teaching myself a Bach violin sonata: it’s great music. Like a morning walk over damp rocky steps along a gorge-carving creek, this unhindered, unchallenged enthusiasm wakes me up and invites me to hear new and familiar things with fresh ears.
But that only lasts so long. This workshop is tuition-free, assignment-free, and pretty stress-free, but soon I’ll be back at my own school, and the cloud of duties will descend. The gorges will be gone, replaced by floods of grading and reading deeper than Cayuga Lake.
I need to remember this feeling of unconstrained delight in learning and find ways to sneak it into my everyday life. I’ve found that I’m very good at convincing myself I don’t want to do something that I actually love doing if I think about it as “work.” I forget that reading, writing, and playing music often feed my soul more than they drain it.
The things we do over and over again soon lose their novelty. But the reason we choose to do some (though not all) of them in the first place is because we love them. We can’t forget that love. Weeks like this one in Ithaca give me practice remembering it.
If I stayed here longer, I’d soon get used to the lake and the gorges, like I’ve gotten used to Holland’s beautiful beaches, Grand Rapids’ cornucopia of restaurants, and Kalamazoo’s… um… generous Amtrak schedules. The uphill walk to class would become painful rather than invigorating. I’d probably slip down those damp steps in the winter. Wonders would become everyday sights, then annoyances, then obstacles. Play would once again become work. So the point is not to live in the stress-free dream world—the point is to remember what it looks like and make your daily life a bit more like it.
Sometimes a gorge is there to remind us how beautiful the lake back home is.