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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Unknowable answers, mysterious choices

As a semester started, I set out to organize a few whirling thoughts by means of this column. I wanted to ask the question: “What is this place? What are we doing here, at Grinnell, in our twenties?” I want to say: even then I had a creeping suspicion that I wouldn’t discover the answer.

Paint this picture: I was in the dining hall, in the area to the left of the entrance—the first place which wandering eyes examine upon entering. I was deeply within a conversation with a visitor, and I was having trouble saying what I meant. “I couldn’t find the words.” I mean: I really wasn’t saying anything—I was speaking in a language which was meaningless to me. And I was getting quite frustrated with my visitor, because he was challenging what he saw as flaws or holes in what I was saying. I became angry. I took a deep breath, and I realized that I was frustrated because I didn’t know what I meant. In articulating something to a visitor, in the dining hall, I suddenly became aware of a gaping hole in my line of thinking.

At what point and when can we be said to have answers? When we think we do, should we rub them all over others, over our visitors? And why do we get angry when a visitor challenges something we (think we) are certain about? What it would mean to say that, if we think about what our language does, that when we become angry in the dining hall with someone’s challenging, or when we focus on challenging someone else, this might just well be something quite funny?

Have you ever heard of Hafiz? I was introduced to him by a friend. He was a happy guy, and he wanted to make others happy too. As is human. (Yes, I mean human, not this human in this moment in this country in this moment in this mood.) Hafiz asked a simple question: “Why isn’t everyone a screaming drunk?” Not drunk as in yelling GC Pride from a building top, or urinating on the Grinnell College sign at Block Party, which might be fun for slightly different reasons, but drunk like inside of a moment which we choose to be in and which we do what we can to feel interested, impressed, delighted. One of Hafiz’s answers, or his “guesses,” is, well: “as soon as Hafiz is out of bed, I start stuffing large sacks with old shoes, cucumbers and Prayers/ For the upcoming Consecrated Free-for-all—And who knows what else.” I like this a lot. What are we going to do today? Go to the dining hall, read, go to class, read, have a beer, wait for some visitors? The same as always? Will you use the same tools? I want to say: it depends what we stop to look at, what we choose to see, with how we use our words.

Do I feel that a bunch of sun chips and quick eye-meetings and double-door-thank-yous and heavy backpacks are, and will continue to be, “worth something?” I don’t quite know what that would mean. I certainly don’t think our minds are like buried cities. But I do know that I can choose to eat a sun-chip in a certain way, and play a game with the outtake cashier. I do know that I can return an eye-meeting or I can not (often not), while acknowledging the potential denial. Likewise, I do know that double doors mean choices for words and actions, and I do know, finally, that my world is and will continue to be a more engrossing one, a more startling one, because of my backpack.

One thing we might say about St. Augustine: “well, in a way, I agree.” If I really did and felt and believed everything I told myself to, then this place, this space, might often be more pleasant. But another thing we might say: I mean, we’re here. The mysterious “I” can make anywhere mysterious, and anything.

I’m sorry, did you say something? I wasn’t listening. Sit next to me, and honor me, or don’t. I sure hope there’s fresh fruit in the marketplace on commencement weekend.

-Eric Ritter ’12


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