So my good friend Michelle Grimaldi is putting together a scrapbook for our professor, the awesomely inspiring, motivating, and creative Loretta Shelton. Professor Shelton has taught English Literature at Roger Williams University for a number of years, and I had the pleasure of studying everything from British modernism to “The Ghostly Other in Literature” with her. I think I took a total of four classes with Shelton. She certainly had a profound, enduring effect on my academic and intellectual spirit, and I’m sure she did on others as well. Now she’s retiring from Roger Williams University, and though some of the fine lines are unclear, the truth is that she will be missed. She was always a great instructor, a great conversationalist, and someone you could turn to with just about any quandary. I hope that wherever she goes she continues to spread her influence.
Anyway, though I doubt this scrapbook will be available online, and while I doubt every contributor would even want their personal messages to be put in a public domain, I beg the differ for my own piece, which you can read below. It’s 88 degrees outside and I’ve been inside typing this up for about an hour.
Under the Smoldering Bank We Could Watch the Reflections in the Water
The fan is finally turned on for 2009, and it’s buzzing. It looks like it’s going to fall off and hit me in the head. This is not the room of our famous Russian murderer. This is not the room of an excommunicated French wife. This is the room of loose papers and growing plants; technology and freshly-soiled dishes. It’s a big room in a big house and the sun is shining outside and the room is despicable. Despite the large building, all the adults that live here are away. The quiet is an extension of the slow territorial serializations of the cats and their worn paws that sit around outside. Philadelphia’s winter did not kill them off, somehow.
But despite the fascinatingly anthropomorphic clouds and the explicit similarities between stray felines and all the people that live in this neighborhood, I can finally sit down and write what I’ve been trying to say for a few weeks now. Let me preface by saying: this piece is not a piece of cake. This is a piece of mica-covered granite. There is beauty here but there is a knowledge that takes a while to appreciate. It’s probably still being appreciated in my own life, and perhaps I will indeed fail to present it adequately to you. But this is about chancing it, about taking the risk and running with it.
What I plan to write in the next moment in front of the computer is not necessarily a masterpiece in pre-informed thought. I have not made an outline; there is no annotated bibliography. For this piece, there is no pure state, no ideal Shangri-La that can set upon the shoulders comfort and aperture into the ideal and allow many magical moments to occur. Because this is not an assignment; there are goals but they are infinitely untouchable, unseeable. They are different for every person. And while they do exist, I do not even care to lay them out to myself or acknowledge them. For this piece, the goals are for you to know and trust.
The magic is in the grit here, as I was saying earlier, but it’s not just rock and stone and things time has brought about scientifically. It is also Dickensian, urban, machine machine machine. We are indeed in the 21st century. I was taught by Loretta in the 21st century, and I reflect on her during it as well. But still, there is elegance that meets the hyper-stimulation of technologically-sound education. There is an elegance in the idea of learning, in the idea of succumbing to a growth of knowledge, of process methodology, and of enraptured new things invading the life left and right.
Speaking of which, invasion was always a popular subject that was tackled. Though the term was never necessarily used in my experiences with Loretta and her classroom and the conversations we shared, there was always the need, the will to fight the invading idioms and ideologies, not necessarily bad but not necessarily good, that approached at such a rapid pace. Loretta often encouraged meetings outside of class between students—advice that may have made some of the most fruitful “extra-curricular” or “non-mandatory” learning experiences during my four years at Roger Williams University. There is a pleasurable focus in being with only a select amount of literary scholars that tackle the hordes of ideas and aesthetic/intellectual thoughts together.
Another valuable tool that Loretta’s work often appropriated and developed more than other professors I got to work with was the inspection and introspection necessary to studying literature. We each must have an eye toward authority, and an eye toward nature’s chaotic exhibitions. My apologies to you for that statement, which is my own of course, for it quite limiting. We each have two eyes, and we know how to cross them together. Don’t do it for very long, though—they will stay that way. With Loretta, it was always about looking at things. How do the decisions of this protagonist operate in your own life? How does the action of the world that these people are living in remind you of your own world? What role does authority play into these ideas? Loretta was and is, I’m sure, the revolutionary instructor. But she is more than that. She does not preach bomb settings and tire slashings, but rather an informed, intelligent reactionary approach to the art that comes out of this world, and the world that produces such art.
Had I not these experiences with Loretta, these notions and approaches more refined through her teachings, I may not have been interested in politics at all; and thus I may not have been interested in most of the literature I had to read. Joyce, Gogol, Bronte, Flaubert, Lawrence—these favorite authors may never have found space on my bookshelf or in my hands at all had I not willed myself into Loretta’s classes. So yes, she also guided my knowledge of classic literature.
With Loretta, it was often about three major things: be profound, be open to exploration, and be natural. Sitting in each classroom—environments which were fairly diverse though the majority of the students involved were the same core members—it was hard not to fall into the established though rapidly shifting order of these qualities professed or alluded to by our wizened instructor. It was a loving atmosphere, but a critical one. The lights shined and rants could be had. Phrases came fluently and instilled fear, joy, passion, and most importantly, inspiration out of all of us. Don’t turn into robots, was one of the memorably humorous anecdotes, one of countless notations of advice. If I had been more practical and less concern about dealing with the self under an existential microscope, I would have written down these epigraphically-empowered snippets. But though they have not been archived, by me at least (I’m sure someone wrote something down), I’ve carried much from that classroom. And not always intellectually, either. One of the books Loretta gifted me with, as she is sort of infamous of doing with her students, was a book of critical essays by Nabokov concerning Russian literature. Since then I have been reading Nabokov’s novels left and right, though I find much of his work far more British and American than Russian! Okay, his heart does bleed like a Russian when characters like Humbert Humbert fail, when Van and Ada grow up and their incestuous spirit turns into something uglier than the reader expects . . .
I will try to wrap this reflection up quickly. It seems I could go on and on but novel-length memoirs are reserved for the comical, abysmally mainstream, and righteously asinine. A little more about the classroom, then: the classroom was a labyrinth, a segmentation of walls to graze and roads tire through and dead ends to curse at and doors to open up. There were minotaurs howling in the distance, harpies calling down from the melting sun, and greedy kings down the hall. It was hard not to come away from a conversation in the classroom with Loretta feeling estranged, guilty, ignorant, and innocent. Hell, you often felt like everything all at once, together, bumbled up, and broken down by the end of one of her classroom discussions. But that was the point. Life is about being lost, confused, and coagulated. It’s about being jammed up with information and loose ends and not knowing how to proceed. Shelton helped teach us out to deal with such a zeitgeist of information and spirit. She paced her classes and tried to break it down but it was obvious from the get-go that not everything could be accomplished. I’m looking at my bookshelf right now and see Catch 22, 2666, John Cheever’s stories, some Edward Abbey, Anna Karenina, Shipping News, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Oryx and Crake, Vivisector, et cetera. The books of poetry alone are heartbreakingly, unbearably endless. But I’m not about to feel flooded. I remember what Loretta taught us inadvertently through her classrooms: sift. Sift through what you can and find what makes sense and go with it. Go down paths you think are true, an those that you know nothing of. Experiment with knowledge and learn from one another what has been created.
Loretta always had ambitions for her classrooms and her students, and always ran out of time in her semesters. Some may say improper scheduling, but the world is improperly scheduled. Having too much on one’s plate is realistically what an active intellectual, scholarly life should be about. It is often overwhelming, tiresome, and it often leads to anger, resentment, loneliness, and a feeling of insignificance. I jest, it truly isn’t that dark, is it? Regardless of the pains that we felt via our crude hearts and relationships to humanity, and regardless of the subsequent reversion to the Bacchanal for comfort(Nietzsche lived in all of us at some point), we found that at the end of the day, our smiles through the hard, gritty reality, the naturalistic method of processing info and learning about the swarms of Wall-E trash piles forming up all around us (though we could still go get a break by the pond outside of CAS and Stonewall), our smiles were broad and deep like scimitars or crash landings. It was beautiful and comforting because the notion of community was so reinforced thanks to Loretta. You don’t have to get in a room and argue all the time about what philosophical stance or stylistic literary dance move and limb wail was best—we were all on a Magic Mountain, a Zauberbaum, of sorts, trying to deal with the cold together. The sicknesses, the wars, and the practicality of interacting a world that was often seeming so distant—but at the end of the day, you could really just jump right in. Yes, Hans did make sense to me, but it makes even more sense now, as I find myself away from the classroom, and into the spirit, into the life of humanity, where Loretta is not necessarily a Beatrice, though perhaps she does have the same intellectually important wattage as Dante’s leading light, but perhaps she is more of a Mephistopheles, or a Blakean angel. The dualism through the learning is there, is it not? Is it not necessary? Good and evil, truth of movement versus passivity—all qualities that Loretta helped us examine.
The truth of the matter is that despite the difficulties, I never once doubted the exhaustion in Loretta’s classes. I am not speaking for my peers as I’m sure there are many who did doubt, feel bad, and have regrets. But through and through I was astonished and intent on growing from Loretta’s classes. Her mind was a shape shifter’s mind. A transmogrification could occur anywhere, at any time. Her power was, and will be, the power to help others.