On a recent Saturday night, I found myself sitting on the floor reading notes from a graduate class in philosophy taught by Bud Ruf (pronounced “roof”). Even in my 30s, I could not bring myself to call him “Bud,” but always “professor” or “doctor,” to his annoyance. “Call me Bud,” he would say, and I would reply, “OK…Doctor Ruf.” I understand his consternation now that I ask students to call me “Stacy” rather than “Mrs. Murison,” who is my mother-in-law and not me.
It’s taken me a long time to realize all of the different ways that I have grappled with identity and continue to do so and how many of these questions began in Ruf’s class. Sitting on my floor that night, flipping through my notebooks, was a revelation. Here was someone I could really like. Smart, witty notes. Illuminating quotes carefully copied. A beer bottle ring stain on a notebook page from a discussion with her classmates and professor after class. I closed the notebook and sighed. It seems that Stacy from before is long gone. There are many labels that this Stacy has that are often unkind and have sharpened during the pandemic. Another teacher I had would reassure me that these labels are the stories we tell ourselves that are not grounded in truth. But when the opportunities to interact with others remain limited, it is my own voice, however untruthful it may be, that keeps me company the most.
It was this Saturday night when I started thinking about the philosophers from Ruf’s class and what they may have to say about this pandemic time. My brain refuses to tease out Nietzsche from Kierkegaard. In my mind they are one: when we confront the abyss that in turn stares back at us, we’ve actually been planning to make some kind of leap of faith. My notes and essays further clarify and separate: Nietzsche, writing through what may have been bipolar disorder, got the creepy abyss and Kierkegaard, writing through a broken heart, is entirely too fervent about faith.
As the papers pile up around me, I notice a pattern: the world made more sense to me then. It was something to struggle with these competing ideas of identity while feeling as though the answers were close. If I read one more article or wrote one more essay about how humans define themselves and why they behave the way they do, the answers would reveal themselves to me. It was not to be. Ruf warned me some 20 years ago that I had stumbled upon a great “life question,” for which I would spend my whole life pursuing but never find a satisfactory answer. At the time, my sensitivity led me to believe he would not be on the other side of my leap. Now I understand that the questions I have become more focused, but the answers seem too circular and lead me back to my initial premise. And, as Ruf predicted, I’ve yet to find any answers.
“The eye is the first circle,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his essay “Circles.” It was this damn essay I had read earlier in the day and that I still don’t understand, also 20 years later, that drove me to my old notes. The questions of identity are louder in my mind as we approach the marker of one year since realizing the seriousness of the pandemic. “Everything looks permanent until its secret is known,” Emerson goes on to write and this is where he and I can agree. I know this intellectually, but still hoped in a futile and oh-so-human way that there might be some stability in life, some achievement of a status quo. I used to lament that all I ever wanted was one day where everything was “normal.” I still wish this now and with a fervor I haven’t felt in ages. If anything, I have become convinced this past year that nothing was ever really normal, but that instead there were levels of acceptance that took on the hues of normalcy.
In all of the thinking of the abyss, and leaps, and circles, I’m sure the answers that I’m seeking will be found in the notes of this younger version of Stacy, who was smart and clever. The first circle is not the eye, I wrote in one notebook, but failed to tell myself what it was. It seems I had a bone to pick with Emerson that has been lost through time. I find a syllabus from Ruf’s class in the shuffle of papers, the class title: Alienation and Self-Identity. Alienation is not a word I have thought of during the pandemic, but it is precisely the lives we are living now. We are separate and alone, alienated from friends and family but for filaments of electricity connecting us to the outside world.
Perhaps what Emerson really meant was that the “I” is the first circle. We can never truly escape ourselves and we continue to be stuck inside to boot. Pandemic Stacy is wearing on me. Her cycles of despair and enmity are simultaneously heartbreaking and boring. Haven’t all the tears been cried? Didn’t she just figure this out last week? Why is she stuck in this repetitive cycle? It’s not Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, but more like the upcoming sequel, Groundhog Year, co-written by all of us. The abyss does indeed stare back at me; in turn, I try not to stare in it for too long.
This Stacy, whose notebooks I am rereading, is someone I’d like to become acquainted with again. As I tidy up my papers, I reflect on this past year. My own leaps have been small but meaningful. Walks outdoors with friends. Taking photographs of birds. Telling others how I really feel instead of replying fine as though on a default autopilot of nicety. Appreciating the return of some friendships; letting go of others. Giving as much as I can to the students I work with now without expecting anything to be long-term or permanent.
Ruf was the first person who encouraged me to consider teaching as a profession. It took a long time and another master’s degree to convince me he may have been right. I look into the filaments of my desktop computer coalescing into the faces of students who are ready to give class another try today. I welcome them and wish them good morning. We talk about sandwiches and rhetorical analysis and what we are binge-watching.
“sup mrs stacy” one student writes in the chat.
“Helllooo! Just Stacy!” I reply.
“ok prof =)” she writes back.
I sit back in my chair and smile, satisfied that in this moment, it feels as though some circles can be completed. Tomorrow I’ll begin a new circle and remind myself that the leap is over the abyss, not into it.
Stacy Murison is a Flagstaff-based writer. Her work has appeared in Assay, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Rumpus among others.