To Learn is to Change

I've come home, and I'm not even sure what that means. When I'm travelling, I often feel as though I have a much more acute sense of self than when I am at 'home'. This is especially the case in airports which, as liminal spaces, foreground national borders, distances, and time differences. To sit in an airport is to exist in a vacuum: neither here nor there, neither British nor Canadian. 

It is strange to return to a place for the first time in several years – whether a city or gravesite. In a way, revisiting one's past is like walking through a graveyard, where each tombstone is a memory:

things are as big as you make them
I can fill a whole body
a whole day of life
with worry
about a few words
on one scrap of paper
yet the same evening
looking up
can frame my fingers
to fit the sky
in my cupped hands.

I found this epitaph on a gravestone at Hailes Abbey, a 13th century church in Gloucestershire. It is true, I think, that death provides perspective on what is important in life – moreover that death, however powerful, is not the end of the world. We must die in order to be reborn, according to Christianity and Hinduism, and many other faiths. I think many of us resist thinking or talking about death, because few of us have witnessed it. Popular media has transformed death from an object of serious study and contemplation into a form of entertainment. In this sense, we have become so detached from death that we fail to recognize it in ourselves – I'm thinking here of more fluid concepts of death, such as the death of a relationship or a loss of personal identity, when we realise that a certain phase of life is over. 

When my train arrived in Cambridge and I stepped onto the platform however, everything had continued on as it had before. The light was slanting through King's College Chapel, as the boys and girls sang glória in excélsis Deo  / et in terra pax homínibus bonæ voluntátis. The candles were lit, and the Lonely Tree stood in the field, cast in starlight. Punts drifted down the river, as throngs of asian tourists received the same history lesson. The porters at Trinity and King's were still surly, and John's was burning another boat in another senseless and obstinate observance of 'tradition.' A stream of drunken boaties trickled down Senate House Passage barefoot, in matching blazers, towards a sign which will always read, "No cycles, dogs, radios, or picnics." 

What did I expect to find, in returning to Cambridge? Certainly not the relics of my former self – although the immutability of Cambridge only underscores how I have changed. Like many universities, Cambridge is a placeholder in the book of life, a point of reference to all who pass through its gates. Still, Cambridge should not be confused with the essence, centre, or pinnacle of one's personal and intellectual achievement. Perhaps its permanence and predictability encourage students to believe that they are part of the grand narratives of History and Tradition. We come to think that Cambridge has the power to reverse or stop the natural progression of time; that somehow, by returning to that place where we once were dreamers, young and in love with each other and the world, that we can undo the pain and confusion that aging brings. 

Somewhat ironically, Cambridge, the bastion of tradition, taught me the truth of this saying: Discere Mutari Est, or to learn is to change. As someone who lives in fear of failure, I find this phrase comforting. Discere Mutari Est reminds me that every joy I have experienced has arisen from the ashes of failure, or as T. S. Eliot says, that every end is a new beginning. I would never have learnt to walk without falling, never loved without hating, never written a word without forming my first letters. Everything exists in binary opposition: love and hatred, life and death, zeroes and ones. It is only in knowing one side that we can fully appreciate the other.

Since I left England, I have grown to love Canada for everything that it is not. In some ways, I have had to mourn the death of the person I was in Cambridge in order to become the person I am today. 'Home' then, is like Cambridge in its truest form: it is a feeling and a perspective, not a place.