Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

It’s just too delicious to pass up. Wide open spaces, 21st-century pioneering, a veritable zoo out the kitchen window…yes, these are certainly attributes of life on a ranch, but nothing thrills the former city-writer in me more than being able to title a blog with that sixty-year-old movie quotation.

It also reminds me how fragile these allusions are…and how important it is to keep them alive and relevant. In the freshman-level college Composition classes I teach, I’m forever checking to make sure that my wide-ranging references (from 70s cultural phenomena like “All in the Family” to anything written by Salinger to Plato to Rilke to Sylvia Plath) are recognized by my students.  Even taking into account the omnipresent generation gap, I receive far too many blank stares.

The heart of my “real” education (that is, the literary and cultural knowledge which came not from the classroom but rather by immersing myself in an amalgamation of modern and traditional classics) surfaced from a stream of unlikely references: I learned from one great of another.  I first picked up Anna Karenina and The Way of the Pilgrim after reading about them in Franny and Zooey; Robert Smith introduced me to Baudelaire and Natalie Merchant to Jack Kerouac; the philosophical and religious references in Van Gogh’s letters to his brother far outnumber the artistic references; and most recently, after reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, I was struck almost palpably by the number of cross-references in our two worlds.  The more you follow the lead so lovingly dropped by someone whose sensibilities you already share, the more you realize you are delving into something quite the opposite of name-dropping. As you grasp the slack line and wind your way back from whence it came, a sense of emergence swells inside you: you have not only been here before, but you have been that which you are now discovering.

A bookworm of a child, I was always most at home in the company of the fictional characters in my books, not because of some social deficiency (I now realize), but because, as Madeleine L’Engle put it, “Story is true and takes us beyond the facts into something far more real.”  This kind of a realist I could aspire to be, the kind who gratefully rides on the coattails of a traveling poet, gathering every bit of truth strewn in our path–only to toss it back again, a little further down the road.

By Gretchen Hayduk Wroblewski

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