The Colgate Scene
March 2007

"Passion for the Climb" — it's what exemplifies the spirit of Colgate people. You share a thirst for a life of accomplishment and the will to do things right. In academic, professional, community, and personal endeavors, you relish the effort, the process, the journey, and care deeply about how you lead your lives, as much as you care about reaching the top.

We know there are countless ways in which the "passion for the climb" manifests itself in Colgate alumni, faculty, staff, and students. As the university embarks on its "Passion for the Climb" campaign, we wish to build a collection of these stories.

Starting this month, we will begin selecting essays to be published in the Colgate Scene over the next several years. We hope you will consider writing an essay about your passion for the climb.

Our writing tips are posted online. Send submissions to: Please put "Passion for the Climb essay" in the subject line and include your daytime phone number and e-mail address. Although electronic submission is preferred, you can also send typed essays, double-spaced, to: "Passion for the Climb" c/o The Colgate Scene; 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346.

We look forward to reading your essay! Every essay we receive will be read and considered for publication. If your essay is selected, we will contact you.

Here, we share with you the first essays of this series.

Jennifer Brice, assistant professor of English, has taught creative nonfiction writing and literature at Colgate since 2003 and once worked as a newspaper reporter. She is the author of The Last Settlers, a work of literary journalism about homesteaders in Alaska, and her memoir, Unlearning to Fly, is due out this fall. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Letters from helenka

Last Christmas, Aunt Joan sent me some dog-eared books tied up in red velvet ribbon. They were books about writing, and they had belonged to my grandmother. She'd scrawled her name across one flyleaf, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. And she'd marked this passage: "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."

See Also:

All essays in this series

My grandmother's astonishment. That gave me pause. It's true she gave voice to big emotions — passion, fear, petulance, love, joy, anger, envy, weariness — but astonishment? I never saw her so much as nonplussed. She once carried a clutch of us grandchildren to Florida but forgot her swimsuit. As the littlest ones struck out for the ocean like sea turtle hatchlings, she plunged in wearing only a girdle.

Born in the Gilded Age, Helen McNutt trained at a Georgia conservatory before marrying my grandfather, bearing four sons, moving to California, and styling herself as a wartime radio reporter, political king-maker, and, years later, president of an Alaska construction company. She transformed a ramshackle orphanage on 80 acres into the family estate, Brice-in-the-Hills. Every Fourth of July, she threw a party for 300 that featured a costumed Lady Liberty galloping on a white stallion, hefting a Union Jack that flapped in harrowing proximity to the hot dog grill.

What else? My grandmother drank single-malt Scotch, had fantastic legs, and took lovers into her 70s. Long before cell phones, she had a two-way radio installed in her car, and she used the Radio Fairbanks dispatcher as a human Rolodex. She once prevailed on a state trooper who'd pulled her over for speeding to escort her back home, where she retrieved her driver's license. When she wept — as she was wont to do, over trifles — she looked like a great doughy baby.

And wherever she went, she trailed beauty like perfume. When she and I traveled around South America by freighter, she brought along six trunks filled with clothes, crystal, silver, linens, and books. In college, I read Freud on happiness — beauty's twin — and found the lesson familiar.

For my grandmother, the boundaries between truth and fiction — between what happened to her and what happened to a character in a novel — were somewhat porous. Reading Faulkner, she became Caddy Compson; reading Edna St. Vincent Millay, she became the poet burning her candle at both ends. No one in my family called my grandmother a liar; instead, we used to say she never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Over the course of 25 years, my grandmother wrote me thousands of letters. In them, she criticized, cajoled, exhorted, lectured, and sometimes praised. Mostly, though, she wrote about what she was reading. Years later, I've lost the meaning but not the image of the words on a page. They curled, irrepressible as vines, from the bottom of the page, up the left margin, and over the top. Mid-page, they blossomed then shrank, skidding up to the right margin or tumbling off, leaving me to guess at the ending of "perti-" — "Pertinent?" "Pertinacious?"

Even in the privacy of my bedroom, my grandmother's letters embarrassed me. They were so effusive, for one thing. For another, I sensed she wasn't really writing to me but to some imagined version of me that didn't exist. She thought I was like her; I wasn't. The potted plant wrote stiff replies to wild nature. Once, when she was feeling snide, the potted plant addressed her envelope to "Mrs. Luther Liston Brice."

"I am not `Mrs. Luther Liston Brice,'" she spluttered via return post. "I am `helenka Brice.'" (She elided the lower-case "h," and she lingered on the second syllable: "e-LEN-ka.")

Elsewhere in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says this — the writer's life "is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation." Just so. I would like to climb mountains. Instead, I read narratives of failed expeditions, books with "tragic" or "doomed" in the subtitle: Mountain of My Fear, Into Thin Air, Frozen in Time, In the Land of White Death. Instead of grand passions, this soul subsists on Schadenfreude.

My grandmother's letter-writing took the form of profuse exuberance — a wild and fertile superabundance of verbiage. In me, the impulse to write essays is narrow and constrained, more of an affliction that must be borne, like an ingrown toenail. To be a nonfiction writer is never to let a story get in the way of good facts.

A few months after my grandmother died, thick manila envelopes addressed to me in her secretary's hand turned up in the mail. I opened the first one. Copies of helenka's letters exploded from it. A shabby thought bubbled up: this was my grandmother's way of hectoring me from the grave to write her biography. I stuffed the letters back in the envelope, unread.

Last summer, while going through old papers, I came across my grandmother's letters. I hadn't forgotten them, exactly — just put them out of my mind. I read one. Hours later, I was kneeling on my closet floor in a pool of pages, mopping up tears with the tail of my T-shirt. All these years I'd been wrong. My grandmother's letters weren't about her. They weren't about me, either. Instead, they were conversations between the woman she was and the writer she expected me to become. My grandmother died in 1992. What took you so long? I imagine her saying, astonished.

After leading the Colgate Manchester Study Group last year, Paul Pinet, professor of geology and environmental studies, is now on sabbatical, working on a new book. As he put it, sabbaticals are a special time not only for the opportunity to intensely focus on scholarly pursuits, but also for the chance to "re-energize for my teaching, which is such an important part of what I do." He has taught at Colgate since 1978.
The profound grace of deep time

I remember an edgeless day in the 21st year of my life. It lasted four months. The frozen sun of that long day refused to leave, dipping and rising though never dropping out of the polar sky. We pitched our tent in a narrow valley fringed by long ledges of rock that stood tall against heavy wind streaming off the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Nothing lived in that glacial hollow — no moss, no grasses or wildflowers, no shrubs or evergreens, no animals except for Matz and me. We were alone, immersed in the flawless brilliance of that fractured landscape. The patient quiet of the place was immense but not silent. Enthralled, yet wary, I watched and waited. Ever so slowly, that mountainside of solitude unmade me. The deep roots of geologic time, its logic of stone and ice, clutched my body and mind, simultaneously shrinking and magnifying the fact of my being.

I have discovered that the Earth takes its time while digging deep tracks into landscapes. Paradoxically, climbing high ridgelines leads me downward into the Earth's shadows, where the interminable past sits firmly and quietly, largely unnoticed. For most, deep time is mere quantity, the age of a lichen-encrusted granite or perhaps the tectonic lifespan of a dead volcano. But I believe that all things, including deep time, have essences that when perceived reveal something vital about the world, especially about our human nature. Such impressions garnered from stone and ice evoke profound feelings of awe, yearning, fear, and humility. And yet, while sensing the Earth's deep time, what exactly do I sense? What is the feel of that intangible presence, and why do I feel it? How can the mute sensations of ledge ever be represented and shared with others? These are the precious keepsakes of my long polar day that continue to inform my teaching and scholarship. Let me explain.

Sensing the flow of deep time can certainly deepen one's understanding of the evolutionary past, especially our shared biological identity with everything that once lived, is now living, and will ever live. The enormity of this 4.6 billion-year legacy is not over and done, as many believe; rather, it is forward looking and accretes continually. The Earth and not the hands of the clock turns our hours. Ahead are the folds and crevices of the deep geologic future and, as has been true for the drama of the deep past, it will not involve Homo sapiens. This humble perspective — our insignificance in an infinite universe — and the willingness to see the Earth as kin are what I ask my students to contemplate, whether I teach Oceanography, Coastal Geology, The Challenge of Modernity, On Landscapes and Longing, Technology and the Human Prospect, or Ecology, Ethics, and Wilderness. I strive to share the profound grace of deep time for the comforting friend that it has become.

Things happen mostly their own way, including, I've discovered, the sharing of impressions about the essence of primordial time. Ever so slowly, word by word, a book of essays titled Living in Deep Time is taking form. This `still life' in prose is an attempt to fathom the long evolutionary unity of the world, including its universe of speciation and extinction, and its cyclic act of life, decay, and death that collectively created the rich, fleeting ecology of today's landscapes. Recently, I've started to experiment with the fluid properties of watercolors as a means of expressing the suffusion of deep time in landscapes. I rely on colors, washes, and textures that are alive in themselves to capture the moods and fantastical qualities of living landforms. These images will illustrate my essays in the hope that a mixture of words and paint will best represent the nuances of deep time emerging from this privileged scholarly life.

Aisha Lubega '08 was first bitten by the theater bug as a sixth grader, when she was cast as the little red-headed girl in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. In high school, she broadened her acting experience playing a village mother and a bottle dancer in Fiddler on the Roof. At Colgate, she said, theater has allowed her to explore different perspectives and ideas and share her outgoing and spontaneous nature with others.

"I played a pregnant woman in the Commedia dell'arte for my advanced acting class," said Lubega, who is double majoring in theater and international relations. "It's a very comical play and had a lot of outrageous parts. Someone told me after my performance, `Aisha, you need to continue with acting because you are crazy on the stage!'"

Stepping into another's shoes

In my first semester at Colgate, I was so excited to be cast in Sophie Treadwell's 1928 Broadway hit, Machinal. This tragedy captures the lives of diverse people in society. The play had scenes of long sidewalks, dimly lighted bars, and ordinary people hurrying to get to work. In one scene, I was the `woman at the bar' who talks with her boyfriend over her contemplation of having an abortion; in another, I played the woman at the jail who sings during the conviction of the young lady who is found guilty of killing her husband. My solo set the tone for the murder, and later the sentence of her death by electric chair. Acting in this play was truly an accomplishment and a privilege, but I hadn't yet realized how it would soon enhance my understanding of what I would learn in History 342.

My passion for acting has arisen out of my experimentation through University Theater and acting classes at Colgate. I love acting because it allows me to exercise my creative energy and expression of different characters on stage. And in an interesting way, I have been able to connect my acting experiences to courses of study that I have taken thus far.

Machinal, which focuses on the lives of women in an age when the feminist movement was particularly strong, helped me to understand the role of women during WWI when I took History 342: Great Britain in Modern Times. And through that course, I also came to appreciate more fully the circumstances that the characters in Machinal were going through.

The class touched upon the unraveling events of WWI, when women were allowed into the workforce to provide healthy and safe environments for their children — but at the same time, this era hindered the abilities of women to live their lives to the fullest. We also learned how during the war, women continued to demand more equal rights, equal pay, and also rights for their children. Machinal, then, focused on the lives of women in an age when the feminist movement was particularly strong. Dressed in simple attire, running about here and there, everyone was trying to find their place in the new and busy world surrounding them. Performing in this play gave me a broader understanding of the perceived roles of women during the WWI era, and helped me to develop my ideas and perceptions of their struggles. The characters of the woman at the bar and the young lady serve as examples of women struggling to live comfortably in society. The woman at the bar felt she had no choice but to abort her baby, because she needed to keep her job to continue making a living. At the climax of the play, the young lady kills her husband because she seeks freedom from the bonds of her unhappy marriage and his possessive behavior.

These were circumstances where women were incapable of governing their own lives. One cannot understand the struggle of what another is going through unless they step into that person's shoes. I am grateful that my involvement in theater has illuminated my understanding of different situations that people have been through, or are going through today. That is a powerful gift that I will continue to treasure.

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