How To Reclaim That Back-to-School Feeling

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Daisy Chain Procession At Vassar
Vassar ladies circa 1909.
Image via this awesome piece at Flavorwire.

For so much of our life, time is measured by the structure of the academic year, from the beloved respite of summer to the begrudgingly exhilarating late August weeks when we prepared for the inevitable. I still vividly remember my 5th grade back to school outfit; a matching black and blue striped mini-skirt/shirt combo (see below) with Reebok high tops.There's nothing quite like the feeling of donning new clothes, an empty notebook and watermelon scented pen in hand, refreshed and motivated, ready to learn, beat the boys at Dr. Dodgeball (man, I miss that game), cultivate your crush on Eric Trail, read aloud from the latest installment of Sweet Valley High and otherwise immerse yourself in the excitement of the new school year.

My sister and I in our back to school outfits, circa 1989.

There were the high school years full of Anne SextonJoseph Cornell and ample opportunities for rebellion, adventure and antics. Then college, and the distinctly perfect feeling of leaving behind the sleepy, quiet summers at home in order to drive my Volvo back toward upstate New York for another year of making 16mm movies, hanging out in the science building during snowstorms for no reason, reading The Cement Garden, going to Jeffrey Eugenides readings and generally getting ready to be a grown-up. And don't even get me started on the life changing two years of grad school. So many good books to read! So many weird projects to do! So many inspiring meetings to have with real-life writers! On certain San Francisco afternoons in September, there's something about the air that viscerally makes me feel I ought to be walking to my writing workshop, but alas, I'm not. So, for those of us not returning to school this fall, let's pretend like we are. Here's some ways to set the mood.

Make a Reading List:

Remember Book It!, the reading program sponsored by Pizza Hut? My all-time childhood grievance is that my parents would NEVER take me to get the million personal pan pizzas I earned.

Most of us say we read while halfheartedly carrying a book around and taking a month to finish it. Books are beautiful and important and make us better people. We should read them more. Remember the days when you read a novel a week and discussed how the structure of Cloud Atlas mirrored that of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler? Harness some of that focus and jump wholeheartedly into your reading list.

Mine includes the much talked about The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Read her too-cool (in a good way) write up about it in The Paris Review here. Another must-read is Paul Yoon's newest The Snow Hunters (check out his story collection, Once the Shore, too) and Pulitzer winner Paul Harding's Enon is out this September. Battleborn, the collection by Claire Vaye Watkins, was recently recommended to me. Bonus points for her desert-y website. Other additions to my never-ending list include Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector and Mary Shelley's mom's book, Some Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, which has been described in this way: "if ever there was a book calculated to make a man fall in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” My only regret is that I will not be assigned 2 page analytic essays to write about each of these. Take a field trip to Green Apple and pretend like you're required to buy everything you want to read.


Listen to Music:

Everyone studies better when they're listening to music, right? If you were 14 in the mid-'90s (I was!), then you love Mazzy Star. They are releasing their first album in seventeen years this September and listening to the first single will definitely make you feel like you are locked in your bedroom "doing your homework" and waiting for your boyfriend to call while the leaves change color outside.

Other bands evoking a perfect twinge of cozy, autumnal melancholy (we're still making our way to the true gothiness of full-on October) include my latest throw-back interest, Swans (as well as the perfection of Tempers covering them),  Zola Jesus's latest, a collaboration with JG Thirlwell of Foetus and Julianna Barwick's moody, practically religious sounding Nepenthe. Listen to any or all of the above while reading some Mary Ruefle lectures, and you'll soon have that too-cool-for-school intellectual feeling that made hanging out in your dorm reading Hindu philosophy and listening to Yo La Tengo so much fun.

Actually Learn Something New:

It's a little unnerving how this can happen less and less as we get older. Our neural networks want us to keep learning for a zillion compelling reasons, not the least of which is watching them light up when they connect with each other in illustrations of the human brain working hard. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to keep learning. I decided to get magazine subscriptions and actually read them (which reminded me of how awesome Bomb is). I've learned about ballet, property forfeiture, Hope Gangloff and how scary Google Glass is. Another option is taking a class. Learn how to Vogue at ODC or go to yoga school (lifelong dream #234) at Laughing Lotus. You can work on something on your own too, maybe by learning to make God's Eyes or essential oil sprays. Pick something you know little about, say outer space, semiotics, ancient history, botany or bike mechanics, and then research it. Watch documentaries. Sign up for Brain Pickings weekly "interestingness digest" where Maria Popova will regale you with all sorts of random information on art, psychology, writing, science and sex, just to name a few subjects. You'll be wanting to take notes in no time.


Skip Class:

It can't be all new outfits, tropical Trapper Keepers, researching Madí on You Tube and every word we've forgotten or never knew. After all, we need balance in our lives. We need the TGIF line-up and slumber parties and some extra-curricular activities. We need to sneak out and get in trouble. So don't hit the books so hard you forget about the rest of your life. Go see some of those bands you've been listening to in concert (Zola Jesus is playing at the Palace of Fine Arts on September 26). Go to the Bernal slides. Put on a leather jacket and go find your Judd Nelson. And start counting down until Christmas Break; it'll be here before you know it.



My yoga teacher recently read something to the effect of, Remember your lives are your curriculum. It sounds simple, or like the kind of potentially cheesy affirmation that one might hear before their yoga class, but it struck me as both a reminder and a directive. All that we consume and create, all that we hear and observe, our actions, our intentions, what we seek to understand, it all creates those firing synapses, those glowing neurons that make our minds, perceptions, eyes and hearts what they are.