Learning/Leaning

“Learn and Run!”–Octavia Butler, Dawn

The sentence fragment of “Learn and Run,” one of the course epigraphs, has a simple syntax: two verbs, present tense, joined together by the conjunction “and.” The verbs “learn” and “run” are not in present progressive (with the suffix -ing, indicating that the action is still occurring) form. In actuality, the pairing of these two verbs: one verb associated with the mental, intangible, and the other associated with the physical and tangible, has far more complex implications. We can see concrete demonstrations of learning, such as assessment performances and other presentations/portfolios. While these are debatable and dependent on certain cultural constructions of acceptable learning, these are the current tools we have at the moment. We can also use the verb ‘run’ in a metaphorical sense. When two verbs have so many associations, the choice to put them together, as Octavia Butler did, is deliberate and intentional.

In the statement “Learn and Run,” these present tense verbs are joined by the conjunction “and.” The “and” conjunction does not offer an opportunity for comparison, affirmation, or negations between one action or another. When there are no opportunities for comparison, there are no opportunities to look to the past or the future. Since there is no opportunity to look in either one of those directions, linear progression, binaries, or anything of the sort are not applicable. Instead, the sentence fragment “Learn and Run” indicates a focus on present circumstances. Learning and running––in whatever form or journey possible, will shake us out of fear and comparisons and point us closer to our own truths.

Lilith Iyapo, the main character in Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn, experiences a lot of challenges in her new reality. She is aboard a living, breathing space ship that is run by the unearthly beings known as the Oankali. She must not only confront the Oankali and wrestle with her own complex emotions, but also teach her human beings how to cope with their new reality and the presence of the Oankali. She experiences a major change in how she copes with change on a physical level and on a mental level. At the very beginning of the novel, Lilith meets Oankali being Jdahya. She is terrified of his physical appearance, particularly his tentacles, which repulse her on a primal level. After an argument, he offers Lilith an orange as a peace offering. In this encounter, “some of his tentacles actually touched her. When they did; she jumped. Then she realized she was not being hurt and kept still. She did not like his nearness but it no longer terrified her.” (29) When Jdahya initially touches her, she reacts in fear, anticipating future pain, or repulsion. After she decides to focus on her present experience, she discovers that her actual feelings are neutral, not those of terror. This strategy is one I have discovered in my own life. When I would get into accidents as a little kid, and see whatever wound showed up on my body, I discovered that if I said “It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt,” I never felt that pain.

When Lilith encounters Paul Titus, a fellow human living alongside the Oankali, she experiences a sense of recognition, but also a sense of unfamiliarity. Paul Titus ended up on the Oankali ship at the age of fourteen, and even though his body aged to one of a physically strong man, his mind––and his sexual experience with women––is that of a fourteen-year-old boy. When they are left in a room together, “he took her by the shoulders again and this time tried awkwardly to kiss her. It was like what she could recall of being kissed by an eager boy. That didn’t bother her. And she caught herself responding to him in spite of her fear.” (94) Lilith’s initial fear, and comparison to her past experiences with young boys, are poignant points at the beginning of the kiss. However, when she surmises her present circumstances, she recognizes that she needs to learn and run. This is a significant change from her past physical experience and changes in her physical reality. Her actions ensure her physical survival, but her mental survival may prove to be more difficult to ensure.

At the beginning of the novel, Lilith has many discussions with Jhadya about the Oankali’s intentions with the humans they are keeping on the ship. She is repelled by and resistant to their plans and sees herself as an advocate for humanity. When she discovers that one of the intentions of the Oankali is to mate with humans and produce offspring, she is shaken:

” ‘What will you make of us? What will our children be?’ ‘Different, as I said. Not quite like you. A little like us.’ She thought of her son––how like her he had been, how like his father…’ No’ she said. ‘No. I don’t care what you do with what you’ve already learned––how you apply it to yourselves––but leave us out of it. Just let us go.’ ” (42)

When Lilith encounters a foreign concept to her, especially one that repulses her, she shuts down. This repulsion is further amplified when she compares the possible Oankali-human children to her own deceased son, and then increases her fear. Her present circumstances, where she finds herself in a foreign environment and where she is encountering an idea that repulses her, is a circumstance that she wants to escape. One day, my friend suggested that we go into Blue Lives Matter Facebook groups to spy on what the other side was doing. In this group, there were so many posts spitting out vitriol, and I used to comment theses in the comment section, so adamant on defending Black Lives Matter. I eventually had to leave those groups because I did not want to see that vitriol on my Facebook feed, but I remember the repulsion I felt encountering such hateful ideas. Lilith’s circumstances are far more challenging, but later on in the novel, she starts to focus more on the present moment, even being challenged with ideas beyond her understanding.

Later on, Lilith is now fully immersed in her teaching role. She has awakened several other humans, and continues to teach them about how to live with each other and adjust to their surroundings. She has entered into a sexual companionship with one of the people she has awakened, a man named Joseph. One night Nikanj, an Oankali being who helped Lilith adjust to her present reality, decides to enter the room in which Lilith and Joseph share. Joseph initially is frightened of Nikanj and its ideas, and Lilith tries her best to soothe him. When that doesn’t work, she has this conversation with him: ” ‘I told you [some of the people I awakened] would probably kill me.’ ‘You didn’t tell me you would help them!’ She leaned against her table platform, head down. ‘I’m trying to live,’ she whispered. ‘You know how I am.’ ” (153) Ultimately, Lilith declares that her only stance is not setting herself up against the Oankali, or against her fellow humans. Her only stance at this point is to live. In the face of fear, of reality that is unfamiliar to her, Lilith makes a conscious choice to live and ignore all of the extraneous mess. While Joseph is still bound up in his own emotions, Lilith learns and runs. She learns how important it is to stay alive, and to be in the present moment, and she runs with that idea, even if Joseph doesn’t understand her. Those strategies of learning and running help her in those moment, and I cannot wait to find out whether it helps or hinders her in the future. I have found it helpful in my past expeeriences to have a community alongside me as I try to learn and run, and I am also looking forward to this class and how that will be run too. (1321)

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