“Why not Climb up this Blissful Mountain Here?”: Standing at the Threshold in ENGL431

As I write this essay, I begin to think about where I have been and what I have learned in my education. I consider a simple question: how often have I found myself standing on the threshold of a class instead of simply stepping over it? I realized that in all my time as a student, I rarely stood on this threshold, because it was never something spoken of. A class, for most of my academic career, has been there to supply material to memorize and hopefully to achieve ‘good’ grades. It was only recently that I realized the importance of stopping and considering what knowledge awaits me and what I needed to be thinkING about as I cross that threshold.

I believe it is first mandatory to discuss the idea of being at the threshold of a class – something that I have felt I was planted in only once before in my educational career. To walk into the opening of a class, to step through the doorway and enter the vast room of knowledge, is one thing entirely different than to stop at the entrance, exhale, and take in the realization of the knowledge that will soon come. To stop. To take in. To step through – not run in, head-first. This concept is often foreign to students of academe, as many are taught to take a syllabus and a few ideas presented on the first day of class and only think in moments outside of mandatory memorization. To enter a threshold is to be continuously thinkiNG even after entering the course and to realize that this will be a journey of growth for every individual involved. This is a concept difficult to grasp after the experience of being taught to rush through coursework to arrive at the finish line of the class. To be asked to stand on the threshold and think is to take a breath and realize what it is all for.

This being said, there are several thresholds I believe I am standing on in this class. One of the most vital for me to grasp is the understanding the text at hand. Beloved is a text unlike any other. As we began reading, I felt as though I was getting lost in the way of Morrison’s writing and feared I would not be able to immerse myself in it fully. The character of Beloved, especially, was an aspect of the novel that I could not quite figure out – something I found both frustrating and intriguing. I am a student who yearns to understand, in every aspect. If in my reading I stumble upon an idea or concept that is unfamiliar to me, I will not move past it until I familiarize myself with it. I wanted to get Beloved. I needed to get Beloved. This was not so easily achieved, as Beloved represents everything and nothing to everyone in the story. Beloved is the inescapable, the parasitic, the gateway to growth, the holy, the malevolent, and the savior. Beloved falls into various roles that suit whichever other character she is with. She is an entity in this novel that is never quite understood, and therein lies one of the most exquisite pieces of the novel. As I sit and ponder this idea of Beloved’s various roles in this story, I am drawn to Morrison’s words … “Beloved You are my sister You are my daughter You are my face; you are me […] You are my Beloved You are mine” (Morrison 255). I allow myself forgiveness for not fully grasping Beloved as a character and as I stand on the threshold, as perhaps Beloved is not meant to be fully understood. Perhaps that is one of Morrison’s choices in the story that I was unaware of at the start. 

As we stand at the threshold, I am also thinkING about the ideas of identity and ownership. On one of the first days of this class, we read Morrison’s interview with the New York Times, and a few of her words stood out to me and remained with me as we read Beloved. Morrison stated:

“One of the nice things that women do is nurture and love something other than themselves -they do that rather nicely. Instinctively, perhaps, but they are certainly taught to do it, socialized to do it, or genetically predisposed to do it -whatever it is, it’s something that I think the majority of women feel strongly about. But mother love is also a killer.”

I think of this often. This idea of motherhood being an identity on its own is something that attaches itself to Sethe in Beloved. Before anything else, Sethe is a mother. She takes this title and thereafter her ownership of Beloved (“You are mine You are mine You are mine” (Morrison 256)) and, in a way, hides behind it. Sethe is afraid of the past and yet, is haunted by it each day.

I think about Morrison’s words – “mother love is also a killer” – and realize that one way of interpreting this is that her role as a mother is what kills her sense of self and identity, Sethe feels that Beloved is the best part of herself – she clings to this ghost of her daughter – without any real sense of identity beyond it. As I stand on the threshold, I wonder what that title of motherhood means to one’s identity. What does it mean to Sethe? Does feeling that she still has that ownership over Beloved allow her a sense of peace? A thing to soothe her aching soul, longing for the child she took away from herself? This idea of motherhood and identity … more importantly, the idea of the ownership of Beloved – I find myself thinking about what it all means, and what, truly, defines the self. What makes us whole? How much of ourselves is our own when we give over to love – whether it be a mother’s or a lover’s? Furthermore, how does the past shape this identity? Morrison also said “memory never really leaves you unless you have gone through it and confronted it head on” – and Beloved was Sethe’s physical embodiment of her past and serves to be a way of both healing and hurting her.

I realized, too, that I am not the only one crossing a threshold. As my classmates and I stand on the edge of this course, the characters within Beloved are at the threshold of something entirely different. Discovery, pain, healing, possession, love… and like us, the students, they have a guide much like Dante. I think of Virgil’s words in Dante’s Inferno when he says: “I think it best you follow me / for your own good, and I shall be your guide / and lead you out through an eternal place” (Dante 112-114) and am reminded that like Virgil is Dante’s guide, like Amy was Sethe’s guide, like Beloved is a guide for all, in a way – we, as students, are each other’s guide as well as being guided by our professor in our path in understanding “an eternal place” (Dante 114) … in other words, Morrison’s works. Taking on works such as Morrison’s can be daunting, but it is vital to not feel discouraged if we feel lost at any point on our journey. As virgil says, “…why retreat to so much misery? / Why not climb up this blissful mountain here?” (Dante 76-77).

Another aspect that I am thinkING about as I stand at the threshold of this class, albeit a more personal one, is my reluctance to fully plunge myself into my literature classes out of fear. Having student-taught last semester, I am relearning how to be a student. I had grown so accustomed to being in front of the class, that now, as I sit at my desk, I find myself wondering – am I doing enough? Am I understanding the work at the same level as my classmates? Am I speaking too much, or too little? Am I grasping the “right” concepts in each class? Is there a “right” answer to the questions asked? I feel these questions prodding me as I stand on the threshold of the class – and above all, I find myself thinking about failure. I do not want to fail the works that I read. I do not want to fail the expectations I have set for myself. To quote Morrison, this fear of failure and desire to be the same student I was prior to student teaching is my own “Something else you have to figure in before you can figure it out” – and I know that this will come in time. With each page read, I feel a connection back to my student role and find myself once more in my journey of academia.

To stand at the threshold is to be open and willing for whatever knowledge lies beyond. It is to have grace, courage, and courtesy and be prepared to take on the role of a learner as this course begins. To encourage classmates, to be consistently thinkING, and to remember that above all, this is a learning process. As this semester continues onward, I am looking forward to growing as a student and being a guest in Morrison’s novels.

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