“All you have to do is heed the design—the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow”: Morrison Firmament Essay

As I sit and type this essay and consider what I have learned, who I have become, what Morrison’s work has taught me, and how I will move forward, I have been faced with the realization that my journey of academe for my undergraduate degree is coming to an end, as is my time sitting in a classroom. It is a startling revelation that I am, once again, at the threshold of something new and thrilling, but something I ask myself… am I prepared for? The path before me is one I always anticipated, but I was never quite sure how to face the apprehension that precursed it. I am graduating in seventeen days, as I write this, and I will become a member of the workforce, I will begin graduate school, and in the next year, I will more than likely become a full-time teacher and become the one who guides students through the beauties, complexities, and inspiring world of literature. In these last two years I have spent at the State University of New York at Geneseo, I look back and feel gratitude for the knowledge and experience that I have gathered from mentors, peers, and experiences, and it is then I think on Morrison’s work, the both/and present within it, and the collaboration I have been a part of in the study of her work and all that it has granted me as I stand at the threshold of the rest of my life as an educator, a writer, a student, a thinker – a human being. In this collaboration and the both/and present in it, I have found appreciation for the craft of writing, admiration in being a part of a team, and kindness in my work. I have also found the both/and of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise’s alignment with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the various emotions and ideas present within it – using this both/and as a guide in my own future.

The first day of collaboration for the essay on Morrison’s Beloved was one that has remained in the spaces in between memories of fondness and knowledge in my mind. Having worked in groups before for academic assignments, I found that it was always accompanied by a feeling of dread that either I would not feel united with the group or my work would not be level with the group’s standards or expectations. Being a part of this collaboration was quite the opposite. Morrison’s work had a way of uniting the group with literary analysis, conversations in attempting to figure out certain meanings, or asking for guidance in writing on the findings. 

Morrison’s work has a brilliant complexity to it that always keeps one on their toes. The entirety of her writing is a pelago of text, so it was therefore essential to be consistently thinkING and to consider the both/and. With Morrison’s work, there was the both/and of both growth and pain, both horror and light, both wisdom and confusion, both isolation and collaboration. It is writing that at times has left me stranded and other times has been the rescue ship to an island of comprehension. In these collaborations, there was also the both/and of Dante and the relationships between texts. An example of this is in the collaborative essay of Morrison’s Paradise and Dante’s depiction of justice and the eagle’s brow. When the Eagle states, “Now who are you to sit upon the bench, / to judge events a thousand miles away, / when your own vision spans so brief a space?” (Par. 19.79-81), it is the question of divine justice and the lack of capability of humans to handle this matter, which connects to the both/and of the conflict around the Oven in Morrison’s Paradise and the both/and of interpretation and collaboration of its meaning. Similarly, in the collaborative essay regarding Morrison’s Jazz, it was the both/and of the seven terraces holding the three types of failed love – misdirected, deficient, or excessive – that directly connect to the both/and of Jazz’s Joe, Violet, and Dorcus and their intricate love triangle. It was the both/and of suffering and lust, pain and love, and forgiveness and hate. This coexistence, this both/and of emotions serves as “a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere” (Morrison 28) but still allows Joe and Violet to find their way back to one another. There is also the both/and of Beloved in Paul D’s imprisonment, which serves to emphasize Morrison’s examination of the contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno. In Paul D’s imprisonment chapter, Morrison parallels the imagery of Canto XVIII, using the both/and, and reverses the rationale behind the punishments administered in the Malebolge. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante implies that one is justly punished for the sins one committed in life, while in Morrison’s Beloved, it is argued that enslaved people are subjected to an undeserved, though similar torture. Through Paul D’s imprisonment, Morrison uses the both/and of exposing the institution of whiteness as they use their power to unjustly punish those they deem as inferior – which was discussed in the collaborative group I was a part of. There was both/and in all of Morrison’s work, and there was both/and that was present throughout the collaborative process.

In the question of what Morrison’s work has told me about the both/and of collaboration, it lies in one core idea: you must figure it out before you figure it out – using Morrison’s words. There is always something that you must understand and form connections with in order to connect it to something else – an idea, a thought, a discovery. Collaboration is bonded by understanding, growth, and patience. It is something that simply cannot be accomplished without standing at the threshold of something much larger.

I found Morrison’s work to be a doorway with an unknown destination waiting on the other side. The both/and of her work is the understanding and acceptance that part of that both/and will not be fully understanding. Prior to this class, I felt that I needed to understand. Not understanding, not having answers, and not knowing what was truly the ‘correct’ interpretation plagued my mind and abandoned me with helplessness and frustration. After reading Morrison’s work, it has granted me the gift of being content in not knowing – in not understanding. Perhaps the ‘thing I needed to figure out before I figured it out’ was simply the idea that a part of that both/and is fully comprehending what a text is trying to convey while simultaneously not understanding at all, at least not at first. Morrison’s work has thrown me into the unknown and kept me comfortable there. I think of Morrison’s words in Jazz as I think about what I have learned on the both/and collaboration of Morrison’s work, as she wrote “All you have to do is heed the design—the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow” (Morrison 9). These words sit with me as I consider all that Morrison’s work has taught me and all that I have learned in the collaborative process regarding her work with my peers in the class. As a group, on three separate occasions, the collaboration I was a part of regarding Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise has solidified my understanding of the both/and, and I have found that both/and within myself. 

As my own graduation with my Bachelor’s Degree approaches, I am once again standing at the threshold – this time, it is something so substantial, so terrifying, that I find myself hesitating before I inevitably walk through. I think of Morrison’s work as I am about to walk through, though, and find myself holding onto the insight I have gathered that I will bring with me in what lies ahead. In the upcoming years, I will continue to be a student until my graduation with my Master’s. I will be an English teacher. I will be a wife. I will be an artist. I will be a poet. I will be whatever else I find myself capable of. But with these titles, I carry with me several skills of the both/and. Firstly, both patience and forgiveness. Morrison’s work and the pelago that it is have taught me to have the both/and of commitment to understanding what I can and patience in not understanding what I cannot. Even in the group collaboration, there was a consistent, unspoken understanding that not knowing is precisely the power of the novel at hand and the reason the collaboration was happening in the first place. I have applied this patience and forgiveness to myself as a student in the last semester and will continue to apply it as I become the one to teach students. It was not until recently that I knew what it meant to have forgiveness with myself over work I did not understand – work that perhaps the whole point of it was to not understand – and I will be sure to inform my students of this same idea. It is okay not to know, as long as the both/and of kindness to oneself and allowing the not understanding is present. Collaboration will be a key component of my classroom, too, as I will aim to have the same style of group work that was present in ENGL 431 and encourage the same both/and of kindness, encouragement, and understanding in each group. There were countless moments in the collaborative essay-based classes of this class when I felt content with navigating work that felt foreign to me, as I had others alongside me who felt much the same way. There was unspoken guidance between us, amongst us, that I would love to carry with me as I navigate academe in a different environment.

Morrison wrote, “What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” and I think of this and the both/and I have learned from the collaboration of this class. I hold onto the both/and of fear and excitement for what the future holds as I hold Morrison’s words at my side. At the beginning of this class, for the Thresholds essay, I wrote of Virgil’s words in Dante’s Inferno: “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 I find it was Morrison and those in this classroom with me that served as the ‘guide’ through both/and Morrison’s works and this last semester of college. Collaboration has offered me the both/and of my own confidence in my writing, my understanding, and of myself. Why not “climb up this blissful mountain here” (Dante 76-77) and take the both/and of collaboration and apply it to all aspects of life thereafter? Why not be my own “special thing”?

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