A Call for Getting Lost


Illaria Dana, Education Major

About six weeks ago, I got really sick. I was housesitting for a friend near campus. She is a potter and was headed to the Common Ground Fair. I had a difficult time breathing and intense pain in my ear and throat. Two days passed; I lied in bed, my head propped up on pillows, laboring through each breath, sleeping for the brief hours that ibuprofen gave me relief in and waking up in agony. I could not go on like this.

The following Sunday I went to the emergency room and was referred to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist) on Marginal Way. There were various old people sitting in the waiting room reading Downeast Magazine. In the doctor’s office, the doctor handed me one of the vacuums that they use in dentists’ offices to suck up extra fluids. This was ominous, but I had been here before. This was becoming an annual occurrence in my life, just like the shorter days and snowfall.

Here is a warning for readers who might be alarmed by graphic, physical descriptions of a repellent nature: stop reading now.

The doctor took a scalpel, held my tongue down with a wooden depressor, and cut into an abscess the size of a tennis ball in the back of my throat. This process is called “lancing”. He stopped twice and had me use my tiny vacuum to suction the pus from my throat and resumed cutting. He told me, “We really have to get this over with. It’s mind over matter, and it has to be.”

Clinging to his words, I kept my mouth open, closed my eyes and forced my body to release the bind it was in. I went home physically traumatized, with an appointment to get my tonsils out midway through this semester.Students in the United States often struggle with the merits of getting an education. It  is true that state schools used to be the affordable alternatives to their privately-owned counterparts. It is also true that receiving an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s degree do not ensure employment as they once did. But there is another factor that threatens students’ education. It is a cultural threat. Students used to believe in the merit of an education-in-itself, that working meant something, and in the threads that bind society together.

More people graduate from high school and college than ever before. One can find articles in local and national newspapers about changing education from a traditional classroom in which memorization and lectures dominate to the constructivist philosophy in which students are asked to form relationships with their peers, teachers, and the subjects they study. This transition is not only idyllic, it is perhaps necessary.

But what does education have to do with my tonsils?

The day of my surgery I stopped at the bookstore. After an interview I had done for The Beacon, a title was stuck in my mind. It was Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide for Getting Lost. A poet I had interviewed referenced the book, for it had taught her the Tibetan word “shul” which refers to the impression left behind something that was. “Shul” is also used in Yiddish to mean “school”. The bookstore happened to have a copy, so I bought it and brought it with me to my surgery and to the home of my mother where I would recover.

I spent a total of four hours in the hospital, and when I left, I left behind my tonsils. I thought about the time I would miss from school. Being a student means there’s always something to do, to think about doing, or to anticipate in the future. It can seem like a more calculated version of juggling, in which one juggles something invisible called work. This becomes more intricate if one has work, children, and other obligations of this nature.

I had tried to negotiate myself out of this operation for these very reasons. Ultimately, some things are important enough to take a break from school, and health is one of them.

I remember talking to anesthesiologists and nurses. Getting an IV and watching the liquid flow from a hanging plastic bag into my vein. I remember someone telling me to think of something “really nice” before going under. I thought of the desert while I was wheeled into the operating room and a woman with a mask on her face squeezed my hand.

Then I woke up, and in a bit, I could go home.

It can be a disorienting experience to be placed under anesthesia, and this is especially true if you have dysthymia, or persistent, mild depression. I spent the next week in bed reading Solnit’s A FieldGuide.

Here is what I learned: Solnit says, “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself comes from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, ‘How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’”

What is education, at its core, other than a fundamental exploration? It is no less exploratory if there is a known outcome, a career waiting at the other side. What I learned on bedrest was the importance of turning my mind over, letting it be molded, by everything around me that could teach me something. I had been spending most of my energy juggling schoolwork, and to some extent, this is necessary and gratifying.

But did school replace the joys of good conversations, walks in nature, exercise, great art and literature? Was I forgetting about these other practices? I realized that these practices enriched my life as a student and were necessary for me to continue my education. Armed with the fruits of this paradox, I returned to the semester, anonymous among my peers, but changed nonetheless.


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