You Can’t Go Down To The Same River Twice

So said some philosopher of the dead-white-guy variety. But in my head, the quote will always belong to Ursula K LeGuin’s Shevek, from The Dispossessed:

You shall not go down twice to the same river,
nor can you go home again.


A river. You could come back, but water flows and the water that was here last time is long gone.

In my first Hey-Look-At-My-New-Blog post, I said that Im going back to school. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I ever can go back. Not really.

LeGuin/DeadPhilosopherGuy’s argument has long been something of a mantra for me. Move forward always, it says, never go back. But ever since I signed on the dotted line under my University’s seal, since I committed myself to (for better or worse) a life-altering change of pace, this quote has been chasing me. Or maybe less chasing and more catching up with. It’s here, pounding against my brain, yelling WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING??? YOU CAN”T DOOOO THAT!! (My inner mantra is kinda a drama queen. It’s also rolling its eyes and smirking, like it knows better.) Going back to school, it sneers, LOL! How quaint. Good luck with that, sweetie.

Nevertheless, in August I will be returning to school, disapproving inner voice or no.

Grad school to be specific.

I know – because everyone has told me till I’m sick of hearing it – that grad school isn’t really like school. There won’t be parties or all-night movie marathons, there won’t be clubs and free pizza. We won’t be changing majors like musical chairs, and what was once quaintly called homework is now known as all-consuming/life-work-school-consuming research. Grad school, I’ve been told, is much less school-like and way more job-like. (Boooo!) After doing job-like things (and, indeed, actual jobs ) for the past several years, this is somewhat disappointing. But is it also a glimmer of hope that I am going forward into something new and not back to something that’s past?

I don’t know.

I thought my school days were over. I thought that ship had sailed. But now that I find myself aboard it once again, it feels like I am going backwards, if even if the ship is still moving forward.

I recently went back to The Dispossessed  to hunt for the exact context of this quote. It must have been longer than I thought since I’d read this, one of my favorite books of all time. It turns out that the entire quote is quite unlike Dead Philosopher Guy’s axiom:

“It was a joy to him to come back to the Regional Institute, to see the low hills patchy with bronze-leaved scrub holum, the kitchen gardens, domiciles, dormitories, workshops, classrooms, laboratories, where he had lived since he was thirteen. He would always be one for whom the return was as important as the voyage out. To go was not enough for him, only half enough; he must come back. In such a tendency was already foreshadowed, perhaps, the nature of the immense exploration he was to undertake into the extremes of the comprehensible. He would most likely not have embarked on that years-long enterprise had he not had profound assurance that return was possible, even though he himself might not return; that indeed the very nature of the voyage, like a circumnavigation of the globe, implied return. You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.”

The point isn’t that you can’t go back to a place. The entire point is that we want, and indeed need, to go back. And that’s entirely okay. If we understand the nature of change, then going back isn’t stagnation. It’s growth. What is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity. Going back to your roots isn’t going backwards – remembering where you came from  is part of going forward.

Like Shevek’s, my relationship to the river, or school, is complicated.

I don’t know if returning is exactly necessary. Maybe it is not even advisable. Believe me, in the past few months I’ve heard every variation on Grad school is a waste! (Usually accompanying the advice of Just get a job! As if the Real World handed out jobs like diplomas, and getting one is as easy as walking across a stage. News from the Real World: it is not.) But maybe it doesn’t have to be necessary. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be advisable. Risk is part of life, isn’t it?

I know that the place I go back to will not be the one that I left.

But at least I know that’s not a problem. Change is just proof that I am going forward.

Thanks, Shevek 🙂


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