• Aarik Danielsen

Old College Try

On a Saturday drive across Missouri, my son defied my wishes. He asked to hear the album of original music I created in college. Then he and my wife unmercifully dozed off, leaving me alone with the 23-year-old version of myself.


The music critic in me took the first pass. The voice, an inelegant baritone, holds some charm—even the hint of a rasp—but grows thin toward the high end of its register. The artist sounds completely tethered to his piano, rarely offering his songs space enough to breathe. Many of the lyrics reduce and reuse sentiment, recycling the tropes of CCM and pop ballads.


The writing and production demonstrate an understanding of songcraft; everything fits into place. But the songwriter clearly doesn’t trust his audience—or himself. He repeats material too often, unsure listeners will hear him out the first time. Two-and-a-half out of five stars.


A quieter unease settled in my stomach. I revisit the headspace of the person who wrote those songs. What I remembered about him agitated me long after the last chord, a B-flat major triad, faded.


People who boast about living without regret mystify me. Replay a single conversation—or, in this case, nine songs—and the misgivings abound.

Whatever virtues attended my college experience yield to the stumbles and scar tissue. Memories and elapsed time ganged up, minding the gaps between who I thought I was and the lasting wounds I inflicted.


Gestures toward romance and covenant minus the selfless stuff of commitment. Unformed theology written on banners. Defaults without notice at a moment when I assigned money little meaning. Eloquent words delivered from stages, and manipulative, misunderstanding ones spoken off them.


People who boast about living without regret mystify me. Replay a single conversation—or, in this case, nine songs—and the misgivings abound.


This week, I wrap my fourth-semester teaching writing fundamentals to aspiring journalists. I internalized the rhythms of life in a college town well before reentering the classroom. The lower Midwest claims four distinct intervals: crisp spring, syrupy summer, gloriously bracing autumn, and flighty winter. Living in the shadow of a state school tunes a body to shifts and seasons as well as nature ever could.


Give-and-take is good for the soul. My heart muscles remain young while the gray spreads through my beard. All the folly and wisdom of youth unfolds before me daily; I witness energy wasted, then flush with shame over simple truths younger neighbors embrace before me. Outdated references and occasional glimpses of recognition keep me curious yet cognizant of all my 40 years.


This semester, my freshman students wrestled down single words and learned to treat sentences like parts of a symphony. They drilled into the essence of subjects and stories, growing into the power of really hearing others, then exercising their voices as writers.


Walking around flipping on light switches, they perched beneath the bulbs until the brightness spread. Within that light, I spied potential—and a level of self-awareness I didn’t approach until my 30s.


Lazy people open their mouths to poke this or that hole in a rising generation. Or they lift their voices in equal and opposite declarations; either it’s harder than ever to be young or this current crop of kids can’t see the softness of their lives.


Moving about a college town—and rehearsing the power of narrative a few residents at a time—unveils those lies. I stack small sample sizes, then step back to examine a wealth of compassion and critical thinking. The sensitivity shared by our next generation of storytellers isn’t a flaw but a blessing.


The sooner we disabuse ourselves of generational posturing, the endless compare and contrast, the sooner we step into the work of people young and old. The work of becoming.

I’m also around to see my students wring their hands anxiously, wondering aloud if they’re good enough. They crack open like seeds unable to fathom becoming trees. Their situations bear unique weight, yet resemble every writer lined up around history’s corner.


Bearing witness keeps me humble about my place between generations. My community reminds me that every age, at any age, indulges particular sins and rejects others. Advances introduce fresh expressions of the same old temptations. A step forward, two steps back. No harder or easier, better or worse, only people living and dying with hearts made of the same fleshy substance.


My students will break new ground and trip over ancient stones. They already outpace me along so many paths; I pray—for my sake and theirs—I never catch up. Yet I know what I’m worth to them: a spirit only experience offers, a temperament only the long view forms.


The sooner we disabuse ourselves of generational posturing, the endless compare and contrast, the sooner we step into the work of people young and old. The work of becoming.


Returning home that Saturday night after reliving my own playlist, I lay down beside my wife, our faces close enough to kiss. I ask what I was like in college, what she saw to make all the sticking around worthwhile.


The work of becoming waits for us all.

She stops short of calling me a diamond in the rough, but it’s what she describes. Underlying values and the contours of a vision in place. Graciously, she chalks my transgressions up to insecurities. Some I shared early and often; others took another decade to name.


Working through and working out self-doubts, I become more fully myself. My students write their way into shape. Someday they will cringe over early essays like I wince at the sound of my young voice. But they fix their faces toward fruitful paths.


The work of becoming waits for us all. We cannot arrive any faster or slower than providence allows. But living in a college town frees you to enjoy the work as it happens in real-time. And this remains a strange, welcome mercy for anyone young enough at heart to keep moving.




Don't miss a thing.

Sign up below to stay up-to-date on Fathom columns.

Where to find more from Aarik

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
Discontent POST Header_updated-01.png