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What comes after certainty

staff note

There is invariably a point near the end of every summer when, freed from the helpful bounds of the workweek, the days begin to bleed into one another. Sometimes it’s in July, sometimes later in August, but up to this point in my life I’ve rarely gone through a summer without that familiar period of limbo, when the only responsibilities are the ones you give yourself.

For most people, I guess, such a period would be welcome. (We have a word for this, and it’s “vacation.”) But the lack of structure that comes with summer occasionally fills me with a low-grade panic. A simple thing like filling an unoccupied day has felt less like a reprieve and more like a skill I’ve had to learn.

I’ve always felt that, for the first 18 or so years of life, I was conditioned to experience time as something like a narrow tributary, with more or less universal events — school, graduation, college — marking its path. I float through it in a single direction, but my progress requires no effort on my part. Those long, end-of-summer days feel like portents of the time when those protective structures will finally give way, and it can feel as if that tributary has opened up into a vast ocean of time, with no banks in sight and no bearings to guide me. And I’ve realized that learning to swim, as it were, is something that takes work. I can only assume that this is what adulthood is like: It’s a version, in miniature, of learning to take responsibility for your own life.

I’ve only read one author who has articulated how the experience of time shifts and changes through stages of life, and it is Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose autobiographical series “My Struggle” ended up being one of my primary distractions during a summer that was my first spent largely “on my own,” and my last as a college student. I began the summer with the intended goal of finishing all six volumes in the series — which number 3,600 pages in total, released over the span of three years — and while I only checked the first two off my reading list (a respectable thousand pages on their own, I’d add), I found Knausgaard’s obsessive chronicle of his life to be a valuable handbook for my own.

In a passage early in the first book of “My Struggle,” Knausgaard, writing as a married man with three young children, reflects on how his perspective of time has changed since his youth: “While previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered,” he writes, “now it is interwoven with our life … in a totally different way.” Now, marked by the duties of adulthood and the daily chores of raising a family, life progresses through time not in a linear path, not, as it was in his youth, as a stretch of land to be conquered, but as a boat rising through levels of a lock, with “time seeping in from all sides.” Although the image at first seems bleak, those “locks” — the routines and responsibilities that enclose Knausgaard in the everyday — allow him to approach something like contentment.

The provocative title of Knausgaard’s series belies a deep sensitivity to life as it is lived — life at its most elemental and mundane — that any writer would find enviable. The “struggle” in question is not a grand one; rather, it is found in the micro struggles of daily existence, the struggle to be a “good” person. An entire series dedicated to the thoughts and recollections of a Norwegian author whose name is hardly well-known may not exactly seem like a project with broad appeal, but the core of Knausgaard’s experience is universal, making page-turners out of the most mundane of events. (It also helps that he is a very, very good writer.)

It’s relatively rare that popular art gets made from the trivialities of adulthood. (More often, culture gets produced as a means to escape it.) But Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” proves that this terrain, which can seem so uncertain and opaque from a distance, can be fertile ground for challenges, inspiration, even happiness.

There is a track on Bill Callahan’s “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” — another document of my summer — called “What Comes After Certainty?” Like Knausgaard, Callahan sings from the perspective of a recently-married man, mining the everyday for inspiration with an eye for minute detail; like Knausgaard, his concerns amid this setting are at once trivial and biblical. (“I try to be a good person,” he sings, “I wonder if it’s annoying / Or worth pursuing.”)

“What Comes After Certainty?” is about what comes after true love, what happens after you’ve found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. But the question could just as easily be applied to the “certainty” that gets left behind with the familiar benchmarks of youth. And Callahan and Knausgaard give good reminders that what comes after certainty may not be all that bad.

Will Atkinson is a Trinity senior and Recess managing editor.