“I was getting my doctorate in Anthropology,” my character says. “It was a small college, which turned gray sometime in early November and did not change color again until late April. My classes were fine, simple enough, occasionally challenging, and my professors were supportive. Undergraduates shuffled across the gray of the quad, though the neon colors that were in style in those years helped punctuate all that gray. They usually did their reading.” She sighs, then smiles. “But the monotony, the anticipation of change, the realization that change in a doctoral program is never significant–it exhausted me. I read, thought deeply sometimes, but also shallowly. I graded papers and also shuffled. I wore black often to appear serious, but perhaps to also match my surroundings. I thought about smoking sometimes, but my stipend couldn’t support any superfluous spending. The routine left me restless, and for days in December I did nothing but eat bread and go walking to search for some color between muted grays and stunning lime greens, something that was changing. I didn’t find it. So I stopped drinking coffee after five, signed the papers, and quit my program.” She smiles again and empties her lungs entirely.
I love life turned into fiction, a lifelong testament to my adoration (nothing short of it, I promise) of Thomas Wolfe and his bravado and ambiguous hunger for sex and food and life. But this is largely fiction, however many days there are where I wish for it all to be true. I’ve chalked it all up to “end of the semester blues,” when the exhaustion of the month of November settles into your body and mixes adversely with a decreasing stack of bedside books and a renewed interest in exercise. Now the mind returns to the state where it can again imagine what a life outside graduate school could be. My classes ended a week ago, and I am back in the Lab today wrapping up the last bits of projects, making good ending points into starting points for next semester. This past week, like my fictional character, I have been making bread and walking. Unlike her, I see color and change everywhere I walk–down Rosemary Street into old Chapel Hill, through Wilson Park, the woods transparent, all the leaves gone and wet along the banks of the creek, and through the finery of all of Carrboro, each side street, whether through the college student hovels or the ranch houses complete with chickens and enormous wilting elephant ears. I listen to my favorites–Andres Segovia, Patsy Cline, Smokey Robinson–and sometimes I read if it’s warm enough to remove gloves or take my hands out of my pockets. But sometimes I worry about presence and do neither to make sure I am really engaging my whole self in these walks. Other times I take pleasure in being able to multitask between listening to music, reading a book, getting some exercise, and seeing my home.
And even while I am doing all that, I am thinking about walking. Am I walking fast enough? Where am I heading? Would Maira Kalman like to walk down Franklin Street? What would Annie Dillard say about my multitasking? How did Brenda Ueland have the time to walk nine miles a day? Who is walking the Camino right now? Are they content? Is Cheryl Strayed really as good of a writer as everyone says? But most frequently it is: What if I kept going? What if I kept moving my feet, didn’t stop at the end of North Greensboro Street, but turned left and then right and went right on walking down 54W, or conversely, what if I walked all the way down South Greensboro and took it down Smith Level Road all the way to 15-501 and Pittsboro? But I always turn around and go home.
This week I drove through four Rebecca Solnit books, and fell in love with her disdain for the term ‘non-fiction’ and ability to combine the best of that enormous genre. Mixing memoir, history, travel writing, journalism, philosophy, and nature writing, Solnit has me in honeymoon-like thralls. I’ve felt it before with Annie Dillard, Maira Kalman, Brenda Ueland, and it’s exhilarating every time. They are women with whom I share more differences than similarities, and the elation comes from knowing which ideas I share and which I need to study. And of course, the marvelous and spry writing. But Solnit is harder, because despite differences (West Coast as best coast being the most glaring) I see so much of myself in her writing. I see a product of one state’s public schools through graduate school, then I see graduate school, the worries and the challenges, I see graduate school forsaken, or at least bygone, I see the desire to travel North and more generally north, and I see activism everywhere, action everywhere, not just at home, I see love of country music, the old stuff, the Long Black Veil, I see anger transformed into concise and powerful writing, and I see the desire to share the intimate, personal, and of course, I see the trust she places in walking and leaving her home in San Francisco.
In May 2010, when I could decide either to go to NYU, live a glamorous city life, and take on debt or go to UNC, live a mediocre life, and go to school for nearly free, the choice was between near or far. I had to choose near, and I came to love near, but I promised myself I would choose far the next time I could. In April of this year, I could choose between near or anywhere I wanted, and I again chose near. I walk all over near, I know near quite well. Near makes me feel safe and comfortable, so that I can walk in the dark and not worry about my safety. But still I worry, now about too much safety. Near was a safe choice, and this too I think about as I walk. I think I would like to walk the Camino eating dark chocolate, by the dunes against the shore of Lake Michigan, down a white road in Minnesota, by the pebbled Penobscot River, the warm streets of Austin, down to the coffee shop where we’re meeting our friend in Brooklyn, and around Point Reyes.
My winter break to-do list is long and all about the spring semester. Email Simpson. Make sure you go to Winston. Finish DH Press project. Read all bedside books before you buy anymore. It’s an easy list to finish, and many items are just reminders. Lists like it are on each page of the book in which I write out the next day’s schedule the night before. But what about my non-grad school to-do list? What would be on that? The answer is: I don’t have one anymore. New items for the to-do list:
- make a non-grad school to-do list
- walk far, stay near.