It’s perfect weather, cool and overcast, as I set out. It’s the kind of weather that reminds me of Ireland, the time when my mindset most closely mirrored the atmosphere. There’s a chill that calls for a light coat, and I know I won’t take it off halfway through the walk because we’re losing the sun, we’re into the magic hour, and it will only get colder.
I have my water bottle, and I decide it should weight down my left pocket tonight. If I hadn’t filled it up and brought it along, I know I’d spend the entire walk dreaming of a cool drink. And now that I have it with me, I know I won’t touch it once. I pass the sycamore tree on my street, rising behind one of the houses. It’s paler than usual for its species, and even at my advanced age it seems to possess a supernatural aura. It reminds me of the Weirwood, right down to the scattering of red and orange leaves hanging off otherwise bare branches, and I wonder if George RR Martin had a sycamore in mind when he wrote.
I’ve brought music, and I want something autumnal and sparse to match the day. I’ve been meaning to listen to Courtney Barrett’s new album, and I think maybe it will fit the bill. But only moments after pushing play, I know it’s all wrong—too defiant, too fast. For some reason I don’t shut it off immediately, though, and after a few steps I hear these lyrics:
Don’t jump little boy, don’t jump off that roof
You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you’re still in your youth
I’d give anything to have skin like you
He said “I think you’re projecting the way that you’re feeling
I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly
I come up here for perception and clarity
I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity
And that gets me, and I think maybe it’ll be perfect. The best kind of art is the kind that takes you by surprise, that underwhelms you at first and hooks you against your will. The music stays, and I’m heading up Broad Street, where the man at Bull City Music is fiddling on his porch again. I think he gives himself excuses to work outside on nice days, because he’s here every time I walk by. I don’t blame him.
A car pulls out of a driveway just as I’m walking past, and it makes an awkward little moment. He’s thinking, why does there have to be a pedestrian at the exact moment when I’m pulling out, and I’m thinking, what does a car have to break my stride and my thoughts, what are the odds? We’re both so unlucky. I pause, he pauses, and I give a little wave and jog out of his way. It occurs to me after that when I make this motion, I’m seeing something in my head, or someone, that isn’t me. I’m seeing someone who looks casual and thoughtful, with just enough concern for the driver to acknowledge him, to hustle a little, to get out of the way, to show an understanding of the unenviable situation. But in reality the person I picture is not myself, it’s not how I must look or how I move. He’s more graceful and composed, he communicates his intentions exactly, he handles the situation with perfect poise, and me? I’m a mass of moving parts, of inexact signals, and who knows what the man thinks…this all passes in an instant, but it’s odd to me, thinking about it now, that I see myself from outside the body, and more, that I see myself inaccurately.
I hop over the little stone wall on East Campus. I’m going to do the loop, and it doesn’t matter which way I go, it all ends in the same place. I had a conversation with a friend some months ago, and he tried to convince me that because of how we’re composed, the molecules and chemicals and synapses in our brains, in conjunction with our environment and the structure of our bodies, each situation has only one possible action, one possible decision, that we can execute. In other words, there is no free will. My triumphs and failures were all pre-written, and though I don’t know how the story unfolds, there are not multiple options. Not for me, not for any living thing, not for the world or the universe. I found this idea disturbing because it can really rob you of pride, so at times like these, staring down two paths, I try to prove my friend wrong by choosing the opposite of what my brain wants. I stand there for a moment, analyzing my instincts, and then I head south because everything is telling me to go east. And the minute I take my first step south, I immediately feel like I’ve inadvertently succumbed to destiny again.
On the loop, I see the massive live oaks and magnolias, the stone and brick buildings, the joggers, the rusted Norfolk Southern cargo train across Main Street (like a child, I can watch a train for hours, and I’m glad the sound carriers over my music, because it’s the best sound in the world), the stone wall, the houses. What I don’t see, and what I don’t feel, are the classrooms where I studied 14 years ago, and the tennis courts and athletic fields where I played intramurals, the dining hall where I ate every day, and theater building where I rehearsed, and the little white dorm where I slept and worked and had sex and had my heart broken and broke other hearts and spent long hours playing cards and sneaking beer. These are all there—they’re the same places. But I feel like a different person in a different place, a stranger on this path, and it’s not just that the memory is foggy or buried, but that it’s almost not there at all. I have to force myself to conjure something, or else these are buildings I’ve never stepped foot in in my life. I don’t remember how it feels unless I close my eyes and pursue it. I’m like my mom and dad—we’re not nostalgic, things slip away and the past disappears, and we can’t look back. So I spend a moment remembering the hallways, and I can almost smell the one infamous room we didn’t like to visit, or the intense little moments in the stair wells, but nothing about this exercise affects me—I can’t summon a vibe.
I don’t relate to the students I see jogging past me, either, but maybe I never did. Although now I find that many of my friends are ages 20-26, so maybe I’m longing for those days secretly. I don’t feel older than they are, but there are differences. The other day I was having a conversation with a friend about some rednecks who staged a counter-protest near a confederate statue on a different campus, responding to some kids who wanted it pulled down. She described them for me, big and tattooed and bearded and waving rebel flags.
“But they had counselors there,” she said, “in case anyone felt distressed.”
My instinct was to scoff at this—counselors because you saw a few racists with flags and some backward views? On a safe college campus, with cops looking on? As a student, we would have felt insulted at the implication that we were so frail. And I don’t stop to consider that she might not be on the same page—this is not a delicate, hyper-sensitive person—so I assume we’ll be scoffing together, and I’m about ready to laugh when she says, “so that was good.”
Right. This makes sense to her, the counselors, and I’m showing my age. Like an old man who still says ‘negroes,’ I’m out of touch. I’m insensitive. That’s the new climate, the one that I missed when I graduated 10 years ago. I can’t get into this conversation, because I wouldn’t even know how to speak the language. I just nod along and change the subject. Later, a truck drives by with a rebel flag flying from the back, and I say, “there are your friends,” and she looks disturbed.
That number should astound me—a decade!—but it only makes me laugh. It doesn’t mean anything, except that I’m going to die, and I’ve known that for a while.
There’s a huge magnolia tree by my old dorm with leaves that come all the way to the trunk making a big wide canopy, and I get the sense there could be a small city inside the leaves. It reminds me of an old movie I once saw about kids climbing in trees. I think Elijah Wood was in it, and I think at one point he climbed a tower. But it was so long ago, the specifics have faded. (I just looked now, it was called The War, and it came out when I was 11 years old.)
In the moments between songs, I can hear the pounding footfall of the joggers as they roar past. There’s graffiti on the overpass on Campus Drive, organized dorm graffiti, but the graffiti on the box cars of the passing train is all anarchy, made by a different kind of person. On the north side of campus, as I’m looping back, the album starts to repeat, and I turn it off and listen to the wind and the passing cars.
Now, for a while, the thoughts come unbidden. Children are more acutely aware that life is temporary, which is why they’re such creatures of habit and get upset if a favorite blanket goes missing, or a beard gets shaved. They’re newer to this world, and they understand better than we do how raw and tenuous our lives are. They feel it can be ripped from them at any point and so they obsessively seek routine, and when that routine is broken it brings the panic rushing back. Then I imagine I’m interviewing Father John Misty, and it gets contentious, and we yell at each other for making assumptions about how the other is thinking. I imagine asking him if he was ever jealous of Robin Pecknold, and that most people want to hide jealousy, and he says that I’ve created a false binary where he can only be jealous or pretending not to be jealous, but not not jealous, and I correct him and say I’m only viewing life through how I believe I would experience it, and am open to any answer, and that that he is reacting against my assumptions by making assumptions of his own. I stop chasing this line of thought.
There’s a pleasant ache in my feet. The walk is four miles long, and now I’m sweating a little, and the sweat feels cold against my forehead. My heart feels good. All my hypochondria feelings go away, and I’m in a rhythm, a force of nature, moving inexorably ahead, active and live.
At the corner of Broad and Markham, there’s a Dollar Store, one of the few blights on the socioeconomic landscape, a reminder that all is not well even in our quaint bubble. The people here stagger. Back down Broad, and for the first time I’m taking inventory of all the medical practices here, the off-brand private practices that include chiropractors and masseuses and acupuncture and even a florist for your mental health and a funeral parlor for when you want to be displayed and buried. I want to call it “Snake Oil Row,” but maybe these places help a lot of people, and maybe that’s my problem, I’m too glib, too cynical, I should be more sincere. Maybe I should get into politics and try to do some good. These are lazy days for me, with the freedom of no looming project, and the anxiety of being unmoored.
It’s dark when I turn on Club and cut through the parking lot of the fancy Math & Science high school. There’s a bush across from the door with a white flower that smells better than any flower I’ve smelled before. I always stop to sniff it once on my way home. The other day there were kids sitting on some nearby picnic tables, so it was a bit embarrassing. But it was instructive to know that I didn’t care, which is one privilege of growing old. This there’s nobody, just a few silhouettes in the windows of the school, so I clear my nostrils in grotesque ways and lean in. There are only two flowers left, and they’re both nearly withered, but it still gives off the same perfume, a peach aroma. Maybe this will be the last time before winter. I don’t know the name of this bush, and I make a mental note to find out. I might have to call up someone at the school and say, who does your landscaping?