at the start of a long walk

i started writing a different post this afternoon, in part motivated by my umpteenth visit to moma this summer, in an effort to maximize my membership before i take temporary leave of the apple. that post contains musings on yesterday’s cleaning-packing-purging adventures, with a twist of recipe-rambunctiousness. that post will come, but this evening’s ruminations have turned my gaze in an unexpected direction — one that is both reflective, toward memory and also poised toward unfamiliar, or rather less-than-appealing terrain — brought on by almost simultaneous happenings around the world in which young people are at the center.

two instance in particular weigh heavily on my mind, both in cities that hold special meaning for me: the first is a series of attacks by young people on apparent strangers in philadelphia — here and here and here; and the second is the protracted and fiery set of events following the shooting of mark duggan by police in london, discussed thoughtfully and almost methodically here. i hesitate to reproduce these links here for fear that doing so may be read as another act of violence, or worse may affirm ill-conceived beliefs about young people and cities. this angst i feel is a mixture of responsibility (as a citizen and educator) and disappointment (at those who inflict such harm, but also at those who amplify rather than alleviate the conditions surrounding such situations). i was going to write here that these goings-on — no, to call them anything short of devastating incidents is being untruthful, because the truth of the matter is that these incidents, laced now with intractable labels of violence and destruction, make me angry. not only at the structural realities that so often become the focus of the aftermath of such moments, but at the opportunists who go on to make a name and stake a rhetorical claim before the ashes have settled. (another potential digression here involves frustrating musings about what may be called promiscuous ethnography wherein the book is written before the ink on the field notes has even dried; but i’ll refrain. for now.)

w.g. sebald opens the rings of saturn with this passage:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. An in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

while i don’t dare to draw a comparison between myself and this true wordsmith and linguistic activist of sorts, i do share the sentiment he offers above wherein having come off of “a long stint of work” — and i’m going to feel justified in giving these past six years (seven including my postdoc) of dangling precariously from the metaphorical pre-tenure string such a moniker — the sense of freedom is shockingly short-lived.  sure, there are days free of meetings and an excuse not to reply to messages that arrive in my institutional mailbox quite as frequently as i might have were i not at the ready with my sabbatical auto-reply… but with the tenure metronome no longer clanging loudly in my mind’s ears, i have no choice but to really listen to stories that i might have otherwise categorized under ‘back burner.’ namely, the tropes of violence that are hitting me in the face every time i click onto a news site, look at my twitter feed, or check even my personal email account. i should note that while i do work with young people in my ‘day job’ capacity and it is with their stories that i rest my research trajectories, i have long kept these tropes at arm’s length opting instead to illuminate other narratives, the lesser heard tales. the answer doesn’t seem to be a purging of one to take on the other completely, but rather an openness where there has largely been resistance. (keep in mind that these are ill-formed, rapidly evolving, nuggets of ideas. i reserve the right to recant completely and wholeheartedly!)

so, like sebald in his august of 1992, i embark in this august of 2011 with a more open ear and although i am likely to feel the weight of such discursive directions, i almost feel as if i have no choice. wouldn’t be wrong to intentionally ignore the stories that slap you in the face? this walk, i reckon, will be another long one.

as a side note, i wonder whether sebald was indeed referring to sirius, the “brightest star in the night sky” with his use of the colloquialism “Dog Star” — even as i write these words i instantly reminded that not only is nothing in sebald’s oeuvre an ‘accident’ (or hardly anything, is perhaps more accurate), but the celestial reference is especially delightful to me as it evokes one of my favorite characters from the harry potter series, sirius black.

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