The hour is late, although I suspect a few more will pass before I can surrender to sweet slumber — and even that will feel like too little, as the alarm is set to twinkle well before what seems like a humane wake up time. L and I were talking this weekend about the ever alluring “else” — that is, what else we’d be doing if not this. The “else” game is intoxicating and one that cannot be kept at bay when the hours that spill out in front of you are unfettered for days on end. But now, the “else” game feels like a punishment. Still, we played. There were other “wheres” that came with ease, but as for “what”… despite a year-plus spent pondering this very question, I came up empty. Initially. I realize that within mere hours of returning to campus, I had been transported back into the rhythms of others — ones that were tuned to manic frequencies, with every beat seemingly consequential, each transition or hiccup leading only closer to an impenetrable wall of agitation.
Tonight, on the eve of the new school year, I settle once again into the realization that is strangely comforting: this is exactly what I would be doing. Almost. I would eliminate all of the administrative duties, the negotiating of adult petulance (for which I have little patience and even less sympathy), and abolish most of the meetings that are currently mandated, if not by force then certainly by social pressure.
But the bulk of this gig I would want to continue — some of the teaching and especially the research that affords time spent with young people which yields stories about which I do want to continue composing artifacts and narratives.
But if I had my druthers I would do less and limit the extent to which I had to manage projects and be instead steeped in the doing — doing the work rather than talking about the work (which can also be the work, itself… sometimes). (However, with great power… or so the saying goes…)
My delusions are not of grandeur but rather of increased simplicity.
Perhaps in a society that swallows whole ideas like the four-hour work week and obsesses over talent as a commodity more desirable than consistency or effort, doing less and simplicity are counterintuitive. Doing less is swiftly translated into decreased revenue and fewer luxuries, not only for the self but also for those to whom and for whom you may be responsible or answerable.
Immediately my mind drifts to the documentary series “Alone in the Wilderness” that chronicles the experiences of Dick Proenneke while he is living in the Alaskan outdoors. Over the course of countless pledge drives on PBS (the public broadcasting service in the US), I have watched the entire series at least a few times, and each time I catch a glimpse, I stop — mid-sentence, mid-phone call, while drying dishes — and listen to his tales of not merely surviving, but living off of the land. Proenneke films and narrates while also living the experiences about which he is crafting stories. This video excerpt below, that comes from the second video in the series, documents Proenneke’s return to the cabin he had built a year earlier. Simply put, he takes his leave of the civilization with which he was familiar to pursue nature’s beckoning calls. For extended periods of time. Away from the everyday. To something else.
Proenneke also sets out on a new life after the age of 50, like Duncan E. Slade’s turn to art education. (I’m making a mental note to pay extra attention when my 50th birthday rolls around for whatever life changes come my way.) His narration is unhurried, keeping in harmony with his patient practice of living in the wilderness.
So I’ll seek out unhurried but purposeful ways to be responsive as new students share their anxieties or as colleagues threaten to spiral deep into their own frustrations. I suspect a visit or two to Dick’s cabin couldn’t hurt, either.
Happy new year!