November is the darkest month, and Thanksgiving — and the Yale break — has come and gone. Many of us have traveled and returned, and with a few classes to go, reading period and finals await.
For a guy who hasn’t written a research paper in 40 years, the specter of what’s soon due and the term’s imminent end looms large. Anxiety, I’ve got lots of it.
Last night, the wind blew like in Patagonia; a place where a traveler is alleged to have said, “It is very beautiful and I hope never to return.” These intimations of the meteorological Roaring Forties produced a gloriously clear and cold morning to walk the dog and try to work it all out.
While walking, it occurred to me that the longer one misses something, the clearer the intrinsic value of that thing becomes: an absence often edifies.
What’s become apparent to me during these last few months of my re-matriculation is the very different kind of “muscles” it takes to contemplate and inquire as opposed to those needed to accomplish and do, to cross tasks off the list — as one does in a job.
Unlike most of my new college colleagues and friends, I’m afraid I don’t want the semester to end. I don’t know where my course of study will take me next term or in the terms to follow. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I heard the absurd but predictable question from friends and family asking, “What’s your major?” Toying with myself and with others, I answered everything from philosophy to political science, religion to forestry — the A-Z of the Blue Book, in effect. One thing is clear — I’ve so missed and I so love this intellectual meandering that I’m afraid I’ll meander off and disappear.
Which is why it helps to have a leash on your dog while walking it. Or, perhaps it’s the dog doing the walking while you’re holding on.
We went in search of a hill to climb. There’s a thing about hills I’ve always found attractive: they have a vista, a place from which one’s gaze may wander. One can never be certain whether you’re looking back from where you’ve come or forward to where you might yet go. The landscape, like a river, has its own continuum, as if flowing from the heights down to the lowland — the headwater out to the mouth, as it were.
The dog led the way barking after some birds, up then down that hill. “I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. O, the dog is me, and I am myself,” riddles Launce in “The Two Gentleman of Verona.” The answer? “Ask the dog: if he say ‘ay’, it will; if he say ‘no,’ it will; if he shake his tail, and say nothing, it will.”
I guess my dog went to Harvard.
The walk ended, and I returned home inspired by Crab and once again tucked into my required Shakespeare exegesis. Clearly, those term papers weren’t writing themselves and the dog — despite his erudition — wasn’t taking up the task too quickly, either. With much to be anxious about and so little time to have at it.
I set to work — humming.
I had heard the long-forgotten song on the radio while driving to our annual post-Thanksgiving family bowling tournament. A song that, coincidentally, was written the year I last left school, 1971. And having been unable to expunge its melody since, I had been torturing my wife and kids by humming it repeatedly. Finally, recalling its verse and bridge, I gave into its call and response:
“Well, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble/Ancient footprints are everywhere/You can almost think that you’re seeing double/On a cold, dark night on the Sanish Stairs.”
“Trains wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory/When I ran on a hilltop following a pack of wild geese/Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody/When I paint my masterpiece.”
No wonder I can’t stop singing or help remembering. The confluence of my anxiety, my dog and the song met me atop that hill and followed me back to my desk, reading and inquiry. Those Spanish Stairs in my mind accompanied me home and set me on my way.
Ancient footprints are everywhere indeed.
Michael Jacobs is an Eli Whitney student in Timothy Dwight College.