It's the earliest I've been ready for bed in weeks. I have a flight to catch at 9:49 a.m.; one last professional duty, though one of particular magnitude, stands between me and the end of my year. This time tomorrow, I will be fast asleep in a hotel room in Philadelphia. I will have reunited with some friends. I will still be trying to find others. I will have spent some time worrying about what might happen on Thursday and Friday. I will be wondering whether those still making their ways to the city are safe and happy and well.
You may recall my dispatches from last year's Academic Mayhem. This year will be a bit different, both because I have been doing these writings for so much longer and because my professional obligations are longer in duration and greater in importance than they were last year--but also because the city in which the A.M. happens this year is a particularly congenial one for the event. You may get an entire post devoted only to the Reading Terminal Market, so close to the Mayhem's hotels that in 2004 I spent hours there, going back every moment I could. This year, I imagine snatching pictures of fleshy fruits and shelves of oil, of olives and cheeses, of braided breads and wide-eyed fish. I worry that the pictures will not turn out. I curse the Mayhem for the way it turns me against myself almost every time. They're digital pictures: they are still my practice round: everything need not be perfection: things are in fact often much better when they're marked by my imperfect, roiling humanity. And today it has been on the roil, in a deep down quiet way. It may have begun with the fact that I slept for something like fourteen hours last night. I have not slept quite this way since my return from England after my year abroad, ten years ago, when I went to bed at 10 or 11 p.m. and awoke at 2 p.m. the next day. Today, my body overrode every suggestion to the contrary, and I stayed well asleep until well into the afternoon. It may have to do with my inability to choose a book for the trip. I circle the stacks and boxes I've carried with me this far, and everything turns its face to the wall, remains mute, reminds me that I do not know where my mind wants to be right now.
But it also has to do with the fact that all day today, I heard the trains passing west of here, going north and south and north and south. They have me thinking of what it is to leave home again and again. They have me thinking of what it is to have one's life unrooted, unsettled. They have me refraining, as I have refrained in response to so many things this autumn, how a train in the distance sings the low song of longing. Everything these days seems to sing me a low song of longing.
Two years ago, I was sure that the Philadelphia A.M. would run me right into an old somebody, with whom I'd had a tempestuous half-year that had been long over by that winter but that was still working its slow, sad way out of my system. This year, I don't anticipate anything at the level of quite that much drama. But I find myself girding up anyway, and doing it with landscape. When I heard the first train pass, midway through the afternoon, I thought of landscapes that have calmed and settled me, even in my roving refusal to settle just yet, my skittering difficulties with calming.
I thought of the cold flats of northern Indiana Octobers, when Amtrak would inevitably strand the Lake Shore Limited east of South Bend late in the morning on our way to Chicago. I thought of the stubbled fields ranging out from my home in Ohio. I thought of the wide stretches of golds and greys above which I will drive to Indianapolis early tomorrow morning, and the finger-traced accordion pleats of hills over which I'll fly as we pass over Pennsylvania. What pulls me to, again and again, are the barenesses of wintered fields, their palettes of golds and blues and browns. Who can say what this might mean. Perhaps it's nothing more complicated than that I am a midwesterner, through and through, strange though that still sounds, even to me.
But I long, again I find myself longing, for extravagance, such outlandishness. A field of sunflowers in the south of France. Any clear, impossible sea we could find. Any rocky promontory. Any space, wide or narrow, capacious and simple enough to render the elemental finally visible, palpable. Any stony shore. Any cornfield. Any city block. Any hillock. Any hollow. Any copse.