I would turn my life into a work of art, sacrificing myself to such exquisite paradoxes that every breath I took would teach me how to savor my own doom…I would do nothing to thwart the inevitable, but neither would I rush to meet it. If life could continue for the time being as it always had, so much the better. I would be patient, I would hold fast. It was simply that I knew what was in store for me, and whether it happened to tomorrow, it would nevertheless happen. -from Paul Auster’s Moon Palace
A few weeks ago, I was housesitting for a friend of mine. This was in the midst of trying to get a lot of work done, including working on application essays, studying for the GRE’s, sending out abstracts for academic conferences, and even setting up this blog. I didn’t think this would be a problem since I’ve always worked better in solitude. (or, that’s what I told myself) After settling in, I stumbled across a local bookstore and looked for something new to read. I saw a copy of Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. I’ve always been a fan of his, and have been meaning to pick up more of his work. My favorite part was that it was a special cover- its art design looked like Sailor Jerry-style tattoos. It spoke to me. I started reading it, and almost instantly, I was the character- lost, but not accidentally, searching for meaning in a fragmented reality, looking up at stars, wondering which one I’ll land on. I was Marco Stanley Fogg, traveling the American landscape and trying to make sense of it at the same time.
Earlier this year, I thought a lot about my friends and colleagues who uprooted themselves to pursue a PhD across all directions of the country. That experience romanticized, it’s almost logical for someone like me to fit into a program- someone who thrives for silence, more comfortable in the company of old books and libraries than any social event. I’m a single male with no children- if I chose to, I could leave to some remote part of the country taking only a satchel and parka and be fine (a privilege I don’t take lightly) . Two summers ago, I completed an internship at the University of Washington and did just that- I studied all day, every day, for two months. I proved to myself that I could accomplish this, and that PhD work is right for me. It was so logical, it felt like one puzzle piece joining its counterpart.
Later in Moon Palace, after Fogg (he goes by this instead of his first name) declares his independence, he ends up homeless, finding benches and walkways to sleep under in Central Park. Central Park was a great place for an isolationist, until one day, after about two months of shelter-free living, he was caught in a monstrous rainstorm. Starving, alone, and physically inept at this point, surviving was not the only problem. “Just as I was about to ask myself why, it started to drizzle. If my throat hadn’t been hurting so much, I probably would have laughed. Then, very abruptly and violently, I began to throw up. Bits of vegetable soup and sandwich came bursting out of my mouth, splattering on ground before me. I gripped my knees and stared down at the grass, waiting for the spasm to end. This is human loneliness, I said to myself. This is what it means to have no one”.
After reading this passage, I knew I had to be honest with myself. Those two months in Seattle helped me immensely with my studies, but it wasn’t all fun. There were times were I felt so alone, alien to my surroundings. Even while I was working, there were spurts of dread, where my thoughts screamed with worry yet the space around me was quieter than silent. Thanks to growing up working class, I knew this chance was rare, and being anything less than grateful was an unpardonable sin. But I was also never so separated from friends and family. This is when you ask the big questions- do I really want this? Is this my future? Am I okay with leaving everything to pursue an obscure accomplishment that, at this point, makes sense only to me? It was the kind of loneliness that makes you go deaf.
Then I remembered the text messages, the phone calls, and the positive messages sent by loved ones before leaving. I remembered that I wasn’t alone.
I have friends who are working on their degrees who did just that- packed everything up and left, doing what I thought was exactly what I wanted. When you reach that point and are actually working, it is more complex than being alone vs. not being alone. Your job is to study, but you don’t need to immerse yourself in insolation. The best solution to this- keep the bonds you have with others, and cherish new ones. It’s not an easy process, but it doesn’t have to be harder than it actually is, and knowing this now is exactly what I need to know if I wish to continue pursuing this goal.
I had jumped off the edge, and then, at that very moment, something reached out and caught me in midair. That something is what I define as love. It is the one thing that can stop a man from falling, the one thing powerful enough to negate the laws of gravity.