forward is the direction of real life

Recently I was on a hike with my family in Zion National Park in southern Utah, a trek called simply “Observation Point” for the stunning views of the canyon. The first thirty minutes of the hike consisted of tightly laid switchbacks streaked across the steep rock face of the canyon wall, a calf-burning beginning that left us all lunging for first dibs on the gatorade by the top.  When a trail starts in such a way it is easy to become quickly discouraged and lethargic. Feeling the burn a half-mile into an eight mile hike is never a good sign and often prompts thoughts of turning back, or at least bitter, unpleasant realizations of how far you have to go before reaching those stunning canyon views. “I can see the canyon from here,” my brother pointed out sardonically, leaning against the red sandstone.

Just around the corner after the switchbacks leveled off a bit, we were plunged into the heart of a narrow, mini-canyon with steep walls towering to dizzying heights overhead. Scattered along the canyon floor were pools of stagnant water, seemingly the remains of a dried up river that had once filled the space in which we now stood. “Wow,” I heard behind me, the whispered word expanding to fill the air around us. My once-cynical brother had changed his tune, and I felt the tightness in my calves begin to ease, the swelling of my lungs begin to slow.  It was not even eight in the morning and we were the only ones in the narrow canyon, the only sounds around us the light trickle of water over smooth stones and the breeze being tunneled through the tight space.  There was something almost alien about it, about the entire landscape before us, so exotic and unexpected.

We did eventually reach the midpoint of the hike from which we were supposed to observe, from which the stunning canyon views did indeed live up to our expectations. And while I’m sure I’ll remember the enormous openness of the air on the cliff and the dizzying drop to the canyon floor below, I’ll never be able to forget the way it felt when we turned the corner at the top of the switchbacks and gasped a little at what the guidebook hadn’t prepared us for, at what we had only been able to see after hiking one step at a time up the side of the canyon wall. To see the stunning canyon views, and also to see the hidden narrows, we had to keep climbing even when our muscles and our lungs pleaded with us to just turn around and go back.

The end of August has always signaled the end of summer (or the beginning of the end for those of us on the quarter system), the end of the warmth and the freedom and the late sunsets. Fall beckons in all its fuzziness, with its long sleeves and its nights spent curled up in the library and the way even the ground seems to feel different underfoot. We have been trained, we have been conditioned to start to want all these things at a certain point in the year, to start to move back toward classrooms and book bags and sweaters and coffee without ice.

But this year, with the exception of those of us going to graduate school,  we have outgrown it. We have gone past it, we have moved beyond it, we have left it behind us. But it still tugs at us. I still feel like in some alternate universe I should be flying back to Chicago, back to the same streets and the same people I spent the last four years with, but we have to realize that that will not and cannot be true. That is all behind us now, whether we still feel like we should be buying books and pencils or not.

Cheryl Strayed, a writer who I have mentioned before and who I admire beyond belief, recently did an interview with Orion magazine about her bestelling memoir Wild and in it she is asked about a point on the Pacific Crest Trail when she survived an encounter with a Texas longhorn bull  and was faced with the decision to either turn back and chalk the entire trip up to be a giant mistake, or to continue on down the trail. Strayed eventually chose to keep moving forward, a decision she details in the interview:

“That decision to move forward in the direction of my intentions is one I make every day in everything I am—writer, mother, human. Or at least I do when I’m doing my best. We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backwards sometimes. But moving forward is what we’re here for so I try to do it even when I’m afraid there might be a marauding bull waiting for me down the trail. Forward is the direction of real life.”

Forward is the direction of real life. As seductive as it may seem to lose ourselves in comforting, familiar daydreams of the past, to perhaps wish that we were going back to something we already had, backward is the direction of nostalgia, backward is the direction of memory. It is forward, then. Despite fear, despite uncertainty, despite difficulty– forward is the only direction we have.

Forward is the direction of real life, and forward is the direction in which we must move, no matter what lies on the trail ahead. Because if you stop on the side of the tough parts and refuse to move, if you turn around and walk back down the hill, you may never encounter a Texas longhorn bull, but you will never get to see the stunning canyon views, you will never find the unexpected narrows.

Love the past for what it was, but move forward, into whatever is next, into whatever awaits.

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If you have to go away, at least try to remember how we were tonight.

Chicago is a place I’ve left dozens of times. To go home the snowy woods for Christmas, to live in Chile for the summer, to Guatemala and Miami and Utah for much needed breaks during the school year. But each time I left, each time I took a cab down Dempster, that traffic-congested, strip-mall-lined corridor, I held a return ticket. Leaving wasn’t leaving, really, because there was always the coming back. Maine was home but Chicago became home-base, the place from which trips were launched, trips that lasted a few days or a couple of weeks or even several months, but that always brought me right back to that lakeside skyline.

As I opened up my confirmation email a couple of days ago my eyes caught on a line at the top, the two words that made this plane ticket, this trip so different than all of the others. One way. And that one way was forward. Onward, into something else, into the next step, into the future. Leaving this time was different because even if there was at some point a coming back, it wouldn’t be the same as all the other coming-backs, because I wouldn’t live here.

Suddenly walking around became a giant string of goodbyes. Goodbye Chicago skyline from Grant Park, goodbye Lake Street El stop, goodbye Norris, goodbye Kresge, goodbye spot on the lakefill I’d stop on my runs to stretch and look at the water, goodbye Allison Hall, goodbye Sheridan road, goodbye Pi Phi porch, goodbye Hamlin street, goodbye Simpson street, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Nostalgia, when it hits, crushes you like a thick, slow-moving fog.

The summer before freshman year of college I would spend my lunch breaks from shifts at the Gap Outlet in Freeport sitting on a ledge across from the Lobster Cooker, reading books in a desperate attempt to escape the mindless chatter and chain-smoking that my co-workers would indulge in in the break room. One of the books I read that summer was Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that seemed to inherently resist its readers understanding or finishing it, but that I chugged through on that stone ledge for lack of anything else to do. Garcia Marquez’s novels and short stories are perpetually saturated with that fog of nostalgia, a nostalgia that seems to exist almost in its own right, beyond merely being an emotion that the characters experience. At some point in the book, someone with the last name Buendía, who’s first name was probably José Arcadio just like fifteen other characters in the book who are all related to him (hence the its near incomprehensibility) sits at a dinner table and says to whoever he is with “If you have to go away, at least try to remember how we were tonight.”

With that simple line I was immediately imbued with the same nostalgia that hung heavy in the hearts of all of Garcia Marquez’s characters. Suddenly a place I had been itching to leave transformed before my eyes, suddenly everything I saw was something precious I was about to lose. By remembering exactly how we were, exactly how everything was, the nostalgia was thickened, was solidified until it became almost impossible to move.

The words came back to me, four years later, as I was getting to leave Northwestern, leave Chicago, and the nostalgia settled in more heavily than ever. Because when José Arcadio Buendía urges his dinner companions to remember how they were tonight, he isn’t just speaking about that night—he is speaking of all the nights they spent together, of which this one just happens to be the last. I wasn’t just going to remember how we were my last night, sprawled across the couches of my best friend’s living room, full from dinner and hesitant to move because I knew once we did it would be over, I was going to remember how we were every night that had elapsed between this one and the first one. How we were the night the night we slept on our sleeping bags on the lakefill after eight days in the woods, how we were the nights spent up late in the hallway talking because there was no one to tell us when to go to bed anymore, how we were the nights in library towers when instead of studying we’d drink too many Red Bulls and start sending each other cat videos, how we were the nights we had to bring each other cheese cake and hold each other as we cried, how we were how we were that night there were five inches of fresh snow on the ground and we flew down Western in a cab anyway, how we were the nights we’d jump in the lake when the air got too hot, how we were the nights we’d sprint to the shuttle stop to take the bus up north, how we were the nights we swayed to music underneath a great dark sky, how we were the nights that didn’t seem to have enough hours—how we were all the nights we were together. If I have to go away, I will at least try to remember that.

It is a beautiful and difficult thing, to care about something enough that you will miss it when it’s gone. It is a beautiful and difficult thing to walk away from one thing you love toward whatever next awaits you. And in that strange place, that dissonant union of beauty and difficulty lies the sweet sting of nostalgia. Of knowing that whatever you have must end in order for something else to begin.