The act of returning is a conundrum I’ve been turning over in my mind with an unhealthy frequency of late. Realizing “return” often starts with those moments of inspiration, glossing over sumptuous syllabi, brimming with those works that you swore you’d read way back when. In this light-headed moment, we lean upon our imaginations and conjure up fanciful images of the savvier, better-read versions of ourselves these courses will surely make us. This dream ends promptly in the single phrase “please collect your first paper assignments at the end of class.” There you have it. Over. No more lounging through Sophocles in the sun, forget Proust in the park or Kafka with coffee—you have returned.
My summer bubble soundly popped, and I wished there were pamphlets for those about to return to the real world. Made from stroke-able velvet or fake feline fur, there would be comfort in its touch. Before reading, you would bring it ticklingly to your face, chest, or whatever bodily region felt particularly aggrieved by the approaching real world. Depending on your nose’s inclination, it would smell of Cornish lavender, Lithuanian limes, or the oiliest of petrol stations. Available in a wide range of pastel colors, in pre-assignment anxiety you might reach for a melancholic magenta or perhaps a confused cream.
At this stage, perhaps you are wondering who these returners are? What exactly is meant by the expression “the real world”? Perhaps you are curious as to how the hell it was escaped in the first place? To put it bluntly, the first question is irrelevant—we are all journey-people at one stage or another. The second question is far too contentious to even consider tackling. What is meant by the phrase “the real world” is more a topic for a cluster of inebriated freshmen to bicker over naïvely on a Friday night. But the third, the art of escapology, is certainly one worth pondering.
We all know this compulsion to escape, a desire to remove ourselves from a manufactured world wherein the floor is concrete and everything in between has a plastic complexion. When we think objectively about our behavior—a mad combination of button-pressing that fills our hands, heads, and time. We place random items in cyber-shot shopping carts, all too often erroneously. We mindlessly discover everything currently sucking in the world with a single downward movement of a finger. But we can restore our faith in humanity nanoseconds later by scrolling through infinite cat memes. Aside from launching our smartphones into the nearest river, casting our perennially recalibrating shoes to the wind, and skipping our way to some far-flung commune in nothing but a loincloth, how can we escape?
My escape involves a bulky aluminum canoe, a dubious quantity of granola bars, and the prospect of an extended period of time in a good, old-fashioned paddling country. As rustic and inconvenient as this might seem, it is one of the seldom occasions when I can truly enter into the proverbial cliché of living in the moment. Technology becomes an obsolete idea. I arrive in the wilderness with a group of friends, and it is with them I will be. In the course of the days we spend together we will be one another’s motors, mirrors, fire builders, anecdotes, sous-chefs… the list goes on. We move with the weather, wake with the light, and fall asleep when the embers are low and our bodies tell us to.
In the real world the arrival of a downpour moves an afternoon’s entertainment indoors, if we were even planning on going outdoors in the first place. At worst, we open an umbrella and mope sploshingly toward the nearest coffee shop. Our experience of weather is an option we almost always turn down. But in canoe country you live hand in hand with the temperance of the skies. You come to notice the small but perfectly obvious details: the types of trees, morning dew, changing winds, conspicuous droppings, sudden cloud coverage.
In my world of escape, the elements are genuinely interesting and full of meaning. Deciphering what time it will get dark is the difference between eating dinner enjoying a sunset or doing so in the dark. Quickly deducing the severity of an approaching storm is the difference between a cup of tea under a rain tarp and being soaked to your underwear feeling foolish. Nature, too, has language. It may not manifest itself with flashing neon signs or fold itself neatly into a text message, but it does speak.
Perhaps I have strayed slightly from where we started or where it was we were seemingly headed, but I suppose in a way that is the point of this piece, to prove that in escaping one gets quite wonderfully lost. How fucking meta.
There comes a moment at the tail end of a voyage when, after a morning’s paddle, you scout the first signs of civilization. Minute hallmarks of the real appear distantly, the suggestion of a lakeside house, a remote power line lingering just above the tree line, the far off white of a put-in dock. In such sightings is the realization that the fantasy you have been living for the past days is over. In these moments of returning I have often wished for my pamphlet. My very own snuggle-insisting, cashmere, reeking-of-freshly-baked-bread pamphlet. I pick it up slowly, and it reads “congratulations, you escaped,” before somewhat mournfully adding, “Butler awaits your arrival most eagerly.”
Richard Whiddington is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian languages and cultures. Whiddy Banter runs alternate Thursdays.
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