Thursday, February 9, 2012

Almost Finished

A few years ago, Chris and I hiked from the northern bridge onto Assateague Island to the parking lot near the southern bridge. I should explain, since I’m not sure you’re familiar enough with the island to be able to picture what we did. I know you’ve never been there.

Assateague is a 37 mile-long sand bar with trees and such growing on top. It’s mostly half a mile to two miles wide. My inclination is to tell you exactly which trees and such grow there, but that might make you yawn…ok, how’s this; the northern end is very low and sandy, and sixty or seventy pairs of piping plovers nest there every year. The rangers put little cages over the nests, with mesh big enough that the plovers can walk in and out at will, but foxes and falcons can’t get in. That these cages are called “plover exclosures” absolutely delighted my brother-in-law, his love of language and logic and whimsy all tickled by the vaguely jargonesque rhyme. Farther south, there are large trees in which bald eagles sometimes nest. In those woods in the fall is a banding station for migrating saw whet owls. While banding saw whets there years ago, I heard great horned owl couples calling to each other sometimes.

Does that help?

Anyway, the state line between Maryland and Virginia runs through the island, and is marked by a large horse-proof fence made of what look like old telephone poles, because the horses on either side are managed differently. There is a bridge near the north end, and another near the south end, but since neither bridge is actually at the tip of the island, a true end-to-end hike would involve hiking over tend miles twice. The hike we actually made still took us two days—there are several back-country tent sites on the island, and we stayed at one near the state line. You can’t build trails as such in sand, so hikers walk on the beach.

Got it?

So walking on the beach in this way is very hard. The sand eats up your momentum and chews on your skin, you have to carry all your own water, there is no shade, no change of scenery, and if you stop for more than a few minutes out of the wind you get eaten alive by mosquitoes and flies. Hiking is one of those activities that requires a certain jolly masochism to enjoy.

We tried to ease our feet a bit by walking below the high tide line where the sand was more compacted, but as the day wore on the tide came in until we could either wade through the surf or founder in the soft sand. There was no help for the monotony at all; always the sea on one side, the dunes on the other, the hot sun above, mile after mile, like we were making no progress, just getting progressively more worn out on some giant, albeit beautiful, treadmill. The campsite we were going for was just within sight of the state line fence, so we kept looking for the fence and thinking we saw it, only to realize we were looking at another row of sea gulls. Gulls by the sea, excuse me.

Being a veteran hiker, I was familiar with how the mind starts to warp gently on this sort of vacation (hallucinating the campsite is pretty much par for the course), and at one point I told Chris that I was starting to think we’d never get there, even though I knew that was silly. Of course we’d get there. But as I told Chris, I knew that before we got to the tent site I would reach a point where I actually believed we’d never get there. At yes, it came to pass that I no longer seriously believed we’d ever make camp; it felt like we’d been walking forever, and would continue walking forever, just stumbling mindlessly forward out of some dumb momentum. A few minutes later, we found and made camp.

Last night I reached that point in writing my thesis, and found myself staring at a blank screen unable to put any more words on it because I no longer believed I would ever finish. I know that despair is not necessarily a bad sign; it often happens before success, as it did that day on the beach. But while it’s possible to stumble down a trail or along a beach in emotional aimlessness, it’s not possible to write a thesis that way. On a trail, a beach, or whatever other linear landmark, the direction of forward progress is predetermined. You don’t have to think, you just have to go forward. When writing, “forward” is invented as you go. You stare at the blank page and push out the path before you, feeling your way one word at a time. If you don’t care where you’re going, there is no way to know where to go. The path is inside you, or there is no path, no way forward, at all.

I emailed my thesis adviser. I did not ask for comfort. I did not ask for encouragement. I wanted to seem adult and professional. I asked only for help finding my direction again, which he provided in a dry, professional email only a few words in length. It was comforting. It was encouraging. It worked.

Nearly everyone I know who has worked with an adviser has such a story of crisis. One woman I particularly remember used the phrase “talking me down from the edge.” How do you know how to handle the emergencies and break-downs of grad students? Do they take you aside sometime, put you through some secret seminary? When someone all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed who you hardly even know asks you to walk with them into academic purgatory and out the other side, without knowing that’s what they’re asking, how do you say yes?

So I’m through this particular crisis. I’ve got my feet back on the ground again, and I can feel the direction I’m supposed to be moving in. Good. But I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’ve got to get my thesis finished before I am.


  1. Your mom and I, early on in our relationship, walked those very sands (well I guess all the actual grains are different) at the surf’s edge under unforgiving sun, heading south, hiking toward making camp. The flies and mosquitoes that fed on our blood used that blood to feed their descendants that have since fed on you. Family traditions. An especially violent thunderstorm struck that night, and we feared for our lives before lightning and water. A happenstance pick-up truck stopped for us, mercifully delivering us, and our hastily demolished and hopelessly gritty and disorganized camping stuff, back to our car. Thank them, whoever they were. We camped in the Catskills after that.

    Years later, having moved down to Delaware to live with mom in her 2nd year of graduate work in geology, I held her in my arms as she literally cried in despair in the face of crystallography. Those planes of symmetry had cut her to shreds. Euclid is cruel, crueler even than a polished thin-section of stone. She lay in mirror-image halves pieces. Well, she passed the course, wrote her thesis, and got her degree. The path where there is no path is where and how you got there. And you will.

  2. Neat!
    And I believe the family resemblance in our writing styles is visible, between my post and your comment, so double-neat!

    Planes of symmetry; reminds me a bit of an email I sent to Chris when I was taking ERD, which involves statistics, and I could not figure out bar graphs. Hour upon hour. I didn't cry, but I think I wrote "waa!" in my email. Chris, in his reply, addressed me as "my crying bar graph."

    Thanks for the perspective.