sabbatical


Karl T Steel came through town for a day, bringing news of his medievalist research, his sabbatical in Paris, his plans for a return to NYC.

It remains a marvel that we are friends at all let alone that we have known each other through so many jagged transitions. We’ve never approved of each other, we’ve always been at odds – generally taking turns between some pretence of grown-up pieties and flights of punker-than-thou rants. We mock, we excoriate, we are hilarious. Though nobody else gets the joke.

We’re from the same place, or near enough, and there are very few people who started in that place and ended up where we did. And where is that, you might ask? Anywhere, everywhere, wherever: we do whatever the fuck we like, no excuses accepted and no criticisms allowed.

I’m not talking about our educations, jobs, income, marital status, the stamps in our passports. Instead I’m talking about an elusive and fundamental freedom that is never granted and can only be seized. Radical departures require risk. To truly leave home, walk away from everything and everyone you have ever known or loved, is rare – because it costs too much. Most people avoid the pain unless it is thrust upon them. Very few people choose what I chose, what KTS chose.

KTS understands better than almost anyone why I work hard, and then work harder again. My relentless drive is about remembering and forgetting, escape and imagination. Right now I’m at the start of a new adventure that will overwhelm and displace all other thoughts – and I like it. KTS looks dismayed when I tell him about my plans, but he gets it, and laughs.

When we were seventeen I forced KTS to join the Sea Scouts in service of a complex scheme to acquire a warehouse on the docks. My plans included a youth centre, a condom distribution program, a sort of safe clubhouse for all the weird kids in the three-county region. It was a bonus that I pulled it off under the auspices of a scouting organisation – I thought the whole thing quite amusing. In the process, KTS was dispatched to give talks to Rotarians about youth leadership, in which he made wild and totally false claims that won over the crowds and secured our funding.

He doesn’t remember that, because he has always been way too cool to have such a geeky thing on his resume. Nor does he remember sitting next to my bed in the ICU, listening to me talk around a dislocated jaw as the heart monitor beat out the refrain broken. His imperfect memory is typical (my cousin, another creature of invention, does not remember our childhood – at all). But if he remembered, if any of us truly remembered, would we have been able to leave?

One thing I learned from the Sea Scouts is that you can join the organisation without taking the pledge, and remain a Scout without ever touching water. I also learned that while it is easier to drift than it is to row, it is better by far to set sail with compass in hand.

 


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