Pilgrimages and Holy Sites

My wheels of steel, Saxon, has finally found his purpose.

There was a bit of reluctance on my part to drive on the motorway. Going at higher speeds is kinda risky, driving for several hours at a time becomes a feat of concentration and endurance. British motorways are organised: fastest cars keep in the centre lane, with slower traffic on the outside. You overtake by passing on the inner lanes only. In contrast, American motorways are freeways: free-for-all-ways. Drivers zigzag and weave in all directions, there is no strong correlation between your speed and which lane you feel entitled to. The whole thing looks rather intimidating. I have no smartphone or fancy GPS systems to guide me: if I got lost, I’d rapidly get really lost.

Yet unless I braved the motorways, even through ownership of Saxon I would still be trapped. The “safe” roads led me to nothing but suburban mall wastelands. Risks would need to be taken.

It would be a waste of my time driving to New York: tolls on the roads, bridges, tunnels, everywhere. The real pressing need I had was to drive South. By regional rail it would take me 90 minutes – up to 2.5h if I needed to access a suburb – to get to Philadelphia. In a car that time was shaved to an hour, and less if I only needed to reach a suburb.

I’ve now driven twice to Philly and back. To my surprise, the motorway part isn’t a big deal: people do drive like lunatics, but I guess that I’m a lunatic (New Jersian) driver myself now. I can certainly anticipate and react to their crazy slaloms across 4 lanes of heavy traffic. Navigation to Philly is really easy: follow Route 1, then switch to 95-South when it becomes available. Barely 30 min later and you can see the Philly skyline. My strategy for getting back is still evolving: twice I’ve pre-emptively exited  the freeway into the suburban idyll around New Brunswick, and stressed a bit in the hope I was on the correct road to get back to familiar territory. Next time I should have it figured.

It may seem over-sensitive for me to call my newly unlocked travelling ability as “empowering”…but it really does feel that way. Before, Philly was a hassle to get to – a long boring train ride away – and I would go months and months without visiting. Now, I can get there in barely an hour, have a full enough day there (long enough to see people, wander around, maybe waste time in a coffeeshop), then get back to New Brunswick with a late afternoon/early evening to spare. The nostalgia hasn’t felt as painful these last two visits: I may still be able to maintain a meaningful connection with the city after all.

***

The time, I invested a little time in a trip to the Swan Memorial Fountain. It was a glorious day – no-jacket weather – and I needed to walk off my lunch. Where else should I go?

The Swann Memorial Fountain

The Swann Memorial Fountain

Since 2010 I’ve visited this city at least once every year. Only the yearly trips when I flew in from other countries, other lives, I would always go back to this spot – to sit with my feet in a fountain and contemplate. There have been stresses and uncertainties, but those leave me at the fountain.

I’ve been struggling for my current research project for almost a year. It has worked, then failed when I thought it would work. It has progressed slowly – any slower and you could label it a dead end. If this project works, if it works in an efficient and reliable manner, then it could lead to some good publications for me. As yet I’ve not hit the benchmark that would prove such a thing, although I’m not far off. Running up dead ends, wasting time on countless side projects, spin-offs and new ideas is emotionally and physically draining. There is nothing else in my life besides grad school: my self-esteem and moods have become pegged onto my research, fluctuating with it on a daily basis. I can run from hope to despair in less than 24 hours. For the most part I am confident, but I’ve had a bad couple of weeks with disappointing experiments to process and bounce back from.

Right now a side project has given me cause for hope. I have a handful of results that are good and I’ve established are reliable. Yet I know that any experiment (and I have to run the important ‘killer’ experiments as soon as possible) has the power to crash my project and invalidate my good results. As yet, no failsafe benchmark has been reached.

Going to the Swann Memorial fountain helps me. Maybe the waters are holy. In any case, I was able to soothe the darker emotions and refocus myself. What needs to be done, what I mustn’t lose sight of. Calmed and empowered, I head for home.

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