Monday, January 29, 2018

Gathering inspiration over a long winter break

The first three weeks of December were like being inside a tunnel. I did little else but study for exams. The process was the same for each one: digging into old notes, finishing an outline of the entire class, writing flashcards, talking about the cases and rules with my friends. I repeated this process four times, once for each exam. Each one came with its own little ramp-up of stress. If there’s a maximum number of legal rules a brain can hold, I bumped up against that ceiling. It felt like the longest month of my entire life, and by the time I took my last test – my Property mid-term – I was completely exhausted, and sick with a sinus infection to boot.

The tests themselves, by the way, were kind of fun. Answering an essay question is like fixing a bicycle or baking a cake – if you know which tools to use, and how each cog or ingredient fits with the others, there’s a thrill in running through the routine. My exams weren’t all easy (my grades bore that out) but they really weren’t miserable, either.

And then, three weeks after entering into the tunnel, I drove out into the sunlight. The day after finals were over, I felt like the whole world was laid out in front of me. For a couple of days, I spent my time reading novels and driving around the city to eat lunch at places I’d never tried.

The rest of the summer unfolded similarly. My girlfriend and I flew to North Carolina, then Colorado to see our families. After that, we drove from Colorado to Los Angeles. Along the way, we stopped in little towns, ate risky food, and even poked through one weird roadside attraction featuring a menagerie of papier-mâché dinosaurs and, somewhat disturbingly, a nearly-neglected ostrich petting zoo. At Petrified Forest National Park, we were stunned by the expanse of the desert – a place where apparently there was once, millions of years ago, a forest as dense as you might find in rural Pennsylvania. The desert seemed to roll on forever; a mile from the freeway, the world as we knew it was absent, and possibilities seemed infinite.

I had that feeling again the weekend before school started, when I drove down to Baja California with a couple of friends. We drove to a village just off the highway near Rosarito, where fisherman cooked their catch on the beach for visitors like us. Looking out at the slate-grey ocean, 20 miles from chaotic Tijuana, I felt calm and centered.

I did one other thing over break that made me anxious to get back to school. I’ve been reading Bearing the Cross by David Garrow, a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC, the civil rights organization King once led. It’s not always the most exciting book – it’s mostly about the intense amount of work that went into organizing and strategizing the civil rights movement. But it’s inspiring. In 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, desegregation in the South seemed like an unattainable dream to all but a few. Over the course of the following years, a combination of grueling logistical work, political maneuvering, and deft messaging made it a reality. And so I’m coming into this school year centered, inspired, and motivated to pick up even more tools – to bump up that ceiling just a little higher.

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