The Woods

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I took my first night-walk last week--no flashlight and no company. I would not exaggerate my courage. The moon was a fertility god, stout against the black blanket of sky. In many places I could not so much see the road, as an almost shadow of the road--a strip more blueish than black. But when I looked up, I could see the tops of trees swaying in the night-wind, marking the borders. And so I walked most strange--learning the earth, by sighting the sky.

You must know by now that I am not completely alone out here, and by thus, more reason is furnished for the avoidance of any compliments to my fortitude. I am, in the main, surrounded by outcasts--blacks, Jews, gays, Tennesseans, Japanese, Chinese, Eastern Indians and Aztec Mexicanos--all united in the singular sense of never quite feeling at home. Yesterday, I walked for awhile with an outlaw poet and after ticking through the details of my lonesome night-walk, the strangeness of hearing so much and seeing nothing, she said, "You are afraid of a lot of things, aren't you?" And all I could do was nod my head.


I spend most of the day writing, and when I first arrived I was convinced that I needed to glue myself to the laptop for ten-hours and pound until my hands ached. I was so very afraid of coming home with nothing. But I've been humbled, and slowly I am learning how to not be in control because, so very often, you aren't. I don't think of word count, outlines, or plot points. I just sit there in my cabin in the woods, and I wait for the voices. And if they say, "Sleep," then I sleep. And if they say "Run" I do a few miles. And when they "Story," I sit at the lap-top, until I tire them out with questions.

Writers are big on instructing their pupils on time and schedule--four hours a day, at a set time seems to be the general rule. But what I know, and what's been confirmed to me here, is I've never been able to make myself do much of anything. It really doesn't feel up to me and I am afraid, because I don't know what's coming or when it will arrive.

There's a main road I like to run on and cars come past every five or ten minutes, and I am certain that some day soon, one of the drivers will be seized by the urge to swerve off and make a hood ornament of the only black dude within ten square miles. I fear this place because I don't know it, because there are no crowds on the corners, because there are no corners. Here, even at high noon, I walk the night.

But I am also so very lucky. I am not responsible for my meals. I don't have to do any dishes. I sit with my fellow aliens at breakfast, disappear from them for the day, and then reconvene in a great hall over dinner. Afterwards, there are drinks. I have acquired a new favorite--Hendrick's gin with tonic. There's a dance party once a week, and I am sure that my life was completed a few days ago when the DJ played "12:51," "Sleepyhead" and "Kids." It's true. I am simple man, brought to heel by simple things.

Bonds are formed with great velocity. Lives collide and then someone you've met only days ago is opening up on how to survive child molestation or drug addiction or a tsunami. I have heard that people fall in love out here, that perfect relationships back home are sundered by the great loneliness of these Woods and old lives are left by the way. I do not believe it. I question the spine of love born in a place where other people wash your dishes.

And so my thoughts turn back home, back to my high-smiling son, back to all his questions, back to my beautiful black woman, back to her hair wrapped in Senegalese fabric, her lips painted the color of plums. And I hope to bring some of the Woods back to them, some of this growing comfort with the champion of fear and his great sword of night. 

I have changed out here. But at all events, the heaving city calls me back.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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