We all need to escape real life occasionally. I sort of succeeded.
In Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” the main character – a 50-something writer named Gustav – longs to escape his routine. He decides to go on holiday, as the introduction reads, “in hope of reviving his fading enthusiasm for life.”
His mortality is on his mind, as he ruminates – again, from the introduction by Michael Cunningham – on “the extravagant carelessness of a god who gives us life and then, by degrees, takes it back again.” (Now would be a good time to tell you I was successfully treated for cancer in early 2017, so mortality has been on my mind, too.)
“It was … [a] yearning for freedom, release, oblivion – an urge to flee his work, the humdrum routine of a rigid, cold, passionate duty.”
Gustav wanted oblivion. I just needed a break from the heat.
Not being able to afford a month of idleness, I rented a VRBO garage apartment in the Asheville area and worked from there during August.
I wanted a different rhythm to my days. I wanted my schedule to be dictated, in part, by the weather. A rainy day would be a good day to hunker down and work. A sunny, breezy afternoon should be reason enough to hang out the proverbial “Gone Fishin’” sign.
Like Gustav, I “needed a change of scene, a bit of spontaneity, an idle existence, a foreign atmosphere … to make the summer bearable and productive.”
I pretend to forget that “Death in Venice” doesn’t end well. (Consider the title.) I return to its first chapters nearly every time I feel the urge to escape.
Escaping to Asheville
Asheville is one of my favorite spots on earth. Each time I visit, there’s never enough time to do everything I want to do. Or eat everything I want to eat.
Being the sort who likes a plan for everything, I always have dinner reservations lined up and theater and concert tickets purchased weeks in advance. I’m on a schedule and on a mission.
This time, my mission was: Chill.
I remember reading somewhere that one can’t pretend to know a city unless one has wasted time there. I wanted to lose track of time – if not while climbing a mountain (I don’t care for hiking), then at least in a local coffee shop. Or even better, a doughnut shop.
I wanted to try restaurants I had never visited. Cucina 24 on Wall St. was so sublime, I grieved for the times I’d passed it by without stopping in. I wanted to finally make it to the famed Buxton Hall Barbecue. (I did.) I also wanted to have enough idle time that I could stumble on a place I knew nothing about and wander in. Farm to Fender Café was not on my radar. But what a find!
I wanted to go on walks (like one in Asheville’s historic Riverside Cemetery) and read and color and keep a journal.
But the work kept coming.
Most freelancers I know are prone to say a quick “yes” to nearly anything. Me, too. I found myself working more during my mountain retreat than I did back home. This was not according to plan. Something had to change.
What changed was my attitude. One day during my so-called sojourn, a poem I’d shared on Facebook in 2013 popped up as a memory. Incredibly, the dual themes were mortality and work. Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Frankly” begins:
No one has time for the dying.
And they don’t have time for us either.
Our lunch dates and appointments …
Students circling in a parking lot
down the road certainly don’t have time …
Nye writes of the humdrum routines we, like Gustav, want to flee:
Moms in fitness garb
with grocery lists and car pool numbers
stuck to refrigerators,
have too many of the living to pick up, drop off.
You know this old adage? “No one on his deathbed ever wishes he had spent more time at the office.” Her surprise ending turns that on its head:
Frank said, “If I could only get back
to my desk, back to work,”
and closed his eyes. Last line.
What a surprise to learn
the greatest pleasure of life was
all that daily labor.
Maybe it wasn’t time away from work I needed. It was a change of scenery and renewed gratitude for work I love. My month in Asheville had its own surprise ending. I’m grateful.
Photos: Page Leggett