Street Haunting”: Following Virginia Woolf on a Ramble through London, Part II

It’s the eve of a second knee surgery, this time to repair the left knee of torn medial and lateral menisci. I’ve also been diagnosed with a Baker’s cyst and level III arthritis in both knees. I return to Virginia Woolf and her thoughts on “Street Haunting.” I’m more worried about the weather–forecasts calling for snow showers and a wintry mix,  fifty miles or so to drive, and a 5 a.m. appointment–than I am the surgery. Ten years ago, when I walked into the surgeon’s waiting room in Little Rock to see about my right knee, I was greeted by a life-size portrait of Troy Aikman, the Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback, raring back to throw, and I knew that if Troy trusted his arm to this guy, my knee would be fine. When I talk to the professional dancers at my daughter’s studio and tell them my surgeon’s name, they all nod and say he’s good. I look forward to walking without pain, but I worry about how long before I’ll be back for another round on the right knee.

The Strand

With those thoughts in the background, I return to haunt the streets of London with Virginia Woolf. Walking out of the book shop, she comes to the Strand, a wide street lined with small palaces and huge mansions, running from Trafalgar Square to Temple Bar, a few blocks off the Thames River. As she momentarily wrestles with the thought of actually buying that pencil, the motive for her street haunting: “One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself.” She then turns toward the stationer’s shop but is halted by another thought: “The usual conflict comes about. Spread out behind the rod of duty we see the whole breadth of the river Thames–wide, mournful, peaceful. And we see it through the eyes of somebody who is leaning over the Embankment on a summer evening, without a care in the world. let us put off buying the pencil; let us go in search of this person–and soon it becomes apparent that this person is ourselves” (par. 15).

The Thames, one of the world’s great rivers, where I could easily spend hours leaning over the Embankment, watching a boat race, enjoying the lights paint the dark water, imagining the tide flowing into the heart of the country and then back to the sea again, the water always in flux, always rushing somewhere else. Woolf, comparing the winter river to the summer one she had just imagined, notes, “But the river is rougher and greyer than we remembered. The tide is running out to sea. It brings down with it a tug and two barges, whose load of straw is tightly bound down beneath tarpaulin covers. There is, too, close by us, a couple leaning over the balustrade with the curious lack of self-consciousness lovers have, as if the importance of the affair they are engaged on claims without question the indulgence of the human race” (par. 15).

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Finally she purchases her pencil and walks back out on the streets which “had become completely empty. Life had withdrawn to the top floor, and lamps were lit. The pavement was dry and hard; the road was of hammered silver.” Walking home, she thinks about the various encounters she has enjoyed that evening, and how she can imagine stories for all of them: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way,” she writes, “far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?” (Par. 17).

Outside, the temperature hovers around freezing, falling softly, and a light rain freezes to the tree branches and streets and sidewalks. My call for surgery is eight hours away, but there’s still the evening to enjoy with my family, the drive through sleet turning to snow, and trying to sleep a couple of hours, though I doubt it will come.

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