On Inchworms and Avoidance

The strongest feeling I feel regarding the ubiquity of inchworms is annoyance, but the second-strongest is wonder: at their incremental ways of moving, at their ability to canvass the canopy some-odd feet above our heads and some-odd feet below the tree branches. Their assertion of space jibes against mine: I deserve to walk home free from these small leech-like green bodies, to not-dip under their transparent web-threads dangling down from the trees.

And then the rain comes, and with the pollen they are gone—dead, perhaps, or otherwise invisible by the human eye. My body sighs in relief. I expand the radius of where I can comfortably maneuver myself. I don’t dodge the plunging stairwell that connects my downstairs office to the control center of Kenan, as I did yesterday when I saw a green worm floating in that negative space and chose to take the elevator instead.

As someone with a background in movement training, I’m partly fascinated by this choreography of avoidance and partly unnerved by it. It invokes a privileging of private, individual space—the same privileging I denounce when undergraduates cluster together with loud voices at Durham establishments, or extend their limbs farther than their limbs can reach on Duke buses.

It is the end of the semester and we are tired. It has been a long year. I found Duke senior (and Kenan student) Leena El-Sadek’s Chronicle column this week, “Counting down and looking back,” particularly apt. She uses the metaphor of a running a recent half-marathon to chart her own exhaustion and frustration with uneven (read: unequal) terrains:

“One month till the Duke finish line.

They fooled me. I waited for the final semester email, but it never came. Faculty and family begin cheering, and I realize I’m only a couple of weeks away from the finish line. I begin to pick up my pace, but certain powers step out in front of me. Some people step out in front of me. I realize that I know these people. The America I come from is not the America they come from. I ran the same race, I conquered every hill and I never stopped. On paper, though, it looks like they beat me. Life isn’t fair.”

And yet she keeps going, keeps running: “I want to conquer those hills. I want to finish those miles. And maybe just then, I’ll run and feel like a winner.” This work is duly enervating because it is necessary—the continuity, the keeping-on itself is necessary. And so, as the semester closes, we grasp more and more at the spaces, activities, and people that make us feel more comfortable—partly as a reaction to the exhaustion, be it physical, emotional, intellectual, political, cultural…you name it. I can’t speak for Leena’s exhaustion; she speaks it, and speaks it eloquently, herself. In terms of my own, I’m looking back at a post I wrote a year(-ish) ago, after Teju Cole’s visit to Duke. In that post I was looking back at a note I wrote for Recess at the end of my senior year as a Duke undergraduate. I feel now, as I did then, the anxiety of summing things up, of creating clean conclusions even, and especially, as the self has exhausted itself. I have recent Duke, local, and national events on my mind, and they hang heavy: the noose incident, the adhan debate, the murders in Chapel Hill, the lives of people of color lost to police violence. I think also about spaces where we have come together: in a lunch with Leslie Jamison, where a group of young women conversed with a writer about creative work and self-care; under the Chapel, where administrators and students tried to process and move forward: some by standing in solidarity, others by implicating Duke in the university’s own problems (Public Policy professor Fritz Mayer wrote an evocative piece about this gathering here).

I feel compelled to compose a conclusion where these uneven terrains coexist, as I think Leena does in her column. This impulse does not move to affirm immorality, inequality, or violence; rather, it acknowledges our culpability. “Dehumanization exists simply because a particular person or community has no place in the larger narrative,” Leena writes. “Inequality exists because we fail to recognize the long-standing effects of our socially constructed policies.” Our power to choreograph avoidance exists alongside our power to choreograph accountability. But choreography is one thing, and embodiment another.