Features, Column

Franny, Zooey, and the Young Columnist on The Pilgrim’s Way

Monday morning, I woke up with a smile on my face and pep in my step. Life—what a glorious treat. What great task would I undertake today? Perhaps I would pen another bestseller or charter a plane to Uncle Alighieri’s Italian villa. Ah, but that doesn’t matter. My life is fulfilled as it is. I am surrounded by love and beauty and fulfillment. Just look around and behold…

What the hell is this crap?

Why does everything smell like body odor and cream cheese?

“Archer, you little punk ass, did you leave possum fur in the skillet again?”

The yelling from downstairs reminded me of my current state as a little punk ass.

I rolled out of bed, tripped over my dresser, and fell into a pile of sweaty laundry and sadness.

I see now—the happiness was a dream. Rats.

That was not the best way to start a morning. Brush my teeth? Too much effort. Deodorant? Who has the time? My mind was full of Camus quotes and fingerless gloves.

Oh great, another dose of teenage angst. Actually, I’m 21, so I can’t call it teenage angst anymore. God, that makes me even more angsty. The world doesn’t have time for this. I knew that I had to do something to work around this angsty angst.

So I did what I always do when I’m feeling like a self-obsessed teenager with overblown emotions and a massive ego: read my man J.D. Salinger.

That morning, I cracked open Salinger’s Franny and Zooey while enjoying a morning repast at Lower. After looking up “repast” in a dictionary, I started reading. I sped through the first story in the book whilst sipping a black coffee and occasionally squinting meaningfully into the distance.

“Literature,” I whispered. “Meaningfulness. Freedom. Concupiscence. Shrimp.”

“Hell’s wrong with that kid?” someone said.

“Leave him alone,” a kindly fellow responded. “Gets ornery if you talk to him.”

I barked once, and the range and viscosity of my saliva scared the onlookers away. I returned my attention to Salinger’s book and was quickly caught up by the main theme of Franny’s story.

Franny—a 20-year old girl attending a liberal arts college—reads a book called The Pilgrim’s Way in which a Russian peasant becomes obsessed with a Bible verse commanding that Christians pray unceasingly. He then discovers an ancient prayer, the Christian form being “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The teaching says that if you repeat this constantly in your head, no matter what you are doing, it will eventually sink into you, merge with your heartbeat, and you will be enlightened.

I’d read about this idea before in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (because I read extensively to fill the gaping hole in my black heart), but it hadn’t hit me until I read it again. I considered the possibility of elevating yourself to a higher purpose through something as mundane as repetition—the idea that you could engrain a spiritual purpose into your every living moment.

Then I spilled coffee down the front of my shirt, screamed “Goshdarn it” like the pure-minded Midwesterner I am, and squirmed like a worm while the scalding caffeine juice burned my skin.

Once that was over, I turned back to the lofty spiritual crap.

Of course I don’t want to bring religion into this, because Gandalf forbid I make my readers uncomfortable, so instead I’ll stick to the usual talk of bloody loogies, inexplicable despair, and crotch sweat.

When the crotch is sweaty, the loogies bloody, and the despair inexplicable, there has to be something to get you through the day. Every once in awhile, if you’re like me, you’ll wake up and fall into a pit of awfulness, and that’s the time to remember something more important than the normal day full of dandruff and awkward interactions. I imagine Franny permanently etching the prayer into her heart, so that even when she’s cleaning a toilet or filing down her toenails, she knows that she has a larger aim.

Her prayer, and the idea of enlightenment it carries with it, is one example of a larger aim. Something that informs every decision of your life. For some people, it’s something dumb like love or success. For others it’s fulfillment, health, or religion. For me, it’s cheese. Lose sight of a final aim, and you’re just doing crap to be doing crap. May as well paint yourself orange and run around campus singing “Runaround Sue.” It amounts to the same thing.

So on that aimless morning, when I woke up happy and then realized that life’s a joke, I decided to reorient myself to the larger aim. Focusing on the distant made the close tolerable. Going to class wasn’t just going to be a pain—it would be one small step in a meaningful journey upward.

After briefly vomiting in disgust at my own high-minded foolishness, I focused on something more important.

Did it really work? Did it help me become a better person? Is it a piece of useful and relatable advice that perfectly caps a tidy Archer-column. I could tell you, but then the ending of this column wouldn’t be ambiguous and pretentious just how I like it. Instead, I’ll say this:

I stood up from the table, shut Franny and Zooey, and left the dining hall. As I walked across campus, I grimaced and prepared myself for another day in a long string of days. I looked up at the sky and saw bright blue with a cluster of cumulus clouds in equal rings looping around themselves. Then I kept walking.

Did the clouds represent something? Did the grimacing represent something? Equal rings? Is that an important image that signifies a literary reference?

Nah. Just another morning trying to decipher The Pilgrim’s Way.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

September 24, 2017