Sometimes I am a fox, and sometimes I am a hedgehog.
When I am a fox, I am restlessly curious. I nose about in the woods, finding one thing and another: mushrooms, moss, tree stumps. I want to smell everything. I want to feel the wind in my fur, so I climb to the high hilltop. I wander for miles every day. I watch the sunrise and sunset. I walk through streams, get my paws wet. Chase mice and rabbits through the grass. Jump back when I see a snake wriggle over the rocks. I am always surprised, exploring, discovering.
When I am a hedgehog, I do none of those things. I curl in on myself, tuck my nose into my belly. My outside is spiked, impenetrable — or at least I hope so, because there are so many animals out there who might like an Erinaceous snack. There are thunder and lightning out there. Rain, snow, wind. When I am a hedgehog, I retreat into the house of myself. I don’t want anyone’s dreams but my own. The world is too big, and all I want is a small corner to sleep in, under last year’s fallen oak leaves.
In the last few years, I’ve been more fox than hedgehog. While I was researching my books, I went to the Freud museum in Vienna, to St. Michael’s Mount off the coast of Cornwall. On the island of Great Blasket, off the coast of Ireland, I looked down at the Atlantic. In Barcelona I walked along La Rambla until I saw the Mediterranean. I sat in cafés in Budapest. In all these places, I felt like a fox slipping through the forest, sniffing and observing, as unobstrusive as possible. You would not have noticed me, but I was noticing everything.
But lately, I’ve been a hedgehog. It started especially in March, when we were all called home to shelter in place, to tuck ourselves into our homes and not come out for a while — to hibernate. I was working all that time, teaching online, so I was not really hibernating, but it felt like a long sleep. If I had not been teaching, I would have lost track of the days, the hours. It was difficult, intense work, yet it had a stillness to it — conducted from the fixed point of my chair, my desk. My motion was motionless enough to fit within a camera frame. I chased my students by sending emails.
And now that the semester is over, I am still a hedgehog, because the world feels twice as difficult as it did before. It’s no longer possible to slip through it like a fox, or like water, or wind. Now I have to walk carefully. The sidewalk becomes a ballet of avoidance. The grocery store becomes a calculated risk. No one is unnoticed anymore–we are all possible disease vectors. Sometimes the news, and other people, feel overwhelming. My university is already planning for the fall, and who knows what that will look like?
So to keep myself sane, I clean the house, and plant a garden, and listen to the birds, which seem so much louder this summer. I try to avoid reading the news seven times a day — I try cutting it down to six, then five. Maybe I’ll get to four soon. If I can make it to three, maybe I’ll stop dreaming of airports that turn into academic conferences. Maybe I’ll sink into a deep sleep, rather than the strange half-sleep of hibernation. Maybe I’ll remember what day it is.
I have always had this hedgehog side, since I was a child — I was more of a hedgehog then, shy, timid, curled in on myself because the world was too large and didn’t understand. I’m not sure the world has understood much since. It seems the same old world, driven by the same fears and impulses. When I am a fox I slip through it, observing. When I am a hedgehog, I curl in on myself and ignore it, dreaming my own dreams.
That is what I am doing now.
(The image is by Milo Winter, for an edition of Aesop’s Fables.)