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Interview: Becoming a Forest-Dweller


Dr. Doniger

Ancient Hindu texts divide life into three basic stages. In the first, you study; in the second, you marry and become a householder; and in the third, you go and live in the forest. Dr. Wendy Doniger is pleased to be a forest-dweller: "Forest-dwelling is where I am now in my life, and, yes, I am satisfied – or, more precisely, grateful – to be there."

Dr. Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She is the author of many books including the recent The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was. The "On Faith" panelist for the Washington Post also teaches in the university’s department of South Asian languages and civilizations.

AHB reached Dr. Doniger at the University of Chicago.

Ruth Dempsey: You live in the bustling city of Chicago, yet you describe yourself as a forest-dweller. How so?

Wendy Doniger: Good question. I live almost half the year in Truro, on Cape Cod, in a house set apart, where there is genuine solace and you can see the stars at night. But even in Chicago there is the moon, sunrises and sunsets, if you look out for them. I live quite near the lake, and every morning at sunrise I walk my young golden retriever in a piece of woods that was set apart in 1893. And there are beavers there, and wild birds and the occasional coyote.   

But really forest-dwelling is a state of mind, a pulling back from crowds and success and the business of life to a slower pace, with more time to savour nature, even the precious bits of nature that you find in a city.

RD: Is there a connection between retirement and the forest-dwelling stage of life?

WD: There can be, but there needn’t be. Obviously you have more time to savor nature when you are not working 9 to 5, but you can snatch moments of a different pace even when you’re working full time. I squeeze most of my teaching into two of the four quarters of the academic year, and actually work harder then than ever, but in the remaining quarters I have leisure to write and to think.

RD: What are the essential characteristics of a forest-dweller?

WD: I think it is the feeling that you have run your race, that you continue to do many of the things you have always done. But you don’t worry about how they will come out; you just do them for the pleasure of doing them.

RD: Even in the later year, there is an emphasis on what scholars call the "busy ethic." Why does solitude garner so little respect?

WD: The Italians have a lovely expression: "dolce fa niente" – it’s sweet to do nothing.  Americans do not think it is sweet to do nothing; everything has to be a product. When you retire, you have to take up painting, or golf or charity work. And even in painting or golf, you are supposed to improve, to take classes, to show your work, to improve your golf score.  

To be a forest-dweller, you have to stop caring what other people think of you, and just do what you have always wanted to do and do it badly, if you like.

RD: What do you dislike about aging? Are there things you like?

WD: I dislike the way my body keeps producing new problems just as soon as I think I have solved some of the old ones. I dislike the way I have trouble standing in lines, or keeping my balance when I bend over to pick things up, or walking on ice. I dislike the way I have trouble remembering names and numbers. I dislike the way my friends keep dying.

But I really like the sense of having done so much of what I wanted to do, of hearing from people who have read my books, of watching my son grow up into such a fine human being, of seeing my students grow into fine teachers with students of their own. I like seeing the whole of my long past laid out like a grand landscape viewed from a great height.   

RD: To whom do you look to for inspiration?

WD: I don’t look to my parents. My father died when he was only 61, and, though my mother lived to 81, she had a much more difficult life than I have had, and she basically gave up on everything after my father died.   

But I have other, wonderful role models. My dear friend Penelope Betjeman remained vigorous right to the end; she died on horseback up in the Himalayas at the age of 76 in 1986. And my dear friend David Grene, who went on teaching at the University of Chicago until just a few years before his death at the age of 89. Both of them kept doing
what they loved until the very end of their lives. I gave up riding horses back in 1996, when I had both of my knees replaced, but I have not given up dogs, and never will. And I intend to go on teaching and writing as long as I can.  

But now, as a forest-dweller, I do these things in a different way, with no pressure to achieve anything by them, just doing them because I enjoy them so much.