THIS WRITER’S LIFE

Boy, have I been traveling. The frequent flyer miles are piling up like mad, somewhere out there in the stratosphere. For weeks now I’ve been flying, not in space but in time. I’ve been traveling back into my past, writing about my life so far.

Every morning, standing at the kitchen counter waiting for the water to boil, I stare vacantly at the butternut squashes leaning against each other, or at the dirty dishes piled high and precariously in the sink, or at the blue tea pot with tea bag strings hanging down the side. The scene is static, I’m stock-still. No-one could guess the whirring speed of movement going on inside my head. Like those flip cartoon books, I’m racing back through all the years that I’ve lived, it’s zooming by me in a blur. And then the flipping comes to a halt, and I find myself in the middle of a place or an event or a group of people from some moment somewhere in the past. Why did it stop at that particular place? I can’t answer that, but that’s what I’ll write about for that day.

During my months of wild travels in the mountains this summer I was completely outer-directed, a tiny sense organ bouncing through the vast wondrous landscape, absorbing everything I possibly could through every orifice, making my way across thousands of miles of Sierras, Tetons, Rockies and all the Great American West land in between. Now I sit at the table with my computer, day after day, every now and then pacing around the room, unaware that I’ve stood up, my mind far away. I’m once again a tiny sense organ bouncing through a wondrous vast landscape, but all the action is internal.

When I go out to take my daily walk it’s more to activate my brain than to exercise my body. I take the same route every time, so I rarely notice anything around me. I carry a small pad and pencil in my pocket, in case I have a thought or a sentence that I want to remember when I get back to the computer. At the end of a day I sometimes can’t remember whether or not I took a walk.

I’ve told the same stories about my growing up to my daughters and friends for so many years that I’m sick of them. They’ve congealed into granite, like gravestones over my buried past. The stories themselves have become my memories, etched in stone. What I’m trying to do now by writing it all down is topple those gravestones and clear the land that’s left, so that I can cultivate it, encourage new vibrant memories to grow. And it’s working! I’m remembering new things, and I’m seeing everything in a very different light. I’m no longer center stage in my story, and I’m no longer filled with hurt or anger or shame. I’m looking at each scene with the curiosity and objectivity of a journalist. Suddenly it’s all in bright technicolor, not in black and white.

For so long the story of my childhood has been about the strangeness and the extremes of it, the strange family I had and the extreme neglect I suffered. My parents and the few adults who played parts in my life as I grew up – alone on the farm with my aunt and all the retarded children she took care of – seemed almost like aliens, they seemed so different from me. But now I’m seeing that there’s a much bigger story here. It’s a story that I want badly to put into words, to describe accurately. Whether I can or not remains to be seen, but luckily it doesn’t really matter, at least as of today. It’s the process of writing it that fascinates me. My story gives me a fine hook to hang words onto, and I very much like working on the words.

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OUTSIDE THE BOX

A few days ago I woke up feeling like my former energetic cheerful self. God it felt good. I couldn’t wait to get up and start the day. I walked vigorously (smiling!) for twice as long as I’ve walked for weeks. I made blueberry pancakes, enough for four people, and ate them all. I wandered through the rooms of my house and they were suddenly bright and spacious again, transformed every bit as much as me. I sat out under the hackberry tree and read half a book with total concentration. When I went down to the post office I lingered to chat and laugh with people. It lasted the whole day, this glorious return of my real self.

With the blackness lifted, everything around me expanded. I felt light and bouncy, no longer oppressed by the weight of sadness. When I looked outside I could viscerally feel the contours of the land rolling down into the valley. I was once again awed by the ever-changing light in the crevices and canyons of the Galiuro Mountains. I could sense again the whole town of Oracle for miles all around me, houses sprinkled randomly over the hills, and my house was again a part of the community, not off alone by itself, isolated in its blackness.

The constriction of space is one of the more puzzling aspects of my strange sad state. I might as well have been in a tight-fitting box with the lid tightly closed. That state is about as radical a difference from my traveling experiences this summer as there could possibly be. For four months I soared up in the mountains, surrounded at all times by vast breathtakingly beautiful space. And because I traveled alone, I became all eyes and ears and feelers, taking in everything around me, just taking in, taking in. In my tight-fitting box I took in nothing.

While in that box I was unable to imagine myself up in the mountains. My mind closed up, black and numb, a tiny bitter wart in place of a brain. But on this good day when I was once more my old self, the imagining was so vivid that I could fly right up there to the mountains again.

Both of these extreme states would have been very different had I not been alone. Not better or worse, just different. If someone had been traveling with me I would not have been able to focus so completely on my surroundings. Some of my attention and thoughts would have been at all times on that other person. I would have been talking with them, reacting to their moods and mine, considering them when I decided what to do or cook or listen to at any given moment. I would have been more aware of my state of cleanliness and neatness, of myself in general. I would not have become, over the months of solo travel, as fully myself, not in reaction to a particular person, just myself.

Even though traveling alone is a luxury – total freedom, not having to answer to anybody, doing whatever I want whenever I want – it is also a challenge, fraught with difficulties. I’m responsible for everything, and on the trip this summer I had to take care of the many mechanical/electrical problems by myself. There were times I would have liked someone else to do some of the work around the campsite, make some of the decisions, just take over for a while, let me follow passively. There were evenings when I longed for the company of a close friend.

Here at home, things also would have been very different with someone else nearby. I would have been distracted from my misery. I would have felt compelled to behave more normally. I can remember times in the past when I would be crushed almost to the breaking point by circumstances – my marriage ending, a daughter’s distressing actions, a death – and I would still go to my office, become my professional self and do good work all day long. I can see that giving myself over full-time to my misery these past weeks has been, in a way, a great luxury. I let a long list of chores slide because I could. I kept telling myself I’d do them tomorrow. But unlike most luxuries, living through that state, feeling the misery all day long, never felt luxurious.

What made me wake up feeling like my cheerful self again? I can find nothing to account for it. Any more than I can find anything to account for all the weeks I spent in that black tight-fitting box. I’m looking at it as an inexplicably dark coda added by the quirky composer to the tone poem that was my trip. And I feel now, finally, at last, that I have arrived back home.