As seems to be happening increasingly often, I was awake between the hours of 4 and 5am this past Saturday night/Sunday morning. I was sleeping on a bed with a slightly-too-small-fitted-sheet in a cabin in the middle of the woods. My bunkmate, a pal from high school, was snoring loudly beside me, and even though I knew that wasn’t the reason I was awake, I persisted in periodically shaking the bed in the hopes that I could startle her into stopping (I couldn’t, God bless her). I was burrowed in deep under 3 heavy blankets, tossing and turning in measured waves so as not to provoke the demise of the slightly-too-small sheet, and thus expose the surface of the mattress and its accompanying unknown past. One foot out from under the covers. Too cold. Back in.
I began having an imaginary conversation with Al Pacino to pass the time. A mentor of mine worked with him on a production of Julius Caesar in the 80’s. He recently told me a story about a conversation they had, and an overactive imagination makes me feel like I had it, too. Also, I watched The Godfather the previous weekend, and, quite frankly, I wish I could talk to him about it. Maybe some day I will. For now, this will do.
Fortunately, a transcription of our conversation survived the night.
On August 16th, 2016, I started a Google Doc called “If I were to write a book.” I added to it a few times between August and December of that year, and then left it to languish in my google drive until now, a little over a year later. Here, a call and response between me then and me now. A transcription of my very own words, reimagined, rediscovered, grief and truth anew in my reading them at twenty-four instead of writing them at twenty-three. These years have been so WIDE. So wild and wide and fascinating and endless and terrible and wonderful, and I am entirely different than I was in college and just after but so utterly informed by what was planted in me then. Just now sprouting, roots having gone very deep. Original text normal, new text in red italics. Call me crazy, but this secret forgotten google doc may be one of the most true things I’ve ever worked out for myself. I think I was saving it for later, thinking it wasn’t time to share it yet, but I’m not sure what that even means. No time but now, especially given how much things have changed in between (but also how much they haven’t). 75% of me still right in the middle of these words, and the other 25% is confidently sewing on her gorgeous Juki in the woods, sure of one thing but one thing only.
Things written on different days separated by little dotted lines. My own heart, separated by little dotted lines, all of the versions of myself, all the women I am and have been, each fear and thought spinning still. I am on fire. You can get through the ice. Those are the flags I must wave, and do. That is all I know.
I’ve tried to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard a nice handful of times but none of the times ever stuck. I’d start and then reach for something else, wanting to find another Annie – the Annie of Holy the Firm or An American Childhood. I knew I should read Pilgrim, but I could tell that the time wasn’t right. Not yet. I was living in the city, feeling a million things, not seeing about me any sort of wilderness anywhere except for the wilderness of sidewalk and stranger, the wilderness of locked doors and storefronts full of things to buy that I did not have money for.
I saved it for later. For when I would need it more. For when I would, inevitably come face to face with real wilderness. For right this minute.
I live in the woods now, which I’ve told you before, of course. I’m telling you again, and I’m telling myself again, and again, and again. Every day, now, I wake up and look out the window and remember that I live here, amongst the pines and beeches, on the edge of a lake, with much moss and deer and sapling. I live in a collection of buildings surrounded by thick forest.
Around the time we decided to move here, I also started yearning for the woods. This is an unprecedented feeling for me. I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, perfectly happy to remain indoors most of the time. Aside from well-organized short hikes and 15-minute-spurts sitting serenely on fallen logs, I have never much felt a pull toward wandering the wilds. I’m sort of ashamed to say it, but I wouldn’t say that nature is a primary inspiration of mine. Frustratingly so. Creation’s splendor is all around, and I’m perfectly happy to read a book on a couch, to find splendors therein, to look at the trees through a window. It makes me feel thick, obtuse, that I’m not thrilled by all that is around me, every rock and tree. Only occasionally, particularly. Not all-together. Still, the yearning came, somehow, thin but real, met with perfect timing. We moved to the woods. I live now in a forest of unimaginable wonders, and I’m beginning, maybe, to see them. Or at least to want to see them.
Now is my time to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. If you haven’t read it, this is what you need to know: it’s a book by Annie Dillard in which she reflects on her experiences in nature while living near some creeks and some mountains in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Annie Dillard is an exquisite non-fiction writer who I like to think of as both a mentor and a dear friend, though she is actually neither to me. You should know that I think about her often, whether I’m in the middle of reading one of her works or not. I have not read everything she’s written, but the things of hers I have read I go back to again and again and again. I’m working my way through. I want more than most things to be something, anything, like her.
In a pleasing turn of events, I found a magic volume called The Annie Dillard Reader secondhand at Myopic Bookstore in Wicker Park. It is magic because it holds almost all of her writings all in one place, which makes it easy to carry around and refer to many things at once. I brought it with me to our new home in the woods, of course. It is here that I’ve begun Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Now is, quite clearly, the time.
At the moment, at least from where I stand, the earth seems troubled, with us troubled on it. The earth, that is, in the places where I’m not. In the places where there are hurricanes and wildfires and all manner of other troubling things happening. Here, in the woods, everything seems to be as it always was and will be forever. I know no difference. I see nothing to fear. I am small and I notice little. There is nothing I can do to fix anything involving the earth except try to keep my eyes open and bear witness to its changes and chances.
It is my only wish, really, to keep my eyes open. Or, more truthfully, to start to open them.
Now that I live in the woods, I feel like I can’t ignore the wilderness as I’ve always done. When we drive anywhere we drive on the sorts of roads that are two lanes only with trees thick on both sides, plus the occasional building. All of our drives lately have been “scenic drives” with eyes stuck on the windows trying to grab all the colors of the trees. I owe this place, these living objects in their many specificities and masses, my attention, my thought, my care, don’t I? I would hate to live in the world for as long as I will and not ever really care about the world as it is without me or anyone else messing with it. This will take some re-orienting. Does that make sense? Does any of it?
WHY AM I SO UNMOVED?
Hence, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I see to learn from Annie Dillard. To hear how it was for her. To soak up some of her wonder, her fear, her joy. I want to practice what she practiced, to be a pilgrim in the wilderness even for just the littlest of whiles. To at least try. This has everything to do with God, everything to do with myself, with hope, with wonder, with practice and discipline and with just dang trying to learn about joy and where to find it. God is in me and God is in creation and I am in creation and shouldn’t all of it just go together? I think it should. It will just take some waiting and some wondering while I wander out under the sky.
So, today (Sunday, I write on Sunday), I went for a walk. As I set out, I decided that I will walk every Sunday to practice loving creation like God loves it, like God loves me. To hear it groan a little and to groan a little with it while we all wait for God. I’m going to remember the walk here in conversation with bits from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A transcription! Mostly me feeling clumsy and clunky and asking Annie, “HOW DID YOU DO IT?! HOW DID YOU SEE AND FEEL SO MUCH!? WHAT DO YOU SEE THAT I DON’T?!” (In all caps because I feel like shouting!!!) I read her words with reverence and wonder for things that I know to be true but can’t quite see myself. I read her words and I want to see more with my own two eyes, to be able to articulate the things that I see. I read her words and I want to be a pilgrim at my own tinker creek, my own Long Lake, my own mossy woods. I’m starting just by walking, by dancing, by singing, by wondering. I’m starting every Sunday, I hope. The smallest of pilgrimages, all the while feeling like I’m doing most things wrong, all the while doing them anyway.
(Annie’s words in italics, mine in not-italics, from here forward. I’ve only read the first little bit of the book, so that is where all these bits are found. Everything so in process, always!)
January 20: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?
January 29: Again tried to write, virtually useless.
January 30: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.
February 7: Complete standstill. Unending torments.
March 11: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.
These are snippets from Franz Kafka’s diary from the 1920’s, but could just as easily been about me, today, sitting at my kitchen table while a true spring breeze blows the pollen all around and wild geese honk gorgeously overhead. Not half as dire (the man led a truly blue and sickly life), and perhaps more encouraging than it intended to be (though I doubt he intended anyone read his journal at all – who made this public? Does John Steinbeck know that people are reading his collection of letters? Did Harper Lee really want Go Set a Watchman to be published? Who is in charge of their estates?) Shockingly, I am not the only writer who has showed up to her desk only to find she’d rather stay silent.
Simply put, I got nothing. Dry as a bone. I am half-remembering a class in college where we did a sensory exercise focused entirely on a strawberry – what does a strawberry feel like, sound like, look like? Go literal, metaphorical, simple, grandiose. We spent 30 minutes on it, after which I scrawled through every notebook and planner I could find, “THERE IS AN ENTIRE WORLD IN A STRAWBERRY!”
And there is. I’m just not the person to write about it today.
“I feel as though I am on fire, and not in the good way. Amy came by the store tonight and we talked about it – I think she’s on fire, too. Like every nerve is at ultimate capacity, osmosis of experience is in constant flow. And I keep thinking it’s just my 20s, and part of it is, but something about it definitely isn’t. And when I’m not in the midst of it it’s difficult to describe or access, so it’s hard to work through.”
Amy mentioned in her version of this exercise the meeting that prompted this journal entry at Anthropologie, of all places. I loved what she said about our words feeling radioactive in a pedestrian space – that’s how those moments felt, and that’s how I consistently feel when reading something by Salinger. Just say his name out loud! “Sa-lin-ger” – it makes me think of a beautiful fish, sort of iridescently slipping through your hands slowly, never so quickly that you’re not still holding on. He has a way of making you feel like you’re somewhere else while you read his books while still making the precise spot you’re in more of itself. Having one of his books in your purse feels like you’ve got this fabulous secret that you could tell everyone about or you could just go on and chew your gum. In short, he’s magical. My personal favorite book of his/book in general is Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters! because it’s one of those things that I can safely say changed everything. But Franny and Zooey certainly moved things along.
Amy also mentioned my theory on premature mourning – the idea of recognizing a feeling and knowing its place in your life before you’ve had the experience to match it (I have much more to say about this, and will do so later). I once tried to explain this to a boy in a meeting not unlike Lane and Franny’s, and he told me that maybe that meant I attracted negative experiences into my life – that by being sad about something before it happened, I would be on the lookout for it. He didn’t say it unkindly, but it made me wildly mad. It made zero sense to me; it still actually makes me a bit angry to remember it, simply because it is one of those moments where you realize that men and women are different. That loving another person does not mean you understand them. Which, of course, is what Franny and Zooey, and most of Salinger’s books, are all about. Which is, of course, what I was not-quite-yet mourning. The Glass family, of which F+Z are members, is large, brilliant, emotionally far-flung, radioactive, and only half the time do they really know how to talk to each other. The other half, they are squirreled away in separate rooms, carving signs into the doorways and leaving journals in the bathroom for another Glass to find when they need it most. Speaking to each other in code because the alternative is sometimes unbearable.
I read F+Z for the first time as a freshman in college, almost knowing what it meant. Knowing it would be extremely important later, something for me to sit on in the years until it was. The first time I read it, I understood Zooey much better than Franny – his glorious scene in the bathtub (my home away from home), the way you can see the tension in his shoulders by how he talks constantly in italicized phrases, taking two hours to get to a lunch 10 minutes away. All of his trying-to-figure-it-out was external and visible, like me at the time. I had not yet taken up my penchant for crying in public places, but I still understood Franny’s need to do so. I just couldn’t quite tap into what had made her cry in the first place. I understood the deep internalization, but I was frustrated by not seeing more of it, and frustrated by how pretty she was in the middle of all of it.
“The ladies’ room at Sickler’s was almost as large as the dining room proper, and, in a special sense, appeared to be hardly less commodious. It was attended and apparently unoccupied when Franny came in.”
This is from Franny of JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, perhaps one of the best books of all time. Really, truly. I was made aware of it in college and read it, gulpingly, during a summer spent teaching drama at a camp in Wisconsin. What I’m doing here is an exercise that I like to call a Transcription, a sort of call-and-response with a passage of literature that feels particular to me, like I know something about it. This week you’ll get my take on this little bit of Franny, and next week you’ll hear Jessie’s thoughts on the same passage, so keep your eyes open. All of Franny feels extremely familiar and particular to me, so much that I wish I could work on a transcription for the whole short story but I’d better not. One bit of it is enough. This bit, about a particular panic attack had by Franny in the restroom of a restaurant with her boyfriend waiting on her in the dining room. Not too exotic, which is exactly the goodness-gracious point.
I’ve had my fair share of anxious episodes in public bathrooms (since anxiety is a part of my life that I’m slowly learning how to wrangle), although public bathrooms are not the space I would associate most directly with this feeling of nowhere-ness. No, it happens most for me at home. Still, I know that wherever you are when it happens becomes instantly branded with a “that place where” sticker. Like if you ever pass that place again you feel the ghost of your past anxious self pass through you, a chill in the air, bells in the distance. When I first read Franny and Zooey, I remember feeling it deeply, the sort of feeling where you want to underline everything and probably memorize it too, think about it every day, internalize it so as to learn something or feel something or SOMETHING. I talked about this with Jessie one time when I visited her at her part-time job at Anthropologie (oh, real-life conversations at not-real-life jobs!). We had a sort of whole world of a conversation in a short five minutes, where we figured all sorts of things out as she shuffled shirts around, talked in brief sentences about some of the things we carry closest to our chests. Unlikely people in an unlikely place, saying radioactive words, feeling like spies, prophets, queens.
During this conversation, Jessie called the feeling that I’m talking about “premature mourning,” which I think is the perfect name for it, that uncanny sense that this all already makes sense even though you haven’t lived it yet. Now I’m in the even crazier place of “mature mourning” or “perfect-timing mourning” because I do know exactly what Franny is talking about so it’s almost more crazy to read it in black ink on a page. The whole of the short story feels so raw and real to me that I hardly know what to do with it except run screaming through the streets of Chicago, saying, “Have you read this? Have you read this? Does anyone understand???!!!” But I won’t do that, not ever, I’ll just write half-understandable blog posts about it and shoot them out into the internet void for people to read or skim or what-have-you. “Have you read this???”