~souvenir~

June 1st, 2008

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“I am so awake,” Ali says into the darkness. Me too. Late night talk ensues: this weekend marks the halfway point {week 20 of 40} of our time here and as such, the mind turns to evaluate how we’ve been doing thus far.

I had many fantasies about nine! whole! months! to do whatever it was I felt I needed to do. I was going to 1. Relearn French 2. Get my health in order 3. Complete the Great American Novel {set in a Third World country}. Hmmmm…well…

1. French has improved, albeit slightly, but how much can a woman say about vegetables? I had not envisioned my time here as being as isolated as it has been so far, what with it being winter, and frankly, Swiss. I have found the Swiss to be polite and inaccessible and not especially connected to their dark sides, which leaves me–polite, wide open, and well connected to my darkness–standing out like the town crazy woman. So I discuss petit artichaut and am otherwise uncharacteristically sphinx-like. This has been shifting lately, which no doubt has as much to do with my perspective {and growing courage/desperation} as the sunshine.

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2. Exercise. It is not a matter of discipline, I have more than enough when it comes to my intellectual and emotional desires. It is a matter of simply staying in my body, living there and not just my head. This requires a very challenging seismic shift, which is in process as I type…well perhaps not exactly as I type, and therein lies the rub!

3. V. Woolf said writing a book is like walking through a house that already exists and illuminating each room as you go. Not so this one, I have gone entirely backwards, upholstering the chaise longue before having the parlor to place it in. Noria called it “brave,” my kind of follow-your-nose fragmentary writing. I call it…well, not foolish–I had to find my way to know the way, if that makes sense–but certainly time consuming! Like rooting for truffles–in the ocean {who knows? you could find one!} The book began as an experimental bio-memoir, became a fiction book set in 1979 in Northern California, and has finally settled in Burma circa 1933. But! a shape has come, and I am relieved and thrilled.

So, one for three? Well awriiiight! Or maybe two: one half for produce chatter and one half for long walks along the lake.

What I have received that I did not expect: a wonderfully dense experience exploring the world I am in, both sensually and historically. I am mapping not just land, but the people, thoughts, inventions, songs, snacks and funny outfits of places. The experience is grounded, in other words. This is a revelation and one I attribute in great part to the writing of this blog, which is why even when I’ve allowed myself to become hysterical about the book never finishing I don’t give up this “trifle” writing.

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I have also been moved and amazed that Ali and I have lived for five months in a one-room people aquarium {anyone familiar with George Saunders’ novella Pastoralia? The ‘goat in the Big Slot’ feeling is palpable!} with no companions other than one another and my new buddies–the pigeons and sparrows–and have not killed each other. {admittedly there have been some close moments, but…}

I am also gratefully inspired by a return to solitude, even {or especially?} the relentless kind I am experiencing that forces a kind of onion peeling of the soul. As an only child I spent days upon days entertaining myself, and did the same in undergrad and grad school in my studio practice. Then some monster form of “adult life” stomped all over that for oh, some years.

In autumn of 2006 I had the gift of spending four weeks at the MacDowell Colony and remembering that I relish time spent alone, in creative web-spinning {especially when profound-absurd-delightful company is just a stroll through the forest away}. It was a reunion with myself that has been ongoing ever since.

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These days I feel rather like a Victorian anatomical paper doll I once had, where you could peel the layers back to reveal the lungs, heart, intestine, womb {complete with baby inside, speaking of nine! whole! months!}. Hello muscles, hello guts, hello nerves, hello armature. {funny, no, to want to ‘live in my body’ and also be doing that to such a degree already—in my head?}

My pal Andy told me that after his first time to MacDowell he returned home and while sitting on the couch, eating Chinese food from a box and watching the Miss America pageant with his boyfriend, tears streamed down his cheeks. This. can’t. be. my. life. Yeah, dig that. I’ve had the Chow Mein Swimsuit Competition Moment™ myself.

Over the last months I have put an incredible pressure on myself in the hopes that I can conjure a new chapter in my life, a chapter that looks more like MacDowell and less like teaching Avid to a room full of Secret Service men in Washington DC. I’ll tell ya, being given a shiny jewel of time with no distractions can create an urgency fierce enough to cause drop-dead inertia or the desire to take off your own head and go for a swim to a far away island…forever. Be careful what you wish for, Wherever you go there you are, and all that.

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You get about forty years under your belt and in a very piercing way that makes your past epiphanies {of this very fact} seem like dust flecks you capital D dig: Life is short, Joy is something to be conjured whenever possible, and it is all on you. And that’s the whole story.

I am discovering that to even imagine new dreams takes a kind of meta-courage when coming from a place of knowing better, ie: 38, not 18 years old. Allowing yourself to want means opening yourself to disappointment, and the struggle to simply keep faith in yourself and the Universe. It helps to remember you will not turn into a pumpkin at the strike of twelve, so just keep dancing and try not to lose your shoes.

In part I’ve been calling the muse with a howl from the depths of my soul; in part I have been trying to shift every dubious habit I have and burst from the chrysalis of Neuchatel with still damp wings. Talk about invoking a collision between left and right brain! How endearingly misguided {or at least exhaustingly ambitious}! How human.

For Part Two of this adventure I’m thinking just this: keep dancing and try not to lose your shoes.

So far, what I treasure most from this time is a souvenir, but it’s not a pennant made of felt or a tiny, velvet fringed pillow. It does not bear the name of a far away land in hand-painted letters.
If you shook it, it would not swirl with snow.

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It’s a souvenir in the French sense, to remember : I’ve had it all along.
It looks something like a petit artichaut, and it’s full of mystery.
{that’s for you, Mom.}

2 Responses to “~souvenir~”

  1. Noria says:

    I pretty much spent my first couple weeks at the Headlands curled up in a ball. The possibilities, the months unfurling (and at the same time evaporating) before me, the pressure to write! right now!–it was overwhelming at first. And I did have the pumpkin feeling at the end. The transition back to–I don’t want to say real life, because my Headlands life was my real life, just with more pixie dust and better food–so, the transition back to the life where my time is not all mine was not easy.

    Speaking of wet wings, butterflies and moths apparently remember their lives as caterpillars.

    And speaking of vegetables, I took five years of French, and what do I remember? Thanksgiving dinner. Le dindon, puree de pommes de terre, sauce canneberge, haricots vert, petit pois, mais. Never mind that they don’t have Thanksgiving in France.

  2. kim says:

    a bit From Bohemian Rhapsody Deux, inspired by your gorgeous comment:

    “Leaving here is a lot like dying, I think.” I say to Gaelen, “I don’t mean that in a morbid way!” We are lying on the big leather couches at MacDowell and pretending that I’m not leaving in twenty-four hours. “I just mean it goes on without you, time unfurls and you want to be here for it all, it’s so wonderful. But you can’t stay. At some point everyone has to go, that’s the way it is. Like life.” She smiles and nods, but she still has two more weeks, she doesn’t know yet.

    Later, when I am on the outside, back in the world of abrasions, she will call me from the wooden phone booth at the colony and say, “Soon there will be no one left here who misses you.” I will tell her then that I think of it as an alternate universe where forever we loaf by the fire and drink single-malt scotch and Tom plays piano. In my mind, I can always return there.

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