Sunday, June 3, 2012
A cabin by a lake
Though it seems 50 years ago, at least, it has only been 23, summer of 1989. I'd just been not-selected for a writing fellowship and decided to build my own. Oh, the days of full-time employment with generous benefits. One of my co-workers recommended a cabin by a lake, one he and his wife rented in the winter for skiing. It was available for three weeks in August. Doing this was more than a response to rejection, it felt like an imperative.
The property management company sent a map and list of regulations. My Selectric II and I, with some art supplies and cassettes for the drive, wound up the mountains, filled with expectation. I never wrote - nor typed - a word. In those days I was not good at being solitary, no matter how stubbornly I believed I longed for that emptiness.
Rather than bear the three weeks alone, I went back and brought my son to vacation with me. As we did down in the flatlands, we went to the movies, seeing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for a second time, crying again when the ant dies. When the program changed we went back for Turner and Hooch and Tim Burton's Batman. The retreat cabin had no tv, an unfamiliar, less-than-comfortable state for a child of the VCR age. Even the radio didn't work all that well.
Before his father joined us for the last week, we had time together such as we couldn't experience at home. Including the commute, my work days were often 12 hours long. In the mountains we began to learn how to do nothing together, though part of the nothing was a video arcade with old-fashioned ski-ball, yards of tickets for tempting prizes, and a vintage pinball game called "Cyclone." We took turns with that, waiting to hear the mechanical voice say, "We have a WINNAH."
For the few days before my son joined me, I drove to nearby towns, finding used bookstores in unlikely spots. On the western face of the mountains, the smog climbed to almost 7,000 feet. Looking toward where Los Angeles ought to be, all that was visible was a dense beige carpet that reached the horizon. No wonder the trees were dying. When I drove, the music was mostly 10,000 Maniacs In My Tribe and Natalie Merchant singing of a holiday by the sea, "Verdi Cries."
After that - what to call it? - interlude, object lesson, time out, foreshadowing, I went back to work for a few months, became dangerously ill with pneumonia and its after effects and never returned to my job. The lesson I took from what seemed an urgent, possibly desperate need to be away, I have come to recognize as a pattern. From wherever it comes, the call is heard: do this. Because our range of imagination, possibility, is limited we think we are doing what we feel compelled to do for an understandable reason, such as write. The truth at times does not lend itself to words.
Would I have responded if I knew ahead of time that it was something else entirely? Our guidance, intuition, inner wisdom, knows how to bait the hook, how to get us to show up. With time and the longer view - or sometimes in the moment - we can see how the lesson was arranged perfectly; we can understand. The imprecise way I explain it is: we think the story is about the car, but it's really about the place the car takes us.
VERDI CRIES lyrics
The man in 119 takes his tea alone.
Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries.
I'm hearing opera through the door.
The souls of men and women, impassioned all.
Their voices climb and fall; battle trumpets call.
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing.
He will not touch their pastry
but every day they bring him more.
Gold from the breakfast tray, I steal them all away
and then go and eat them on the shore.
I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand,
sing of a lover's fate sealed by jealous hate
then wash my hand in the sea.
With just three days more I'd have just about learned the entire score to Aida.
Holidays must end as you know.
All is memory taken home with me:
the opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.