All the neighborhood children are back in school. I am surrounded by teachers, too—everything from a book I’m reading by art critic Bernard Berenson (who writes of lost leisure) to a new pair of secondhand lace curtains that redefine the light coming through my living room window.
The difference between knowledge and illumination is the difference between electric light and sun. It is not only the range but the quality of the light upon a subject. Sitting in the living room this morning, I needed my lamp before the sun rose above the tree line. But now the living room is radiant with natural light, every surface polished and picked out, and my lamp is unnecessary. I reach up and turn it off.
I am aware that these are the refined thoughts of a refined life, but I am also conscious of being deliberately apart from the homeless man holding up a sign for food on the Cary Street overpass as I stop for the light.
He looks at me to see if I am looking at him to give him money. But I do not linger on his face, only brush over it. He sees a white woman in a white car, clean hands on a leather-wrapped steering wheel, sealed off by classical music playing on the radio. Who am I to say that holding up a sign asking for help isn’t real work?
Today I spent almost a hundred dollars on books and music and am ashamed of the way I brushed past another beggar on the street, showing him empty hands as I made my way into a bookstore with Mozart and horn concertos on my mind. I needed them, I thought, to become deeper spiritually. Recently, I have “needed” a lot more: a new tape deck, air conditioning, a kitchen floor.
Last night I took Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby off the shelf to reconnect with great writing. The amazing phrases that seem so simply made, like burning gardens, were there to remind me of what is possible. I have reread a lot of my own earlier writing, and I seem to be writing more simply now. That being said, I do not have the easy access to the fires of creativity I once had.
This morning I took a walk around the streets of Ashland and collected trash. This is great training for the eye and mind. Dislodging a plastic bag from a bramble or emptying a beer can full of mud before putting it in my sack is like cleaning up an essay. The better it looks, the more motivated I am to continue the process.
My house is like an essay. As I sit here in this wing chair, I notice the pillow that lies at the wrong angle, a lamp that should be a little closer to the edge of the table, a curtain not quite in alignment with the window frame. I am restless until I have made the adjustments, moved, turned, or pulled everything to where, from where I sit, they ought to be.
Opening Gary Zukav’s The Seat of the Soul this morning, my eye fell upon these lines:
As you face your deepest struggles, you reach for your highest goal. This is the work of evolution. It is the work that you were born to do.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, for the Virginia Festival of the Book, where I took part in an authors’ reading
I am sitting in the Omni Hotel, a few tables away from Reynolds Price, who is in his wheelchair, eating breakfast with a companion. He gazes my way as I am spooning some yogurt into my mouth, and I wonder if he is mentally putting words to the sight of a woman eating yogurt, as I am doing the equivalent to him.
Price spoke last night to a large crowd. “A writer tends to be hard-wired for language,” he said, recalling a boyhood spent sopping up the color and cadence of his family’s way of talking. He recounted the story of his aunt, who had run out of money and was being consoled by her sister. “They can’t get blood from a turnip,” she was told. “No, but they can put the turnip in jail,” she replied.
In another part of his talk, he said, “We come down to a personal reality.” We’re born as people who love life or people who don’t.” You can die pretty fast if you put your mind to it.”
My thoughts are interrupted by a waiter who finds out I’m a writer and wants to know how it works. “What’s involved?” he asks. “Do you write it yourself or get somebody to write it for you?” He tells me he has a friend, a golfing buddy, who wants to write a book, he’s not sure about what. As for himself, he’s not a reader except for the newspapers, but that’s not very satisfying. “Everything’s in the same style.” Recently he bought a book on sale at the local bookstore.
“It’s called Nausea. I got it for a dollar.”
“Yes. You know it?”
“He’s pretty profound.”
“That’s what I like. I want to feel like I’m getting something out of it.”
During the afternoon, I had a cup of coffee with a young friend who worries about how to keep her marriage strong, saying that whenever she hears about a friend getting engaged she thinks, Oh, no—”even though we’re all right.”
I reminisced about my own failed marriage and conceded that getting married again wasn’t on my agenda. Uppermost on my mind was how to be fruitful. “I’m sixty-one,” I told her, “and wondering how many more buds there are on the branch.”
This morning I encountered this theme in a poem by George Herbert:
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing.
What I realized from being with all those writers in Charlottesville was that I was with people who use their imaginations as easily and unself-consciously as other people use a towel. That was the thrill: to go to different authors’ readings and listen as men became women and women became men and writers got inside the hundred-year-old heads of Alamo survivors. This is no different from acting, and I wonder if I can take some new steps on a new stage. In many ways, I have taken no risks and made no changes for a long time, if ever. This is no way to live.
The life of most writers without an independent income is full of risk and re-invention. I have supported myself, some years much better than others, in the usual way: writing books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns; teaching; editing; and working on a series of oral histories. Once, particularly short of funds, I took on a woman whose big dream was to have a story accepted for the Little Golden Books series. She came to my house with a double-spaced manuscript about Tommy Turtle running away from home. I felt I’d sunk pretty low when I heard myself say, “Well, if you had Tommy Turtle get into a scrap with Bucky Beaver before he joins up with Dilly Duck, it might make the plot more interesting.” But when I wrote the journal entry about the Charlottesville festival, I wasn’t thinking about money but about how I had always stayed within a certain genre of writing, one in which I already knew I could excel: the personal essay. Perhaps it was possible to move in another direction. This was the first time I had seriously posed the question to myself on paper. Posing the question was the first step.
Last night I went to Duncan Memorial Church to hear Pastor John Kinney preach. It was riveting, hilarious, challenging, and showy. The part that moved me most was the story he told about himself when he was a little boy and thought he was lost, only to feel his father’s hand fall upon his shoulder. “‘I was lost!’ said the boy. ‘No, you weren’t,’ said his father. ‘I had my eye on you the whole time. I knew where you were.’” Tears sprang to my eyes. Maybe the truth is that I feel lost more often than I want to admit.
Sitting in a church full of white people listening to a black preacher, I was full of judgment. When it came time to sing a gospel hymn, several of the white women in the choir couldn’t clap in time. Their hands were like dead fish, flapping any old way to the music. It made me scornful. Not to be able to clap was pathetic. But then I realized that the urge to find fault was rooted in my own insecurity. I tried to see them with more loving eyes and realized that these were women wanting to be part of the music, trying to get it together. They had terrible timing but their faces were lit up, delighted to be part of something that had some life.
There is something very wrong with my use of time. To walk into the house after being away twenty-four hours and immediately get pulled into the mail on the table, messages on my phone, and e-mail on my computer, while barely having time to say hello to Mother, who has been waiting all day for me to return, is out of kilter. I cannot be in real time without wondering what other people have done or said in virtual time. Before voice mail and the Internet, there was a decent interval between cause and effect; one was forced to wait patiently on the other side of the door until someone opened it. But now, with time and distance being reduced to a nanosecond, my ability to delay gratification is weakened.
This morning, clearing away bamboo from the back part of the garden, I mused over the way you have to reverse the processes of mind and body as you get older. It is natural when young to want to be physically on the move all the time. The struggle is to sit still long enough to get the mind’s attention. When you get older, the process is reversed. The body must be kicked into motion against a growing inclination to rest awhile longer while the mind continues to move at breakneck speed.
I sometimes pretend to be someone else of superior abilities in order to get something done. While cleaning my room, for example, I pretend to be my neighbor Mary Lou Brown, who is extremely meticulous and organized. It is a way of manipulating reality, of tricking myself into a higher level of performance. On the tennis court, I’ll sometimes pretend to be a recently recovered polio victim, which makes every stroke miraculous.
But when I’m not pretending, I know there is a strictness about life that lurks just beneath the surface. When we do not obey life’s laws—in everything from love to digestion—that strictness surfaces. For months my stomach has bothered me with heartburn (what does it say about the developed world that the most popular over-the-counter pills are for heartburn and acid indigestion?), but until now I would not give up coffee. Today, having done so for less than a night, my stomach has responded with restored health.
This morning my thoughts center upon what I perceive to be the rough justice of God working within each one of us. We are driven to deliver the truth inside us, no matter what we do to avoid or bury it. How to deliver it is the challenge. It is not just about using our reason although, like a diving board, we must use it to its limit, running to its very end. But then we must leap—like a spark—into the air. It is that spark that illuminates the understanding, makes the heat and the difference.
Last night, meditating on the sentence Be still, and know that I am God, I thought that if I was still, truly still, for even a moment, I could probably step through the wall that divides the human from the divine consciousness.
In April, I held a writing seminar at an inn on the north-coast town of Mendocino, California. The drive through the Anderson Valley to the ocean never fails to cleanse my eye.
To get to Mendocino, you take 101 to Cloverdale and cut across the Anderson Valley, which is like driving through Steinbeck’s “pastures of heaven”: with bright green hills tender with new grass, sheep, and ribbons of water flowing down the banks that head toward the Navarro River. Then, finally, out to the open sea and our inn, full of cut flowers and decanters of sherry. Sitting on the inn’s porch, framed by two posts, I see the essence of Mendocino between them: pines on one side, eucalyptus trees on the other, and, floating like ivory trumpets in the meadow, the wild calla lilies, mixed with brambles and blackberry bushes that tumble down the cliff to the sea. In the background one hears the scrubbing noise of surf, a distant grinding of lumber trucks rounding the curve, cowbells clanging. I rejoice, I rejoice.
After the seminar, I drive south to San Rafael to visit the Dominican convent campus where I went to high school. Whole rooms of the past open up as I drive down Grand Avenue. My nose remembers more than my eyes. The sharp oily smell of eucalyptus combines with afternoon dust from the hockey field in Forest Meadows. But my heart feels the difference between then and now. Where is my former French instructor, who was just married when she came to teach? My Latin teacher, Sister Gregory, is now senile in the convent infirmary. We are all slowly moving off the stage.
At the new campus in San Anselmo, where I am a guest of the school for one night, I peek into classrooms that are full of little children, soft as the hills in springtime, with new skin, hair, and questions. I wish my grandchildren could go to school here.
At mass in the school chapel this morning, a priest spoke about feeling lost, which again brought tears to my eyes. In the gospel, Jesus is chiding his disciples who want him to show them the Father. He says, “After all this time, you do not know that to be with me is to be with the Father?” One of the women in the chapel asked for prayers for a forgotten playmate of mine who used to live near me in San Francisco. She was a pale, pretty girl with large eyes, who grew up to have four children and four husbands, plus several bouts with cancer.
After dinner I walked back to the campus room where I was spending the night. The fog had rolled over the top of the mountain and hung, like a thick white quilt, halfway down the side. If I ever live here I will never get used to that kind of beauty.
Mother’s view of most people’s lives is that they are caught in an eternal round of rituals that keep them from facing the truth or experiencing life at first hand. We are pulled along by an endless progression of holidays, showers, birthdays, funerals, and special prepackaged days like Mother’s Day, from one year to the next. “They can’t get separate from”—she crooks her two index fingers in the shape of a set of quotation marks—”the tribe.”
I woke this morning with two words in my head, “Go deeper.” Reading aloud to Mother from George Crane’s book Bones of the Master, helps me know how. Crane is like me, too tied to words, too dependent upon thought. “Here I am,” he writes, as he follows behind the old monk, Tsung Tsai, in a walking meditation, “fooling myself with the search for words that would explain everything.”
He says to Tsung Tsai, “The world is so difficult to give up.”
Tsung Tsai nods. “Attachment very strong. Don’t worry. When you go away, just come back.”
Attachment is so easily confused in my mind with love, which gives attachment legitimacy. Yet I can see the difference in other, more developed persons, who project a kind of compassionate awareness and appreciation of those they love but don’t leave fingerprints all over them.
A few days ago, at Cross Brothers Market, I was at the checkout counter when an elderly large-bellied white man in overalls and suspenders, a farmer type, came into the store with a five-year-old child who looked as if she was the product of black and white parents. She had golden skin and kinky brown hair. They seemed easy with each other, the way grandchildren and grandparents should be, and as they rounded the corner I heard him say to her softly, “Now, let’s see about that ice cream.” One should always expect the unexpected.
Living in a small town is like being in a play. I think of the people in Ashland as characters who wake up every morning in an ongoing story and position themselves onstage for another sixteen hours of walking, talking, and doing. Our scripts are mostly in our heads, although underlying the action is the question, “How will we make our mark upon the world today?” For the most part this is an illusion. It is the world that makes its mark upon us.
Tonight, walking through the dark streets after visiting with Susan and Woody Tucker (Woody’s mother had just died), I was aware of being a small strand in the fabric that makes the town hold together better. It is not exciting work but it is something to be grateful for—knowing that sitting with someone at their kitchen table, talking about their mother, makes a difference,
Yesterday I tried to do one thing, begin an essay “On Single-mindedness.” I created a page of notes and then the phone rang. It was my younger son, telling me that he had just run into his old childhood friend Max on a street corner in New York. Their first reaction was to think how happy their mothers would be that they were together. The second phone call was from Max’s mother. There went the day.
The power of Bones of the Master grows within me.
“Don’t think,” Tsung Tsai tells Crane. “Thinking weakens.” I am becoming aware of this truth. Thinking can tyrannize, introduce willfulness and fear.
I feel at the age of sixty-one that I should be a sage, not a novice. It is embarrassing to be so shallow. Yet it is also important to be aware of how raw and unlettered I really am and to be eager to learn something new.
This morning I awoke determined to reinvigorate my life by disciplining myself so that the Goddess of Comfort is put in her proper place. Up at seven, make the bed, prune my life so that the strength flows into fewer branches.
Yesterday Mother turned eighty-three. Knowing how nervous she is about her birthday—the result of a childhood wound when her parents forgot to celebrate it one year—I said, “Let’s just let the day unfold.” She loved that. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a birthday where people dropped in, not even knowing it was my birthday . . . sort of like a drive-by birthday,” I suggested. “That’s right,” she said.
The day proceeded like the slow unwrapping of a gift. In the morning, our next-door neighbor, Mel Titus, came over with her two boys and sat on the porch for several hours, drinking tea and telling us about her past. It was a quiet, happy start. Then, after lunch, Katherine Tinker arrived with a present of some superior scotch and stayed to talk about her husband, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I told her my belief that most of us learn what we have to learn before we finish our lives. “Do you think so?” she asked. “I’m not so sure.”
I decided to go upstairs and finish up Mother’s birthday quilt on the sewing machine. Midafternoon, my cousin Angel drove down from Maryland as a surprise. I began cooking the birthday dinner around four. Guests began to arrive around six-thirty. They brought food, jars of flowers, and their talents: a song sung by the Reihl family, accompanied by their father on the guitar. After dinner, twelve-year-old Cody Artiglia brought out his collection of artifacts from Arizona, where his family had vacationed that June. They included owl throw-up and dinosaur poop. The day ended with sparklers and Roman candles on the lawn. We sat in a fairy circle of logs on the grass and watched little boys twirling sparklers in the warm sulfur-scented air.
Lately, I have been falling into the ways of my mother, sitting long and happily on the back porch, doing nothing except acting as if I, too, were eighty-three. We are now so well attuned to each other that our tastes and impulses are uncannily alike. I will think about what I’d like to cook for dinner only to be interrupted by my mother, who says, “I think I’ll just have a baked potato,” mirroring my own thoughts.
This morning, very early, I took a canoe ride on the nearby South Anna River with my neighbor, Ned Dillon, who has lived here all his life. The air was scented with mud and honeysuckle. As we eased down the river, we saw beaver slides, tangles of tree roots like piles of rope, and bright islands of river grass that we paddled around into deeper water. Ned is as easy as the South Anna to be with. He has known everyone in Ashland since childhood. The conversation turned to one of his childhood friends in town who reminds me of a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel—tall, patrician, and slightly removed from most other people. Ned knew what I meant. “He got that way when he went to college,” he said.
This is the height and heat of summer. Everything pants for water—dogs, hydrangeas, boys wanting to dive into a lake and feel the cold second skin coat their dusty bodies. Each day dissolves like a lozenge upon the tongue. I can barely recall it except to describe the flavor, and even that is ephemeral: phone calls, glasses of ice tea.
Today I came downstairs at five-thirty and lit a stick of incense and a candle to focus the nose and eye. But my attention continually drifted. Finally, I turned on the light, took up my journal, and began to write, to give my mind a line of print to follow. It is discouraging to think of all these years that I have driven my mind to skin and bones, like an exhausted but dutiful horse, and now, when I try to dismount and tether it, it won’t stop moving.
Why isn’t it enough simply to enjoy a thing without wanting to describe it, pull the thread of sensibility through it, like a needle poking through a bead, to make it mine?
Looking back over the entries of the past few months, I see the idea of attention, pure attention, emerging in different forms and guises. Slowing down long enough to pay full attention requires an empty mind. We must clear the decks and be doing nothing else. This is what goes counter to the culture, which tries to distract and divide our attention so that it never rests on any one thing for any length of time.
A final thought: there are so many souls who could help me if only I remembered to invoke their help. Jesus; Baba Whatsisname; my old high school principal and mentor, Sister Maurice; the entire community of saints. They are all there and I believe available. Add to them the saints still on earth, Tsung Tsai, for example, and I am surrounded by my superiors.
Yesterday I entered a new phase, hopefully with grace. I was asked by my friend Mel if I could babysit eight-year-old Jesse while she went to a school meeting. A part of me resisted the offer. It implied that I was too old to have anything else to do. I could sense a little hesitation on Mel’s part, as if she worried I would take her request amiss. But after thinking it over for a few moments I decided to be thrilled—and that made all the difference. And I did indeed have a great time, making Jesse popcorn, looking at the iguana in his aquarium, and reading him stories from his book of samurai tales. (He kept correcting my pronunciation until I said samurai the right way.)
In 1988, after living in Washington, D.C., for twenty-four years, I left town—reluctantly. Washington was where I had come as a new bride, had raised my children, created a much-loved community of friends, established myself as a writer, and gone through a divorce—more or less in that order. My roots were deep, but the desire to own my own home (which I had to sell in 1984) was deeper. Between 1984-88, I rented, while real estate prices continued to climb higher and higher. Sick of throwing monthly rent checks over my shoulder, I began to think about moving. North was more expensive than south.
One day, a realtor friend told me about a house for sale outside of Richmond, Virginia. The next weekend, I drove down to take a look. Ashland was a sleepy little town with big trees and no stoplights. I remember seeing a John Deere tractor dealership and an advertisement for a Jell-O wrestling contest on the main street. Ahead of me, as I bumped across the railroad tracks, was a pickup truck with a Confederate flag on its back window. Turning down a shady side street, I pulled up in front of a two-story brick house with no landscaping. It looked solid but unloved.
There were bookshelves and a fireplace in the living room, the closet doors opened without falling off their hinges, and the light was good. I could live here, I thought. Some of the biggest decisions take the least amount of time. Thirty minutes later, I made an offer. Over the years, I found professional and personal reasons to return to Washington frequently. But every time I did, I bumped into the same truth: I had closed a chapter in my life and could not easily add on new pages.
You have to stay in your old neighborhood in order to maintain the right to drop in on people. Here in Washington I realized there weren’t that many people I could—or wanted to—see. Judy O’Hara wasn’t home, Donna and Rita are both gone (dead), and Faith is too nervous to drop in on unannounced. I went to the nearby Starbucks, which used to be the dry cleaners. At 8:30 A.M. it was full of strapping well-dressed men with soft hair and hard bodies. They ordered their skim decaf cappuccinos and exuded intelligence and worldliness. I wanted to know them all, be part of all their worlds—an impossibility that throws me back upon the truth that the only person I have the absolute right (and obligation) to know is myself.
Later, I visited my old cooperative garden in Rock Creek Park, which has become a citadel of netted enclosures. “It’s the deer,” explained one gardener, a bright-eyed woman in her early fifties who is a nurse at NIH. She was married to two different Frenchmen, living in France for twenty years before divorcing the last one and coming home “to get some benefits. My life is nowhere near as dramatic as it was, but I’ve made a good life for myself here. It’s simple, except when I complicate it.” From a bag she took some cotton seeds she was planning to plant and showed them to me. “I’m going to grow my own underwear,” she joked.
I wonder whether one day my children will feel the same pull backward that I am feeling now. Does there come a time in most people’s lives when the urge to explore gives way to the lure to return to the first places in our lives? And is this a temptation or a legitimate impulse?
The bench I’m sitting on is, I’m told, a memorial to a child who died. There is no plaque but it is a sturdy, comfortable bench, just right for sitting and thinking about the perishability of life. Mr. Olson, the garden’s overseer, is gone, except in the memory of a few other gardeners. Mr. Khoury, who used to come here with his wife toward the end of his life, is gone, too.
The garden was the highlight of my visit to Washington. Twenty years ago, struggling with wounded children, a perilous financial picture, and men who didn’t fit the bill, I recouped a sense of peace and good fortune when I was digging in my ten-by-twenty-foot plot here. To be surrounded by towering trees in a city felt luxurious and lucky. Standing in the garden, surrounded by sunflowers, dahlias, cucumbers, and squash plants, softened me, filled me with a sense of plenty. That feeling has not changed.
When my children were young, I supplemented my income with writing seminars (called Nightwriters) around my dining room table. Later, I taught in a back room in the nearby Politics & Prose bookstore. And eventually, when my children had flown the coop, I flew, too—teaching wherever I found the right combination of shabby-chic accommodations, delicious food, and a beautiful location. In July of 2000, I conducted my first (and so far only) Nightwriters seminar in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull.
I have just returned from three weeks on the Isle of Mull. The exhaustion I feel is from having to be so alert and so unproductive at the same time. When one is in receiver mode, always absorbing something new or beautiful, trying to understand or fit in, it is not possible to be in a transmitting mode as well. But to live for three weeks on an island where the sea, the sky, and the mountains are in front of you at all times clears the imagination like a windshield that has been wiped free of grime. I am not alone in this feeling. People remark upon the distilled quality of the light on Mull, how their eyes seem to sharpen and improve the longer they are there.
It is the smallness and inaccessibility of Mull that gives the island life its grace and necessary slowness. Single-lane roads force a courtesy upon drivers, who must pull over to let an oncoming driver pass. The water creates a barrier between ourselves and instant gratification. You want film developed? It must go by ferry to Oban on the mainland and come back again a week later. There is no cable for television reception. Instead, you look out the window for entertainment.
Yesterday, while waiting in my friend Magi’s hospital suite for her neck operation to be over, I read through Jacques Lusseyran’s And There Was Light. There was much to think about.
Lusseyran was totally blind, but able to “see” in a way that enabled him to be an invaluable member of the French Youth Resistance. (His capacity to “read” a prospective new member’s voice, to know whether he or she was genuine or a spy, was near-perfect.) Then, when he was fifteen he temporarily lost his capacity to perceive what he could not see. But a voice inside told him that, “I had fallen into a trap, had forgotten the true world: the world within, which is the source of all the others. I must remember that this world, instead of disappearing, would grow with the years, but only on one condition: that I believe in it unshakably.”
Yesterday, playing tennis, I realized that many of my problems stem from not remaining in my body, but rather “leaking” into the past or future. Being on a tennis court in Ashland reminds me of being on a tennis court in California, so my imagination carries me there, which makes it hard for me to connect with the ball in Virginia. But if I consciously pull myself back to the center of my self, I create a field of gravity and my powers are somewhat restored.
My friend Magi talks about her work as a professional mediator and how one must be 100 percent present and listening. She said this would be a good exercise for me, that sometimes I am not present or if I am she’s always conscious that I may leave in an instant. Other people have told me the same thing, that sometimes I take little out-of-body trips while they’re talking to me. Not good.
I miss my children, each for reasons the other two cannot supply, which is as it should be. This stage of parenthood is impossible to imagine until you’re in it.
When I think about why people have children, I realize how little it should have to do with the future. If, before any children are conceived, we knew that our reward for raising them would be perhaps several phone calls a month, a very occasional visit, and the sense of having once been important in their lives, we might not do it. But if we realize that the rewards are given during the raising, we will calculate the cost differently. My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy than I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this.