This morning I wrote to a friend that I was returning today to a ruined homestead I’d stumbled upon yesterday in the woods near Cecil’s Mill in Southern Maryland. I told her how the little shack was perched on a muddy ledge near a running creek, that the tin roof was rusted and coming apart, that the whole back side of the house had fallen away – that it all had probably tumbled into the creek below it years ago – and that I had been able to see right through the back of it and into the trees beyond. I told her about the rusted padlock on what had once been a front door with one of those old knobs that you see for sale in antique stores all over the country. I described for her the rotting timbers of the door and the busted windows and how the one dingy white curtain that remained hung still, torn and in tatters, at the window.
How interesting, she wrote back, Tell me more.
So I told her I’d send her a link to the piece I was writing on the new blog about the little house I’d found and that she could see the photographs of it there too.
BLOG? she wrote back in capital letters, YOU have a blog? (Despite everyone’s complaints to the contrary, it’s pretty easy to read tone in an email. I’d have gotten her drift right away, but she went on.)
Oh blogs, she wrote, what a nuisance they are: all those ridiculously deep thoughts…like what diet bar some vegan woman goes for when she’s starving, or how a man is thinking of leaving his wife because he has “fallen in love” with the wife of his best friend. What some 16-year-old Valley girl had for breakfast. Who got new boobs and how much it cost her old man. . . .
How simple it is, then, to ridicule the lives of others, and what is important to them. I wondered if this is how everyone feels, secretly, but doesn’t have the heart – or tactlessness – to say so.
Still, I have to admit it made me think back to that scene in the movie, Julie & Julia. You remember it: the moment where Julie steps out of her little kitchen and announces to her husband, “I have thoughts. I could write a blog.”
As if to merely have thoughts is the essence of writing. As if “I-think-therefore-I-am” is sufficient to keep anyone interested in the story you are telling.
Maybe it is. For some. But my thoughts don’t run that deep. (Or that shallow.) Whatever this wild river is that I’m on right now, I’m going with the current of it and hanging on to any drifting thing nearby to keep myself afloat. But she got me to thinking – again – about why I’m writing. It’s not as if there aren’t already thousands of interesting blogs and books and articles out there. And it’s not as if I have hundreds of readers: I have a scant handful of people who read these postings regularly and most of them are good friends and even some of them read the stuff I write, I suspect, out of reckless pity and compassion:
Let’s be honest here: my life is full-to-bursting as it is. Why take on one more commitment each week? Why crawl around in the woods and climb into the rotting haylofts of old tobacco barns; why hang at the frozen edge of a fence waiting for muskox to step forward from the ice-fog or watch the cat studying the wasp’s nest in the eaves with great interest; why pay such relentless attention to all the small, ordinary things as I’m inclined to do? Why do all that if there isn’t some story waiting there, patient as eternity, for someone – maybe me – to discover it and bring it into the raw light-of-the-world-we-live-in-now?
Or, as I put it in my notebook this morning while I was “out there in the real world,” getting messy with it: Why leave the muggy woods and the tangle of underbrush you spent all afternoon picking your way through – red-faced, thirsty, jeans muddy and your shoes wrecked with river mud – just to settle back into a car and discover a snake has settled himself there, seeking out a little cool shade, while you were out traipsing through the underbrush? Why throw yourself out onto the ground then, thrashing about in terror, though your brain has already registered that it’s only a little green snake. Harmless. Well, nearly harmless except for the heart-failure you experienced when he suddenly slithered under the gas pedal near your foot. At best, it was embarrassing. And no one even saw it: you flailing around on the ground like that, hung half-in/half-out of the Land Rover like you were having some sort of grand mal seizure in the dirt at the side of the road.
Maybe I write because, as the physical body fails and the soul’s dwelling-place washes down to almost-nothing-left-now, it seems I still have words to serve as some little channel marker on the sea that indicates I was here, in this time, in this century, in this place or that. Here or there. Snooping around in the woods or the cool caves or along the mud-banks of the rivers. Poking my nose into other people’s business – or what’s left of it anyway.
My father says that my four children are what will be left of me and I should be happy with that. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know. I know I prefer not to burden them with all that. I gave them their lives once, rather ingloriously: strapped to a gurney on my back, my sock feet up in the gleaming stirrups, pushing each one of them into the blue-white light and sterile chrome of the delivery room in the latter quarter of the last century. I named them. And then, when they grew up and became who they wanted to be, I sent them out again with my blessings into their own happinesses and troubles. They will have enough to do, I suspect, without having to be some kind of living memorial to their mother.
But these writings, these notes, the two books I have written and published and the ones still to be written – Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,as my people are wont to say, setting the blessing over the curse – these are some odd version of a ship’s journal, I think, something I’ll leave behind when the tide of what-is-coming finally takes me under. Every poem, every essay, every blog-piece lets those who come after me know some things about who I was and the moment in history in which I lived out my life. It lets them see the map and the stars I steered by. Where I went. What I saw. What I heard or overheard. What spoke to me over the din and dull racket of this world and all its machinery.
Here, it will say on one waterlogged page, I was here today. I saw this. I heard that. This thing troubled me. I gave myself over to that. And there, right there, is where I made it through a dark storm. Here, I was swept overboard. I traveled for a time in the dark, quiet belly of Leviathan. I had a sea-changed here. Only the moon looked on. Here is where I was swept away. . . .
And alongside those entries will be others too, entries not so much about me: You were with me here. I saw you there, from a distance. You waved to someone. You seemed happy. I almost knew you. I lost you there. I’ve placed a marker for you here. . . .