These past weeks have been a rush of busy-ness. Fall on the mountain always feels fleeting, with glorious pockets of gold aspens one week and new snow the next. Each year, I’m surprised at the suddenness in the change of season. There’s an urgency in […]
A reader recently called Rough Beauty—a fairy tale. She was not being kind. At first I laughed. Anyone who knows me knows I am no princess; not once have I been a damsel in distress. The course of my life has been a dirty mess, traversing the scarred landscape of family and fire, the misery of isolation and working too much for too little. I could go on, but you get the picture.
And yet, I’ve had the kind of year that you get in story books: I published my first book to critical acclaim and I bought my very first house—a real beauty on an acre and a half of land where I wake every morning to a tree-house view of the forest through French doors in the bedroom. That I never thought either events was possible makes 2018 sparkle with fairy dust. And I recently agreed to marry Greg in the 7th year of our courtship. This small thunderbolt arrived in the most unexpected way, as we were hiking a new trail near Rollins Pass, and for the third time this year, my landscape shifted. I can’t decide if the fact that these firsts have come now—when I am in my fifth decade—makes the tale more saccharine or sweet, but it does write the not so traditional nature of my life large.
Lately, I’ve been mindful of the late summer blooms, counting every sip of color, each delicate petal—savoring the last of the season. And so it is as I watch the course of my days, as I seem to be coming into the kinds of things we call milestones rather belatedly. I recently read Rick Bass’ memoir The Traveling Feast in which the writer, now sixty and ending his long marriage, wonders how many more books he might be able to write, and, I think, if he will ever love again. Does he have either in him? is the subtext of what is a beautiful but mournful book. My trajectory is almost the opposite of Bass’, a writer whose first publication came early and in The Paris Review, whose champions were Gordon Lish and George Plimpton. Just like the aster, which doesn’t imagine itself tardy to the riot of summer; growing instead according to its own sense of season and instinct, I try not to be bothered by time or the question of what I’ve been doing all these years.
Clearly, mine is the tale of the late bloomer, written about most poignantly in the last lines of Sylvia Plath poem, “Poppies in October”:
Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a field of frost in a dawn of cornflowers.
The circumstances of our lives are made more beautiful by context and timing. Here, Plath finds the astonishing—made even more so—out of season and surrounded by death. That my life has burst forth with so much now is a kind of miracle. But that doesn’t make it mythic. No one’s life is easy—it only seems so from the outside looking in. What’s true is The Story is Ours. And like the poppies in Plath’s poem, it can be “a gift/a love gift” if we’re willing to see it for what it is, if we have the guts to tell the tale.
Join me for From From Memory to Memoir, a 4-week class at The Light House North beginning September 11th.
August in the mountains and I can feel summer begin to ebb. At the prairie house, I‘d be staring down the barrel of at least two more months of way-too-hot-for-me weather, while nearly 4000 feet higher this morning’s temperature registered in the upper 40s. Already […]
Like a lot of people, I’ve celebrated the 4th of July for the fun, the food, the fireworks. Not today. This year I am reveling in what for me turns out to be a profound sense of liberation and there won’t be one flag or float in sight: Back in May, the artist-lover and I bought a house (a first for both of us) and just a little over two weeks ago (in a lull between book events), we moved up out of the steaming heat of the prairie and back to the blessedly cool mountains.
I’m back at 8600 feet where I belong.
Always cash poor, I’d never thought I’d own a place of my own, so frankly, if nothing else ever happens in my life, settling in on this acre and a half in a home Greg and I may have to call The Tree House for its view through French doors of the upper half of aspens and pines will be one of my happiest and proudest moments. Not even publishing a book tops this.
I have been candid in my memoir about my tumbleweed childhood, the way my family rolled from place to place, and my deep yearning to put down roots. I’ve always wanted to be from somewhere, always wanted a place to call my own. But too often, my place shifted with seasons and jobs and school, along with the inherent instability of renting, something I’ve been doing for thirty-five years.
Putting that all behind me is like unhooking a heavy backpack after a long hike. There’s a feeling of weightlessness, relief and a cooling down, a coming to blessed rest.
Owning a house is perhaps my biggest dream, and those people who know me know what it means for me to be back in the woods, with dirt beneath my feet and a shock of stars above at night. “YOU’RE the mountain,” my friend Jim shouted, wrapping me in his huge arms, when he saw the place.
Yes, and it’s good to be home.
Home is my great white whale. For as long as I can remember I’ve searched for it, turned the thought of it over in my mind and longed for the coordinating x and y of permanence and thriving for the perfect place. Growing up, I wanted to be from somewhere, but my family, kicked around by my father’s Air Force career, tumbled from state to state. Back then, home was neither a haven nor the place of a warm welcoming embrace; instead it was a battleground. Still I clung to the idea of home the way I thought of love then—as something that would save me.
When I left my parents’ house, my living situation was too often disrupted by more instability, this time by a series of roommates who departed for greener pastures, coupled with a few who, like a fist full of landlords I’ve known, were on the verge of bat-shit crazy. One housing situation went up in flames—literally. Another dissolved when the cops were called. I scrambled for decades trying to find my tiny patch and a place I could afford. Finally, at forty, I signed a lease on a 500 square foot, wood-stove heated cabin on top of Overland Mountain with my dog, Elvis. For ten years, I thought I’d found home.
I outgrew the cabin the day the artist lover and I decided to take a step closer to each other and move in together. Pickings on the mountain were slim post-100 year flood and so we packed our bags for the prairie, a move I’ve always seen as temporary. While I made a a home with Greg, I still felt displaced.
“I feel like a plant that’s been plunked down in landscape that isn’t native to me” I tell Greg, “I can survive, but I won’t bloom.” Our edge of the prairie existence with its proximity to highways and aggressive commuters, streetlights and other people’s backyards has worn me thin. I miss inky nights smeared with stars and the quiet days after the summer birds have departed. I miss dirt beneath my feet and uneven, belly-soft ground. I miss the pine forest dotting the landscape and bear and mountain lion passing through. I miss the view of the mountains rising like a prayer, the sense that not every patch of land is inhabitable by humans. I miss silence. I miss space.
Placelessness is a grief bigger than any I’ve endured. Living in the Overland cabin taught me that I did indeed have a place. It doesn’t matter that I was born on the edge of the desert, the mountains are my native ground. When I left the zip code I’d had on my permanent mailing address for nearly twenty years as I lived in and around Jamestown coming and going to grad school and a series of living situations, including at the High Lake cabin, I sobbed as I handed my key to the post office clerk in the same way I sobbed when my dog and constant companion of fifteen years, Elvis, died. Leaving was a grief.
Three years later, Greg and I have begun the happy, if somewhat fraught, task of locating a permanent address and of making our home in a place where we can thrive. I long for four walls that belong to me, a patch of ground big enough for a home along with a writing shack that will house my desk, a wood stove, and a fainting couch along with my books. Greg wants a studio/workshop and a patch of sun for the garden. Of course I want to return to the mountains, something Greg has come round to, in part, because it means so much to me. Trouble is, we live in Boulder County and even the little Overland Mountain cabin wouldn’t come cheap by most people’s standards. Greg, ever the optimist, is hopeful we’ll find just the right thing while I fret over mortgage estimates and the return on our investment in taking on too much of a fixer-upper or something a bit smaller just at the time when I want to be settling in for the long haul. There are so many variables—many of them having to do with the two too common denominators of American life: time and money—that I am wringing my hands just when I should be rejoicing: I’d never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be able to buy a house.
And maybe that’s just it. There’s a chunk of me still invested in the struggle—I’ve had so much of it– a stubborn piece that wants to believe I can’t have what I want.
For now I’ll simply have to take my cue from Greg, who is a dreamer, and dare to imagine the best of all possible worlds: Six months from now, on June 5th, Greg and I will be happily celebrating the release of Rough Beauty (pre-sales available on Amazon) in a (perfect) mountain home of our own.