No longer protected by distance or time, we live in the whole world at once, like postmodern gods, experiencing our own flesh and surroundings only disruptively.
- R.M. BerryOn the way to the cabin, I kept seeing ghosts of myself. An eighteen-wheeler that read "Aslan Logistics". A large homemade sign that read "Kat's Bakery". The general store had one small bottle of Crown Royal Black, my favorite, next to several larger bottles of regular Crown Royal. One small bottle just for me. In the waning afternoon as I sat on the porch, the biggest crow I've ever seen flew across the yard. It was the size of a small goose. I wondered if it was a raven, if that's just the expected size of ravens, and then I heard caw caw caw and went nope, that's a crow.
(I used to think crows were bad luck, but one day I decided to think of them as good luck. My life has been lucky ever since.)
The first night, I watched Manos: The Hands of Fate while I drank whiskey and thought about the work I had to do. My hands kept reaching for my phone. But my phone didn't work. No reception, no wifi. I'd been severed from my life. So I could only pay attention to Manos, instead of Manos + four other things.
I woke to birds doing what they do in the morning. I noticed that they sang with the gray part of dawn and then quit once the light started to rise. Sunrise and sunset were different on the middle of the mountains; the light fell at imperfect angles, and the actual circle of the sun didn't appear consistently with its beams. I ate breakfast and started work. I worked all morning, listening to my iPod (a Classic, now a dead breed and an antique by technology standards. But it's the only model that holds as much music as I need) and not bothering to change out of my pajamas.
At lunchtime I touched my phone, and then looked out the window. Rabbits blended with the chaparral but for their bright white tails. Steller's jays hopped everywhere. Small mammals I couldn't identify (size and appearance of squirrels, with short, sparse tails; way too big for chipmunks, too skinny for groundhogs) dug and quivered in the yard.
I worked for most of the afternoon. I finished 2,700 words: the second chapter of the Casablanca project/the final paper for my narrative writing class. I delved my fingers into my Singin' in the Rain essay and cat's-cradled it, burrowing deeper, finding the elements I'd dashed by on the first pass and hanging them out on the line. I added something over 1,000 words.
Dinner and some wine. The heater had been running on and off all day. The cabin had no central heating and didn't warm up much during the day, and it was genuinely cold, not just cold by California standards, at night. That is a fear I've faced and defeated, and here I was facing it again, during a few days' span when my creativity was the only thing at stake.
The following morning, Saturday, I took my time getting started. I'd accomplished the two main things I needed to. Writing on my thesis could certainly have kept me for another week, but it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I need to turn in 40-75 pages of material in mid-May, and all semester, though I've been fairly dutiful about work on the manuscript, I've had the sensation that what I turn in will be nothing like a finished product. In part because 40-75 pages is not a full-length memoir manuscript by anyone's standards, and in part because I knew it would take unencumbered, untethered, untimed work, for months or years, before I had a finished product I could stand for other people to read.
And, in all honesty, I have never felt good about this project. I didn't want to do it when Chris told me he saw the book in it, and I didn't want to do it when my adviser told me she thought it was a more worthwhile project than anything else I was working on. I didn't want to do it when I'd written a project proposal, when Jesse sketched the line of music I needed to preface it, when I found epigraphs, when I got feedback on the stuff I brought in to my small group, when my adviser told me I was doing great but needed to dig even deeper, when I nailed down present-day experiences to integrate with the old ones, when I uncovered memories I'd forgotten, when I constructed a skeleton to work from, when I found a theme to anchor, when I read Heroines and understood what was missing. No amount of progress made me want to do it.
Departing from this chronological narrative of my trip to Frazier Park, I didn't want to do it when I finished the draft on Saturday (May 6), when I revised it on Sunday, when I printed it out on Sunday afternoon, when I considered how to bind it and hand it in today. I still won't want to do it when I read from it on Friday, May 12. I don't feel ready to write it, even though I've written it. I don't feel old enough. I don't know when it will see daylight as a finished project. I need to reread Bachelard and come to terms with what I've already put on the page, what remains to go on it. I need to decide whether I find myself boring, whether I want to see this book in print, what this is all for. Never have I known such uncertainty. It's good work, I know, good writing, but it feels wrong, in instinctual ways I can't defend or explain.
I drove fifteen minutes down the road, to where I had cell service, and called Matt. "I think I'm going to come home today instead of tomorrow," I said.
"Is everything all right?" he said.
"Of course," I said. "I'm very happy. I'm just finished, or almost finished, and I miss you. I see no need to stay."
"All right, then," he said. "Yay."
I refreshed my inbox. I had 17 new emails. I opened Facebook. I had 26 notifications. I put down the phone and looked up at the mountains, at the falling dust spun up by my tires, at the pines around me.
On the way back, I drove by the Jim Whitener Tree, one of the biggest ponderosa pines in California. It has been growing since before the printing press. The road was too narrow for me to stop and take a picture with my phone. I fixed the look of it in my mind: branches themselves as large as trees, a trunk extending far below the elevated route I drove on, roots so deep, I imagined, they could dig straight through the earth's mantle to its warm core.
Back in the cabin I spent, no kidding, 15 minutes on my feminist manifesto. I wrote two paragraphs, and it was finished. That's work I've been waiting to do since November. It's true that I needed to be in the right frame of mind, but I was still disgusted with myself that it took so long. The DVD player, paused on a Rifftrax short, didn't even have time to go to its screen saver between when I started the two paragraphs and when I finished them.
I went downstairs to sit on the porch and brought my notebook. Suddenly, words arrived. I wrote about the Steller's jays, and about the men working on the house next door, and about the cold I lived through in the winter of 2005. I don't know if I'm finished writing about it - this is the nth time I've done so, I've lost track - but what I wrote felt definitive. As if it was the codex entry. I wrote about the day I took my shirt off in the winter at Mount Holyoke, an incident I still don't understand. I wrote about what happened when I went to the opera in November, just after the election.
Birds. Small mammals. Sunlight.
I went inside, ate lunch, typed what I'd written. I started packing my things, which I'd strewn in disarray all over the bedroom. I gathered up the trash and washed the dishes.
I went back outside to the porch, and while I sat there, thinking, listening to the wind in the green leaves, I heard what sounded like either a small child's shout or some kind of bird's cry. As the sound got closer, I determined it was definitely a bird, although I couldn't imagine what kind. Then a man walked past the cabin with not one but two enormous white cockatoos on his shoulders. He talked in a conversational way - to the birds, I learned shortly.
The man saw me and said hello, and I walked up to the street. I wore pajama pants and flip-flops and a Star Wars t-shirt and you could have fried clams in my hair. He didn't care. He greeted me and introduced me to the more friendly of his two cockatoos, who stepped onto my arm, walked up and over my shoulders and down my other arm, and then walked back again. His feet gripped but did not pinch. His beak and tongue were both black, worn, used; only a tinge of yellow colored his white feathers.
He, the bird, was thirty years old.
After a very pleasant conversation, after the man (Greg) and his birds had headed back toward home, I returned to the porch and sat down. I looked around the yard, my head completely empty of reactive thoughts. "That sure did happen," was the closest I could come. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before.
I decided to leave. Any other possible occurrence would have been a disappointment after meeting Greg.
On the way home, I looked at the mountains. I took the same way home as I took out, but I never once checked my phone, so it all looked completely different. The wild poppies like spilled paint on a hilltop; the clover tinging the yellow grass purple. The sky, and the whipped clouds across it. A hitchhiker and a handmade cast-iron ranch gate. Two trees, one bleached and one blackened, fallen and entwined in a clearing. The leaping engine of a Camaro. An overloaded Dodge Caravan with peeling paint.
I saw the world, is what I'm trying to convey. I saw the world. I didn't see it through a screen, like a concertgoer more interested in recording the show than being present at it. I saw it at its normal pace, not scrolling by with the speed of my finger. I saw it with its own colors, not an Instagram filter. I saw the goddamn world, and nothing about it looked old or small to me. I fell back in love with it. My heart rose with the San Gabriels and fell with the sun.
And I fell out of love with screens, temporarily at least. I realized I'd been allowing the world to shrink to the size of my phone screen, and I'd been seeing everything through that little rectangle. I had missed the real thing for the sake of the simulacrum. Yes, there can be more human connection through the little rectangles than out there in the real thing, I'd be the first to agree with that. But I'd lost track of what I love about the world - its indifference to us, its thereness - in favor of something that would react to me, conform to my needs, be forever novel and new.
I got done almost everything I needed to get done to finish my M.A. that weekend, but I also picked up perspective I desperately needed. My attention had become a baby feeding on pixels, and I needed to grow up again. I owe that to a few days in a cabin, to Greg, to my own words, and to the wind in the pines.