Insane for the Light

A guided tour through a blindside divorce

Thank God I’m not in St. Louis

That afternoon, we ventured back down the hill to check out the grocery store. Libby was a small town, but the grocery store didn’t skimp. I wandered into the dairy section, having already located fresh herbs and high-quality coffee, and found a whole shelf of artisan cheeses.

People eat well out west.

We gathered enough food for the week we were to spend there and headed to the checkout line. We spilled our stuff onto the conveyor belt and waited for Juanita, a bright-yellow blonde with chestnut roots, to swipe our items. When she got to our small head of lettuce, she examined it as though it were an alien space rock. “Tim!” she yelled at the man at the adjacent register. “What is this?”

Tim, a fastidious looking man, turned his head impatiently. This was obviously not the first time Juanita had sought his counsel that day, and given his expression, perhaps not even the first time in the last four minutes. Tim examined our lettuce contemptuously for approximately a tenth of a second. “It’s Boston Lettuce, Juanita,” he sighed wearily, turning his back on her once again.

Juanita scrunched her face in disgust before elevating her middle finger for several long seconds at Tim’s back. “That wasn’t meant for you honey,” she said to E.J. Good to know.

We paid quickly and dragged our mystery lettuce to the car, hopping over ice patches in the parking lot. We were halfway to the rental car when a VW Bus careened past us and screeched to a halt in the space next to ours.  A movement in one of the curtained windows caught my eye. I craned my neck to get a closer look. “Look!” I said. There’s a goat in that VW Bus.” And there it was, peering out the window, horns and all.  Someone had a shotgun goat. I was thrilled. It’s one thing to own a goat; it’s another to let it tag along on errands. I had come home to my people, to shotgun goats and bird-flipping cashiers.  No one in this place would judge me for leaving a frog skeleton in my door frame.

In a time when you hear a lot about the “Californication” of Montana, how quickly you assimilate in a town like Libby depends how quickly you grasp that no one ever really assimilates. But there are practical markers between residents and itinerants.  For example, you can tell a lot about someone’s status by the way they pronounce “Kootenai,” the name of the major river in town and also a name slapped on two out of every three businesses in town.  If you’re passing through, a first-timer or just a tourist, you will call it the Koo-ten-eye or the Koo-ten-ay.  But if you’ve been around, you know that you’re supposed to say “KOO-teh-neee” – and that should be awkwardly smashed together so that it comes out “Koot-n-eee.”  And you shake your head in embarrassment, because that was never one of your guesses when you were trying to figure out how to pronounce it.  But once you’ve been condescendingly corrected by the guy who lets his goat ride along to the grocery store, you learn quickly.

In addition to the weirdness, Northwest Montana is the wildest place left in the Lower 48.  For proof of this, I offer a single metric: grizzly bears.  Grizzly bears are still common in Alaska and Canada, but their numbers are much fewer elsewhere. Grizzly bears are the pit bulls of wildlife. They have a terrible reputation, but are shy, outwardly wimpy and occasionally even adorable. The catch, however, is that they’ll kill you if they feel that they must.  Black bears are edgier and more likely to pick a fight, but are less likely to leave you dead when they do.  These bears are enough to contend with, but when you go outside in northwest Montana for any distance, there’s the constant specter of meeting both of them.  Most of the grizzlies are concentrated in the Glacier National Park area, but there was a healthy clutch of them in the Cabinet Mountains across the valley from the house, as well as to the north in the Yaak Valley.  It was not uncommon to find that a bear had used our driveway as a lavatory after gorging on too many berries, especially when we were gone for long periods of time and there was no one to scare them off.

“What’s the news?” I asked Dr. G one time just after I’d arrived. “What happened while I was back in suburban purgatory?” I asked her this every time I came back, because there was always something for her to tell. “Not much this time,” she replied. “Except Neptune treed a bear and we had to drag him back to the house. Oh, and we caught a bear spying on us through the sliding glass door at dinner the other night. I don’t know if it was the same one or not.”

Not much this time.

One hot day that same summer, as we were hiking along the game trail that branched off the driveway and wrapped around the mountain, we stumbled on a single severed deer leg. The appendage was undeniably fresh but mostly stripped clean of meat, with the exception of a piece of tendon dangling off it grotesquely.

“Snack?” E.J. asked me when he saw it. “Hate to pass up rotten deer tendon, but I’m stuffed from breakfast,” I replied snappily. Thomas had no such reservations. He grabbed the leg and trotted down the trail with it, the tendon streaming backward out of his mouth in the breeze.  It was a small reminder not to think we were anything but part of the food chain – and not the top part.

There was a print on the wall in the house that my father-in-law had found at a garage sale.  It read:

Well sir
this past year in the Rocky Mountains
has been of a customary nature
the Bonnacks stole my traps
met a grizzly that took half my ear
The Blackfeet shot my horse
Went thro the ice on the Gallatin
The Blackfeet stole my cache of beaver
Lost my mules to the
current on Henry’s Fork
The Crow took to
give me a musket ball in the thigh
broke thro a limestone crust and
boiled my horse in Yillowstone
and beavers gettin scarce

But thank God I’m not in St. Louis. Like the poet, I couldn’t help but feel like the place was constantly trying to kill me. But this only made me love it more, as I found myself feeling proud that I could survive there.  Usually, no more than a day passed after arriving in Montana before I began to swagger a little bit.  This never happened in the city.

If the bears didn’t kill you, then you had to worry about other animals. In addition to the more brazen bears, we found mountain lion prints on the trail we walked regularly. The big cats were even scarier, because they were stealthy; they had no interest in advertising themselves.  A third predator arrived when wolves re-established themselves on the mountain behind us.  Then there were the elements. One November night on the road back from Kalispell, we flipped the truck after sliding on black ice on a bridge, coming to rest upright with our tires straddling a creek.    We watched, tensely, as wildfires approached one superheated August, and we could see the threads of smoke slipping up over the mountaintops.

But thank God we weren’t in St. Louis.

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A new friend

I awoke that first morning in a sea of white, and went immediately outside to see what the world looked like on the side of a mountain in Montana in the waning days of the year. A bit of sun played around the edges of the winter cloud cover. The air was cold, but not painfully so – perhaps the cliché about the tolerability of dry heat also applies to dry cold as well.

When I opened the door, all I could see was evergreen trees and the peaks across the valley poking up over their dark green tops. I turned around to see what was behind the house: more trees, and more mountain, reaching ever upward. I spun around and set off down the driveway toward the road.

I knew there were neighbors down the road – Dr. G, an internist at the small hospital in Libby, and her German husband, a math professor who commuted two hours to Missoula to teach courses at the University of Montana. Our house and theirs were the only two dwellings on the mountain. When he wasn’t teaching, the Professor took care of their house and horses, and spent long afternoons working equations I could not fathom in the library of their large, Alpine-style home. The Professor plowed the road in his ancient Suburban, and had kindly turned on the heat in the house for us before we arrived. Dr. G had left a plate of Christmas cookies on the blindingly orange countertop. Five years later, when my father-in-law was ready to sell the house and we badly wanted to buy it, Dr. G and the Professor would finance it for us. Two years after that, when I found myself abruptly back in Indiana without warning, they would buy it from us.

I started down the road at its intersection with the driveway, where longer-lived tire tracks than my own cut through the drifts. Over the course of several winters, I would come to realize that snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year; it reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. A few feet off the road, I noticed a swirl of competing animal tracks. One was unmistakably from a rabbit, with its twin pairs of indentations, one elongated, one shorter. Those tracks were interspersed with a set of larger, clawless, two-lobed mammal tracks: a bobcat. A skirmish had occurred here.

But what happened? Did the rabbit escape? Or did the bobcat get a much-needed winter meal? There was no answer. The snow doesn’t always finish the story.

It was against this backdrop that, a few steps later, I looked up the road and perceived an enormous black creature lying watchfully on the snow, apparently unmoved by the cold. My heart took flight. Bear? I looked again more closely. Bears hibernate, my rational brain interjected.  And they don’t make a habit of reclining on snow-packed roads.

I stood very still, trying to determine the animal’s identity. We faced off that way for a moment, neither of us flinching. Then the beast lifted its thick, brontosauran tail and began beating it against the ground, sending bits of snow flying with every thump, then then roused the rest of its sofa-sized bulk off the snow and loped down the road toward me.

My new acquaintance was, of course, a dog, an enormous black dog with a globe-sized head and jowls that dangled off it like Scarlett O’Hara’s draperies. “You must be Neptune,” I said as he approached. We had heard about the Professor’s dog, a middle-aged Newfoundland. Neptune licked my hand in assent with his beef-sized tongue, and we continued down the road together. I was happy to make a friend so quickly.

The life of dogs was different on the mountain, and so were their relationships with their human companions. Neptune – and his successor, another affectionate behemoth named Donar – retained much more independence than their urban counterparts. With the exception of nighttime, when the mountain became unreasonably dangerous for domestic dogs, their owners trusted their judgment about where they wished to spend their time and when. My own dogs would come to enjoy the same privileges when they were on the mountain.

Both Newfies always understood that we were their friends, and they would sometimes show up unannounced in our living room, having stuffed themselves through whatever door we’d left cracked to catch the summer breeze. If we were present, they might pause before the pantry door and stare plaintively at us, silently urging us to bring out the box of dog biscuits we stored there. Then perhaps they would position their heads under our fingers for a scratch. Or we might simply walk into the room and find Donar’s massive bulk stretched across the couch, legs and tail dangling off, unable to find purchase on the worn leather.

Spring06 202 (2)

Visiting Newfie relaxing on unfortunate carpet.

Nobody minded. This was the mountain, and they were like neighbor kids, moving from house to house as they pleased. If we didn’t want company, we could simply close the door; they didn’t know how to knock. Otherwise, they would hang out with us until the sound of Dr. G’s voice wafted thinly through the window, at which point the Newfie in question would slide lazily off the couch, pause to pick up his biscuit, and waddle off toward home.  This arrangement became much more complicated when I acquired Thomas, a neurotic Border Collie-Siberian Husky mix, and began bringing him to Montana with me. But we all managed to coexist, largely because of the companionable character of the Newfoundlands, the peacemakers of the mountain.

An odd house in the woods

_DSC0043c (2)I had a house in Montana once, an oddly designed, cedar-sided structure perched on a mountain bench in the northwest corner of the state, near the town of Libby. It was a sometimes-home, a place I fled to whenever possible. The house sat at the top of a winding gravel road that rose gently from the river valley below, a ribbon wrapping the mountain. One spring day a few years ago I left it – briefly, I thought – to return to the suburbs of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where we lived most of time. I loaded up the dogs in the truck, closed and locked the gate behind me as I always did, and drove down the mountain.

I didn’t know it was the last time I’d ever see it.

Seven years before that, late on a winter night, I saw it for the first time.

There are no real airports anywhere near Libby, Montana. The town is nestled in a bend of the Kootenai River, which carves its way through the Cabinet Mountains down from Canada, and eventually empties into the Columbia River. The closest airport with reasonably priced fares was in Spokane, Washington. We landed there, rented a car and drove north into the Idaho panhandle. About an hour south of the Canadian border, we veered sharply east into Montana on Highway 2, an isolated, cold mountain road that leads past the tiny town of Troy, into Libby, and eventually onto Kalispell and the Glacier National Park area.

Once in Libby, we followed Fifth Street out of town toward a now-defunct logging mill. (Later I would learn that moose sometimes wander onto Fifth Street and hang out, creating what passes for a traffic jam in northwest Montana.) Beyond the abandoned mill, we turned onto a back road that parallels the Kootenai River for several miles.

Champion Haul road in autumn

Champion Haul road in autumn

Along this usually empty road, at the base of a minor mountain, there was an unmarked gate – a battered metal bar of little consequence that served more as notice than a barrier. Late one night in December, we pulled our rented SUV up to the gate – we had missed it the first time and had to turn around – and I hopped out. There was a crunch as my boots hit the old, packed snow. The icy air froze the tiny hairs inside of my nostrils with each intake of breath. I looked up at the thin, black sky; a few stars poked through the cloud cover here and there. I lay my hands on the metal gate and flinched a bit as the metal drained the warmth from my fingers – I should have put my gloves on first. As I’d been instructed, I unhooked the heavy bar from its notch and pushed it open with the weight of my body, using the momentum to swing it all the way open. The road ahead, dimly lit by our headlights, curved around and disappeared into a stand of evergreens, their snow-sleeved branches draped alongside thick trunks.

The SUV drove past the now-open gate, and for a moment I wondered what it would be like to be left alone on the silent, cold road in the middle of the dark forest. But the brake lights soon flickered a few feet ahead, and I re-latched the gate and ran up the slope to catch them.  This would become a ritual for me in the next seven years; the arrival at the bottom of the mountain, exiting the vehicle to swing open the gate, sucking in the pungent scent of pine in summer, absorbing the sting of the cold gate in winter. But all of this was new as I hiked up the hill that night in fresh tire tracks.

Once I was back in the warmth of the car, my then-husband, Gil, shifted into all-wheel drive and we climbed steadily upward. The lights of the town twinkled below. The road in places was unnervingly narrow and slickly coated with packed snow. Looking through the dark trees, I wondered where the bears were hibernating, and whether the mountain lions, who do not spend the winter as sluggish and sleepy as bears, were lurking anywhere close.

Fall06 173After several  turns around the mountain, another gate presented itself, this one closed and padlocked. Beyond the gate loomed a cedar-sided house with many angles and sloped roofs. This was the house my father-in-law had bought the year before. He spent time here only in summer, so the place had been closed up since September. The house was entirely dark, except for a single light above a door that opened to the garage. Gil reached into the back seat and fished an envelope out of his duffel bag with his dad’s handwriting scrawled across the front. He withdrew two keys from it – one for the gate, and another for the house. I hopped out again and performed another gate opening, and we drove the final hundred yards to the door on unplowed snow. He used the second key to unlock the door, which had an ornate pattern carved in the wood. From there you could climb upstairs to the main part of the house, or go through a door in the back of the garage that led to the bedrooms and a glass-walled solarium.

The inside of the house was jarring.  The place had been built in the early 1980s, when the color schemes of the seventies had begun colliding with the pastel palettes that would haunt the next decade. The front room, a sort of kitchen-great room combination, featured orange carpets and rust-colored formica countertops. The living room on the other end of the house had powder blue carpet and a bathroom with a toilet in a nauseous mauve shade. (Nothing says Montana like a pink crapper.)   In between the front room and the living room, as if standing between the two decades, was a nondescript dining area painted gray, with beat-up parquet flooring. The entire place had a lonely, unlived-in feeling.

The Lizard2 (2)A few days later I would find, sealed into the frame of the front door, the perfectly preserved skeleton of a toad that had been in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. No one had noticed it in the intervening years, or thought to remove it.  I never had the heart to remove it myself, even after I owned the place. It became a kind of morbid mascot for my house in the Northwoods.

And yet, when I looked upward in the front room – instead of down at the unfortunate carpet – there was a gracefully slanted timber frame ceiling, its hard wood gleaming.  A broad picture window looking out at the valley framed the tips of the Cabinet Mountains. I would stand there many times over the next seven years gazing at the view.  In the evening, the sun might be sinking behind the peaks and setting them alight.  If it was summertime, I would hear the chirps of grasshoppers, or the loud flappings of a grouse’s wings slipping through the open windows. If it was the middle of the night, and I’d come upstairs for a snack or a drink, I might hear the coyotes and the neighbor dogs howling at each other down the road.

But late that freezing night, we just stood in the middle of the front room, looking around.  The far wall of this room had windows that opened not to the outside, but to a glass-walled solarium, and a hot tub on the first floor below. Gil cranked open one of the windows and peeked out. It was a strange house, with unexpected rooms and corners and crannies decorated in terrible, terrible colors, all improbably situated on the side of a mountain.

“Damn,” he said in awe as he turned from the window. I nodded, sharing his sense of homecoming. I’d never been anywhere I was more clearly meant to be.

Thirty

I woke on my thirtieth birthday in a small hotel room in Marathon, Florida, one of islands dangling off the tip of the state called the Keys.  I rose from the bed and looked in the mirror. There it was. Three-oh. So that’s what it looked like.

Not that bad. I didn’t seem to be in imminent danger of turning into an old lady, despite the fact that my age no longer started with a two.

The day before, E.J. found a good scuba shop and we spent the afternoon on the reef. I was nervous, because it had been a few years since my last dive. If I’d followed my training strictly, I would’ve taken a refresher course first. E.J. was impatient with that idea, so we rented our gear and spent an hour in the hotel pool refreshing ourselves. E.J.’s scuba skills never seemed to fade anyway, no matter how long he went between dives. I wasn’t nearly as experienced; my skills were tenuous, and diving required constant focus and effort. But the pool session brought them back, and I was eager to be back on the reef again.

The reef is like no other wilderness. It cannot be colonized by humans for anything but the shortest periods of time. We are guests on the reef in a way we’re not in terrestrial wilderness. On land, even miles away from the nearest fellow human, you know you could set up housekeeping with the right equipment, and much of it could be carried on your back. But our time on the reef is unquestionably at the sufferance of its residents, and limited by the amount of breathable air in the tanks on our backs. But the reef can be – and unquestionably is – harmed collaterally by human activity.

When I’m perched on the platform off the stern of a dive boat, it takes me a moment to will myself into the water. The ocean is opaque blue, and sometimes sloshing about wildly. There is no way to know what is just underneath the surface, no way to tell what you will meet when you enter the water.  On the first ocean dive I ever did, during my training, I was violently seasick. “Trust me,” my dive instructor promised, “you won’t be seasick underneath.” I nodded and stumbled to the platform, only half believing I was going to leap into the unknown in this condition.

“Welcome to the food chain,” he said with a grin, two seconds before I scissor-stepped into the water.

I remembered that moment as I paused this time on the platform. But I entered the water this time, too, and as before, the world erupted into a bubbling blue. I was encased in azure; there was nothing else. After a few seconds I remembered to breathe through my regulator, and began swimming determinedly downward while I still had a sense of the orientation of the earth. There was no sound except the rushing of the ocean and my exhalations through the regulator, nothing in the world but a strange kind of breathing.  I swam through the blue and the bubbles, trying to get to somewhere, but I only met more bubbles. The rational part of me knew where I was, but the primitive part of my brain stayed perched on the edge of anxiety.

And then a hand appeared from below, with a gold circle on one finger. I grabbed his hand and we proceeded downward. I had to focus as we swam ever downward, because this process wasn’t intuitive to me the way it was to him. I equalized my ears whenever I felt pressure, which was often. I had to move with purpose and force, because I’m a woman with body fat. Even weighed down with heavy metal weights around my waist, my body always wants to bob up to the surface like a beach ball. It felt perverse somehow, fighting the buoyancy of my body to explore a place I was not evolved to be, but I directed myself downward with determination.

Abruptly, the world became more than a sky-blue canvas punctuated by bubbles. There was an opening, a deepening of color, and my surroundings melted into a darker, moodier blue-green. I could see something down there, a community of sorts.  Plants waved in the current next to coral. A bright yellow fish swam by and examined my mask as if interrogating me about my purpose in his home. He must be the passport control officer of the reef.

I was still clutching E.J.’s hand, and we swam over to a crevice where a moray eel poked its head out suspiciously. E.J. pointed at it, and I nodded. There is no smiling with a regulator in your mouth. The usual modes of expression are stifled while diving. There is no gasping, no words, no smiling. You can open your eyes a little wider under your mask, but that’s too subtle for your partner to notice. Nodding is the outer limits of the expression of amazement, so communication rests mostly on the previous understanding that seeing something like a moray eel is necessarily cause for joy.  I felt very strange, seeing such things and being completely unable to express a natural reaction to them.

We swam this way over the reef for awhile, pointing at things – a barracuda, a lobster, a nurse shark – until the adrenaline burst from the sharp change in surroundings started to wear off. I had just begun to relax when we saw a large, dark-greenish-yellow object, about the size of a small kitchen tabletop, swimming toward us.  We both paused, wondering what it was. The current moved us a little bit apart as we watched the creature approach, and now our arms were stretched out, connected only by our clinging fingers. The animal kept moving toward us, propelled by the rhythmic, graceful movements of its flippers, but, awestruck, we didn’t move away. We looked at each other as we both realized we were playing a game of chicken with a huge loggerhead turtle.

The turtle won. We had no choice but to let go of each other as the loggerhead, disinclined to swerve to miss us, broke through our fingers. We each ran a hand over the turtle’s shell as it passed. This reptile was enormous, and our fingers trailed on its back for what seemed like whole minutes. We stared after it for a moment, and then at each other.  I squealed a little into my regulator, anything to vent some of the awe, but the denseness of the surrounding water rendered my outburst into a flat squeak. By then, the turtle was a fuzzy dark blob in the distance. And then it was gone.

We checked our gauges. Our time in the underwater wilderness had expired. It was time to leave the food chain, and enter a new decade.

Feeling through glass.

Learning to see, in the backyard.

Learning to see, in the backyard.

During our backpacking trip in the Olympics, I kept two double-bagged disposable cameras stuffed into the pocket of my North Face shorts, making it look as though I had a large growth protruding from one hip. After we returned from the trails, unpacked the backpacks and settled into the life we’d prepared for years to live, I took the bulky Ziplocs to the drugstore to get the photos processed. Two days later I received a couple hundred photographs in return. I returned to these snapshots over and over again in an effort to remind myself of the time I spent with a pack on my back.  I wondered at how these images simultaneously captured where I was, yet reflected little of how I felt about being there.

One night when we were hanging out at a bookstore, I wandered into the photography section and found Charles Campbell’s The Backpacker’s Photography Handbook. Campbell’s photos didn’t just convey feeling, they seemed constructed of it. They somehow were how I felt about wilderness, about the outdoors, about nature.

I’d long suspected that feelings could be accessed from imagery. At seventeen, I spent all summer trying to execute close-up flower photographs with a point-and-shoot camera and was unable to figure out why I failed every time. That same summer, my uncle visited with his  wife, my aunt. We drove around the back roads of Indiana looking for things to photograph – covered bridges, old churches, graveyards. His camera was a dizzying amalgamation of buttons, switches, and settings that I could never hope to master. It might as well as have been the flight instruments on a 747. But still, I followed him around as he captured imagery. One afternoon, he set the camera up on the tripod in front of a covered bridge, fiddled with some switches, and handed me the shutter-release cable. “Trip it,” he said. “This’ll be your photograph.” No wonder my point-and-shoot hadn’t rendered the flowers the way I wanted them. My camera was lacking the profusion of buttons and switches I would never be able to understand. I opened the shutter on his camera.

I’m not good at this stuff, I thought. I could never figure that out. My education to that point had consisted of people telling me I was very good with words, but should probably forego any further attempts in the mathematic or mechanical realms.  With respect to math, this was sometimes made both explicit and public. One day my high school algebra teacher decided that the best way to teach us math was to have us solve problems at the chalkboard in a kind of timed competition. “You can be on David and Brian’s team, Jennifer,” she said, referring to two of my friends, and also the two best students in the class. “They need a handicap,” she observed out loud, in front of the entire class, either not caring or not knowing that she had just imposed a judgment on me that would take me years to overcome. And of course, feeling humiliated, I dutifully fulfilled her prophecy in front of the class that day.  The certainty of my incompetence in any technical area followed me to college, and well beyond.

I wasn’t one of those law students who had always been an excellent student, and therefore a demanding graduate program was merely a seamless transition from Phi Beta Kappa college performance. I was an uneven, often depressed college student, so I followed my facility with words, my family history, and most importantly, my test scores, to law school.  I was unaware that legal thinking is, at the core, a kind of mathematical analysis, or at least a geometric proof: if this, then that; but if that, then this.  Legal analysis is a kind of graceful winnowing of facts against established rules, and it has steps, and connections, and elegance. In law school, the dreaded numbers were gone, replaced by mental processes clothed in the words that had always been my greatest strength. Law school tricked me, in a way, because it swept all of my intellectual insecurities off the field. I was wildly successful at it, landing in the top five percent of the class after the first semester.

The lesson I took from my legal education was a new kind of confidence, a sense that I could master anything if I focused diligently, step by step, at my own speed, without pressures or fear. So perhaps I could master the principles of photography.

That’s what I did during that long, dull winter that was so far from the warm mountains of the summer before – I studied, slowly, a step at a time, the relationship between the aperture of a lens, the sensitivity of film, and the amount of time that film was exposed to light. I bought Campbell’s book and spent the winter with it, teaching myself the fundamentals of exposure and composition, learning the language of f-stops and depth of field and hyperfocal distance.  One February afternoon, after months of study and deliberation, I bought my first “real” camera, a Nikon N90S, along with a few rolls of Fujichrome Velvia slide film, and a tripod. Instead of recoiling in self-doubt at the buttons, switches and knobs on a single-lens reflex camera, I patiently broke the understanding of them into pieces.

I read somewhere once that dentists make the best photographers. The rationale was that dentists are comfortable with complex equipment and have the most technical aptitude. Lawyers, the article said, generally make the worst photographers, because we are both arrogant and ignorant of technology. But maybe being clueless about technology isn’t the worst thing, as long as it makes you stop, listen, and consider.

After I finally got my long-waited camera, we went hiking every weekend, and I began photographing the landscape.  I shot the usual waterfalls, creeks, ducks, sunsets, the moon and the bushes in my yard.  At 5:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, we caught a plane to Denver, grabbed some pumpkin pie at an open restaurant, and spent the day watching and photographing elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because almost everyone else was enjoying the holiday indoors, we had the place mostly to ourselves.  The next day we parked our rental car on the west side of the park near a herd of cow elk.  E.J.  grabbed my tripod and I grabbed my photo pack, and we pushed through thigh-deep drifts, chasing after the elk as stealthily as we could, so as not to frighten them.  We found two tall pines and crouched behind them, grinning to one another as a cow wandered in range of my longest lens. I fired off a few frames and lowered my camera for a moment.

What was I doing here in the mountains, following elk in the graying light of a winter afternoon? After a life spent never considering what I might love before considering whether anyone else would approve of it, following elk through two feet of snow seemed like an unlikely compulsion. But here, I had none of the feeling that I had slipped on an ill-fitting second skin; just the one I was born in. Just the one that was mine.

Southbound

It was Elvis’s birthday by the time I got to Nashville. This was Tennessee, and they were playing all his songs on the radio. I drove the steep grades to Chattanooga in the inky darkness. They played Love Me Tender. Atlanta after Chattanooga, and Elvis was singing Suspicious Minds. Valdosta, Georgia by early morning. Return to Sender.

I started from West Lafayette, Indiana the evening before. I rented a car because I knew my fifteen-year-old Mercury wouldn’t make it. I had four days off work, no classes, and almost no money.

I’d met him a few weeks before in a campus bar. He sat in the back of the bar with his chair tilted back a little against the wall. He was wearing a flannel-lined denim jacket, hiking boots and a bandanna around his head that held back locks of straight brown hair that wanted to flop over into his eyes. There was a fading bruise on his lip, and I’d learn later that he’d been in a bar fight the week before. He was slightly drunk, but very funny. His fiancee, apparently reasoning that life was too short for the constraints of monogamy, had recently started seeing someone else. I had just ended my first real long-term relationship only a few weeks before. It was Tuesday night. He would go through commencement on Saturday, and leave for graduate school in Florida on Sunday.

We were both fresh out of a painful breakup. He had a healthy buzz on and three days left in town. I had another semester of college left. What could possibly go wrong? So we spent every minute in each other’s company till Friday night, and then parted. It didn’t think it was a big deal — I had another date that night anyway and a different one for the next night. Still, in a campus restaurant at midnight one of those nights, he asked me earnestly to please give him a chance. But he was leaving.

I said maybe. When I got home after my date on Saturday, there was an envelope stuck in my door. He’d stopped by one more time, leaving a letter.

I wished I hadn’t gone on my date.

He called from his parent’s house as soon as he arrived. I called him back, oddly mystified that our three-night stand seemed to be continuing across the miles. We kept talking all the way through Christmas, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Sometime during that week he moved into his apartment in Florida, ready to start graduate school.

I said nothing to my parents before I drove to Florida, of course. I was an adult, and they really didn’t need (or probably want) to know that I was driving across the country to continue a fling I’d begun in a bar two weeks earlier.  I drove through Valdosta and into a wall of exhaustion. I stopped for coffee. It didn’t help. They played Heartbreak HotelOhhh, I thought longingly, a hotel.

I kept going. By the time I reached the Florida line, the sun had risen. I hadn’t seen it for six weeks at home, and it occurred to me that I could open the window. My mind had been fixed to the assumptions of an Indiana January until the warm air hit my face. I woke up. There was only about an hour left to go. I made it. He was in class, but he left his door unlocked, as discussed. I crumpled onto his bed, and his Golden Retriever puppy stumbled over me several times, then stood there with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, mere inches from my eyelids. I squinted up at him. I didn’t know yet, but he would become more my dog than E.J.’s.  At length, he curled up next to me and we both fell asleep. His owner found us there when he returned.

Two weeks later, he and the dog reversed the trip over a four-day weekend in which we spent only about thirty-six hours in each other’s company. I made one more trip the other way before we realized a long-distance relationship was untenable. We did the math at a restaurant in Gainesville in front of a huge saltwater aquarium. I would graduate in August. I had no plans, but was vaguely interested in law school, and he had almost two years left in graduate school. It would be more than three years before we could even live in the same state.

We had to end the long-distance relationship. So we did.  That August after my graduation, he and I packed a U-Haul trailer with my stuff, attached it to a friend’s Jeep Cherokee, and drove south, sleeping at rest areas on the way.  I couldn’t quite believe I was doing this, but moving for a solid relationship seemed like an acceptable reason for leaving my hometown. Unlike mine, his parents seemed never to have a word to say in judgment of any of his choices, and if they did, it was so mild as to be imperceptible. He mostly assumed that he would do what he wished to do, and that would be okay with everyone. We were polar opposites in that regard – he asserted his own life boldly, and assumed he would navigate the aftermath. I had almost no skill at acting on my own behalf. So I filtered my need for freedom through E.J. like a kind of emotional money laundering. Where there was a gap between the things in life I was drawn to and what I thought were my family’s expectations for me, E.J. was a permission slip through that gap.

In the next year I would scuba dive off the coast of Florida, rock climb in the North Carolina mountains, travel to Puerto Rico, get married, travel to the Bahamas and the Pacific Northwest, and do my first float trip in alligator habitat. All of these things were more me than I ever expected them to be. When something adventurous was on the menu, I would simply point to my husband and shrug, as if I had nothing to do with this outrageous mode of living; I was just indulging the minor quirks of the man I loved.

I was consciously aware of none of this, and so I was also unaware of the fact that E.J. wasn’t really interested in indulging my free-spiritedness. To be sure, I was attracted to him because he knew how to live his own life overtly and boldly, and I didn’t. But in the unconscious dance of attraction, he was at once drawn to and annoyed by the parts of me that my childhood had molded, that I was trying to leave behind – the need for safety, the fear, the restraint. Those were the things that balanced him out. And so a tension blossomed, between the things he consciously wanted from me and the things he unconsciously wanted from me, which were often quite different. And I had my own contradictory needs to reconcile.  The only thing I could see was my own faults, my own inability to pursue my own prerogatives. I could see none of the structures between us that reinforced it.  And so began the Lost Decade.

First Impressions: The life and times of a four-year-old outdoorswoman

“For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it. You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.” – Neil Young

They took me to the mountains when I was four, and I never really came back. My dad would get these ideas in his head about things he wanted to do, and then do them big. This is how he started playing the violin, learning physics, and camping — all between the ages of 40 and 70. He and my mother decided they’d take the matching set of kids — the his, hers and ours of previous and current marriages — off to the Colorado Rockies for a camping trip in our white 1974 Ford Econoline van. The Ford was a hulking eight-passenger van that my petite mother enjoyed driving because it had some presence and heft, unlike the trendier wood-paneled station wagons the other mothers drove. The air conditioner spat a mysterious fluid out of the vent instead of the promised cool air, but otherwise it was considered a cutting edge vehicle. The van even briefly had curtains on the side windows until the adhesive wore off and the rods fell. This was 1975. No one cared much about seat belts yet, so my brother and I spent the drive across the country on the van’s massive floor under the elevated back seats, playing with velvet jewelry boxes he had re-purposed into Star Trek communicators.

Anyone who has approached Denver from the east knows that the Rockies rise abruptly out of nowhere from the plains preceding them. The first time I saw those mountains, we had driven into a resort town and stopped for some reason, perhaps lunch or a bathroom break.  I emerged from my den under the back seats to find a landscape I never knew existed, a massive snow-peaked wall that reached all the way up to God’s butt cheeks. Shocked, I may have dropped my Star Trek communicator. It was July, and yet there was snow up in the reaches. I don’t think anyone noticed that the four-year-old was seizing up, but it was a moment that would define and direct the rest of my life.

We spent that summer and the next exploring those peaks and valleys.  We slept in a big orange tent tucked into flannel-lined sleeping bags, and it was cold in the mornings up at elevation.  We drove around curves and took the gigantic van on narrow mountain roads, and all the while, a longing was being slowly wired into my child mind.

From time to time I see a place in my head, a winding mountain road lined with evergreens, with just the right amount of sunlight passing through the pine.  I’ve never encountered that exact scene again, but when I travel to a new place, I’m looking for it. Every time I emerge in a new place, whether from a plane or my car, I re-experience the moment my mind first knew those mountains. It’s the best and healthiest kind of regression.

In the coming years I would find myself buried under layers of feelings and events, constrained by unspoken family rules I was unaware of and had no role in shaping. But the wonder I first experienced in the mountains blazed the indestructible path out of all that. That path gets better and better worn, and easier to navigate, with every passing year.

Twenty-three years after that first trip, I took that path back to the mountains. The spring before, I finished my law degree at Duke University and moved back to my hometown to take a plum job at a large law firm – and, with any luck, pass the bar exam. I spent June and July studying for the bar and settling into our new house in Broad Ripple, one of my favorite parts of Indianapolis. Broad Ripple is full of vintage homes, restaurants, art and the Monon Trail, a ribbon of greenway cutting through the middle of the village.

I was committed to begin work on the first of September, and the two-day bar exam was over at the tail end of July. Those were good days in the legal field, and my compensation included a large advance to see me through the summer of studying and exam-taking. For the first time in our lives, E.J. and I had a free month, a fat bank account, and no worries. We wondered what to do.

We were tired. Law school, despite being relatively easy for me, was not a garden party. Work and school had been an hour away from the home we had made in between. Long commutes and demanding schedules had numbed us to much of daily existence. An empty month with enough money felt unimaginably rich, an opportunity to come back to life. My lawyer friends had various plans for their August – some of them went to Europe, and some stayed home and enjoyed their toddlers before signing away their lives to the Almighty Billable Hour (Goodbye kids! See you next year!). Others, more tightly wound than I, began their jobs immediately.

Earlier that spring, immediately after graduation, my Golden Retriever and I joined E.J.’s sister-in-law for a brief backpacking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont. It was not my first time sleeping outside, but it was my first time sleeping in any space that could credibly be called wilderness – or the backcountry, as the parlance goes. The weather was still cold in early May. As we settled in for the night, I remained firmly awake, flooded with the awareness that by sleeping in a three-sided shelter in the forest, I was abandoning myself to the many mysterious sounds beyond the lip of the platform.

Come get me. I’m right here. I had never felt quite so alive.

Our trip was not long, but it was enough. All summer long my new hiking boots sat patiently in the corner of our new bedroom, reminding me how it had felt to carry my home on my back in the mountains. I wanted more, and E.J. was eager to do anything outdoors.

So we booked two tickets to Seattle for the middle of August, and in the meantime drove ourselves and our two dogs, complete with their own packs, to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. A new copy of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Collection, the very earnest music of our childhoods, suitable for a very earnest trip, was in the CD player of our used Isuzu Rodeo.

At the time I thought I was just going on a long vacation, but I was really diving into one of the most transformative times of my life. I was on a trip to meet someone I didn’t yet fully know – myself – first on the trails in the Adirondacks, and after that in the mountains and rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. I’d spent fleeting moments with this new friend before, in the Rocky Mountains as a child,  the freshwater springs of north Florida and during my first scuba dive on the reef. But this was a deeper, more extended acquaintance. At the time it felt cruelly ironic to me, finding myself in the wilderness when I’d just spent three years and many thousands of dollars preparing for a career that did not involve mountains, streams, wildlife or trees. (Unless you count the ones that have been turned into paper; I became very well acquainted with those in the following years.) I had met myself in a place that the career I had just teed up would never bring me.

I spent years afterward wondering – who was I, really? Was I the person who napped on a rock on the powder-blue  water of the glacial Hoh River, and swam with the loons in the cold mountain lakes of the Adirondacks? Or was I Spike, the nickname my supervising partner gave me on discovering my unyielding attitude toward litigation? It didn’t seem possible that I could be a blend of those identities, because they didn’t seem capable of accommodating one another. And in many ways, they weren’t.

After three years, I left the law firm, with no new job in sight. I just left. It was a deeply risky thing to do. But I just somehow had to. Eventually, needing to eat and pay rent, I went to work with my father and brother – also lawyers – an arrangement I had always said would never work. But it did work, and over the years my legal job would allow me to do extraordinary things. It allowed me to live in many wonderful places, travel extensively, and meet myself again and again on trails and peaks, and in the middle of lakes and rivers. My life in the law would teach me the beauty of nuance and precision, the sweet distinctions between words, and a sense of detail. I don’t regret it, even though for years I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me because I was unable to live it as a priesthood, as so many others can and do.

I know now that the freedom of wandering around in the wilderness when I was twenty-seven, of being required to do nothing more from day to day other than hike from one glorious vista to another, became a powerful metaphor for the freedom to be fully myself. That’s the only kind of freedom that matters, to be who you are on a whole and integrated plane, one with the things you’ve been encouraged to hack off , like vulnerability and sadness and feeling. I learned early the things to hide behind — knit hats and newspapers among them, along with aggressive careers and veneers of bitchiness. So the wilderness offered the freedom of wholeness, with all its attendant risks. When I was outside in the tender openness of the natural world, I could accept the parts of me that seemed dangerous. My human frailties, fears and pain were mirrored by the bears and cougars and wildfires and other dangerous things I found in these wild spaces. I was lucky to be shown the path to myself at the tender age of four, and I began following it as a young adult without the barest trace of consciousness.

Early times: the things in my house

“Nothing in your house is new.

It is a museum

of other people’s pasts”

–Tom Atkins, “Not a Museum”, in full here.

The big aluminum saucer waited for me at the top of the hill, shimmering in the cold. I had placed it carefully on the most compacted patch of snow on my hill, to ensure the fastest ride down. These days, the saucers are usually plastic and come in an array of colors, but in 1978 my saucer was a utilitarian silver, and the metal made your butt cold. I stepped carefully in front of it, preparing to lower myself into it. This was a delicate operation; if you weren’t careful, the saucer would begin to slide before you were completely in, and you might fall out sideways, allowing the saucer to escape and go on its way without you. Then you would have the chore of walking down the hill to collect it and drag it all the way back up before you could try again. It was important to place yourself firmly in the saucer at the outset. The key was to keep both feet anchored firmly on either side of the edges of the saucer, and at the last minute, pull them on board. Then you could shove off with your hands if needed. Technique was important.

I squatted down clumsily and planted myself into the cold metal, heels dug hard into the snow to prevent my ejection. Before tucking in my feet, I pulled my blue knit cap down over my ears. When everything was in order, I thrust a snow-caked mitten into the side of the hill and pushed. The saucer began to spin immediately, sending frigid air screaming through my nostrils. The saucer rode the bumps of the hill like a speedboat on a wake. I clutched the rope handles with glee as my spine bounced on each impact.

The saucer came to rest at the bottom of the hill, and as I turned I saw that it had left a satisfying indentation even in the already hard-packed snow.   I stopped for a second to catch my breath, and I heard my father’s voice from the top of the hill where I’d begun my adventure ten seconds before. The sound was slightly muffled through my blue knit hat, but he was calling me inside. I was annoyed, and I briefly considered pretending that I hadn’t heard. If the voice had been my mother’s, as it usually was, I might have been able to squeeze in another ten minutes of sledding before being wrangled into the house. But it was my father, and that was unusual.  So I grasped the rope handle and began to trudge uphill, dragging my saucer along, muttering to myself.  This better be good, I thought. What did they want badly enough to call me in after telling me to go play half an hour ago? Probably something dramatic, I figured. They’re probably getting a divorce, I joked sarcastically to myself.

I didn’t know it then, but the reason my father was the one who called me inside was that my mother had refused to.  For her, this would be an involuntary conversation, a kind of forced march forward. When I pulled the sliding glass door open, she was sitting at the kitchen table, her back to the wall she’d covered with cork board, and on which she pinned everything that mattered – all of our schoolwork, notes to herself, recipes, magazine clippings, good report cards, drawings. She was sitting in front of the sea of tacked-up papers, holding a newspaper conspicuously in front of her, as if to hide her face. I peeled my coat off warily. My father had that look he’d get when there was a monumental task at hand and he was struggling to keep things under his control.  I slid quietly into the chair opposite my mother.

I was right. My dramatic speculation while climbing the hill had been right. Did I know, somehow, or was it just a coincidence? Dad would be moving to an apartment immediately. I would finish the school year, and then the rest of us would leave this house too, the only place I could remember living. This was a Sunday afternoon, and I had just been sledding, and I didn’t understand this at all. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the front seat of our van looking out at my abandoned metal saucer, still waiting at the top of the hill where I had dropped it on my way to answer my father’s call. In an instant we were driving toward the new apartment he would be living in; he wanted me to see it.  I wanted him to peel away the events of the last half hour and return me to my saucer, as innocent as I was before he had called me inside. Halfway there, still wearing my blue knit hat, the mask of shock slid off and I began to cry. I pulled the fold of my hat down over my eyes, either to protect my hurt from being seen, or to protect him from seeing my hurt. Or perhaps both.

I’d just had my first experience with one of life’s seismic changes, when the space of a single second changes everything down to the tiniest level, and the world is utterly re-ordered. I was eight years old at the time, and entirely unaware of the fact that “nothing in your house is new”, unburdened by the knowledge of how my parents’ own past – and their parents’ before them —  would shape my life, and even the life of my child. The world went gray for awhile after that Sunday, but I was never again unaware of the role of the past in shaping the future. For many years after that I became fixated on history, as if trying to remove myself from the present and ensconce myself elsewhere, perhaps back before all these troubles had started.  I sensed something radically messy about my fragmented family, and I buried myself in novels about girls and women who lived a hundred years ago, when roads were not paved and dinner was not microwaved, and fathers did not leave families and mothers did not have to go to work downtown – or so I thought, with a child’s sense of simplicity.

When I was twelve years old I acquired The Little House Cookbook, and I became the only preteen on the block who knew how to make butter. I was the only kid my age walking down the country road on a summer morning to the farm stand to buy fruit to make my own jam. The fruit complemented the dill, cucumbers and tomatoes I coaxed from the tiny patch of ground in front of my mother’s condominium. There was something deeply stable about these activities that provided a counterweight to the schism that had opened up in my family. These timeless pursuits were the roots of what would later become my connection to the natural world.  Today, I wonder whether my interest in wilderness has something to do with reaching back to the time when my family  — and myself — were still whole, and my own life was as innocent and pure as an old growth forest.

My jam-making and butter churning were more than mere precursors, though; they were my first attempts at coping with the wildly ungovernable nature of life, my way of planting a flag in a world where so many seem eager to define me for themselves.  I’ve called on this unconscious skill many times in my life, even as I have had no awareness that I had it. The time would come when I would be sitting in my mother’s spot – and this being the digital age, there would be no newspaper to shield my child from my expressions. Some wounds are different than others — they’re an assault on your house, on your very self, and in healing from mine, I drew unwittingly on the long thread of experience trailing back thirty years. If there is, as poet Tom Atkins says, nothing new in our houses, then we must at least choose how we will arrange things.

Impact tremors

My God, I thought, toilets are ugly.

I realize this while lying limply on the bathroom floor of a south China hotel room. I’ve just thrown up, and collapsed to the floor to become more deeply acquainted with the tile. From here I have a clear view of the toilet, and it’s ugly. How have I failed to notice this before? Toilets are awkward looking objects with little sleekness or appeal, their square necks snaking up discordantly from a squat, round bowl. They look like aliens, I think. This is the most coherent string of thought I’ve had in more than an hour, but it’s interrupted when I start to barf again into my homely friend.

This is the best hotel room in a small city of six million near the South China Sea, and presumably also the best bathroom. I’ve been here for ten minutes so far, and all I’ve seen is the ugly toilet and the tile floor, which feels welcomingly cool on my cheek. Less than two minutes passed after I entered the room before my stomach began evicting the lunch I’d eaten earlier at a restaurant on a hazy grey bay in Zhuhai.

I left Hong Kong that morning with my husband, E.J., on the ferry that departs from the Royal Pacific Hotel. When I heard we were going to travel to the mainland on a ferry, I had hopes of a breezy, relaxing ride with ample legroom and an open view. But this ferry was strictly a working boat, a catamaran with airline-sized seating. The passenger area was enclosed on all sides in frosted glass which seemed to no purpose other than to block the passengers’ view of the sea. And worse, we were not permitted to move about once the boat left the dock. We stayed encased in our butt-compressing seats, with no sense at all of the progress of the trip.

Trapped in my seat and denied a view of the water, I occupied the time by filling out the passport control card for my entrance into mainland China. Most of it could be done in English, but there were two boxes that required me to copy, with exact precision while on a moving ferry, four Chinese characters. Our minder, Alistair, had written them clearly on scrap paper and handed them to us. (Chinese people who do business with Westerners usually adopt English names, and they often sound very British.) Fortunately, I trusted Alistair, because for anyone else it might’ve been funny to give me script that actually said “Eat a bag of dicks, ass-chicken,” and I would’ve dutifully copied it down on the official document and presented it to the stern Chinese immigration official. But Alistair was a deeply earnest, very diligent person, and impossible not to like and trust. When I was done, I was pretty sure my Chinese writing looked a lot like my four-year-old’s printed English. But I’d crafted a card that might embarrass me at passport control but would probably get me into the country.

It must be a universal principle that the people staffing passport control be selected from the nation’s surliest characters. In the business of policing the barriers that human beings build around themselves, the Surly Immigration Officer — who stamps your passport reluctantly, who has given his best effort to find a reason not to and has failed – can serve only one purpose: to remind you that you are at the mercy of a foreign government, and to behave yourself, or else. It’s foreign policy posturing at the grassroots level. It’s the same thing with the blaring red digital sign at the ferry dock notifying us that if we were carrying drugs, the Chinese government would probably execute us. Thanks, I thought. I appreciate the notice, because that would be an unpleasant surprise. Whoops! Americans are the worst, though. Our passport control officers are mean and we make entrants fill out their entry cards entirely in English. But at least the grouchy immigration officer would be the last unfriendly person I would encounter for the rest of my time in China. We were here on business. Everyone was friendly.

Alistair had arranged for us to be picked up outside the immigration building in a minivan which was to take us first to lunch in Zhuhai, then along the South China Sea to our destination city. Hong Kong had been a dazzling place with skyscrapers, a peak in the middle, and stunning beauty. The mainland seemed different to me, gloomier somehow. The humid, overcast April day didn’t help.

Around lunchtime, our driver turned down a long, peninsular drive toward an ornate building surrounded on both sides by water. As we entered, a gentleman led us to a room lined with fish tanks, where we were instructed to select our lunch. We could choose between stone fish, crab, sea worms, fish entrails, crocodile, turtle, snake, and an unidentifiable form of phallic-looking sea life that was stacked on end, swaying back and forth. They reminded me of groupies at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert during Freebird. All they needed was lighters. Neat. Deciding to ease into the culinary scene, I punted and picked out shrimp.

We ate in a private dining room with a Lazy Susan on which was displayed snails, my shrimp (which had kept their heads), some delicious kind of pickle, and lots of a lobster noodle dish. My prissy taste buds recoiled from the tough, sinuous snails, but I swallowed it with a smile and moved on. I tried a bit of everything, because that’s what was polite, and I was determined not to be the Ugly American. The lobster and noodles were tasty. I ate more, along with the unknown pickled vegetable and a plateful of rice.

After lunch, there were three more hours to our destination, and Alistair had plans for us along the way. I rode in the backseat of the van, watching the new and different landscape roll by. After about an hour, we stopped at a gas station for the bathroom, and our driver bought a small package of freeze-dried chicken feet. This pleased me, because it proved that disgusting convenience store foods are universal. America has pork rinds, and China has freeze-dried chicken feet. It was one of those happy traveling moments where you feel closer to home and very far away at the same time.

But looking back, the chicken feet might have started it. By the time the minivan pulled into a small resort town on the South China Sea, my stomach had untethered itself and was floating up into my throat. I thought I was mildly car-sick, so we walked a bit on the beach. The haze was so heavy the horizon was invisible. There were people around, but an oddly flat atmosphere prevailed. A few people were selling things from covered stands, and they all turned to stare at us. Things seemed weird. I couldn’t tell if things seemed so weird because I was getting sicker, or whether I was feeling sicker because things seemed so weird. We got back into the car and drove up a mountain to a new resort that was under construction. Here, there was almost no one – no one working, no one wandering around, no one anywhere. As we strolled along the newly-constructed veranda, my face erupted into a chilly sweat. I sat down at a table and began to tremble. I suspected a bad case of motion sickness combined with lingering jet lag. The tequila I’d had at the Mexican bar in Hong Kong was probably not improving the situation. We agreed to scratch plans for dinner and continue to the hotel.

As we sped across the countryside toward the city, the world took on a sort of twilight surreality. The Chinese characters zooming by on road signs only made it worse. The landscape looked ever duller and more threatening. As we approached the city, the constant rhythm of car horns drummed on my head. I am an anxiety-based life form, and panic sprouted in my chest as I began to wonder what was wrong with me. Finally, thankfully, we pulled up in front of the hotel. I tumbled out of the van and into the hotel lobby, still quivering, still sweating, and trying to breathe slowly to keep myself from throwing up. You cannot blow chunks in this lobby, I instructed myself. E.J. had told me that this city received few American visitors, and he got stared at every time he visited. I was not going to be the American who showed up at the hotel and barfed all over the front desk. Someone else could do that, but not me. Desperate, I remembered a tip I learned in my childbirth class to forestall morning sickness, and immediately pressed my index finger to my upper lip. The instructor said the upper lip is a pressure point, and she’d used it several times to keep sick kids from throwing up till they could get to the bathroom. For all I knew it was a placebo. I didn’t care.

I stood there at the counter, shaking lightly, while Alistair helped E.J. through the endless check-in process, during which the language barrier became abundantly clear. I didn’t want to be the Puking American, but I could live with being the American who stood there vibrating like a Hitachi Magic Wand with her index finger pressed nervously against her upper lip. I did this all the way through check-in, through the elevator ride up to the third floor, and until the door closed. I found the bathroom, removed my index finger, and my stomach started throwing lunch overboard.

That’s how the night went; I would vomit for a little while, return to the bed where E.J. was and slip into a sort of half-sleep populated by nightmares and exaggerated fears, until I woke up and it was time to throw up again. Barf and doze, barf and doze. He slept through most of it, but worry played in my head on a loop in my half-sleep. How sick was I? Would I have to go to the hospital? One of E.J’s co-workers had gotten so ill with food poisoning on a trip to this city that he’d had to go to the hospital. The doctor, he related to us with wide and privileged eyes, had thrown the used needles on the floor. My anxiety rose. I sweated a lot. What if I died? What would happen to my son? Why couldn’t I have waited to get sick later in the trip, perhaps in Shanghai or Nanjing?

Mercifully, my brain eventually shut down, and so did my gag reflex. Two minutes later, though – or so it felt – E.J. nudged me a little. “Hey,” he murmured. “I have to go.” We were in China on business – his business, which was supplying the United States with Chinese-manufactured consumer products. He had suppliers to meet. This was his sixth trip to China, and my first.

“Whf?” I moaned in reply. It had been less than two hours since my last session of Barf & Doze, and I had intended to ask “Why are you interrupting the first sleep I’ve had all night?” But “whf” was all that emerged. Whf.

“Remember where Alistair offered to take you?”

This was obviously intended to be an actual conversation. I opened one full eye. “Yeah,” I grunted. The rural village Alistair grew up in, before surprising everyone by becoming a wealthy entrepreneur, was within twenty miles of this city. He’d offered to take me there, introduce me to the people, and let me take some photographs of a markedly non-touristy side of China. But I was confused at the question, because I thought it was pretty clear that my condition made that an unwise trip. I mean, look what happened to the first President Bush when he pushed it on an Asia trip.

But over the next few seconds, I realized that he didn’t understand at all.

“Well, are you going?”

I groaned. Here we were again. E.J. always reminded me of the Black Knight from Monty Python. No matter how sick he was, he always seemed able to pull it together and do what he needed to do – It’s just a flesh wound, you know – and I always felt like a weakling when I couldn’t do the same, or just didn’t want to. Getting food poisoning in a foreign country, after all, wasn’t enough of a reason to fall down on the task of being adventurous, was it?

“I suppose you would jump right up and go explore China if you were me, right?” I asked, the question slightly muffled because half my mouth was still pressed into the pillow.

“Well, I have. I’ve been where you are.”

“What?” I opened the other eye. I wasn’t buying this. “When?”

“I’ve been sick on previous trips,” he insisted.

“I don’t remember hearing about that,” I said. “I don’t remember you throwing up all night.”

“Well, I didn’t throw up all night,” he conceded. “But I’ve had diarrhea.”

I was offended now. I opened my second eye and propped myself up on the pillow. “Diarrhea?” I snorted. “Please. I aspired to diarrhea last night. I prayed for diarrhea. I would have thrown that lunch a goddamn parade if it had stuck around long enough to become diarrhea.”

He sighed, irritated by my irritation. I sighed, disappointed in his disappointment. And, somewhere in the back of my own mind, I was disappointed with myself for not living up to – something. He surrendered. “Okay. I have to head out,” he said. “Mmf,” I replied, half asleep again from the effort of the conversation.

After his first meeting he checked on me, and brought me orange juice from the hotel restaurant. Orange juice in this south China hotel is not from a carton. It is freshly squeezed, light, foamy, and sweet, and it kept me alive that day in between naps. By the following morning I was upright again, and able to join E.J. and Alistair in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, even though I only ate watermelon and glanced queasily at Alistair’s squid noodle soup.

In between bites of egg, E.J. nodded at a man across the room, sitting at another table. “Isn’t that Charlie?” he asked Alistair, referring to another supplier he was scheduled to meet the next day. Alistair looked over and nodded. “Charlie, yes,” Alistair said. “Why doesn’t he come over and say hello?” E.J. asked. Alistair looked confused. “I don’t know,” he said. “Very strange.”

That night, I asked E.J. if he ever found out why Charlie ignored him at breakfast. He laughed. “Yeah. He thought you were my mistress, so he stayed away out of respect.”

“Your mistress?” I asked incredulously. We shook our heads and chuckled.

I didn’t question at the time why it was so easily assumed that an American man sitting with a woman at breakfast was obviously having an affair. But there was a bigger question lurking: If my husband was going to have an affair, whispered the voice inside my head, why would he have it with someone who looked like me?

Insane for the light

The name of this blog comes from Goethe’s poem, The Holy Longing:

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you,
when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.

A few weeks ago, I was having a discussion with someone I’d recently met, someone who has been through her share of trials, and probably the shares of a few others as well. She wasn’t sure why, she said, but she felt more comfortable with people who had been through Big Pain.

Big Pain, she said, tended to make people more real, more honest, more understanding. She was right. She knows it, and Goethe knew it: And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on this dark earth.

I named this place Insane for the Light because that’s what I remember most about Big Pain. That feeling of clawing your way upward from pain, determined to rise up from it, grow and learn, and yet you’ve completely lost your marbles. Especially during a divorce, which even has a book written about it called “Crazy Time“, you do go through a period of perfect insanity. You say blunt things to people in elevators. You make repeated phone calls to your estranged spouse expressing your continuing disbelief at his behavior. You fall apart in strange places. You laugh at the wrong times. You stop eating and watch your body disappear. You travel across the Atlantic Ocean to meet someone you know only from television.

This is the insanity from being rearranged at an atomic level against your will, the insanity of what writer Elizabeth Lesser calls “staying awake through pain.” But it’s also an epic pissing match for survival and for growth, a striving for transformation: “And finally, insane for the light, you are the butterfly, and you are gone.”

You are gone.  You have died, and grown.