On vision and its alternatives.

There was a heavy mist this morning, the kind that layers itself into a dense fog, wiping out the neighbors, the trees, the lane lines, everything but the headlights of approaching cars.  A morning like this takes faith: that you’ll see the sun again; that you’ll find your way; that terrifying or immovable objects won’t materialize before you.

The year I turned twenty-two, everything had changed for me.  I was in therapy; I had broken off a toxic long-term relationship; I was beginning to see with my own eyes and to understand that I had a heart.  (Note: graduate school is not always the best environment for this kind of learning, but you take what you get.)  It was wildly uncomfortable.  Feeling lost and alone and bold and exhilarated, I took off by myself over fall break, heading to the coast of Maine in my little Toyota and ultimately ending up at my dad’s little lakeside cabin in New Hampshire.  He was away, and I had the place all to myself.

The morning of my actual birthday, I awoke to a vague and even brightness: the gloaming before sunrise broadcast through a heavy fog.  It was cold enough for more layers than I had brought, and I buttoned my father’s old wool shirt over my own clothes.  After stoking up the woodstove against my return, I went out into the dew-soaked grass, along the mulch path to the canoe, overturned on its sawhorses.  I flipped it, thrilled to be handling a boat again, and lifted it by its gunwale down to the shore.  The water was one of those things you take on faith; until it holds you up, you can’t quite be sure it’s there.

I knew the shape of the lake, and the point of entry to the bog at one end.  I headed there, my j-strokes silent and sure in the stillness, my vision awake but helpless in the whiteness.  I felt the bog before I saw it, the scratching arms of swamp laurels against the canoe, the susurration of pickerelweed beneath the keel.  I spent a timeless hour in there, paddling slowly or not at all, soaking in the smells and sounds of the water and its creatures.  At last, hungry and aware that the mist was rising, I made my way back to open water, just as the sun turned yellow.  I watched the first breeze swirl the lifting fog, saw the water shift beneath it, a conversation so sure and swift I ached to belong to it.

I had no idea, you see, where I was, and no idea where I was going.  I was disembodied, alone in a craft I could both trust and handle, and entirely unclear on what was ahead.  It was when I began to see: what’s ahead is not, perhaps, what matters.

Barbara Kingsolver says, in Animal Dreams, “What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination.  It’s just the road you’re on and the fact that you know how to drive.”  I always thought the destination mattered, too, that if you didn’t have a map and a plan and ideally a pretty firm schedule, you’d never get anywhere.  And that seemed to work okay for me until, oh, thirty-five.  But then I had to learn it all over again: being here, and loving it, is how we live.

We complain about the fog because it makes it harder for us to see.  But “seeing” is perhaps the problem.

Kingsolver again, this time in Prodigal Summer, says that moths fly all crazy-like because they lack binocular vision.  We humans focus on a thing in the distance and head for it in a straight line.  This is our paradigm for progress, for productivity, even for pleasure.  We “achieve,” with all the interwoven senses of attaining and possessing and completing.  But what else do we filter out in order to make this kind of movement, this achievement, possible?  A moth moves not by vision but by olfaction, testing the air at impossibly frequent intervals for the highest concentration of the scent they desire.  They adjust their flight path accordingly, first one way, then the next.  And while they look lost, confused, even foolish to our straight-line minds, they do find what they seek.

We, on the other hand, so often find what we thought we sought.  What we did once seek.  But our desires may have changed; we may have missed important possibles; the very air in which our “goal” hangs may be toxic in ways we simply could not see.

A little less light?  A little more fog?  A quieter, more sniffing-out approach?  A spot of stillness, where we let the light shine down however it will, and welcome it?  I can’t say.  And I wouldn’t, anyway.  But I will add that as I headed down the road this morning and the wind blew orange leaves from below my wipers, I smiled into the fog before me.

On writing as an act of generosity

I am a big fan of generosity.  I love the notion of giving, of gift as interaction and interaction as gift.  And I’m a big fan of writing.  But it has only recently occurred to me that those might be the same thing.

Naturally, there are many writers whose work felt like a gift to me — Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, and many more — but it felt private.  It was the emotional counterpart to my teenage habit of hugging a book to my chest as I snuck off somewhere to read (since I was not supposed to be reading but rather doing something “productive” like washing dishes).  I cherished the words and the stories and I felt wildly privileged that they spoke to me.  To ME!  But as I got healthier and wholer, I came to see that the larger political significance I’d always attributed to stories was perhaps the same thing as this deeply personal conversation, just on a broader scale.  As these and other writers opened my eyes and my soul to the wider world, and as I learned (ironically, well AFTER my PhD in Comparative Literature) how many other eyes and souls were out there, doors ajar, because of their writing, I came to see that this is their gift to the world.  Barbara Kingsolver, in fact, talks about this in a video she did way back when Animal Dreams was first published (which I can’t seem to find today); she says, essentially, that the most important thing she can do for this broken world is to put her butt in chair and write.  It’s true, she tends to work on the macro level, I think: witness this excerpt from a conversation with David Gergen about how stories structure and define our world, our nation, our communities:

“DAVID GERGEN: –but through your own novels to invent a new set of stories for us, is that what you’re about?

BARBARA KINGSOLVER: It is in my own little corner. That’s what I’m trying to do. I love what Joseph Campbell said about mythology. He said that our stories are what holds us together as a culture, and as long as they’re true for us, and as long as they work for us, they–we thrive. And when they cease to become true, we fall apart, and we have to reconstruct them or revitalize them. We have to come up with new myths.”

And of course that’s what she does: her stories enable us to connect to the land and the people who work it; to understand the histories of human movements and failures; to imagine ourselves into a capacity for managing heart-wrenching, world-churning change that right now seems certainly fatal.  But what’s brilliant about Kingsolver is that she works on the micro level as well.  Her characters and her language are so compelling, so utterly moving and hilarious and desperate and comforting, that we can’t help but be drawn in.  As a reader, I’m in awe of that.

But now I find myself thinking, for the first times in my life, as a WRITER too.  It feels like hubris, and perhaps it is. But I’m slowly, slowly catching up to the notion that when we have a gift to give and we believe in generosity, then we have to give it.  Even if it is our writing.  Even if it is a painful exposure or a risk or an embarrassment, or whatever it turns out to be.  Maybe we have to do it.  (I’ve had little angels tell me this before — angels in the sense of folks who show up to say wise things or be there when you need them — the most memorable of which was a guy at a conference in San Francisco years ago who came up to me after I’d spoken in a seminar to ask what my book was called.  I said I hadn’t written one, and he asked why not, and then he held my eyes while I squirmed.  “This isn’t about ego,” he said.  “The world needs to hear what you have to say.  You have to get out of the way.”)

So here I am, trying to get out of the way, though a little confused by the whole thing and unsure of what comes next.  I am grateful for the readers I have and hopeful for more; I am grateful for the extraordinary writers (novelists, bloggers, poets, and authors of all stripes) who inspire me every day with their bravery and their brilliance.  I am grateful, I suppose, for the gift I’m perceiving and for those of you who are out there to give it right back by receiving.