Space Invaders

As an introvert, I don’t typically start conversations. And I almost never start them with strangers (unless I’m trying really hard to be approachable). So I’m always taken by surprise and always a bit uncomfortable when strangers start conversations with me out of the blue.

First, they may not know it, but they have actually interrupted a conversation I was already having…with myself…in my head.

Second, I find that to me personal space is more than just physical. It’s aural. And if there have been no formal introductions or good manners have not dictated the talking (as in the cases of telling to the person behind the counter your coffee order or saying excuse me when you bump into someone) it almost feels inappropriate, like when you watch that brief ungloved hand touch in the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice and somehow that’s the sexist thing in the whole movie until she catches sight of Darcy striding toward her in the morning light after the countess visits her, and then they ruin it in the American version with that stupid sappy tag on the end with them sitting outside by the reflecting pool at his house…

ANYWAY.

That’s what this one is about…

 

There’s alone…and there’s alone.

I’m alone a lot. This is not a problem for me. Usually. I like being alone to work. I must have some measure of alone time to read and write. But there is such a thing as too much alone.

When I was a child I planned to live alone when I grew up. Well, not alone exactly. I would live with animals—a horse or two, dogs of many breeds (all of which I had already named), perhaps a mountain lion . . .

I’d live in Montana where I would enjoy a vast view of mountains and forests and fields stretching off in every direction, a wisp of chimney smoke on a dim, far hillside the only indication of habitation in sight. I would heat my small cabin with a woodstove and read by candlelight.

No humans ever factored into my plans, not even my own family, not even as visitors. No means of supporting myself did either. Though I knew with certainty that I’d be running what would amount to a modest animal sanctuary, I never considered that I might need to buy dog food or pay a veterinarian or use a phone or flush a toilet.

One of the special qualities of childhood—one that I miss—is the unabashed embrace of total impracticality. No need to bother oneself about such petty concerns as money when there was fun to be had outdoors.

Another childhood tendency I miss is utter ignorance of the law of non-contradiction. At the same time I envisioned a solitary life of riding across foothills with an eclectic pack of happy dogs at my steed’s heels, I imagined I would be also be a noted explorer and photographer for National Geographic, a bestselling author, a chart-topping singer, and once, after watching Elvis Stojko doing backflips and landing quadruple toe loops (often while wearing tight leather pants), an Olympic gold medal figure skater, despite the fact I’d never ice skated in my life.

Whatever I did, I was confident of enjoying simultaneous worldwide fame and complete anonymity and solitude. Perhaps I thought my many admirers would write me letters that I would pick up once a month at a distant post office in a town with one blinking red traffic light.

I don’t think I have to tell you that none of this came to be. I have never owned a horse or a mountain lion. I have had one dog of mixed breed that already had a name. My small back yard looks into the back windows of a TV news station on a corner serenaded by the constant din of traffic on the four lane highway to the north and the expressway to the east.

I’ve never even visited Montana.

Except for the couple months leading up to my wedding, I’ve never lived alone.

Not long after Elvis Stojko captured the silver medal in Lillehammer (damn you, Alexei Urmanov), I met a funny, self-assured, dark-eyed young man during the auditions for Arsenic and Old Lace at my high school and thoughts of living alone vaporized. Five years later we were married, he was in seminary, and I was finishing a delightfully impractical undergraduate degree in English. Soon after that, we started having mice as pets. Eight years later, he was a pastor, I was working from my home office, and we had a baby, a cat, and a dog.

Our cat had to move due to our son’s allergies. Our dog died last month. Our son is in school.

And during the day, I am alone. Alone in a way I had not imagined as a child. Because in those childhood plans, there were always animals present.

I recall now why I wanted to get a dog in the first place. When we moved in 2005, I began working from home. Alone. Yes, I had the cat, but cats aren’t dogs. They don’t smile at you. They don’t initiate interaction until it’s really inconvenient for you (somehow they know). If I talked to our cat and got any sort of look in response it certainly wasn’t one that invited further discussion. Yes, she was amusing at times, in the same way an out-of-control friend might be—she made you laugh now and then, but mostly you were just waiting for her to destroy something dear to you.

I’m not sure about our son, because he doesn’t talk about it much, but I know my husband and I are feeling the loss of our old dog more than we expected we would. When I come home from my weekly visit to the office, I expect someone there to be happy to see me. But no one is. When I come downstairs in the morning I still expect there will be someone down there waiting for me, someone to say good morning to. But there isn’t. When something falls on the floor at the dinner table, we have to stop ourselves from calling out Sasha’s name so she can earn her keep. There’s no one to lick melted ice cream out of our bowls or syrup from a breakfast plate.

As I work in my home office my normal rhythm of breaks to let the dog out and in has been broken. I find myself standing up and walking into the dining room where our dog spent so much of her time in the past couple years and then kind of wandering around a moment. Why did I get up again?

I was going to run my own private animal sanctuary. Now the only life in this house during the day other than me is a rosemary plant I’m trying to overwinter inside and three freshwater puffer fish up in my son’s aquarium. But they aren’t much for conversation.

We’re still giving it time before we make any decisions…but our hearts seem to be inclining toward a new pet. Maybe sooner rather than later.

Goodbye, Glorious June

Sunday afternoon I took in the last bits of June at Fenner Nature Center’s restored native grassland area. I strolled among innumerable flowers, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and a few mosquitoes (They’re finally here. Hooray.) and listened to birds trilling and wings buzzing. It was the perfect summer day — the one we remember from childhood — with blue skies and time stretched out in all directions.

Native wildflowers at Fenner Nature Center, June 2015

Butterfly weed

Milkweed at Fenner Nature Center

About to bud...

Native wildflowers and grasses at Fenner Nature Center

Wildflower gone to seed

Mourning Cloak butterfly on milkweed at Fenner Nature Center, June 2015

Coreopsis and butterfly weed

Coreopsis at Fenner Nature Center, June 2015

Native grasses against a dramatic summer sky

About halfway through the afternoon I was joined by a friend who seemed content with my company for a while.

Whitetail deer

Whitetail deer

Whitetail deer at Fenner Nature Center, June 2015

We eventually went our separate ways, I to the pond to look for frogs and turtles, she to another patch of grass.

It was a lovely time away from people and the Internet, though I was disappointed that I could still hear traffic and some kids screaming in a nearby backyard. It has me looking forward to quiet July mornings on Lake Louise before the campers drag themselves out of bed and hiking through Pigeon River Country State Forest in October with my sister.

I asked my husband if he ever feels the pull to be completely away from people and all people-related things. He never has that he can recall. If I don’t get that kind of alone time in the natural world, I start getting anxious. We are both reluctant suburbanites. He would prefer to live in a high rise in New York or Chicago or Boston. I’d prefer to live in a log cabin on a remote island off the shore of Lake Superior. The day after I shot these pictures, he and our son spent an impromptu day in downtown Detroit, riding the People Mover and checking out the skyscrapers.

When I think about it, this is practically the only difference between us anymore. We’ll have been together 20 years this October (since I was fifteen), and in that time we’ve grown up and into one another so that we really are one, as we should be. Our culture so prizes individuality that I think this notion is rather quaint these days. But when it works, there’s nothing better.

Bee on coreopsis at Fenner Nature Center, June 2015

 

The Work We Accomplish and the Work We’ve Yet to Do

GunLakeFireplaceI’ve just returned from a weekend excursion with my husband to Gun Lake where we sat (and slept) by a roaring fire for three days of writing with no responsibilities, interruptions, or internet. The house at which we stayed isn’t remote or lonesome–Gun Lake is fully developed. But there’s something about driving an SUV through a foot of unplowed snow on a long driveway that approximates the feeling of remoteness.

Temperatures were in the single digits and wind was fierce, making the frozen lake look and feel like the arctic tundra. Glancing ahead to the extended forecast, I see that the remainder of February will be very cold. No brief thaw for us this time around. Which is all well and good, I guess, as it inevitably leads to misguided feelings of euphoria that spring is just around the corner. We know better.

And anyway, who needs spring? Our indoor projects are not yet accomplished. As I type this, I hear the sounds of hammering below me as my husband puts the trim along the bottom edge of some new shelves in the family room. Today’s big project will be going through our son’s toys with him, weeding out the unused stuff, and making the basement family room into Toy Central, thus ridding the living room of constant six-year-old related clutter (I hope).

Sometime this week or next I’d like to get back to my rabbit mosaic and add the background tiles. The workroom and laundry room in the basement need serious reorganization and cleaning (so much sawdust!). There’s an embarrassing amount of piled-up fabric in my sewing area. And I’d really like to finish the prep work for a quilt I’ve been making for my son for the past three years (during which I’ve been periodically cutting out and hand-basting the edges of nearly 3,000 little hexagons) so I can get the top sewn together (again, by hand) and then quilted (by machine!) before he graduates from college (again, he’s six).

And somewhere in there I’d love to get the first draft of I Hold the Wind completed. I had had hopes of doing that this past weekend at the lake, but here I am home again with an incomplete draft. I’m happy that I made some more progress on it, but I left the lake with a nagging dissatisfaction with my work. It wasn’t bad, just…inadequate.

This morning I opened up a file on my computer titled Big Questions. It’s a list of, well, big questions that I want to consider and perhaps answer in this story. They are the themes and issues I wanted to explore. They’re what made this story idea so appealing to me in the first place. But somewhere in the middle and toward the end there, I got so focused on getting the plot down that I stopped thinking about these big questions. It happens. You may have to get through Lamott’s shitty first draft before you can make a story all that you believe it can be. Still–it’s painful to write stuff that’s not up to one’s own standards.

What I accomplished at the lake was forward motion. What’s needed now is depth. And depth can be achieved by slowing down, digging back in, focusing on character, and shining light on the little details that create poignancy and permanence in a reader’s mind.

And what better way to spend a long string of cold February mornings?