Saturday, June 11, 2011

Of One's Own


6:30 AM and I sneak out my front door, computer in tow, to the cabin, nestled amidst trees a hundred feet from our house, that I built when I was sixteen. I say “sneak” because that’s what I have to do these days to get away. If my daughter sees me leaving the house she’ll pull on my pant legs and whine and whimper and create a noisy, babbling, endless scene of drama and drawn-out love until I cave and sit down on the floor with her to read a book and kiss her soft and earth-smelling head. But if I make my footsteps feather-light, and peel the door open and closed, lifting it just so, applying pressure in the right places so it doesn’t creak? Then I’m free.

The cabin: 14 x14, hemlock framing, pine floors, pine walls, a south-facing wall of small-paned salvaged windows. A few panes fell out last winter which means there is a nice woodland breeze: scents of pine and hemlock and spruce, sounds of cheerful robins and sparrows and woven between, the subtler, haunting song of the veery. When I was sixteen this square, windowed room was a necessity, a sanctuary, my saving grace. It was a place to bring boyfriends and smoke and drink wine, yes. But mostly it was a place to be myself. A sleeping loft, a vintage, mint-green gas stove for making coffee or tea, a table for a typewriter and notebook. At night I read by candle-light—Eva Luna, 100 Years of Solitude, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, The English Patient. The pages curled in the woods’ damp and moths dove into the candle’s flame and died there. There was a harrowing loneliness and necessity in all of it; an adolescent and thus existential desire to be both lost and found. On the typewriter I wrote poems, essays, fragments of fiction. No one read or heard a word of it, except my three-year-old cousin who came by one day. “What are you writing?” he asked with such earnest curiosity I couldn’t deny him.

I read a poem about the desert. When I was done he looked at me. “I didn’t really understand all of it, but I got a really nice feeling, just though the sound.” I smiled.

High school was, for me, a bust. My mother and I were fighting. But this cabin—

My dad and I built it together. Cut a few trees and made two corner posts out of stumps, the other two of make-shift piles of stone. We bought a few hundred dollars of milled hemlock and pine, collected old windows and pounded nails until I had a square box with a wall of glass (dissolution between the boundaries of inside and out) and a door (also made of glass) that faced the trees. And that was all it was--a box.

I didn’t cook elaborate meals here or plant a vegetable garden or invite anyone else to make it their own. Mice moved in every winter and had to be evacuated each spring. Mosquitos and blackflies and moths flew in through the open eaves. But other than these woodland creatures it was mine, and mine alone. I owed nothing to anyone while within these walls. I felt free and vanquished and frighteningly alone. I was sometimes too frightened to read my novels—the disappearance of myself so completely in those pages, with no one nearby to bring me back, was too much. I should have read poetry, but at that age didn’t know how. So I wrote it. Fragments made of words, scattered across white pages. A way to mark my presence (and ensure it). The creation of narrative in order to weave an identity through which to know my name. The walls provided the safe space, the sanctuary of silence and protection and light that every good church provides, at a time when that was what I most needed.

And I think they might just provide them again.

The cabin's not what it was then. Right now it houses: cross-country skis, my daughter’s sleds, boxes of winter kindling, Red Heart the Ticker CDs, life-jackets, mouse nests, old shoes, tools. Symbolic, in every way, of the generous and inhabited vessel my life has become—mother, wife, teacher, aunt, band member, board member, friend. But with a few hours of clearing out…The wall of glass is still here, the pine floors, the pine walls, the surrounding woods, the open eaves. My typewriter sits in the corner. I could move the stove back in for making tea. Haul in a table. Maybe even a daybed. When I perform or teach for high school students I tell them this: if you can, build yourself a cabin. Or convert an old garden shed. Or even an abandoned car. A room of one’s own, I say, imploring.

Because it’s as necessary now as it was when I was sixteen—this marking, this narrating, these walls, this vaulted, diaphanous space to call my own. This morning the birds sing their majestic and over-enthusiastic love songs, mist rises off the viridescent and aqua hills, and my daughter, whom I adore more than I can put into words, doesn’t know where I am. Which means I’m free to drink this tea, scratch words onto a page, say here!, fict, get lost, and through that strange and exalted road—one always hopes—get found.