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Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Week in the Life of Alice

This house in Norh Hero. Vermont is where I wrote this essay. I hope to sell the house this June so that Ross Conrad (author of Natural Beekeeping) and I can finish building our cordwood home together in Middlebury, Vermont
$138,000 year round home with beach access

First I am not the star and then I throw mud on myself and skulk off to a corner lamenting that I was not the star.

What if I just cut off my head! Wouldn't it be thrilling to live by my heart? Why not just move toward what I want, rewrite my past, like that time I was hiding in the curtains and no one even missed me.

I am tied to my keyboard, because we cannot be trusted to stick together. So, we are strapped to each other in a hope of overcoming a stubborn unwillingness to work together. It has worked with other teams, the monkey and the organ grinder. Out of necessity they learned to cooperate to make music. Out of their being strapped together they found friendship, a livelihood.

I wonder then if I will ever learn to get along with this instrument, or even myself: the reason for this instrument. I never learned to type. A small orange stands on my desk to protect against negativity. If I knew other charms to better my chances I would try them. The sun has not yet come up. My dreams still show the small parts of themselves that stick out from behind my life. Tied to my keyboard, I try to take up my trade again, but mostly I am just drinking tea. 

The keyboard is hungry for real collaboration, but I am not very attentive, I could easily just stare and drink tea. I will eat the orange and use its peel to dispel negativity with a spray of citrus scent. Wouldn't we all line up for help if it was a bagful of grapefruits and oranges?

My missing livelihood is taunting and distracting me. There is something natural that is supposed to happen with a writer and a keyboard. The words should naturally flow with beauty, meaning, sound, and imagery. From the spinning of words weaves the clothing of the soul. Without self-adornment, do we exist? The nakedness of my situation, my unclothed soul, my empty beggar’s cup, is such a worry that I resent my words and curse them for not being profitable. Here I am with my keyboard. I place the words, but trust cannot easily be regained. The course of nature is to keep its promise. Even a small hope is bound to grow. Things die, without the connection of hope. I sent my wedding ring back five years after the divorce. I sent it back to make room for a new possibility. 
I once loved my work. There was reason to believe I was a writer. Then I went on a killing spree. I knew how to do it, how to break bonds and be free, how to clear everything out of my path, how to put a hope to death and move on. I was so adept at moving on that I couldn't keep still, even if I wanted to. I finally settled on a man I had met through the personals ads. I loved him, and did not want to kill the promise. I wanted to renew other promises, like finishing the novel I started a year and a half ago. It is hard to repair a bond that has been broken. I have not touched the novel in 6 months. The disconnection and impending death could not be more obvious. Love is simply an agreement. It can be easy or difficult, but it is just a choice to live in relationship. By strapping this keyboard to my knees I am hoping the choice will be obvious.

I have all the ease of living alone and none of the daily assistance of living with a partner.  For a long time I have wanted this solitude, this freedom, but I am not thriving in it. There should be a phrase book for emotional and spiritual emergencies. People, especially teachers like myself, could just speak from the phrase book as needed.

After this time everything had to be cleaned, each night I would tackle a new item in the house. I helped a boy wash a book with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a damp cloth. We had to work quickly and carefully so that the book wouldn't dissolve into pulp. Pulp fiction. I carefully dusted the metal frame of a twin bed kept for guests. Time, whether pure or impure, whether disastrous or productive, brings a web of unclarity and disuse upon the home and its operations. It's as if everything had to be re-found under the sludge of a receded flood. There had been no flood, had there? Could I have been sleeping? 

It occurs to me that my house has no foundation, and is merely propped up on cinder blocks. If this fifth great lake should rise and overtake my lawn, my house might just float away. I am used to sleeping with the violence of the winds, and the crashing of the waves. These sounds, that perhaps should be alarming, are my lullaby. Rocked to sleep I could wake up in another place, perhaps not too far away. If the lake took my house for a sail, left me out on newly formed ice, I might leave the house one morning for my usual place of work, never knowing of the change. Maybe in an alignment of small and improbable miracles I wouldn't even notice. My house might be rescued before I returned home, without my knowing, by those ever-ready volunteers on the island I live on. They could have it put back before I got home. "If you get yourself into a bind, call me," the electrician says when I see him at the dump. "If you get yourself into a situation, remember where I live," a neighbor tells me, stopping his car in the road so we can talk. Everyone waves, everyone is friendly. Almost everyone. It’s as if everyone is on the team, involved in the secret society of the Volunteer Rescue Squad. They know everything, they know what is at the bottom of the lake, and what is not. They know the exits between exits, the smallest most unknown village.

A newcomer like myself lives blindly in the unknown, often too embarrassed to ask for help, or too ignorant to know I need it. This is the amusement of the secret society of volunteer rescue people on the island, real islanders, who are not ashamed of their own folly. For example: backing a truck into a tree, sinking a snowmobile by driving fast over the slightly frozen lake. These things are the entertainment of the community. Life can be dull, without the great need of rescue operations. 

Oddly enough, one of the typical Vermont personalities, the kind of Vermonter who is seriously self-sufficient and fiercely independent, is not in stock here on the Champlain Islands. That type of rugged personality formed a hybrid with The Island Personality. The Island Personality is softened by the balmy winds that blow ease into a persons' mind. Island people don't worry so much. We all came here to escape our worries, we all came here to find paradise, often after some trauma, or perhaps just overwork. Sometimes the source of migration goes back many generations. People don't come here so much to escape the city and get back to the land with high ideals like in the rest of Vermont. They come here because they need the therapy of the water to soothe their losses, or simply to fish. They come here to relax, not to return to the land. We have island time, and island bookkeeping, we are a little goofy. Take ice fishing. If there is some ice, someone will try parking a truck on it no matter how early and thin. That's o.k.. That opportunity to put the rescue team to work makes life worth living. We are bonded by our follies. I think in the isolation, after the summer people leave and you realize that you are one of 810 people living on 46 square miles surrounded by water, you lose perspective on issues of personal safety. It is hard to gauge the size of a risk in this half abandoned rural neighborhood. I once called 911 because my carbon dioxide detector didn't seem to be working. Many trucks came speeding, sirens and all, down the potholed little lane where I live. Turned out I needed new batteries. I had never called a neighbor, and certainly not 911, for much bigger emergencies, like when I almost froze to death. Like I say, it is hard to gauge the size of a risk out here, and I am learning that there is something beautiful about that, and about the shared experience we have of that here on the Islands. I really existed after I made that call.  Sort of like a numbered joke in prison.

A phrase fell out of place. "Will you love me?" she asked. She had been here before, not the same place but at a very similar door. He did not know anything about the phrase, he did not know where it came from. What was hiding under it seemed like some sort of code. The code would open the door he very much wanted to open, again. "Yes. I want to make love to you, I want you to make love to me.” -pause- “It is hard NOT to love you." That seemed to do the trick, but he didn't know why he had to answer the question. Did she think he didn't love her? Why? Why did she stop and look at him that way?

No one passes this point without meeting with the question, without answering it. One man lied. He knew what to say and he said it. She heard it and the door opened wide, her heart on view as never before. Some say whatever will open the door. The door is not where it appears to be. One may think they have already been through it, but still the door is there, unopened. 

She is wondering how, if his answer had been in written form, it would be punctuated. After he said, "Yes," she took that as one sentence. By the time he got to the rest, "I want to make love to you and you to make love to me," they were already making love, so that part seemed obvious. Then he seemed to add the last, "It's hard not to love you," as an after thought. Was "yes" one sentence? Or was it modified with sexual references? Just a simple yes would have been nice.
She is struggling to understand a new word written on the board. The word, which starts with an "S," changes subtly when a suffix is added. She thinks she understands the word without the suffix but after reading it with the suffix, she gets mixed up. The teacher tries to explain it, going back to the origin of the word, but as she does this, she seems to get lost and unsure of what she knows. Meanwhile the class demands attention. A little girl making a mandala, has covered her circle with the hair that fell off her brush, and now she is on the verge of tears because the teacher took her layers of wet hair, glitter, and little colored balls off the mandala, put them in a shapeless pile on the table - telling her to start over! The teacher is scrambling to avoid the tears that she now sees are near on the girl’s face. There is no greater failure for an art teacher than to make a student cry in class.

A lie when it is vivid and alive can make you so aware of the truth that you can no longer tolerate the lie. Betrayal can lure the real gold out of its shell. Once you know your own worth, through betrayal, well, you want to break all connections that are not made with true love. You want to secede from the union and use only real gold and silver for money.  If my natural currency is devalued even slightly, it is only a small step to being disposable. Did you ever feel, after having been very close to someone and emerging unharmed, that this person would have tossed your life into the fire if it came to that? How, when I am totally broke, can I begin to change my dealings from false money to exchanges of things with real value? 

Yesterday I went to the bank and restructured my debt. I almost forgot the appointment, but remembered it just in time get to there if I left immediately. So I left. The roads were icy and I almost missed the appointment anyway. Afterwards I put together a care package for my daughter who is sick in New Orleans, where she is helping victims of hurricane Katrina. I had put some things from home in a box including: honey, multivitamins, three cans of soup, and some peanut-butter cookies homemade with whole wheat and honey. Then I bought garlic, goldenseal, Echinacea, and acidophilus pills at the Co-op with a gift card my still very new boyfriend gave me for Christmas. I took all this next door to UPS and sent it by two-day mail. I felt that this was not a time to be thrifty even though I was broke. The whole deal came to 80 bucks. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. This is where I go into debt. My parents wouldn't have done such a thing. Not that they didn't care about me, but they weren't unreasonable about it; they had sense enough not to go beyond their means. I always feel when it comes to my children that it doesn't matter what it costs, it only matters that they get everything they need. My extravagant love must go on.

Later at my after school art class we made potato prints and paintings with water-soluble oil pastels. At the end there was still one little girl who had not been picked up. We made a picture on the black board together with colored chalk, taking turns, each adding something new. The picture started out abstract, inside an ornately drawn frame, but eventually it turned into a girl. Her arms were open so wide that they expanded beyond the picture frame, she was smiling but there were also tears coming down. There was a fish in the sky and two butterflies. She had a pet cat nearby. The cat had whiskers on cheeks and eyebrows.  The last detail added were two somewhat limp daisies in her hand. Then she left and I carried my box of art stuff to my car and left also. At one point the snow blew across the plains and over the road so thickly that for a few moments the road was not to be seen. The Island is thin and flat, the wind blows where there are no houses or trees, straight over from the West shore to the East shore. Under the bridge chunks of slush gather in a jostling crowd. At home I heat up leftover chicken and potatoes in the toaster oven, I listen to “Switchboard” on the radio, I call T. to see how she's feeling, I take a shower, I read my book, I call S. I finally say what I want to say when it's time to say goodbye. "I love you."
"Thanks," he says. Then a while later, "I love you too." 
"Thanks," I say. 

My red shoes were somehow still in the grocery store when I left. I didn't buy anything, just looked with admiration and desire at the sweets and the salty sea creatures. I had no money, but I still weighed each temptation carefully. Most important was what I had when I walked into the store, my shoes. Without my shoes, I was nobody, a street urchin. I went running back through the rain for my shoes. My shoes are bright red, made of tough leather stapled to wooden clogs. They are not the kind of shoes you can wear on any job. It is hard to find work that matches your shoes. My friend, M, was in the parking lot unloading her groceries, probably wondering how it could take me so long when I hadn't even bought anything. The important thing was not whether I bought anything but just that I went shopping with my friend, M.. So many things we have to do on our journey, a journey that always seems to have layovers and nights in hotels where you would rather not be and long drives alone that seem senseless; the important thing is that I was with a friend. Some times you can be so lonely and feel grim; meaninglessness can creep up over the cluttered rim, especially when you have to do too many stupid things alone. For this I could start to cry, for this is too much if it happens, the growing darkness, the miles before home, the lack of connection at this time.It is hard to sit here writing this morning because I went cross-country skiing for the first time yesterday, just by myself. I experimented with falling down a lot, and found that it is very difficult to get back up with skis on. If I had been very careful, I could probably have avoided falling down, but I learn like a child, as if falling down was easy, as if my youthful vitality was made for this abuse, not as if my bone density were declining. I feel now some bruises and sprains, or at least aches and pains. I was glad to be by myself to discover these things; I would not want to be left in the dust. My skiing has a story, sort of, and this is the end of it. I bought these skis, boots, and poles for $100, my mom paid me back and called it a Christmas present. It finally snowed this strangely warm winter, and I skied to the mail boxes at the end on my lane, and thought, "This could be fun."  It is an outdoors kind of activity that can be shared, or not. The beginning of my skiing story was a mirage, a hope of love and companionship that sprung up spontaneously like a vision of water in a desert that is not really there.  

See my hot air balloon collide with a tall building, the silk flattens as if melting down the side of the building, and our heroine climbs down the fire escape.

I've thought of selling this house. I don't want to, but perhaps it's the only way out of my debt and decline. I bought it as a camp and renovated it to be my year-round home, increasing the value quite a bit. I could pay off my debt and still have some money left to start over. It's just that I'm tired of starting over, and I don't know if I could ever get it this good again, and I need it to be this good. I need to have a place for my children and my parents to visit me. I've been here three years, finally establishing myself somewhere after losing everything in divorce, again. I've been searching for jobs, changing jobs, and trying to find something that really works, constantly for six years. I finally found teaching jobs on the island even though it is not full time, not enough money to live on. I've been living on credit cards. I could sell my house, pay off my debt, and convert my remaining funds into silver and gold, then write my will and check out.  I could use my remaining funds to join forces with my still very new boyfriend and make the same mistakes again. 
The unbearable truth is that there is no filler, no meaningless, matter-less moment we can have to ourselves that is not chalked up somewhere. It can be hard to breathe when you know this. If it is not I who runs my blood, and breathes my breath, then who? There is someone under the cloth of this reality, it is not only me. Without me, I go on breathing, walking, following my life. There is such a thing as making a choice, but people also pick their scabs not allowing them to heal.

It is not I who catches myself when I fall, but sometimes it is I who throws my self down. I'm trying to catch myself in the act. If I mock anything it is the process of everything. I mock it because I have some kind of issue with it. I feel certain, partly from memory, that everything should happen effortlessly, magically. I especially feel this as an artist. I feel I know, even though everyone says practice makes perfect and I myself have only experienced that there is no free lunch, that things can come fully formed and perfect, that this glorious beauty in all its manifold manifestations is ours to express at anytime. Yet I can't even play the clarinet.

I can listen to the clarinet. I can marvel at the whimsical changes in its voice. I can also watch a moonbeam dance; I see no reason why I cannot actually be that moonbeam, or play the clarinet.  If I can actually be a moon beam I do not see why I cannot play basketball in a most compelling way, but only occasionally, if I please. I don't see why one should have to train to be an athlete. I don't see why we have to have such crude processes for painting, writing, weaving, dancing, or surviving. I have this memory of everything happening magically from my brush: whole scenes would appear in one stroke, colors came from plain water. Why now have all the higher automatic processes been taken away from me? I am left with breathing, and the beating of my heart, and a few other automatic responses that come situationally. So I stop mid-blink and try to see just how the automatic, effortless, magical things happen. 

I also want to think about it, I want to understand my existence. It just seems like I am here to get imprinted, as if the memories of the world need fresh frontiers like me for storage space. Little bits of consciousness like myself have to break off, get washed, and remake the universe in their own little chip.  The process of life is to transfer information into fresh media spaces so that in this redundancy nothing is lost and all is remade.  Life is an opportunity to be part of creation by the way that one preserves and arranges impressions. Each person, all life, is the renewal and preservation of creation, making it what it is. 

My mission is "to be." This is a service to the godhead and myself. It is strange that we also have to survive and make a living and that we can't just make things happen with a snap of our fingers. That is very strange, but I guess my having been denied access to all that ready-made glory signifies a need to create access, to rebuild piece by piece what was once a flowing whole.