“A story is a meaningful pattern of events. Through finding a story’s shape within your life’s shape, you could know what your life means.”
It’s 4:45. Something woke me. I think my phone buzzed, and now I have to pee. I duck out of the mosquito net and cross the sagging, uneven plywood floor, just two steps through my open-air, tarp-roofed shack to the little porch with a simple kitchen. Propane tank, two burner Flavel stove, rainwater collected in a bucket, and a hand-shaped copper basin toilet with a pipe plumbed to some makeshift septic system down the hill. I pee over the edge and breathe in the pre-dawn darkness, the stars finishing up their shift look tired. Crickets, roosters, and the odd car, making it’s way into town for the early ferry, or back from town after the spontaneous but not uncommon all-nighter.
Usually I go back to sleep a couple hours, wake up for my morning routine, scrape tongue, brush teeth, drink water, meditate, stretch, eat…etc. But this morning thrills me. My shack is high above the bay, and the light is changing, the ocean turning a deep purple, the sky firing up it’s furnace, clouds backlit silhouettes. I am inspired to write…finally inspiration has returned.
‘First some yoga?’ ploys my disciplined mind. What?! Who is this persistent, methodical driver? This is not an artists mind. This is a robot that puts a list of chores before every pen stroke. This is the achiever who neglect her writing, day after day. It’s the processor that’s been dwelling and glitching over this story, delaying it for a year now.
But a year is significant. A year takes a tree through a full flowering cycle, brings an autumn back around, and bears the fruits of lessons learned, of adventures initiated. Maybe it’s just the right distance for viewing events through the lens of time unfolded. To distill raw emotions into a wizened perspective. But is art still genuine if so refined? Who’s to say?
A year ago I was at the end and the beginning of two great journeys, that continuous loop. I was very far away, feeling very lost, and very alone. I had stepped off the deck of one great adventure just to stare blankly at the indomitable mountain of the next. I was “drying out” on the dampest, squishiest island I’d ever set foot on.
Crossing the North Atlantic with my father marked the first time in twenty years I’d spent so long on Tiger Maru, our childhood home, and so long with my father. A time when dusty things crawled from the depths of a tender child’s past, to find a woman now matured and practiced in the art of dealing with such tricky beasts. And deal I did. Talk we did. The cathartic, healing moments that therapists envy. Few get the chance to rehash a rocky past with the original players. I was lucky, we were brave. I think (or hope), it was healing for both of us.
Now I sat in a warm conservatory near Sligo, Ireland. Rain marched in mushroom shaped clouds to speckle the windows of the old hillside stone house. I plotted my return to St. John. It would be a long circle back. First down through Europe (I’d come all this way, might as well explore). And then? Fly home, or find another boat back across the Atlantic. Boats started sailing in November? Now it was September. What was a few months, really, after the thirteen years I’d been away, island hopping, circling the idea of landing back in my childhood nest.
From where I sat, however, those few months looked like the hilliest home stretch. Truth was, I felt so ready as to burst for a home, for sun, for rest, for community. Instead what I had was another new terrain to cross. What I had was a chilled, damp cottage on an Irish hillside, and two stoically independent German women as my hosts. What I had was a shitload of heavy packs, a mind and heart heavy with the last voyage, and a body too tired to carry any of it.
What I had, it turns out, was just what I needed. Or at least I can see that a year later. What I craved were distractions, as wrangling a raging mind is rough business. But what I had was peace, solitude, rest. And there could be no forward motion with my self in such a state.
I took to walking the hill behind Valli’s house, squishing in my Wellington boots, tracking the dog through the high rushes, and letting the ancient bilateral motion of pilgrims and sages settle my buzzing angst into a manageable hum. ‘Regulate the body and you can reason with the mind,’ echoed the words of my mentors in Hawaii, as they taught me how to work with emotional adolescents. (As they taught me how to work with myself.)
We’d reach the summit, where the moss appeared to slide down, sagging like a soaked wool scarf to expose a bald granite dome. Owie would sit and stare her drowsy dog stare out at the bay, nose raised, catching messages in the air from fields far away. And I would stretch, hum, sing, let little whips of worry rise off my overheated mind.
The hike down was for taking stock. ‘So! Crossed an ocean, check…reconnected with my father, check…now what?…I’m back to that damn blank slate again, that’s what!’
Every time! One journey ends and the next just drags its heels getting going. I’ve struggled and learned the most from these transition periods.
The crossing was supposed to have marked a new start, a shedding of skin, but now I just felt bare and vulnerable staring across a desert unyielding of it’s secret possibilities. Facing Europe with no idea how to travel in Europe, with little money, ($1500 didn’t seem like a lot for months in Europe), and alone…not that confident, exciting, solitary alone, but that sore, swollen alone aggravated by heartbreak.
No career, no plan. I walked up and down that hill, running schemes through my ungreased mind, a machine too worn for the task.
‘I’ll go back to school, become an engineer…that will solve my money worries.’
‘I’ll buy a boat!’
‘I will bike through Europe!’
A reactionary habit, trying to fill the vacuum where there once was some sense of identity. Stoking logs in an airless box, failing to catch fire. These are not plans born of intuition and clarity, but defenses against uncertainty. I was trying to gallop on sprained legs. After days of watching these looping, limping cycles, I broke, surrendered, brought the focus in close, and reasoned with myself.
‘Okay, you don’t have the energy for any of these grand schemes, accept it.’
‘But how will I live an extraordinary life if I can’t work for it?’
‘Forget that for right now, that is not helpful. What do you want to do now, just right now?’
‘I really just want to rest, do yoga, write.’
‘Do that then.”
‘But where’s the value in that? Where will that take me? I can’t do that for the rest of my life!’
‘And you won’t. But baby girl, right now, you just can’t do anything else…”
So we get what we need. And I found myself sitting in the conservatory, surrounded by journals and books, scribbling away. Scribbling my way towards…something. Scribbling rhyme and reason into my recent challenges, scribbling strength back into my heart, scribbling value into my self-perception. Scribbling furiously, building heat, friction, and rolling off my chair to stretch and breathe off some steam when I’d scribbled into overheat.
Oh yoga…the difference between grounded in my body or lost in my mind, between centered and confident or confused and lost, between closed and timid or open and relaxed. All that for some breathing, some movement? In a way, it enables me to live the rest of my life.
Clouds cleared. First, as always, I needed to get my house in order. How was I to think straight, walk straight, plan straight with a tangled mess of new memories, developments and God!, my mountain of bags. Weighed down as such was no way to be striking across Europe.
My mind I swabbed with writing, my body with walks and yoga, and my material world? I set to nesting. Cleaned my room with vinegar and vacuum. Rearranged forgotten furniture and piled camping gear to etch out little spaces for my energy to rebound and swell. Cleared a small round table in the conservatory for writing (my office), and a strip of floor for a yoga mat. Scrubbed the chicken shit off the cement patio for the rare Irish sun-beam soaks.
And I emptied my packs, exploded belongings across the shelves, comforted to see my tangible things surrounding me…and oh how they surrounded me. Then, slowly, I decided what I might leave behind. Each day I took little nibbles at planning and scheming, between gentle chores and walks. A racehorse rebuilding muscle. As I regained my stability, one balanced stone on another, I let go of more belongings. My little safety tokens. I needed less to protect me.
Still I wasn’t sure where I was headed. To another boat? I should keep my rain gear. To surf? Better hold onto that wetsuit…to camp? Either way, I’m, not letting go of Dad’s down sleeping bag.
But these books! Three heavy journals, books on writing, books for reading. And then there’s this one! I grabbed the two inch thick paperback off the scattered bed: “Your Life as a Story”. This was an impulse buy, standing in the used book store the day before leaving Oregon. I hadn’t even opened it yet!
I took it to my “office” and dove in. Page one…
“What makes people despair is that they try to find a universal meaning to the whole of life, and then end up by saying it is absurd, illogical, empty of meaning. There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning,” – Anais Nin, Diary 2.
I looked up from the book, stunned, reminded through my dark self-criticism of one of my intentions to write. To uncover (or create) meaning in events and coincidences.
“A story is a meaningful pattern of events. Through finding a story’s shape within your life’s shape, you could know what your life means.”
Of course! I thought back to landing in Hawaii, after 39 days at sea, resolved to finally write my story. And then swept away by serendipity to working wilderness therapy with teenagers, each who were assigned to write their own life stories. For some it was the first time they’d ever taken a step back to see their life as a sequence of events, a story, and it was an eye-opening experience.
I set to scribbling. This book! I opened it with a hope to leave it behind, and instead found inspiration in each page. Read a paragraph, write a paragraph. Reading a book on writing gave me permission to write. Maybe it can be a commendable life path after all.
“There have always been intimate links between psychotherapy and the restorative powers of personal narrative…ten years after Saint Augustine’s conversion in a garden in Milan, his Confessions begins with him lamenting that his soul ‘lies in ruins’; in writing his narrative, he hopes that God will help him to ‘build it up again’.”
So I ‘built myself up again’ in that little Irish conservatory. Writing as a way to heal myself. Writing to heal others, to heal the past.
“‘We are less damaged by the traumas of childhood, than by the traumatic way we remember childhood,’ James Hillman, The Soul’s Code…Through the autobiographical process…you replace old stories of powerlessness with stories of consciousness and revelation in which you are the protagonist.”
Writing for empowerment? Writing to change the way I see events, to redefine them in the context of some meaningful story. Maybe there was never any trauma, no victims, just challenge and growth. We change memories as we rethink them, and even more as we re-write them. That’s why I will write, to infuse meaning.
The pages held the words that my mind needed, rain in the desert, unexpected salvation, inspiration. The book validated my desire to write, reminded me that it is something I need to do, have always needed. Something I deserve to do. That it is OK, this desire.
I’d been soaring above the idea to write my life story forever, and since I’d jumped back on boats three years before, it had been a building crescendo, an idea floating in and out as life took me peeking down new roads, through more preparation, more training. I’d been waiting for the obvious loop of events that would give it structure, closure. And now? What better time, everything just lines up, doesn’t it? Time to get it out, write to move forward.
I fell hard into the fantasy of being a writer. I never claim professional identities. I do massage, I do kayak tours, but I am not a masseuse, I am not a kayak guide. I whispered to myself, ‘I am a writer.’ And a log caught. Oxygen rushed into the vacuum and the flame leapt. “I am a writer,” I said again, a little louder. The hat fit, warm and snug. This is something I can always be, behind and through all the other things, all the travels, all the relationships and roles. I can be an observer, a recorder, a purifier. In it there is an identity, a purpose.
A vision was forming finally, that barren desert spit a steamy image. I knew it was a vision to follow, one for attention and fruition. In it I was walking a narrow road on St. John. I was living slow, perhaps on a boat, and I was writing my life story, surrounded by all our old jaunts, the places filled with memories of our childhood. And I could stay if I wanted. I was not on any timeline. I had wrapped up my obligations for a while. I was free to wander, or free to stay.
Yes, that felt good, the warmth of a vision burning brightly, hardly flickering. That is what I would do, where I would go. The comforting plan settled into the empty nook of uncertainty. I would travel Europe, and do my best to enjoy it, but at the end there was some semblance of home, a star to guide. A goal.
I jumped online, a soothing link to my web of scattered friends and family. I was eager to reconnect with friends in the USVI, send some word and clear a little path for my return. A post of a friend caught my eye. ‘My wonderful island family, do not focus on this storm coming our way, keep the energy positive.’
Storm? Of course, hurricane season. We had just barely beat the storms on the crossing, with Gert chasing us by two weeks. I looked up the satellite image, to see the three massive red blobs churning the Atlantic, heading for home.
A year ago I decided to finally make a slow circle back to a place I had loved and left, to close a loop started decades ago. And a year ago I watched helpless from far away as that little special island took the beating of the century.