Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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It was supposed to be a romantic night without the children. But the motel walls were so thin, we could hear the elderly couple in the next room talking and playing cards until nearly midnight, their voices — very Southern, very proper — looping around our whispered endearments and labored breathing. Since we could only wonder what they were hearing, we became a bit self-conscious, as if our parents were in the next room. This was amusing, but not for long, and about as romantic as balancing the checkbook. (Hardly shy when it comes to sex, I nonetheless insist on privacy. Perhaps this is a legacy of growing up in the fifties, when I was taught that sex was suspect and a little shameful. “Is sex dirty?” Woody Allen asks. “Only if it’s done right.” The prejudice has stayed with me, like a stubborn accent.)
At least the view from our window wasn’t disappointing. When the sun nudged us awake the next morning, we could see a blue lake and a lot of blue sky and the twin mountains of Flat Top and Sharp Top, known in this part of Virginia as the Peaks of Otter, looming majestically in the pale light.
Sharp Top looked like the kind of mountain a child might draw, rising abruptly to a pointed peak. There were higher mountains nearby, according to our brochure, but none as intriguing. We read on. No one was sure how the Peaks of Otter got their picturesque name; Indians had hunted elk, deer, and bear here, but historians were certain there had never been otters. Perhaps the colonists who settled the area named the Peaks after fondly remembered mountains in their native Scotland.
I’d learned enough for one morning, but Norma kept reading. We could hike to the summit of Sharp Top, she said, along a rugged, winding path that was “strenuous” but rewarding; the view was said to be inspiring. I told her I preferred the view from the window; perhaps the couple next door would go to breakfast soon and we could have the bed to ourselves.
“Think how invigorating a walk would be,” she coaxed.
“I don’t mind taking a walk,” I told her, “but I’m not in the mood for hours of mountain-climbing.”
“It’s not climbing,” she insisted, “it’s hiking.”
“It’s windy and cold up there,” I pleaded, trying to woo her back under the covers.
“Bring a sweater and gloves,” she said, disentangling herself from my embrace.
Once I had a cup of coffee, I was ready to make the best of it. Alas, I’m usually too eager to make love in the morning, while Norma prefers to wait — as if the day itself needed to embrace her first, whisper something special; as if morning were some kind of foreplay, to be savored like a kiss. Is it this way for most men and women? Some great but subtle difference breathed into us at birth? Perhaps women understand something men don’t. Perhaps men hurry for a reason. Consider the ovum, bearer of generations, waiting serenely, confident of the future — while millions of sperm, tails whipping furiously, rush headlong toward their future.
Hand in hand, we set out.
B y the time we reached the foot of the trail, I’d stopped sulking. It was a perfect fall day — chilly but sunny, the sky extravagantly blue, the wind sighing through the tall pines. Sharp Top towered over us like a mountain in a dream, brooding and mysterious. A Park Service sign advised it would take an hour and a half to hike to the summit, along a trail that was rocky and steep.
“They’re exaggerating,” I said to Norma. “It won’t take that long.” She turned toward me, a hint of amusement on her face, probably wondering whether I was challenging her, or the mountain, or was merely in a hurry to get back to bed. Mostly, I wanted to make the climb more interesting. To test our stamina, to go toe-to-toe against nature, against gravity, appealed to me. Also, I like physical challenges; they’re so unambiguous, so refreshingly straightforward — a welcome relief from the dilemmas I face each day. I can spend hours writing, imagining I’ve created something worthwhile; the next day I look at it and can’t believe how bad it is. One reason I run every morning is that no matter how vexed I am over my work, how moody or insecure, running gives me a reference point that’s reassuringly definite: a start and a finish, the sky above me and the earth under my feet. There’s no question about whether I’m really running, nothing arguable about my straining muscles or the sweat pouring down my face.
Taking the lead, Norma obliged by setting a vigorous pace — a little too vigorous, I thought. As we walked, she pointed to trees and rocks and fungi, to wild herbs and unusual plants. Norma never tires of explaining the natural world to me, telling me names which we both know I promptly forget. Regrettably, I either ignore nature altogether or, a tad too rhapsodically, praise its great beauty. Like a hungry man, oblivious to subtleties of taste or fragrance, I wolf down the meal, compliments to the chef. I used to blame my ignorance of the natural world on growing up in the city, but the truth is I just don’t pay enough attention; I’m too busy thinking about myself. Sometimes, Norma will plant something in our yard and wait, God knows how long, for me to notice. What I notice, instead, is the changing weather of my emotions, the landscape of my worries and beliefs.
This day was no different. As Norma described the world around us, I meandered through the one inside my head. As nature jabbered away — birds cooing and insects humming and leaves rustling in the trees — all I heard was my own voice, wheezing and nagging. Old scold, following me up the mountain, climbing me like a vine.
For nearly two years — ever since I’d stopped writing regularly for The Sun — I’d been beset by a haunting sense of failure. I worried that as a writer my best work, like some lengthening shadow, stretched behind me. Not only did I seem to have less time to write, I felt less driven, less willing to make the time.
I used to write an essay every month. It allowed me to define myself, declare myself; it was a way of keeping faith with the readers. The challenge wasn’t merely to write honestly and artfully about my life; it was to wrest from a busy life the time to write, the countless hours I needed to craft decent sentences and point them toward the door. I’d stay up late to read manuscripts and answer mail and edit and proofread the upcoming issue, then get up early to work on my essay. No matter how sleepy I was, no matter how broke or broken-hearted, I met my deadline. It was an act of will that strengthened me. It said something about The Sun’s tenacity, and my own.
Yet if finishing an issue allowed me to feel like a hero, the writing itself was more problematic. I’d never learned to enjoy writing, to trust the roughness of a rough draft, to trust myself. I felt cursed with an intellect that seemed inadequate to the task — like a carpenter trying to build a house with a child’s hammer and saw. Some mornings I couldn’t even stand my own handwriting. My clumsy words sprawled in front of me. Get up, I’d tell them — and they’d hoot, as if I were nuts.
I’d rewrite the same sentence again and again, condemning my wordy imprecision, striving always for a kind of stylistic elegance that — even if I occasionally achieved it — hardly seemed genuine. Each piece was a struggle between the editor — who insisted on the polished phrase, the line that would live forever — and the writer, an ordinary man with something ordinary to say, something sentimental and unremarkable, not quite good enough.
Still, I mourned the absence of my voice in the magazine. Difficult as those essays were, they seemed worth the effort — especially when I’d hear that a particular line had touched someone, or that my openness about an embarrassing subject had moved readers to a greater honesty of their own.
N orma and I passed a creek curving down a staircase of fallen limbs and moss-covered rocks, and stopped for a moment. She asked what I was thinking and I told her, though she’d heard it all before.
“Stop blaming yourself,” Norma said.
I looked at her and shrugged. “Who else am I going to blame?”
“That’s not the point,” she said. The point, she went on, was to forgive myself for being unable to keep up the grinding pace of running a magazine and being a writer; for trying to make up for too little sleep with too much coffee; for shoving time out of the way month after month, year after year, and finally getting shoved back. Or had I forgotten the chest pains and the shortness of breath? Had I forgotten the day breathing became so difficult I was afraid I was going to die?
No, I thought, I hadn’t forgotten. There was nothing wordy or imprecise about the message I got from my body that day, when the pressure on my chest became impossible to ignore, and my next breath was all I cared about, living was all I cared about, not the damned sentence I was trying to finish or the deadline I was trying to meet.
The doctor assured me there was nothing wrong with me, nothing physical; it was simply my body reacting to “stress.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” I asked him. Stress was as basic to my life as — well, breathing. Mine was a life of deadlines and urgencies, of challenges within challenges. Was he suggesting my life was the problem?
“You could put it that way,” he agreed.
I’d never worried about stress. The saints, the rebels, the dreamers of fugitive dreams — weren’t their lives filled with stress? I was suspicious of people who seemed too relaxed. I objected to their slander of other people — people like me — as workaholics, as if being passionately engaged by life, being committed to something beyond security or pleasure, were some kind of pathology; as if sacrifice itself were ignoble. Wasn’t there a difference between working hard for an ideal and working hard just to get ahead?
But to my body it didn’t seem to matter whether my allegiance was to a deadline or a bottom line. Perhaps my body was reminding me there wasn’t much difference between the two — as long as I made meeting a deadline the measure of my self-worth.
Being unable to breathe forced me to look at my need to be a hero — which is the wrong line of questioning for a hero, if he wants to stay one. It forced me to consider whether being in the magazine every month attested to my devotion, or to something less lofty. Was I writing because I had something important to say — or to prove to myself how important I was? Had my faith in words turned into some weird kind of religion, held together by the punishing ritual of the deadline?
There was something else bothering me, too. I worried that my essays were becoming too melancholy, too predictable. No matter what my subject, my writing really seemed to be about loss and incompletion, and about the travail of being me. Acknowledging the pain of living was one thing; exalting it was something else. I didn’t want to be a poet of melancholy half-truths, preoccupied with my own little triumphs and disasters — and by the unremitting challenge of finding the right words for them. There was enough sadness in the world without my weeping. And there was more joy, more laughter, more wordless astonishment than my writing acknowledged.
I wondered if my dour view wasn’t shaped in part by the way I wrote: by the looming menace of the deadline; by the oppressive editor in me who scowled at every line I put down. What would it mean, I asked, not to try to define and redeem myself in every issue, not to make everything I touched glow with the force of my will? What would it mean to sink into everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t put into words? I announced that my essays would no longer appear regularly. I said I wanted to get away from a monthly deadline, and from metaphors that had become too familiar; I wanted the writing to be more thoughtful and better crafted, and speak to something greater than my strivings and regrets.
In the months that followed, I tried to write differently. I tried to be more spontaneous, to separate the writer from the editor, the lightning flash of inspiration from the thunder of judgment. Try separating Siamese twins. Even the effort felt absurd, the worst kind of spiritual ambition, like trying to escape from myself, vault over the walls of my mind. Stuck with my old habits, I didn’t become a better writer, just a slower one. The deadline had, at least, provided a sense of urgency. Now, without the necessity of finishing a piece, I’d allow myself even more time to agonize over it. Freedom from a deadline turned out to be freedom to brood; to poke and pry at every word.
I wanted the writing to be more thoughtful, but it refused to be more thoughtful than I was. I wanted it to be better crafted, but the shape of the words was the shape I was in.
Which, I thought ruefully, wasn’t as good as I’d imagined, as I struggled to keep up with Norma. The trail had become steeper, winding past low trees and tall, dry grasses. Here and there were patches of snow. I tried to gauge how far there was to go, but rock outcroppings blocked the view: I couldn’t tell whether we were nearing the peak or merely coming to a change of grade.
We paused to catch our breath. Gazing down at the valley below us, at the forested slopes and grassy meadows — the radiant face of the world, scrubbed and shiny — I felt bereft, as if staring into an abyss. Life without a deadline, I told Norma, was like splitting up with a lover — a passionate, selfish lover. You fought all the time. You knew you’d be better off without her. But now that she was gone you missed her, terribly.
Being forced to finish an essay, I said, challenged me like nothing else. Pushed to go deep, I went deeper — slipping past sleep’s rusty gate, staying up all night, trespassing where I didn’t belong. Invariably I was led to some discovery, some surprising encounter with myself. On the best nights, truth bowed to greet me; language opened her arms and told me I was home.
“The only thing worse than writing for a deadline,” I sighed, “is not writing for one.” Norma smiled sympathetically. “I don’t know what to do,” I went on, loathing the sound of my voice. I’d never looked kindly on writers who whined about writing. As a friend of mine put it, “Writers are among the luckiest of the lucky, and they know it. Writing isn’t hard; digging ditches is hard.” But here I was — lost in the thicket of a midlife crisis, self-esteem in tatters. If I had never been comfortable calling myself a writer, I was at least someone who wrote; now, months went by without a word of mine in the magazine — and hardly a day without a lament.
A s we went higher, the air grew colder, the wind more blustery. We were still hiking, not climbing, but to my aching calves the distinction was moot. When the narrow trail seemed to disappear altogether, we clambered over huge rocks on hands and knees. All my attention was focused now on moving upward, from rock to rock, ledge to ledge. Weary of talking, weary of thinking, I squinted against the harsh light, trying again to gauge how far there was to go.
What a relief at last to glimpse, looming ahead of us, Sharp Top’s craggy peak. Miraculously shedding my fatigue, I bounded up the final rise. It was a cheap thrill, but thrilling nonetheless. “What did I tell you?” I exulted. “Forty-five minutes! Half the time they said!”
The summit was spectacular. Big boulders jutted up like stone relics, ancient and ageless, monuments to nature’s restless hand. Beneath us, visible for miles in every direction, was a patchwork of woods and fields and mossy green hills; farms with their barns and clustered outbuildings; roads leading to nearby towns; the motel far below and the silvery lake beside it, like a gleaming coin dropped from a great height.
We stood there, silently taking in the view. Luminous in the dazzling light, the valley was, unarguably, beautiful. Yet I didn’t find it inspiring. Admittedly, I wasn’t having a great day, but it seemed a bit too perfect, too pretty, nature in its Sunday best. I wondered what this land looked like long ago. Before motels and man-made lakes. Before the settlers conquered the wilderness — felling trees, driving plows across the land. I wondered about the Indians who journeyed here regularly for thousands of years. How could Sharp Top’s lonely, wind-swept heights not have beckoned to them? I didn’t know much about vision quests or shamanic practices, but it seemed likely this had been some sort of holy ground, perhaps a place of testing and initiation, of sacred rituals.
Indians, I suspected, regarded the land in a way that was hard for me to conceive, shaping themselves to it instead of the other way around. Wendell Berry once observed that the pristine America seen by the first white men can’t even be imagined anymore; it’s a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. As a culture, I mused, we’re estranged from the land because we live by imposing ourselves on it. Not unlike, I thought wryly, my editor’s hand, forever fussing and rearranging; I could no more leave a sentence alone than the settlers could leave this valley alone.
We spent the afternoon in bed — our passion a kind of solace. Though I hated to burden passion that way, I needed reminding that words aren’t the only way to touch. Our neighbors weren’t around — but just in case, we put on a jazz tape, and let it play over and over, a mournful oboe slipping in and out of the music like a thief.
When the sun went down, we dragged a couple of chairs outside, wrapped ourselves in a blanket, and watched the woods fill with shadows. I gazed up at Sharp Top, immense in the distance. For an odd, fleeting moment, I thought I was seeing it for the first time. How wild it looked, how ghostly and unfamiliar. Was it the gathering darkness that fooled me, some trick of the fading light? I stared, lost in wonder — until, like a remembered dream, the morning came back to me. How strange for memory to betray me that way. This was the mountain I’d conquered.
I told Norma how remote Sharp Top seemed, as if we hadn’t even been up there. She said she understood. We talked about the danger of turning an experience into an accomplishment — as if life were a series of goals, of little triumphs stretching into the future. For a moment, at the summit, we ooh and aah at the view, plant our flag, watch it wave in the sad wind. But we don’t stay long, so that life itself feels unlived, as remote as a distant mountain.
“Well,” Norma said, “why don’t we hike it again tomorrow?” I laughed, but she was serious. “We could take our time,” she insisted.
I reminded her we needed to leave early. “Besides,” I said, “I’d rather be left with this sense of poignancy.”
Norma was unconvinced. “Better,” she said, “to be left with a different memory.”
We sat there, not saying much as the sky grew darker and the first stars came out. A fat moon rose over the horizon, casting the mountain in an even eerier light. Perhaps Sharp Top would have seemed mysterious no matter how patiently we had hiked it; perhaps there was some mystery we weren’t meant to take down with us. But when I thought about the dark crags and barren slopes and the giant boulders at the summit — when I thought about standing breathless beside the lonely beauty of those big rocks, proud of having hiked there in forty-five minutes, a big grin on my face — I was ashamed.
It’s one thing, I thought, to wring my hands about civilization, and the greed of those who ravage the planet, yet isn’t ignoring nature a way of dominating it too? How little I knew, I reflected sadly, about the spirit of dead Indians or about the living spirit of a mountain. I felt a sudden longing for something I couldn’t name, some lost communion with the world, with myself.
Dry leaves scurried by, lifted by the wind. All the conflicts that ever haunted me as a writer haunted me still; I felt as far from the sacredness of words as a shopping mall was from the sacredness of the land. Would I ever change? Would I give up imagining I needed to conquer myself, scale the heights? I didn’t know. I wanted to be a real writer, not a parody of one. Yet how profoundly I distrusted my thoughts and feelings — my honesty concealing as much as it revealed. There was still the painful sense of fraudulence, the overarching ambition. No wonder my pieces had at their heart such loneliness, reaching through the words but afraid to reach too far, be too raw. The dream of turning writing into something joyous seemed as unattainable as ever — each essay a mountain to climb, a forced march to the end.