It begins two days before my thirtieth birthday in March, when I hear I have a summer job in Rhinebeck, New York, on the summer staff of the Omega Institute. As the spring ripens towards summer, my readiness to go snowballs into another plan: to use Omega as a departure point, no summer vacation, no three-month break from Chapel Hill, but an extended adventure, a search for new people, new places, challenges to meet on terms other than my own. In the calm of dusk and dawn, I know that I want to leave, as if forever.
There are safeties to return to, if I choose: my cabin, my land, a world left behind with many loose ends tied. But the postcards from dreamland have not been of that for many months. They are of people I’ve never met, a place in the mountains far north, a city life too, unknown territories that beckon like an open sky.
I write a will, think about where I might go after the summer. I’ll throw the net wide at Omega, fish for appropriate destinies, expect to be surprised.
The last few weeks in Chapel Hill are highly emotional but confirm correct timing, the appropriateness of my departure. I glimpse old mentors on the street, people I haven’t seen in years who anchored me here ten years ago, and feel our finished business. The original mystery of the town is gone for me; it is familiar and small, “the size of a pinhead,” I say over and over. The completed circles here of fantasy meeting reality are like heavy bracelets I’ve worn too long and am ready to take off.
Possibilities for the fall begin to introduce themselves, the most appealing of which is an apple-picking job in Massachusetts, definitely “a challenge to meet on terms other than my own.” The head of the crew makes sure I understand there’s nothing romantic about it. It’s backbreaking work that requires excellent physical health and the emotional endurance to face endless rows of trees for six weeks. “When you’re picking apples,” says a seasoned picker, “that is the real world, and everything else seems pale and spineless in comparison.”
Apple-picking would test me, certainly, pierce the wordy abstractions and ungrounded spirit in me, but it’s pretty far from what I am searching for: a challenge that will call on perceptual skills I have already developed, with a deadline to meet, other people to work with for purposes larger than my own.
It is what I have always wanted to do and in 1975, when I picked up my first SUN magazine, I felt it perfectly matched my most vivid fantasies of carrying personal truths to a public audience, emphasizing that we create our own reality, that the politics of love is where it all begins. How could someone else have done such a magnificent job of creating a publication so reflective of that? Even the false steps, its unique brand of arrogance, the confessional overtones matched my own. And, as if that were not enough, one of the most frequently quoted influences in the magazine was the only philosopher/psychologist who had taken permanent root in my heart: Seth, of the Jane Roberts series.
For the next three years, THE SUN was my life, my identity. And in the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth year I realized I couldn’t let it be. But it remained personally potent for me, no matter how far away from it I got. It was a light in the night, precious proof of the fruits of faith, and as a writer I stayed in its womb like an overgrown child secretly afraid I was THE SUN’s forever because it was there that I first learned to trust my own speech.
My emotional attachment to each issue emerging still ran rampant, my inner clock always aware of the stage of the “ish,” the issue, and its ever present uncertainties in which I played a lesser and lesser part, the long hours of labor and the worries: Would there be enough money to pay the printer? Would there be enough material for the issue? And always the cover design left for last, an ironic unintentional statement about the magazine’s priorities, its emphasis on the inside of things, not the outer.
Last minute coagulations from unseen sources always seemed to rule THE SUN, and it was always Sy who wore the catcher’s mitt, caught the balls, because it was he that pieced together something beautiful in the wee hours of the morning from the hodgepodge of articles, graphics, and poetry. It was his tremendous will power that left him alone with the final decisions, with a quickly rising curtain on a stage called THE SUN, which was more than a magazine, it was hundreds of people, many of them emerging as artists for the first time.
They answered THE SUN’s appeal, the invitation at its core:
THE SUN is receptive to new voices. We depend on unsolicited material; in that sense those of you so gifted share a responsibility for the evolution of the magazine. All we require is that your work make sense, and enrich the space we share . . .
No matter how rough or unpolished a piece might be when it came in, by the time it was in print, the spark that inspired it had been magnified through editing, through the dignity of set-type, and the typically elegant graphics Sy was always searching for, crowing when he found the missing visual links, like a miner with his hands on gold.
For an artist appearing in print for the first time, a momentous event had taken place. A closet door had been opened, the heart and mind made accessible to the laws of chance, to the stranger in the laundromat who picks up an old SUN, to a forest ranger in Arizona at the top of a fire tower, to the artist’s mentor who might now become an equal.
It is true that, in a sense, THE SUN is solely Sy’s, his creation, his responsibility, its historical continuity dominated by one engineer. But there were times when we took turns, when others invested the best of themselves in it, and the deepest intention of THE SUN attracted unexpected rewards for anyone involved.
In January of 1978, the “Us” section of THE SUN appeared for the first time, “a modest effort to provoke conversation among us about questions on which we’re the only authorities.” It was my idea, my project, and my mini-magazine within THE SUN. Four years later it had a life of its own. On January 8, 1982, I wrote in my journal:
“Sun office. Late night. I am writing a Seth review. Sy comes in, tear-streaked face, papers in his hands. ‘Read this.’ It is a jewel, a brilliant nugget of someone’s soul, in an ‘Us’ section essay about ‘The Most Important Influence on my Life.’ I read it, Sy rereads it over my shoulder. Finishing it, I feel I am at the center of the universe, where I want to be forever, liquid night of now a vast intersection called THE SUN magazine, Sy and I keepers of the door, gardeners kept here not by ambition but in wait for such jewels orbiting the sky, as they seek their servants, their peers.”
The “Us” section was important to me because it gave people who were writers with no confidence the opportunity to see themselves in print, see their work through the impersonal lens of the printed page, sense the responsibility involved in setting creative children free. That is what THE SUN magazine did for me, and creating the “Us” section was an effort to provide unconditional support for anyone who wanted to follow in my footsteps.
On my “list of things to do” before I leave town is “get stored stuff from SUN office.” In the back of the building in the old darkroom are boxes of odds and ends, things I hang onto for no apparent reason and keep like a small stash in the bowels of THE SUN. After midnight when I get off work I go over there, turn on the lights and make my way to the back to begin dismantling the last remnants of my life at THE SUN. I’m nervous, emotional, alone here, afraid I’ll get mugged by my own ghost, by all the houseplants here which used to be mine, my red rug on the production room floor, my old desk with the bad leg, the hat rack in the hall which was in my childhood home and followed me to Chapel Hill like an old aunt that wanted to keep an eye on me.
It is an old building, modest and small, not particularly clean, but very neat, the Safransky-touch of alphabetized this and chronological that emanating from the walls, the floorboards, and the smell of coffee, incense, and a vague musk odor unique to the building with its rats below the floorboards, old rugs, damp sofas, Camel cigarettes, and five-year history as my favorite social site. Who walked in the front door was as unpredictable as a circus: old pompous writers, young uncertain writers, closet cartoonists clutching portfolios, making me cringe with the fear that they’d be bad, “not what we’re looking for.” And then there was the occasional drunk from down the street where the low-income end of the business district is back-to-back with the derelict district, where the whores and pimps and drug dealers congregate at all hours and hoot at friends who drive by slowly in shiny cars, with mufflers that go chugachugachuga, like powerful animals straining at the bit.
And there are the people who want “to help out,” who stay for days or weeks or months, or like me, for years.
This is as much home as my cabin has ever been, but not the home I retreated to, rather the home I sought for stimulation, to meet the world head-on. It is the site of my first serious schooling, and my heart breaks at leaving it one minute and throbs with pleasure the next, because I am leaving every prop. Leaving THE SUN is leaving my model of the world and I want to know who I am without it, who will I continue to be?
Peering into each room of THE SUN, I look for what I want to carry with me, travel clothes for the psyche to wear to the next chapter, where I don’t know a soul, have had no previews. Sy keeps the wall by his desk plastered with pictures and quotes, the scriptures of his life, carefully arranged graffiti. Two of them leap out at me:
God frequently guides us not by opening doors but by closing them.
— Gordon Phillips
I live my life in growing orbits which move out over things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt. I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.
— Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)
I don’t cry until I get outside and look at the flower bed in front of the office, a disorganized project that was mainly mine, and looks vaguely like I imagine I look most of the time, a little unkempt and wild, with strong roots and a lot of color. I cry because I never finished the flower bed, “and if I’m gone, nobody will.” Or worse, someone will do it over, and do it better. How hard it is to give up territory we think is our own, that we think we controlled.
Saying good-bye to the office is one thing. Saying good-bye to people is another.
I hold my youngest friend in my arms, sing to myself. Walker Lee is my first nephew, born prematurely on April Fool’s Day three months before his due date. “Walker Lee, can you feel me? This warm touch is your Auntie.”
I face the friend with whom I have the most unfinished business, suspect it will never be finished. Our old arguments flame and crackle like something that feeds us somehow. This is the only person in the world who can bring me to a screeching halt, make me feel like a crazy person clinging to the reverse side of someone else’s attachments. This is the friend that follows me furthest into ridiculously abstract arguments that finally seem comical, where we fence and duel past all reasonable limits. I argue heatedly that intuitive perception is possible, can be trusted, that all we see is not a projection. His insistence is that even so-called intuitive perceptions are projections. We are both right but obviously enjoy the fight. Once long ago we skipped the argument, went to a video game room where we played Star Wars and blew each other up with glee, at the heart of the matter, and I vowed to remember this wonderful shortcut through our self-righteousness, vowed to do it again with him, but we never did.
I lose the distinction between pleasure and pain when I think about leaving him, and everyone I love, for that matter. We all live each other’s lives; my adventure is theirs too.
For several months before I leave, I get together regularly with two women friends, ostensibly to do watercolors, to work on a collective painting, each of us taking a corner and meeting in the middle. Then we stop taking out the paint and just talk, our lives and histories intertwining and we learn how to read between the lines, how to challenge each other’s perceptions and patterns playfully, how to be foolish, responsive with each other, and I feel I have the friends I’ve been waiting for all my life. The last time we are together we sun ourselves naked at a lake in the country, and I confess to them my wildest fantasies of what I want to do in the world, afraid they’ll think I’m a fool, but they don’t doubt me and sitting on the raft looking at each of them I realize I don’t either. “I’m going to do it!” I squeal, and get a whiff of good things to come, things I could never find if I stayed here.
Everything accelerates the three days before I leave and I vow not to panic, not to worry that I never had time to buy a change purse and stop carrying my money around in a cardboard checkbook box. Nobody at Omega will care whether I have a new pair of Chinese slippers, elegant earrings, a clean lens on my camera, or new underwear. Driving around town running last minute errands the University of North Carolina seems so far away from me, another lifetime. It was what brought me here in the first place, with its traditions, its public authority expensively executed over the forest of Chapel Hill like a well-financed movie set. Massive buildings bind together an impressive body, a theater: “the first state university” in the country, a marketplace of ideas, a small town with a worldly population: New Yorkers, Californians, Vietnamese, Germans, Indians, Italians. And the Southerners who stayed, their tolerances for other cultures stretched to a vanishing point. But despite the repeated comparisons of Chapel Hill to Berkeley, California, or Amherst, Massachusetts, Chapel Hill strikes me as limited, as paying lip service to the arts, to social change, to “culture,” whatever that is, and more bound to what — basketball? If I never see another Carolina Blue bumpersticker reading RAM IT or DEAN IS MEAN IN NEW ORLEANS, or GO HEELS! I’ll be delighted. Ten years of Tar Heels wears thin on someone who hears only the noise of sports, the static, the ungodly roar of 15,000 people howling in an outdoor stadium.
No matter how much I have to do to get ready to go, no matter how eager I am to hit the highway, I can’t hide from a most inconvenient compulsion: I get the urge to write, to race down the track one more time with all my props intact, to find out what it is I have to say before it vanishes.
Writing can be the most difficult task in the world for me, even when my readiness is snowballing to almost painful proportions. My heart pounds. I sit in front the typewriter, breathing constricted. Pace the floor. Repeatedly go to the mirror and look into it. Same tense, attentive face, looking like she heard something, but what? The only way to deal with it is operate mindlessly, perform rituals that create shifts, open and close inner doors, but seem benign and silly on the outside: whirl the globe on my desk as if it were the earth, stopping it suddenly, as if stopping time. Stand on the top step outside and rock back and forth, my hand at my mouth as if trying to speak for the first time. Chant nonsense phrases I made up as a child: “A-nony-nony-nony! A-nony-nony-nony!” And then it starts to come, Ingmar Bergman’s spear in the dark: “I throw a spear into the dark — that is intuition. Then I have to send an expedition into the jungle to find the way of the spear — that is logic.”
It’s ridiculous, the day before I’m supposed to leave I still haven’t packed a thing, can’t tear myself away from the typewriter, this urgency to do a massive housecleaning on the inside, first. On Thursday I burn out around three o’clock, have to get away, go to the pond with a close friend and we swim, dive deep to find the cold currents, squeal and giggle and talk our private jive: “Is there any greater pleasure than peeing in the pond?”
Leaving the pond is like leaving a massive underground world, the ever-changing depths of me, where blocks are broken up, where I remember my dreams with startling clarity.
It starts to storm when we get back to my cabin and I try to write, to finish sorting the threads, searching for the endings, and I can’t. “Time is running out,” and what I want most is a good-night’s sleep, forty-eight hours to finish writing, and twenty-four to pack. I have twenty-four hours to do all of that, not seventy-two, and start to fume, collapse into an inert coma, only to be roused by the memory of a box of precious photographs I left beside the car trunk that was getting soaked in the storm. “I’m going after it,” I say bravely. Bravely because I’ve lost my flashlight and it’s a long walk through the woods to the car, no moon, and a heavy rainstorm outside. I set off in nothing but sandals and a raincoat, talking to myself out loud, “This is dumb, this is foolish, this is idiotic,” realizing my feet can’t find the path in all this rain. I wave my arms around in front of me to keep branches out of my eyes and sure enough I get lost, in my own woods, the light of the cabin hidden by the jungle density of foliage and sheets of rain. I’m soaked, finally stand still and laugh my wildest cackle. I am exactly where I want to be, this is the ending I was searching for, another watery comfort, the darkness, the night, happily lost in my own homeland, the mystery re-instilled, trust in circumstance and unplanned timing moving through me like the breath of God. Lightning shows me the way and I end up at the car a half hour later, to find the box of pictures safe inside. Of course.
I go back to the cabin more directly, by the oldest route which runs down a hill where a swollen stream guides me in the right direction and I stand in it, ankle deep, and absorb every scent and sound, the sights I can only see in the dark, my own light mixing and merging with all the light in the world. Home is everywhere.