Monday, January 19, 2015

Bare Branches and Stray Cats

A few doors down from our house, there is a building. It houses an elementary school, but it looks like no elementary school I've ever seen: certainly not the modern, unimposing, kid-friendly architecture you see nowadays. I believe it used to be a high school, back when high schools were something more institutional than they are today, and it shows: it's got a old, classic academic edifice with pillars in the front. It's set back on it's lawn with a path leading up to it, lined with lamps and mature trees which, nowadays, are bare. It was beautiful in the summer, with the leafy green canopy, and the autumn colors were especially fitting, with that changing-season back-to-school charm straight out of a college brochure. But there's something just right about the wispy, naked fingers, barely obfuscating your view of the place, and the snow on the ground. Something about the coldness that suits it.

I'm sure it's older than most of the homes that surround it, but even as the defining characteristic of the neighborhood, it's somehow so garishly out-of-place I can never help but stare at it. For me, it's beauty inspires only sad nostalgia of a life I didn't have. I think it reminds me of walking around the campuses of liberal arts colleges and feeling this sense of being where I belonged, but only as a fleeting visitor.

I was smart and artistic and I cared about learning; I would have done a thousand times better in college than I did in High School. Instead, with undiagnosed ADHD and terrible grades, I was rejected from the few colleges I thought to apply to, and I lived the first part of my adult life in the confusion that comes from being separated from your peers when they all go one way and you go another. I got a job, got married, and lived a humble life trying to convince myself that I'd done what was right for me. I don't remember if I did a good job at that or a poor one: it probably went back and forth. But when I walked around the campus at Bowdoin or took a day trip to Cambridge, I knew the truth.

It's not clear if my early marriage suffered from the longing of the life I should have had, as it was suffering from too many things to keep track of. Still, eventually, I somehow learned to commit to marriage, to define myself as a part of a couple, and to think of that as my life's most important goal. This dedication served me well, right up until the divorce. After that, having my sense of self wrapped up in my marriage was...less convenient.

There's something about this, the way I'm writing this, that really isn't working for me: it's hard, it's not coming out naturally, and it's not satisfying. Earlier tonight, I went out for a walk, as it was a very bearable 32 degrees: I like to make the point to people who use the term "freezing" to describe the winters in Maine that when the temperature is actually at freezing, that's a really pleasant change.

I started out with a practice called "mindful walking," part of my attempt to make meditation a regular routine once again. The idea is, as you might guess, to be present and in the moment, noticing sights, sound, smells, and the feeling of your feet on the pavement, one step after another, and giving your attention to the here and now. I did alright for a while, but found myself fighting off the narrator in my head that so often begins a post like this long before I ever reach a keyboard. It's something I've always done, since I was a very small child-- write in my head when I'm alone.

In the past few years, it's not clear to me how long, that has somehow happened less and less for me, less automatically, less often. I guess it's not clear to me why: is it because I have so little alone time now? Is my mind too crammed with anxious to-do lists to wander into essays and stories and monologues from imaginary films that have only the sparsest plot supporting them? Or has my head been narrating to me just as much all along, but I forgot to listen?

Regardless, as it always has, walking alone at night sparked it right up. Richly worded allusions to Counting Crows lyrics, and deeply complex metaphors about a cat that I stopped to pet, and how it symbolized the many ex-loves of my life with whom my relationship was ruined because I couldn't let my time with them be simply what it was. Full paragraphs about the building, and the trees, and the life I could have had, and what it is to always be living a life you feel is not your own: to always feel as out of place in your own life as that damned building is on my street.

And then finally, as I walked back to my house, the realization that while I might always feel unfamiliar in my life-- either as a wife that should have instead been a student, or a mother to the wrong man's child-- there is a way to find my way back to the one thing that does feel like me, at my very essence, to my very core: the voice of melancholy narrator, carefully crafting the story of my signature sadness.

I think, perhaps, it will always be there, it has always been there. I think, perhaps, it is really just for me-- the writing is in my head, is working it's way through me, even if I never make it as far as I've made it tonight. The feeling of my fingers on my keyboard is about communing with the voice of the narrator. Posting these words for all to see is my plea for the world to love her, because she is me, because she is all I really am.

But the voice, the words, the stories and symbols and stray cats...that's the part I really need, whether it comes out on paper or not. That's the part of me that is a writer in a way that no college could have ever made me one.

I hope that it's enough.

On with it.