Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sudden Light

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me -- Bruce Springsteen, The Rising.

The road out of the darkest woods can begin with a flicker of sun through a tree parted years ago by lightening. I had sought out my cabin in the isolation of the Olympic Forest with gusto. I was certain that the world and its people were the cause of my woes. And when I left the cold and dark heart of interior Alaska, the woods of Washington State promised the wilderness I had come to love without the brittle temperatures and malingering night.

The circular cabin had fourteen windows and skylights, so that you were part of the woods by day, when pileated woodpeckers hammered their beaks into the cedars, and by night, when heavy footed critters broke through the underbrush in the utter darkness. I learned to split my own wood, taking chunks of pine or madrone from the stack and getting my back into it. In the early dawn, I would climb shivering from the sleeping loft and blow fresh life into the glowing coals of the woodstove.

By day the woods were dark, streaked with shadows in the fall air. I could walk to the bright sun along a forest service road, and found my way to a grove of old growth cedar where I'd wrap my arms about the widest tree and sob. I had no idea if I was sad or grateful, or whether it was about another thing entirely.

The nearest town was 14 miles away, and I drove to its feed store and bought rubber boots, a new splitting maul, and a 50 pound sack of wild bird food. I shoveled out huge scoops of feed and spread it across my front porch. By mid-day, thousands of Oregon juncos hopped on the hardwood planks, fighting mightily over the seed. At dusk, mule deer with whited tails walked through the clearing, sipping water from the pond. Herons flew overhead, tossing huge shadows across the salal.

It was a bucolic setting I had dreamt of most of my life, a place where I would have the quiet to write my novel, the peace from battling academics who disapproved of the authors I chose to use in the classroom, and the stream of unhappy students who thought they could barter for better grades with sexual innuendo or simply an endless barrage of excuses.

I had surely gone to the bottom in Alaska, where the combination of never-ending dark, cold, and a fling with pain pills made my life miserable. I had begun hearing voices. Once, when students in the lounge were muttering my name, I burst in on their table and demanded how they dared to talk poorly about me behind my back. One of them shrugged and said they were chatting about what a lively, interesting man I was and a great teacher of writing.

I thought the voices and dark would drop behind me as I drove the miles to the Haines Ferry and took the ship to Seattle. But weeks into my solitude in the woods, they found me again, and I had no one else to blame.

Every morning I got the fire going, made coffee, and sat down to work on my novel. It was a sustained narrative about a mental health counselor who had never resolved his hatred for his father. When his lover leaves him, the counselor goes on a quest across country to find her and, so doing, discovers great truths about himself. But even though the protagonist was piling on the miles, the novel was going nowhere.

In the afternoons, I drove to town to pick up my mail--more rejection slips, bills, supermarket coupons--then drove out to the Sound where I walked the wind-swept beach in the snap of fall cold. I had no friends here, and seemingly had lost the ability to make new ones. I tried the taverns, where my drinking companions were farmers and loggers, and none shared my views of the world. I drove back to the cabin lonelier than ever.

After a while, I couldn't even sit to write anymore. I made my morning fire, had breakfast, paced for hours--it seemed--then left angrily in search of companions. Back to the taverns, back to the seeming indifference of my peers, back home at dusk with a carload of sadness and self pity.

On Thursdays, I'd drive to the feed store and purchase the local newspaper. I suppose one would get a chuckle out of the small-town charm, the trifling struggles of country life that hardly made a scratch in the world's most dire ills, and the classified ads for quilting bees, salmon fishing derbies, dueling appeals by the churches, and community theater productions of Thornton Wilder. It had no such affect on me. Each waking day seemed to dogpile atop a mountain of anger.

One morning I took a razor to my face, cutting off a beard I had worn for 15 years. I hated what I saw and briefly imagined taking the razor to my throat. The man in the mirror was a complete stranger. And I saw only pain and terror in his watery eyes. I drove out to Discovery Bay and sat on a cliff overlooking a beach strewn with rocks and broken deadfall. The ashen stumps and branches poked between jagged stones and ribbons of kelp. I imagined my own body going over the edge, falling with the sudden knowledge of irrevocable decisions, and shattering on the rocks. The pain of striking the rocks seemed greater than the pain I was hoping to quash. Or I was just too afraid, and I drove home with a sense of great failure.

I had begun to sleep in, tucking deep in my sleeping bag, too lazy to get up and light the fire. It was only when I saw that the juncos had run out of seed that I rose, pulled on a coat, and went out to empty a fresh sack on the porch. Oh well, I was up. I made coffee and drove into town for a paper.

As I sat in the tavern that afternoon, I read a classified that caught my eye. There was just a headline and address. It said: "Men's 12-step Writing Group, Thursday 7 pm, St. Paul's Episcopalian Church, 1020 Jefferson St."

Other writers! Companionship. Writerly support. Decent conversation. I could dazzle them with my well-hewn sentences and snappy dialogue. I had no idea what they meant by their title, but I assumed that they had discovered the 12 steps in creating fiction that the masses would buy. I showered and shaved and tucked a notebook under my arm and set off for town.

St. Paul's Church stands on a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet and the Puget Sound. The water wraps around the town on its way from the Cascade peaks to the Pacific ocean. Across the bay you can see a string of islands and, beyond them, the snow-capped peaks and the Mount Baker volcano. The path to my meeting led from the sidewalk along a hedge of Rhododendrons, through a well-tended rose garden, and to the door to the basement.

When I entered the room--appropriately late to make my entrance--I saw a dozen middle-aged men seated at a conference table. Several looked up, but they went back to their studies, gazing at a coffee-table-sized book as one of them read aloud. I took an empty seat and listened.

I had no idea what in blazes they were talking about, but the language was baroque, strange, and held no terms I would ever describe as literary. They read a series of questions about a higher power, how they viewed this power, and what they did on a daily basis to connect with it. I was baffled and crestfallen.

During the break, the men introduced themselves--John, Jerry, Pete, another John, Curt--and asked my why I was there. When I said I had expected a writer's group, they laughed and I was more uncomfortable than ever. But, oddly enough, they were friendly, had an uncanny twinkle in their eye, made me welcome, and I decided odd company was better than no company at all.

They had an extra workbook and I bought it at the end of the meeting. Reading it at home, I discovered that I had stumbled into some kind of support group. They were drug addicts, or drunks, or had other kinds of trouble. And yet, I was oddly attracted to their company.

I went the second week, too. John took my phone number and called me to see how I was doing. It was the first personal phone call I had received in my cabin. John said he had a counselor for me. I had done counseling. I doubted I could be helped in any way. No counselor had truly understood what I felt; hell, I had no idea what I felt. In Alabama, after I had broken some furniture and terrified my partner, I went to the community counseling center where the counselor told me I needed to develop outside interests, you know, go fishing some?

But John had a good counselor, he said. And now I added a counseling appointment to my weekly meeing with the bizarre-writing society in St. Paul's basement. At my first session, Judy asked me why I thought I needed counseling. I told her what I knew. I reviewed my well-grooved stories and family histories, after which she pronounced me an alcoholic and that she would not work with me until I had been sober a year. She recommended that I visit the community counseling center to get a professional evaluation.

Once more, a woman had rejected me. I was sure about that as I drove home in rage. But I found myself oddly complaint with advice and drove to the counseling center for my appointment. The counselor handed me a questionnaire, which I answered to the best of my ability. Then we talked for a while. I was certain that I had narrowly evaded an addiction to pain pills in Alaska, that I had a long-time love affair with pot, but that I never drank so much that alcohol was a problem.

The counselor had a different idea. She told me there was a bed at a treatment center in central Washington, that the state would foot the bill if I willing to drive over there tomorrow. "You need to say yes when you're willing," she said, "because this moment may never come again." Surely, this was a dire measure. But my mouth--quite unattached to my mind--said yes and I drove back to my cabin in the woods thinking that some small piece had fallen in place and that I might not have to kill myself.

The next morning I got up without lighting a fire and packed my car. I put two volumes of poetry on the seat and a suitcase of clothes and toiletries, then went back to lock the cabin. I emptied the entire bag of feed on the porch. If the seed ran out before I had completed my 28 days, the juncos would have to go it alone.


Marylee said...

I'm glad you followed this path. You have so much to offer.

Gabby said...

Me, too. Thanks for your kindness and friendship. Amazing how it all turns out!

Yoli said...

Come on, you are a Sag like me, we thrive on throwing ourselves off cliffs and building our wings on the way down.