Look Back, Move Forward
I have been out in an old country house much of the summer, falling asleep to crickets. There, in my childhood bedroom, on the bottom of a rattan bookshelf, were nineteen years of journals lined up like little time bombs. I thought it would be fun––funny, maybe?––to start reading through them again. That was one of my more short-sighted moments. Once plucked off the shelf, one by one, I read them late into the night like suspense novels, unbothered by time slipping into early morning. I couldn’t stop. They were by pages humbling, hilarious, humiliating, and I had to know everything I’d forgotten. Every adolescent embarrassment, every disappointment, every obsession. Would Jenny and Blake break up? Would Alex lean over my library carrel one cold winter morning? Was my writing any good, and how would I know? There are snaps into depression and the kind of grandiose bravado that must be the stock-in-trade of the insecure. My college journals felt more familiar––I still remembered much of that time’s happiness––but they were every bit as aching to revisit.
The boy-craziness––going strong now for coming on twenty years––didn’t surprise me. It was there in sixth grade passing notes with Kevin addressed to our grown-up selves (“How is work on your latest novel going?”) and still there, more fiercely than ever, in the summer after my senior year of college. What did surprise me, in a stabbing and bittersweet way that stuck in my throat for days, was how much the world of language and ideas had once meant to me. All the evidence was right there: when I sat in a rear pew of a church listening to Li-Young Lee read and felt so moved by a sense of wonder there was nothing to do but cry. Jenny and I drank coffee on the front steps of Wallace and talked about beauty. On dates in Wisconsin diners over plates of chicken fried steak and white gravy, I talked about Mrs. Dalloway with a boy I loved. I vandalized a Hélène Cixous library book with my furious underlining and wanted to be a mash-up of Naomi Wolf and Susan Sontag. There are few moments as distinct with accomplishment in my life as the early evening I skipped home after presenting my senior thesis filled, finally, with a buoyant sense of freedom and release. I was surprised to see how completely I’d lost my tether to a world of curiosity.
There was another sense of loss, too, maybe even more profound. All that youthful excitement, all those portentous moments, all that intense longing. Desire sets out into the night, and the world is full of potential, adventure, promise. It’s like Joan Didion writes: “I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none them would count.”
At some point things do start counting, or I started to sense that they should, despite being a young(ish) woman still unencumbered, no mortgage, no children. But years ago a grown-up ballast planted me firmly in a material, adult world. Work a good job. Contribute to a 401(k). A body that was once the form for joy and mischief, high-heeled feet pumping the pedals of a red bicycle, is now scanned for suspicious moles and malignant lumps. The trouble with remembering just how vibrantly alive you once felt is realizing how very quiet a part of you has been.
But part of reading was seeing something that’s never changed. Any “realization” about what matters most to me in life is really just me circling back on something I already knew, echoes. Take this: Earlier this summer I thought I’d figured something out. I was smoothing the soil in my first little garden plot, where I crushed up egg shells and dropped them in holes dug for young tomato plants and pushed a wheelbarrow full of rotted manure on an uneven gravel driveway. I worked in the hot sun and had streaks of dirt on my face when I went inside for a glass of water. I stayed there in the country at my parents’ house for weeks, watching the raised beds explode with basil and spicy, bitter Asian greens. City ambitions––some idea of what “success” is––were crowded out by the quiet, familiar hum of rural life. In the evenings, after the work day, I closed my laptop not motivated by what I could achieve but by what I could experience. It turns out there are miles of country roads around my mom’s house I had never seen, and I steered my bike on them, past barking dogs and swimming holes. The air was thick with summer smells, mown grass and hay. When the wind blew through the trees, the sound was like rushing water.
Whatever that is, my adolescent self already knew it. I wrote long passages about being a baker, living in a cottage in Maine. I wanted to be this painting when I grew up. I felt connected to something bigger than myself, bigger than my sadness or school drama, when I was outside slicing through snow in a back field on my cross-country skis, or running the same roads I rode this summer, chasing the exhilaration, wanting that same hit of being alive.
And so that is what’s been on my mind during this long summer silence from here. Those past selves, still always within us, no matter how dormant they might feel. Can we invite them back in, into this seat on the bus, into the short weekend? They are why I have the same abandoned thrill on my bicycle, why I still step into a pair of red high heels I once wore to catch a cowboy’s eye. Three weeks ago, I found a large, empty cardboard box downstairs in my parents’ living room and carried it back up to my bedroom. I dropped the journals in it, stacked high and lining the sides. It wasn’t with a sense of a sadness that I folded down the top and pushed it to the back of the closet. I felt maybe more myself than ever.