I am weary of my worn out sentences that begin with “I” – those crutches I lean on while the voice of an old writing instructor lets slip from the corner of her mouth, a grimace – her clear indication of disappointment, and perhaps this is pure projection, but regardless, she haunts my head anytime I sit down to write, as if I will never pass muster because I do not follow a traditional arc, lack substance in general, and succumb to self-absorption. If it weren’t her, though, wouldn’t it be someone or something else? If not for her, wouldn’t there be a line of fidgety creatures waiting to jump inside my ear canal?
If not for the pandemic, surely I could seek a shaman in New Mexico to cleanse me of this confirmation bias seeking out negativity toward the craft closest to the well I draw purpose. Why do we seek to destroy that which makes our hearts sing? Plenty of experts offer answers – Western, Eastern, even New Age Interstellar – but I am weary of all that wisdom too.
There is another habit I’ve practiced, this one with great intention since childhood. Instead of a gift from a business trip, I would ask my parents to bring me a rock. You could often find me wandering my woods and street, scanning for any rock that caught my eye, even rocks that had been clearly delivered to build a driveway or a garden wall, let’s say. A canvas duffle swayed on my handlebars as I pedaled through the neighborhood. Straining up steep hills, the burden never registered. I coasted along a ridge line, and the bag grew heavier with each sudden fishtail of my back tire – to marvel, gather, and carry. No neighbor ever pointed their finger or shooed me away.
There must be a tribe, I’m certain, for which I am a member, who will haul a rock, perhaps ten pounds, out of the backcountry, for miles and miles because this particular rock holds their gaze. Or, rather than a giant rock, we gather smaller ones. They bulge through the nylon, making a passerby who knows little of this proclivity wonder if we are carrying baby skulls or billiard balls. The next morning, clouds of blue and purple decorate our shoulders.
This habit leads to the following realities:
- When preparing to move across the country, let’s say multiple times, your husband will exclaim something like, “My God! All of these boxes are labeled rocks!”
- This one will always be remembered, I promise as I heave a small boulder into my pack. True, many of the rocks speak the home I took them from. A geologic map dots the interior of my house. Rocks on the windowsill tell me about the time I swam next to a sundew in Newfoundland. Flat, smooth rocks on the deck remind me I didn’t say goodbye forever to the North Fork of the Flathead – that the river will be there for the foreseeable future. I can still go there. Iron seams in sandstone plant me firmly on Petit Jean Mountain.
- As for the ceramic bowls and candy dishes holding handfuls of rocks, I remember the origin of one – the trip to Greece with my dad in the early aughts. But so many others are more difficult to recollect.
- And so, there are rocks upon rocks. Boxes of rocks. Bins and crates and buckets – seriously, there is a bucket of rocks next to the fireplace – who does that? Perhaps I am filling my God-shaped hole with rocks, or perhaps God is delighting in all the imperfect beauty feeding my primal desire to be closer to the land, to God.
- I could write about rocks for days, but there I go, beginning a sentence with that dreaded pronoun, when in truth, that particular writing teacher made some fair points, but still, I think some of her own fault lines grew into mine, and isn’t that one casualty of community? She did, at one point, say, “You have an embarrassment of riches.” I digress. You can fill a library with rocks, of the stories of our geologic ups and downs, and how they are also fingerprints of the universe. If you struggle to see the mystery in the latter, take a walk on the shores of Miscou Island.
Let me be clear, this isn’t about fear of shitty first drafts (thank you for that serum, A.L.) – this is about that paralyzing existential vice (aka the hell of my own making) that tries to tell me I Am Nothing, I Deserve Nothing, and From Nothing I Will Return. For further clarity, I’ve long let go the wistful hope I might gain some notoriety from writing – not because I don’t believe in myself – but rather, writing from that impulse is just as dangerous as the little demon whispering in my ear. We writers are like a logger I once met in the Swan Valley. “If I could do anything else, I would. Once these mountains get a hold of you, you’re not good for much else.”
This narrative is beginning to feel heavy. Let me lighten the load.
Rather than heed the clawing 8-track in my head, why not locate the gems dotting my lifetime – why not let one or two be the prism from which I create? Like the one summer evening inside a Vermont barn – we sat in folding chairs and lounged on vinyl sofas, there to hear each other’s writing, a ceiling fan lazily swirling above us and the whimsy of a disco ball hanging from a weathered beam. Amplified words floated in the warm, wine-scented air, and I imagined all eighty of us were the only humans left on the planet, and so we’d have to figure out Life and Living Together – how to grow food, make tools, books, and instruments, resolve conflicts over cornbread and slices of watermelon, and then…the most delicious wave rose from my toes, and I soaked in that feeling for an hour or more as others walked to the mic to share their naked drafts, and had they known the love I felt for each person, every one of them, most of them strangers in this swarm of intimacy, who knows what would have transpired.
This is the rock of my own making.