Listen while I tell you a story about a landscape.
This is a place where vertical-walled mountains scrape the sky, a sky that is forever gray, like a pensive afternoon. (The afterlife as a “perpetual rainy Thursday afternoon in March,” thanks Tony Kushner.) The mountains are black and furry, black-furred with trees, green when the sun emerges, mostly black. Black-furred cliffs that plunge terrifically into black water smooth as glass. On that pane of glass you sit, a tiny un-noticed thing in a vast empty black-and-gray space (the best vehicle by which to be here is a kayak, because they are silent and powered only by your own arms and your will). The mountains may be miles from you, but they impose upon the air titanic and so close as to interrupt your breathing. You may have the illusion of being held up by this expanse of glassy-black water—you sit perched upon it, tiny waterbird—but beneath you the space never ends. Above you is gray infinity, below you thousands of feet of empty black nothingness. Cold water, in which gargantuans swim like untold secrets. Every now and then they break the surface with knife-like black fins, release sighing breath that echoes off the mountains and back to your ears; underneath you, they call to each other with voices like violins. But mostly, waterbird, there is nothing for you but silence.
Like most of us, I was born into a world that asks me to justify loving the things that I love. See if it can make you money; get an education about it; make a plan; tell the whole world. What I have learned mostly is that the things I love don’t mean squat. I get lost and then I find them again, over and over, and no words or reasons are ever good enough, because I have none. I will always love to climb onto my roof in Baltimore, feel the wind, watch the sky, and listen to the birds. I will always love my mother, because she is tiny and at 60 years old still struts around like a toddler. I love plants in my house, because they are green and that seems right. I love knick-knacks, but only if they weren’t made by human hands. I love books, even when I never read them. I love my partners and their hands and how they smile. But I also love solitude, when no one will ask me to smile for them.
I often feel that the extent of my identity is this list of things that I love for no reason, and its antonym, the list of things I do not love. Some mornings I wake up to find myself a single-celled phototaxic organism: Move towards what is light and warm. Move away from things that will hurt you. My mother told me recently: “I think when you were young I had very strong opinions about what I liked and didn’t like (like: forests; dislike: cloves and cinnamon), because when you’re raising very small children it’s hard to maintain a true identity, and having strong likes and dislikes felt somehow close enough.” And I thought, well, I feel like that all the time, but I cannot use small children as an excuse because I have none (and for the most part I don’t like them anyway).
I am not a single-celled phototaxic organism: I am a mammal with one of the most sophisticated brains in the universe and I have been alive for nearly three decades. And I have nothing to contribute. I love what I love and the only thing that occurs to me is to walk towards it.
I love the landscape that I described above. I love everything about it. I love it the way I have romantically loved a few (flawed) men: I have dreams about it and a lot of preconceived notions, I have a crush, I have for better or worse inscribed very large designs pertaining to this thing on my body using permanent ink. I found this landscape when my life was almost exactly half as long as it is now, and informed my latter years with the crushing love I had for it. For better or worse. I kept getting lost. I don’t know why I did it. I don’t have a good reason, I don’t have an identity.
A dear friend of mine keeps saying, “The heart wants what it wants,” which is a line from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote once. The rest of the line is: “…or else it does not care.”
She also wrote in that letter, in her characteristic halted style: “The Frog sings sweet today. They have such pretty lazy times. How nice, to be a Frog!”
I am a Frog, I want what I want, and I do not care.
So that’s why I will be going to a body of water called Johnstone Strait this summer and getting in a kayak to listen to the silence and stare at the mountains and feel the vast empty space all around me, and to witness the black kraken whales, their violin voices, their terrifying breath, the aloneness of everything. I have no reason. I do not care. This is all I get, so I’m going.
Two quotes occur to me that oppose each other; one of them was given to me by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a very popular book called Wild, but I don’t care that her book is very popular: She is a prophetess, I’m telling you. I’m not sure who she was quoting, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like: “Do not forgo your present happiness in service to an image of yourself that is no longer true.”
But, on the other hand, there is this quote of Sylvia Plath’s in The Bell Jar, which a partner sometimes invokes for me by saying something like, “Go pick figs, Meg”:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
So here I go picking figs. Goodbye.