The holiday doesn’t start until we pull out of the garage. But living with Bernie has led, among other things, to an incremental but continuous inflation in my packing. Once upon a time, as with so many things in my life, less was more. Now, loading the truck for our trip to Colorado, I’m stowing a blender, my special pillow, a backup raincoat, a picnic blanket; never mind I’m going to have to carry it all up the stairs to the condo we rented in Snowmass, what else can we bring? Bernie hands me this black box of CDs, which friends gave us to listen to.
What does concern me is Bernie’s apparent intention to conduct a last-minute spring cleaning though it’s summer in Scottsdale, Arizona and 100 degrees in the shade–it’s so hot the birds just sit on the ground–and we’ve got an 8-hour drive to Durango ahead of us. Cleaning transcends time in her mind, happens out of time entirely, in some other dimension, where there is no movie or plane to catch; only when she emerges from that fugue state, do the wheels of time start turning again apparently.
I love the ordered calm and even elegance of our home that emanates directly from her hands, her touch. The truth is she casts a kind of spell over the house. Some of it is mechanics, putting things away, insisting I do the same. But beyond that, she tunes the energy to a pitch of quiet vibrancy that is nourishing in itself.
People comment when they come over, how good everything looks, but really they are feeling this frequency, the frequency of Bernie. Still, time is the true currency of life and there is a domino effect to this straightening, as she calls it, in which one act of straightening leads to another and another, which must be addressed as surely as fires must be put out. I’m encouraged that after about an hour of straightening, she arrives at the plant-care phase, where she waters the plants and sort of says goodbye to them. And it is with deep relief that we pull out of the garage, and head off, Bernie at the wheel.
The box of CD’s sits within reach. It’s supposed to be inspirational or something, and it’s connected to some multi-level marketing thing. Bernie says we have to listen to it, so she can tell the friends she did. We figure we have fifteen hours on the road, so we put on Willie Nelson instead.
We pull in at the truck stop in Flagstaff a couple hours later, next to Little America, to buy pumpkin seeds and use the facilities. We take a look at that black box of CDs and put on Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The high meadows and ponderosa pine give way to the dry wind and water carved mesas of the Navajo reservation. When it’s my turn to drive, Bernie reads, which I cannot do in a moving car. So she is poor company, in my opinion, compared to me. When I ask her what she’s reading, she’s too busy reading to answer. I put on Patsy Kline in protest, but she keeps reading, as we drive through the arid plateau country.
For desert dwellers in the summer seeking green, there’s a moment of joy when the pinyon pines and junipers of Cortez Colorado come into view. We’re not in aspen country yet, but we’re getting there. Not sure what we listen to, but it’s not those CDs.
We continue on an hour east to Durango where we spend the night. In the morning, leaving town, heading toward Wolf Creek Pass, I spot deer in a corn field, still as statues. At first I think they are statues. Then my brain jolts out of the distracted routine it’s been running; what exactly would deer statues be doing in a corn field? Tears well in my eyes at the mere hint of awakening.
Rain spatters the windshield as we drive the long switchbacks up and over Wolf Creek Pass and the lush meadows and farms beyond are like a balm to our nervous systems. But if we’re going to listen to anything while we drive these two-lane roads it’s Tony Bennet.
We’re approaching Leadville, just a couple hours from Aspen then Snowmass, and we still haven’t listened to those CDs. If we don’t listen to them before we get there, we never will. Then what will we say to these friends?
Bernie is driving again, so I put on the first CD, in which the speaker introduces himself and drops some names of some famous people he knows and speaks in extremely remedial terms about if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. Stuff like that.
“I can’t listen to this,” I say, ejecting the CD.
“Try the next one,” Bernie says,
“How can I say I listened to them if I didn’t listen to them?”
I pop in CD number 2. The speaker says something about are you doing what you want in your life, or are you believing in yourself, or something along those lines, and I may as well have been struck by lightning, because the answer, I realize, in no uncertain terms is no, I’m not.
Maybe it’s the altitude. Leadville, situated between the Mosquito Range and the Sawatch Range, at 10,000 feet elevation, is the highest incorporated city in the US. It’s an old mining town, stony rather than green, bare and over-exposed, like the sun-damaged skin of some people who live at these elevations.
We park and stretch our legs in the flinty brightness. I’ve published next to nothing, yet I’m always writing, writing and stopping, and writing something else; writing without belief, without patience, without finishing.
Leadville’s main street is wide and slow paced. Bernie loves to “look around”, which is what she calls shopping, so we browse a few shops. I need to be searching for something–a jacket, a pair of shoes–in order to see anything. Otherwise, stores too me are mostly a mass of undifferentiated stuff.
Bernie is a far more poetic shopper, open to inspiration, to discovery. She can be looking for nothing and spot treasure. Consequently, I am constantly running out of things to look at, while she is finding them. I end up following her around, like a restless dog, waiting for the next more interesting part of the walk. (I’m not great in museums either.)
After college I thought, rather dreamily, I’d be a poet. I was accepted to Columbia’s graduate writing program in poetry. But I hadn’t been happy in college and balked at the tuition. The director of the program, the poet Kenneth Koch, was kind enough to offer me a modest scholarship, but I turned it down. He said “keep in touch, don’t just disappear” but that’s exactly what I did, moving away from New York, away from any literary scene, and I’d never reconnected.
Time had cooked on such a low boil I didn’t notice its evaporation. I’m 48. It’s suddenly been fourteen years since a scholarship to a writing conference in Squaw Valley, from which I took optimism. Thirteen years since a workshop with a luminary editor, a lover of Aristotelian rules and categories, which left me more ignorant than when I’d started. Ten years since a novel, too rushed to be good, written always in a losing race against rising internal doubt and dismissal. Eight years since an agent had taken an interest in the novel, then ignored me for months before rejecting it.
We enter a curio shop selling generic Colorado t-shirts, crystals and knives. I’m interested in the knives for about a minute – I mean, they’re sharp and vary in size and shape, like creatures of cutting evolved for different purposes. But I’m not looking for a knife and soon I’m looking for something else to look at, and there isn’t anything, but Bernie is just getting started.
Bernie needs this time away. At home, Chuck is dying. Chuck, among other things, is Bernie’s ex. He made life hell for us, in his own way, but she still loves him, and I do too. He was once a great inspiration, but now, mired in self-absorbed regret and depression, he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We’re stuck with his suffering; we can’t change him and he has nowhere else to go.
She finds this collection of dolls, with funny pointy heads made of painted china with elaborate, often hilarious head dresses, consisting of things like birdcages or flowerpots, and little beanbag bodies that can be positioned in poses. She already has several of these kind of dolls in a glass chest at home, now she decides on a new addition – the one with the birdcage head.
To call Bernie ageless is to gloss a subject of sublime depth. Born decades before me, she moves with enviable lightness of being and energy of purpose, as though her relationship to time is more personal than the rest of ours.
She likes driving, and after hours of driving, she wants to keep driving, but as we approach Independence Pass she starts to tense up. The road twists into switchbacks with barely enough room to avoid oncoming traffic, and no guard rails.
“Are you OK?” I say.
“Don’t talk to me!”
I knew she was afraid of heights but I’ve never seen her like this, hands gripping the wheel, neck and arms stiff with panic.
“Let me drive,” I say.
“No!” she just about screams. There’s nowhere to pull over anyway.
“We’re fine,” I try coaching her through the next switchback and the next one. But she’s scaring the shit out of me.
“We’re not fine!” Oh my god, she wants to fight with me about it.
“Just drive, we’re fine. We’re fine.” What else can I say.
Somehow we white knuckle it to the summit of the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet where there is plenty of parking to take in the spectacular view, and I can drive us the rest of the way.
It’s my disbelief that suddenly comes clearly into viewthe opposite of seeing the light. My revelation involves no glory, only the clarity that I’ve been swaddled in doubt, crippling doubt, so familiar to me, like the passage of time, I couldn’t see it, until now.
My mother was a failed writer. She wouldn’t agree with that characterization and should not. A woman with four children, and no substantial encouragement, who writes and then stops writing before publishing her work should hardly consider herself a failure. I’d inherited from her the identity of writer. But I’d also inherited the struggle of it, more than struggle, the elsewhere-ness of it, that if art came to anyone, anywhere, it wasn’t to me, where I was. Wherever that might be.
I remember being six sitting at a discarded typewriter in an attic room of our house in Trenton, NJ, mimicking I suppose what my mother was doing downstairs behind the closed door of her study, feeling utterly empty doing it.
I start believing in myself as a writer the way one might start Thai Chi, stiffly, with mechanical effort and little grace. I push away rationalizations like, if that writers conference gave me a scholarship, there must be something to believe in. Because the other rationalizations will sink me. I’m 48. Friends from that conference have published novels. I’ve published like nothing.
I don’t want to believe in my rationalizations anyway, I want to believe in myself. But I have to banish wanting too. I’ve been wanting for years. Wanting is exhausting, and frankly, boring, which is a sign of progress, that I am bored with my own struggle. There is, after all, no new struggle, just the same replay over and over.
Rationalizing isn’t believing anyway; it’s what we do instead of believing. Nor do I care to believe in a particular thing I’m writing. When the novel died, I was left with a kind of grief, but even worse, the irrelevance of the whole enterprise. I’d hoped the novel’s success would bring me belief, which was backwards. I needed to believe to make the novel viable. Instead, I’d just attached myself to a disappointment that dragged me down.
So I’m rooting my belief in me, in my gut, literally. I really don’t trust my head at this point, too much programming. I’m locating belief in the middle of me, inscribing it there, by a sheer act of intention. I’m not believing in anything or any reason, just myself, my person actually. This seems audacious, but I might as well be audacious; what’s the point in believing in the probable? Belief is the bridge to the improbable.
We walk around Aspen and rent bicycles and ride the charming bike paths through wooded glens and over lovely brooks. Bernie asks me what I’m thinking about, and I tell her I’m not thinking, I’m believing, and she just gives me a funny look.
I’ve complained to her and cried to her. I’ve gone silent and acted out my end as a writer, the drama of failure, more than once. But like a staged death, it wasn’t real; I’d eventually just start writing again. After a while she realized this, and then she gave me the best advice anyone ever has: just keep writing. The just is genius here, because I really did need to leave out the rest of it.
All this new believing takes a lot of talking to myself. I’m not sure if I’m doing it or not, believing, unless I’m saying it to myself: I’m a writer. So in the interest of discipline and of achieving something specific, I do it a lot. I’m a writer, I’m a writer, I’m a writer.
Believing, it turns out, can also be distracting. Bernie is more into shopping than hiking, but she’s become a decent enough hiker. What she won’t abide is any question as to the propriety of our direction as we walk. If she detects any uncertainty at all about being on the right path, she simply stops in her tracks. Unwilling to take even a single step more in what might be a wasted effort. Never mind that the whole purpose of hiking is, well, to hike.
I find this frustrating since usually the only way to know you’re going in the right direction is to keep going. In fact, stopping dead still on a trail is a very ineffective way to navigate to anything. The obvious parallels between hiking and writing are only now hitting me.
As we hike up a slope away from Snowmass Village and into the trees, I may have exaggerated the degree to which I know where we’re going. We’re wandering an extremely civilized patch of spectacular wilderness in which trails inevitably intersect, and you can always loop your way around; the only question is how far along a given trail you need to go to catch the cut through.
The first uphill leg is the most demanding and I know Bernie won’t put up with an unlimited amount of huffing and puffing. So I’m eager to come to a turn off that would take us across the face of the slope, and maybe too busy believing in myself as a writer, to notice the horses-only symbol on the trail.
Otherwise, the trail is perfect, a triumph of my navigating process, leading straight across the slope, where we’ll meet the downward trail on the other side. And the views down-valley are magical. There’s just a lot of horseshit. It’s everywhere, until in certain places we can’t walk without walking on horseshit.
I celebrate the directness of the trail, and the lovely vistas, including stands of Aspens trembling golden with sunlight, but Bernie stops.
I’m like “What?”
Stopping on a trail is never a sound solution, but stopping on a trail while surrounded by horseshit, it seems to me, is especially ineffectual. What can I do to unstop her? I reluctantly pull out the hiking map. A closer look reveals that this type of trail is in fact for horseback riding only.
“Fortunately we haven’t seen a single horse,” I say.
“But they’ve definitely been here,” Bernie says.
She wants to go back the way we came. Backtracking offends me morally, but even more so since we’ll be backtracking over heaps of horseshit.
“But if we go forward we’ll be walking through horseshit the whole way,” Bernie points out.
I show her on the map that we’re past halfway on this trail, which I think may be correct. Bernie eyes me with suspicion, but we walk on.
I write in the mornings while Bernie works on a crossword puzzle of geckos in some grass. She groans about how impossible it is, there being too much undifferentiated green of the grass. “I may not be able to do this.” She does this at some point with every puzzle.
I’m writing, again. But not again. About Bernie, what else? About our coming together, made difficult by our age difference, and Chuck, and other elements that are hard to make sense of. I don’t know how much to say or not say about all of it. I don’t know how to address our predicament for people who wouldn’t understand. There’s a swirl inside me of ideas and events, but no clarity.
I do what I could never do before—I wait for it.