Photo by David Dodge
Photo by David Dodge

The Edge of Extraordinary

I am nearing the end of my first writerly—read, sedentary—summer ever. Recently, a detail from Julia Alvarez’s writing life came back to me, one I read a long time ago, although the context of when and where is long gone. Each morning, before she sits down to write, Alvarez fills a bowl on her writing desk with cold water. It is her daily bow to the mystery of life: “The function of ritual is not to control this baffling universe, but to pay homage to it,” she writes in an essay called “Writing Matters.” As she replenishes what was lost, I imagine that she thinks of slow evaporation, as I do, of water’s subtle way of reminding us we’re alive. Because some days, as a writer, sitting down to my own ritual at a desk too cluttered for a bowl of water, I sometimes feel less-than-alive.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­As a teacher, writer, and editor, I spend my days inside. I read, I comment, I write, I revise. This is the hum of my existence, how I spend my life—my face to my computer screen, mind locked on rearranging words, whether my own or others’. “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, ” writes Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. It’s a small lump of wisdom that haunts me. On good days, I remind myself I am building stories, and that the world needs stories. But more often than not I doubt. I wonder if I should be filling my days with work that is more tangibly worthy.

In warm weather, I write out on my porch, sitting on a ratty green couch. My dog and cat lie out there with me, sleeping through the late mornings. They lie curled into donuts, one next to the other, butt to butt, or nose to nose. Their gently heaving sides have become my bowl of evaporating water, my slow reminder that time is passing. I measure my existence in their breaths. I consider how odd it is that cat and dog have come together, these two animals that, in legend, are meant to be enemies. They’ve set aside age-old grudges, transcended their stations in life to be together like this.

Lately, these creatures are the wildest things I know. They and the squirrels that clamor in competition, that chase each other in straight shots through the yard, that bend the branches with their acrobatics, hanging from back feet to feast on maple seeds. Twice now, I’ve seen squirrels with their feet bitten off. In the mornings, neighbors come to life, car doors slamming, engines idling in driveways. There’s the rumbling of contractors’ V-8 trucks, the low thump of stereos, the buzz of the mufflerless cars passing as I sit and work. I watch the vultures flying low, the pump of their wings audible as they swoop up to congregate in the spruce trees, where they sometimes pose with their wings outstretched to dry, like they’re offering themselves up.

I look up periodically to make observations, never leaving the green couch. When I return to the page, I am writing about falconers, about people who trap, train, and hunt with wild birds. Recently, I interviewed a biologist, nearing 90, who was also a falconer. He reminisced about the “old way” of finding birds, back before people could just buy one from a breeder. “It used to be that everyone went out and found a cliff and climbed the cliff,” he said. I could hear the nostalgia in his voice, his yearning for a time when people were skilled and knowledgeable enough to scramble up a ledge, to find the nestlings huddled there. Listening to him over the phone I felt it: disconnected from what’s wild. I wavered—am I doing the wrong work, I wondered?

Another falconer I met once tried to encapsulate for me what her sport is about: watching, waiting, paying attention. When hunting, she is strung taut, ready for a moment that might never come, in a constant state of receptivity. She crawls on her hands and knees through briar thickets, flushing game for her hawk. Once, deep inside a thicket, she came upon the tiniest little bird nest in the heart of the briars, a perfect cup of fine fibers, and it startled her. So tiny, so deep in the thorns, just feet away from where she crouched. But she couldn’t have retrieved it if she tried. That’s what it’s about, she said. It’s about these little moments of awe you just can’t predict.

 

Once, as an aspiring field biologist, I was the person catching birds. I didn’t know, years ago, that I would end up here, living my days in a series of squares—office, desk, porch, sofa, computer screen. I am no longer out in those briar thickets. A life spent trying to understand animals and the natural world has led me to a life spent trying to capture that world in words. It was my own choice of course, yet I find myself struggling to reconcile this migration.

I’d studied both writing and ecology in college, and I’d loved the idea of devoting my life to writing. The two vocations extended from the same pulsing urge inside me to analyze the world. But it was only after I had left science and entered grad school for English that I felt the spell of writing wash over me. I loved the quest of saying something, of getting it right. That’s always how I’ve thought of writing: putting my spin on the world. But I’ve never been sure that it is important enough.

Some days, I convince myself of its worth by fashioning myself a martyr. You’re doing it for your readers, I say, giving them this connection so that they may lift off their chairs and enter the world, so that they may experience. If I’ve moved one person to experience the world, then I have proof that this is important work. But what of my own experience? Is writing about what’s wild just a poor imitation of experiencing the wild itself?

Alvarez writes that the “writing life is a life lived with all the windows and doors opened.” She calls on Theodore Roethke—“My heart keeps open house,” he wrote—because writers have their writers to call on, ones they turn to for guidance in times of doubt. Because writing is like crawling through a thicket of briars in a state of receptivity, and it’s hard to maintain a constant state of receptivity. Especially if, in the end, you have nothing to show for it: an essay that didn’t work out; prose that, at the end of the day, simply falls flat. But this is the work I’ve chosen to do. When I start to doubt, there’s Alvarez, pointing, telling me I must crawl deeper into the thicket. I can see her through the tangled mess, reaching out with a pitcher to fill her bowl: another day.

 

I used to dream of a life out in the wild, full of adventure. My New England childhood was filled with fantasies that I was a tiger, a mama dog, a tiny blind kitten. I recall hours of silent play, my friends and I being bunnies, loping around the yard on all fours. We did our best not to use words. Instead, we’d mimic words in squeaks, use our eyebrows and nod our heads to communicate. Animal-speak was sacred, not to be tainted with human language. That fascination with animals never really waned—I wanted more than just pretending, something beyond the bland world of humanity.

It was as if already, at six, seven, eight years old, I wanted to opt out of humanity, resisting the tedium that adulthood seemed to promise: work all day, come home at five, eat dinner, go to sleep, get up and do it all over again, each morning my feet touching the same patch of floor, same time every day. I used to wonder if wild animals slept under different trees night to night, woke to different fields in the morning, each day new, different. I wanted to be Black Beauty, free in a pasture at last, the Black Stallion, racing across Arabian deserts; I wanted to be the rats of NIMH tunneling beneath the rose bush, Sounder with his mangled ear, the fox or the hound. The cricket in Times Square. Yes, even a cricket, give me that! Give me those childhood animals whose lives followed different rules, or no rules, whose lives seemed wonderfully untethered from the banality of daily human existence.

Of course, I followed the fairly routine trail of a normal American growing up in the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, I excelled at the normal grind. I did my homework, got good grades, held steady jobs from the time I was 14. In college, I tried to opt out in the best way I could (could I defy the confines within the confines?): I took courses in natural history and wildlife management. I yearned for wild animals, to know them. I took field courses in New Mexico, tracking Mexican gray wolves and in Mexico, counting snowy egrets on the Sea of Cortez. At the same time, I took writing courses where I was able to reflect on these experiences. I was intrigued by how wild the world was beyond the confines of precious New England, which was so tidy and predictable with its white clapboard Colonials, the same smattering of deer in any yard at dusk. The west was wily, filled with carnivores and antelope and reptiles with “monster” in their names, mesmerizing with its tracts of arid wilderness that seemed unfathomably vast. The phrase basin and range seemed as if out of a fairy tale to me.

During one field course, I was hiking with a group through a rancher’s pasture, and we stumbled upon a lone elk leg, tangled in several strands of barbed wire. We walked up the hill on the other side and found where the rest of it had been ripped apart, weeks ago probably, the ruminant from the torn stomach spread around like a grassy mulch atop the knoll. Nearby were calcifying piles of cougar scat. We were able to piece together the narrative—the chase, the elk’s fatal misstep, the serendipitous feline feast that happened out there, under the open sky of ranchland. I understood a little more about the world through what these animals told me, even in their absence.

Later, working on a field project in the Peruvian Amazon, I was out alone one day, counting birds on a small island in a river. There was a lull in my counting, and I took a break, leaning back in my camp chair, nearly dozing. The sun was high, inducing me into a drowsy torpor. My heavy head was just tipping back when I first heard, then saw the tall grass in front of me twitching. There was an animal moving through it at a trot maybe twenty feet away. Ahead of it was a small opening, and I half-stood, knowing that at any moment I would have a clear glimpse of whatever it was.

A large cat popped its head out of the grass.

It paused, looking at me as I looked at it, its head and ears round, the eyes icy and tigerish, yet something a little dumb or placid in its look. It seemed startled, puzzled that I was there. I was frozen in a half-crouch, frightened but also amazed—in those interminable moments I was keenly aware that this was supposed to be a moment of awe. I could only wait. Then, it turned, and trotted away along the exact route it had come.

Minutes later, I’d finally gathered the courage to scout the sand in front of me for tracks. I laid down my Swiss Army knife next to a track and marked the length of it by drawing a line across the handle—a line my knife still bears. Proof: I needed the tangible evidence of having witnessed something spectacular, a thick black line to give my story weight and veracity. I envisioned telling it years later—to my friends at a tame dinner party, who marveled at how exotic my life was—pulling the knife from my pocket and throwing it down as I described the way the cat made no noise save for the way it made the grass rustle against itself. As if that black line actually proved anything.

As I drew across the handle with a black Sharpie, I looked up to see the cat swimming across the river, maybe a few hundred yards away. I watched it pull itself out on the other side: the unmistakable black on orange, the long tail, the muscled body sinking into the muck. I watched it slink up the bank to a clump of trees, disappearing and reappearing with the dappled sunlight, becoming light and shadow at once. The hair on my arms and neck lifted to a stand as the jaguar made its way along the water’s edge and dissolved into the trees.

Now, in my life of squares, I am living out my post-prey existence. The jaguar dissolved that day, but it left me changed. There’s still a little part of me that feels like everything since has been a disappointment.

 

Dillard asks, about the process of sitting down to write: How does a writer make it possible to “enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?” In the face of moments like the jaguar, of the sheer dumb luck of such an encounter, I sometimes find it difficult to enter the extraordinary on my own. Going back and looking at the pages I marked when I first read The Writing Life thirteen years ago, I realize I have not changed much. I was plagued then with this question of worth, this question of how I spend my days, and what it means to lose myself in words, words that take on a life of their own as they march across the page. Dillard asks: “How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?” Beneath it in pencil, in my same handwriting, I wrote, “answer this please.” I needed to know—still do—how to cull the awe from the ordinary.

This same question haunted me during the time I decided I didn’t want to be a scientist anymore. I had gone into science for the awe, but I eventually discovered that continuing on that path would mean that most of my life would be made up of statistics, entering numbers into databases, writing papers so dry that they didn’t feel like writing to me. Moments of awe would be rare. Or worse, I would become desensitized. Cold, hard calculation was so distant from the warmth and mystery that had brought me out into the wild in the first place. After a summer studying birds in Wyoming, I remember reading a scientific paper breaking down the songs of sage thrashers. They’d been my favorite birds then, the first to sing in the early morning dark as I began my day of research; they’d be perched atop the tallest sage shrubs, their song floating across the plains in glorious liquid whistles and burbles. Their song will always correlate in my mind with an image of the Wind River Mountains, the frozen rock explosion jutting up, snow-topped and angular, far in the distance across that flat expanse of sage brush prairie—the landform that always kept me oriented in the vast sea of monotonous sage. The thrashers’ songs were complicated and unpredictable, sometimes with clips of other birdsong mixed in—horned lark, vespers sparrows. I read that paper and looked at the song broken down into numbers on a graph. A feeling of anger welled up in me as I thought: You can’t codify this. It felt reductive, all the beauty and complexity lost—my morning prelude diminished to this? I knew that this little graph was important for knowledge, for understanding. But for me, I felt as though I lost something with each number I entered into a database.

But what to do with all that beauty? How would I contain it, remember it, honor it? I felt those experiences dripping through my cupped hands like water. What I found extraordinary was the birdsong, but capturing it turned it ordinary. It became “just data.” My disappointment lay with the encroaching reality that I couldn’t have an experience forever. I can’t live a life awed every moment.

I thought that being a writer might be a way to experience something forever, or at least a more dignified way to honor beauty: I could hold those moments aloft, turn them over in my mind, make sense of them. As a scientist entering numbers into a database I fantasized about the writing life. I dreamt of a broad desk in quiet solitude, of a window with a view of mountains or oceans or gardens full of hollyhocks, of scratching out beautiful, heart-stopping sentences in cursive longhand, the ink bleeding out onto textured paper. I came to really want it: It took me seven years to get here—seven years of digging holes, moving rocks, hauling compost, planting gardens. Years of bartending late-night weddings where the dinner for one guest cost more money than I saw in a week. It was limbo, where my work was neither here nor there, jobs as opposed to a career. But I held a vision aloft, and decided I wouldn’t really stop being “a scientist” until I was “a writer.” I would, eventually, trade entering data and statistics for metaphors and lyrical sentences. At the very least, I would be one or the other, and I held tight to those identities even through the years where my life didn’t really resemble the life of either.

As it turns out, a life spent entering data into a computer isn’t so different from a life spent entering words into a computer. Alvarez quotes Flannery O’Connor: “Every morning between 9 and 12, I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times, I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea does come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.” Each comes with its requisite spell of quietude. Unremarkable days go by, unaccounted for, then suddenly a moment flushes up in front of me like a flock of startled birds—a realization, an epiphany, the luck of having figured out what this essay is about.

True, these lives are similar, and yet—yet—the idea of readiness is in some ways antithetical to a scientist’s life: You don’t want to have expectations, you just want to observe and collect, to retain information as objectively as you can. This is how it is with writing, too, except that you can never truly be objective in writing. I must remain open, attentive, but I can mold the details how I wish. In fact, that is my job—to shape the data, to say something about it. It’s my job not just to wait for awe, but to conjure it. I can, if I choose, ignite the outer edges of the extraordinary and walk into the flames I’ve created. Art is not divine, I’ve always believed, but human, there if we choose to tap into it, and tapping in is work. I don’t know if a jaguar will come trotting across my path at any moment. But I do know, if I work hard enough, I can edge up to something important, an idea, a small chunk of wisdom that I take out of my pocket each morning and polish, slowly, until it has become something like glass or a jewel. Until it glows in the dark, if that’s what I want. I don’t wait for things to happen to me; I make them happen. As a writer, there can be glory in the daily grind.

Many times throughout the day my attention is drawn away from the screen or the batch of papers I’m grading. I’ll stretch, watch the neighbor get into his car to smoke a bowl like he does every day (not exactly a gazelle at a watering hole, says a friend), listen to the children who attend the daycare next door scream in the side yard, watch other neighbors walk their dogs, which always make mine woofle, his sides heaving from his bundle on the couch as his black nose searches the air. I’ll check the time, make more coffee, eat something. When I stir, the animals stir, the cat yawning to reveal his one front tooth, ridiculous in its solitude, his breath a fetid miasma released from the fish-cave of his belly. The dog will stretch all four legs straight out and peer through a cracked eye at me, as if to ask Now? Now do we get up? I’ll scratch the extra skin that ruffles up at his neck, soft velvet that I can fold my hand into, that I can mush together so that his face becomes a network of velvety wrinkles. Not yet, I’ll say, because I know I still have work to do. That I have not quite reached something yet. When they see that nothing is happening, that I’m still deep within the briar thicket, they’ll sigh deeply and settle back into the filthy green couch. The cat will rest his chin on his pert white paws, the dog’s eyes will roll up drowsily, and they’ll be drifting off again.

Reading The Writing Life all those years ago, I had placed a star next to a passage where Dillard asks where her life had gone wrong. “I was too far removed from the world. My work was too obscure, too symbolic, too intellectual. It was not available to people.” The fears of my work are not her fears, but the sentiment is the same: removed, unavailable. I might be wasting my time.

There are still times where I want to feel ecstatic, where I want to feel the buzz of adventure, the thrill of being stalked. Instead, I try to recall beauty. I think of those hawks, the way last winter I had the privilege of watching their low swoops over the snow, how they’d hover over a kill in ownership. How I got to see their golden eyes up close, the feathers of their crests rise and fall in apprehension, the way they crank their necks in circles after feeding to work the mouse down into the crop.

I chose this. And what of it if my days, these free ones that I have—which I can feel dwindling as the weather turns cooler at night, as the tomatoes ripen and their leaves turn brittle, as dread spreads like a dark cloud as the fall semester encroaches—are spent trying to get it right: crank their necks? Wind? Rotate? Spin? Is it worthy, to have spent the time writing this essay? I don’t really know, but I know I’ve questioned everything I’ve ever done this way—recording birdsong, digging holes, making martinis, teaching students how to cite in MLA. What is worthwhile? I don’t mind that this question is always at the back of my mind; it should be, I believe. I think we should all live aware, if we have the privilege of being able to do so, of the ripples we cause or don’t cause.

It’s only now, in retrospect—and so much of writing is about retrospect—that I realize the tiny little bird’s nest that falconer stumbled upon was an ordinary thing, not nearly as spectacular as the work she did with her hawk every day. How odd, that such a little thing was the source of her awe. I realize, in her state of receptivity, she wasn’t open just to the unknown awe, but that everything became extraordinary.

I have three more hours to go today before my dog will get restless in his quiet, uncomplaining ways. He’ll suddenly move from the sofa to the floor, bones clattering to the floorboards with impatient gravity, then up, at my knees, staring, until I notice, his breath labored in the back of his throat like a yogi’s ujai breathing, his tail pumping into ecstatic waves when I finally look his way. The way the cat will, I’ll suddenly realize, have been gone for—how long now? He’ll be twitching at the sight of the family of catbirds whining in the viburnum bush, feeding each other cabbage moth worms; he’ll be following the frantic pulses of chipmunks, window to window, as they dart and freeze, dart and freeze. Late afternoon: the neighbor boy bikes by, fishing poles in tow, a lanky boy I’ve never seen before trotting alongside, wearing a bike helmet as though in solidarity. An old man on a blue bike with a white basket on the front stops in front of my house. He looks Amish to me. I spin a narrative for him. He’s on his Rumspringa, a late late bloomer. He’s learning to ride a bike. He doesn’t see me watching from my porch as he readjusts. The seat, raise the seat—that will make it easier to pedal! I want to yell. But I don’t. I let him catch his breath in peace as gets the pedals right. He pushes off, is gone. I am suddenly reminded of what a writing friend recently told me, which is something W.S. Merwin said once about the writing life—don’t question it. If you’re privileged enough to get there, then protect the hell out of it; keep it; hoard it. Because who knows for how long you’ll be this lucky.

Then the cat is at my ankles, reminding me of the hour, oh this very late hour, of his empty bowl, that it’s been six hours since he last savored the rot from the can. There are other things to turn my attention to, he reminds me. There is water that needs pouring so that it can disappear again. How pointless. How essential.

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