It wasn’t that the stars shone brighter when I was beside you that night; it was that the darkness between them now felt comforting and familiar. I yearned for grand and you offered gentle. You stroked my hair with your eyes in the cool San Francisco twilight. Seldom exchanged words flowed like honey from velvet lips. I told you between bites of a deli sandwich that Mission Dolores Park’s milieu reassured me I was alive and you smiled at feelings unspoken. I realized later that night that I longed to touch you. I made sure that my bag hung from my left shoulder, leaving my right hand free to rest at my side. I wasn’t sure if you were aware of my feeble gesture and wasn’t sure I cared if you were. All that mattered is that you knew I was beginning to fall for you.
The first time I set my pen to paper with intention was writing a poem to enter a school contest. It was sloppy and spoke poorly of my ability. But what it wasn’t was passive. In the poem I attempted to grapple with weighty topics like domestic abuse and failed relationships; themes that I as a 16-year-old did not know of. A girl who, by that point, had lived a privileged life, spared not just the onslaught of gendered violence but even the awareness of a world without gender parity.
Reading over that same poem during my first year at university, I couldn’t help but be gobstruck at my youthful pugnacity. I was a wolf dragged by my prey, knowing it was too hefty to bring down but refusing to release my iron grip on its throat. I wrote in the active voice to describe topics I barely could comprehend. I never quite brought my message home, but the effort was valiant and my pride never suffered.
I still smile to myself as I read those lines I had written all those years ago. It is such an ugly thing to read, but in a way that makes it endearing. Silly me, thinking I could write that way, I scoff before pumping out a page or so of soulless ideas. I like to think my writing now is cautious in the way of a seasoned veteran. I now dance around bold strokes, choosing instead to settle for marks I can hit. My sentences are passive. Weak. Fruitless.
In grade school I had shot for the moon and missed, but now I am too reluctant to pick up the gun. Pull up any of the latest documents stored on my hard drive and you will see a timid writer shucking off any responsibility.
Steven King wrote in his memoir 20 years ago that, “timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” There’s something comfortably noncommittal about, “He was loved by her,” instead of “She loved him.”
I imagine the title ‘writer’ reserved for the greats, the Hemingways, the Tolstoys, the Twains, and the Shakespeares. Not for me. Not for the college kid sitting cross-legged on the floor next to a half-eaten microwaved burrito. Not the coward too scared to write what she wants, knowing full well she has no critics but her own mind.
The paper beckons my ink, but my hand shakes. How will I ever make my mark?
Someday soon I will look back at these same lines and laugh at my naïve and amateur mistakes, but I hope I don’t look back and see the work of a passive writer.
When I was young, I remember being enraptured by the idea of living in a glass house. I imagined erecting my glass home deep in the woods, able to view the going-ons of nature intimately while being safe from the elements. It need only be a single room, blending in with the environment rather than breaking it in. The concept is fundamentally childish in its construction. No one can live in a glass house.
As a young adult, I find I still long for this glass house. A glass house actualizes my yearning for safety and adventure; a haven amid unbridled wilderness still brings out the excitement now that it did then. I could sit cross-legged at twilight and read and write and watch the nocturnal animals in the dying light without fear of finding shelter. The safety of the glass instilling in me a god-like sense of mastery of my environment. The prey meeting the predator in a sacred moratorium. Nothing I could imagine could top this moment, it would be ethereal.
But what of it? Surely reality has thrown the first stone at this pipedream of mine. Creature comforts and rich spiritual experiences rarely coincide. As it goes, I have found a compromise. My dear friend and mentor lives in a peculiar little mid-century modern with a network of decking and platforms. The top platform houses a square room of glass sliding doors and parquet flooring. The room is lined with bookshelves and cluttered with the tools of his life’s hobbies. The drum set suggesting his distaste of age-appropriate pastimes, the sun-bleached spines of books detailing the history of French film, the telescope piled amongst tattered star charts.
He let me stay here when he would leave on his trips. I think knowing that I shared in his appreciation for the space bonded us. So I would sit, alternating between writing and staring through the glass. On clear days I could see the Sacramento skyline, and if I wrote into the evening, I could see the flickering lights of the valley.
Eventually I would have to leave my laptop on the floor and scurry down to the main house to use the bathroom or cook something or feed the dogs. I could feel it beckoning me back and a relief always settled over me when I returned, re-reading the last few sentences I had typed out before slipping back into a peaceful rhythm. The quiet whir of the laptop fan, the headlights of a passing car, the sounds of my fingers pecking my stream of consciousness onto the plastic keys. It was my glass house. It was never a permanent place of residence, but always a restful space of deliverance. It was just as my mentor had designated it; it was a place of creative liberation in nature.
I would never see a passing bear or trace the raindrops rolling down the sides of my house with my finger. Instead, I could escape, if only for hours at a time, to this glass room. To sit in the dark and listen to an owl coo in the night while my fingers played notes on the laptop keys, immortalizing childhood dreams that stirred in me.
I pray you’ll forgive me. For what is written below is a jumbled wash of fragments construed by a woman of a meer eighteen years that had the audacity to yell into the void and demand an answer. To look upon the face of the natural world and assure herself of its intrinsic value and resolve to ascribe it purpose within the confines of a Moleskine notebook. I understand that a weighty crime of this nature demands judgement, but only ask that you withhold sentencing the accused until the pen has lifted off the page for the last time.
Somewhere deep within my constitution lays fertile an insatiable desire for purpose. Is it not true that we declare our purpose akin to that of the cosmos? To the spiritually inclined we are but pawns in the Almighty’s game. To the secularist we are but waves lapping at the evolutionary confines of the shore. So the question must be raised; what is the meaning of life? Do our lives even have meaning? This, my dear friends, is my quest. The lifeblood in my body beats in tandem with my soul on this matter alone. That two truths exist, life has meaning and that I must be enlightened to its meaning or die a pilgrim in a foreign land clutching in vain at the self-evident abyss.
The steam wafting off my tea was beginning to lessen before I finally worked up the courage to ask about the sullen mass on the counter. Its skin was blistered and pocketed, its once vibrant orange reduced to a dingy bronze.
I inquired after it casually, careful to keep my voice level and slightly disinterested. Mom flicked her hand dismissively toward where it squatted on the granite and said nothing, returning her attention to the vegetables she was cutting. I watched as her chef’s knife glided with a quick snap through the thick of the carrots, gradually increasing in speed and intensity until the knife was brazenly cracking through and ricocheting off the marred cutting board.
“So you now have a problem with my fruit too, huh?” she scoffed.
The hostility in her voice didn’t take me by surprise.
“No mom. I was just wondering why it wasn’t thrown away, that’s all.”
She kept her eyes down, glaring at the vegetables.
“Your father didn’t raise you to act like this.”
“My father didn’t raise me, you did.”
I watched her eyes harden and felt my breath catch in my chest as they met mine.
“THROUGH NO FAULT OF HIS OWN,” she screamed. She tightened her grip on the knife as I pushed my chair back from the table.
“Look mom,” I stammered, “I never said it was his fault. It, it wasn’t.”
I was standing now. My outstretched palms felt clammy and I prayed she wouldn’t sense my fear.
“Can we, can’t we put this behind us?” quickly adding before she could protest, “Just for tonight.”
Joan Didion wrote in The White Album that she was holed up in a hotel in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce.” The waves of the Pacific have a habit of seducing those on the brink of extirpation. This morning was no exception. I sat bundled in a worn blanket on the shore of Santa Cruz, watching the waves crash. Behind me loomed the dark tangles of brightly colored metal track traversing the boardwalk. A security guard slumped in his truck, flitting in and out of sleep. It was four in the morning. Only hours ago I had woken up on the floor of my shower, hunched around a pile of vomit. I had moved my face away from the putrid mess in a panic, my feet slipping about me. I felt the wall behind my head and turned the knob. Icy water poured over my head, and I sat frozen, watching the mess rise and spin about before being sucked down the drain. I cried then. Bitter tears erupted and a panic ensued. The water was beginning to heat up and I let it scald the back of my head. I rocked back and forth, clutching my legs to my chest. Shame inside me burned hotter than the water streaming over my raw skin. My hands in particular stung. I held them up. My knuckles were blue and swollen. The skin was marred with jagged cuts and smelled of burned flesh. They looked foreign to me, like the hands of murder victims on television shows, pale and lifeless but bloodied and swollen. I pulled myself up by the curtain and slowly washed my hair and face. I stepped out of the shower into the steamed bathroom. As I wrapped my body in a towel, I noticed how red my skin looked. I picked up my phone from the tiled floor and opened my messages, wincing at one sent at 6:35pm. I had remembered sending it, but wished for the slim chance that it wasn’t delivered. But I knew better, after all, I remembered the reply. “Hey do you pray?” Almost immediately I watch the animated ellipsis bounce in the text box. “Yea from time to time. What’s up” “Can you pray for me?” “Of course. Anything specific? Or just general?” “Just in general, thanks” And after a minute, “Of course! I hope everything works out.” I stared at the string of texts. How strange he probably thought I was. I remembered setting the bottle down with the message typed out on the screen, thumb hovering precariously over the blue send button. I focused on the screen, aware of my drunken state. Would I regret this? I bobbed my finger over the text for several seconds before finally hitting send and laying the phone facedown on the floor. I kneeled down, clutching the towel around me and thought about it, I didn’t regret it. Regretted involving him maybe, but not the message. Not my request. I should be embarrassed to have asked for prayer, a ritual I privately scoffed at, but I wasn’t. On the floor, an empty bottle of rosé clutched in my hand, it was the only thing in the world I longed for. Deep down I wished an omniscient being was watching over me, braced to save me from myself, but even if not, I wanted to be in someone else’s thoughts in case these wishes were my last. I closed the phone and pulled a clean shirt over my head. Hindsight is 20/20. It was a panic attack. I wasn’t going to die. As I put my makeup on and brushed my teeth, I typed “santa cruz” into Google Maps. When I had filled a basket with things I might need for the road trip, I turned off the kitchen light and locked the front door behind me.
Now, staring at the streaks of light from the dock stretching over the water, I realized I had a choice to make. I was Joan Didion, file for divorce or confront the shambles head on? I had to choose, pull myself together or go under. Sitting in the cold sand, watching the dawn break, I knew I had already made the choice. I must go on. Not I as in my spirit or my soul, I as a conscious being capable of sitting in jarring agony and sitting in quiet contemplation in a span of a night. I realized then what most tortured beings must come to terms with at some point in their life, hopefully sooner than later. It was that I would have to continually sign a new lease on life. Life was not black and white, a stark choice between life and death, it was a ceaseless leaning into the wind. The digging of one’s toes in the sand as the current pocketed the rest. Fighting to survive and fighting for the possibility of love after loss.