Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Self-imposed exile

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Painting by Kristin Sholl

I need time to myself. Anyone who knows me well can tell you that. I often fantasize about being alone while I am in the middle of daily life, with its deadlines and boys and husband, dog and house, cooking and cleaning. Many women do this, I think. We gaze off at the horizon and wish for a place all our own, without intrusion. Writers may be even more susceptible to this, telling ourselves, "If I only had uninterrupted time. And a little cabin somewhere. Then I could get my writing done."

So I made it happen. Aquaman was home for a while, the boys were in school - there was nothing so pressing on my calendar that I couldn't disappear for a few days, as long as I had an internet connection to receive and send daily assignments for work. Just such a place existed - a small house in the woods by a lake that family friends had offered up. I knew I needed a break - knew I had been short with everyone who crossed my path in the preceding days (okay, weeks). So I grasped at the offer, picking up the keys on Sunday and planning my escape for the next day. 

I left while the boys were at school, after carefully packing provisions for a few days. I went to the grocery store just for me. There was no way to cook at the cabin, so I mainly brought things for sandwiches. And for cravings that I might have. And things that nobody but me likes. Things like potato salad and chicken salad, vanilla cookies, wasabi almonds, hard boiled eggs, and tomatoes. And peanut butter. And Ghiradelli chocolate chips. And Diet Dr. Pepper. Just the essentials. 

I took Yellow Dog with me as a security system and because I couldn't leave her alone with all those boys. Us girls have to stick together. 

I was only an hour away, but so secluded that cell service was spotty. The cabin is built on stilts and surrounded by tall trees. The sound of the wind blowing in the leaves calmed me immediately. I had to turn on the water at the main line, which proved to be somewhat challenging - as I am clueless about such things. Aquaman was unreachable, so I fired up the iPad with its cellular connection and watched a YouTube video about how to turn on and off a water line. It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. I figured I'd just live without water for a few days - there was a lake down the path, after all - but Aquaman eventually called and we talked through the puzzle of why the water wouldn't come on in the house when it looked as if it were on at the main line. Turns out there were two water main covers - one for the meter and one for the valve. With water flowing, I settled in to stay a while. 

The first night, Yellow Dog and I walked down to the water and she swam while I sat and watched the sun go down. We walked back up to the house and I sat in a rocking chair on the porch and read a book I'd been trying to finish for weeks. Yellow Dog introduced herself to the two or three other dogs from neighboring cabins, but returned to the safety of the porch. I sat there, surrounded by trees. And birds. The occasional dog barked, far off in the distance, and it sounded a bit like that scene from An American Werewolf in London when they're walking on the moors and about to be attacked. 

Yeah, that. 

Which brings me to my first hesitation about being alone: fear. 

Me going out to a cabin on the Texas/Oklahoma border by myself is surely a plotline in a horror movie. Bringing Yellow Dog was my defense. I wanted to conquer that fear. I thought of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, hiking for weeks by herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wanted to think that I could do that. But really? Um, no. No, thank you. But I would at least like to stay a few nights alone in a cabin without creeping myself out. 

I did a little work. I ate a cold hot dog for dinner, and washed down some vanilla cookies with a Diet Dr. Pepper (I paid for that caffeine later when I couldn't fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning. Prime werewolf time, mind you). I settled in on the couch and finished my book. I moved to the bed and finished the other book I was halfway through. 

And this is mostly how things went for two days. It was heaven to wake up on my own in the morning - no person or alarm disturbed me. Even Yellow Dog slept in. I worked. I got some writing done. I read another book. And my Poets & Writers magazine. I took a THREE HOUR NAP. My cell phone did not ring. No TV. No music. I had a lot of time to think. And here is what I thought:

I'm not ready for this. I don't want to live in a cabin by the water, just me and my dog. I want my husband. And our kids - them running crazy down to the lake, setting snares in the woods, having fires at night, not bathing the entire time, smelling of charred wood and sweat and BOY. I caught glimpses of the elderly man who lived one cabin over. He spent a lot of time tinkering in his garage, walking with his dogs. Alone. What I claimed to want. Only not yet. 

There was no one demanding I get up or make breakfast or lunch or dinner. And you know what I felt? Lonely. Like my family and their lives went on spinning without me. Aquaman steps right up and plans fun things for he and the boys to do and kisses me goodbye when I leave, only worried about me - hoping that I  haven't waited too long to get away for a break. 

"You going to be okay?" I asked him before I left. 

"Sure - are you?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" I didn't understand. 

"You're not going to go drown yourself in the lake, are you?"

"You mean, pull a Virginia Woolf?" I asked him, chuckling. 

"Who's that?" 

His response surprised me. He's arrived at this conclusion all on his own - he never saw The Hours - Nicole Kidman portraying Virginia Woolf - filling her pockets with rocks and walking right into the river to drown herself. And she preached solitude - A Room of One's Own - for writing. And she killed herself. 

So why do I long for space of my own? Solitude? Why do we count the years that we will be "stuck" in one place so the kids can finish school with some hope of stability? Here I am. Alone. And it's not all it's cracked up to be. Although I think there is nothing wrong with the people who live happily as hermits on a lake in a cabin with their dog, mabe that's not what I want. Maybe I need to rethink this. Maybe I need to relish the time I have with our three boys who are quickly becoming young men. Who still want me to read to them before bed every night and will try to sleep in my bed when Aquaman is gone on a boat trip. Or when they're shy at a party and will sit on my lap, even though they are much too big for it now. 

I figured out I really like hot meals. Cooked food. The second night I conveniently found some charcoal, a lighter, lighter fluid, and a grill tucked away under the house. I roasted cheese hot dogs for myself and Yellow Dog and ate my potato salad. I sat by the grill and read some more. And wished that my family was there with me. I am nuts. 

So I packed up my stuff this morning and headed home. It turns out you can only eat sandwiches and peanut butter for so long. Yellow Dog got into the car as soon as I opened it to load gear- a full 15 minutes before I was ready to leave. She was not going to get left out there. I locked the cabin up tight, making sure everything was as I'd found it. I turned off the main water line. As soon as I got off gravel roads and to a major highway, I pulled into a Starbucks and ordered a Venti, iced, soy, Cinnamon Dolce Latte. No whip. I had gone two mornings without coffee. Maybe that's what propelled me back to civilization. 

I went to the woods to live deliberately, like Thoreau. But what I mostly did was read. And nap. And eat cookies. And miss my family. 

And I guess that's something.   

Ah. Civilization. 


  1. This is exactly how a trip alone would have turned out for me. I do NEED a good amount of alone time, which is why the toddler years were not good for my psyche. But when I am alone, it freaks me out. When my kids were all gone for part of Spring Break I had to conscientiously keep myself busy so that I wouldn't plummet into some dark abyss. Here's my antidote for you: girls trips. I do one a year with some old friends and it's all the perks you mentioned (the me time) without the loneliness. Next time call me up...I'll meet you at a cabin!

  2. Sarah - I think you're on to something. Writing this helped me figure it out - a girls trip is precisely what I need. All that giggling will keep the werewolves at bay, anyway...

  3. If you want a girls trip, I am so in! I need to "laugh with Kate". Hmmm....that sounds like a book title ;)