Writer’s Ramble and Riley’s Reappearance

I go to Joe’s farm to fulfill my barter hours and make a new Chinese medicinal tea prescription. To my surprise there are four cars parked at the bottom of the steep driveway, none of which belong to Riley, my night hike mystery crush .

The truth is that I really wanted to see Riley today to test out a new hypothesis I have about my writing. In Scribbling the Cat, Alexandra Fuller journeys through Mozambique with an African soldier, K, whom she is drawn to without explanation. She says: “I felt somehow that if I knew this one secret about K – this one, great, untold story – then everything else about him would become clear and I could label him and write him into coherence. And then I would know what I was doing here and how I had arrived here and I’d know more about who I was.”

I have always told people that I do not write memoir. I tell them that I write personal narratives, I tell them that I write lyrical essays, I tell them that I write about things I experience and observe in life. In other words, as Fuller explains, I write about other people in order to make sense of myself and of the world. But I do not, I say, do not write memoir. It is probably my fear of being self-indulgent that drives me to be so firm about this. It is also a slightly mis-educated perspective, because a well-written memoir can avoid self-indulgence and I know writers working on this with success.

As this interior monologue played out in my head, I hiked up to the Herb Shop and was greeted warmly by Joe.

“Welcome home, Katey!” he said with a cheek-cracking smile. I tossed him a one-pound bag of Coffee People coffee and he caught it in his garden-callused hands. “Gee, thanks, yeah. Smells good right through the bag, hey, all right!”

We chatted about my trip and Joe laughed when I told him I got to see famous writers in their pajamas. He was pleased to hear that I snuck Moonshine through airport security on my way to Oregon and that I didn’t have any left over when I got back. He also seemed to approve of my new prescription from Cissy, which he gripped with swollen-knuckled, purple fingers and said: “Yup, that’ll do it. Got those herbs right here, yeah, you know the drill, just fill ‘er up.”

I worked meticulously for about an hour filling a week’s worth of tea bags with nine different herbs each. Some research in the Materia Medica taught me that Cissy was regulating my Qi (“chi”) and invigorating the blood, and among other things, expelling dampness. Fair enough, I thought to myself, and then I heard heavy footsteps on the porch of the Herb Shop.

He looked the same, really, except his disheveled Mohawk had grown out even further and this time the laces on his boots were untied. Thick, long, tongues on each boot sagged open and my eyes traced the edges of his calf muscles, which seemed, well, muscular.

“You’re back from Oregon,” he said walking quickly towards me, eternally in the middle of some task. “We knew you’d be back soon. Hi.”

“Hey Riley, hi, I…”

And then we hugged, quickly, almost nervously, and he walked out the back door. For the next hour I tilled a new garden bed for Joe (saving the ginseng and milk thistle, however) and watched Riley’s head appear here and there all over the sloping side of the gardens. Black flies sucked on my arms and neck leaving welts the size of dimes and I willed myself not to scratch at the lumps. The soil stained my fingers and nestled into my nail beds. My feet began to sweat inside my heavy boots and I thought about what Fuller said.

When I meet people that I cannot stop thinking about – people that I eventually have to write about and get as close to as possible (both physically and metaphorically) – it is because I can immediately intuit their ability to teach me about the world and about myself. Joe is one of those people. Viva is one of those people. MGL was one of those people, as deceptive as he was. And even though Riley will only be on the mountain for one more month, I feel certain that he is one of those people.

This is not as easy as it sounds. One of my favorite Buddhist teachers says “go to the places that scare you” and I can say with confidence that there is an element of edginess in all of my initial encounters with people like this. It has to do with a fear of the unknown and the only way I can make it go away is to get closer to it through forming some sort of creative relationship with that person. If true art is supposed to attract and repel the viewer, the art of writing, for me, lies in finding experiences that attract and repel me and then reporting on them.

In this way, writing has become the means by which I can make peace with the tragedy, injustice, confusion, suffering, and insane beauty of the world. To write someone or something “into coherence” is an addictive, thrilling experience because it deals directly with making art. So when I fall in love with someone in a sudden moment, like when Riley asked me if I wanted “Russian caravan tea” and not a single force in the world could have compelled me to say anything other than yes, it’s as though I can see the entire globe spinning without time and space right before my very eyes. It is not the kind of love that has to do with bodily infatuation, though I frequently confuse it for that (and sometimes that’s quite pleasant, actually). It’s a bigger love. Something more universal.

Which is why I had to stay when Joe announced that tonight would be homemade sushi night and asked if I would like to join (yes, we used fresh shiitakes and home-pickled ginger root from the farm). And it is why, sitting next to Riley after the sun set, poking sticks into the campfire and sipping a hard cider, I wanted to stare at him for hours and dissect his existence but all I could do was muster the courage to ask: “Have you ever been compelled to write a biography of someone in 5,000 words or less?” and he said, totally missing the point, “No, is that one of your assignments?” I smiled and answered, “Not really, but, well, I guess it could be.” And it is why, even after I was too tired to talk, we agreed that next time, but not tonight, we’d go on a night swim and that yes, it would be cold but who cares…

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