Sitka Day 30: Oh My Heart

Writers often talk about living two ways: as a fly on the wall or by total immersion. The best writers I know can function in both realms and write about their experiences equally well because of it. I tend toward total immersion. Since “home” is wherever I am at the time, I’m more apt to go with the flow of whatever presents itself. This helps me learn about a new place quickly and let it get under my skin. It also makes leaving really difficult.
Surely the lifestyle I have chosen seems luxurious to some. It’s true–I do feel very lucky. But there are moments no one sees where I lean my back against the wall and feel pretty darn sad. And even if it’s just for a moment, it’s still a heart-in-throat rush to grab at something that isn’t mine, to wish for some sort of settling that’s not in the cards, or to ask for just one day of something known (such as: boyfriend + dog + couch + small town that I know how to get around in).
I realize the privilege and freedoms I have in my life, but I don’t forget for one second that this journey is in the service of writing and it’s one I have worked hard for. There are lots of things that I can do because I don’t have a family or a mortgage or someone I am care-taking or a lack of self-motivation, but there are just as many things I have given up. Essayist Adam Gopnik writes about this sacrifice: “We can sometimes convince ourselves that having looked is the same as
having made, and that the stakes are the same for the ironic spectator
and the would-be saint. But they’re not. We all make our wagers, and…the
artist…bets his life.”

While I think Gopnik’s view is a little exclusive (out of context it almost sounds harsh), I do think he has a point. I’d include fine parents and dedicated teachers in that mix of “artists” too–those who give their lives in service of something greater. In the case of parents, it’s for the creation of a child. For teachers, the creation of opportunity through educating and inspiring. Surely the “end results” of this creating is different than the “end result” of a novel or a famous painting, but in the long stretch of time and human history, I’d argue that those results are closer than we might think. Writers aren’t joking when they say their first born is their first book.

And so it is that my heart cracks a little as I get ready to leave. I try to plaster those cracks by backing off, silencing myself into an uncharacteristic passivity. I shift from the immersed writer to the fly on the wall, the one quietly watching as the party rolls ahead. This is my third trip to Alaska and saying goodbye is always hardest here. Each trip I leave something behind (a physical object–usually running shoes or a fleece) as a promise to myself that I’ll be back. Yesterday, at Old Harbor Books in downtown Sitka, I was psyched to see one of my short stories in University of Alaska Press’ anthology of Alaska writing titled Cold Flashes (blue spine, at right). It makes leaving a little easier knowing that part of me sits in that bookstore, in this tiny town, on this forested island, in this great state.
But of course, what Gopnik is getting at are those intangible things artists leave behind. When I try to put this to words, all can I hear is Michael Stipe of R.E.M. singing “Oh My Heart” from Collapse Into Now. Of course, he’s not talking about Alaska, but I am, so here goes:
This place is the beat of my heart
Oh my heart
Oh my heart 
Oh my heart
Hear the answer and call, hear this song re-arranged
Hear the trees, the ghosts and the buildings sing
With the wisdom to reconcile this thing
Oh my heart
Oh my heart 
Oh my heart
  • Mary

    I so remember all of this. My 12 years on the road were so much like you describe. Travel on, sister.

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