July 4, 2015, I was nursing my baby in a summer dormer while my seven year old daughter and nine year old son read downstairs with their dad and my parents, the two kids with their legs stretched out on the couch and the adults in separate chairs. Above, I sat cross-legged on the floor in a thin line of shadow afforded by the window pane. Outside, no breeze stirred the pines, and the afternoon sun was strong and heavy, like golden rod honey. The baby drifted to sleep on my lap slowly, still nursing but loosely, intermittently. I was supposed to be composing an email to my department chair, but instead, half-consciously, I reached for a book on the bottom shelf of the bookcase beside me: Island by Alistair MacLeod. I’d heard of him; literary writers liked him. Scanning the table of contents, I noticed a story about summer ending and flipped it open:
…we know the weather cannot last much longer and in another week the tourists will be gone and the schools will reopen and the pace of life will change. We will have to gather ourselves together then in some way and make the decisions that we have been postponing in the back of our minds. We are perhaps the best crew of shaft and development miners in the world and we were due in South Africa on the seventh of July. But as yet we have not gone…
My breath changed, no longer nervy and shallow but deeper, matching the author’s bold strokes. I could taste salt and feel summer’s warm air blowing over the miners’ bare skin. My personal concerns faded into a watery background while I read about men whose bodies had been ravaged by their jobs and whose families had been equally and irrevocably torn. All of the miners lying on the beach had lost a brother, cousin, uncle or father in a mine, and all had been to funerals for boys too young to be called men. Yet MacLeod’s words emanated a spirit that thrived anyway, some essence of human resilience that lived beyond loss of limbs and lives.
Here was why I read, I remembered, why I taught literature, and why I wrote — to encounter how we humans are more than our circumstances, more than our bodies, even more than our stories. What is true? What matters most in your short and mortal life? Here are the questions that matter, and good writing always leads readers to face them.
I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven and heard the story of Buddha, a prince who defied his father’s instructions for a royal life and stood in protest outside his father’s bedroom window for three days and nights. Neither rain, hunger, nor the growing trembling in his muscles stopped Buddha from standing up for his desire to explore life beyond the palace’s walls. Eventually, Buddha’s father relented, opened the palace gates, and Buddha stepped into the forest.
I was utterly enamored of Buddha, who felt no temptation to stay in a safe, comfortable home but who dared, instead, to venture into unfamiliar and even dangerous territory. I wanted to follow his example and believed, as Buddha did, that the meaning of life had to be more than attaining a comfortable lifestyle and various possessions. What is true? What matters most in this short and mortal life? Like Buddha, I yearned to discover my own answers to these questions.
In the summer dormer reading MacLeod, I remembered myself at seven, thinking of Buddha’s first steps as I packed cheerios, peaches, and a journal, then ventured into the trees behind my parents’ house. The trees and journal felt like a new home, and I spent as much time as I could with both. When winter came, I wore layers of clothes, including several coats at a time, as I sat and wrote beneath the branches of a favorite oak; when summer returned, I used towels to protect my arms from mosquitoes as I read Black Stallion novels in the same spot.
I missed that girl, I realized – her ardor, her journal, her light load. Almost four decades had since passed, and now, as a parent, householder and professor, I appear more like Buddha’s father than his son. I have cherished all three of my adult roles, but I see that an essential part of me had been standing in protest outside my life’s limits for years. This part stirred to life as I read MacLeod’s words and called me back to the truth that good writing always awakens within me — in our finite human reality, integrity means more than comfort and safety. Not fear nor even confusion are reasons enough to avoid the forest.
That afternoon, I faced a decision that carried the heavy weight of consequence. I’d promised to email my answer that day, and it was already 3:30. For ten years, I’d tried to balance my three roles of parent, householder and teacher, and for ten years I had failed. Now I needed to accept the failure and do something about it. Teaching four writing courses a semester while raising three children had proven impossible for me: I missed my kids, I wished to give students more time than my schedule ever allowed, and I often felt like a stranger in my own home. Yet the choice to leave a full time job was terrifying: Could I really give up my full professorship (I’d worked so hard for it! For fifteen years!), or would I keep on keeping on as I had, feeling time pass with a growing sadness?
To leave academia and tenure (in my mid-forties! with a large family!) looked like foolishness to some and flagrant irresponsibility to others. The college gave me as much job security as one could enjoy nowadays, plus summers off, health care, and a retirement plan. What lunatic would walk away from such treasure? What example was I setting for my children, and how did I plan to take care of them?
To live for a dream never makes sense to one’s family and peers: the community sees the community-reality while the dreamer reaches for what has not yet materialized. Even I couldn’t envision the life I’d encounter after resigning. But I was precisely clear about what I did not want, which was what I had had for more than a decade — the experience of handing my kids off to other people so I could teach others to write while I felt increasingly estranged from my own family and my own writing. Who was I to teach writing if I wasn’t doing it successfully? Who was I to teach anyone about “truth seeking” when I couldn’t follow my own heart? I felt like a fraud as a mother, writer, teacher, and person, and living so short of my own truths deeply depressed me. I didn’t respect or even like who I seemed to have become.
I sat on the floor in that dormer letting myself fall deeper into Alistair MCloud’s story. Good writing forces the mind to sit down and quiet down. Rationalizations, declarations, proclamations – all that noise disappears in the presence of good writing. What is true? What matters most in this short and mortal life? Three pages, five, then fifteen pages into Alistair MCloud’s writing named my answers. It happened that quickly, in less than thirty minutes. A writer’s job is to name and abide by undeniable truths, and though human life demands dozens of compromises, I suddenly knew — while reading MacLeod — that I’d conceded to too many. Minutes before 4 PM, I emailed my resignation, then prepared to step into the forest.
It’s green and wild in here. Trees tangle into one another, and the underbrush is thick and thorny. The berries are sweet, though, and apples grow everywhere. Deer pick their way delicately along almost-invisible paths. Every moment is new, and I find that I can’t count on much. A bit of a life rhythm is emerging, though. The days are noisier and more chaotic than I’d ever anticipated, but homework, sports games, dinners and baths are all managing to happen, as are my two new part-time jobs that pay some bills. Vehicles break down, glasses shatter all over the kitchen floor, knees and elbows get banged up, and nasty colds and moods sometimes sweep through the whole family – but we are at our core happier and more together than ever before. When I step outside in the pre-dawn dark and see stars, a slip of moon, and the shadowy shapes of distant trees, I fill up with such a raw and pure pleasure. The feeling is new and bright and always growing; I know need to continue to live true to it. I know I’m on the right path.
My newfound happiness is fragile, though. Little outside support exists for people who choose a path into the forest. “Fat, haggard, overwhelmed…” I wrote in my journal just three nights ago. Words like “brave” and “inspired” felt far away. Questions regarding my material future would not quit assaulting me: Would I ever again contribute more than fractionally to my family’s income? Would I ever write successfully? Was I a good mom, even when so tired? And would I always look like a gray-skinned ghoul living under a three hundred pound rock?!
Change always brings in the unexpected, and within this forest’s tangled growth of an old life gone and a new one forming, I have to remind myself daily – sometimes hourly – that I am living for truths that won’t show up in the mirror, on a resume, or in a bank account. I need to reaffirm that I am choosing to abide by what is happening within me and within my family, less about what the larger social world sees. This time in my life is more about the spiritual than the material. I can’t look for evidence that I’ve made a “good” decision; I need, instead, to believe that I have.
I also need to remind myself that dreams have their own timing. Like babies, they do not manifest just because a human decides to want one. A kaleidoscope of designs need to happen to allow a new life or dream into the world, from shifts within our biology to changes in the family system, to new openings in the whole universe’s cosmology. My writer dreams will emerge into the larger world – I can feel this truth vibrantly – and my work, for now, is to keep following my path in the forest with sure and steady steps. When I’m cleaning the house, doing loads of laundry, preparing meals, helping kids with homework, volunteering in elementary school classrooms, and spending hours late at night with my one year old building towers and knocking them down, I need to remember that I am on my path. I am taking important steps. My dream is more real now than ever before, even if it is invisible to everyone but me.
The single truth the Buddha discovered about human life is that it changes: no part of our mortal existence can last. Dreams arrive, and dreams dissolve. My children will grow older, and time to type in my computer will lengthen. For now, my job is to remember my writer dreams and to cherish them. I journal every day I can and don’t get frustrated on the days I can’t. I support writer friends whose time to write and shine is now, and I read whenever possible, marveling at others’ creations. These steps, too, are important. Still in the forest, I cannot know where they will bring me exactly, but I can live here grateful for the trees and family, colleagues and role models around me, come what may.
What example am I setting for my children? Hopefully, that the forest of one’s heart does not need to be excluded from one’s adult reality. The Buddha and his father were family. My wish is for my children and me to learn together that dreams come true, if one dares to walk after them, just as I am walking now.