The Agony and the Ecstasy

I didn’t sleep well last night—for the second night in a row—and got up “late,” just as daylight was beginning to arrive. Instead of heading to my desk to work, I sat in the corner chair with Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires and coffee, after remaking the coffee because when I put it on the timer last night I failed to close the lid and just had ecru hot water when I got up. Maybe it was the fatigue that made me emotional, but the morning sky that looked like it was going to be a great grey nothingness, and a morning that was “supposed” to be rainy, left me tight-chested and damp-eyed.

I’ve had moments lately of feeling ready to leave here, feeling the beckoning of adventure. Which leads my heart to my mother who didn’t leave here. She stayed for more than twenty years after my father died. Sometimes she was alone, and sometimes a family member, transitioning to the Pacific Northwest from the accidental generational migration to the east coast decades ago, stopped by for a time. First my sister, then my daughter, then my nephew, and finally me. (My older sister is returning soon, but she won’t live here.) And during the height of the pandemic, the fourth generation sheltered here. We were all glad for a landing place; we were all grateful for this sanctuary. My mother didn’t have a landing place to leave here for, so she stayed in the sanctuary. Because of me, she stayed longer than she might have, maybe lived longer than she might have. I don’t know if that was a good thing or not.

I don’t know what I want. But I know what I need. I need to not grow old here. I need to go while I still have the resilience to begin again and can embrace the adventure. I have thought I would go at 75. That’s less than four and a half years. It will slip by in a blink. I can’t leave it to chance. I need a plan; at least an inkling of a plan. And the thought of leaving already breaks my heart. Especially on mornings like this one.

I’ve been getting the outdoor adventure itch lately. I want to drive out to the Olympic Peninsula and go for a river hike in the national forest. Or out my favorite highway to the coast. But free days and good weather (or at least a good forecast) have not lined up. I might have jumped in the car this morning when I saw that the forecast was wrong again, but I knew I was too sleep deprived. So I headed into the fog shrouded, mossy woods out my front door instead.


“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline

The sun-brightened fog, raindrops clinging to snowberries and sparkling like jewels on bare shoots, and the silence (if one blocks the faint roar of distant traffic) brought the emotions again.

I played in these woods as a child, then left them for other horizons. My mother spent her empty nest then her empty bed years in its holy refuge. I don’t come here often. Always an excuse. Maybe I’m protecting my future. If I don’t get too attached, it won’t be so hard to leave. Stupid. The only moment I have for sure is this one. And today it was an unexpected, unpredicted one.

I climbed the steps to Staebler Point, and decorated the plaque that honors my parents’ legacy of saving these woods. The fog over town lifted while I communed with them. Someday I will leave the house they built, but because of them and others, I can return to this place as long as my legs can get me here.

Ducking under the mossy vine maples, I came back to our barn, our meadow, my garden that will one day become one with the earth again, as did my father’s garden here, as we all will.

I finally refilled the bird feeders yesterday and this morning the black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches have already found them. Where did they go in the interim? Did they find a new food source? Was it less desirable? (I dread the “less desirable” for myself.) Do they rotate here and there regardless of supply? Maybe we all return to our places of sanctuary, sooner or later, be they external or internal. The woods are full of pieces of lives shed, feathers and fir. As we all leave bits ourselves behind when we move on. What will be left here? Just the ghosts, just the ghosts.

“. . . [She sits] for a while among the boxed up remnants of her family’s life. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but ghosts are all around them . . . She has to believe that they’re all here. That they’ve made an indelible mark. That all their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and mistakes and hopes and despair are still as alive as they ever were. That no one ever truly, completely leaves.”

Dani Shapiro, Signal Fires

I have many desk and computer projects, both time sensitive and not. Or maybe they all are . . . that “things could change in a flash” thing. Maybe none of them are. My laptop incessantly tells me my disk is almost full and I want to jettison it, clear my focus, start again, or not start again. I’m spending too many hours in a chair. What would be the harm in the end if the projects didn’t get done, if I spent too much time outside or engrossed in a book instead? Or writing. I don’t know. For a fractional second, as I returned from time in the forest primeval, I felt ready to return to the Great House Clean-out, or to tackle painting the only untouched room: the laundry room. It didn’t last long.

Well, that’s where my head is at today. The rain should return tomorrow (or this afternoon), and I won’t be so melancholy—by which I do not mean depressed. Sometimes winter sun sends me more inside myself than rainy days do. Not a bad thing.

P.S. It’s raining.

P.P.S Now it’s not.

16 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy

  1. Waiting for dawn on a Monday morning, I read this and every string in my heart resonates to it. My circumstances differ, but the time of life is similar, and the beauty and squirreling into the questions that face us in our 70s. The house, the woods, Staebler Point, is tangible “life work” of you and your parents and sisters. Passing it on will be a big thing, finding the next people who will hopefully steward the place, see what they are inheriting, tend the earth they stand on gently and protect it fiercely. Standing by to listen… call a wisdom circle around you as you and your sisters think this through. Love you in the question and the quest.

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    1. We are of an age, aren’t we, my friend? It really strikes me now and then: the end may not be nigh, but change is coming. I want not to leave it to chance. I like to think of it as the next big adventure. My time in this house has exceeded—by three years—my time in any other dwelling since I left here the first time, in 1970. And, now that I think about it, equals exactly my time here in childhood. I have “left home” many times and I can do it again. Big sister will be here in a few months; a wisdom circle is a good idea. I have no idea how to do that; perhaps my dear friend on the island and the one across the water at the top of the state will help. Big love to you.

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  2. Thanks for saying what I’ve been feeling. Alas, I can no longer trust my balance nor my stamina to go to the woods alone, and going with others defeats the purpose. Thank you for allowing me to go quietly with you on your walk.

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  3. “There is a time for departure even when there is no certain place to go”  Tennessee Williams

    I often wonder what he meant when he wrote those words? I think we all eventually come to that place in our lives. Whether literally, figuratively or metaphorically, in my experience, what starts as an itch can get quickly out of control. There was no ‘lit runway’ or ‘flung open door’. It was a feeling. I hope you find a way to trust that you will know when it’s time. Very happy to see you back on the page and even happier that you got back out in those beautiful woods 🦉

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    1. I like that quote, thank you for it. No certain place to go, at least in the more distant future, is certainly a big issue. In the meantime, I have plenty of ideas for places to go short term! And it felt good to be back on the page here.

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  4. I feel you. Sometimes there are too many choices. I know you’ll find your way, and it will be brilliant, but the in-between is a bitch. Have faith. You are surrounded by so much beauty, there is solace in that. So much beauty, thank you for sharing that.

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  5. My 2 cents: writers cannot meaningfully grind out ‘to do’ lists w/o regularly refilling the well. That takes many forms: wilderness walk, gallery visit, take yourself to a movie, pick a place an hour’s drive away you’ve never been to and explore it, have coffee or lunch with a friend you havent caught up with lately, paint a fence, plant a flower, etc etc. GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD.

    You just published and marketed a memoir… that is any one person’s life’s work!!! You need to create some head space before you tackle your ‘to do’ list.

    Take a victory lap (whatever that might mean to you) while the memoir makes its way in the world. You can jump back on that bus once you have refreshed your hot brain.

    Let yourself off the hook imbedded in your task master brain and REFILL YOUR CREATIVE WELL. ♥️

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    1. I also need to sell my books, before I have to pay for their storage or shipping! A helluva thing. But yep. This, though, is the time of year I set aside to do all the stuff; so I can do all the things you suggest the rest of the year. My life is balanced by seasons, I think, rather than within the days and weeks. That said, I’m taking your thoughtful words to heart. I’m taking the weekends off from all things book. Maybe I’ll find things to do that are fodder for the pen.

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  6. Ditto. There are times I am drawn to go buy a small motorhome and set off on a ramble. Thanks to internet service tied to my phone, just about every thing I have going is portable, except for a couple of classic tractors in the shop I am restoring. But I am nearing the age when I will not be physically able to roam safely as I did for a year in ’90 -’91, living in a 19 ft. trailer, waking up every morning in a different place, but usually some place in the Cascades or along the coast of the PNW. When you are taken by so many small details in the wondrous beauty that is the PNW, the impetus to roam, albeit slowly, is unrelenting.
    It was a difficult decision to settle into N. Portland as a community organizer and start a second career.

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    1. I hear you, Dave. I no longer dream of going to Europe, but I still dream of roaming the western national parks by car. Hopefully, one of these days, I will get down to the business of making the vision a reality. Your year of roaming sounds divine.

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