Monday, July 13, 2015

Glen Brook to Brassie Brook Lean-to

9.3 miles

Rock at the Massachusetts border, atop which Big County sat in 2004 (2015)

And here he is, sitting on the rock in 2004

This morning I stayed by myself at the shelter till eleven.  The thru-hiker I camped with left at 5:30, so I had the whole chilly morning to myself for sleeping then reading then random camping tasks—sewing up my hiking shorts, trimming my toenails.  It was the kind of Appalachian Trail morning—a vista of mountains, a running brook in front—that I’d dreamed of before starting.  The wonder is that I hiked at all.

But I did, thinking of eight easy miles to the next shelter.  They were not easy.  In the register someone compared this Massachusetts ridge line to a mini-New Hampshire, and I thought they were exaggerating but they were not.  Clambering up and down seemingly impossible rock massifs, sliding down on my butt, going backwards using all four limbs.

It’s days like today I realized why this particular trail is legendary, why it deserves its reputation, why it’s a test of endurance in its relentlessness.  I love it and I hate it all at once.  I love that I can never take it for granted, that eight miles is never easy.  I hate how painful it is, the excruciating shin splints I am developing from ramming into hard granite.

I slid into camp right at dark, with rain beginning to fall, two people already asleep in their bags.  I made Thai ramen in the rain, spilling some when my too-flimsy aluminum windbreak collapsed, retreating to the shelter to wait and eat in the dark.  But even sliding into my bag, cold and sweaty and exhausted and in pain, I was so happy.  This is really living;  why I am here.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tom Leonard to Glen Brook Lean-to

14.6 miles

Yes, hiking makes me happy!  (2015)

Our gang of slackpacking thru-hikers from 2004--click here to read about this same section during my thru-hike

I am at a shelter tonight with just one other thru-hiker, Lorax, a Nobo going crazy fast.  I’m proud of my fourteen miles—I wasn’t sure I’d make it—but it’s still weird to be in a position to dispense advice from my experience.  Mainly I just want to shake all of these north bounders.  You’re missing the trail! I want to say.

I know it won’t make a difference.  Youth is wasted on the young, and a thru-hike is wasted on the thru-hiker.  And then it isn’t, too.  I know it wouldn’t have made a difference to me either, when I thru-hiked, if some veteran had shaken me.  I would have still hiked town stop to town stop, deli sandwich to deli sandwich.

Maybe it’s the only way to survive it.  But it’s weird how I came out here to be in the woods, to revisit the trail, and all the thru-hikers want to do is get away from it.  Race to the next road crossing, the next town stop.  I passed by both a town and a grill, .3 off of the trail, today—I’d have never done either as a thru-hiker.

But it was a glorious day of hiking.  A sun-drenched morning across the top of the mountain, and then down into the valley for six miles of relatively flat pasture walking in bright sun.  Lunch on a bridge crossing a stream, and then a brutal three-mile climb at the end of the day, fueled by a root beer from a trail angel whose daughter is thru-hiking in Virginia.  And then the shelter:  never soon enough but always too soon.  And now I sleep, and do it all again tomorrow.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Mount Wilcox South Shelter to Tom Leonard Lean-to

5.6 miles

Thru-hikers with empty pile of 72 beers, and smartphone, 2015

I passed this lake today and remembered this moment in 2004--wanted to get another shot here but a girl and her dog had the boulder occupied.

It’s weird doing five-mile days and crossing paths with these fast-moving front-of-the-pack four-monther Nobos, for whom 26 miles a day is normal and eighteen is slow.  I was never one of them, not even in 2004.  I was an eight-monther, and twenty miles a day was always brutal.  Still, even though I cam out intending to do slow, single-digit days, it still feels weird coming in first to the shelter with only five miles under my belt.

I remember the pressure, all of a sudden:  miles, miles, miles.  Feed the mile monster!  The relentlessness of the trail, how it requires not just a single twenty-mile day, but many, many of them.  It’s the trail’s beauty, its austerity, its terror—and as happy as I am to be away from any kind of hiking deadline, I’m also confused by it.  It seems to be just as much of a rat race for many people, and that’s a sad thing.

But why is it so hard to convince myself to let go and relax?  I passed a beautiful sunlit rock, on a beaver pond, and I had to actively convince myself to sit down and bask.  I’m here to recuperate from a gruesome winter, to find myself again, and still I struggle just to let go, relax into the slow-mile days.  But the hiking itself is lovely, and less painful today than yesterday.

Tonight the shelter is crowded with weekenders—three couples plus a friend, three Nobos (including Hermit), keeping to themselves and going to bed early, three flip-floppers plus a guest out for a week (Naptime, Smoke Signal, and Still Thinking), and two ex-thru-hikers, like me, but from ’07.  (The ex-thru-hikers, M&M and Poots, also met on the trail!)  [Flip-flopping is hiking the northern half of the trail, from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin, first, and then “flipping” back to Harpers Ferry to complete the rest of the trail southbound.]  Seventeen people at one shelter is crowded.  But it’s also great, and it feels like a family reunion—we may not know each other, but we know the trail, our common mother.  And all of us, the weekending couple that hiked .9 from the road in jeans and the from-Georgia thru-hiker that did a twenty today, all of us are here, the important thing.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Friday, June 05, 2015

Shaker Campsite to Mount Wilcox South Shelter

7.4 miles

First morning selfie, 2015 (Guess bedface looks remarkably like plastic-surgery face.  Who knew.)

Big County in 2004
Came into a shelter tonight where three northbound thru-hikers (Cake Boss, Eddy, and Mojo) were doing the 24 challenge:  24 beers and 24 miles in 24 hours.  Except they’d given up on the 24 miles after the first five beers.  Big surprise there.  I guess the new thing with Nobos (north bounders) is challenges—tomorrow they’re going into town to do the McDonald’s challenge—one of everything on the dollar menu.

I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.  Thru-hikers getting drunk at shelters never goes out of style.  I feel weird because I’m so old and far out of the game—but in some ways I know more than these people.  I already made it to Katahdin.  Who knows if they will.

In unrelated fauna news, I believe I heard two owls making love last night.  One woke me up, calling loudly and repeatedly over my tent.  After what felt like an interminable time, another answered.  Then came what can only be described as monkey sounds, as made by an owl, harried and rushed.  Then silence.

Today I remembered the reality of the trail, that really it is about pain tolerance.  Endurance o pain.  I know I’m just warming up, but it’s a good thing to remember.  And still I enjoy it:  why is something fun if one chooses it, but torture if one doesn’t?

[Hiking from Mount Wilcox South in 2004.]

Thursday, June 04, 2015

US20 to Shaker Campsite

11.9 miles

The first stream of the trail, 2015

Big County and I at Upper Goose cabin the first time around (I'm posting old photographs and links from when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2004)
So I begin.  I can’t decide if I want to take it easy or not.  My goal was about eight-mile days, but there are exigencies on the trail, and the first decent campsite was more than eleven miles in.  So maybe tomorrow will be one of my slow sitting-in-the-sun days.  Already I remember that feeling of always wanting to push, to keep going—one more mile, one more shelter.

Nevertheless, today I saw:  two red salamanders on the trail.  Heard an owl hoot and then saw it flutter to a farther branch.  Walked miles I remembered—bog bridges laid in bright sun over swampy Massachusetts land—and miles I didn’t.

The trail has welcomed me in like a home, completely absorbed me so already I feel disappeared inside of her.  i could just keep going—no one would know where I was inside this great green tunnel and it seems no one should care.  I’m pleased by my choices.  I passed at least eight north bounders and I’m happy to be going south.  I won’t get caught up in trail gossip and drama, nor will I have to spend all day leapfrogging people.

Instead, I can be the mysterious black-clad stranger, passing with a smile, camping alone, hiking alone.  I’m camped alone tonight.  It’s the first time in years, the first time backpacking alone in at least a decade.  It feels strange:  oddly comforting and terrifying all at once.

[A link to my post from hiking the same section in 2004.]

Marching forth again

I am going hiking.  I have this sneaking-out-the-door feeling, as I did when I left on March 4, 2004, and I posted my first trail journal entry, nervous and self-flagellating.  To announce one's plans too early is to jinx them, to let them out of the protective circle of one's own intention, and that means that people can crap all over your parade.  So I keep things quiet, hold them inside, stoking my own inner fire.

I may go camping and hiking for much of the summer.  I've been needing it, a vacation for the soul, hermitage, solitude, trees.  So the Appalachian Trail calls me again, for all of these reasons, and I want to go.  I want to walk.  Unlike last time, though, when I was a 26-year-old marathoner, my body feels weak and feeble, my joints aching.

I am not sure this is a good idea at all.  But I know the only way to know if one can do something is by doing it, and I am doing it.  I don't know for how long--for as long as my body lasts.  I'm bringing enough food to feed an army, and that way I can take my time, do four-mile days, spend sunny afternoons at vistas, hike shelter to shelter.

In related news, we are thinking of putting the boat in the water next season and going back to Maine in the interim, once I'm back, if I come back.  This is a difficult thing for me to admit, or even contemplate.  I want to finish things, follow through, and I find this difficult process of waiting, of living day-to-day with things uncertain, unresolved--almost impossible.  Maybe that's why I'm leaving, to walk, to follow blazes, where the course is predetermined, the route already set.

Friday, March 06, 2015


Lace, cage
I live in a pretty lace cage.  Yesterday was the eleven-year anniversary of my start date on the Appalachian Trail, when I marched forth, and still, here the snow piles in drifts.  It is pretty hard to cut a mast, or install chain plates, or scrape bottom paint, with four feet of snow on the ground.  It's hard to imagine the harbor melting enough for a launch.

Cedar and wood stove in Maine, winter 2012
And yet we came down here to rebuild a boat because it's farther south, closer to the ocean and the Gulf Stream, and we could work almost year-round.  Instead, I miss my snowshoes and wood stove and office.  I could tell you the reasons for this chaotic stormy precipitous winter--how the ocean is 21 degrees warmer than normal and all of that warm water evaporates and then crystallizes and again falls on top of us, how the ocean rose five inches in two years in New England, how the changing climate has shifted the prevailing planetary winds south, allowing the Gulf Stream to be less mobile and giving those in Massachusetts all of Alaska and Maine's weather, how these scientific facts are not covered by the media because our news outlets including public radio are bought and sold by the same people causing this outlandish weather, and how this kind of climate chaos is the new normal--but you wouldn't listen.  You wouldn't divest yourself of fossil-fuel stock or organize or protest;  I haven't either.

Computer, vitamin D, toilet paper, window
I rearranged my room to face the window, an alleged treatment for depression, and already it is bearing fruit as this blog post.  February is a hard month for me, maybe the hardest.  Maybe it is for everyone and God made it the shortest month because we could only endure 28--or, in some years, 29--days of it.  March can't come fast enough.  But here when it came, it came with snow.

So the branches pile with drifts white as layer cakes.  The roots wait embalmed, and entombed, covered by what Eliot called "forgetful snow."  I hibernate.  The whole world waits, coiled to spring.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

I'm on fire

Plymouth library--my new studio
I'm back now, and it feels like during the last month I slipped into an alternate dimension.  I used to have that same experience upon leaving from or returning to boarding school--this bewildering sense that one day a person can exist at one point on the planet, and, mysteriously, through an uncanny process called travel, can arrive at a completely different point 24 hours later, as if the other place never existed at all.  Of course it goes without saying that everything can change in a day.  Yet there is a real feeling of solipsism:  can this world have really existed unchanged while I was gone?  Can that other world really be existing without me?

You close your eyes and poof:  everything is transformed around you.  And yet nothing changes.  Here I am, back at the Plymouth library, my writing desk when I can get to it in Massachusetts--different and yet the same from my studio in Vermont.  Louder.  When did libraries abandon their prohibition against noise?

I listen to ambient drone to drown out the chatter:  but I did that in Vermont anyway.  I look out at snow instead of a snowy river.  I feel like my time away fed me in surfeit, a nourishing abundant meal of time, respect, creative energy, positivity.  The sheer numinous power of fifty artists independently working by following their least inner voice cannot be overstated.  Here I feel that lack.  The distraction of having to fend for myself when it comes to food and caffeine, the distraction of driving--the sensory overload in even having to walk past stacks and stacks of books in the library--all of these burdens were relieved from me in Johnson.  As Richard Wilbur said:  these things "Call to me now. And weaken me. And yet/ I would not walk a road without a scene."

The things I came back to again and again in my conversations with fellow residents are the two things I come back to again and again on these pages--my current ongoing obsessions:  climate change and Carl Jung.  I am afraid about climate change.  That inner voice of my subconscious, the voice that Carl Jung first named for me--that voice is a conscience that cannot be silenced.  It points me to ever more revolutionary, incendiary words.  The world must change or be destroyed.

And the only way for it to change is for artists to hold the mirror up to our exhausted consciousness, the tired materialist mind of our culture, and to say:  look.  This is what we are.  We are tired and we are depressed and we are sick.   We are beings made of both flesh and spirit, mind and soul, consciousness and unconsciousness.  Integration--health--for us as individuals and as a culture comes from facing that which we are most afraid of--our darkest demons, the other, the chaos of the uncontrollable unconscious, the failure of our civilization, the stark fact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--and absorbing this truth into ourselves.  And then awakening.  Becoming active.  Changing.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Johnson, Vermont

My room at the Vermont Studio Center
It is my fourth day here.  Every step here has felt a sloughing off of skin. On Sunday, as I moved in this direction, passing through Massachusetts and into the mountains of Vermont, I felt like I was moving back in time, or deeper inside myself. Already I find myself hungering after my work, the work that I’ve postponed for so long.

I am typing these words in a studio named after William Matthews.  Every morning, when I don't oversleep, I go to the meditation room and sit, smelling incense, doing my best to think of nothing.  After, I come to this studio with a blessed expanse of hours--thirteen, if I was to use them all--just to write.  My studio is small with a view of the Gihon River.  The Gihon, which in the Bible flows from Eden, and which here flows from Eden, Vermont.

I watch a coalesced skim of surface ice float by.  Last night it was 23 degrees below zero, with a windchill of minus 40.  I relish this cold as if were a rare wine.  I have no excuse to be outside.  Frequently the internet goes down.  I have no excuse to be there either.

Meals are prepared for me, shopping is done, I am cleaned up after.  I pace my room.  I rest my head against the window and watch the ice.  I read.  I post chapters on a corkboard.  I comb my sentences for excess words, again and again.  My fellow artists sculpt wall-hangings made of patchwork salvaged wood, sew metal, experiment with traditional oil technique and sing on the side, and take full-semester classes on Old Testament literature with Marilynne Robinson.

This morning, in explaining to a fellow resident why I prefer yoga to Pilates, I said it was not for the exercise but for the self-forgiveness it cultivates.  Last night, in a lecture on creativity and meditation, Jon Gregg, a founder of the Vermont Studio Center, told a story about Pablo Picasso.  Picasso, when asked what the most important thing was in his life answered simply:  self-trust.

These two things:  self-forgiveness and self-trust.  They're what I'm here to learn.

A poem for you today, by William Matthews, in whose spirit I write:

On the way to the rink one fog- and sleep-thick
morning we got the word fuck spat at us,
my sister fluffed for figure skating and I in pads
for hockey.  The slash of casual violence in it
befuddled me, and when I asked my parents
I got a long, strained lecture on married love.

Have I remembered this right?  The past is lost
to memory.  Under the Zamboni’s slathering tongue
the ice is opaque and thick.  Family life is easy.
You just push off into heartbreak and go on your nerve.

Monday, December 29, 2014

And the gun that’s hanging on the kitchen wall, dear

New England Christmas -- fourteen pounds!
On the beach, during my childhood in Thailand, we celebrated Christmas.  We went and ate shish kabobs and sunned ourselves.  We played ping-pong with other missionary kids from other Christian schools scattered around southeast Asia.  I read Agatha Christie novels and built sand castles.

We did not feel guilty.  Yet it was other people’s sacrifice funding our tropical vacation.  At some point during my childhood, maybe when someone else pointed it out, I realized that all of our income came at the mercy of strangers.  We went “home” to the States, on furlough, to raise money from churches.  These churches, and their elderly members, or families much like ours, working-class families, or wealthy families, or friends—all of them “supported” us.  They gave us money because they believed in what we were doing, evangelizing Buddhist Thailand, and their hard-earned savings funded our barbecue crab dinners and beachfront bungalow.

It sounds sordid, maybe—but only if you don’t believe in what we were doing.  And we did believe.  We believed with all our hearts.  My parents continue the same work, now living in Islamic Indonesia, where people keep framed photographs of Osama bin Laden enshrined on their walls.  There they run a Bible school, in a country which has a regular history of mass slaughter of its Christian minority.

Now I’m doing the same thing.  Asking for “support” from people who believe in what I’m doing, merely to fund my life, merely to fund what I believe in.  And I’m getting it.  I am absolutely blown away that today, with 6 days left of my Kickstarter campaign, I am at 68 percent support.  It feels great, and it also feels terrifying.  Because if people believe in me, then that means I actually have to do the work.  Do my work.

Books about creativity frequently talk about fear, not just fear of failure, but fear of success.  Because being successful means inviting people in, to see the work.  Being successful means that the bar is raised.  Being successful invites rejection and critique.  It means accountability.

Accountability, or the lack of it, is the hardest part of being an artist alone in the world.  I’ve never missed a day of scheduled work—and by that I mean any one of many menial office jobs, or bar-tending, or waitressing, or my numerous other minimum-wage jobs—any job where I had to clock in and report to a boss and had FICA taken out of a paycheck.  Maybe I occasionally showed up late, I took personal days—but I met my obligations.  I called in.  I knew I had to be there so I was there.  But working for myself is a different story entirely.  Why is it so much harder to meet an obligation to myself?

Also, I feel guilt.  If other people are funding my life by their sacrifice, what right do I have to sit in front of the television?  To take days off?  To eat shish kabobs or play ping-pong?  I do not share my parents’ certainty of belief.

Instead, I find myself returning an old prayer, again and again:  Lord, I believe.  Help Thou my unbelief.

After having prayed I believe for a little while longer.  This whole experiment, discovering a community of friends, friends of friends, family, blessed strangers—maybe can make me believe in myself.  One friend, an old friend, my first donor, wrote a beautiful email that said:  the patrons of your art demand such boldness.  And they do.  You do.

[Give here:]

Friday, December 19, 2014

Don’t be afraid

Were Keats’ final words.  More light, more light—the dying words of Goethe.  Fear not, was what the angel Gabriel said when he appeared to Mary, and the command most often repeated in the Bible.  How many times do I have to hear it?

And still I am afraid.  Occasionally I have moments of boldness.  As today, posting a Kickstarter campaign, supporting the fiction residency to which I was accepted this month.  I’ve been at this business, trying to build a career, trying to publish, for ten years now, but this is the first time I’ve actually come out and ask anyone for money—what if all of you say no?

The Vermont Studio Center has granted me $2100 to attend their residency program for a full month:  including room, board, and most precious of all, my own personal writing studio, with desk, chair, privacy, quiet, silence, and space.  But an equivalent amount is mine to match, mine to find somewhere in the dwindling free digital economy.

In my video (watch, to hear me read you a story), I say:  "I know, from personal experience, the ways in which writers are finding it harder than ever to make a living.  Traditional publishing has been upended, and publishing companies are finding their budgets and staff cut yearly.  Yet the demand for content—satisfying, beautiful, well-made content—is at an all-time high."

I can say that I am alive, working as a writer, but am I making a living?  I am alive by the grace of God, by the grace of my dead grandmother, by the kindness of family members and strangers.  Making a living means people actually buying my work.  Choosing to spend their money on it rather than on a coffee or a donut or a mortgage payment.

Writing as a career is a diaphanous veil over an abyss.  Since I was a child, I’ve been told to give up, that I’ll never be successful financially as a writer.  My grandfather started his own publishing company to put his exegetical theology in print, a publishing company that’s slowly going out of business even now.

The things I create do not exist in any space except in your own mind.  Jonathan Safran Foer said, in an interview I attended, that writers are artists that paint on the canvas of other people’s subconscious minds.  The terror of the internet age, as Gillian Welch tells us, is that everything is free.  If everything is free, then how shall any of us eat?  But the terror of the internet comes with corresponding beauty: it puts the power into the hands of the masses.  Into your hands.  What we want is ours to ask for, ours to ask the whole universe for.

J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter while on welfare.  She trusted in her work enough to demand that the British taxpayer to pay for it.  I’m just asking you.

So go check it out.  The worst that can happen?  Utter humiliation and a big fat goose egg.  Nothing to be afraid of.

[Edit to add a link to the campaign--realizing I forgot to include it last night.  Clearly I'm a beginner at this:]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


A picture from the archives, February 2012 in Aroostook County, during a beautiful winter walk
The cold descends.  Today the high is not forty degrees, which is all right.  I keep thinking about my quest, in college, to believe that all weather is beautiful.  In its own way, of course.  When I think about that first year, 1995-96, my first winter since I was three, and one of the coldest on record in Chicago—trekking a mile across a wind-bitten campus through ice to send an email in the computer lab to my parents, twelve time zones away, in tropical sunshine—maybe believing that all weather is beautiful was my one defense.

If nothing else, the weather here is alien.  As an adolescent I was bewildered by the joke that one could always talk about the weather.  In Southeast Asia, there’s nothing to talk about.  Here, in Massachusetts, in New England, the weather is a constant threat, a constant source of anxiety, an endless well for conversation.

I hate it.  I hate having to think about the weather when discussing how far to drive on a certain day, to think of adventure and excursions as being limited by condition of roads, to think about sun in connection to laundry.  I don’t want to make a decision based on weather.  By contrast, in Thailand, in paradise, it is ninety degrees and sunny every day.  The sun rises at six and sets at six, with brutal regularity.  There is no need to carry a coat, nor even own a coat to carry.

So all weather has its own beauty.  The dense fog lifting off the orange-brown of a Plymouth County field.  The cold shuddering from a sleet-filled sky.  The four o’clock late afternoon sun on a brisk fall day.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Might as well keep going now

Courtesy of s/v Estrellita 5.10b
Okay, so I’m going to move on to what I’m supposed to be working on and writing about:  the boat.

Spirit, not at sea
A boat under progress is not very photogenic.  Note the pine needles, the antifreeze bottles full of tap water  used as weights, the carelessly hung rags and ratchet straps and cleaning accoutrements.  Doing boat work in the middle of a pine forest is likewise not very easy.  Every day starts with clearing the pine needles from whatever needs to be worked on.

I am resentful and angry about boat work.  I didn’t want to buy a boat.  I was happy with my little farmstead and office in Maine, and I was burned so badly by the last boat that I didn’t think I could ever trust a new boat.  I remember how my heart broke last time.

I remember that the day-to-day reality of boat life involves mammoth amounts of brute physical labor.  Cleaning.  Plumbing maintenance.  Cooking with limited ingredients and space.

And still I want to sail, not because I actually want to sail, but because I am still hungry for adventure, for travel, because my peripatetic urge is never satisfied.  I want to cross an ocean.  I want to drop luffing sails in the harbor of the Azores.  I want to traverse the Suez and Panama Canals, cruise the Mediterranean, round the great Capes, cross from Newfoundland to Ireland.  These are things I hunger after.

In Stephen King’s “On Writing” he says, of his wife:
In the end it was Tabby who cast the deciding vote, as she so often has at crucial moments in my life. I'd like to think I've done the same for her from time to time, because it seems to me that one of the things marriage is about is casting the tie-breaking vote when you just can't decide what you should do next.
As with a writing life, what really matters in cruising is who you choose to do it with.  I know, from meeting many grounded sailors, that what most often gets in the way of achieving a sailing dream is not hurricanes, or pirates, or broaching whales—but unwilling partners.  Your feet get tied up to the ground, not by roots, but by people.

And now I am one of those people.

I believe that the thing that entranced so many [elderly, male, ex-] sailors about the voyage of sailing vessel Secret is that I—the nubile female blog heroine—wanted so desperately to keep sailing and my partner did not.

This indecision has been a problem for a long time between us.

A Wharram catamaran sings her siren song for me, at her port in Phuket.  So does the idea of a beach camping cruise along the Mexican coast.  The Continental Divide Trail.  Cyprus, where my grandfather is from.  Bangkok, always.  Not to mention the best gift K. ever gave me, a writing room.  Again, King:  “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream.”

Also, famously, he said:  “Write with the door closed.”

Virginia Woolf, much more famously, said:  “All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”

Worst of all, I remember that a boat has no door that closes.

[Well, there’s a head, smelling of holding tank, but certainly not a private writing room, not a place where you go to dream.]

I’ve been reading boat blogs, trying to get a handle again on this life that I’m not sure I’ve quite chosen again, and all of the sunniest cruising and travel blogs open with whimsical romantic stories of carpenters meeting bookworms, or spur-of-the-moment decisions over beer and pizza, or one partner convincing the other that what they really needed was a sailboat:

“I have long had a dream of going cruising in a sailboat and have gradually lured Mark into this dream.  His response has ranged from all smiles to the rare bout of kicking and screaming, but he finally agreed to purchase a boat a year ago.”  —s/v Groovy

“In May 2011 Tammara and I made the decision to purchase a sailboat to sail and live on and eventually take her down the west coast…  It is our dream to one day voyage across oceans to distant and foreign lands.  We hope to achieve this with our new boat.”  —s/v Lynn-Marie

“Have you ever dreamt of running away to live on a tropical island, spending your days basking in the warm sunshine while sipping piña coladas? We have. In fact, our dream included running away to live on a sailboat in the tropics, even though when we started we had never even sailed before!  Zero to Cruising is the story of how we took that dream and made it a reality. Follow along... you can do it too!”  --s/v Zero to Cruising

“Our goal is to share meaningful thoughts on simple living, to help sailors with life aboard, and to inspire others to chase their own creative dream through honest and uplifting writing.”  —s/v Sailing Simplicity

I find that so much of actual life aboard—which is constant interpersonal decision-making—gets left out of these blogs.

Then there’s the much more honest s/v More Joy Everywhere, posting shortly before deciding to sell:

“These blogs are all written by people who are younger and prettier and smarter and more creative than we are.  They fix engines, install solar panels, sew cushions, grow sprouts, revarnish their teak, and understand how their systems work.  In their spare time, they sketch, make jewelry, write poetry, play the banjo, kayak, scuba dive, take fabulous underwater pictures, and never watch television.”

It’s easy to paint a romantic vision of life aboard—all sunsets and dolphins and glowing teak and tranquil anchorages.  It’s easy, when one is parsing a life a post or two at a time, to focus only on the beautiful things.  It’s why everyone, in our age of social networks, has a chronic diagnosis of FOMO.  We see everyone else’s gorgeous handmade children’s crafts, or snapshots of family vacations—we don’t see the dirty dishes, the arguments, the days spent in front of the television, the exhaustion, the chaos.

Some of the most inspirational and optimistic blogs drift slowly off into the ether with no explanation as to what exactly happened to the pina colada dream.  Some others, as with the second example above, have posts stop soon before the Sailboat Listing appears.  [Click here for a great collection of blog posts about cruisers who decide to quit.]

You’ll know, if you’ve read for a long time, that I love to write about being covered in poison oak, or boat poop explosions, or frigid Maine winters.  It’s the part of life that’s interesting to me.  What interests me about life—what interests me about travel—what interests me in literature and film and art—are the things that are difficult, the things that are hard, the challenges remaining to be overcome.

I know that I want to write, as I’ve always known, but as I said to Karl, when we first met:  I can do that anywhere.

He asked me what I did for a living, what I was, and I said:  a bum.

He asked me to live aboard a boat with him, on our first date, and I said, with no hesitation:  yes.

Sailing is a full-time job.  Boat work is a full-time job.  Writing, too, is a full-time job.  So what then?  I wrestle what time I can from the ether, and I use it to put words on paper, or onto a screen, or I stare into space and avoid putting words on paper or onscreen.  I miss my grandmother’s typewriter.  I miss my office and my desk and my view of the drained beaver pond.  I miss my literary dog and cat.

Can I really do it anywhere?  I guess we’ll find out.

And I guess, dear reader, you can always trust me, yours truly, to delve my hands deep down into the dirty painful nitty gritty of life, can you not?  I commit to you that I’ll continue to explore the dark side of life afoot or a-sail—at least a sunny post or two a month at a time.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

One too many mornings

A big part of me doesn’t believe, still, that “depression” exists.  According to the New Yorker:
There is little agreement about what causes depression and no consensus about what cures it…  There is suspicion that the pharmaceutical industry is cooking the studies that prove that antidepressant drugs are safe and effective, and that the industry’s direct-to-consumer advertising is encouraging people to demand pills to cure conditions that are not diseases (like shyness) or to get through ordinary life problems (like being laid off).
Louis Menand’s article, a review of Gary Greenberg’s book, “Manufacturing Depression,” continues:
Greenberg basically regards the pathologizing of melancholy and despair, and the invention of pills designed to relieve people of those feelings, as a vast capitalist conspiracy to paste a big smiley face over a world that we have good reason to feel sick about. The aim of the conspiracy is to convince us that it’s all in our heads, or, specifically, in our brains—that our unhappiness is a chemical problem, not an existential one. Greenberg is critical of psychopharmacology, but he is even more critical of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., a form of talk therapy that helps patients build coping strategies, and does not rely on medication. He calls C.B.T. “a method of indoctrination into the pieties of American optimism, an ideology as much as a medical treatment."
In other words, “depression is not a mental illness. It’s a sane response to a crazy world.”

According to Wikipedia:
The term "depression" is used in a number of different ways. It is often used to mean major depressive disorder but may refer to other mood disorders or simply to a low mood…  The diagnosis of major depressive disorder is based on the patient's self-reported experiences, behavior reported by relatives or friends, and a mental status examination. There is no laboratory test for major depression.
Essentially, it doesn’t exist, right?  But then there are days I wake up when I am unable to move.  Not literally, of course—I can roll over in bed, wiggle my fingers—but I don’t.  I lie there and I don’t move.  I think of all of the reasons I should move, or the things I could do that’d make me feel better, but I don’t do them.  I can’t bring myself to.  I rehearse a list of things I know to do, things I know help—heat, light, reading, baking, sitting in the sun, yoga, taking a long hot bath or a shower, going to a cafe or a library—but all of them, even the thought of them, even the first step towards them, feels like dust in my mouth.  I can’t move.  I don’t even pee when I need to pee because it requires too much energy to move to the bathroom.

In an earlier New Yorker article, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Andrew Solomon writes about his experience with his depression:  “My vision began to close.  It was like trying to watch TV through terrible static, where you can’t distinguish faces, where nothing has edges.  The air, too, seemed thick and resistant, as though it were full of mushed-up bread.”

I know that feeling.  For me the air feels resistant like mud, or like trying to swim against a current.  Motivation is a central problem.  I can think of a lot of things that make me feel better (writing, sunlight, a walk) but it is impossible to motivate myself to do them.  Or it’s possible but I can never do it.  Or I can do it sometimes, just not when I’m in the darkness.  In the hole, the bottomless pit, that Townes Van Zandt sings about above, so effortlessly.  The old lady catches me.

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” asks the Psalmist.

When I’m in the pit, pulling myself out is like trying to find pull myself from quicksand, use my own body as leverage.  It’s impossible to find any purchase.

Of course I can get out of bed.  It is possible.  It is not impossible.  And yet I don’t.  I lie in bed for hours—literally—not moving, thinking about doing something and not doing it.  Some days I can.  Some days I get up and take arms against the sea of troubles, even when it feels like moving through molasses.  Like swimming while drowning in a sea of mud.  Other days it is impossible.

In the wake of Robin Williams’s death, everyone is talking about depression, but not many people are saying anything useful.  Several times I’ve heard commentators say:  “just so we’re clear, ‘depression’ is a mental illness, not ordinary sadness or ‘feeling blue.’”  And I think:  oh, so what I have is just ordinary sadness.  Even when I’m not feeling sad at all.  Even when I’m feeling nothing inside but darkness, and heat and pain inside my head without actually experiencing heat or pain.

I’m sure Robin Williams and David Foster Wallace and everyone all thought they had ordinary sadness right up till the end.  How can we tell the difference when we’re in the middle of it?

Even Solomon writes, as he recovers, with the help of a vast pharmacopeia:  “I have felt blue sometimes, and on some days I have chosen not to work on this difficult subject…”  But how does he tell the difference?

I find it challenging to talk about, not because I feel guilty or ashamed, but because I don’t believe it exists.  I do feel guilty about my coping mechanisms—computer games and television and food—all things that other people assist me in feeling guilty about.  I feel guilty about my presence on the planet, about myself as a waste of space.  I feel “all the typical symptoms—hatred, anguish, guilt, self-loathing.”  But I don’t feel ashamed of the presence of the miasma itself because I don’t believe in it.

It’s also difficult to talk about because there’s nothing anyone can do to help.  Antidepressants don’t work.  Talking to other people just spreads the disease, if it exists.  Depression is contagious.  Why should I drag anyone down inside the pit with me?  I hate reaching out for help because then I have to admit that the only thing inside is an echo because all that exists in there is a big black hole and I can’t tell anyone without dragging them down too.

I’ve been feeling this way for twenty years, if not longer.  I wept the night before I turned ten because I realized my childhood was over.  Oh, wait—I was just feeling blue, right?  Even as a child, I felt something like nostalgia, a deep eternal grief at the passage of time.  I remember learning the word “melancholy,” and the idea that someone could be a “melancholic.”  I remember thinking, oh, so that’s what I am.  I developed obsessions that I treasured close to my chest, and when I shared them, carefully, and was rejected, I plunged into despair.  I lay in bed crying, before the age of eleven, telling my mother and sister that I had people who loved me, but no one who liked me.  How could they?  I remember listening to Puff the Magic Dragon and weeping:  Jackie Paper came no more!  Therein lay the essence of life’s tragedy!

Some days I wake up okay.  Other days I wake up unable to move.  Everyone blames negative thoughts, as proponents of CBT, and the power of positive thinking, believers in the pieties of American optimism, do:  change your thinking, change your life.

Andrew Solomon writes:
Once upon a time, depression was generally seen as a purely psychological disturbance;  these days, people are likely to think of it as a tidy biological syndrome.  In fact, it’s hard to make sense of the distinction.  Most depressive disorders are now thought to involve a mixture of reactive and internal factors;  depression is seldom a simple genetic disease or a simple response to external troubles.  Resolving the biological and psychological understanding of depression is as difficult as reconciling predestination and free will.  If you remember the beginning of this paragraph well enough to make sense of the end of it, that is a chemical process;  love, faith, and despair all have chemical manifestations, and chemistry can make you feel things.  Treatments have to accommodate this binary structure—the interplay between vulnerability and external events.

Vulnerability need not be genetic.  Ellen Frank says, "Experiences in childhood can scar the brain and leave on vulnerable to depression."  As with asthma, predisposition and environment conspire.  Syndrome and symptom cause each other:  loneliness is depressing, but depression causes loneliness.
For me, negative thinking is merely a symptom.  If I feel like things are hopeless I find a reason for why things are hopeless and I can find plenty.  But the hopeless feeling comes before the negative thoughts.  Sometimes the negative thinking catches me in a cycle and drags me deeper into the hole, but it’s almost worse when I feel nothing but emptiness and just like there’s nothing inside, not even negative thoughts.  And I can’t convince myself to do anything.

Since I was a child I’ve felt like suicide is a brave move, a way of using actual physical weapons against the sea of troubles, as Hamlet is the first to suggest.  “The ultimate hallmark of depression,” an “obsession with suicide.”  I think of those who have—Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, David Foster Wallace, Aaron Swartz, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—as secret brothers and sisters.  On bad days I pore over their Wikipedia pages.  Those who had the courage to tell the truth to an empty, hopeless world.

…the particular kind of depression I had undergone has a higher morbidity rate than heart disease or any cancer.  According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard and the World Health Organization, only respiratory infections, diarrhea, and newborn infections cost more years of useful life than major depression.  It is projected that by the year 2020 depression could claim more years than war and AIDS put together.  Ant its incidence is rising fast.  Between six and ten per cent of all Americans now living are battling some form of this illness;  one study indicates that nearly fifty per cent have experienced at least one psychiatric disorder in their lifetime.  Treatments are proliferating, but only twenty-eight per cent of all people who have a major depression seek help from a specialist;  fifteen per cent of hospitalized patients succeed in killing themselves.
Watching Robin Williams movies helps.  It’s odd to me how many of them deal intimately and sensitively with depression and suicide. My favorite movie as a teenager, and maybe still, is "Dead Poets Society," and I was powerfully affected by two of his other movies, not as well known:  "What Dreams May Come" and "World’s Greatest Dad."

In “World’s Greatest Dad” Robin’s character writes a suicide note and then gets to see what happens afterward—in some ways, it’s a suicide’s watching of his own funeral, a fantasy wish fulfillment.  He says, presciently and half-sarcastic:  “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  But what if the problem’s not so temporary? 

In “What Dreams May Come” we get to see what happens after a suicide, too.  But this time from the other perspective.  From below the ground.

“What Dreams May Come” was horribly reviewed when it came out and still has a 44% rating on Metacritic.  I beg to differ with the reviewers.  Many parts of it terrified and entranced me when I originally saw it—joyful jumps through big messy wet swaths of color in heaven, walking on the disembodied faces of those in purgatory who don’t realize they’re there.  Since Robin’s suicide, I can’t stop thinking about the part when he dives down from heaven into hell, through an increasingly creepy and macabre dreamscape, where finally, at its very bottom, he finds his wife, who committed suicide.  She’s been sent to hell not because of her suicide but because of her own tendency to create “nightmare” worlds, the same tendency that led her to suicide to begin with.  She’s all alone, in darkness, living in a twisted version of their house, visibly tortured by her surroundings.

That part stays with me.  Because it’s what depression is.  When I’m there, I’m all alone, and nothing anyone could say could help or change anything.  Suicide and depression are really the same thing, because depression is already hell.

Jane Kenyon, a depressive and a poet, writes:  “Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again… and turn me into someone who can’t take the trouble to speak;  someone who can’t sleep, or who does nothing but sleep;  can’t read, or call for an appointment for help.  There is nothing I can do against your coming.”

In “Brothers Karamazov” Dostoevsky posits that heaven and hell are now, determined only by our frame of reference.  We are not condemned to hell in some future time;  if we are condemned to hell, we live there now.  The same with heaven.  Christ Jesus said:  “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Here, now.

“That life is heaven,” he said to me suddenly, “that I have long been thinking about;” and all at once he added, “I think of nothing else indeed…  Heaven,” he went on, “lies hidden within all of us—here it lies hidden in me now… we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins, you were quite right in thinking that, and it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality.”
Spoken by a character who committed murder, a murder he’s been hiding:  “I know it will be heaven for me, heaven, the moment I confess. Fourteen years I've been in hell.”

And here are words spoken by Father Zosima a prophet, a poet, a priest—someone who echoes both Christ and Buddha for me:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending…  I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love...  there are some fearful ones who have given themselves over to Satan and his proud spirit entirely. For such, hell is voluntary and ever consuming; they are tortured by their own choice. For they have cursed themselves, cursing God and life.
Those "fearful ones" stay with me. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a Spirit of love, of power, and of a strong mind.”  2 Timothy 1:7

I love that trinity.  Love, power, and a strong mind.  If I can have love and power and a strong mind, then I live already in the kingdom of heaven.  If I fear, then I live in an ever-consuming and voluntary hell.

But I fear so much, all of the time.  As Solomon writes:  "It’s possible to distinguish between anxiety and depression, but according to... a leading expert on anxiety, 'they’re fraternal twins.'"
A quote from Tina Berger:
I often explain it this way. If you go and visit a Western-trained psychologist for seemingly inexplicable anxiety, he or she will most likely ask you about your life and your job and your family of origin. You may receive a diagnosis and plan of treatment. The treatment will likely involve relaxation and stress reduction, perhaps some additional talk therapy to address past emotional wounding, and you may be referred to a psychiatrist for medical treatment with anti-anxiety medication. You may or may not find the source of your anxiety. Whatever the recommended course of treatment, unexplained anxiety is generally seen as a pathology here in the West. If you have anxiety and you can’t source it to an immediate and direct problem in your life, the general assumption is: something is wrong with you.

An ecopsychology-based perspective takes a much bigger picture view of anxiety, considering questions like, “How sane is it, to have no anxiety as such beautiful species of plants and animals disappear from the planet one by one?” “How sane is it to have no anxiety when we know children are dying unnecessarily from starvation in many parts of the world?” “How sane is it that we work such long hours to continue acquiring so many things that we will throw away in less than a year?”
How sane am I?  Not very.

One last Solomon quote:
At a cocktail party in London, I saw an acquaintance and mentioned to her that I was writing this article. 
"I had terrible depression,’ she said. 
I asked her what she had done about it.  
"I didn’t like the idea of medication,’ she said.  "My problem was stress-related.  So I decided to eliminate all the stresses in my life."  She counted off on her fingers.  "I quit my job," she said.  "I broke up with my boyfriend and never really looked for another one.  I gave up my roommate and moved to a smaller place.  I stopped going to parties that run late.  I dropped most of my friends.  I gave up, pretty much, on makeup and clothes."  I was looking at her in bewilderment.  "It may sound bad, but I’m much less afraid than before," she went on, and she looked proud.  "I’m in perfect health, really, and I did it without pills."
Someone who was standing in our group grabbed her by the arm. 
"That’s completely crazy.  That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.  You must be crazy to be doing that to your life," he said. 
Is it crazy to avoid the behaviors that make you crazy?
Jane Kenyon writes, of emerging from a devastating depression:  “With the wonder and bitterness of someone pardoned for a crime she did not commit I come back to marriage and friends…  to my desk, books, and chair.”  She writes, of ordinary contentment:  “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?  How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples;  its bright, unequivocal eye.”

So I make plans for a half-suicidal foray across the Atlantic.  Or I make sense of the world through art, as Townes van Zandt, the patron singer of depressives, did.  He also drank himself to death aged 53. Ernest Hemingway, with his shotgun, beat him by nine years.  Robin Williams beat him by ten.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Weekday regatta at Mattapoisett Harbor
August is a good month to spend in Massachusetts.  There are regattas.  There is alleged sunshine, more than the rest of the year, at least.  There are clam bakes and fresh oysters and fluke sushi and better lobster than in Maine, if you can get your fingers into any.

Light at Mattapoisett
There are camping trips and sailing on ponds.  There are bonfires.  There is precious little swimming.  There is chilly yoga in sunlit patches.  There are car shows.  There are rainbows and sunsets and lighthouses.

Authentic New England clambake at the Marion VFW
The clam bake I refer to was especially spectacular.  It is impossible to sufficiently rave about the seafood around here, and how cavalier the locals are about its deliciousness.  New Bedford, less than ten miles away, whence both Ishmael and Herman Melville sailed, is still the largest working seaport in the United States in terms of volume of seafood caught.  The shellfish here, I would wager, are the best in the world.  As are the lobster, I believe.  Maine is famous for its lobster because they possess a larger quantity of them—Cape Cod lobster are rarer, sweeter, more expensive, and more succulent.  Scallop boats out of New Bedford bring in more money than the famous king crab boats in Alaska.

Clam closeup
Then there are the clams.  New England clambakes are legendary, even among those who have never been here.  The clambake is a traditional method for preparing seafood, using steamed seaweed and heated rocks buried under the ground.  In many places around the Cape, bars and restaurants advertise “authentic” clambakes.  But the one we attend, and that I blogged about way back when, in one of my earliest posts, actually *is* authentic.  It’s held at the VFW, and has been the same for decades.  The same, except now attendance is dwindling, with only 150 left of the 500 who used to attend annually.  Sadly, of the benches that were filled up when we attended eight years ago, only half were full this year.  They said they didn’t even break even this year, as membership in the VFW dwindles.

He ate four quarts--and flashes me a four to prove it
I understand, because it still feels like a steal to me.  $32 for all-you-can-eat steamed clams, haddock, sausage, corn, potatoes, butter, brown bread, and onions.  All of it steamed in beds of seaweed, dug into holes in the ground by veterans and volunteers.  There were so few people this year that we were able to fill up huge bags full of clams and corn to take back home with us.  Later, we transformed them into clam scampi.

A volunteer rakes the seaweed--still the same seaweed, the same rocks
It’s sad to me.  The VFW, and social organizations like it—clubs, churches, leagues—are the institutions that hold America together, that keep us strong.  When I was in college a book came out called “Bowling Alone.”  It told of the collapse in American community organizations from the fifties and sixties till today.  Back then, people joined bowling leagues, or the AmVets, or local social clubs.  Now we bowl alone.  We live, as we dream, said Conrad—alone.

Now people sit on their asses and watch television.  Play computer games.  Mess with the internet on their smart phones.  We shop at big-box stores.  We don’t go wade for quahogs or check lobster traps.  We don’t dig kelp and rocks to prepare food on a beach.  We buy bargain chicken grown in factory farms, chickens that can’t walk, that never see the light of day.  I’m one of them—don’t get me wrong.  Maybe we’ve gained something—freedom, Wikipedia—but we’ve lost a lot too.

Not that the seafood’s necessarily any better than farmed meat.  Grillabongquixotic doesn’t eat seafood for ethical reasons, after seeing firsthand the way the ocean’s been fished out.  These new fishing shows (Wicked Tuna, Dangerous Catch) glorify the fishermen out there, but ignore the quantities being taken and the dwindling fishery.  Scientists estimate that human beings have already reduced the population of big fish in the ocean to 10 percent of what it was in 1950.  We’ve eaten 90 percent of the fish that we had.  Already in Massachusetts, bay scallops, the sweetest of the shellfish, are gone.  This used to be the only place in the world where you could eat them.  Now there is not enough sea grass to support their reproductive cycle.  How many years till there aren’t any clams?

Some people eat meat and don’t eat fish—better to eat factory-farmed meat than fish out our remaining wild food.  But then some people don’t eat beef for ethical reasons.  Cattle emit methane (methane could provide electricity for us, I argue, but no one listens) and are grown on factory farms.  Chickens and eggs and hogs are problematic, too, with the vast pools of toxic waste their production manufactures.

In Thailand, I met a traveler from Peru.  He didn’t eat soybeans or any soy product.  He refused to.  He’d seen the forest in Peru being clearcut for soybean fields.  It was the first time I’d seen someone who ate meat, but not tofu, for ethical reasons.

So in August we ate our clams, bottom feeders, and we’ll keep eating them until they’re gone, I suppose—until the New England coast is remade by aquaculture.  Aquaculture and algae are among the few things that can save us from climate change, I believe.  Offshore wind and algae farms, with oysters and shellfish beneath the surf for protein.  Delicious, nutritious, and good for the planet.

Plus there’s all that butter.

August is a good month to spend in Massachusetts.  But now it’s September, and already it’s getting colder, the trees tinged with red.  Now it’s September, and as House Stark like to remind us, winter is coming.  Winter is coming, and with it the cold.