For the past few weeks, I’ve been out working and living in the Ontario woods, far from the internet. I’ve stopped for a couple days in Toronto to celebrate my birthday, so here’s a post. Hopefully I can get another up soon.
It is remarkable how travel wakes us up to the world of the past, the geography of our memory. Whether in the chaos of a street in Beijing, or in the quiet of Montana’s mountains, our inner world takes on a kind of stillness when we travel. And in this stillness, we stumble upon surprise moments of the past, landmarks we recognize but never intended to find.
For the past few weeks, I have been out doing forestry and carpentry work in the central Ontario wilderness, living in a little cabin without electricity, plumbing, or running water. It is a kind of routine of its own, but the place and work are completely new to me. The granite that lines the little dirt roads is heavy and grey, nothing like the shining granite of the Sierras I grew up with. The woods are thick with undergrowth, so much denser than the Redwood forests I grew up running through, where nothing grows beneath the incredible heights of the trees. And yet, everyday – waking up to swim the lake outside of my cabin, splitting wood in a meadow, casting the glow of my flashlight over the path to the outhouse—I keep finding myself in different moments of my past.
I have often wondered why we feverishly collect the stories of travel, why it is those particular experiences we seem to value the most. As if it is only then that we are truly living, disoriented and new, vulnerable to raw experience. With all the living we have done—the laundry we’ve washed, the apartments we’ve packed up, the people we’ve hurt, the lusts that have guided and misguided us— it is a wonder we feel a need to search for more experience. We already have so much to mine. But as the days add up, those memories seem not so much landmarks but way stations, and time is the relentless train that takes us further and further away from them. It becomes increasingly difficult, even impossible to find our way back.
For me, it is through travel that I make my way back. I never plan on it, but it always happens. Swimming on the coast of Italy, I find myself in the ocean of my youth, my father carrying me on his shoulders through the waves, going further and further until his head is completely submerged. Today, in the residential back streets of Toronto, I am transported to the winding roads of Berkeley, the beautiful old houses passing outside of the passenger window of my high school boyfriend’s Toyota. And some mornings that I wake in my little cabin in the Ontario wilderness, I am seven years old lying on one of the beds in the rustic resort my grandmother ran in Lake Tahoe, every thing so still and cold and empty feeling, the icicles hanging outside of the window, the sound of my father struggling to start his car, my beautiful grandmother, graceful and slightly terrifying, staring out the window at him and the bushes capped with white.
These are the things I remember most viscerally, these snapshots that I have to travel so far to find. They hint at a greater narrative, and my first impulse is to weave one, to anchor those moments in place. But there is something essentially true in those moments that I fear sometimes gets lost in narrative just the way it gets lost in the tumult of our daily lives.
Because narrative is suspiciously powerful. If you’re like me, you cling to certain parts of your own story. Those don’t tend to disappear like other memories, but remain, sometimes growing dangerously large. It is said, often, that we remember more negative than positive, and I’d say this is true in that so much of what I cling to is about loss – the friendship that fell through my fingers, the move away from home, the regrettable end to a long relationship, the man who left me without a word of explanation. We tether ourselves to those losses as some sort of irrational impulse to keep what has already been gone for so long.
But as these past events grow larger, they warp in shape. Over time, memory becomes dream, fantasy, nightmare. It becomes a sort of half-fiction, the narrative that we tell ourselves. And we are trapped by it. For me, as a human being and a writer, these are the most difficult road blocks that I face. On my worst days, they’re so towering that I am utterly lost in their shadows.
And so, I travel to be free. I travel to both remember and forget myself, to forget the narrative that has defined me for so long, to remember the flood of memories, to access the story that is buried beneath the story. In the silence of travel, I hear voices that once called to me, and others that pushed me away. I hear the long story of my life, the one that was always too beautiful, too painful, too absurd to bear. From so many miles away, I can listen to it without judgment, can see it simply as the inevitable journey, the thing we’re always doing, the travel of our life.