Tuesday, September 7, 2010

THE ROAD TO BABYLON



Sunrise over downtown Jacksonville
Once, when I was a young woman, I returned to my parents’ home - broke as a beggar, humbled as a prodigal - after having made a very brief foray into the “bigger world.” And by "bigger world," I mean a rented room and a temp job across town from my parents' house. I'd been working 12-hour days in order to pay my bed and board and I could see I was going to be on that tread-wheel to nowhere for a long, long time – maybe forever – so I swallowed my pride and returned home, knowing I would come, like others before me, to that Robert Frost moment: two paths diverging in a yellow wood. I would have to choose: 1) to follow my girlhood dream (of moving outward into the larger world, journeying through it, experiencing it, writing about it) and thus I'd be required to forsake life in the small, safe, Baptist community in which I had spent most of my days and nights until then, to really throw myself on the mercy of the larger seething, heathenish world I'd only read and heard about, or 2) whether to just stay put, as my family and friends expected, to take the “safe” road and accept some decent-paying secretarial or receptionist position there in Jacksonville, living at home and saving my money, maybe buying a second-hand car, until I'd “found a man” and married – though it was questionable whether anyone, including my parents, thought any man would be brave enough to “take me to wife” (as my grandmother so delicately put it).
By then, I'd been dreaming for years of another kind of life: a life traveling, a life of the mind, that solitary life with writing and good books at the center of my life, of living by my wits “out there” somewhere beyond the city in which my family lived, in order to search for that one place I believed I would know when I came to it because everything about it would allow me the opportunity to be who I felt I was becoming: that place I'd finally call home. It would be, or so I told myself, a place where I'd come to know my own worth in the world, a worth I could discover for myself as I went through it, something apart from the way others saw me and imagined me, when they thought about me or noticed me at all. To stay in that town of my upbringing, to remain invisible there in the well-mannered, deeply-Christian South, to try one more time to be a respectable member of that Southern Baptist family and community in which I’d been raised, well, that would mean I would have to give up my dream, that I’d have to just open my hand and let it go for good there was no way to make it happen there in that place where the Good Book was the only acceptable literature, where any attempt to think and write creatively against or outside of its premises was suspect, was akin to the “lie,” and all devout Southern Baptists can tell you who the Prince of Lies is.
As I was weighing what it would cost me to go, or to stay, (otherwise known as throwing myself a rather loud and mournful pity-party), I turned to my Grandmother Fleecy, who was someone I felt would kindly tolerate my whining and complaining and not hold it against me or think me any more odd or foolish than I already was.
"Maybe I could do it," I said to her finally, in a fit of frustration, in a bout of sudden cowardice, "Maybe I could just settle down with some local boy and have a passel of children and raise them to be good and godly and upright citizens like mama and daddy did with all of us. But maybe even that dream isn't something I can really pull off. Not me. I mean, look at me. I'm no prom queen: who would want to settle down with me? I'm plain and bookish, and my strongest attributes are a quick mind and a sharp tongue. How many times has someone pointed that out to me? What makes me think. . . ."
It was then that my grandmother slammed her hot iron down on the iron rest and narrowed her marble-blue eyes at me. It caught me by surprise, that shocking vehemence with which she'd interrupted me.
“Be careful, girl,” she said, “lest you linger too long in Babylon and forget who you are.” Then she picked up the iron again. She spit on it to make sure it was still hot enough for a good crease, as if it might have gone cold in the brief circle of her inattention. The spit sizzled hotly and then dissolved into a quiet last hiss.
I didn't know how to respond to her. She was always speaking in odd metaphors or allusions, most of which I couldn't unravel, even when I tried to. I snapped myself up so straight then that my spine hurt. My mind went still. Vacant. She nodded at me then, with what seemed, to me, a kind of satisfaction, and took up her steamy work again as if she'd never left off doing it, pressing down hard on the starched collars and cuffs of the dress shirts that had been delivered into her care, laundry she took in twice a week from other women more well-off than she was, married women and widows who brought her their washing and starching and pressing work which added another two or three dollars a week to the $57.00 Social Security check she lived on every month. Out of that meager portion, she paid her own rent, walked to the store and bought her coffee and meager groceries – the corn meal and sugar and eggs for the cornbread she'd make, the white ball of Coats & Clark's tatting thread, the thick cream for her morning coffee, the buttermilk and corn meal, the little bag of birdseed for her parakeet, Tony, one in a long line of parakeets she'd always named Tony – and her "smokes," her single carton of Winston cigarettes per month, her one and only vice if you don't count the True Confessions magazines stashed in a brown cardboard box under her bed, the box my mama found after my grandmother passed. I still recall with a kind of morbid delight the little gasp that escaped Mama before she pressed her hand to her sputtering mouth, and the look of horror that crossed her face when she opened the box flaps and found those hoarded back issues of True Confessions, embarrassed by the lurid titles – "He had his way with me and then went back to his wife" and "Pregnant and Unmarried: My Story" – and the only-slightly-provocative cover photos of young women in heavy, movie-starlet make-up, sporting some deep cleavage. She'd told me to take "that trash" to the trash where it belonged, meaning the dumpster at the end of the block.
All my grandmother's widowed neighbors had stood at their screened front doors or on their little porches as I'd made my way to the dumpster with the heavy box and they had called out to me in tender voices as I passed by, "How're you doing, baby?" and "How's your daddy and momma?" and "We sure do miss Fleecy around here."
~
It had surprised me a little, my grandmother's remark about Babylon. I didn’t think she even knew scripture, much less knew it well enough to be able to talk about Babylon as an allegory for Jacksonville, Florida, or for the larger South into which we'd both been born and had lived in all our lives. It had surprised me also because by then I knew how she had pretty much given up her own life in Louisiana, years before, to follow my young father to Jacksonville and, eventually, to help care for my brother and sister and me after our biological mother had packed up and left one afternoon, running off to chase her own dreams, though no one could guess what those were.
What about my grandmother's dreams? Surely, she'd had them. And I doubt they'd included the life she'd ended up with: leaving her sisters and mother in Shreveport, following her only son to the big city, care-taking her grandchildren, taking in ironing, living in a two-room subsidized apartment. Surely, she understood the cost of that decision in a way I couldn't yet imagine. And hadn't she once been a champion fiddler, winning awards, playing alongside some of the South's famous musicians? What had happened to that life, and when? When had she left the wildness in her and entered captivity in Babylon? What came to mind just then was the Old Testament scripture where the captive had written once, mournfully, "By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept, for thee, Zion." I knew what it meant to long for something, but you could hardly call my life a "captive" one. But my grandmother. She might know all about such a thing as being led away from home and lingering too long. And what part had I – or her love for me – played in all that?
I don't know now whether it was out of guilt or fear or just some recklessness in me that I inherited from her, but I did set out, almost immediately, following that flawed, sometimes-failed map my old dream had become. For almost twenty years, I followed and followed the changing routes along that map until I ended up in Alaska with my own four small children, in the golden heart of the last frontier, on my second marriage – a kinder marriage than the first – and still with little to show for all my journeying or my dreaming about writing.
It's curious to me that the way there – wherever "there" happens to be – is never as straight-forward as the traveler thinks it will be; it's almost always more of a long, convoluted meandering, or so it was with me, through the many tangled wildernesses of a life with children, life as a home-maker, life as an ordinary woman, life as a nurse, and that woman's not-so-ordinary life with – or without – husbands. For 8 of those years, I worked nights on the graveyard shift, tending to the wounded and sick and dying. During those 8 years, I surfaced like a strange creature each morning, from darkness into the day-lit world, and some mornings I didn't even recognize my own face in my mirror, much less be able to recall my old dream. I might even have lost that dream entirely for a while, so weary was I from the long days and nights of work on the hospital wards and raising children and keeping house and all they'd each required of me. What I had to show for that old dream wasn't much: an old trunk half-filled with daybooks and notebooks in which I had been faithfully writing down what I noticed, what I heard, what I felt and thought as I moved through the days and nights and days of my very ordinary life.


I’ve circled back to Alaska many times now, first Fairbanks, then Bethel, then stateside again to finish my BA and MFA, then back to Fairbanks again. This last move back to the "wilderness" was, ostensibly, for a more practical reason: to take a job teaching at the university, a job with attendant perquisites, like having a regular salary and medical benefits and a retirement plan. That was what I told myself and it was what I told anyone else who asked, back then, what had brought me to the "last frontier," because holding down a job is important. It buys you some freedom from worrying about how you'll eat or where you'll sleep or what contribution you will make to the world. It makes you, suddenly, visible. It makes you, suddenly, matter. I wish I had a nickel for each person who, over the years, looked at me with a kind of wonder or astonishment as I spoke in my heavily-accented drawl then asked me, What brought you all the way to Alaska?
I guess it just seemed simpler, cleaner somehow, or less complicated, to say that it was the job, the teaching that brought me to Alaska this time. As much as I like my work though, it isn’t really the work that brought me back here, and I can see that now. I could see it then, but I didn't yet have the courage – the "gumption" as my people call it – to tell anyone else the real reasons that I returned to Alaska over and over.
In those days, I could not have said aloud to anyone that I came back to Alaska again and again because something bigger than me is here in this place and I sense it, something more ancient than humanness, something inexplicable and, at times, terrifying. Solitude is deep here. The dead of winter is a still and, sometimes, lonely place: the physical world’s manifestation of the lyric moment. And about the time you grow accustomed to that isolation and quietude at the heart of a Fairbanks winter, summer staggers in with its chronic light. So much light.
There are things in Alaska that will run you down, things that will kill you and eat you and it won't be personal; it won't be anything beyond sheer animal hunger and need. There are things here that can do you in, in the blink of an eye: like losing your way in a snowy field in a night that's at -50 degrees; like the heat going out in the night while you sleep; like the drive to town for supplies or medicine in a winter white-out; like an avalanche; the snow covering the crevasse that you can fall into and not be found until spring; a week-long blizzard that buries the well-traveled road; the unexpected Chinook and the pond-ice cracking in places where, just hours before, you had firm footing; the upward heave of permafrost on a winter-slick road; the cold brakes that do not "catch" and the bull moose who has suddenly stepped into the icy road in front of you. And more. Much more.
How could I have explained to anyone that coming to Alaska means you acquire a staggering new sense of scale, that you suddenly see how small and fragile and brief even the largest life is, or that this is a place where you cannot avoid, for long, the stern and unyielding confrontation with your own failures and regrets. And any writer, any woman, who won’t do that – who won’t look steely-eyed at herself and at the more difficult and unnerving tendencies of people around her and of the disinterest of the “natural” world around her – well, that woman probably doesn’t have much to bring to the table, whatever that particular "table" is, whether work or friendship, whether teaching or marriage or writing.
Again tonight, my grandmother's warning comes to me from that long-ago day at the far other side of this continent: Linger too long in Babylon and you'll forget who you are.
It is simple, maybe too simple, in the larger literary and commerce centers of this country, to be seduced, to come to believe you are more, worth more, than you actually are. You can become convinced, by the contests and awards and books published, convinced by the honorary degrees and titles and endowed fellowships and the grants, convinced by the generous blurbs of more-famous writers, convinced by all of those things that you belong there, in Babylon, that you are one of its charter members, its citizen by birth and longing.
I have traveled a long way, in my life, to know who I am. It is, I am finding, a largely circuitous journey, from the deep South to the farthest north and to the South again. And back. When I go somewhere else for a long time, when who-I-am and who-I-am-becoming begin to slip from me again; when the glitter and glitz of Babylon has convinced me that I am not ordinary as rain, a simple woman – like so many others – trying to make sense of a complicated life; when whatever newest Babylon I have entered, actual or imagined, turns its bright lights and smoky mirrors on me and I begin to go invisible again; when the alabaster palaces and well-engineered monuments of that place shimmer before me, when that Babylon brings its great appetites to my doorstoop and sets its hungry look on me, then I come home, to Alaska, to pitch my small tent again in the shadow of something larger than myself. Larger even than Babylon. I come home again to something wild and intractable and far beyond the seductions of the modern kingdoms that can lay a writer to waste and then dump whatever remains of her at the curbside like Monday morning's trash.
It may well have been some unreasonable dream, some youthful fantasy, some "romance" of the last frontier, that brought me here all those years ago, but I suspect it’s the tidal pull of needing-to-be-true to whatever and whoever I am in my deep heart's core that has kept me circling here, to this one place I have come to think of as home, a home that I can return to, again and again – as easily as others return to the hometowns of their childhoods – coming home again to that solitariness in which I can live and write honestly, even in the first twilight of the Shadow of my own Unmaking that will step forward, wiping its hands on its apron, opening its arms to meet me, welcoming me home again, for good, one day in the not-so-distant future.


photo courtesy of photos.com, collection of Anne Caston