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Paths of Desire

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

When Walt Disney designed Disneyland, he looked to see where people walked before committing those paths to concrete. Frank Lloyd Wright followed much the same principle. And today in Finland, land planners visit parks after the first snowfall of the year to best determine their layout of paths.

Otherwise paths will present themselves organically. Wikipedia states that “as few as 15 passages over a site can be enough to create a distinct trail, the existence of which then attracts further use.” Whether it is in pursuit a short cut or a wandering at whim, ‘paths of desire’ emerge as people make their own way across the meadows, fields, parks, and median strips in parking lots of their lives.

Our feet go where they’d like, so to speak.

But not my mother’s. Given a choice, she did not trample on the grass. She did not question the rules. What my mother always desired, it seemed, were paved walks in life.

What did she think of us, I wonder? Did she think us all anarchists? I never asked her. Now I wish I had.

But I will tell you that only a few years ago I had the pleasure of walking a labyrinth path with her. We were on Orcas Island and the labyrinth garden at Emmanuel Episcopal Parish church in Eastsound presented itself. Labyrinths were originally designed by churches, primarily Episcopal, as a way to get parishioners back into the fold. How clever is that?

Walking the labyrinth appealed to us both and the church yard was all ours for half the afternoon. Over and over we walked the singular path in silence to the center, and out again. I found it calming, hypnotic, —a moving meditation.

I think I began to understand her patience that day.

Perhaps that was it, all those years. My mother had found that in following a path that presented no navigational challenges, like our labyrinth, she could find her own thoughts.

I am going to go with that.

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Into the Hut

Gertrude Stein did it in her Model T Ford while her partner, Alice, drove the car. Virginia Woolf did it standing up. Saul Bellow stood up as well. Whereas, James Joyce preferred to lie on his stomach in bed.

Nude and cold, Benjamin Franklin did it in a dry bathtub. Agatha Christie, a bathtub filled with warm water.

E.B. White did it in a boathouse on a saltwater farm in Maine. Rita Dove, by candlelight in a cabin. And Annie Dillard, in a tent pitched in her yard on Cape Cod.

Where writers write.

What are the chances? Two friends on two coasts, landing in their respective writing huts. But that is just what is happening.

Dulcie's cabinHers in Maine

Kim's hut Water

Mine on San Juan Island, Washington

In his introduction to Jill Krementz’s photographic book, The Writer’s Desk, John Updike notes “… the requirement of any writing space is that it disappear from the mind’s eye of the inhabitant, to be replaced, by the verbal vistas of poetry and prose.”

Apparently some of us build it so it can disappear.

For me, “a hut in the woods” had always been hypothetical. Nevertheless I coveted it, the proverbial writing hut. What a formidable writer I might be, I thought, if I only had a hut in the woods!

So much more than a room of one’s own, it’s a little house of one’s own.

My friend’s hut is still under construction. “The shell is done and it is insulated now from top to bottom,” she wrote last month. “But it’s still sitting beside my house waiting for walls and flooring and electricity and a bed and a fireplace and a water pitcher and a coffee pot and, well you get the picture.”

I recently asked for an update, but of course everything in Maine is frozen in place and under four or five feet of snow. I learned that she has another site in mind for her hut. Note: my friend’s hut has a gender and it’s a “she.”

“She did not make it to her pond destination before the snows descended upon us. So there she waits, very quiet, for spring thaw. She still has a lighted tree on her porch, like a twinkle in her eye, waiting for the next chapter of life to unfold.”

“So do I,” adds my friend.

My hut sits in an old growth forest at the edge of a bay. Both of us will have water views, water sounds, and water fowl.

My hut came with the house, as a shed. The old shed got a new roof, hardwood floors, French doors, new windows, electricity, insulation, cedar shingle siding, tongue and groove pine ceiling, beaded board walls. More than I ever dreamt.

I had hoped to keep the oars that were up in the rafters, but I lost the rafters when we insulated the ceiling.

And I too wanted to bring a daybed into my writing hut, but an overflow of living room furniture bumped the daybed. To make up for the missing daybed, we put an Aerobed in the hut’s loft, sleeping double.

With a settee, a pair of upholstered French chairs, and a small marble topped coffeetable on guilded legs, my hut looks like a salon. The antique pine table that our family once dined at morning, noon and night is now my writing table. A dresser holds my papers. And books, books, books are piled on an enormous baker’s rack and in a glass-fronted legal bookcase I found in a thrift store on island for forty dollars.

Investments in my writing life are starting to stack up. The MFA at Goddard, attending various writers conferences, a travel writing workshop in Tuscany, and now this. I don’t know how my friend in Maine is going to feel when her hut is up and running, but I am a little afraid of it.

In part, because it is so much more than I, or anyone, needed. And in part, because writing is hard work.

“Our task as we sit (or stand or lie) is to rise above the setting, with its comforts and distractions,” explains John Updike, “into a relationship with our ideal reader, who wishes from us nothing but the fruits of our best instincts, most honest inklings, and firmest persuasions.”

John Cheever, who wrote in a room looking into a wood, liked to imagine that his readers were out there, in that forest.

From my hut in the San Juan Islands to her hut in Maine, we are not alone.

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Daylight Savings: What I Did with the Hour Lost

Friday Harbor

Daylight savings happened and I have to wonder, whatever did I do with the hour lost? Where’d it go? I know where I was at the time. Driving on I 5 in relentless rain. The monotony of gray. A day as dark as night. Four lanes of cars spraying like a battalion of power boats. Hypnotic windshield wipers. Well what I did with that hour while driving was nothing less than to re-imagine my life.

We were meeting a friend for lunch that day in Blaine, Washington, where he keeps a cabin. Blaine is in Whatcom County and the northernmost town in the state of Washington. Our friend lives in an apartment in Vancouver B.C. and comes to the cabin every chance he gets. He has been doing this for years. There he has guest rooms for his children and grandchildren, a vegetable garden, and a 36’ sailboat in the marina.

Never mind that his cabin is a doublewide, it looked like the good life to me.

In the darkness of winter it is difficult for us to believe we will ever come out of it. It is almost like Whoville. You would hardly know we are here. Though our candles glow like Northern lights, we lose sight of it too and start to wonder.

For our friend in Vancouver, the biggest draw to Blaine is the sun. Between the cities of Vancouver and Seattle there exists an intricate pattern of microclimates, some of which are blessed with a hundred more days of sunshine per year. I know of pilots who have identified Ocean Shores, Washington from the air, and vowed to retire there. For us it would be in The San Juan Islands. We spend a lot of time on I 5.

In that hour lost I flipped the whole equation mentally, and re-imagined our life from the islands. It struck me as clear: turn everything around and live there. Live, love, write, and worship my new god, Ra.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner

2-country-road-sunset

 “After all my time on this earth, I was becoming the person I was meant to be.” Donald L. Brown

I am not in the habit of inviting authors on book tour to my home for dinner, but if I were, our life would be more interesting. Nevertheless, I took this step after hearing Donald Brown promote his book, The Morphine Dream, in Seattle a few weeks ago. Having written a memoir of my own, I consider it good form to support other memoirists. And this man’s story is extraordinary.

It is hard to know where to begin with him. As a high school dropout, former Marine, and washed-up professional athlete, Don suffered an on-the-job industrial forklift accident in 1980 that subjected him to multiple surgeries for “severe internal derangement of the knee” and years of confinement to a wheelchair. Clearly his life had changed, and somehow he would have to take matters into his own hands.

Don’s orthopedic surgeon advised him, “Go back to school. You have a fine mind. Put it to work for yourself. It’s time to rely on your intellect, not your body. Put the energy and passion you’ve always had during your athletic career to work for your mind.”

By reading and listening to motivational books and tapes, Don turned his stay at Boston’s New England Baptist Hospital into an opportunity to repurpose his life. “Where do you want to be in five years?” one tape asked him, and Don noted “Harvard Law School” on a pad of paper. Next, the motivational tape asked him where he would like to be in ten years, and despite the fact that physicians had told him he might never walk again, Don wrote down “Walking U.S.A.”

Fueled by morphine for the pain, “I was sky-high,” Brown said. “I was flying.”

“Hospitalization was good for me,” recalls Don. “I had come to realize that my athletic career had been a result of incredibly hard work and focus. I knew I had to get engaged in a new future and work as hard as I did to be a professional athlete.”

In this way Don accomplished each of his goals. From a GED to community college to transfer into Amherst College, Don landed in the Harvard Law School of his dreams. Then in 1997, following graduation, “overweight, over fifty, a diabetic, and…. lucky to be walking at all,” averaging 41 miles per day, Don made the 5,004 mile trek across the continent in 137 days. Starting at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square and taking the northern route, he completed his journey by coming over Stevens Pass in Washington, and walking on down the coast through Oregon, Northern California and Big Sur, reaching his destination in San Simeon with the Pacific Ocean before him.

“I didn’t even bother to take off my shoes. I simply walked right in,” writes Don.

His method for turning dreams into actuality was always a carefully formulated plan of execution. While attending community college he distinguished himself by sitting front and center in lecture halls and winning every student award he could. At Amherst—still wheelchair bound—Don moved into a dorm the summer before starting “to figure out how to navigate the hills and dales of the campus, get my syllabi and books, meet my professors, and, most importantly, start reading.” From the start, Don told everyone he met at Amherst of his goal of attending Harvard Law School.

Likewise with the walk, “I knew when I departed Boston that if I could make it through the first two weeks, I would complete the entire journey.” It was a mental challenge as much as anything. Don divided each day’s walk into four ten mile walks in his head, considered crossing state lines a powerful motivator, and basically “realized I must push on, or else the notion of quitting when things got tough would rule the walk.”

Long distance walker Rob Sweetgall had taught him that “if I completed an arduous and lengthy walk one day, and then repeated it the next day without difficulty, I’d be prepared for that distance—regularly.”

Well, what could we say to that? Before us stood a man who in his life had learned so much about himself, tested it, and it held. I’m sure we squirmed a little in our chairs, then made every effort to buy the book.

That is when I invited him to dinner. What I recognized right away was his effectiveness in all things–something he hadn’t even mentioned was the writing of the book and its publication, no easy feat, I know. And at the end of the evening, at his request, Don Brown went off with a copy of my manuscript, the memoir I mentioned.

Shhh…. He is reading it now.

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