It was a long time ago, perhaps thirty-five years, perhaps thirty-six. I was in the Twin Cities, single, living in a house in the Loring Park area of Minneapolis. It was an old sandstone home whose bedrooms were rented individually. Renters shared a common kitchen, bathroom and living room, but were otherwise unknown to each other. I taught dance at a nearby studio. The work paid very little, but paid enough to buy groceries and make rent. I walked to work in the mid-morning and walked home late at night.
My aim for life had not been this. To be honest, I’m not sure what my aim had been — the specifics, my life’s direction charted out in my adolescence, were grand, but lacked detail. This is so unlike me now. I understand now that to have a plan is to possess direction. I understand that direction is a necessary compass point, even if the route changes, even if another direction is ultimately chosen. Direction is my anchor. It reminds me to wake each day with eyes open to life’s possibilities. It reminds me that I am not alone in this life, but that I am life, a particle among particles, responsible to myself, responsible to the whole.
But this is an adult recognition. For me adolescence was as Theodore Roethke wrote in his poem Meditations of an Old Woman —
So much of adolescence is an ill-defined dying,
An intolerable waiting,
A longing for another place and time,
And so it was for me in adolescence. I was going to be a great writer. I longed to live in Paris; I would be like Hemingway and drink coffees and eat oranges as I wrote great works in dark corner cafes. And I would meet famous characters– Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse. Or I would travel across the United States as had John Steinbeck with his dog Charlie chronicling stories of the people and places met. In my adolescence, I determined this would be my life’s trajectory. How I would do it was vague. That I must do it made the intolerable waiting less intolerable.
In my early twenties, I found myself in St. Paul-Minneapolis. I wrote on weekends, pushing the keys of my mother’s old Smith Corona portable typewriter, sending off short stories to great publications, retrieving them in their self-stamped-self-addressed return envelopes, rejected as was appropriate. As yet I had nothing worth saying. As yet I lacked a voice. I lacked real-world experience.
I am an old woman now. My thoughts are old-woman’s thoughts. I am from another place and time. My experiences are unknown to many; indeed they cannot be known. The touch stones of my generation have passed — Greyhound bus rides, black and white televisions, transistor radios, eight-track cassette players, Readers’ Digest, the requisite set of Encyclopedia Britannica, Woolworth’s five & dime, Kodak film, box cameras.
It has been thirty-five years since I lived in the Twin Cities. It’s been forty years since the intolerableness of my adolescence. I no longer think of greatness. Hemingway’s stories were written long ago by Hemingway. Gertrude Stein has passed. My thoughts now trail back not to the Twin Cities, but to an earlier time – to the sweetness of reading a book in the mulberry tree, hiking through hayfields, walking railroad tracks with my brother Doug, riding the pony in early spring.
Stepping outside this morning, I saw heavy dew on the July wheat. I heard the kingbirds in the trees. I felt the promised heat of the coming day. Caught in that moment, I reflected on my childhood and Roethke’s words —
There are times when reality comes closer:
In a field, in the actual air,
I stepped carefully, like a new-shod horse,
A raw tumultuous girl
Making my way over wet stones.
And then I ran —
Ran ahead of myself,
Across a field, into a little wood.
It’s been thirty-five years or more since I lived in the Twin Cities. Gone are the grand illusions of my adolescence, replaced now in old age by a reality formed in my earliest years, a knowledge more felt at that time than intellectually understood. I am all that is: I am not alone in this life, but am life, a particle among particles, responsible to myself, responsible to the whole.
I am benign in my own company.
A shape without a shade, or almost none,
I hum in pure vibration, like a saw…
My shadow steadies in the shifting stream;
I live in the air; the long light is my home;
I dare caress the stones, the field my friend;
A light wind rises: I become the wind.
Theodore Roethke, “Meditations of an Old Woman.” Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975), 156.