I have a fat two volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary here in my study and I sometimes stop what I’m working on to let myself play at words. One game is to open a volume at random and plunk my finger down on whatever word and consider that a sort of good fortune for the day ahead. Seri. A member of a N. American Indian people of Tiburon Island and the adjacent region of NW Mexico. Or suberin. An impermeable waxy polyester of fatty acids found in the cell walls of corky tissues. There could be a story there about plane-wrecked botanist wandering an island and discovering a new plant species, a miracle cure. It could happen.
I love wandering.
Like you, I wandered the shelves of libraries when I was a kid. Because I was an odd child, not allowed to play outside much, not having friends until I was in seventh grade or so, I took out stacks of books. I read everything I could get my hands on. Books too old for me, so the librarian at Paul Sawyier Public Library told me when I wanted to read Moby Dick when I was in fifth grade. Books that puzzled me. What DID that scarlet letter on the front of Hester Prynne’s dress mean? But my greatest loves were dog books. Hero dogs who saved children and whole families and found their ways home again after years and years lost in a nameless, war-torn place. Horse books like Misty or Stormy. Books about farms or jungles and lost tribes and women who spoke the language of birds. Here’s the narrator of W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions: Have you ever observed a humming-bird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers–a living prismatic gem that changes its color with every change of position? Books and their magic, I truly believe, saved me.
Unlike you, I wasn’t terrible at school. I was focused. I zoomed in. I memorized and excelled and crashed and burned if I didn’t. At home, I was punished if I made a C in a class or if I got an unsatisfactory in conduct (which I often did) for whispering too much or for sharing my homework with others. I was the cat-eyed nerd who clung to the sidelines during gym class and prayed no one would call on me to volley a ball or do a cart wheel, but get me in front of a spelling test or a quiz on Huckleberry Finn and, boy howdy, I was your girl.
All this changed in high school, as you know, since I was hell for leather for a long while (and I’ll let you re-read my memoir Surrendered Child on that count). Suffice to say that I was a runaway and devotee of acid and whatever else I could get my hands on, but this is not to say that I didn’t still focus. Nights, at the cash register at McDonald’s, I excelled, whipped my way through ringing up lines of french-fry and Quarter-pounder buyers. And I still dreamed Big Books. Once, in some apartment I rented, a would-be boyfriend left a note tucked into the back of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. What, he wanted to know, was I doing reading this shit? Just who did I think I was, anyway? Like you, I thought there was something the matter with me. I set out to read and read and read to prove my own self-worth.
After all these years of degreed reality—college and graduate school and PhD land and more—I still believe that learning, reading deeply, is a rich and amazing experience. Look for the heart of the work at hand, I tell writers in a workshop. What is the work about at its deepest core? Find the center, and follow the revision from there. And, unlike you, I don’t put books aside easily, even if I’m dragging my heels in the pages. Some books, for me, are hard work in their journey, as are some people, and I hold on tight to sometimes complicated ends.
But somewhere along this journey of words and books and Interpretation of The Text, I can see myself leaving behind the thing I love most. Wandering. Whoa, the OED definitions on that one. Traveling from place to place without a fixed route or destination. Aimlessly roaming. Of a celestial body. Of a rod, river, lying in an irregularly bending line. Meandering. Roving. Deviating.
I see myself wandering when I was in my thirties. Two years of roads and mountains, countries and deserts, rivers and byways and even a jungle or three. My then lover and I hitchhiked and picked kiwi’s and stowed away from Ireland to Greece, from Australia to India. I see myself walking across this enormous plane, holding the hand of a little boy, son of a sheepherder we met while we were walking from Pokhara to Muktinath in the north of Nepal. I had no idea what day it was, no idea what month we’d go home again, or if I even wanted to do so.
Not five years after that, I found myself standing in a bathroom in a house I rented with this woman, another grad student, in Athens, Georgia. We threw big and chaotic parties, that housemate and I, but I was back to being focused. I was back to reading books and books and books, this time from a whopping reading list for my doctorate in American Literature, from Early to Modern to Contemporary. I was standing in the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, my sinuses, as my aunt would have said back in Eastern Kentucky, a’killin’ me. My orals were due in three days and I still had five million books to read and I was so, so tired. I picked up the nasal decongestant out of the medicine cabinet and promptly and distractedly sprayed myself in my ears. Did I hear any better? I’m not sure I did.
The point of this story-letter, Nancy, has wandered from where I began. Wandering. The OED gives me some fabulous terms. Wandering sailor. Wandering star. Wandering hands. Wandering fire. Wandering cell. My favorite definition: a journey, a life, characterized by wandering. Once at an art colony I met a woman who painted enormous, vibrant, wall size canvases. Was there, she asked, a story inside the paint? She just began with color, she said. An area of oil paint and she reached inside and began to move her hands around and see what shape was there.
My point is that I am no longer sure that a planned trajectory of learning, of reading books or even teaching them is the only life for the writer. This scares me some days. Who am I without a reading list? Without a degree or plan or maybe even without a word at all I can define in any one way. Another word in the long definition of “wander” is the word troubadour, with the female version of that word being trobairitz. To wander, making song. I would add to that definition. To wander, living stories. Summoning stories. Conjuring them. Or listening to them deeply. I think of you, listening to the slave narratives told via WPA interviews and summoning them into the pages of your stories. I think of telling the stories of other lives, via essays. Birthmothers, like myself.
Back when I was in my thirties and wandering all those miles, my feet hurt and my shoulders ached but I was the strongest I’ve ever been. My feet found earth. In my backpack, I had just a book or two. Some romance novel I found in a guest house somewhere. A copy of John Fowles, The Magus, that I’d found in a Paris thrift store and refused to part with, mostly because I loved the title. Magus. Magus. The world then summoned gods and sorcery, magic and maybe. I miss that.