I am writing this in a school notebook whose puzzling name, printed on the front cover in large type, is Completion, with a sort of subtitle: “Take your fun where you can find it.” The notebook was made in Japan, which perhaps offers some explanation of why this peculiar title and subtitle have been joined in such an unlikely place.
I am in a place that is neither likely nor unlikely: a cabin on a pond in rural Vermont. I have come here to write in this notebook—for reasons that are even more mysterious than the notebook’s title. I can say with certainty, though, that I am sitting at a small, cheaply made table with fold-down aluminum legs, which an artist friend of mine bought thirty-five years ago, and if I part the curtains in front of me I will see the same view as I did around forty-five years ago when I sat in this very cabin writing poetry, two poems in particular (“Radio” and “Arrive by Pullman”). The pond made an appearance in the latter when rain started to fall. It rained earlier this morning as well, but now the sky is just an overcast gray. But weather is not what I had in mind when I thought of coming here to write in this notebook. I was thinking about . . . or rather I had an impulse to write about aloneness.
That word struck me as just right, but odd. Shouldn’t one say solitude? No, solitude is something else. In solitude you have no one around you. With aloneness you can have others around you or not. Solitude is usually good. Aloneness is usually not, at least in the way I’m thinking of it.
To be honest, my thoughts on the subject are vague. The one thing I do understand clearly is that being an only child has had such an all-encompassing effect on me that for most of my life I was unable to perceive that effect. Growing up, all I knew was that I was glad I didn’t have to share a room with anyone. My friends and classmates had brothers and sisters who were mostly annoying, to hear them tell of it. But as I have grown older, the impact of being an only child has revealed itself more deeply, and what I thought of as a privileged status has begun to feel like a deprivation.
Fortunately, I have a wife, a son, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, and a sister-in-law, as well as a number of friends, some for more than half a century. This takes the edge off my aloneness—the soothing effect of being with people I would give my life for. This deep bonding (let’s call it that, for want of a better word) . . .
I forgot what I was going to say! I do know that I was preparing myself to leap into the image of a man holding his head in his hands, not from fatigue or dismay or grief, but simply as a way of having the physical sensation of encircling his inner self, of locating it in the material world, for I believe, simplistically perhaps, that my self is centered in my head, or at least spends the great majority of its time there. By self I mean the conscious self, the one you can talk with, the one whose thoughts are in the words you think and are aware of thinking, and even in the semiconscious self, the one of half-sleep and intuition, of unexpected conceptual jumps and seemingly bizarre associations. It’s the self that appears on waking and fades out in sleep. In short, it’s the person you have to live with all day. You might like this person or you might not—which of course is very important for your every-day life—but either way you are stuck with being who you think you are, and though the identity of that person can evolve over time, the fact of its being there does not change, until you die. And after that . . .
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I have drawn aside the curtains and taken a glance at the pond. Its surface is absolutely still. In fact everything outside is immobile—trees, sky, air. The only things moving are my arm, hand, and pen, though from time to time I shift in my chair and take a swig from a small bottle of water.
What if suddenly I had no wife, no family at all? Such things have happened to people—I’m thinking of the Holocaust—and continue to happen—the Middle East. Or Middle America. Suddenly they’re gone. How do you manage to go on living? Clearly you could not be your “old” self anymore. But where do survivors find the strength to endure such violent revisions of reality? I can’t imagine being able to. I do not have the physical stamina, nor do I have the emotional strength, the strong self as an independent entity capable of not only surviving but also of taking some pleasure in life. I depend on those close to me, more than they know. Yes, yes, I’m a writer who is convinced that he is a writer, that it matters, and that the time I devote to it and not to my family is justifiable, but when I peel away my identity as a writer, a husband, a father, and so on, right down to the isolated creature that I fundamentally am, I turn away from that creature, unable to look into its sad, bewildered eyes that seem to be asking—aha!—the same eternal questions that arise in a sensitive adolescent: Why am I cursed with consciousness? Am I the result of a freak accident in the universe? Is the universe itself a freak accident? And why do I have a consciousness that presses these questions on me? Why can’t I be more like an ant, dutifully shuttling to and fro as part of a society in which the idea of anxiety does not exist? In fact no idea exists! Surely the universe would go on without ideas in it.
In my first year of college I read The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann. As I recall, he offered a psychological interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden: the expulsion of Adam and Eve symbolized the birth of higher consciousness, when humans separated themselves out from animals. Thus the triumph, however tenuous, of the conscious over the unconscious entailed a loss as well, the loss of innocence, that is, the loss of being an animal unaware of its own mortality, but also the loss of the bond with the other animals of the earth. Humanity had taken the first step toward isolating itself, and it would seem that we have taken many more steps in that direction, to the point that now we are isolating ourselves from one another. The final step would be to isolate ourselves from ourselves, in effect erasing our humanity. If you want to see that in a positive light, imagine it as a return to the Garden of Eden. Except that the Garden itself would be gone, too.
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Give a man pen and paper and he will obliterate the Garden of Eden!
I look out the window. Small ripples on the pond, fog in the treetops—was it there before? The day is ahead of me: things to do, things to think about doing, and whatever happens to come up. I will be normal, the way the person I am known to be is normal. I am by no means saying that this is a bad thing. After all, one cannot live entirely in an existential quandary. We need breakfast, too. And in the end who is to say that breakfast is less important than quandariness, or even that the two aren’t fundamentally the same thing in different forms? That is, you do what you do.
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Aside from a bit of amateur psychology, I have never been able to understand other people. That is, to grasp what drives them. Perhaps no one does, but what surprised me was how long it took me to realize that my knowledge of other people, even those I called my best friends, was superficial. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have gotten along with them so well, another reason being our deep affinities, despite our differences. Little did I suspect that as they died, one by one, they would take a little part of me with them, just as I kept part of them. Or so I believe. Perhaps this is simply a way of making their absence less . . . I was about to say painful, but empty is a better word for it. Outside the window the pond is only a few feet away, and I can’t help but see Joe on it again, floating around in the afternoon sun, his eyes closed as he goes into a deeper relaxation, the little floatation mattress under him slowly rotating and drifting. And suddenly they come back—Anne Kepler, Ted, and George, my mother and father, my grandparents—and I feel as if it is my fate to represent them, which I do, automatically, by being alive.
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And so we have the voice in our head, the one we think of as ours, the one we have listened to and even replied to since early childhood, when words became things and not just meaningless sounds. (“I can pick up that word and move it over there!”) And so, the dialogue that lasts a lifetime, the dialogue that sustains us no matter how tedious or repetitious it becomes.
Can you have a thought that is completely unlike any you’ve ever had? I don’t think I can. The words for it seem to be locked out of my head, where my consciousness is dashing around looking for something it can’t find—and doesn’t even know what it is. The day goes by, and late in the evening the mind assumes it has done its best and turns part of itself off for a while, leaving the other part to do whatever it does. I used to put great stock in that other part—the dream life— and I suppose I still do, but now the paradigm of conscious versus unconscious seems utterly simplistic. There is something beyond my concept of my own mind, beyond my sense of my self, but I do not know what it is.
A dragonfly hovered over the water’s surface for a moment, then sped on, as if with an absolute sense of purpose.
The new pine boards in this cabin smell good.
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If I sit and wait long enough, something will come to me. That’s a little like saying that if you stand long enough on a mountaintop during an electrical storm you will eventually be struck by lightning. And the light bulb above your head will explode!
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My penchant for comic book imagery comes partly from having immersed myself in comic books as a child, alone in my room but not really alone, since I was with my friends Daffy Duck, Little Lulu, Plastic Man, Sad Sack, and a host of others, all of whom lived in a world in which order prevailed and the colors were bright. Most other children were unpredictable, their eating habits strange, their clothes unmatched. Actually, all my friends were boys.
Girls were objects of attraction, glowing with vague, romantic auras. Aside from a tomboy cousin, I didn’t have a girl as a friend until I was in high school, and even she had been an object of attraction. Finally accepting that she was not going to return my full affection, I made a big adjustment that allowed her to be my friend, while all the time trying to figure out who she really was and what she wanted from life (and from me). I never succeeded in doing that, and when she died, at the age of twenty-three . . . I still see her as she was and for a moment I yearn to go inside her mind, and then I tell myself to stop wanting the impossible. Still, the urge does not go away, the urge to understand my dead friends and to go back and rescue them from the fate that took their lives. A classic case of regret, survivor guilt, or something worse! I should know better, and I do, but I don’t. Why do I subject myself to such yearning? Why can’t I be contented with looking out this window at the inverted reflection of tall pines and spruces, quavering on the water, the light blue-gray sky below them?
When written down, such a “poetic” image is at first pleasing, then mainly distracting, which makes me dislike it, though I like it out there on the pond, the “real” pond.
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Over the past several years I have been compiling a list of expressions that were common in my childhood but are very rarely heard these days, if at all. This morning I remembered another one, though not a particularly good example: Bats in the belfry. As a child I knew what it meant even before I learned what a belfry was.
It turns out that what I really miss are not the expressions themselves, but the contexts in which I heard them. I miss words like buckager, but what I miss even more is hearing my grandmother say it, and the living room in her home, with my grandpa tilted back a little in his recliner on a Saturday afternoon, stockinged feet elevated, and grandma in the doorway to the adjoining dining room, through which she came from the kitchen to join momentarily in the conversation, with Ernest Tubb or Bob Wills on the big brown console radio across the room, near the front door.
I still listen to the radio and I still like old-time country music, and sometimes when I pass by a mirror I catch a fleeting aspect of my grandfather’s face, so that in a sense all these things have not utterly vanished. But I am crazy (or juvenile) enough to want my real grandpa to still be there in his recliner, everything exactly the same for all eternity. In fact I want every moment of my life to still be there, the same, for eternity.
Perhaps an unconscious dependency on this yearning has kept me from making a greater effort to understand the people I have felt close to. What did my grandfather think about when he was alone? How did he feel about himself? Men of his time and class left very few records of such things. Even the diaries of rural and working-class people, kept, I think, mostly by women, often are made up of short, factual notations, such as “Cold and cloudy today. Helen visited.”
What’s that big ripple in the pond? Aha! The brown head of a beaver, cruising around, looking for what? Maybe it’s a muskrat—I don’t have my distance glasses. I look back up from the page. The head has disappeared. No, now it’s back, and I can see more of the body, a length of twelve to eighteen inches along the spine. It seems to be holding something white in its teeth, unless the white is its teeth. Now another critter comes gliding across the pond—a small duck that goes over to some water lilies and seems to be feeding on something there. Seeing animals like this always strikes me as a privilege—a reaction that rural people would find amusing, the way I stifled a laugh when a working-class rural friend of mine in his late seventies, visiting New York City for the first time and looking down from the top of the Empire State Building at the streets below, kept exclaiming, “Look at all those yellow taxicabs!”
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Who was it that used to say, “I got tired of hearing myself think”? (There must be people who would say the opposite: “I am very pleased to hear myself think.”) Being unable to get a song out of one’s head is aggravating, an extreme version of hearing oneself think in the same way too often. Maybe that’s part of my problem. Do you remember when someone would say to another person who was repeating himself or herself, “Hey, the needle’s stuck”? If you don’t know what a record player is, with the needle in its tone arm, then that expression will mean nothing to you. But then you probably use expressions that mean nothing to me. That’s the way the world is. However, we can make an effort to understand each other, even though we hardly understand ourselves. It is not given to us to understand everything, being swept along in the flow of life in which a million things are happening in and around us at every moment, and now sunlight falls across this page, as if making a cryptic comment on what I just wrote, like the fly that landed in the words of the poem “À la Santé” that Apollinaire was writing in jail. A few years later he was shuddering in the horrendous trenches in Champagne, bullets and artillery shells whizzing and exploding, poison gas drifting toward him, rotting corpses left and right. And here I sit, in a little cabin on a placid four-acre pond surrounded by pine trees, sunlight slanting through the window to my right, the only sound that of my pen scribbling away. What right do I have to bemoan my fate? The right that a spoiled only child assumes all too easily, virtually as a birthright.
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I took a peek at an earlier part of this writing: “To be honest, my thoughts on the subject are vague.” That sounds exactly like something I wrote fifty-seven years ago, at the age of fourteen. Perhaps I should get up from this chair and dust the windowsills. Or accept the fact that a fourteen-year-old boy occupies too large a space in my psyche.
He desperately wanted to be loved by a girl, a girl he was in love with, but it was not to be. A year or so later there was another girl, only this time I was not perplexed by her, I was fascinated by what I saw as the impenetrable depths of her soul. Again, my love was unrequited, but she did give me her companionship, and she said something that jolted me: “Why do you go by the name of Ronnie? You’re not a kid anymore. Ron sounds much more mature.” From that moment on I was Ron. Years later I considered using my legal name, Ronald, but it sounded too formal for the person I am, and I’m still not happy that I was named after the film star who went on to become president. For a moment just now I tried to imagine what it was like to be Ronald Reagan, but the vision of it was so disturbing that I stopped myself.
I’ve never wanted to be anyone else, but being satisfied with one’s own identity leads easily to a complacency about it, and though by my age it’s better to accept than to reject oneself, that doesn’t mean one should not be open to change. Staying open isn’t easy, but it seems like an optimistic thing to do, and optimism is something we could all use more of.
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I should be open to the idea that it is not a tragedy that writing in this notebook has brought me no closer to discovering what it was I might have been looking for, particularly since there is no way of knowing what it might have been. I came here not to find a pond, but in an odd way I did find one, one that I am happier than ever to be with. I found the newsawn pine smell of the cabin walls. I found quiet. And I found a kind of release, however temporary, from the urge to understand. Perhaps now I can dust these windowsills without feeling that it’s an evasion from doing something more meaningful. Perhaps I can now let the raindrops, which have started to fall into the pond, just be raindrops.
Excerpted from Big Cabin. Used with permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2019 by Ron Padgett.