The Marrow of Childhood

The Soul’s Superior instants Occur to Her—alone—

When friend—

and Earth’s occasion

Have infinite withdrawn—

Emily Dickinson

Carey-Burrows Island Circa 1958
Carey-Burrows Island
Circa 1958

It has been said that writing can be lonely work.   After all, it requires solitary hours, days, weeks, months, years in order to produce a body of work, improve your craft, understand what it is you want or need to write about.

It demands large volumes of time not spent in the company of others, which many will neither understand or support.

One of the greatest gifts I received in childhood was the freedom to be alone.  I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the Pacific Northwest, where my small family of  four followed the wake of my father’s Coast Guard career.

We lived on the western edges of Oregon and Washington, docking in rural places like Garibaldi, Charleston, Burrows Island, Port Orford, Port Townsend, Anacortes and Florence. By the time I was twelve I had lived at three Light House Stations, which by their very nature were even more isolated than the small fishing and lumber towns I called home.

I was never anti-social or lacking in friends, but had the good fortune to occupy a landscape that allowed for frequent solitude, in an age where parents didn’t track their children’s every move by GPS, but instead yelled “be home for dinner”,  just before we collectively slammed back doors, and headed out on cool mornings for adventures of our own making.

As a young girl, I saddled up my horse after school and rode the forest trails or empty stretches of windy beach or rural roads alone.  When not on horseback, I would explore by foot, by bike or by boat, places with names like Seven Devils Road, Bastendorff Beach, Cape Arago, Davey Jones Locker, South Slough, Sunset Beach, Mercer Lake.  I was as content with a friend as without one.

I spent hours along the shoreline alone, digging razor clams with my bare hands, poking my index finger into purple anemone’s which hung from the pilings at the boat basin, chasing seagulls, untangling slippery knots of bull kelp and whipping letters in the sand, picking up sand dollars from the lagoon, and if we were lucky (and in those days we were) finding a Japanese glass float.  In the woods I made forts of fir boughs, ate thimbleberries and salmonberries, listened to the crows caw caw caw and drew pictures with dry sticks on the white fungi I kicked off the sides of downed trees.

On my way to becoming an adult, (work, college, children, marriage) I lost track of the restorative and contemplative gift of solitude.  I willingly gave it over to other needs of my own making; the need to finish college, to advance in my career, to have children, to travel, to have a clean house, to, to, to.

What I didn’t do for most of my adulthood was carve out a place in my life to dream— that place I lived when I would wander or play alone as a child, a place I now make for myself when I walk or write, so those “intervals of dreaming (that) help us stand up under days of work”, can exist,  as so aptly understood by Pablo Neruda in Memoirs.

Joyce Carol Oates in The Faith Of  A Writer, Life, Craft, Art writes: “There are two primary influences in a writer’s life:  those influences that come so early in childhood, they seem to soak into the very marrow of our bones and to condition our interpretation of the universe thereafter; and those that come a little later, when we are old enough to exercise some control of our environment and our response to it, and have begun to be aware not only of the emotional power but the strategies of art.”

It has taken me 40 years to understand those early childhood marrow soaking influences that Oates refers to.  It has taken me 40 years to fully understand how my childhood went off the tracks with the train wreck of my parents divorce.  It has taken 40 years to finally arrive at a place where I am able, through the mere act of writing, to “exercise some control over my environment and my response to it.”

To me the lonely part of writing is not being alone.  Alone I feel comfortable, alone I create, alone I dig deep inside myself and excavate memories, feelings, and experiences in order to understand my place in the world.  Loneliness for me is not having a voice.

I wonder now if my childhood comfort and need to be alone, was my soul saving a place for itself?  A place that would always be there, when I finally allowed myself the quiet to remember.

And in the quiet, I can still see that young girl.  Her sense of awe as sunlight filtered through the fir and pine branches above her as she walked the moist needle laden trails behind her house, the sense of freedom she had as she galloped down a salty brine of  beach, her acute awareness of the natural world, blissfully not obscured by the chatter of conversation.

Through stillness, I have returned to that first true trail,  bravely taken up my pen, and have begun to understand what I’ve been homesick for.

Yours in poetry,