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The empty house

The last couple of days have blown through my life, bringing some fresh air and new perspective on my current state of affairs.

ticking clockIt’s no secret that I’ve been having problems lately. Inertia makes my feet heavy and my mind dull. The lethargy and cynicism that comes with age has, perhaps, caught up to me. Getting out of bed in the morning has become a feat of engineering. How do I hoist myself from the prone position to that of an upstanding family man?

Formerly, when I found my life too claustrophobic, when it became a burden I didn’t look forward to, I would do something to change my life. At 22, my life hit the end of the road. Donning a backpack and heading for the “continent” to live for a year and a half transformed my life from unending drudgery to something that had light in it. A few years later, sobering up started a lifelong experiment in recreating and maintaining a human being. When life in a regular job became onerous and deadly, I put my stuff in storage and walked to Montana and canoed home on the Missouri River.

Since then, there’s been two-month-long trips wandering around out West, numerous weekends and weeks in the Missouri hardwoods far from civilization, and a smattering of disappearances that, in the end, refreshed me for the work ahead. I took about five years to pursue a doctorate, another journey but one much different than that in time and space.

Now’s about the time I feel the need to put on a backpack and walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, retracing the steps of one of my favorite books, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Fermor was 18 or 19 when he made that trip in 1933. What would it be like for an aging American, some life-long ne’er-do-well, to make the same trip?

That would blow life wide open, give me a project and something to write about. My services, attention, and care, however, are demanded at home. How do I solve the conundrum? I know what will loose me from my creative prison. I know that walking out the door into the world will give myself something to write about. But it will be a couple of years before I can do that. I have a 14 year old. I have to be dad and husband. Right now, I don’t have the luxury of blowing out the detritus of life with a long trip, alone and without support.

Yesterday and today were slow days. I made no demands on myself and did no more than just was required of me. I woke easily and hoisted myself out of bed to start a day where the most strenuous labors were that of a nap and a three-mile walk with the dogs. I wrote but did not touch my manuscript. My agent search went unattended to. I went to bed at a decent hour last night. I’ve been reading a book about the fascinating history and development of concrete.

Nick made plans to spend the afternoon and early evening with a friend. After I dropped him off, I ate a hearty lunch with my good friend Stan and came home for a nap. Virginia left for work at 6 p.m. I have had the place to myself since. Then, Nick texted to see if he could stay out late with his friend and his friend’s family. Perfect.

It turns out that time alone at home has given me a little breath of something that smells sweet and freed my fingers to do what they were meant to do. It’s funny, too. I spend a lot of time alone. I can be at home with those other people and have the whole day to myself. It’s not the same, however, as having them out of the house. No one can ask me a question, interrupt my reading, or distract me from writing.

An empty house makes all the difference. The clocks tick, and there’s nothing that says peace and quiet like them. Sadie the dog gets up and turns around to lay down again. Molly, the other dog, huffs and whines in her sleep. Her legs twitch. She’s likely chasing the rabbit we saw in the school yard earlier.

I can hear people outside firing off their fireworks in advance of the holiday tomorrow. We won’t have any rest. The neighborhood will erupt in glad tidings and pyromania about sunset. They will continue well into the night. A low fog of smoke will hang under the redbud trees in the parkland across the street from our house.

In this moment of quiet, I think about all the things I could have done. At first, it makes me angry that I couldn’t do more, that I have great potentialities I have not yet explored. Did I waste a couple of days or were they days of rest and regeneration? Were these days just pieces of the creative process?

I just re-watched The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou the other night. A 52-year-old oceanographer (played by Bill Muuray) has not produced a hit documentary in nine years. His subsequent films are increasingly less energetic. His aging ship needs work. He finds motivation lacking. He has a sort of melancholy that reminds me, at the age of 53, of myself. At one point he muses, “What happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever gonna be good again? I don’t know.” It’s only the motivation to take revenge on a mythical being that ate his friend Esteban that keeps him going. He finds the “jaguar shark,” the thing he wants to destroy, is a beautiful creature.

I suppose I need to find my jaguar shark. But for now, just a few minutes alone, seems to be enough. That shark is out there. I will find it. It’ll have to be another day.

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