In the Style section of the New York Times today I read about a group of folks living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. There are pictures of their composting toilet, hand pump at the well, rudimentary kitchen spaces and blackened wood stoves. Everything about them is familiar, the colors they choose to wear, the worn out elbows of a sweater, chipped black fingernail polish and choppy home haircuts. It is impossible for me to imagine how these people and their spaces seem to someone who has never been there, has never been them. I am so close to them that I laugh out loud, “The style section?”. I am glad to see this in the style section, it is confusing and funny and right. It is a lifestyle and it has its markers, a mix of work clothes and thrift store sweaters and some felted wool something or other. Layers and vests and multi pocket pants, good wool socks, boots, but mostly its an inimitable look to the face, in the eyes, something clear. I miss them and I don’t even know them, these strangers in the Style section, looking out from a slightly sideways vantage. I wonder how they feel about the article when they see it. They seem a little shy in front of the photographer. I don’t blame them, there is a bit of paranoia that accompanies this lifestyle, a self protection and an insider outsider dynamic that the article does not address or even make mention of. But why would it, it is the style section, and substantive consideration of what gives the style its form, texture, or tone is often glossed over. Subcultures like these are often depicted from great distances, that seems ok some of the time. The photos in the piece are terrific and I am pretty sure the article presented this more as a lifestyle piece than a Style piece, but it still makes me smile, shake my head a little bit.
I left a long time ago now. That hasn’t been my life or style in over a decade. I have been here in the city for as long as I lived out in the bush, out in the hills, out in the country, out in the woods, away, away. It is true that I miss that lifestyle in ways I never thought I would. Little freedoms, pissing in the wind, ass out in the woods, just pissing on the ground- that is strangely a big one. Also I am missing all the stars, the plants that need tending, the garden full of food to pick and eat, berries in the woods, mushrooms, making big pots of tea, chopping fire wood, making dinner for a crowd, pans full of mushy vegan slop. It was tiresome, it was a lot of work, and then so is this life in the city.
This longing to return to the woods is so suspicious to me though, tied up in strawflowers and clay, a bucket swinging, a walk up a hill, stillness, startled bird flight, tall grass, moon light and a hatchet, a shovel and a spade. How can I long for this half remembered life, these bits and pieces? The leaping and arching romance that sparks and blazes into my tired urban heart is something I have learned to mistrust, it is an escape fantasy, I know what it is. I am not going to believe this lonely song anymore, “the thing is better elsewhere, life is easier, more complete, la la la la la…” , it is a refrain, I sang it when I lived in the woods and I sing it now in the city.
Longing is a thing unto itself, it has its own scent, texture, taste, it is full of itself and is fine to witness and even to swim about in, but it is duplicitous and manipulative and would keep me constantly dissatisfied if I heeded its call all the time. The longing calls me away into fantasy, a distraction to the work of remembering and of writing and of making a new world with my words. I have to put myself in this chair because I need to call up this story more completely than I have. Longing drives me to write and keeps me from writing, so I have learned to be so careful with this thing. All I can do is watch- the shape that the longing takes, the speed at which it travels, the ferocity of its claims. I watch now, the ideas I was so enamored with have begun to come apart. A process of decay and of break down that I will let happen, I will just watch. If I can, I will just watch. The words are the story and I will tell it to you.