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At fifty, Alix Kates Shulman left a city life dense with political activism, family, and literary community, and went to stay alone in a small cabin on an island off the Maine coast. Living without plumbing, electricity, or a telephone, she discovered in herself a new independence and a growing sense of oneness with the world that redefined her notions of waste, time, necessity, and pleasure. With wit, lyricism, and fearless honesty, Shulman describes a quest that speaks to us all: to build a new life of ...
At fifty, Alix Kates Shulman left a city life dense with political activism, family, and literary community, and went to stay alone in a small cabin on an island off the Maine coast. Living without plumbing, electricity, or a telephone, she discovered in herself a new independence and a growing sense of oneness with the world that redefined her notions of waste, time, necessity, and pleasure. With wit, lyricism, and fearless honesty, Shulman describes a quest that speaks to us all: to build a new life of creativity and spirituality, self-reliance and self-fulfillment.
On a windswept beach, in a cabin with no plumbing, power or telephone, Shulman found that she was learning to live all over again, discovering capacities for thought, feeling and sensual delight that she had never imagined. The author of the feminist novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen learned to integrate her new awareness into a busy, hectic life.
Drinking the Rain
THE tide is low, leaving a swath of damp, hard-packed sand as good as a dirt road for rolling my shopping cart along. Otherwise, the cartwheels would sink into the fine sand above the tide line or catch in the wrack, that dense tangle of seaweed, driftwood, shells, and debris that fringes the beach. The late-May sun is on its way down, spreading a vivid red glow across the sea and empty shore in starkest contrast to the life I've just left at the center of the continent's most worldly city. A city of eight million people speaking a combined total of eighty-nine human languages, of which I have command of one and a smattering of four. In this single day I've taken a journey encompassing subway, bus, jet, taxi, ferryboat, van, and finally shopping cart and my own two feet to wind up on a windswept beach at the tip of an island fifty minutes out to sea.
I've told everyone, myself included, I've come here alone for the summer to write. (By now my family understands how a writer needs solitude.) But secretly I already sense my excitement and fear are not about writing.
Halfway across the beach I stop at the point, face to the wind, to feel the ocean that circles the world crash at my feet. It seems prodigious, immense, far greater than the social forces that mold generations. As roar of subway yieldsto roar of surf, for a moment I want to hitch on to the ocean's force and coast.
But this is hardly a place for coasting. The cabin, perched by itself high on a green, rock-bound promontory known as the nubble, seems more like some piece of giant jetsam tossed up by an errant wave than the "charming vacation cottage" we touted in romantic ads when we occasionally rented it out. There's no plumbing, electricity, or heat in the cabin, no nearby neighbor, not even a road; the mail, picked up and delivered at a box on the other side of a tiny stream that separates this long beach from the nearest dirt road, takes a week to connect, and the island's only pay phone is half an hour's walk away, between the general store and the post office, near the ferry dock. That was fine for the brief family vacations we'd taken in years past, but my solo visit this summer is no vacation: I've come here not to vacate my life but to fill it.
NOT that my world seemed empty—if anything, it was more clogged than ever with busyness—but it had precipitously changed. This was in the early Eighties, years of glut and greed, when we who had come alive in one of the great liberation movements of the century, the liberation of women, watched helplessly as much that we had hoped to accomplish seemed to be arrested, forgotten, on the verge of being lost. The very word feminist, which we had rescued from the dungeon of ridicule where it had languished for decades, had been recaptured, bound, and gagged. Abortion rights had been steadily chipped away, violence spread, and the vision of equality that had inspired masses of us to organize in the Sixties and Seventies had been obscured by the alarming disparities between rich and poor, powerful and abused, that seemed only to increase with the passingyears. All around me I could see a new generation taking over, and history, which my generation had passionately tried to shape, following its own unpredictable course. The faces were new, and in the bookstores I was shocked to find the newest books written by authors whose names I didn't recognize on subjects I'd failed to consider; reading them, I wasn't sure how to understand them.
I felt the decline of the women's movement as a personal loss, for my own work had grown in its nourishing soil; in my mind the two were hardly separable. The books I'd written and published in the dozen years since my first story appeared in a feminist journal owed their inspiration, subjects, and audience to the movement; it was my experience as an activist that had inspired the confidence I'd needed to write in the first place and gave me the sense that my work might, in however small a way, have some significance for others.
But as the world grew unfamiliar, I began to lose my bearings. I was unnerved when scholars started coming around with their tape recorders to take down my women's movement memories, then write monographs and dissertations about the campaigns, quarrels, and factional splits I'd witnessed, reducing my generation of activists to history—both literally and in the cruel slang of the young. Not that those young historians in their tailored suits weren't respectful, but, despite all the usual signs of time passing, I hadn't expected to become a relic so soon.
The facts were, my children were suddenly grown and gone; my husband, their father, who worked in a distant city, was increasingly estranged from me; my parents, though still vigorous in their age, were becoming fragile; friends had begun to die, and acquaintances I hadn't seen in a long time sometimes failed to recognize me. To spare them embarrassment, I rushed to say my name as soon asI saw their puzzlement—or was it my own embarrassment I hoped to avert? I was entering my fifties, that ambiguous decade marking what's commonly considered in this country the beginning of the end for women. And though I had no less energy or vitality than before, every day it became clearer to me that the world which had grown young behind my back had a different view. More and more I found myself playing the number game: calculating how many years and decades had passed since certain events had occurred, noticing people's ages and achievements, comparing mine with theirs, theirs with mine, computing the proportion of my life I'd already lived and how much time might be left, feeling increasingly anachronistic, en route to obsolete, as, gradually, I became infected by the world's insidious opinion of aging women. I shuddered when I heard the names: old hen, biddy, little old lady in tennis shoes.
I was dismayed by these feelings, even ashamed, having always presumed that a good feminist would beat this rap. After so rewarding a life how unseemly was my anxiety—and I stubbornly fought it back. For years I'd been noticing how here and there some defiant one embraced fifty not as doom or disaster but as an opportunity, a staging area from which to begin an ascent. Approaching fifty Mother Jones, after losing her entire family to yellow fever, was reborn as a union organizer; at fifty the anarchist Emma Goldman was deported to the new Soviet Union where she hoped to help create the New Society; at fifty my friend Margaret F. left a bullying husband to become a midwife in a birthing commune in Mexico, and at fifty or so the famous Nearings moved from the city to Vermont to begin living the Good Life. Having like most women sensed the dire birthday coming from a long way off, I'd prudently prepared myself by vowing that I too would be reborn. Maybe this was just the compensatory fantasy of a politico whose movementhad come and gone, or of a novelist with the habit of conceiving lives as narratives with turning points, climaxes, epiphanies, each marked by its own chapter. A self-fulfilling prophecy? No doubt my conviction that I would begin a new chapter might help it come true. But whatever my conscious intent, underneath I knew that no conviction or resolve can exempt anyone from what's coming. Even as I battled my fears with frenetic bursts of activity, whenever I slowed down I knew I was unprepared. I had assumed I'd always have work that mattered, would never be alone, but now my complacency gave way to astonishment that this obsolescence was happening to me, alternating with sorrow and, when I lost the confidence to write, dread. More than a year had passed since my last book was published and I was still floundering over the new one. Worst of all, as I felt myself growing superfluous, the world I'd once loved so fiercely started to lose its savor.
A flock of sandpipers running at the edge of the waves lures me from the point. I count fourteen of them. I follow them along the beach toward the nubble, a high, two-acre peninsula that protrudes like a thumb from the island at the juncture of two beaches. Every few feet the sandpipers skim forward just beyond my approach, leaving me behind as I hope I have left the world.
BY the time I've lugged the cart through the dry sand across the nubble's neck up to the cabin steps I'm sweating. And apprehensive. Though there's nothing here worth stealing —the furnishings are mainly discards salvaged from the beach, the dump, or St. Joseph the Provider—I can't banish the image of the shambles that greeted us a dozen years before as we walked into the cabin: one of the main posts hacked and the hatchet gone, bloody Kotex smeared aroundthe floor, the fire extinguisher spent, the screen doors slashed, dishes broken, bullet holes through an eye and ear of the deer head mounted over the door. No one ever "claimed credit" for the trashing. Someone suggested the assault had been directed against Mat Burns, who built our cabin in 1965 and had enemies on the island; but I always wondered if it wasn't against us, the island's only Jews.
One flight up from the beach I retrieve hammer, crowbar, and wrench from their hiding place under the cabin and begin to open up. First I open the valve on the propane tank and close the one on the rain barrel, then I climb another flight to the deck and pry off the winter boards covering the windows and doors and heave them down below, where tomorrow I'll stack them. Taking a breather, I lean on the railing to survey the double sweep of beach in the fading light and wonder why it has taken me so many years to get here by myself. And why I seldom came alone with just the children either, though they love this beach and we could have spent our summers here, since I'm a writer and, unlike my husband, not bound to an office.
Because I was afraid. Afraid not only of assault but afraid that hidden away I would be effaced, forgotten.
By everyone I knew, but especially by my husband, who I was convinced would lose no time finding a replacement for me, temporary or otherwise. Afraid that if I slackened my pace for a moment I would be pushed off the road and left behind while the race went surging by. Having created around me in New York City a little world of which I was naturally the center, I dared not risk going to the periphery, where I might easily slip off the edge—as if the center of my life could somehow be outside myself; as if I needed to be witnessed to be real. So I had come here only for occasional family weekends with a houseful of city guests and,clinging stubbornly to the city, joined my voice to the rest who proclaim that a day away from New York is a day lost.
Staring at the empty beach I realize that, except for one month in Europe twenty-five years ago when I left my husband to travel by myself, I've rarely been alone for more than a few days in my entire life. Home, college, marriage, children ... the woman's story of my class and generation. And pretty much of my mother's before me. And during that single month in Europe I panicked, asking myself incessantly: What are you doing here? What will become of you?
INSIDE, everything's just as we left it the summer before —floors swept, hearth clean, dishes stacked on the open shelves, a jar of dried flowers atop the great twelve-sided table that dominates the room, constructed by a proto-hippie carpenter friend from the wooden back of an abandoned truck and set upon four upturned elephantine logs. The pink Victorian piano, retrieved long ago from the island dump where a church had deposited it for recycling, is closed. Shells on the windowsills, Stevie's monster drawings on the wall. All silent, familiar, undisturbed.
I crank open the casements, replace the glass with screens in two of the eight storm doors, and go into action—check the radio and flashlight batteries, light the gas lamps and stove, reassemble the creaky pump that draws water into the sink from the rain barrel below the deck, and settle down on the floor with a box of kitchen matches to light the temperamental gas fridge. My husband, Jerry, who always took charge of the equipment, said I'd never manage this by myself. But half a box later the fridge is going, and I grab a bucket and dash down the two flights of outside stairsto collect kindling on the empty beach below while there's still light. Not the long South Beach I just came over but a secret beach hidden from the world unless you come by sea. Singing Sand Beach, it's called on the charts, and kicking off my sneakers I skid along barefoot to make it sing its eerie song, high and faint as the peep of a newly hatched chick, but steady, like a pennywhistle. A mixture of salt and iodine fills my nostrils as I suck in draughts of chilly air and fill my bucket with driftwood faggots. Most are too gorgeous to burn: a knot like an eye, burl like a wave, a forked branch like the bottom of a cowboy wearing chaps. Tentatively I divide them into burners and savers, remembering that until my first winter stay at an artists' colony eight years before I didn't know how to build a fire. And that leads me back to my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Armstrong, who officially dismissed the girls in his classes from the lessons on building motors since, he said, a boy could always build one for them.
Back in the cabin, watching the waves break on the rocks that a child long ago named Dedgers, I remember how, at other, earlier times, in the first hushed moments inside with everything simple and serene, I'd have an intimation of what might be possible here. But then the chores would begin, the whooping children would change into their swimsuits, guests would bounce on their cots, someone would mention food—and all fragile possibilities would fizzle in the fun. Fifteen years' worth of family visits to this nubble can do nothing to counter my sense that this is my first time—no more than years of reluctant sex can taint the newness of love.
AS soon as I blow out the candle and snuggle down under two sleeping bags the night fears fly in—those fears I'dpooh-poohed when voiced by city guests but can't help heeding now that I'm alone: leaking gas that may explode, embers flying up the chimney to ignite the roof, accidents, illness, lightning, hurricanes, tidal waves, the deadly nightshade surrounding the cabin, beasts, rodents, and worst of all that roaming slasher who, one moonlit night, seeing a humble shack set high on a lonely point, will walk across the beach, climb the stairs, throw open the door, and slash us all to death. I've been expecting him for years. His gruesome crimes are reported daily on the news, and every woman who ever came here from the city to visit inquired if I was not afraid of him. In the city one escapes him in crowded streets and behind bolted doors, but in an isolated cabin with latches like toothpicks there's nothing to hold him back. For comfort I lift the baseball bat Jerry keeps as a weapon beside the bed, though I'll never dare use it. Some slashers, I try to console myself, seem to prefer a mob: dormsful of nurses, extended families of eight or ten, a busload. When I switch on the radio in search of soothing music, the main effect is simply to muffle the outside sounds, so I quickly snap it off and focus my attention on each rattle and creak until I'm unable to tell if the pounding in my ears is the surf, the slasher's footsteps, or my own thumping heart.
It's a long time before I fall asleep.
TAP, tap, tap. My lurching heart jolts me awake. Gaudy sun-drenched morning fills my eyes, adrenaline charges through my veins, diamonds on the water, loud tapping at the window. Someone trying to get in? I jackknife up in bed, peer out. Nothing. Another window, then? Tap, tap, tap.
Then it strikes me: this sharp repeated rap is no human sound but that of some creature who preceded me here,oblivious of my arrival. I've awakened in a country where I'm a mere visitor. All receptive and curious, eager to see the inhabitants and begin to sample the culture and cuisine, but humble, too, like any visitor who doesn't know the language.
I steal out of bed and creep stealthily to the main room for an unimpeded look at the row of windows. A small buff-and-yellow bird is ferociously attacking the glass, then retreating to the railing opposite until it has recovered sufficient strength to hurl itself once more against the glass, attacking with repeated exhausting thrusts of its sharp beak. I watch, riveted. It's dark above, white underneath, about four or five inches long, with bright yellow patches on its head and rump. One of those birds we indifferently called songbirds which always flitted through the dense brush of flowering shrubs and weeds between the bayberry bushes and the apple tree. But I have a field guide that could tell me exactly what it is and perhaps why it's so furiously attacking the window. I memorize its features and inch my way toward the bookshelf. Too quickly, too soon: the bird is gone before I can reach the book.
For a solid week I startle awake each dawn to the bird's mad assault upon the window, scattering my dreams. And though I soon identify it as a myrtle warbler, one of many living peacefully among the song sparrows and finches inhabiting the brush between here and the apple tree, I have no idea why it wants to break into the house. To reach a phantom nest? To peck out the eyes of its own reflection? To harass me off its property? But going to sleep at night wondering if the bird will be attacking the window in the morning does take the edge off hypothetical attacks, and by the day the bird stops coming, releasing me to walk straight past the window to the sink to prime the pump and fill the kettle, the slasher has moved from the center of my fantasiesto a dark place beneath the cabin. Now only occasionally—especially when the wind is up—I think I hear him move about or knock a board as he bides his time.
I intended to get down to work immediately, knowing how dangerous are unscheduled days, how fragile self-imposed plans. Facing the vast expanse of an entire summer alone, aware of the same nervous tick of time that had always dogged me in the city—that nagging countdown, time, money, achievement—I was ready to invoke the god of discipline. I knew well enough how I ought to proceed: arrange my papers, review what I'd written so far, and begin—as I'd done each time I'd gone to an artists' colony, where my efficiency had always doubled or tripled simply because I was out of New York.
New York: where the calendar is full for weeks on end and no sooner does one month pass than another is beckoning with its stimulating meetings, panels, symposia; where every day the post brings fresh announcements from the Events Committee, invitations from sponsors of urgent causes, stirring appeals, public statements to be signed and supported; where visiting writers and new exiles arrive each week needing to be heard; where documentaries and retrospectives beckon to their limited runs. Not to mention the manuscripts, galleys, advance copies of new books begging to be blurbed or reviewed, the urgent conversations with friends.
My activist soul once welcomed the stuffed mailbox and ringing phone as opportunities, despite my writerly need for solitude. But as the women's movement faded, revealing that the world we had hoped to change now would always need changing, they began to feel more like distractions and intrusions enforced by threats of guilt. Theprice of a full life seemed to be a cluttered life until finally, as I began to understand that such duties and pleasures could never be fulfilled in my lifetime, I stuffed a suitcase, put a hold on my mail, and walked away, as if for a coveted month of work at the MacDowell Colony, where the single inviolable rule is that no one may ever visit your studio without an invitation. Only, here, at my colony, there's no breakfast waiting when I wake up, no staff to prepare and serve candlelit dinners or silently deliver lunch in a picnic basket to my doorstep or pile firewood and kindling unbidden on my porch, and after a hard day's work no evening concert in a library or literary conversation over dinner, no community, friendship, or lover. Here for company there'll be nothing but books, a small portable radio, and myself.
This nubble retreat is more pared down than any I have gone to before, even more than the Millay Colony where four years ago my family dropped me off for one month with nothing but a small bag of clothes and a portable typewriter. How terrified I was when we drove up the mountain in the Berkshires to find only a big empty barn and snow-covered fields and no one to greet me. How different from the civilized MacDowell. I searched through the barn. Four sparsely furnished rooms, all empty, all freezing, two with beds, two with desks, and an unfinished bathroom with a plastic shower stall. There were supposed to be three artists at this colony, but only two beds? The only sign of life was some mouse turds in a bureau drawer. Maybe I had the wrong month, the wrong mountain. "Wait!" I cried, running outside as I heard Jerry start up the car. "Don't leave me here alone!" I tried to smile but I was only half joking —like the time when, at nine, I hitchhiked back home after the first night of summer camp, pretending I was above it all, but actually unbearably homesick. I held on to the cardoor and would probably have thrown my bags and typewriter back in the trunk, climbed into the front seat, and gone straight home if Stevie and Amy hadn't been there to witness my example. After all, my children were about to spend the entire month of May without a mother, possibly a more traumatic dislocation than my own, and I had already kissed them goodbye. So I let them go, and I calmed down, and eventually two more artists did show up, a poet with whom I shared the barn and a painter who slept and worked behind the kitchen in another building where we all ate together and consoled each other in our loneliness, and by the end of the month spring had flowered on that mountain and we had become friends. But there were three of us—plus the director of the place and the vivacious, sociable Norma Millay, aged sister of the poet, who sometimes invited us to lunch and if coaxed gave dramatic readings of her sister's poems in her gravelly sonorous voice, explaining a line here, telling a story there, relentlessly lighting another cigarette with her wrinkled hands, tossing back her long still-golden hair as if she were once again, as in the Twenties, back on stage at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street, one of the celebrated Millay sisters, toast of Greenwich Village, burning the candle at both ends. There were three of us then, but here my colony has only one visitor, myself, who also doubles for staff.
Then to work! I arrange my papers in an orderly fashion on my driftwood desk and sharpen my pencils, as I always do. But instead of sitting down to work, I do something I've never done before. I take the saw from its hook, search through the woodbox for a few slim boards, and saw several makeshift bookshelves for the books and papers I've mailed up ahead of me. It's tough going; I have no experience or technique. But I want those shelves, so I persist. When I'mdone the shelves are a bit uneven, but they please me all the same. I wedge them between the wall studs and nail them in.
I still don't sit down to work. Instead I gather up all the books in the cabin to order and rearrange. Which means making still more shelves—searching the woodbox, woodshed, and beach for the right boards, sawing them to size, nailing them in place, admiring them. And once I've organized the books, I rearrange the other shelves with their shells, rocks, food.
Now when the sun streams into my bed at dawn my energy propels me not to my desk, as it did in the city, but to the kitchen, the deck, the storeroom, the beach, the woods—anywhere, it seems, but my desk.
This is something new. Haven't I come here to work? I'm a writer; writing is what I do. For a dozen years, despite teaching, political work, and mothering, scarcely a day has passed that I have not set pen to paper to express my mind or heart. My files are stuffed with my imaginings, published and unpublished. Notebooks filled margin to margin with my tiny scrawl spill out of the desk drawers. Cartons of my papers and notes rest in an Ohio attic. The thousands of books in my library bear on their flyleaves and in their margins traces of my thoughts. When I'm not writing—that is, when no pen is in hand or keyboard under my fingertips—I'm likely to be musing, mulling, meditating, composing—with writing instruments never out of reach. I chew up pencils. I spit out my dreams, faithfully recording them in the dream book I keep beside my bed, so that even in the middle of the night every waking moment can be spent at productive work. Pens and pencils are everywhere, beside the bed, on each table, in ajar in the kitchen among the spices, piled on the desk and in all the drawers. In every coat and jacket pocket, stuffing all my purses and in thepockets of my traveling bags are writing instruments, notebooks, scribbled scraps of paper.
Perhaps I need some time to settle in before I can begin to write. And for the first time ever, I allow myself the reckless thought that it may not matter if I write or not: with no one here to judge me, discovering what exactly I will do may be a more interesting project than writing a book.
I sit on the deck, bundled up against the breeze, shelling the tiny young beach peas I've just gathered to augment my lunch. A gray gull carries some sea creature high up over the beach, drops it from its beak. I stop to watch. Even before the splat, the gull shapes its wings into a parachute and drops straight down to eat the scattered remains.
And what will send me soaring and plunging? I want to avoid contaminating the answer by imposing my will but simply watch patiently and see. I'm prepared to slow down, wait, even stop—whatever it takes to get a true reading. Into my mind pops an image from an old Betty Grable movie in which a silly chorus girl who keeps her body in constant motion is transformed from a nervous striver into a dreamy torch singer when the hero, just before the curtain goes up, handcuffs her to the stage set and forces her to stand still. I have five or six months before the winter chases me away. Five or six months to slow down and learn to sing.
Slowing down and standing still—dreaded symptoms of age. But old is a moving target, receding like the horizon as you approach it. "A socially constructed disease with an adolescent onset," in the witty formulation of M. M. Gullette. I'd felt it coming on at twenty-five—"a quarter of a century old," I'd lamented then. Yet now, looking back onthis adventure from the vantage point of sixty, fifty seems young—too young for the heavy weight I piled on it, only slightly less young than my mother considered it from the vantage of nearly eighty. The "perfect" age, she'd pronounced it—"young enough to have your full powers, but old enough to know."
To know what? Maybe if I slow down enough I'll find out.
Another gull swoops down and begins to hector the first one for its food. After a little noisy back and forth, the first one picks up its catch and flies off to a nearby rock to eat it undisturbed.
THAT night, for the first time since my arrival I dream a long-familiar recurring dream. In it I open a hidden door at the back of a closet or next to the refrigerator or behind the bed in my crowded life and climb a secret stairway to a whole new wing or floor known only to me. It is furnished with everything I might ever need and there are always rooms to spare. Rooms for each of the children, a study for me, a game room, a music room, a rec room, guest rooms, pantries, kitchen, library, hallways, hidden rooms, and rooms off rooms. All empty, except for me. How, I wonder, could I not have known (or remembered) it was here. I wander from room to room, filled with secret delight.
This dream is so familiar that sometimes, even in my sleep, I recognize as I discover the door that I'm about to enter it, and everything seems possible. The rooms are always surprising, different from one dream to the next. Sometimes they peel off a long, dark corridor to the right and left. Sometimes they surround a high-ceilinged ballroom with crystal chandeliers. Occasionally they give onto a wide balcony that overlooks the sea. No matter—the pleasureI feel as I settle in for the dream is invariably the same: astonishment, sweet joy, contentment.
What do I do there in my rooms before I descend the stairs, return through the door, and wake? What do I do? At first I just walk from room to room, amazed. At the luxury of so much empty space, at my unbelievable luck. Then, after the initial surprise, for as long as I can make the dream last I am simply there.
A violent thunderstorm wakes me. It goes on for an hour, sending rapid strobes of light across the bed where I lie under my sleeping bags; it shakes the rafters with thunderclaps, cracking across the sky like an overseer wielding a brutal whip, whipping up the sea.
At first I concentrate my fears on fire, reliving all the nights I've lain there figuring out escape routes, picturing each of the children as a casualty, trying to remember how to activate the fire extinguisher. No doubt this wooden structure, built out of driftwood beams, rough-sawn timber, used windows and doors, cheap Masonite floors, sitting high on a bluff, is a lightning rod and firetrap—and no water supply, no phone to summon help, not even a road for a fire truck to race across. But with no children to protect, I soon drop my guard and walk to the window where I stand watching silver waves crash against the rocks of Dedgers as lightning rips open the sky.
The storm shakes me, like the scare that shook me up a year ago, tearing me from the commonplace. An acute attack of dizziness while doing my sit-ups. I remember staggering to bed, but the room continued to spin, leaving me nauseated and frightened. Next day the doctor prescribed small yellow pills for vertigo. Two weeks later the dizziness was still there, and after a month the world still looked likean underwater cave through which I was rapidly floating on a spiraling moving stair. After doing all I could to deny whatever it was, after abandoning the yellow pills as ineffective, after reconstructing the fall that had raised a red plum on my bleeding head, there seemed to be no more possibility of waking from this fantasy turned nightmare. I can still see the doctor slowly shaking his trim little beard as he invited me from the examining room into his office and wrote on a prescription pad like a death sentence the name of the specialist to whom he was handing me over for "a complete neurological workup." All at once my numberless days were numbered. I looked at the address: a hospital way uptown, near the Bronx.
As soon as I was out of the doctor's office and back on the windy street I had two simultaneous, competing thoughts, one glum, one giddy: first, I have been sentenced to spend my few remaining days riding the subway back and forth between the two ends of Manhattan; second, I needn't finish writing my recalcitrant book but am free to do anything I choose.
I shoved the address in my coat pocket and turned homeward. I had to phone my husband, warn my parents. The children? At the thought of them, tears started to my eyes and joined the wind to blind me. I brushed them away, held out my hands: cold but steady. Heartbeat: normal. I seemed to be feeling ... nothing, or nothing I might be expected to feel. Was this self-observation a reflex of terror—some deep denial of the inevitable?
Denial never works. Hadn't I always secretly known this moment would come? Yes, I always knew, trembled each time I read Everyman, studied Tolstoy and Eliot, Goethe and Woolf, gave up cigarettes, caffeine, cholesterol, panicked on highways and shuddered in small planes. I dreaded the ocean, feared dogs, dishonor, and drunks. Always readyto knock on wood, throw salt over my shoulder, bite my tongue, cross my fingers. Why then had I done nothing to prepare (fear is not preparation but the opposite), living my lives profligately as if there would always be another about to be born, as if life were an unlimited resource to be spent and spent? Suddenly the time was up. The lives I'd lived had piled up behind me into a messy heap and blown away like a giant tumbleweed: children grown, friends, mostly young, oblivious of death, and my aged parents—how could I burden them with the untimely funeral of their youngest child?
Alone with this possible death of mine, alone with a straight shot at the end, I had to decide what to do. Should I rush out to fulfill my obligations? cling to what I had? project myself onto the living through last wishes and legal instruments? settle my debts? dash to finish my manuscript or in a fling of liberation burn what I had? Or should I throw off all restraints and strike out on my own?
Like everyone, I'd often played at guessing what I'd do if suddenly told:
—you have just won a million dollars
—you are banished to a desert island and may take with you a single book
—you have ten months left to live
but it no longer felt like a game. I reread the address where the brain scans were to be run and decided that if I had only a limited time left on earth I would not spend it in a subway riding back and forth to a hospital.
For the first time the image of the hospital itself entered my thoughts. The hospital, that sterile stinking fluorescent hell where you've dreaded even to visit, much less reside, knowing you'd be captive not only of bureaucrats and doctors but of every unwanted relative you avoided in your arrogant immortal days but now must helplessly watch pushthrough the door smiling, gloating, glowing with health. They lean close, breathing in your face, bringing hateful sweets and flowers and every boring story and futile bit of advice you have anticipated or already heard when you need to be alone to think. And leading the pack of them, your husband, with whom you had worked out a livable arrangement, spending most of your time apart, but whose directorial presence, now that you are captive, is intolerable. Admit it at last, even though he is father to your children. Admit it, at the price of being rudely remembered: entertaining with a smile is not the way to exit from this world, even if the uninvited guests are your own family with their ancient claims on you.
Away, away, away! Is the mileage in my frequent-flyer account enough to carry me away before it's too late? (If not, may I will my miles, or must I take them unused to the grave?) I remember the places where it was said one could go to have the baby during pregnancy scares of half a world ago—the only solution short of suicide. How soothing was the thought of anonymity in a strange city where you could stay long enough after the birth to get back your shape—the same city where, reputedly, you could leave behind snippings of your old nose and emerge a new person. But not, apparently, pieces of a damaged brain.
I think of my friend Toby, who confided to me on the morning before his triple-bypass surgery: "I've learned two major things from my heart attack. The first one is, if I survive this surgery I'll never rush again. The second is this, I'm going to show my love as often as I can."
Like Toby, I recovered from my death scare, but not until it had sounded a warning that I heeded with a different vow. Though not so dire as some people's warnings—no open-heart surgery or HIV—the virus I survived was nonetheless frightening enough to remember even after I woke up oneday to find that the shaky vertiginous sea I'd been wobbling through had gone out like a tide as unexpectedly as it had come, leaving me solidly back on terra firma. With my new footing I climbed to the highest point in sight and from there surveyed the past and future as far as I could see. My sickness had improved my vision by several degrees, making me less nearsighted in one eye, less farsighted in the other. And what I saw was this: you only have one life, which, though brief, is long enough if you use it well. I vowed to find out how.
The storm ends as abruptly as it began. An arc of light marks the rim of white beach where the waves peter out; the roar subsides, the night turns calm. Although the moon is concealed behind a cloud, three lighthouses spaced like sentries on the black horizon join the lowing foghorns to protect the island and its invisible sleeping inhabitants. I feel their presence from my high lookout. Even this isolated nubble, all but enclosed by a circle of silver waves like a child in utero, seems protected from every possible assault; and when the moon comes rolling back into full view like a benediction, I feel somehow purged and safe.
Back in the bedroom I pick up the bat from beside my bed, carry it out on the back deck, and with both hands heave it onto the woodpile. There it lies in the moonlight, benign as any other log on the heap. After grappling with death, what worse is there to fear? If one day I should hear the slasher's slow, booted step on the stair, perhaps I'll suggest a cup of tea and try to get the story of his life.
Copyright © 1995 by Alix Kates Shulman
Posted May 1, 2012
Posted March 13, 2009
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Posted November 20, 2008
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Posted April 21, 2012
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