It’s a cliche to say that life is a journey. But it is. Sometimes the way ahead is straight and clear and well-traveled–plenty of mile markers and traffic signs. Sometimes we reach an intersection and we don’t know which road to take. And sometimes (like right now, for instance) the road just seems to disappear. If you feel that way, I understand. It happened to me.
For twenty years, I had been on one road, until I reached an intersection between my academic career and—what? I didn’t know. I had taken a year’s unpaid leave of absence from my university faculty position and had to decide whether to return. The week before my decision was due, I went camping alone in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was early November and the park was empty, the campgrounds closed to all but primitive camping, the water and electricity turned off in the restrooms. The afternoon air was chilly, the evening air, cold. The sun, when it shone, was a pale, water-color silver in a sky brushed with haze. I pitched my small tent in a deserted campground and watched autumn die into winter.
As I watched, I wrote in my journal about the distance I had traveled: from graduate school through the teaching years, the administrative appointments, the pushing, striving, achieving in what was then still a man’s profession. I had taken a leave because I had the feeling that it might be time to end that part of the journey. But was I ready to give up the exhileration of career success, the challenge of juggling dozens of tasks successfully, the reliable paychecks? If recognition and promotion no longer motivated me, what did? And practically: if I didn’t teach, how would I make a living? As I wrote in my journal, the questions became clearer and more stark. What lay ahead? A cold time, a desolate time, without the stimulation of work and career? A time of being lost, with no road map to any destination I could manage?
Unable to look ahead, I could only look around. At a brown squirrel eating an acorn as jauntily as a small boy enjoying corn on the cob. At a fat black bear stuffing berries into his mouth with both paws while I admired him from the safety of my car. At brown corduroy leaves, pewter-colored skies, the glaze of stream-spray on a granite rock. I wrote all this in my journal. I wrote about the world around me and the world inside me. I wrote about my fears, about being lost with no maps in an unknown territory. I wrote it so I would never forget how it felt to be lost.
And as I sat in the doorway of my tent, writing and watching the mountain ready itself for winter, I became aware that my own rhythms were changing. I was here in these mountains because I had arrived at a point in my journey when it was time to mark time, not spend it. When it was time to do one thing with attention—watch a squirrel, follow the fall of a leaf—rather than everything at once. What I saw around me—a withdrawal of energies, a turning from the bright exuberance of summer to the darker solitude of winter—was also inside me, and what was inside me was everywhere around me.
The next morning, I woke to the first snowfall, a blanket of unblemished brilliance covering the browns and grays, the fallen leaves, the skeletal trees. I started s fire and brewed coffee in my blue enamel pot. It was time to leave the mountains and go home. But the I who returned to Texas was not the I who had left. It had been that kind of a journey.
We are ordinary people, living through an extraordinary time. Each of us, individually and all of us, all together–we have reached an intersection. The world ahead of us is not the world we have left behind. What you are doing this month, this week, today, has never been done before. Staying home to keep yourself and your community healthy. Closing your business because the governor said you had to. Working from home because your employer closed the office. Keeping the kids home from school because there is no school. Separating yourself from friends and family but trying to stay connected via the internet, which may be more fragile than we like to think. It’s all new. New and different and frightening. It’s time to look around. And inside.
So at this remarkable intersection we have reached together, here is my suggestion to you. Find a journal you like to write in and a pen that fits your hand–or open a file on your computer. Open a page, look around, and write about what you see. Your home, a stack of books or a pile of laundry, a street or a green space, the clan you’re sharing your home with, or an animal companion. Write it down. Write what you did today and what you’ll do tomorrow. Write how you feel about it–hate it, love it, fear it, embrace it. Write how you’d like to change it, or keep it that way forever. It’s never been written before, not the way you’re writing it.
And as you write, remember this. What you’re writing is your story of an utterly unique and bewildering time for all of us. But it’s also our story, because we’re all in it together. Write it. Write it down, write it now, so you won’t forget.
P.S.You can find other thoughts about journaling and story making in Writing From Life. All of the proceeds from this book go directly to the Story Circle Network, a nonprofit support network for women who write about their lives and the lives of other women.