The Volkswagen people tell me I've driven more than a million miles--in Volkswagens alone. Prior to buying my first one, I also drove two Volvos and a Saab.
Except for a few excursions into Canada, all those miles have been in the United States. For almost all those miles, I have been the only person in the car.
Four cats and a dog accompanied me from Pennsylvania to Washington, three thousand miles, when I retired from three decades of college-teaching and returned to my home state of Washington.
Six days, six nights--in almost complete silence--just looking at the land between our two coasts--across Pennsylvania via Interstate 80, across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington. I-90 to I-5, across Mercer Island during rush hour , from the far right lane to the far left to make the turn, towing my Volkswagen behind a Ryder Truck, with all the cats and the dog in the truck cab with me, to a new life.
What did I know, about the students here, about their lives, their families, their schools?
My front yard
I was fifty-four when I retired from thirty-one years of college-teaching in Pennsylvania. I had always wanted to live somewhere near Hood Canal, the westernmost part of Puget Sound. (It's not a canal, really. It's a fjord, carved out by glaciers at least ten thousand years ago. It comes down from the northern edge of the state , easing past Quilcene, and Brinnon, and Hoodsport, where , thanks to a second glacier, it makes a sharp curve to the east, and then northeast again, until it ends in the Union River estuary near Belfair).
The peninsula it curves around there is the Tahuya Peninsula, which-- consists mostly of a state forest, with small lakes scattered here and there among the trees.
It was at one of these tiny lakes that I found a tiny cabin for sale. My bedroom there was the attic. Except in the center, you couldn't stand up there without hitting your head on the ceiling.
Downstairs there was a living room with a free-standing fireplace, and a small kitchen wth a small dinng area. There was room in the bathroom for a washer and dryer. There was a deck on the front of the cabin, with a narrow extension along one side, just large enough to fit a ladder, so you could clean the evergreen needles out of the gutter.
Eight hundred fifty square feet, counting the attic.
The house was surrounded by evergreens--Douglas Fir--sixty to eighty years old, maybe--older, at least, than I was. The sky was somewhere up there above them. You could see small patches of blue, or,
more often, gray, way up there.
I thought this was ideal.
The lake was down at the end of my road a block or so. Properties on the steep slopes across from me bordered on the lake. Except for the small cabin next door, all I could see from my windows was more Douglas Fir trees,
Peaceful," I thought. "Quiet." My road dead-ended at the lake a block away. Only three other families lived there year-round--all older couples, without children. It was rare to hear a car pass. My mailbox was half a block away, part of a happazard line of others, at the nearest intersection.
"How peaceful and beautiful it is here," I thought. "I think I'll take a walk on the highway and see if I can see the Olympics from here!"
"Oh! Yes! I can! How nice! No traffic to speak of, no trash alongside the road, no service stations, no fast food places, no box stores! It's just perfect! Thoreau himself would like this!"
So I walked along the highway--maybe five miles--five days in a row. It was lovely.
But, every day, one of the few cars that passed me would slow down as it approached .The driver would roll down the passenger window and
lean toward me to call out, "Are you all right, lady?"
Every day, for the first four days, I grinned, and cheerfully answered, "Oh, I'm fine ! THANK YOU!!"
As the pattern continued, though, I began to wonder why it existed. So, on the fifth day, I walked over to the car, and asked, "Excuse me! But why is everyboy concerned about my safety out here?"
"Oh!" the driver of the fifth car said, "You must not be from aroun d here. All these dirt roads along here lead to a meth lab. If you needed help out here, there's absolutely nowhere to get it!"
"I had no idea," I said.
"If I were you," the driver said, "I'd go over to Belfair and walk the trail at the Theler Wetlands. It's a well-traveled loop trail, about three miles round trip. People of all ages use it!"
I thanked him. "I'll do that!" I said.
And so I did, from then on. I never walked the road near my cabin again. I've drivern it, though--many times. Rarely, even now, long after I've moved to another part of Puget Sound, do I see a car in that area. I was there today, in fact. I saw one motorcycle, coming out of a dirt side road, and two motorcycles waiting for me to pass them at the junction of the main road with the North Shore road, another remote, rarely traveled road in that area.
Not everyone, I remind myself, repeatedly, seeks solitude for the same reason I do. But --why is that? For a seventy-five-year-old former English professor, with several advan ced degrees, I'm still pretty naive.
I prefer naivete, actually. I kind of envy Thoreau, out there at Walden Pond. He encountered quite a variety of people out there, in his two years at the pond. But he never encountered anyone with a drug problem. He felt sorry for the farmers carrying, as he said, all their material possessions, all their daily work, on their backs, metaphorically speaking.
There's a lot of chronic poverty here, in this beautiful area. Everywhere you look, you see shabbiness-- homes, garages, shops, , cast-off rusted automobiles, trashed mobile homes, open to rain, and wind, and fire, litter strewn across grass that hasn't been mowed in weeks, maybe years,. The state highways and county roads and even driveways are lined with soda cans, beer cans, and bottles, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, drinking straws, sometimes even used diapers,, plastic buckets, cigarette packages, cigarette butts by the thousand.
When I ask people, they tell me, almost nonchalantly, "Oh, people don't care!"
Did Walden Pond, in the eighteen hundreds have so many hopeless people? If Thoreau were here, in western Washington, now, what would he say--or think--or assume. Or DO?
"The mass of men," he said, "lead lives of quiet desperation"--in the country or the city.
If that's true, when--and how--does that process start?
I spoke with someone at the Department of Transportation about this recently--about the symptoms, and about how we might recognize them sooner.
"Oh," he said. "We have to prioritize--deal with the most dangerous . Safety is what we care about--thngs that present a danger to the public. Trash is not high on our list. "
So many symptoms of despair. Who IS responsible for despair, anyway?
Remember Emily Dickinson's line: "He preached upon 'breadth' till it argued him narrow,--/The broad are too broad to define?"
I think we are all too broad to define. Maybe it's partly because we forget more every day than we remember.
We select. But how? And what? And why?
I don't know. I can't even speak for myself! And I surely can't speak for other people. Can't speak deeply and broadly enough, anyway.
Of course that doesn't stop me from trying.
My mother used to watch "Queen For a Day." Sometmes, when I was home sick, lying in my bed upstairs, I would hear the program host booming out downstairs in the living room: "Would YOU like to be QUEEN for a DAY?"
(You know how the program went: five or six women would take turns telling the sad and painful stories of their lives, and the audience would applaud. An applause meter indicated who had the most applause--which is to say, the saddest, most painful story, and that person would then become "queen for a day." She would receive a washer and dryer, and a gift certificate from the Spiegel Catalog, and then, I guess, go home and have some more sad and painful days and years.
I would tiptoe downstairs to get a glass of water, and there would be my mom, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, sobbing.
Of course, I would say, "What's the matter, Mom?"
She would say, her voice broken by her sobs, "I think I should be Queen For a Day! My life is worse than any of those lives!"
And then tears would come to MY eyes, because--well, because I thought her miserable life must somehow be my fault for having been born.
No, don't laugh! I know that's ludicrous, sort of. It's just that my father used to say that a lot in the years after I moved across the country to become a college professor. He would say, "If it hadn't been for you, I could have had a nice camera too!" Or, "If it hadn't been for you, I could have gone to college and become a star football player, and played for Ohio State, or Penn State, or. . . ."
You see how easy it is play the blame game.
Oh, as a child I didn't know all that, didn't have much perspective at all. So I would walk up close to my mom, as she stood in the dorway, and I would look into her red eyes, and I would say, "But, Mom--you know, you already HAVE a washer and dryer--NICE ones too--pink and everything! I mean, who else has PINK?" And, besides, you know, how could a washer and dryer HELP you????"
And then I would try to "cheer her up." (That's a dumb thing, I know, but I was just a kid, after all.)
I would say, "Would you like to go to Hawaii? Would you like to go to Sweden, and meet the Swedish relatives? Would you like to . . . .?"
And my mom would say, "Oh, YOU wouldn't understand. "
And so the next time I found my mother standing there, her eyes all red with tears, I would say, "You know, Mom, I think we would all be a lot better off if you and Dad would just get a divorce."
I didn't know anything about what "divorce" involved. I knew of one or two aunts and uncles who had had one. It was like knowing that Hawaii was a perpetually warm and sunny, place. Divorce looked pretty good, from my distance. No more door-slamming, no more father slapping our faces, and beating our bare skin with his belt, no more sending us to bed without supper, no more sitting in petrified silence in the breakfast nook, avoiding eye contact with everybody, no more sounds of the car's tires squealing as our father backed out of the driveway and raced down our gravel street toward Third Avenue.
"Oh, don't talk like that," my mother would say.
But I pictured a quiet house, for once. No doors slamming, no loud voies, no tears.
"It's not easy living with your mother," my father confided once, years later, as he drove me over to the college across town.
I looked over at him, and said nothing. What I wanted to say was "It's not easy living with YOU either," but I kept my mouth shut--until we reached the college, and we pulled up to the curb. As I started to open the passenger door, I turned toward him. "You know, Dad," I said, "I smile and laugh a lot, but I'm really a very unhappy person."
I was about to explain myself, but my father looked at me --sternly, caught off guard.
"Don't ever say anything like that again," he said. "It suggests that I wasn't a perfect father."
"Oh," I said--dumbfounded,
How in the world could he have convinced himself of THAT??? " I thought.
"That wasn't what I meant at all! I just wanted you to know that I am often smiling on the outside when my heart hurts on the inside."
My father said nothing, and looked away. That was the end of the conversation.
And so I never did bring up that subject again. But I learned something from that encounter that was, and still is, very important to me: I learned that, even when we do our absolute best to "tell it like it is," with no blaming whatsoever, other people might not be able to listen. And, therefore, it is of crucial importance that we ourselves listen--without the slightest bit of blame--to ourselves.
I was walking down the hall toward the library, lost, as usual ,in thought. Suddenly Mr. Spellman, the librarian, was walking next to me, on my left, keepign pace with me. I didn't even know that he knew me.
"Say, Nancy," he said, as we walked the last twenty feet or so, "How would you like to come and work for me in the library?!"
"Gee, Mr. Spellman," said, "I'd love to! When would you like me to start?"
"How about right now?" he said.
What he wanted me to do, he said, was to paste down all the illustrations in all the "modern art" books he had just ordered--a whole stack of them--all cloth-bound. The illustrations came tipped in--attached at the top. Students could easily tear out any and all of the illustrations.
I had never heard of "moden art." I assumed "art" was what we had hanging on our living room wall at home--two framed prints of birds, from Woolworth's, above the piano , in the living room. There was a cardinal, on the left, a goldfinch, on the right. Above each image were the names, in extra-large, graceful italics: CARDINAL, GOLDFINCH. Over on the opposite wall was a somewhat smaller print of a photograph my father had taken from the end of the Westport jetty.--a vertical view, about eleven by fourteen--the horizon almost exactly in the middle. My father liked this photo because it showed that he had walked out all that way without falling off into the Pacific. It was kind of "proof" photo: "You see? I DID this! Not many people can say they walked all the way out there!"
I myself had never even thought of walking out there. When I looked at that photograph, I wondered , instead, how far the Pacific Ocean went . I wondered what, exactly, was directly across from Westport, on the other side. Looking at this photo reminded me of the time, in elementary school, that my neighbor, Suzanne, and I had decided to dig a deep hole in her garden up at the top of Third Avenue Hill. We thought maybe we could dig out a tunnel under the ocean, and arrive in China. We could imagine hearing people, suddenly, all speaking Chinese. I myself had checked out a book at the public library about the Chinese language. I had a white blouse with a Chinese character embroidered on the pocket. I had tried, without success, to find out if it "said" something. I thought writing in Chinese would be a lot more fun--and a lot more beautiful-- than writing in English. ( I still think so, but I think it requires quite a lot more grace and control than I myself have.!)
Suzanne's mother was not pleased with our project, and, alas, we had to fill in the opening to our tunnel and I had to go home for lunch. I used to think about it, though--how quiet it would be, under the ocean--and not crowded at all. I used to think that the Chinese people, really, would be a lot like Swedish people, all talking calmly and happily in a language that sounded like music.
In December, my mother used to copy a Christmas card she liked onto the front living room window. I used to watch her outlining everything--the wise men, on their camels, Bethlehem rooftops in the background, the extra-large star pointing down. It was magical, watching the white tempera paint moving down the window--three big, strong, perfect camels holding up three wise men with scarves around their necks and shawls hanging down, cozy and warm, coming back from Bethlehem to tell people a special baby had been born there. It was kind of like they were riding into our own living room, coming in through the window instead of the door.
I wanted to be an artist, like my mom, and make animals and people and faraway towns come alive like that.
The cardinal and the goldfinch weren't quite living . They were sort of flattened. We didn't have any cardinals in Washington. I thought it would be pretty neat to see a red bird out in our backyard, with the robins, like a piece of red ribbon blowing in the wind, and maybe resting on the clothesline, above the white bed sheets, with all the patches in them, or maybe on the tops of the bath towels, and the underwear.
So I was eager to see what modern art was all about. I had no idea.
I, myself, when I drew, just used a number two pencil, and the back of my dad's old typing paper sheets, the ones he threw away when he was trying to write stories for the Reader's Digest, and didn't like how his story ws coming out. I drew movie stars from Suzanne's movie magazines. We used to sit and draw in her basement, because movie magazines were not allowed in our house.
Our family didn't go to movies much. We saw "Calamity Jane," with Doris Day pretending to be a cowgirl, and singing about "the deadwood stage" that comes "rolling right over the plain" where "the whip is crackin' and the driver is slappin' the reins." I thought it might be really nice, riding a horse across the United States, and singing. I could imagine "rollin' down, homeward bound, with a fancy cargo, care of Wells and Fargo Illinois."
So Mr. Spellman gave me a table to work at, and a pile of art books: Monet, Manet, Braque, Picasso, Klee--dozens of them.
"You can take them home and read them, if you want," Mr. Spellman said. "Nobody knows they're here! There's no rush!"
So I did that. It was my Intro. to Art--to "modern" art.
I didn't have to take notes, study for tests, write papers--I could just read and look, look, look at all those wonderful illustrations! It was the most wonderful, exciting class I ever had.
"Oh, Mr. Spellman," I would call out to him, "Come and look at THIS: "Nude Descending a Staircase"! You can't tell the nude from the staircase!"
"Shj-h-h-h," he would say, with his finger to his lips. "The art teacher is coming down the hall."
I didn't kn ow the art teacher at all--had no idea who he was. A tall, skinny man was coming down the hall, not as tall as Mr. Enrico, but stern-looking, thinking about --well, something--not looking at the hallway at all, or the people passing him.
"Gee!" I thought. Maybe he would lecture on Modern Art. Maybe I should take his class and learn more about these paintings."
So I did sign up for the real Intro. to Art.
There we were--all sitting there in rows, with rows and rows of tables in front of us.
It WASN'T a lecture class! It was a hands-on class! I had never even imagined the possibility.
The professor never lectured--about anything!
The first day, he said, "The first assignment is to draw a design with vertical lines!"
Everybody got right to work. Except ME. I had a 4.0 grade point average, but I didn't know the simplest thing. I sat there wondering. . . . Hm-m-m. What IS a line, exactly? I mean, couldn't a line be a thin thing, like a pencil line--but also couldn't it be what you would have if you sliced up a pound of butter and called each slice a line? And couldn't you alternate fat butter-slice lines with thin pencil -line lines?
So I raised my hand and asked. I mean, at our house, we did not have this sense of possibilities. What if I was mistaken? What if I did it wrong? There would be a price to pay--wouldn't there???
"Yes," the professor said. "A line can be any thickness you want!"
Wow! Really!!! Hm-m-m.
But what would a DESIGN be, exactly.?Did nature have designs in it? Or were designs only created by humans? Were there A designs, and B designs, and C designs, and even F designs? How could you know? I mean, what would you be going by?
So I thought for a long time about this. My dad would be so angry if I didn't produce an A design.
I raised my hand again. People looked over their shoulder at me. "There she goes again," is what they were thinking.
"Well, I was just wondering. Can the lines TILT--or do they have to be exactly vertical?"
Laughter. Eyes rolling. "Oh, Nancy, honestly. . . ."
The professor was patient, and polite. "Yes, Nancy. They can tilt."
"Oh. Okay. Thanks."
This is how every assignment went. What if I was doing it wrong? What if I lost my A? This is the kind of thing I thought about. I learned, this way, that modern art was--well, anything but "fun." Maybe Monet and Manet and Gauguin and all the others didn't get graded.
So, the semester was almost over.
"This is the final exam," the professor said. Take three pieces of paper. On each one, pain t one human emotion--a different one on each sheet. Make each one totally abstract--no smiling faces to show happiness, etc. No words. Take your painting out in the hall and show it to people who are not in this class, and ask, "What emotion is this?" If everyone says the same answer, you get an A for the course."
"Well!" I thought. "I am a cheerful, happy person most of the time. I think I'll paint HAPPINESS."
I bought a nice, thick, new tablet, and gathered all my brightest colors together, and, over and over, I painted "happiness." I cheerfully took each one out in the hall and held it up.
"So what emotion is this???" I asked--cheerfully.
EVERYONE in the hall said, "Gee, Nancy. It's not ANY emotion. It's NOTHING!"
"What do you mean, IT'S "NOTHING," I said. "It's HAPPINESS!" It's my conception of happiness!"
"Sorry," they all said.
After filling about half my tablet with happiness paintings, and getting this same response over and over, I was no longer happy.
Without thinking much, I tore off a piece of paper, walked into the women's restroom, and poured water over the paper. Then I set it on he counter, on some paper towels. I poured a little black paint on the wet paper, and tilted it a little, in a couple different directions, so the paint ran n a random way. Then I did the same with some Navy Blue paint.
"Oh, my GOODNESS!" I thought. "I have painted GLOOM!" This is "Gloom." I blotted it a little here and there with a paper towel. It was definitely "Gloom." I waited for it to dry. Wet, and dry--it was still gloom.
I happily took the dry painting out into the hall.
"What emotion is this?" I asked-- cheerfully .
That's GLOOM," everybody said.
"Gloom," "Gloom," "Gloom."
I was thrilled.
I took it to the professor.
"What emotion is this?" I asked.
"That's GLOOM," the professor said.
And then he said, "You have your A. May I keep the painting?"
"Oh, SURE!" I said. "But why would you want a painting of GLOOM? And--what about the other two paintings?"
"Never mind," he said. "I have asked this same question every semester, for years, and nobody has ever DONE it!"
"Really!" I said.
I've thought about that ever since. Could it be that happiness is an individual matter--different for everyone? Different in different circumstances? Is "gloom" more universal? Is it just simpler? Or, maybe "happiness" is not an emotion. Maybe it's a state of mind. Maybe it's a character trait. Maybe . . . .
I don't know. I'm seventy-five. I still have never, to my knowledge, painted "Happiness."