Grace and I just returned to the city. For six days we sat on the screened-in porch of A’s house and watched May explode. Oh, I thrifted and wrote and she chased bugs and sunspots. Definitely I tromped through meadows, woodland paths in so many shades of green that some appeared gold and some appeared indigo.
But mostly we sat still and drank it all in.
When I stayed in Hudson before, I never ventured off the paths of A’s land. But since Truro’s mermaid woods I’ve gotten much bolder about venturing into uncharted territory. I’m less afraid of getting lost, and trust the sun even in the middle of the forest.
If that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is.
On our second day upstate, I drove over to see M., whose work was being featured at a Great Barrington gallery. There are no big highways between Columbia County, NY, and the Berkshires, so I sped along country roads with music on blast, fields rippling as Miles Davis sketched flamenco in the horizon. Until that day, M. and I had been city friends–the quick coffee, the longer drink. We’re both Capricorns, but at 30 she’s verging on true adulthood and at 47 I’m verging on dowager chic (a boast, not a complaint) so there’s always been a gap.
Seeing each other in this gorgeous glut of oxygen and botany bonded us forever, though. We kept gasping and clutching each other’s arms, giddy and day-glo as if tripping with Ken Kesey’s pranksters–Fetchen Gretchen the Slime Queen, especially.
Over the last decade, a huge swath of the Williamsburg creative community has migrated to this region, so many familiar faces presided at the gallery, drinking shitty wine and ogling M’s bold pastels as if they were drinking shitty Verb coffee on 2001-era Bedford Ave. As if nature wasn’t strutting her stuff right outside the window like ’90s RuPaul.
I guess you can get used to anything. Certainly I’ve grown accustomed to the splendid jungle that is NYC. It’s not that I’m inured to its charms, but I adore it as you would a great-aunt, not a pink-haired panther prowling Central Park in six-inch stilettos.
Driving home later that night, my car caught a flat. I wasn’t surprised. There’d been such an excess of hot air–such enormous infusions to our spindly city lungs– that something had been bound to blow. I was scared, of course. Being a woman alone and immobilized on a midnight country road with no cell reception is a horror film forever playing in my head. But before changing my tire I looked up at that wide dark dome of spiny, spiny diamonds and my shoulders dropped for the first time in months.
I always say that in New York, people are the nature. But what I forget is that in the country, Mama Nature is the art. That’s why the hugest human successes occur where we’re not competing with her glamour.
That said, I don’t write worse in the woods, just differently–creatively, not critically. It’s no surprise I found my book’s essence in off-season Cape Cod, for flow is easier to find in nature. All you have to do is follow the lazy arc of a bird settling on the highest branch of a tree.
The night before I drove back, I warned B I was going to be a rag about returning. “Yes, you will,” she agreed with her matter-of-fact love. “I’ll be here.”
The next morning, I found one more tiny creek, crowned by an equally tiny bridge that I imagined had been erected by an enterprising nine-year-old girl. I realized I was thinking of the girl I’d been, roaming my neighbors’ woods in those voluptuous hours between school and dinnertime.
There on the bridge, rubber boots dangling into the mud, I said hi to that girl. I inhaled the fresh copper of the wet soil, the sweet yeast of algae and fallen buds, and asked her to send me everything I needed, if not wanted. Then I thought crossly about how the city had turned me into Harriet the Spy when all I wanted to be was Anne of Green Gables.
Right before leaving Hudson, my phone exploded. To be more transparent, I dropped it in that tiny creek and it exploded. To be even more transparent, I’m certain it was that inner 9-year-old cosmically stamping her foot.
At first the phone was fine, thank the Otterbox gods. But when I started preparing to return to the grid, it stopped working. First the screen grew unresponsive, then the phone completely died.
At which point the precariousness of my isolation landed far more powerfully– the prospect of road-tripping without a phone in a car that already had been acting up; the prospect of buying new technology with my dauntingly low bank accounts. Ever the New England-born sea goat, despair catapaulted me into action–in a blur I packed, cajoled cat into carrier, and sailed onto the Taconic with a newly set jaw.
Which is to say: Grinned, bore it.
But Grace was having none of it. As soon as we hit the highway, she began yowling. “I know, I know,” I said, and looked at her wet eyes, accusing through the holes of her carrier. I turned the radio up loud and rolled down the windows. I had to put up with this shit. Why couldn’t she?
Because they don’t call them familiars for nuttin’, honey.
She was feeling all the feelings I was denying like a river in a Stuart Smalley skit, and that’s never a sustainable arrangement for a witch and her feline guide.
Finally, I pulled over to the side of the highway and started crying. Cars whizzed by, heads swiveling as I stood outside the passenger door and sobbed. I cried about not being able to afford a haven of my own in the mermaid woods. About living so far from spring’s bounty, about the clusterfuck of construction and traffic and smog back in Brooklyn, about my fears that I’d run out of cash before finishing my book. I cried about my broken ancestral line.
I dried my face and started driving again. At which point, no joke, my phone turned back on.
To some degree, I’m used to such phenomena when I’m off-kilter. Light bulbs pop, glasses break, tires over-inflate. Clever B calls it the Carrie Effect. But it still amazes me that my energy field can fuck with technology so baldly. The computer scientist’s daughter in me whispers: There must be a more logical explanation. But when a dead, wet phone suddenly lights up after you accept the truth you’ve been blocking, well, that’s hard to explain away. Magic–good magic, anyway–only enters the room when you’re being honest.
Here’s what’s even more magic: The phone started playing Prince’s cover of “A Case of You,” a song I hadn’t even realized was in my music library.
I have written before about the profound role Joni’s version has played in my life, and I always think about Prince when I think of Joni–of his 16-year-old self in the front row of her concerts, unmistakable with those enormous ancient eyes glowing. But I’ve never dug this track. Too syncopated, almost cheesy with those faux-jazz riffs.
Well. Grace didn’t agree. As soon as it came on, she stopped yowling and curled up, happy as a clam.
His is a city version, I realized as I restarted my car. Its purity lives in in its flourishes, the piano–always Prince’s most melancholy mode of expression–piercing the syncopation like a sunset over the NYC skyline.
The song stopped and Grace started yowling again. So all the way down the Taconic’s mountains, I replayed it until I knew every trill, every beat. By the time we slid into rush-hour traffic–the BQE one fat parking lot–I was in it to win it, singing with open windows, Grace bleating every once in a while for emphasis.
You’re in my blood like holy wine.
Other drivers stared. Some shook their head: hippie. One cabdriver gave a very big thumbs down. And still I sang. I kept singing as I unloaded my cat and my car. I kept singing as I opened a new stack of bills. I kept singing even when I saw the big holes my landlord’s guys had bore into my walls. (Next to Jewish mothers and inner nine-year-olds, contractors have the market cornered on passive-aggression.)
Finally, I put on headphones for the first time in a week–I only need them in the city–and strolled around the neighborhood, drinking in the people-as-nature once again. The chickadee millennials chirping carbfreewhydidnthetextilikethatjumpsuit; the first-date doves cooing wheredidyougrewupwhatmoviesdoyoulikethatsreallyfunny. The mother hens clucking didyourememberyourknapsackhaveasnack.The old-school owls puffing their feathers, hooting babybabybae as girls swung by.
I sat on my stoop, Prince still pouring in my ears (and you in these lines). A starling defiantly landed on a no-parking sign, and I laughed out loud.
So bitter so sweet—