A year ago I did an ambitious thing- I put together a memoir story based on the time I worked at a summer camp in Washington when I was 20 years old (an edited version of which I shared here on the blog: Venus de Milo). I did it as kind of an experiment, to try my hand at memoir using mostly journals from that time and filling in the gaps with memory and recreated dialogue.
It felt good. Later, I tried another one about the time I took a semester off from college and traveled across the country. It was addicting- next I wrote about my summer working at a truck stop in Alaska. I realized that, without intending to, I was assembling a canon of adventure tales- a written record of my wildest experiences. I put a story together about my summer working in Yosemite. After that I knew I had two left: both set in Baja- one backpacking trip and one bicycling trip.
The other day I finished my last story. I keep thinking I want to put them all together in one document- each story is fairly long so I think altogether they would make a decent sized book. I want to share it with people but deep down I know it needs to be printed on actual paper in tangible book form, not read on a screen. So, if anyone has tips on self publishing let me know.
Meanwhile I’ve been working on an introduction:
When my daughter was first born she wasn’t much of a sleeper. I was up a lot those first nights, trying to nurse her back to sleep when she woke up every hour or so. I hadn’t perfected the side-nurse yet which is great for nursing while still mostly asleep so when she cried in the night I would blearily wake up to turn on a small light, sit up in bed and arrange her on a nursing pillow for a long session of breastfeeding.
I wasn’t on my phone much in those days and I didn’t have a book I was into (I actually bought “Moby Dick” to read while I was nursing, way overestimating my mental capacity at the time) so I basically just stared at the wall for hours on end, thinking about my life. I wasn’t thinking about my life in its entirety- the distant past or the recent past, or the future. I was thinking about my wild years- my life from age 18 to 23- a time period that, as a 32 year old, felt somewhat distant but not completely inaccessible. Until having a child. Becoming a mom seemed to instantaneously shut and lock that wild self away like a precious museum specimen- look, but don’t touch.
The blank white wall in front of me was like a screen onto which another life was being projected. I saw myself jumping into the Arctic Ocean with a bunch of friends, dancing the night away at Duffy’s bar, bicycling down Baja, strutting across the desert of Burning Man in a giant petticoat and knee high boots, high on ecstasy. Because that self felt so inaccessible I started to envy her, idolize her, grieve her loss. But I realized that I had traded that identity in for a new one, this role of a mother. I was growing up; I couldn’t be that wild girl forever.
But something about the past keeps pulling me back. I’ve developed a habit of rooting through the storage closet looking for my boxes of journals- I have kept a journal since before I could actually write- and pulling out one or two from that magical era (1998-2005). The writing from that time is dense, detailed, scrawling, surreal, interrupted by sketches and collages, smeared by the rain, crossed out, underlined, loose, breathless, showy, tender, mournful, thirsty. I like the person I was then; I often feel that that girl was the truest form of all my versions. I miss her. I want her back. I refuse to accept that she’s gone forever. I keep wondering if I can unfreeze her from her state of suspended animation- bring her back from the dead using these journals as a time machine.
Yes, sometimes it feels unhealthy- living in the past as a form of escapism. But the thing is, I don’t want to just live in the past; I want to bring some elements of the past into the present and the future. I want to keep her close so that we can learn from each other, trade secrets. The older I get the more important it seems to dig deep into those experiences and pull out the gold, brush it off and keep it in my pocket for whenever I might need it. I don’t want to lose the lessons I learned, and I don’t want to lose that urgency to keep exploring and challenging myself. I feel like, even though that girl is in the past, she’s ahead of me on the trail, leaving little signs and markers to let me know I’m headed the right way. I guess I think of her as my muse, my guide. She didn’t have it all figured out of course, and she made all kinds of mistakes I would never make now, but she had a fiery, independent spirit and her heart was in the right place. She was committed to curiosity, to art, to love, to finding out what it means to be human in this world at this time.
When I tell people now about the things I did in my 20’s they are often amazed and impressed, but at the time I didn’t think of myself as particularly adventurous. In Chico I was surrounded by an incredible community of artists and travelers and I often felt like I was just struggling to keep up. In my group of friends it wasn’t unusual to go on a two week backpacking trip, or bike across Australia performing plays, or go rafting in the Grand Canyon, or live on a platform built in a tree to protest logging, or do hallucinatory peyote rituals in a Mexican desert. Compared to people around me I often felt somewhat young and inexperienced, bumbling through attempts at similar adventures. Until recently I looked back on this time with a bit of embarrassment and a sense of failure, like I was just getting my bearings and warming up to the upcoming real adventures, which never happened.
But what ended up happening is something I never expected- I fell in love, settled down, had a kid. I mostly lost my hunger for adventure; I domesticated myself and I felt okay about that. It wasn’t until becoming a mom that I started really looking back with yearning, wondering if maybe my wild years aren’t just behind me, but maybe ahead of me as well.
I’ve been wanting to get these stories together for a long time- as a way of getting them out of my system by diving back in fully, reliving them, to see if they have new things to teach me. I want to keep that past self alive by sharing these stories. I feel like if more people know about her- live what she lived- she can keep exploring, and keep showing me the way.