by Kathleen Spivack
She combats loneliness with writing.
For many years I was alone and I found that—but I am already putting it in past tense. So—for many years I’ve been alone and I find—what? Find that it doesn’t get any easier? Find that I’m writing my way right into another cliche? Let’s try again. As follows: For many years she lived alone. For many years she will live alone. She. Alone. A woman. Many women alone. Always alone. And it is here the true stories begin.
When did we start thinking it would be otherwise Men have always left, or died. Or worse still, stayed with us, half-dead. Children have come from our bodies, grown up and left.
A woman wakes alone on the prairie—North Dakota, say—in 1850. Her bed is warm faintly, around her body only. The wind coming in through the chinks howls in a way that can only carry snow in its sound. She lies there in the half light, trying to remember what it was like once to fit her body around another’s. A child cries out in its sleep beside her, then subsides. She is tired already, thinking of the cold, the snow between her and the animals out in the shed, the work to be done of getting a stove going. Where is the man in this picture? Out exploring America somewhere?
Or perhaps she has outlived him. Strong, quiet, she rocks on a front porch of a white house in a small town in upstate New York. “She’ll never get over his death,” we say. 1911, she stokes the stove, clawed like a large green cat in the kitchen. She rocks and rocks. “Mama really came into her own after Poppa died,” we say. She never talks of him, never speaks of her loneliness, those long gray nights, when she reads and rereads the Lewis Tribune, spreading the clumsy newsprint sheets on her own embroidered sheets. They were a wedding gift to herself once, cross-stitched, initialed in careful chain stitch with her name. The trousseau. The wish chest. The Despair Barrel, as we single girls use to call it, sitting together, embroidering.
When my husband left, I took my two babies and…there. Put it right out on the page. Squarely. “When my husband left.” Simple fact. Try to put it down on the page without emotion. “No Blame” as the I Ching says. It also says “Persistence Furthers.” But quite often that is untrue. A whole profession has been built on False Assurances. Fortune Tellers, Oracles, Marriage Counselors, Dermatologists, the Church. Well anyhow, my husband left.
There is a bluish hush around that sort of event. Everyone stops. The children stop growing, fixed at that awful point in their lives. A woman stops laughing and singing. People don’t want to talk, yet do talk, about it. But there is an ozone hum around the conversation as if real things are avoided. It is like heat.
“Don’t talk to Margaret about it.” That sort of thing. In a dining room in semi-rural South, chairs being pushed back, ice water, misting the half-empty glasses. 1937, a fan going round and round. Margaret has already left the table, hurriedly, before the apple pie course, a lace handkerchief delicately pressed to her mouth. Her chair, scraping the warm night as she left, is the only sound for a while. The family looks at one another. “Poor Margaret.”
And Margaret is sitting alone upstairs on her bed, staring out into the pregnant night, wondering how she is going to cope with a string of these nights, these strained supper conversations. A lifetime of abandonment. Oh, the shame of being a woman left.
So when my husband left, I also left.
It was not going to be him leaving me—I also had places to go. The children were six months old, and a year and a half, the biggest boy. And I took a job as caretaker of a wildlife conservation area on the Cape Cod Canal on the New England Coast. For if I were going to be alone, I would be fully alone.
Finally, fully alone, but removed from the eyes of other pitying humans.
We were to live there for six months, the children and I, in a little stone cabin on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Below, my small sailboat floated at anchor. No electricity. An outdoor toilet. No phone. Outwardly, the setting was idyllic.
At night I tossed and turned, exhausted by the care of two babies and my emotions and the strange sounds. Blue herons croaked as they settled at night in the large tree outside the cabin. They shrieked again as, at dawn, they flew back into the marshes. I was awake to hear them then, too. The children kept me busy by day. There was a sink with cold running water. There was a stove that ran on bottled gas. A large pot of water steamed in the cabin, heating.
I planted a garden. I fished. I carried the children up and down the cliffs with me-the hardest physical part of the whole endeavor. At night I would cast into the darkness, set the rod, and go back up the cliff to check on the children, then down again to test the rod and line. Sometimes I caught a large-jawed Something. A large bluefish, thrashing and snapping. A new problem—how to unhook the thing. My oldest, now almost two, tried to help me hit the fish with pliers. I learned to take a rock to a fish, to stun or kill quickly, avoiding its teeth.
The garden produced snow peas and even a few tomatoes. Each “Organic Tomato” costs $9.50 a piece to grow, I read somewhere. I made an insect spray of oil, garlic and cayenne pepper and sprayed the garden. The tomato worms fell off and died, but downwind there was a whiff of salad dressing coming already off the plants. If I had been less cynical, I would have worn a long dress and granny glasses.
When I put the children in the sailboat to take them across the bay to the grocery store they clawed my knees in terror. The boat rocked and yawed, but it was a good, sturdy, beamy wooden catboat, the kind you see in the Winslow Homer paintings, and nothing could tip it. The boat heeled, the babies quieted down. My heart was pounding with their fear, but they were in lifejackets, I reasoned. There was an outgoing current to the boat and if I caught the tide or wind wrong, the boat could not get back to our landing. Not enough sail power and we did not have a motor.
The children learned to wave their diapers over their heads at passing motorboats and/or the Coast Guard for a tow. And many times we were towed back across the channel.
But the loneliness. Still, the loneliness. (Writing) There was no one over the age of two years old to talk to. Silence and solitude and rural beauty can be soothing-but after about two days of it all nature starts to shriek. The mosquitoes mock me. Birds fly in pairs. Each wave dashing against the rocks below one’s gaze echo the solitary heartbeat; the chest pounding with hurt. Try as I could, under that beautiful changing sky, the long line of horizon and the line of shore, I could not feel serene. With my babies I could be for a time complete, or doing some physical chore like clearing brush. But activity stopped; the children slept, I tried to rest-which I desperately needed-and it was then that the real restlessness set in. Even flowers made me sad.
Sometimes I would flash outside of myself—watching myself maneuver the boat, for instance, or changing children or weeding. Kathleen the heroine—and pride in my growing competence was forming. But the other side was—over-compensation—a woman rejected who didn’t know where to turn. And sometimes the beauty of the little harbor, as I brought the boat in, my two curly haired babies with me, made me ache.
It was then that I turned to writing stories. For I needed someone to talk to, and the page had always provided some solace. At night, by the feeble kerosene lantern, I started scribbling on yellow lined pads. Mercifully, the light was so dim and my handwriting so bad that I could not read back what I was writing. Self-censorship had always stood in the way of longer writing. Before, I would start a paragraph and exclaim, “Yuck!” before the second sentence. However, in the half dark, with only a small bit of time to write before a child woke, there was no place for the groans and sighs of disgust. I decided to try and write some little stories about women’s lives-a subject I was finally, after years of struggling with and against, beginning to know. I wrote thirty of them. By the twentieth, I started to understand the form, or rather, to understand what my writing lacked.
The stories at first were simple, flat when I looked back on them. But they described situations of women, struggling. A rape I had never fully overcome became a too-flowery story of a woman afraid. My husband’s infidelities when I had my second baby became the subject of a humorous, wry, ironic little fiction. It took me twenty or thirty tries before I understood how hard it is to find one’s “voice” in fiction. But meanwhile I was talking to my characters on the page and they were talking to each other and to me and doing surprising things. Alone with the pad of paper in the middle of the breathing night I found myself laughing out loud. And when, exhausted, I put down the pen I slept soundly.
Suddenly there was a meaning to my chosen solitude, beyond proving that physically and emotionally, “I could do it.” “Voice” in writing, that most simple and direct expression thought, is the most difficult to locate. I didn’t have it yet, but there were stories to tell.
And after the first thirty stories, I began to be able to write more deeply, exploring relations with parents, the culture, and taking on deeper subjects.
The little cabin became a ship under the stars, and the children slept as I piloted among fictional adventures. Sunrise became beautiful to me again, and the gardening, sailing, fishing and time with the children a part of a larger rhythm.
I wish I could write deeply for all women, or that they would write for me. Which is not to say that I don’t still avidly read the writing of men. But I cannot write nor see from a man’s point of view.
And I wish I could tell you that I returned, after six months of isolation, to my life in the city fully healed. But no, it was as difficult as ever to enter a room full of strangers and nights were as long and lonely as before. But I was stronger, in my bond with my children, my faith in our survival, and my competence to do it with grace. What were the achievements of that six months totally alone, beyond being able to stand it My now-two-year-old was toilet trained. I was a better sailor. And I had written some thirty-odd stories, as well as scores of poems. And some of them were not bad. “I hope you’re not planning to support your family on fiction,” a novelist friend muttered, aghast. I admit I had harbored that private plan. “Fiction is even harder to publish than poetry,” she continued. And of course she was right. But some of the stories were published and for some I got paid–well–so it was not a total loss. And I knew now what I had to learn about writing, so I resolved to write two stories a month in the next year. That, a teaching job, and the children kept me busy. Before I knew it, we were, you might say, almost happy.
Kathleen Spivack’s “True Stories” was the Travel Memoir Silver Award winner in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.