Leaving Words at Home

Cherry Grove, Fire Island, summer 2016

I often say I write about my home place, but that’s not true all the time. The book project currently consuming my writing energy, for example, is about scientific literacy. (Though it might far afield from the natural history and personal observation focus of this blog, it turns out that scientific literacy is concerned with the same mediation between private experience and the larger universe that unfolds when I’m caught under the spill of a gleaming sunrise or pulling a carrot out of the garden.)

I don’t write only about home, but I do pretty much write only at home.

I’m not one of those people you might see rapping away on a laptop in a coffeehouse. Whether I’m yakking to myself in my journal or scratching out the notes that will eventually become an essay or parsing the galley pages of a book I’m indexing, the tinkering I do with words mostly takes place here in my office.

Sunrise at White House Ruin, Canon de Chelly, fall 2016

I’ll occasionally take my journal down to the living room on a snowy day so I can scribble in front of the fire, but over the past few decades my writing-related activities have become pretty firmly coupled to my office space—I’m lucky enough to have it, so why not use it? All my tools, from books to ample desk space, from my computer with its files and internet portal to my trusty dictionary and thesaurus, are here. My mind has settled into the routine and accepted the habit: this is where I come to think and write, including the hand-writing I do in my journal.

Hraunfossar waterfall, Iceland, fall 2012

One upshot of this linkage is that I now rarely write in my journal when I’m traveling. This is a major shift from earlier phases of my life, when I was quite obsessive about recording events and sensations as close to the time and place as possible. I still carry my journal with me on trips, but it rarely comes out of my pack—unless the trip is writing-related, such as my recent retreat at Windbreak House, or my time at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s conference summer before last.)

Increasingly, travel offers the opportunity to switch my mind into low-energy standby mode. My body might be active, but my brain is content to simply gawk. It will step up—often reluctantly—to handle scheduling and logistics, but otherwise it’s so laid-back that simply choosing something off a menu feels like a monumental intellectual feat. I also spend more time around other people when I’m on vacation, and writing, unless you’re hanging out with someone else who is also writing, is inherently anti-social. Even when it’s just my husband and me, the point is to spend time together released from our respective routines: we chat and hike and wander urban streets and take in the sights and swim and hang out in places that serve decent wine.

Sunrise, Palm Springs, November 2017

When a family holiday get-together took us to Palm Springs for Thanksgiving last week, writing was not on my agenda. I tried a couple of times, settling down by the pool with my journal intending to record my impressions. I managed to write three lines on one morning, before breaking off mid-sentence to do something my brain was more interested in at the time—eating breakfast, perhaps. The next day I jotted a page or so, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was on vacation: writing in the journal, which I do nearly every day when I’m at home, felt too everyday. Writing felt too much like work.

For a long time, I was anxious about the shift from travel-writing to not travel-writing, feeling like I was missing out on the fullness of the experience by not writing about it in situ. At home, now, in my office and at my desk, I’m able to unpack this dynamic a little bit. The journal allows me to think about life, but writing isn’t living. Preserving reality isn’t possible and even if it were, that’s not why I bother keeping a journal. I do so as part of that ongoing mediation between self and world.

Istanbul, fall 2014

I’ve also realized I can be sanguine that almost all my journal entries bear the words “Cap Rock” as the marker of my location because the camera has taken the place of the journal as my travel mnemonic. I can be philosophical about leaving words at home because it’s so easy to document my time away with images.

I suppose this means that the vacation on which I’m well and truly in the moments will be one when I’ve not only left the journal at home but also declined to pack the camera…but for now I’m not willing to go there.

Mount Pico, Pico Island, Azores, summer 2017

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