I’d take my father’s fishing boat across the lake, down a creek, to other lakes, a chain of lakes. Then I’d cut the motor and drift to study cabins, most of them owned by people with year-round houses like the one in a nearby small town where I lived in winter. Lush grass extended to shorelines. Lake weeds swayed. For two months, the sun shone, intricate bugs shimmered, and my body felt interchangeable with air. I’d dip my hand in water and watch fish investigate its white flickering at the lake’s surface, the fish’s ceiling. I’d ignore a gaudy boathouse or striped beach umbrella—incongruous in that landscape of green trees, gray stones, opalescent water, and silver piers that seemed like sidewalks leading to doors. Some cabins had names. Tanglewood. Shangri-la. Cloud Nine.
Our cabin was filled with curious old furniture, bed linens, oddball kitchenware. We’d bought it furnished when its owner died. Mauve—for chairs, lamps, vases—had been a popular color. In the shed, I found paint cans with labels that read “Rugosa Rose.” Our lake had taverns with docks where my parents tethered their boat and went inside to drink while I ran to swings in big trees or wandered the edges of forest as fireflies blinked.
Some days, motoring across wide water, I turned on my dad’s gadget, The Depth Finder, to learn the lake. In one spot, the depth plunged to eighty feet. In the middle of the lake, I found a plateau, and I’d get out of the boat to wade, waving at people on shore, hoping to startle them by almost walking on water. Once, in a cove fringed by tall pines, I dove out of the boat to swim, and a fish as big as I was, a muskellunge, flashed by in the deep.
By day I wanted to go far and wide, at least across the lake and down the creek. But at night, wrapped in a mauve blanket, dropping off to sleep, I’d scare myself awake. Maybe I’d steered the boat into brisk waves at steep angles, the hull making choppy warning noises as I hit surges that, mismanaged, would have flipped the boat and I’d have floated or sunk. Or maybe I’d trod unknowable water. I was a daredevil in the daytime.
At night, the lakebed seemed like my deathbed.
Still, every morning I’d want back outside: wilderness rising up around me, my own.
Strictly speaking, it’s not nature if I’ve arranged it with my perspective, finding landmarks, placing rocks and branches in sand or soil, making outdoor rooms. Or, after I grew up, planting borders and trellises to mark the edges of lots I owned. But when I was a girl, I thought lakes and trees and birds and fish and sky were mine and I was theirs. Then I’d come back inside to civilizing conversations at the family dinner table and, in the autumn, when geese headed south, when grownups put on waders to dismantle piers and move them ashore so winter ice wouldn’t crush them, back into town, back to school with its complicated strictures and fiefdoms. Contentment—whether sunlit or misty or magisterially somber under cloud cover, every familiar color deepening and lustrous—lasted for single moments or hours or, when I was perfectly unscheduled and lucky, entire days.
Recently, I made two lists with the idea I might use them to visit a goal-oriented psychiatrist recommended by a friend who’d developed acute postnatal anxiety. According to medical classifications, she’d been a “geriatric mother,” or young enough to give birth to a child but old enough that, in her case, her sleep-deprived body had produced unhelpful hormones. I, on the other hand, am merely old, though not yet geriatric. Whenever my age gets mentioned as it pertains to a situation at hand, friends or colleagues, or maybe a ticket-taker adding a senior citizen discount, rush to say: oh but you could be in your fifties! One flatterer insisted that I could be in my forties. People deflect mentions of my real age because we all know that aging leads to irrelevance then death.
I’ve had my own surges of unhelpful hormones. Adrenaline swells.
Yet it seems to have always swelled. By now I see my body as a container for memories of experiences I’d have preferred to avoid in the first place, so memories I’d like to delete—some violent, some intimating violence, some life-changing, some intimating unsettling life changes—and the container seems nearly full, just a few inches left.
I stopped sleeping.
Sleeplessness compounds itself, then magnifies fear, fear-fog blurring life’s outlines. Then hope, belief in improvements pending, goes missing. Whenever I’d stopped sleeping in the past, I relied on busyness. I earned degrees that led to better jobs. I added onto a house—built half a house—working alongside my carpenters, electricians, and plumbers who bid low, worked shoddy, and required hypervigilant oversight. I wrote books, planted gardens, moved rocks into retaining walls, tackled stacks of paperwork. Project completion is distraction. Distraction is analgesic: symptoms relieved and root causes unaddressed. If the project involves physical labor, your body relents and lets you sleep.
Bonus effect: months later you have a new line on a resume, better living space, organized files, a book with your name on its spine. Meanwhile, the idea that the project requiring every thought, muscle, and iota of resolve will ward off future reasons for worry is placebo-like. Even if you don’t trust Robert Frost’s idea that the best way out is through, which implies you’re stalled but aimed forward, not believing in somewhere else is bleak.
This time I couldn’t locate a new rationale for busyness.
One list for a psychiatrist—years made into phrases—would be my neuro-relevant history.
The other list would be real and recent reasons for worry.
Lists might help a psychiatrist work more quickly, I felt.
Because who has much time?
I left intermittent paradise behind when I moved to attend college in a small city. My parents divorced and sold the cabin, not that as a young woman curious about my future I would have stayed so absorbed by local lakes, creeks, swamp, sky, firmament. Yet so far I hadn’t liked “town,” so at college I scuttled between my dorm room, classes, and dining hall, no eye contact. When other students went to the library, the sandwich shop, the beer joint, the gym (“it’s relaxing,” someone explained), I walked off-campus. I studied three-story houses with cupolas and multiple porches built in the early twentieth century by lumber barons and the merchants who’d served them; trim bungalows that looked like stage sets for black-and-white movies; stolid houses with big porches and leaded glass window panes; and off-kilter, shingle-covered boxes at the edge of town. On short winter days, when the sun moved below the horizon, lights came on inside and windows cast golden parallelograms onto the snow. I gazed indoors at the wallpaper, curtains, edges of upholstery, and flashing silhouettes of people settling down for the night.
I used to think gazing inside meant I wanted a home for myself.
But I gazed after my own windows cast light, after I lived behind them with people I love, my husband, daughter, stepson, one of us hanging up a coat, setting the table.
In my twenties, I gazed into other people’s homes too long after dark because my own home was unsafe, occupied by a volatile ex-husband I was figuring out how to leave. My route sometimes wound back before he was asleep, and I kept walking while looking inside. From outside and lit up—though I was unhappy in it, each day a puzzle to be solved, each conversation a looming menace—my domestic inland looked idyllic. A creaky floor lamp cast a hazy glow over otherwise shabby armchairs encircling the fireplace, and my ex-husband, sequestered in back, watching action movies, pleasingly erased.
Around this time, I imagined I was a poet. A line that came to me all at once, a line that seemed right, was this: “If it happened once, it’s a lie.” It seemed like life’s great truth, but when I tried explaining it to my writing teacher, he said it didn’t make sense, that many true things happen over and over. Pressed to explain what I thought I meant, I couldn’t.
I might have meant love. Love must present itself in new ways for me to believe it.
I might have meant that a workable life plan was one that hadn’t failed yet.
At the time, if a house had happened to me once—by chance I’d occupied it, claimed it, left it—there’d be more houses and better houses because they’d be future houses.
I’ve lived in six states, eight cities, at two dozen addresses, and I dream about finding secret rooms in my former homes. Once, I opened a door leading to a twinned, second apartment, big, empty, another new start. These homes were records of how I’d accepted what was and then repaired or added on or renovated according to what I could contrive. In one dream, I’ve been too careless, too carefree, and someone has knocked down walls, trespassed with crowbars. Rooms in these homes fuse with rooms in my current home, and I see people I used to know, faces, clothes, hairstyles from a bygone era. I’d once struggled to answer people who’d politely asked what these men I used to know did for a living. Living off me. Sinking in debt. Spending my money. Making illegal deals.
In one dream in which past and present fuse, men sit in a row on my sofa. My worst stepfather is there, too, tilting on one of my dining room chairs, the look on his face daring me to contradict him. I spent years studying these men, anticipating their moods, hoping to placate. They eye my rooms, better than any of us had back then, pieces of new furniture mixed with the best of my thrift store finds, and I introduce them to my husband because my current home is our shared home. They take surly notice of my husband’s courteous ways, his interesting face, the bits of evidence that he’s good, not to mention solvent. He shakes everyone’s hand, says pleased-to-meet-you. Then takes me aside to say he hopes they’ll leave because they’ll be hard to explain when the kids get home from school.
After I’d been married to one of these men, and before I married another, I lived alone in an apartment above an old store, in what used to be shopkeeper’s quarters, big rooms, each one heated with a match-lit stove. I was on the lam from a bad apartment in town where I’d lived above drug dealers who’d played loud music every night, and I couldn’t sleep. I became a silence-fetishist. From the windows of the new apartment, I stared at silent wheat fields that by midsummer were a windswept yellow ocean, by fall a shorn panorama, by winter an undulating field of white. Inside, I used every shop class skill and hopeful whim to revamp, to move the line of vision here, not there, because living with imperfection means a trick of the eye that edits, improves. I sheltered there for years.
Once, I lived in a jerry-built apartment in an old house, my bed with its bird-pattern bedspread fitted into a breakfast nook with an arched doorway across which I’d draped a gauze curtain. I loved my time there, even during a month when the next-door apartment was rented to a drunk who sat by his door half-naked and cursing, until he made a liquor store run, smashed cars, and police hauled him away; even during a month when pipes to the house broke, and I leapt across the boggy yard with a towel and soap to a neighbor’s across the street to shower there; even though olive-green shag carpet clashed with mauve knickknacks I’d amassed to match a mauve sofa I’d brought from the cabin.
Once, I lived in the middle of weeds and woods in a dank house first built in the 1970s by a libertarian DIYer who’d believed worst-case predictions about the energy crisis, and he’d put cheap paneling in “the great room”—this is realtor code for a room that serves as both kitchen and living room—and in a narrow hallway, where the cheap paneling buckled, excess insulation. I painted everything a color named Dream Light, and I tamed weeds. Rooms gleamed. Moonlight woke me, and I’d wander the yard at night, where white flowers gleamed. I lived in the center of preferred and amended shapes and colors.
Later, I moved to the fastest-growing city in America to be with my husband, who lived there with his son in what once was a small house in a working-class neighborhood, but the expensive city grew, and the house grew. Our iteration—a renovation for our blended family—would be its fifth, the one to complete and harmonize the previous. “Is this old or new?” someone asked a few years later, walking through our commodious home.
Daylight shone into every room and—one of the house’s best effects—through leaves on a banana tree near the dining room, spackling the walls in green-tinted shadow. Halls and short flights of stairs led to surprise alcoves. On the ceiling of a narrow passage, a skylight snapshotted the changing sky. Our children, adolescents becoming adults, sometimes left me droll notes on the kitchen counter. When my husband texted them that dinner was ready, they thundered downstairs, hungry, spilling news of the day. Once, walking in the neighborhood, I rounded a corner and a handsome man on a bicycle called out, and my heart thrilled involuntarily before I quite realized he was my husband. When my father-in-law came to dinner, we’d carry him in, his wheelchair too, and stream Czech polkas as he sipped beer from shorty bottles. My father-in-law died. The kids grew up.
Then the house was big. We discussed moving. I pictured a newlywed cottage in which to recoup lost or suspended time, the initial besotted weeks when we’d managed four dates before we’d brought along the kids. My husband pictured the tidy house he wished his father had moved to before he got sick. We ventured forth, home-hunters. This is the first scaling-down, downsizing, which, people insist, is not another word for loss.
Two lists for the goal-oriented psychiatrist.
One, my neuro-relevant history:
A sometimes frantic childhood. A sometimes violent early adulthood. Years of surviving on what I could earn or, when I was with my ex-husbands, earn plus borrow, or, after I left them, earn minus debt I was paying back, budgets so contingent that any unforeseen outlay—parts and labor for a car, a medical bill, a plumbing repair—required an iffy new budget to keep home a gracious shelter from distressing possibilities pressing in.
Last, but persistent, oversensitivity to loud noises like drunk men yelling. It’s irrational, but I can’t help what memories of stimuli my hippocampus retains. Also secondhand loud music, bass line minus melody. I might be hardwired to hate this. I might hate it because of that long-ago year I lived above drug dealers, their bass line minus melody arriving through heat ducts shaking the imitation-brass bed in which I lay awake. I’d go downstairs, knock on the drug dealers’ door, and they’d turn down music long enough to laugh at how unexpected and negligible I looked, knocking while wearing a winter coat over my nightgown, my face arranged into conciliation and hope. My heart races.
Two, some recent reasons for worry:
Though my husband and I moved to a perfect-sized house with tall windows that make some rooms into radiant chapels, a yard with majestic trees and boulders with indentations that I filled with soil and planted with flowers, and we moved without movers, the two of us carrying boxes, chairs, beds, tables, disassembling a 900-pound futon frame to carry pieces inside to reassemble because we like projects, problems to solve, and though we had the advice of a famous realtor who always sold my husband’s previous homes, and though this was a city where houses sell as soon as they’re listed, our lovely old house with the flickering banana tree leaves inexplicably did not sell for months.
Months and months, no big deal. But these were also the months doctors said my husband had incurable cancer and ordered a scan, and I rejoiced at cancer-free results until I understood they’d ordered more scans, which were cancer-free, too. But he stayed mysteriously sick. One doctor noted that a medication my husband took months earlier can, in rare cases, cause a rare illness, which he recovered from, months turning into a year during which he slept in a chair I’d reupholstered in gold-flecked fabric in a once-cheerless room I’d repainted. Then, without warning, he lost most of his hearing. Next, he awoke one day and saw only darkness punctuated by bright arch-shapes, light from elegant arch-shaped windows in our home (downsizing without loss a problem I’d solved). He had surgeries, then injections that turned his eyes blood-red, and his vision improved.
I wear earplugs in bed at night to drown out noise. Some days I leave them in and go outside to garden. My husband comes, too. From what I can tell while listening and lipreading, we hear each other the same if I wear earplugs while he wears hearing aids. This feels intimate, all others’ noise muted. Leaf blowers. Shouters. Shrieking children, a happy sound. I also can’t hear birdsong or wind in grasses. One day I asked him if, in a few years, when proximity to my job won’t matter but proximity to hospitals might, we’ll move again. We sometimes drive through the country, where house after house looks like home in the future-perfect tense. Home in the past is what I found and improved, haphazardness converted into intention. Home in the future is revived faith in better luck ahead.
Sometimes I wake in the morning, grateful I’ve slept.
At night, I lay in bed next to my husband, our bed a sleep-raft on wide water, and I’m floating, floating, everything beyond or above that might crush us passing me by, trees, firmament, the water below and the sky above forever unknowable, the lakes and trees and birds and fish—the sky is my ceiling—visible for now. And I’m becoming theirs, theirs.
I drive home from work on country roads at night, black highways with one or two remote lights beckoning, and the world once again seems bigger, some of it surely mine if I arrange my place. But after all the work and optimism, what the luckiest of us will get in the end, and I’ve been lucky, is not the world but space inside four walls. In time, one story, no stairs to manage. Then smaller, assisted living. Then smaller, your hospital room. Then the smallest. Drowsy, wrapped in a mauve blanket, I scare myself awake.