I added a new state to my map last week. Though meeting a new country is closer to how it feels for an urban Pacific Northwesterner to visit Alaska for the first time. I checked into my Juneau accommodation with something like 30 hours to spare, before I was due at the artists’ camp that was my reason for visiting. The weather was perfect: mid 60s, bright and sunny. I should have been filled with the anticipation of new trails.
I had been, before. It’s part of the reason I applied to this particular retreat. A new landscape, one known to be very much wild, pulled at the loose ends of my wanderlust, frayed them until they whispered like pines against each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they wouldn’t shut up. When the chance came, I booked my flight.
The innkeepers had supplied me by email with trail names, general directions, and approximate distances. The rest didn’t look too tough to figure out: Juneau is not a large city. I tightened my boot laces, checked my mobile’s charge…pulled the heavy arts-and-crafts style chair up to the window of my 3rd floor room and plunked myself down to watch the mountains. It was a moment’s rest, and then it was inevitable. I gave up, untied my boots. I’d flung the windows wide – no screens – and I moved to sit on this one’s sill, leaning out over the rooftops, into the mountains.
The mountains. They were right there, in a way that felt both foreign and familiar. Juneau perches on the edge of a finger of ocean dividing island and mainland. Most of its streets are steep, climbing quickly by necessity, colorful houses jumbled into the narrow space between sea and slope. Later, a friend related both the mountains, and the way the city cozies up under them, to the Alps, and I felt the comparison click.
From my windowsill, I watched a whitened waterfall spilling chuting slipping off the snowfields and down the long rocky face. I strained for the sound of it – surely something so massive, and so close!, must shout its exuberance all the way into town. I heard cars leaving the capitol buildings, state employees on their lunch break, a pair of ravens talking about stealing the state employees’ lunch.
Early afternoon into evening, I lived suspended beneath those slopes, caught between chair and sill. I watched the mist rise up the mountains, rivers fall off them, ravens fly before. I do not recall thinking anything at all.
The following day, I did walk, navigating past the top of the town and out to trailheads for the Mt. Roberts, Perseverance, and Flume Trails. Each looked inviting – some other time. I wandered empty roads fringed with the neon green foliage of spring, the mountains’ close-pressed faces halfway veiled in cloud above me. I tilted my own to them, soft rain on my eyes and lips, and wondered, distantly, if something was wrong with me.
It’s the first day of May as I write this, and the past two months have been intense. Work, mainly, and the surprise emotional impact thereof. Seeking a way back into a profession I miss practicing, I’ve briefly held two jobs at once (one part-time, one full-, abbreviated for their month-long co-existence as The MultiJob.) I’ve also accepted two new freelance assignments, and lived on tenterhooks waiting for yet another full-time opportunity to resolve itself into an offer. A long headspace later, it did, giving me permission to untangle myself from the MultiJob and begin the process of becoming yet another self.
The heartstring threaded through all of this is my personal attachment to the current full-time job, where one good friend is my boss and another my colleague, where I’ve been challenged and accepted and treated very well indeed, where our company pursues an educative mission I’m proud of – and where I’m unable to find work that ignites my passion or uses my primary skills.
I am told that I exhibited, during these months, a truly alarming level of daily anxiety. The part I remember is that I couldn’t settle to any task that wasn’t directly oriented to Getting Things Done – even if things were, in fact, done for the day. I drove hard at productivity with both hands gripping the wheel, hanging onto the quality of my work with my teeth while it tried to fly out the window. I lost track of my friends, drank more than I needed, struggled to produce the personal writing that sustains me. Four days before I was due in Juneau, my professional life settled and began to move forward, but that didn’t stop the storm. I took off from Portland with my brain still churning through the same possibilities, timelines, self-imposed directives.
The approach to Juneau from the south is surprising: a sudden, sharp tip of the wings, banking the plane into a narrow defile between imposing mountain steeps. No more than a few minutes later, you’re on the ground.
It’s probably a gradual process, loosening your grip on a stress-ball the size of mine. I doubt I let it go all at once. But memory constructs its own truths, so that I now recall carrying my anxiety all the way north in my lap. When those wings tilted toward Alaska, they shook it loose, and I stepped off the plane with all of that behind me.
This is not to say that I instantly recovered. In fact, boots on the ground in a foreign land I’d once been excited to meet, everything I did surprised me. Though I was not alone in town (a number of friendlies flew in for for the same event), I found my ability to create a coherent sentence reduced to the page, and I almost pathologically avoided company. I wandered the city in a contented sort of daze, with no purpose other than idle curiosity. I went to bed early; I took a nap at ten in the morning. It wasn’t until I’d met up with my fellow artists and arrived at our wilderness camp that I realized: I was exhausted. I can be kind of slow on the uptake with this sort of thing.
Solitude restores me, but this was more than the usual depletion. The sudden, constant presence of forty-odd other creative folks, in their own various states of exhaustion and excitement, took over where solitary wandering left off. It pulled me out of myself and gave me the kind of joyful social motivation I’ve rarely experienced. I spent the weekend as an extrovert: energized by the presence of others.
By the end of our three days together, my throat was scratchy, which I attributed to nightly campfire smoke. I sat next to one of my new friends on the bus to the airport, coughing in between chatting about our hometowns and our creative goals. My throat seized in mid-sentence and my friend looked concerned. “Are you ok?”
“I just need some water,” I replied. I really believed that.
There were two days left in The Multijob when I returned: two days requiring at least 12 working hours each, plus that constant, awkward headspace where your mind is full of one project when you’re working on the other. I worked from home, grateful as always that I can do that, and tried to be silent around my unspeakably sore throat. It tapered off; I met my cousin for coffee. I’m fine, see? Got off light. On the first day of the next weekend, this one, I woke up groggy and unable to breathe freely, with a headache the size of Alaska.
Illness always takes me by surprise. It also changes my perspective, in a physical way that goes beyond philosophy. Instead of suddenly ‘realizing’ I am too tired to write, or to work in any way, I simply cannot, and so I sleep. When I wake, eating is a tiring chore, and after I’ve managed it I’m good for nothing at all, other than hours in my favorite chair with a book. I’ve read two fat books in two days, straight through with no guilt at all.
Do I have responsibilities? Certainly. I’m fortunate to have a body strong enough to push through to the weekend before it throws an unarguable wrench in the productivity wheel. All the same, I have business correspondence to catch up on. I could seriously use a walk. More crucially, I haven’t written anything outside my journal since the middle of April. Didn’t I just go to a retreat for creators? Here I am, creating nothing at all. I haven’t hit a trail in weeks; how can I write a piece about one?
Full-capacity me would make time to address these imbalances. Sick me does not even try. The real imbalance is fundamental, in response to which my body has changed the rules, and my brain obeys. Today we are fallow. Let it be.
Fallow is a curious word. Referring to a plot of agricultural land, it does not mean untouched or untended, only unplanted, unsown. It means the ground has produced before, has been prepared to produce again, and is asked to produce nothing at all just now, in the expectation of greater yields next season. It’s a break, of the sort a producing field (or human) can be comfortable with: it promises rest now, and a return to productivity in due time.
With a season behind me more difficult than most, fallow is what I needed to give myself permission to be. I couldn’t stop the whirlwind in my brain long enough even to see the need, and this is where the rest of the blessed world stepped in to save me. My body, in its exhaustion, calmed the storm the only way it could. Some mountains I’d never met caught and held me while I rested. And a group of strangers, in their generosity, supported and energized me with friendship.
I’m coming out of the fog; I can tell because I rose this morning refreshed, with a five-mile walk on my mind, and no sign of the whirlwind returning. I can tell because my fingers twitched when they thought of writing.
But I am still tired, my restless fire banked low. I took another long nap today, and felt accomplished for it. Philosophy has followed physicality, and I trust this process. I’ll go forward soon enough, with the energy I need to close out this chapter in my life, collaborate on a new one, discover new paths and find the words to distill them on the page.
In the meantime, it’s okay to simply till the soil, and wait.