Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Returning to Manhattan From the Woods

This essay of mine was originally published in the lovely Quail Bell Magazine on January 18. I thought it was the perfect first post of 2015 for my Calamity Joe blog, too. Enjoy!

Returning to Manhattan from the Woods

January is rough for lots of us; it’s cold, we spent all our money on the holidays, it’s hard to adjust to a work schedule again, hard to say goodbye to loved ones and leisurely days spent eating whatever we want. Yes, January is a quiet month. Someone told me once that if January were a color, it would be blue.

For me, January has an added layer of post-holiday blues: a serious “home for the holidays” hangover, where the ghosts of Christmas past and present and future linger, uninvited and inappropriate and utterly at odds with the date on the calendar.

I realize that the holidays have been over for most people for a while now, but I only just got back to New York City, and I just got back from Del Norte County, California: a place that couldn’t be farther from New York City either physically or spiritually. It’s the place I went to high school, fell in love for the first time, joined the abstinence club, and did a lot of other ridiculous things – like driving my car into a table that was inside a building, driving my car into a fence, and driving my car into a dirt road in the mountains where no one could find us, to kiss for hours and look at the stars.

Del Norte County is a place where people wear plaid and beards without irony, tack the Confederate flag on the back of their pickups, and listen to the country station non-stop. It’s a place where people deer-hunt, prospect, surf, kayak, fish, whale-watch, and live off the grid. It’s a wild place. A wooded place. An isolated place that, this time, took me 35 hours to reach via plane and car. It’s the place about which my mother always said, though she loves it and still resides there, “You can’t stay here. You will go to college.” You will go out of the woods, and into the world.

Her town has maybe 500 people. My borough has maybe 1.7 million. When I am there, I am lonely for people. When I am here, I am lonely for trees.

When I visit my mother and step-father for Christmas, I am also visiting the woods. Literally. Figuratively. We sit together, drink wine, and unwind the spool of our desires, struggles, and history through conversation, and all the while the trees outside rustle in the wind, listening.

There’s a bay tree on the top of our hill that I’ve sat in and talked to for eighteen years now, ever since we moved there. It guards the waterfall that we only have in the winter. It guards most of my secrets. It saw my first kiss, and the mountain lion that could have eaten me alive when I was fifteen. It survived my ill-laid plans for a tree house as well as several epidemics of Port Orford Cedar root rot. I hope it will survive me, survive the plans upriver to install a nickel mine that would destroy Del Norte County as I know it. I hope that bay tree will be around to watch the sun turn red.

Into the Woods just came out, and my mother and I drove two hours to get to the nearest movie theater screening it. She fell asleep after the prologue, and I chuckled to myself all through the lyrics: 

“The way is clear,
The light is good,
I have no fear,
Nor no one should.
The woods are just trees,
The trees are just wood.”

The trees are never just wood. Anyone with half a brain knows that. Not in any woods I’ve ever seen.

The woods of Del Norte County are many things to many people, and for me they’ve gone from woods to solace to retreat to playground to dungeon to padded cell to hostile territory to symbols and back to woods again. It struck me this holiday that somehow, over the last ten years of being outside the woods, I’d come to fear them in a strange way. Not just in a New Yorker vs. nature way: I’d come to fear going into the woods, for fear of what the trees would remember to me.

Each time I enter the woods, I am my twelve-year-old self writing a poem, and my sixteen-year-old self scaling a mountain with my friend Amy who I never see or hear from anymore, and my twenty-one year old self at odds with the world for the first time. The woods play tricks, bend time, and whisper. The woods change color with the twirling light of day, going from laughter to silence.

Del Norte County is the northwesternmost county in California, bordering Oregon to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west and Humboldt to the south. It’s an isolated corner of the state, sparsely habited and poor. Most of the land is protected as National Park, National Forest, State Park, or reservation land of one of the two local Native tribes. There’s a sad history of war and racism. There’s a sad present of poverty. And, within that, there are all the joys and blessings of human life. Families. Schools. Beaches. Most of all, there are the woods.

When I went to school there, Del Norte was the methamphetamine-production hub of the state, smack-dab in the middle of the notorious “green triangle.” It’s easy to hide a meth lab in the woods. It’s easy to do drugs in the woods. When a high school buddy of mine bought a house in Crescent City, she found a recipe for meth written on the inside of a cabinet door in pencil. Apparently the previous owners had forgotten that graphite erases. It was scrawled there, carefully, like lovers’ initials in tree bark.

The woods were where I spent my time in order to avoid the drugs and poverty. My friends and I would bodysurf in the Smith River or forge our own trails behind Stony Creek. We’d lie in the sun and talk about books, or not talk at all, and let the trees do their thing. Once or twice we’d climb to the top of a mountain with no path, and then to the top of a tree on the top of the mountain, and spend the afternoon staring over the velvety-green folds of the foothills of the Coastal Range or the Klamath Mountains, I could never tell where one ended and the other began. I could never tell where the ocean began and the rivers ended, or where the trees and the mountains split into definitive articles.

It’s hard to explain these things to New Yorkers. Most of them have never spent an afternoon in a tree, in the woods. It’s a different breed of tree than park trees, like cats and dogs: park trees are there to please you, forest trees don’t give a damn. They just see you, like another insect picking its way over the bark of the earth’s crust, small and temporary and tame. The trees see, but they are not your friends.

There are dangers in the woods. The woods back home were my escape but also a wild place, like the time my girlfriend and I stumbled into someone’s pot field in the ravine we were playing in and received a shotgun-blast in the air as warning to make ourselves scarce, or the time my dog Teddy disappeared from the trail barking, only to scare two bear cubs out of the bushes to my left that ran straight at me, wild-eyed, afraid of my 50-pound dog, while I looked at them, wild-eyed, afraid of their not-yet-seen but presumably nearby mother, or the time my mother fell and dislocated her hip and had to lay there in the woods for an hour before another human could answer her cellphone call. She's lucky there was another human. She's lucky she had reception.

The woods look down on book-nerds and hippies drug addicts and loggers alike. They look on memories and the present alike. There are voices in the woods.

Not all the people I played with in the woods survived. Drugs and poverty ate up a lot of the kids and neighbors that I knew. A girl who had once been my best friend had a baby in 8th grade. Our charming, handsome class joker was dead my sophomore year of high school, drunkenly playing chicken on the highway that wound through the woods. When I was in junior high we had the highest teen pregnancy rate in California: my high school graduating class started with 418 students, but by the time I walked across the stage as salutatorian, our total numbers had dropped to 214. But me, I had a great time in the woods, even though they didn't belong to me and I didn't belong to them. I knew I couldn’t stay.

To get out of the woods I moved to Manhattan. Except for two years in Brooklyn and a half a year in Ireland, I’ve been in Manhattan ever since. When I go back to visit Del Norte, it seems strange that I am a professional artist, that I spend my time in skyscrapers and sidewalks and not in trees anymore.

Some people never got out of the woods.

I’ve gone back to Del Norte County every single Christmas since I moved away. It’s a ritual. A pilgrimage. A re-opening and healing of a strange wound I only found a name for this year: my innocence. I thought I left it in the woods, when I was in love with them and in love with a boy from the woods, when I was still able to shut out the bad things about the world and rightly whisper to the trees that I was good, back in the time when I'd crush the moss under my feet breathlessly, half expecting to surprise God behind those next huckleberry bushes, eating his fill, always preparing what I'd say if I found him.

When I left the woods and the boy behind, I told myself I was heartsick and broken and that the better part of my heart was lost in the woods forever. I’ve been afraid of wandering through the woods ever since, convinced that at any turn a Hemlock would confront me with my mushy heart, or a Douglas Fir would drop my innocence on my head, and force me to take it up again. It seemed like too great a burden to risk. I didn’t have time or bravery for my innocence anymore. I needed to move fast and light and heartlessly to succeed. And so I’d dread the woods, not wanting to be confronted with bravery, sticking close to my mother’s living room instead.

This Christmas, I realized I hadn’t actually lost anything in the woods. The woods are what you make of them.

Last night I had a long, elaborate dream birthed out of my extended 3-week holiday at my mother’s house. In it, I had a long conversation with my high school sweetheart that was polite and impersonal and devoid of emotion. We were at his parent’s house, or mine, or in the Redwoods – it could have been all or any of those places, they are the same. For the first time in years, I woke up grumpy about dreaming of him, because he had nothing to tell me I didn’t already know, nothing pertinent to add. His kind words didn't mean anything. What’s the point of that? I wondered. I could have been dreaming of Toby Stephens or Benedict Cumberbatch or Jason Momoa. And then it struck me: I’m free, not afraid anymore of going into the woods, going into myself. I can take the woods with me this time.

Then I woke up in Manhattan.

I crossed five items off my 2-page to-do list and submitted for 24 acting parts. I made couscous and pondered how little I have in common with the world I just left behind yet again, and how this particular Christmas somehow shifted and transcended the stormy relationship I’ve had with the river, rocks, and trees of Del Norte County over the years: how very much I am out of the woods, how I no longer dread going there, or leaving. How it’s no longer home or my dream of home, but instead the beautiful place in the woods I go to in order to sit on the couch and drink wine with my mother and contemplate the escape I made from the woods and the yearly escape I make back to them. We stare at the trees through our kitchen window, watching the mist dissipate in the morning and the sunlight dissipate at night and the moonlight dissipate at dawn and time dissipate in our hands. My mother is my haven, not the woods.

I am my own woods, now.

“Into the woods and down the dell
In vain, perhaps, but who can tell?
Into the woods to lift the spell
Into the woods to lose the longing

Into the woods to have the child
To wed the Prince, to get the money
To save the house, to kill the Wolf
To find the father, to conquer the kingdom

To have, to wed, to get, to save
To kill, to keep, to go to the festival
Into the woods, into the woods
Into the woods, then out of the woods”

*Lyrics from Into the Woods by Stephen Soundheim and James Lapine