We Don’t Exist, Therefore We Write

Matanuska Glacier, which no longer exists in the form  it did when this picture was taken.

Matanuska Glacier, which no longer exists in the form it did when this picture was taken. Near Palmer, AK.

Lately I’ve been writing about a friend’s dad, let’s call him Mr. Roberts, who claimed that we don’t exist. Mr. Roberts had a PhD in chemistry, worked at a major consumer goods manufacturer and had the fortitude to sail solo around the entire U.K. He was, in two words, no dummy.

But I was 12 when I knew him, and couldn’t get a grasp on his reasoning behind why we don’t actually exist. I still don’t understand. The idea stuck.*

It is, in fact, haunting me as I sit here in Seattle, on a laptop, and scratch my head about Alaska. Did we really spend the summer there, in the rain, among brown bears and salmon? Was it all just a dream in fast-forward? I feel like a human boomerang. Catapult north, through Canada! Arc around the fingers of the Alaskan landmass, accelerate through stilted boreal forests and return, you polished little boomerang you, to your roost in the city!

The thing that was real yesterday, or a year or a minute ago, is nothing but a visual imprint now. I’m back staring into my laptop, a flat edifice of plastic and silicon which itself is only a doorstop unless it has electricity or internet. Being back in a familiar setting, in a city, feels like Groundhog Day.

Yet something, inexplicably, has changed. It might take years to understand what. The only way to know is to write about it.

“Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life,” Eudora Welty once said.

Life might be ineffable, but at least we can order events. In writing, memories stay alive. It reanimates a past that cannot be repeated. Eudora Welty’s Mississippi, Jack London’s Alaska, Jonathan Franzen’s Midwest, your New Orleans, my Alaska. These places may not exist, according to Mr. Roberts, but they live.

* I encourage all adults to throw out similar truisms in the presence of tweens. It’ll give the young tribe something to chew on. Phrases like “I am a solipsist” or “radical empiricism is truth” just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Why I No Longer ‘Do’ Places

 

Polychrome Pass, Denali

Busload of tourists ‘does’ Polychrome Pass, Denali NP

(Image: Drea Knufken)

Have you heard of that Amtrak Residency for Writers? It’s pretty cool. You sit on a train and write for 2-5 days. The constant movement of the train lulls your mind into a writerly state. You’re free of that metaphysical silly string of daily life: sticky obligations, sticky family, sticky friends, sticky work. Nothing to tug you away from the keyboard but circadian rhythms and nature.

Travel grinds life down to its fundamentals. Food, water, a place to lay your head, the shapes of new things in fresh places. That sense of presence is an awakening.

Here’s the thing I recently learned. Travel only works as a creative catalyst when it contrasts with something you’re used to. If you were to live on an Amtrak train, I bet it would get boring. I bet a suburban house would feel like a thick-walled cave and inspire creativity—and then get boring again. And then the train would be exciting.

This need for contrast seems indulgent. It clashes with an impossible standard I hold for myself, a standard constructed out of some vague and ancient definition of virtue. “If you were enlightened enough,” the voice in my head tells me—it is wearing a cassock, by the way, like Neo from The Matrix—“you would be fascinated by small things and not have the need to run around the planet until your feet hurt.”

I heard somewhere that enlightened Buddhists will find fascination in buttoning their shirts in the morning. What is it that is so fundamentally satisfying, then, about seeing as many places as possible? Is it the outcome of a busy and greedy mind, one that measures progress in the form of number of experiences? Or is there really something transformative about it?

Both, I’d venture. The happy medium is somewhere in between. All the great prophets have spent time traveling; so have the most annoying braggarts.

I think I’ll adjust my enlightenment standard to read something like: “Don’t visit a city just to ‘do’ that city. Let the city or place do something to you.”

Priorities, and How They Eat Dreams

5:30 a.m.

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It’s so cold outside, and the bed is so warm. I think I hear rain on the roof. I could go deeper into the covers and forget about everything. Let me expose my hand and see how the air feels. Dang, that’s cold. The heater is four steps away. I’d be covered in goose bumps if I walked out right now. I’ll just wait for it to get warmer. I need the sleep. Remember all those times I didn’t sleep? This is healthy.

7:30 a.m.

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That felt amazing. I am entirely replenished. Born anew. It’s warm enough to walk around. Let me just heat up this water—yes, that stovetop feels good. Now all I need to do is sit down and … uh-oh. The dog. I have two deadlines today. Need to make breakfast. And an 8 a.m. call, almost forgot about that. Do I even have cell reception? Quick, I’ll have to get dressed and walk over to that pay phone.

7:00 p.m.

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I can’t believe we made it to Smalltown today. Can’t believe I actually squeezed in that deadline. I still have that other one, though. My brain hurts. Need to figure out dinner. I’ll cook dinner and then do the deadline. No, can’t, I’ll get all excited and not sleep. Did we chain up the bikes, lock the back of the truck? I’ll wake up early tomorrow and finish the deadline.

Weekend

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Why in Job’s name should I sit and stare at my computer more this weekend? We’re near the Ocean of the Beluga Whale (or the Desert of the 20-Foot Cactus, or the Bright Blue Glacial Lake near that Must-Eat Local Restaurant)! I’ll do better next week. I’ll set my alarm for 5:30. I will write.

New places, same rationalizations. It never gets done without discomfort. Travel might inspire stories, but those stories won’t write themselves.

 

 

What is a Technomad?

Technomad-NOLA

Picture: Seth K. Hughes

Technomad (n): A person who foresakes full-time habitation in favor of frequent movement to new places, possibly but not necessarily in an RV. Like a retiree (n), but with a job (n). Characteristically accompanied by devices like the MiFi, signal boosters, ranging devices and other nefarious-sounding implements that are essential to job (n).

If you’ve ever had a panic attack because you can’t get a cellular signal, or you will live in a dry lakebed in the middle of the desert for a week because of good cell service, you might be a technomad.

If you work online and rely on good internet service to make money, you’re all tech, without the nomad part.

You could wander if you really wanted to. We do.

It’s a good lifestyle if you love to travel, or if you staying in one place makes you fidgety. Best case scenario is both.

It used to be hard to work online and live on the road. People have been doing it for at least a decade nonetheless, pioneering twenty- and thirty-something online workers who thought—why do we have to wait until we retire? People like Aluminarium and Technomadia.

They set a precedent for people like us. Nowadays, it’s a growing trend.

Living on the road forces you to simplify your life. You can’t hide from your surroundings. If you’re off the grid like us, you feel every gallon of water and bagful of waste. It’s liberating or alarming, depending on where you are and how much water you have left.

It forces you to be friendly. You rarely know who your neighbors are. Seeing what they throw back at you after “hello” can say a lot.

It also increases your burden of time spent making things work. Plugged into city water and electricity? That’s two worries gone. Got a washer/dryer, food processor, grocery store nearby? Ditto three.

In a way, it’s akin to living in a developing country, where resources are limited and you can’t just space out on life.

But that’s the core of travel, isn’t it? To avert habit, to stay fresh.

Hi, I’m Nowhere Woman

Drea Knufken Airstream Life and Writing

 Photo: Seth K. Hughes

There are two ways to look at the world when you’re a permanent traveler. (Yes, I know that in a sense we are all permanent travelers, through time and life, but I’m not going there until I hit an existentialist moment. Which should be any day now.)

  1. The road is my home. From Clorox-wiped gas station tilework to sweeping vistas of Colorado’s Royal Gorge, I am one with my surroundings. Motion feeds my soul. Every new sensation becomes a glimmering piece of the creative mosaic.
  1. F%&# the road. I can’t stop anywhere long enough to really absorb it. All that this constant travel does is isolate us from our friends. I’m either watching trees blur by or frantically typing on my laptop before my internet connection disappears again.

Studiola, I have to admit: You got me at a funny time. My husband, dog and I decided to live full-time in an Airstream this past February. If I’d been blogging here during those virgin months, you would have gotten something like a yogic bliss travel broadcast. Today finds me hanging out in a house, a real house, for the first time since May. We spent the summer in Alaska, by way of thousands of miles of driving. We just made it back to the Lower 48 yesterday.

“It was phenomenal” is what I’ll say once this travel hangover boils over. You know those stereotypes about people on the road being a little haggard, tweaked out on coffee, grouchy and soft around the middle? Yeah.

I’m also very honored to be here. I love that I can share these little stories with you.

By way of background, most pictures will come from my husband Seth K. Hughes, who also writes and photographs on our blog.

October is Drea Knufken

October 2014 brings Drea Knufken to the Studiola.

drea

Drea Knufken is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist. She has published bylined and ghostwritten articles in Salon, WIRED, National Geographic, Backpacker and Natural Health, among others. Her book, “The Backroads and Byways of Colorado,” is now in its second edition. She’s also a reader for Narrative Magazine.

Curatorial Statement: How do you write when you live nowhere? How do you piece together coherent experience when your home is a blur on the highway, or a sopping wet campground and, rather than being a female Jack Kerouac, you wedge in creative hours around that thing called Paying Work? My intent this month is to explore how life on the road both feeds creativity and munches it to pieces. An image-heavy exploration, this month’s curation include glimpses into this alternative lifestyle I’ve chosen, known alternately as technomadism, Airstreaming, folly and brilliance.

The Process Involves Love

Kinds of love (after Gon Ben Ari):

The love of the sound of language.
The love of the shapes formed by one’s tongue in creating the sounds of language.
The love of English.
The love of one’s toes when they are freshly painted in a new color.
The love of discovering new words. This week: philtrum.
The love of one’s philtrum—which is to say, the cleft that runs between the nose and the upper lip.
The love of the small scar on one’s husband’s face, just to the left of his philtrum.
The love of one’s small dog for oneself, as expressed through nuanced positioning of the ears.
The love of reading one’s dog’s thoughts via the positioning of the ears.
The love of how weird it is that the dog has never actually spoken.
The love of articulating previously nebulous ideas.
The love of discovering terms for previously nebulous ideas. This week: patriarchal bargaining.
The love of one’s protagonist, despite her extensive reliance on patriarchal bargaining—which is to say, maneuvering within patriarchal systems to secure power or safety rather than fighting or disrupting the systems.
The love of one’s mother.
The love of French.
The love of Spanish.
The love of something Gon Ben Ari once said about how in English, the sentences in the Bible only mean one thing, while the same sentences in Hebrew mean many things.
The love of quotes half remembered, due to one’s terribly imperfect powers of recall.
The love of influence.
The love of jotting things down in compensation for terribly imperfect powers of recall.
The love of the inside of one’s own head, despite challenges such as: inner chaos.
The love of the patterns of black on white formed by words on a page.
The love of a room in which the only sound is the clicking of keys on a laptop.
The love of silence.
The love of knowing that one has rendered some things, sometimes, somewhat coherent.