Dispatches from a Whimsical Life, #1

Once, in the summer of 2006, in Shaftsbury, Vermont, I sat on Robert Frost’s toilet. I’m not making this up. I stepped over the velvet rope and sat right down and smiled for my friend to take a picture. And all of a sudden, I felt less scared.

What is scary about Robert Frost?

A lot of things. That poem. Two roads that converged. Taking the road less traveled. He makes it sound so, so, final. And Serious. And permanent, like there is just one fork in the road, one turning point you can look back on to identify the curve of your life’s story. Ugh, just remembering the lines give me chills. I hate forks in the road. I hate having to choose. I like just looking, and changing direction on a whim, and feeling the thrill of hacking through the brush, just to see, if the air is different a few paces off the path. It’s kind of my thing.

Over the past thirteen years, which spanned my early twenties to my mid thirties, I’ve lived in six states. Another way to say it: I have lived in thirteen residences in thirteen years. These thirteen years, I’ve lived in nine cities. I’m a constant reviser, re-arranger.

I have a habit: I move. A lot. To different places. And then I find a new job. New friends. New favorite bars, restaurants, new likes and dislikes, new hobbies. The newness frightens and exhilarates. About every 5 years, I reinvent myself.

When I sat on Mr. Frost’s toilet, in 2006, I was trying to be a Serious Fiction Writer. And the moment I sat down, everything changed for me. No, I didn’t start hearing Robert Frost’s voice. It was a very small thing: a shift in perspective.

On the toilet, I stopped being a spectator and became a part of the main attraction. I saw what Robert Frost saw when he crapped. I liked it. I felt powerful, and in charge. He saw a window which looked out over some trees, he saw wood paneling, and if the door was open, he saw the beginning of his china cabinet. I delighted in the realness of the fact that this is where Robert sat to go to the bathroom. How many other people had sat here? I wondered. The visceral, the real, the lungfuls of atmosphere around me: no two ways about it, part of my life was spent on Robert Frost’s toilet.

Once I received a text message from a high school friend, whose life decisions are just about as opposite from mine as you can get. Married, consistent career in teaching at one level (I’ve taught four grades and college), homeowner, three kids, active member of a church community. It said:

“I’ve always admired your ability to constantly re-invent yourself.”

I took that to mean that I had no self and that I was always trying insanely to find one, using the same broken tactics. I didn’t realize she was saying, straight up, that this ability of mine to move and start over is kind of, well, cool.

At Robert Frost’s house, I learned that poem of his that had antagonized me for ages was just one of the things that he produced, (maybe while sitting on the toilet) and not something that he embodied, like a scolding ghost. Hell, maybe he didn’t even believe the drama of the fork in the road. To be a writer–not a Serious Fiction Writer, but a plain old writer, I have learned that you need to be yourself. Because though they are different, the writer and self, and they need to be on speaking terms.

One of my favorite feelings in the world is when my car is packed up with most of my possessions and I’m turning onto the open road to a new place, new light, new terrain. I love the smell of beach tar and roasting corn on Main Street Santa Monica, California, watching small children cling to the thick manes of miniature ponies while sandwich board protesters pace silently, outraged at the practice of pony rides. I’m dazzled by the quick change of fish market-to-bakery aromas that crowd sidewalk blocks of the Portuguese section of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. I am mesmerized by sunset sky over Parker, Colorado–the first place I’ve ever learned first-hand why they call the golden, streaming slits in clouds “God’s Hands.” (You have to see it to believe it.) (It might make you cry the first time.)

Dispatches are about capturing the real and the observed from my ordinary, messy, whimsical life, returning to food (and the connector muscles in between). It’s about Nic whose eyes light up when he discusses poaching meat in an immersion container, and Wesley who brews strong coffee in a roadside stand and always remembers if you take cream, no sugar. It’s about a woman who saves lives and makes a killer lemon tart, and a man who philosophizes and plays the French horn. Sometimes, he will make homemade pretzels.

It is about rejecting the gorgeous design the tattoo artist has drawn for you. It is about telling him to trace your own handwriting from your battered composition book, directly onto your arm. It is about not crying.

tat bicep

Let me share some of my excitement about discoveries at the edges of lived experience. This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I’m on the verge of telling you to just stay home.

It is, after all, a job for a professional.

About alison barker