Habits, Simple and Austere

by Laura Jean Moore

I have been reading the poems of Pablo Neruda in translation. They are beautiful, but my experience of them is one of distraction. I read them and do not read them. My mind wanders as my eyes take in each phrase. “Only Death,” then two different translations of “Walking Around.” I am tired of being a man, he says, and I think then of being a woman, and of being a person, and how tired I am of being both or either, too. Images in my mind: what my dear friend’s children may look like when they are older, how I will feel the next time I see an old lover, where last I saw a sky with true darkness, the Milky Way banded across the night like a promise. Other poets—George Seferis comes to mind—I read and the words and images erase whatever worldly concerns and obsessions I have been coveting. But Neruda’s poems surround me like the wallpaper in a warm room. It is not that I do not love such warm rooms, but that I am restless now, and I miss the woods.

It has been the winter of my discontent, and I cling to the hope that like Richard III’s summer that followed, my own will be made glorious in what is to come. I have felt like a prisoner of concrete and ice; the city of New York—so enlivened in spring and summer—becomes its worst self in the extremes of heat and cold. The closeness of the buildings and the smallness of the sky suffocate whatever expansiveness I may have felt in places past. To survive, I have taken to rewatching the Ken Burns documentary about the National Park system, and reading poetry, and baking bread—anything to distract from this stifled mania and my perpetual lust for different vistas.

So, of course in bundled couch-sitting with tea held close to my lips, I dream of Alaska, that place I have gone in pilgrimage in years past; Alaska, with its rolling hills and enormous mountains, its glacial fissures and rollicking rivers, its ice and forest, its plains and tundra. Alaska reminds me, you are just visiting here. Your uncertainty, your routines will pass away and these mountains will remain, unalive and eternal. My relationship with the divine has always been complicated and clouded by the masks of flawed emissaries, but in the vastness of Alaska and other places wild, I approach that human impulse to worship and be awed with the supplicating humility of a frightened child.

Even though the South was my home as a girl, Alaska has always been the just-known frontier of my life. When I was an infant, my mother’s parents lived in Anchorage for a short while, and we visited first before I could speak, then again when I was four and my sister two. At that age, the world of adults and cities seems as large as any natural place. I remember most the howling of sea lions and the cartoonish indifference of puffins, how the ground shook one night, and the cigarette and Dove soap smell of my grandparents’ home. It was many years before we returned again, this time on a cruise that was to celebrate the long and successful partnership of my father’s parents. On that trip, my sister and I took refuge in the woods whenever the boat docked; we wanted to flee the hurt of our own parents’ crumbling marriage and the censored selves we wore every night at family dinners. We wanted to flee our moorage.

As an adult, I have made my home in Portland, Oregon, and now Brooklyn, New York. Places and cities are to me what different mediums are to an artist; they each have their qualities and uses. Portland was a good place for me to learn how to be a woman outside the distinctly Southern definitions of what could be called feminine or tomboyish in myself—in the performance of myself—but it was not a place that I ever felt totally comfortable. There is a way that people in Portland concern themselves with right living the same as they do in the South, even if Portlanders’ idea of what is right is decidedly at the other end of the political and social spectrum. And in its way, New York is the opposite of that. Its callousness and indifference to you, to me, to anyone, is a haven of sorts—a place, finally, where no one notices me, who I am, what I want, how I am doing. The anonymity afforded by the crowd has its freedoms, and I do not feel rooted here or that the city requires me to. It is the place where I live for now, and I am not unaware of how my perhaps disloyalty to this locale colors my continued ambivalence in the face of its ugliness and charm.

August a few years back, I returned to Alaska as a lone adult, and the contrast with the ur-cityness of New York amplified the sparseness of its hinterlands. My mother had made her home there after the dissolution of her marriage to my father, and she was thriving in the sanctuary of the nearby forests and mountains. One day when she was at work, she let me borrow her truck, and I drove out to Talkeetna, a tourist trap so idyllic that the show Northern Exposure modeled its town after its environs. After having a beer at one of the inns, I walked to the nearby Talkeetna River and parked myself on one of the river-dropped logs along its banks. It was a sunny day, and although Denali to the north had a few clouds around it—always making its own weather, the locals say—I could see its white and majestic peak rising into the sky. As I sat, I let my gaze drift from the mountain to the waters and back, and then back again. The river is shallow there, and you can see the sediment and rounded rocks of granite peak through the cloudy water, full of silt from glacial run-off and cold like the ice of its origin.

The whole landscape was beautiful, like people can never be, because it was indifferent and its beauty was a sum of its parts, without effort or flaw. As I think of it now, it occurs to me that flaws are only judgments of what is deemed less worthy by our human value systems anyway. Nature is outside such concerns, and it is sobering for me to remember I am not so outside of nature as I often pretend. I remember sitting there and having the same feeling that I had the first time that I saw the Grand Canyon snaking away from me into seemingly endless chasms and depths. I did not know what to do with it. I was witness to, and inside, and a part of something so much greater than I was, that my will felt impotent, my surety about my identity felt false and invented, and the happenstance of my life felt suddenly as precious to me as it is without consequence to the natural world.

The wilderness is a place you go through, my father used to say in one of his sermons. It is not a place that you stay. He was speaking about Exodus, and the story of the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years, looking for the promised land. I would add that the wilderness is also a place of retreat and refuge, where civilization and the enemies therein cannot follow you. It is where you go to learn the boundaries of yourself.

The next time I returned to Alaska, it was in winter, colder even than this winter has been for me, and I was then married and happy and delighted. My mother arranged for us to go dog sledding in the sub-zero quiet, and we paired up with experienced Iditarod mushers and dog teams. Before meeting the dog teams, I had been worried that sledding was cruel for the dogs, but I was surprised to learn that the mushers have to teach the dogs to stop running, not the converse. Each one, individually named, leapt with excitement when chosen to go on the run, and the young ones could barely sit still, they were so eager to go. My sister and mother were on one sled with an experienced musher as their guide, and I and my husband were on another, with a different musher for our own expedition. We set off into the woods and over snow-caked frozen lakes. As we came around a bend in the trail, an enormous bull moose stepped out of the tree line to our left, several hundred yards away, and regarded us from where he stood. Up close, he would have been a threat—to us and the dogs—but at that distance, we were safe and he was magnificent.

It was cold enough that icicles began to hang from my husband’s mustache, and I could barely keep from shivering, even in all the layers of clothes and the snowsuit that I was wearing. Jack London came to mind, and the Little Match Girl. Cold is a fact, the way pain is a response. There is no undoing it without great effort, and even then the warmth created is limited by the size of the energy used to banish it. At some point I resigned myself to the cold, knowing I was warm enough to be safe, and through a focused will, turned my attention to the afternoon winter light as it faded into an orange sunset. We continued in the dark, kept company by the sh shh shhhing of the sled and the sometimes barking of the dogs until we returned, whole, and renewed.

It has been years now, since that trip. I am divorced. And the wilderness has become, like the poetry I read in the evening, a play of words in my mind. I do not worry about whether or not I will go back—I know that I will, eventually—but when it feels as though this routine of the subway and the bodies jostling against mine and the noise of sirens and the crusted dirty ice of city streets will finally erase me, the memories and lessons of those untamed landscapes help me survive. I sometimes watch the faces of the people around me and wonder where they go when they sit, eyes closed and faces arranged into blank opacity, and I wonder if we are all in the woods among each other, unknown and mysterious in our strangeness. I know that some people have never seen a forest or a mountain or the sea. And I think then what would have been my refuge, if I had not known these places? Perhaps a warm room. Perhaps a good sentence. And then I stop my daydreaming, and remember, these, also, are refuges still. I rest into comfort and survive the winter again.


Laura Jean Moore

Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured in FLUX WEEKLY, VICE, [PANK], the Brooklyn Rail, ENTROPY, Corium, and Change Seven. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.

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