I remember one summer day when I was about 12 years old, walking home from the closest store to our house. It was a two mile walk along the hot, dusty ridge trail that wound like a ribbon of young pines and dry grasses between the north and south lanes of Skyline Boulevard in Oakland.
I didn’t have enough money to buy something that would really quench my thirst, so I was sweaty and miserable before I’d even left the parking lot. I would have given anything not to walk two more miles in the blistering heat. I forgot why the trip had seemed like a good idea in the first place.
All I wanted was a fast-forward button. I fantasized about reaching out my index finger and pushing a simple button which would magically skip me forward to my cool room again without having to take another step. How lovely that would be, to already be back home, and to avoid all the suffering of the next forty minutes.
But since I was being honest with myself, I had to admit that I wouldn’t stop there. I would proceed to fast-forward through the next two years of my life until high schoolâ€”well, okay, through all the years of my life before I could leave home and move out on my own. Because surely sometime in my future there would be a time when I was not miserableâ€”and here I was not just talking about the heatâ€”when I would feel happy, loved, and in the right place.
This scene neatly sums up the lesson which has defined my entire adult life: resisting the urge to flee. Or rather, living with that urge, sometimes giving in and sometimes holding firm.
Both resisting and giving in have served me well. I stayed in a difficult marriage for many years, to give my children the most stable home life possible. When it was obviously time to leave, I had the strength to go and not return.
Neither staying nor going ever prevent the heart from breaking. All we can hope to influence is in what place and under what conditions the heart breaks open, because it will: unavoidably, regularly, and without concern for whatever else we might wish to be doing.
Anybody who hopes to live somehow without feeling heartbreak should not choose writing as a profession. The best writing comes tinged with loss, with the page edges torn and tattered from the gale force winds whipping through the writer’s open heart. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to write while coping with a huge loss.
I should be more specific. It is not impossible for me to write now that my father is dead. What is difficult is writing publicly while feeling those gale force winds. The urge to fast-forward, to gloss over my actual experience and move into the abstract, is tempting. There are many things I could write now in this way, with a reasonable effort. They might even be worth reading.
But the part of me that is by now familiar many times over with the withering trail knows otherwise. Going slowly when things are the most difficultâ€”that is the key. Staying loyal to the unfinished thoughts, resisting the urge to sum up, fingering gently the ragged edges of the heart. This is where I am. It is almost beyond my ability to tolerate. Almost. Thank goodness for practice.