Loneliness took me on many journeys. Thoreau wrote: "Men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."
So in the middle of December, after I finished my classes and quit my job, I drove to Colorado with a man I had only known for two weeks and married him.
His name was Jack. No, not the first Jack, the second Jack. There are four Jacks in a deck, right? I don't mean to diminish anything about Jack from Colorado. I thought I was in love with him, and he was a lovely man in many ways. I'm very lucky, going off like that, leaving everything behind, just handing my life over to a stranger.
What possessed me to do this? I didn't ask myself that question. I just jumped into Jack's silver Subaru with my dog, Callie-Blue, and sped off to a tiny town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. A California girl, I was probably dressed in a gauzy, flowered skirt, a Levi jacket, and espadrilles.
It was snowing in Crested Butte when we arrived, driving down the one main street. Formerly known for its coal mining industry, Crested Butte is considered, "the last great Colorado ski town," and the wild flower capital of the state. Population: 1500. Lots of artists, hippies, and of course, skiers. It was a beautiful place to run away to.
I look back now and wonder what my parents must have thought and felt. I'm sure they were worried. But by the time I was twenty-six, I had eloped to England; divorced; lived with an artist who stole avocados off trees so we could eat; had so many boyfriends their names were starting to repeat. I don't think I ever told my parents about Frank. That relationship was over too quickly, and Frank was nowhere to be found. I had never heard from him again. I could just imagine his reaction if he discovered that a month after his phone calls stopped, I was living in Colorado and married. So much for finishing my Master's Degree, my supposed goal and great desire: to make something of myself besides being with a man.
I wanted to be taken care of. It was 1978, but it might as well have been 1958. The cultural conditioning in women is a powerful sedative. Throw into the mix a dysfunctional upbringing and biological forces, and five years of a college education haven't got a chance.
My parents were embroiled in their own embroglio: the continuation of years, since I was fourteen, of wild vodka nights and unconscious psychological disturbances. They were also busy raising and (unconsciously) terrifying my younger sister, who was ten. I felt so guilty about the situation; it killed me to visit my parents and see my younger sister. One time, she ran after me when I was leaving to drive back to Chico; she clung onto the open door of my car, crying, "Take me with you!"
I did not have the slightest shred of a notion how to solve the problems in my family. I was exhausted by them. I was exhausted by working in a bar. I was exhausted by trying to get my Master's Degree and exhausted by trying to learn how to teach anybody anything when I knew so little about anything that mattered. I was exhausted by trying to figure out how to love. So I guess I thought if I just said I was in love and moved far enough away and let this man who sometimes called me "Peaches" take care of me, then...then...Then maybe love would magically arrive. If I had love, maybe I could get the energy to do more, go back to school, realize my own dreams, offer something of value, give something of value. I wanted to write poetry. I wanted to write. That is truly all I ever really wanted to do. Jack from the mountains said it would happen, and it did. I sat in a room watching the snow fall outside the windows, burying the world. I wrote.
And I learned how to ski. I did not learn how to love.
Jack was an entrepreneur. I wasn't quite sure what that meant although he explained his business to me many times. It had something to do with property, real estate, condominiums, other people's money. People invested in his real estate schemes. His partner was a builder, a contractor. It all seemed to be doing well. There was money. We had a fabulous wedding in a chapel in Crested Butte, a horse drawn carriage, the snow falling at night on us as we drove to the reception, drinking champagne. Maureen flew out from California for the wedding. We partied and skied and had a great time. Then Jack from the mountains and I, who barely knew each other, had to learn how to live together.
It lasted six months. By spring, things were already rattling. The snow was melting. The town was ugly, huge walls of dirty, muddy snow. I missed playing tennis. I missed California. The ocean. I was bored with sitting in the condo writing bad poetry. It wasn't that bad, just young. I needed to study more; I knew this. I wanted to go back to school.
Jack had writing aspirations, too. We had this in common: a love of literature, philosophy, writing. He would read my poems and correct them.
Jack had once studied at a seminary, to become a priest. He was ten years older. I started to feel how lost he was, too. We were both fishing, not knowing what we were after.
His business schemes weren't working out. The investors had lost a lot of money. He hid this from me for as long as he could.
I applied to graduate school at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. I was accepted for the fall semester. I would move and live in Boulder, 250 miles away from Crested Butte. Jack paid my tuition. He also paid for a trip to Europe that we took in July. I found out later, some of this money was not ours to spend.
We went to Paris and Athens. I remember traveling on the train, sitting across from Jack and reading Nausea by Sartre:
Nothing seemed true; I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could quickly be removed.
But we still managed to enjoy our trip, going from café to café, museum to museum, pretending.
I suppose Jack hoped this trip would change my mind. When we returned to the states, I moved to Boulder. He drove me there, helped me find a place. I shared a house with another woman, someone Jack knew who had once lived in Crested Butte.
So I moved with my dog Callie-Blue to Boulder. I went back to school. I worked at a bar, Pearl's, as a waitress. I swam laps in the university pool. One entire wall of the building was glass and looked out on the Flat Iron Mountains. As I raised my head out of the water, I heard classical music playing through the room. I had a class with the poet Edward Dorn. He was incredible. So intense, his grizzled, weathered face, his shattering, far-seeing eyes. He told me my poems were lyrical but too pretty, too vague. I needed more real "things" in them. Details, objects. I read six books a week. Poetry, plays, novels. I was a teaching assistant for a Freshman Comp class, led the discussion seminar, read papers. I had barely a moment of rest that semester, but I was on fire to learn again.
D.H. Lawrence: the essence of poetry "is the stark directness, without a shadow of a lie, or a shadow of deflection anywhere."
I was learning again, but I was so lonely again, too. Jack visited me less often, and it was clear we were not going to make it. He had become more honest with me, said he had many problems to contend with in his business. It was not good, not good at all.
I started filling out papers for divorce and discovered the marriage could be annulled. I don't remember why, but Jack and I were granted an annulment.
It was November, and a blizzard, with 60 mph winds, blew in one late night after work, when I was alone in the house. My roommate spent most of her nights at her boyfriend's house. I ate dinner and went up to my room on the second floor. I brought in Callie-Blue and shut the door. The house shook, the snow falling in ghostly drifts across the windows.
That night, I thought I would go crazy from loneliness. My heart began pounding like it might disintegrate. I was reading the plays of Lillian Hellman for a class, but instead, I grabbed my battered copy of Freedom from the Known by Krishnamurti, got into bed, and read this passage, which I had entirely underlined:
...each one faces what he is, a bundle of memories and deepening loneliness. The desire for power and success are an escape from this loneliness and the ashes which are memories...Fear arises only in the very act of running away from the facts, the what is. To live with the ashes of loneliness there must be great energy and this energy comes when there is no longer fear. When you have gone through loneliness, like a physical door, then you realize you and the loneliness are one, you are not the observer watching that feeling which is beyond the word. You are that. And you cannot get away from it, although you try and try in many subtle and obvious ways. You are that loneliness. The brain is the creator of this loneliness, through its incessant activities of self-isolation, of defense, and aggression. The movement of the alone is creation, the unknown.
These words were harsh, but they comforted me. God, I wanted that energy, the energy that would come when there was no longer fear. To go through loneliness like a physical door, to become one with it, to not be afraid of it...and from writing and spending beautiful time in solitude, I understood the movement of the alone is creation, the unknown.
Krishnamurti got me through another night. But something happened that night, more than just getting through. I knew I could live alone and finish my Master's Degree and write and teach. Or at least I knew it was possible.
I read the book again, all night long, the wind howling outside. In the morning, the yard, the trees dazzled in white. It was still and pure and stark. I read:
Fear is not love, dependence is not love, jealousy is not love, possessiveness and domination are not love, responsibility and duty are not love, self-pity is not love, the agony of not being loved is not love, love is not the opposite of hate any more than humility is the opposite of vanity. So if you eliminate all these, not by forcing them but by washing them away as the rain washes the dust of many days from a leaf, then perhaps you will come upon this strange flower which man always hungers after.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
But I still had a lot of fishing to do, a lot of gardening.
When the semester was finished in January, I went back to Crested Butte and sorted out things with Jack, worked at making a fragile peace, a tenuous friendship. At the end of February, I packed my bags, and Callie-Blue and I drove across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and into California. It was March 1, 1980, when we drove across the borderline. I had the windows rolled down, and Callie-Blue had her face, her long nose out the passenger side window, her black ears flapping. "We're home, girl," I said. I drove to Maureen and J.B.'s house in Chico. I remember it was like a warm spring day. I walked into their backyard and sat on a chair in the sun. J.B. handed me a beer. I've known J.B. since I was nineteen. We didn't have to say a word. Bob Dylan was playing on the stereo: If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangiers.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society