My friend Uke sent me Naomi Wolf’s The Treehouse a few weeks ago. This morning I woke before dawn to visit the bathroom, and returned to bed with stomach roiling and head full of tasks for the coming work day. After half an hour of that, I turned on the light and opened the book, to finish it, tears rolling down my face.
Wolf’s father, a professor and poet, based his life and his teaching on identifying, cultivating and cherishing one’s unique creative purpose. He defined that creative purpose as anything one has a passion for, be it house painting or oil painting, sales or science. As long as one loves it, and one devotes oneself to it.
I haven’t fully identified why yet, but even talking about the book makes me cry.
Last Sunday morning, I picked my mom up from the airport and drove her down to East Aurora, a town of 6,600, about half an hour south of Buffalo. My new apartment, which I plan to move into this coming Sunday, has one room big enough for a bed and loveseat, a rounded doorway into an eat-in kitchen with white cabinets, and a a claw-footed bathtub with flowers painted on it years ago in gold and teal. A little gas stove heats the main room. The windows look out on familial yards bedecked with autumn leaves and plastic slides.
While wiping out the cabinets and sanitizing the bathroom, she and I caught up on the past few weeks. I ran a sponge over the molding with the same care I used to paint small pieces of dollhouse furniture. After contemplating various ways of leaving Buffalo for the past two months, I had finally realized that the only thing I truly needed was my own space. This apartment, in a town with a Main Street that has managed to keep it theater open and showing current movies, represents that autonomy, an escape from Buffalo’s less-than-lovely landscapes, and a symbolic retreat from the pain I’ve caused and experienced romantically this year.
I gravitate to cities to find romance, that rapturous moment in the circle of light a streetlamp casts against the night sky and looming, shadowed skyscrapers. Fairly or not, I do not expect rapturous connection from a town where men in work boots eat their hash browns with ketchup at the local diner. And that’s part of the reason I’m moving there.
Finished, we locked up the dollhouse and drove back toward Buffalo. As the thruway wound into downtown, I described an episode in The Treehouse when Wolf and her father meet with a landscaper to discuss the overgrown property around the nineteenth century house she’s bought in update New York. Instead of taking the conversation for granted as many would when discussing a project with hired help, Wolf’s father catches a stray comment the man makes about the landscape’s potential. He responds as one artist to another, encouraging him to express himself. The next thing they know, the gratified gardener has tamed the scrub, uncovered the land’s beauty, installed a tiny mailbox outside their daughter’s treehouse, handing in a bill at the end that “barely covered his expenses,” according to Wolf.
I choked up relating the story, apologizing to my mom, who assured me it was all right to cry. Ordinarily I agree, but I felt disconcerted as I blinked away my tears. I needed to change lanes and get off the thruway, but instead I was sobbing about a man recognizing another man’s vision… of bushes.
I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in a week and a half, struggling with my brother’s snoring from the other side of the room (as he does with mine), the animals hopping on and off my bed, the multitude of projects awaiting me the next morning at work, and the random aspects of a new venture, such as moving to the country, that only occur to someone at two in the morning.
Tomorrow I’ll turn twenty-eight still a virgin to car ownership, but moving to the country means I have to buy one, and soon. I’ve never driven in the snow, much less gone to the DMV to change a title, or bought liability insurance. But just when these sharp fears prick my thoughts late at night, I ask myself, Do you still want to do this? And the answer is, Of course.
The other night Dawn and I stood in a friend’s kitchen, in our Halloween costumes, hiding from the other partygoers and drinking beer from plastic cups. Leaning on the counter, I finally articulated my philosophy about this decision to move to East Aurora. This, I told her, waving my cup and teetering on my heels, is a constructive adventure. As opposed to throwing away my job, shipping my belongings upstate with my brother, and moving across the country, like I did when frustrated last year, I’m keeping my job, and carting my belongings to an apartment only half an hour away. The car is a responsibility that seems progressive, mature, all that practical stuff I rarely think about.
But until I find myself safely ensconced in that dollhouse, with a car of my own in the driveway, and a few trips to work under my belt, I’ll probably continue to lay awake at night. In those wee sma’s, I don’t know what I’ll read now that I’ve finished soaking up Leonard Wolf’s philosophy about creative individuality.
Maybe the next sleepless night I have, I’ll contemplate the tears that came when I described Wolf’s landscape artist. It sounds like a gloomy topic, tears, but like Leonard Wolf, I believe in a universe that helps those who listen to inexplicable tears. I’ve spent much of the past year trying to carve out a new life for myself and giving my mom some emotional support to do the same. And after a year of that, I’m crying on the thruway, envying the recognition another artist has received.
This is not gloomy, this is redemptive, and just in time. I’ll take myself to the dollhouse and make myself a cup of cider, while the leaves fall outside. I’ll have that long overdue talk with my inner landscape artist. She longs for someone to hear her vision of how to turn bracken and scrub into a rolling vista. And we’ll figure something out. We usually do.