July 16, 2015
A quote by Norman Mailer crossed my path today. I was in the bookstore in Sag Harbor, and a book of his “selected letters” beckoned to me. I opened the book and my eyes went to a letter to a colleague in which Mailer unabashedly criticized his peer’s work. He said – and I won’t remember the exact words – that his problem was his attempt to lay a set plan upon his character. Something had been “figured out already” or preordained by the author, and he set the stage too obviously, forcing the character into his fate. Why not allow him, Mailer continued, to unfold in ways truly natural to the character, as he becomes who he becomes?
Damn it, Norman. I left the city and came out here with the intention of sorting through my life and making a plan, and then I find this quote of yours. How am I not supposed to take meaning from it? Now, at this crossroads, Norman clearly thinks I am foolish to try and figure out my life after all, lest I march into a contrived existence. I think the message here is that I can let go and relax and just let life take care of its sweet self, right?
As if on cue, the nagging thoughts creep in. I’m 40. Shouldn’t I have my life figured out by now? I should be at my pinnacle, not feeling – yet again – like I’m on the brink of realizing my potential. Norman was talking about a story. This is real life. I do have to figure things out.
After I leave the bookstore, I head over to The Corner to get an iced tea and a bite to eat. The bartender is a gorgeous and young – but not that young – woman. I know nothing about her life, and although I realize I have no right to be jealous of her, I am. I think to myself that it might be just the thing for me to know where I am supposed to be at 5pm five or six days a week. At a relaxed restaurant. In the Hamptons.
A couple of twenty-something- year-old girls with British or perhaps Australian accents ask for the cocktail menu. The bartender says there isn’t one.
“You don’t have a cocktail menu?” one girl asks, incredulously.
I almost pipe in, “So you can have anything you want! The options are endless! Sky’s the limit!”
The girl hems and haws and has no idea, and I overhear her tell her companion that she has never been to a bar that didn’t have a specialty cocktail menu. She ends up ordering a Malbec while I think how accustomed we have become to a multiple-choice existence. Series after series of established concoctions, organized options laid out for us like a menu. Do we even know how to think more broadly? Maybe that’s my problem.
Out to the green Mini I go. I open the sunroof and drive, ruminating on my fear at coming out here on my own. My previous visits to the East End have all been with my husband and the kids, and with Shel and Roberta. It is my father-in-law and his wife’s house I’m staying in, after all. But the opportunity to take a brief solo trip presented itself, and here I am. Why would I be so scared? It seemed like something I should want: the beach, the pool, the spacious and calming house, a jog down early morning misty roads, time alone and space to think about what’s next. Ah, there it is. The fear.
I’m afraid that I won’t be able to figure out what I really want to do with my life. I have two days out here to pull together a plan that’s true to my deeper self, which I’m sure will be bared now that I’m on my own and free of distractions.
I’m afraid to clean out the clutter of my mind. What if I don’t have the big thoughts I should be having? Maybe I’ll end up standing on the ocean’s edge thinking I should text my husband to remind him to pack an extra shirt in my son’s day camp backpack.
People flock out here to escape the city, to have space to think and breathe and be. Do people recognize themselves without the diversions? What do they do if they find out that nothing much lives down there beneath the layers of distractions?
I’m afraid of not being able to figure out which way I should go.
Damn it, Norman. If you don’t have a destination, how can you know which way to turn? I decide to bear right on Saag Road. A winery comes into view. I pull in, satisfied with this temporary destination. It is such a lovely day, and the vista is breathtaking. I order a glass of something called Summer in a Bottle, rolling my eyes slightly at the corny name but acquiescing to its aptness by the third sip.
How easy it would be to get drunk on this stuff. That sounds lovely and comforting, like pulling a soft blanket up over me. But a little wine frees my thoughts while too much stunts my feelings. And I need my feelings over these couple of days. So after I take the last sip from my glass of bottled summer, I return to the Mini in the parking lot.
On the drive along Bridge-Sag Turnpike, I pass a group of teenagers messing around, fake bumping into each other and laughing while walking down the street. Their aimlessness disturbs me, and then I get disturbed by the fact that I am disturbed. In the city, there seems to be no room to be aimless. Since moving to the city seven years ago, I not only have been handed a multiple-choice menu, but I have become comfortable with my pre-selected options. I can be conversant on topics of real estate, restaurants, and schools, and I know how to play my roles as wife and mother there. But something has been lost. I know it without exactly knowing it and certainly without admitting it.
The wind whips through the car as I drive. My brain has been so busy ticking its city tocks, hasn’t it? Life in the city happens directly in front of you. There is always a street to cross, obstacles to bypass, and pitfalls to avoid. It can take so much will and energy to keep our daily existence on track that there is nothing leftover to create anything. And so we forget how. We ask for the menu and don’t know what to do when there isn’t one. The need to keep our eyes focused forward means that we forget to look up and out, and although many of us can conquer the big things by expertly navigating the paths over them, we do not stop to question the existence and the rightness of those big things. We keep our eyes forward because brick and concrete block our views.
Pulling up to the beach, I realize what not seeing the horizon has done to me. I had forgotten that it is even there. All right, Norman, this may be the story of my life and I’d like to create it as I go, but maybe it will take more than a couple of days out here to stop looking for the one right path. To let myself unfold in ways truly natural to me, to become who I become.