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After a Long Absence

Hello again, friends.

I haven’t written in a while because I haven’t written in a while. Not my own stuff, anyway. In fact, this blog has been more or less dormant for the better part of two years. Which is strange, considering they’ve been some of the most eventful years of my life.

Since we moved to the Keweenaw, I’ve tried to record my impressions the way I always did when living on the road. A couple of times, I feel like I did an okay job. But there’s something markedly different about the view from a car window at a place you’re passing through, and the view from a picture window at a place where you intend to stay.

The difference isn’t what I thought it would be. Both are constantly changing, raising equal numbers of mysteries, wonders and story leads. What’s the story behind the old man who rides his ancient Schwinn up the road to visit our widowed neighbor, and how long exactly has he been there when he leaves on Sunday mornings, and who are the four young blonde women who live on his ramshackle property? Was the owner of our favorite whiskey bar really raised by wolves, as local legend has it, and why did he and his unnaturally gorgeous girlfriend break up all of a sudden? Do the monks living in the abbey at the peninsula’s tip really have a below-ground heated swimming pool? How the hell did the refugee families who sell at the winter market in the library end up here, of all places?

Maybe if I’d just been passing through, I’d have scouted out the answers to these questions already. But I’m kind of glad I haven’t done it yet. For the first time, I haven’t been in a hurry to figure a place out. I used to roam the country with a collector’s fever, anxious to get my taste of every single culture, to get to all the stories before somebody else did. But this place got into my bones, its slow, inexorable pace of life, its tidal shifts of season, its monumental changes of mood and mien. Looking back, I realize that I’ve spent the last two years calibrating to its rhythm. That’s some powerful elemental shit right there.

Other things happened within these two years, too. I learned to cross-country ski. I became the owner of 40 acres of woods on the western shore of Lake Superior. I had a baby.

And something even more ephemeral happened to me, something I’m still trying to find words for. Something that has everything to do with not having written much at all of my own in the last two years.

It was a scary thing, not to write for that long. Scarier than any soul-baring screed I’ve ever posted on these digital pages. I tried many times to force the issue—I have to write, I told myself, or else who am I? But that was the whole point. The urgency to write had, in those years on the road, usurped the person doing the writing. I saw my “thing”—the nomadic, pleasantly angsty creative—being adopted by countless other people who were better at it than I was, better at finding a niche and expressing it catchily. Trying to compete with them burned me out. Fewer and fewer of the words I wrote felt like my own anymore. On the rare occasion I did find my own, they felt worthless.

Worst of all, the drive to compete in the “nomadic life” market cheapened the most precious thing in my possession: other people’s stories. It’s hard to admit this, but I started looking at those stories as my opportunity to gain my place in the public eye. But the more I tried to focus my “brand” around other people’s stories, the more my ability to tell those stories slipped my grasp. My writing got that “pushed” tone—it took on the metallic taste of the overambitious amateur. I’d ask Jackson to read my stories and could see that they weren’t any fun for him. I couldn’t blame him—they hadn’t been any fun to write.

By the time we came here to stay, I’d all but quit trying. You can see my dying efforts in the last few entries. Like I said, some of them are okay--the authentic record of first impressions of this wild and thrilling landscape, the honest attempt to reconcile the simultaneous feelings of being entirely alien and being, for the first time, at home in the world. But there are a lot of abandoned attempts in the “drafts” folder, fragmentary paragraphs reflecting failed efforts to revive my old ambition.

I finally had to let myself let it die. There were too many other wonderful things happening in our life here, that trying to resuscitate this dying ambition was only distracting me from. With the names to learn of the myriad species of butterflies browsing through our garden, the waters of Bête Gris Bay growing warm, the careful timing of the thimbleberries’ ripeness, and the little boy sprouting inside my womb, it was all too clear that trying to place on the popular blogosphere was looking for the living among the dead.

Which makes it all the more surprising to find myself here. Writing again. Not that I thought I was done forever—I just didn’t know when, or whether, I was likely to resurface. Here we are, in the dead of November, a week shy of the year’s darkest day. My husband and my son are snoring on the sofa beside me. I’m having my first beer since giving birth three weeks ago, and feeling as though I was just born myself. The old has gone; the new has come. Personal branding be damned—I haven’t the faintest idea who I am anymore, and that is the most goddam exciting place to write from that I’ve ever felt.

Chelsea BattenComment