I’ll begin this little foray into the past decade (don’t worry–I don’t plan to cover the whole thing) with a disclaimer: I rarely like or take any interest in year-end retrospectives. But, on the occasion of this decade’s end, I’m indulging.
Ten years ago, I was a high school senior, still living at home, and in a fairly strange situation. In November of 1999, my parents sold their home and moved our family–including two toddlers–into my grandparents’ isolated home in mountains above the Central California city where we’d lived for years.
The reasons for the move were due in part to a desire on my parents’ part to move from the poorly-built (and, we would later learn, toxic) house in which we’d been living, but the overriding factor was a deep conviction on their part that the “Y2K Bug” was going to wreak havoc on all systems logistical, financial and municipal. There was talk of sewers backing up into streets, of food stores being depleted, of potable water and electricity being a thing of the past. In a preparedness-exercise on the scale of a Red Cross effort, my parents amassed a vast store of hard red winter wheat in 10-gallon buckets, and squirreled the containers away beneath my grandparents’ home (the plan was to, in some way that remains incomprehensible to me, till the California hardpan for subsistence). Canned meats (protein treats to sprinkle in among the all-wheat diet) and vegetables took up the remaining space under the house. There was much gun-cleaning between my grandfather and my dad, though it was unclear to me at the time whether the arms were meant to stave off the bands of roving outlaws Cormac McCarthy would later describe in The Road, or for the shooting and subsequent eating of the opossum that roamed the property looking like a half-peeled potato.
Whatever the plan, I was deeply dubious of the entire scheme, and not only because it involved my accommodations consisting of a sleeping bag in the living room next to a wood stove that so dried the air that my skin cracked and bled. (There were three bedrooms in the house: one for my parents, one for my grandparents, and one for my baby brothers.) I have never put any credence in conspiracy theories, as they seem to me to describe the outlying areas of the theorist’s own obsessions more clearly than they describe any type of real-world phenomena. I was unconvinced that computer clocks rolling back could create such a vast and terrible cataclysm that we needed to hide in the hills, and found it telling that those who so espoused the theory were the least versed in technology of any kind. I was fairly dissuaded from expressing this thought when my father shook his finger in my face and told me that “once things start happening, you’ll be grateful.” The tempers in the house were eggshell-thin.
During the days, I at least had school until mid-December. I’d hang around the school parking lot until I absolutely had to make the long drive back to the hills. Once back, I wore a heavy coat and a pair of gloves as I worked on my senior-year projects in an outbuilding on my grandparents’ property (if I remember correctly, I wasn’t allowed to turn on the heat). Cold as it was, it was the only privacy for a 17-year-old livingroom-sleeper.
It was during this period of time and in the creepy but precious solitude of that dark outbuilding that I really started writing. I produced terrible, incomprehensible prose that, as it was left-aligned and line-broken, seemed like “poetry” to me. I wrote a number of these rotten little musings in a big, green notebook. I’d write a draft on the right page, then polish it up on the left in what I then considered to be hard-core revision. I knew then that I wasn’t really any good, but there was a certain quality to the activity of writing that was therapeutic. Even though no one would ever see the terrible work I produced during that cold time, I had a sense of the goodness of what I was attempting.
Would I have started writing without that strange episode in my life? I’m sure I would have. But I don’t know if I’d have understood so fully that writing is more than an outlet–it’s a survival tool that’s gotten me up, over, around and, yes, through some of the more turbulent parts of my life, like that deeply unpleasant winter of 1999.
On New Year’s Eve, I was grateful–just as my father had augured. I was grateful because, as my mom ran water into the bathtubs so we’d have something to drink when the Californian water supply was rendered defunct, the ball dropped on another year without incident, just as I’d anticipated. In another month or so, our family would move back down the hill and into the city.
Jumping up to the encroaching New Year’s Eve of 2009, I seem to finally be making good on the scribblings I started in the dark. I completed my Master’s in Poetry. I finished writing two books. One of the books is about to be published by a great press. People pay me to write things, and, as an editor, I get to read what others are writing. As a teacher, I get to help others enjoy the gifts of the language. Is any of this due to that winter and its bizarre experiment in survivalism? Nope. But do my current successes at least give a little bit of a kinder gloss to those hours spent writing in the dark? Absolutely.