We say we have to get me out of teaching. We say it often, laying in bed at night before we turn the lights off, when we usually turn to face each other, heads on pillows, and sort of put a punctuation mark on the day – sometimes an exclamation point, sometimes a question mark; but usually just a comma or a semi-colon, because the end of the day is almost never an ending, almost always a brief pause for breath before we go on with the next clause, the next day, separate from the last but still connected – always connected.
My life is a run-on sentence. And I don’t know how to stop it.
No: I know how to stop it. (And I’m going to leave this metaphor behind now, this navel-gazing grammatical pun. Jesus, Dusty. Get a life.) I could change my life quickly if I leave everything behind, including my wife and my pets, a sentence that took me several tries to actually write. I could change everything if I left everything. I do what I do so I can earn what I earn so we can live how we live: as we. But our bed, where we lay at night together, is actually the ground at the top of a cliff. Everywhere I go, I am at the top of this cliff. At night we lay together, our heads heavy on the pillows, and we look into each other’s eyes and I tell her how much I love her and she smiles at me and I love her more, and then we kiss goodnight, and roll over – and I stare off the edge of the cliff.
The cliff is the edge of my world. I don’t mean the end of life; I’m not talking about dying. I’m talking about where the place I am, the place I live, where it ends, abruptly, startlingly, dangerously. Honestly I have pretty much always stayed near that cliff’s edge, in various ways. But never too near: because I am a coward, I think. And though every night I look out into the open air beyond that cliff, to actually jump off that cliff and land somewhere entirely different – or perhaps instead of landing, take flight and sail across the sky, which is how I imagine it would feel to be a writer – I would have to leave behind everything I am now, everything that is this place where I live, this life where I live, where I sleep with my head heavy on my pillow and my eyes straining to look out farther but tired, so very tired, with the looking; but behind me (or no: before me, between me and the cliff, not to protect me but because she is even closer to the edge of that empty space that might hold a new life) is the best woman in the world, and at our feet lies the sweetest dog I’ve ever known, and nearby are a bird and a tortoise who need me, who are tied to me, who are weighing me down. And none of them – not even the bird, sadly – can fly.
Let me be clear: it is not my wife’s fault. She never asked me to get this job, never demanded a larger home, a larger paycheck, health insurance, stability, all the tethers of the modern world that tie me down at the top of the cliff, safe and immobile, able to turn my head and look out to eternity, growing and throbbing out there beyond the fall to the bottom. She doesn’t demand them of me now, never tells me when I talk of leaving teaching that I can’t do that because the family relies on my stable income and health insurance. She has never said that once. She never would. She lies with her head on her pillow, holds my hand, her fingers exploring mine as she imagines drawing my hands (as she imagines drawing everything), and says, with her eyes sad, “We have to get you out of teaching.” Now that she has tethered herself down right next to me – but closer to the edge of the cliff than I am – she says “We have to get ourselves out of this.”
Then we talk about how we can be free, mobile, able to pick and choose what we do with our lives, if we just buckle down and teach for three years and pay off all of our debts. Maybe four years. Maybe five. Tethered down right at the edge of this cliff, looking out into space, lying with our heads heavy on the pillow, holding hands.
I’ve never jumped off a cliff. I jumped off a swing into a river, once, but I landed flat on my back when I tried an ill-advised backflip; it hurt. I don’t remember if I went back on the swing again after that, but probably not; I’m a coward, and I always have been, and that’s why I’m still at the top of this cliff, near the edge but not on the edge. I’m looking out on this vista, this panorama, of wide open space, and I’m – I don’t know, shouting over the edge? Maybe whispering, blowing words like soap bubbles, glittering and evanescent as they drift pointlessly free? But I’m still here, on solid ground, holding on for dear life even though I am nowhere close to falling.
I should be falling. If I was a writer, I’d be falling; if I was falling, I’d be a writer.
Instead I am – yes, I know it. A spider. Remember the tiny ones at the end of Charlotte’s Web, how they spin out a single thread of silk and throw it up into the wind, letting the air lift and carry them away? That’s how I want to go out over the edge of the cliff; not free fall, not dropping down and just hoping that something will catch me, though I’m not sure now if that’s because I’m a coward or just because I don’t care for the thrill, never have, never liked adrenaline, never wanted to feel alive because I almost died. I hate stories that rest on that idea: that life is either risk or boredom, that everything that is lovely or pleasant or simple becomes blasé, because I feel like if I could live forever, I would just read all of the books that I won’t have time to read, and play all the video games, and walk over every inch of the Earth, and why would that get boring? I don’t believe that it would. And so I want to drift over the edge of the cliff, not plummet. So here I lay, throwing out single threads of silk, gossamer words, hoping that one of them will catch the wind and lift me free and sail me away through the sky – and my wife and our family with me.
I’m growing roots. I have been for years, though I frequently pull them out of the ground and let them wither and die. I don’t need the roots, though I don’t hate them; that’s probably why I let them grow, and maybe that’s why I haven’t gone over the cliff, because I don’t mind the slow growth, don’t mind drifting down into the earth instead of up into the sky. Maybe if there was a way to sink below the surface, grow a taproot large enough and deep enough and then pour myself down instead of drawing nutrients up, follow my own growth into the deeps, and then tunnel down through the cliff from behind its face, back behind the bones, down and down and down until I came to the bottom and then slid out from between the teeth, out with the breath of the earth back into the open air. Then I’d be in a new place, and not at the edge of a cliff looking out; then I would have changed, would have moved.
But I would have never flown. Never left the ground. Is that, could that be, what it would mean for me to be a writer? To move through the earth to new ground? Does that metaphor make sense?
Is this the thread that will lift me? Or the one that I can crawl down, like Dante down the leg of Lucifer, crawling down until suddenly he was crawling up, out of the depths of Hell to the mountain of Purgatory? But see, he was carried on that final voyage out. He was on a mission from God. All he had to do was hold on and wait.
I don’t think I can just hold on and wait. I think I need to move. I don’t know if I can fly and take my family with me – and I won’t leave them behind. There is nothing that would be better without them. I don’t even know why I say it, other than I know that most people who jump off the cliff, who make themselves suddenly into writers (or into flattened, shattered remains), go it alone. I don’t want that. I don’t think I ever have, but I know I don’t now. So the question is: do I keep throwing strands of silk into the air? Do I stitch them together into a single sail, and just wait for a wind great enough to lift me, and my wife, and our heavy heads from off of our pillows, and we can grab the bird and the dog and the tortoise in passing and carry them with us? Could there be a wind great enough to lift a sail large enough to carry us all aloft?
Or do I try to find a new way, this magic that will turn the earth beneath me malleable, let me alter the flow and the path of all things so that I grow in the wrong direction, turning the wrong into right? Honestly, I don’t even know what this metaphor means: would I write for the local scene, find local websites, write for the Tucson newspaper? Is that what it means to go down your own taproot, to go deeper into the earth, to become a writer by digging down? I don’t know. I want it to be magical, somehow, to be an alteration of the paradigm, a new path, a new alchemy that turns stone into water, just for me, so that I could swim through something that can’t be swum through – but though I can imagine that, I don’t understand it, I don’t know how I could do that, if it could be done. I don’t know if I’m creative enough to do it, if I have the wizardry to break the laws of nature. But since it took me four tries to actually type the word “wizardry,” I’m going to say the omens are bad.
Maybe I should try to climb down the cliff. Grind it out, slow and steady, keep working, keep writing, keep moving; no magic, just constant effort, every moment testing my strength to the limits, every moment hyperalert, looking for that next ledge, that next handhold.
I don’t know. I’m 42, and I haven’t started climbing yet. I might already be too tired just from lying at the top of the cliff. Lifting my head off that pillow every goddamn morning. Looking out at the expanse of sky and thinking about how wonderful it would be to sail away. Spinning my silken threads, my tenuous sails – watching them break and fall, or vanish off into the ether without me. And here I lie.
I don’t know how to fly.
Toni read this. We talked about it. And having talked to her about it, the answer is clear: we will be alchemists. We will swim through the Earth, and see where we end up.
I consider the metaphor of flight to represent getting published by a traditional brick-and-mortar company, selling books out of Barnes and Noble, the whole Best-Selling Author bit. I’d still like to fly. I’m going to keep sending up streamers of spidersilk, hoping that one will catch just the right breeze and lift me up into the sky. I would like that. For Toni, the same metaphor probably applies to suddenly hitting it big in the art world: becoming a name, being sold in galleries, getting commissions for public art, all of that. And that would be swell, too.
But that’s not the goal. Neither is the goal a safe and sure and trying descent.
No: the goal is to try something new. We plan to write and illustrate and sell graphic novels, and illustrated novels. I plan to go back to publishing a serial novel, which will be available as enriched and expanded e-books, featuring extra stories, back stories, side characters, and so on. Maybe we’ll run a book store. I will publish my novels, and she will sell her art – and we will see what we are capable of and where we can go. What new places can we discover, and explore? What exactly is down there, underneath us? Could it be even more intriguing, even more wondrous, than the sky above?
We will never jump off the cliff. And we will never leave each other behind. (Nor the pets.)
We choose – magic.