It was dark when I arrived, startled by a large goat thrusting his head and upper body into Robin’s truck when I opened the door to get out. I was introduced to Rocky and fed him a banana peel. I was offered food, but by then I’d been up almost 24 hours and just wanted to sleep. Shown to my stone cabin by lantern light, I was told to keep the curtain closed in the east-facing window, or I would wake early. I left it open.
I woke at dawn with a phrase of poetry in my mind: if I could not always send sunrise out of me. The light so clean, bright, and pure I didn’t want to block it. I heard a wild pony neigh. Everything else was still, quiet. One of the few things I looked up during my time there was the full quote by Whitman: “Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.”
This was the first time I’d set aside time in my life just to write, without any other responsibilities (teaching, editing, family, friends, pets, household). My goal was to revise ten stories in a story collection during the two weeks I was there. I could sit for four-hour stretches or longer in the stone cabin without distractions, other than the sound of a donkey yanking up weeds outside the window. At some point each day I would go for a long run, trying to reach a destination that was always twice as far as it appeared. I began to feel the metaphors in how I moved in my surroundings: the way I kept turning and twisting in the canyon, looking for a vantage point, the view of the whole. Deciding, at some point, that I did not want the entire view: that I wanted there always to be one blind spot in a story, one angle that a character’s point of view could not afford.
Afford—all my life I’ve talked about time until it’s become monetized: wasting it, spending it, needing more of it. I was here “taking time for myself”; I was being given time by my husband, my children, Robin; and it cost more than I would ever make selling a book of poems. But it wasn’t about time, or money. And not even about concentration, which implies that you know what to focus on and what to exclude. What I experienced was an unsettling, a renewing of the senses, a reawakening of curiosity. Wordsworth, meeting a leech-gatherer on a lonely moor: “How is it that you live, and what is it you do?” I could ask it of each plant and animal and human animal I met; I could ask it of myself.
Instead of feeling stranded or isolated, I felt at the center of a nexus of trails leading into a canyon with trickling water, flowering cactus and rabbit brush, cattle, rabbits, lizards, a collapsed wattle-and-daub house; or through fields of sage to a hot spring, or along a mountain slope covered with old, splitting juniper trees. I had forgotten what it’s like to be somewhere you don’t know the names of things and somewhere you can’t assume people have the same frame of reference, the same words, or that the words mean the same things to them. Where a cowboy training a horse might speak in Shakespearean English of a boy everyone agrees is “forkèd,” a natural trainer and rider of horses. Where neighbors are 20 miles away, and always helping each other out; where two spare tires might not be enough to reach the nearest town.
At the heart of the experience was the time I overlapped with Robin, each day, for a walk or a meal or to feed the chickens or wild horses, who surrounded us and nibbled at my hair. I had come here because I’d taken workshops from her in the past in which she’d transformed my understanding of stories. As part of the spirit of the place, she was a constant reminder, a prompt, a challenge: get outside of yourself. Infuse what you don’t know with what you know. I came away from our conversations with renewed energy for writing. From things she said, but just as much from how she listened in a way that let me really hear myself. I would go back and read what I’d written in a different light, by which I could see where a scene or development was incompletely imagined; I could identify wrong turns, missed opportunities. As this would have been, had I let all the easy obstacles keep me away from Ike’s Canyon.
I finished revising the story collection (at least, until I revise it again); I came up with a new title, a new order. But as much as I finished, I found myself starting on new work, setting out in new directions. I had been away a long time, but I was finally back to that place where, as Frank Bidart says: “NOTHING is figured out, NOTHING is understood.... EVERYTHING remains to be figured out, ordered; EVERYTHING remains to be done.” That place where a writer needs to be.