The Walla Walla public library is quaint and humble and more roomy than one might expect a small town library to be. At night, it glows faintly green like an absinthe fairy.
Turning left at the main entry past the security gates, the interior unfolds into a carpeted piazza flanked by wooden bookshelves in the round. Four banks of seats face a slim podium; as the five of us Jack Straw Writers enter, we find nearly all of them filled by an energetic audience.
Outside, the streets are dark and sparsely populated –everyone is eating dinner at Oliver’s or Brasserie 4– still, a crowd of thirty-five settles in to hear us on a Friday night. The bright-eyed library staff and volunteers pause to introduce themselves, as if we are as important as the published authors who occupy their shelves.
Shawn Wong, our curator, pulls me aside to say that I will go first. I sigh with relief as he introduces me, mentioning as he always does our connection through Civita di Bagnoregio. The room falls intently quiet as I begin to describe my crisis of faith:
Looking back, my own degenerate times began the day I learned that my mom had cancer — long before her surgery, rounds of chemo and radiation, the loss of her speech and, eventually, her death.
Having to acknowledge at 13 that life was impermanent and unpredictable –that my mother’s once-infallible protection couldn’t surmount these forces– began the degeneracy of my own beliefs. Truly, it seemed pointless to build a future that could be so easily swept away.
As my lips form the words, I feel both proud and shy. I’d hardly share these thoughts with co-workers, yet I’m saying them to a room of strangers. Some heads nod; a mother wraps her hands around her son protectively. A 20-something boy in the front row checks his phone and fidgets against his girlfriend’s shoulder; my childhood tragedy doesn’t apply to him. I continue on, pretending not to notice.
“Wishes… hope…” I say, pausing dramatically at the end, “…I think they’re the same thing.” A man in the third row dabs at his eye in the silence before the crowd applauds. Four hours on the road for five minutes of reading suddenly seems like an okay deal.
Nick gets up after I do, reading about “The Big 8” in which one character teases another with the knowledge of the eight keys to life, never revealing what he considers them to be. As Nick sits, I think, How hard could a list like that be for someone like me, who ponders this stuff all the time?
At breakfast the next morning, I sketch out my own eight keys over a plate of migas near the Whitman College campus:
1. When something good happens, celebrate it.
2. Be anonymously generous.
3. Say yes: be open to experiences.
4. Fall in love.
5. If you find yourself giving advice to others that you don’t take, question your actions….
As the server warms up my coffee, I smirk at the fresh lines of black script in my notebook, thinking, You couldn’t sell a penny pamphlet with this crap!
After all, how much celebrating of the positive do I actually do? I’m so impatient, I’m always on to the next thing. And, as much as I say yes, I also say, Hell no!! If I actually took the advice that I recently gave to a colleague, I would have cashed in my Roth IRA and quit my job yesterday to be a full-time writer…but I didn’t. And falling in love? Actual love –the kind that makes a person truly naked, the kind where you compromise and stick around through illness and imperfections and arguments, long past the fade of the honeymoon– what do I know about giving myself over to that?
I shut my notebook defiantly.
To escape the crowds of wine-swilling tourists as much the stupid eight keys, which continue to haunt me, I decide to drive to Jimgermanbar in Waitsburg. (It’s impossible to make one universal insight to life, let alone eight! Making them intriguing or unique is another battle altogether. How could they be anything less than trite?)
The architecture changes from quaint small-town brick houses and 1930s factories to a series of late-70s strip centers, tire shops and fast food pad restaurants before pulling apart. Soon, whole blocks go by without any buildings, then several lots at time. (Be anonymously generous? I think I wrote that because of the pay-it-forward coffees and the meals I buy at Union Gospel Mission.)
After a few minutes, as I’m nearing Highway 12 East, I’m surrounded by scrubby hills with barns made with old weathered wood, all unpainted — a palimpsest of ochres and browns. (If I were more open, I would have ridden the ferris wheel when my friends wanted to go.)
The yellow of the centerline is echoed in the dry wheat of the rolling hills; earthy barn tones appear in the rich dirt beneath the fields. The tire-smudged lane lines are mirrored in road signs and buildings painted with flaking chromium, the years of red and blue and green peeking through the forced white that they are today. (I should have lit candles when I won that grand in bingo last year…)
The edges of Walla Walla fade into the hills, and the world becomes an undulating sea of tawny corduroy. I long to touch the rolling mounds of wheat — the velvety Palouse dotted with purple gabled roofs, patches of deep green grapevines and pert silver silos that reflect the clean brilliance of the fall sun. They look like the birth parents of the Tin Man. (Why is falling in love so scary, anyway?)
The layers of brown that surround and mound… How my childhood in Arizona brought me to hate the color brown. Here, it feeds my soul. (Is there some sort of key to life in that?)
I realize that I am only going 45 when a beat-up Ford pick-up whooshes by doing 80 in the passing lane. The gentle texture of the Palouse in all of its shared earth tones may have eased my inner speed demon but not my frenetic mind. (Small buildings, big landscape… the relative smallness of humankind?) I make a noise of disgust at the litany of forced armchair philosophy.
Through the din in my head, the siren song of the landscape calls to a part of me that the cynical city girl usually sublimates with her obsessive/compulsive downtown soundtrack. In an uncharacteristic move, I pull my car to the side of the road. I simply can’t stand to keep passing these fields without touching them, Waitsburg and this stupid list be damned.
Wading into the waist-high wheat chaff, I stride as if pursued, tossing glances over my shoulders. I keep waiting for someone to bark at me to get off of their land. Several yards in, I remind myself that it’s okay to slow down, that I’m not on a mission or a schedule. I think of Sandro counseling me in Civita with his hands raised, “Piano, piano, Gabri! Tutto a posto.” Slow down, girl – everything’s alright.
Once I calm my pace, I realize that I no longer hear cars rushing by on the highway; the sound of their velocity is replaced by the rustling wind and occasional bird calls. The sun’s radiance is soothing, its intensity held in check by the cool breeze. The dry grasses crunch under my boots; the earth is soft underneath, moist and waiting for the next crop. The air is perfumed by harvest-ready grapevines and drying leaves. As I venture deeper into the field, small grasshoppers spring diagonally across my path like dolphins weaving at the prow of a ship.
The last time I felt this way was back in Civita. Time holds no power.
I inhale and exhale deeply, wishfully thinking that I could get lost in this field. Blissfully lost, the kind where no signal can reach my phone. No talk of work or deadlines or appointments. Lost in the sense of found — found time, found clarity, found self.
Up ahead, a patch of grass looks inviting. I sit Indian style — no blanket, no separation between me and the Palouse. We are one.
Journeys of all kinds are about transportation: from one state –or state of being– to another. Change, time, introspection, muscles, mind, miles traveled… what does it mean to go there and back again? We so rarely travel in an ongoing chain; there is always someplace called home that pulls us back to a former state, asks us to assimilate new data while conforming to the rules and norms of a time before that knowledge entered our lives. Yet, like Adam and Eve, there is no unknowing once our eyes are opened.
As I let the imperative of the eight keys melt away, I’m startled by a lone grasshopper who springs onto my knee. In another uncharacteristic move, I don’t shoo him off. I think of the roaches and hairy spiders I’ve smashed, the millipedes and scorpions I’ve crunched under my boots, the beetles and mosquitoes and bees that I’ve flinched at over the years. With a wise expression in his charcoal eyes, the grasshopper seems much more evolved than his insect brethren. Maybe I am, too.
Once alighted, the grasshopper takes a deliberate moment to turn in a circle, folding and unfolding his legs to assess the most favorable perch on the crease of my jeans before settling in. Heads cocked, we contemplate each other. The grasshopper probably has a better idea of the keys to life than I do. After all, the grasshopper is true to his nature; he doesn’t question his own purpose or worthiness. (Be you — and let others be themselves was number 6.)
The grasshopper’s unblinking eyes peer further into mine, which are lidded half-mast against the late afternoon sun. If Michael were here, he would probably comment on the grasshopper’s past life as a lama, at which I would titter skeptically.
When the tiny sage finally moves to leave, he catches a filament of his foot in my pant leg. He quickly becomes desperate, his diminutive ribcage heaving in and out. Praying that he doesn’t hop in my hair or my face, I remain calm and shift my leg to set him free without flinging him asunder. (Identify someone’s need and fill it without seeking personal gain, that was number 7.)
As he springs away, I feel a little bereft.
His sudden departure brings to mind the many meetings and separations that have come before this moment: connecting with Toni and Wesley in Nashville; discovering my earth mother Maya in Boston; rekindling my friendship with Taica and Bettye in Chicago; tapping into deep existential territory with Michael in Santa Cruz. Waves of old and new come crashing together, rumbling sonically in the grasshopper’s wake. Maybe that’s the magic of Walla Walla: a current of earthly energy where life’s lessons become apparent, if only for a few moments.
Except it’s not as ethereal as that. These moments are concrete; they matter. Exploring these cities and spending time with people, watching the transformation of my own thoughts in progress — these are not pretend journeys or mere props for a writing assignment. I realize that I’ve been given the gift of time and adventure to sort out who I am with the help of a series gurus along the way.
There are no eight keys to life and there is no turning back — no do-overs, no second chances. I will never again have the opportunity to re-make these moments, only live them in the present in succession as they appear. One shot for all of it.
That’s when I decide to borrow something more universal for myself than any eight keys ever could be. I could try to make something up, but honestly, I could never say it better than Annie Dillard:
Spend it all.
I watch the silhouette of his tiny brown body spring forward until it disappears in the distance. Thank you, grasshopper, I think fondly. Very wise indeed.