Live Through This

Slouching Towards Babylon

I spent two years living in bliss. Then I got homesick.

***

The seeds the trees the bark the soil the moon the mountains the flowers the sky. I dunno. I can’t say anything at all. All I’ll say is that being in nature, surrounded by the silence of the earth, was the most profound experience that I’ve had. My writing gets all clunky when I try to describe it. It is sublime. Beyond words. This probably has something (but not everything) to do with what makes it beautiful. Beautiful isn’t even right because that makes it all sound dependent on human preference.

Wilderness reminds us that humans are small, a part of something greater. We are a part of it and so we cannot transcend it, we can never stand outside it and fully understand. We are reduced to silence in its presence.

I’d ask my friends up there a lot of anxious questions about what they thought they were accomplishing by dropping out. Some of it seemed ridiculous: pooping in an eight-person shitter and and using musty old books as TP because we didn’t want to deal with money because that would entail contributing to the economy by getting a job. I know, it sounds absurd. But when you live on top of a mountain, above this civilization that views nature as just so much raw material for human consumption, doing it any other way seems just as ridiculous. I don’t think any of the kids at the commune believed we were changing the world or anything. They just wanted to get away from this civilization and to create a culture where people could live in harmony with nature. They wanted to be connected to what feels real, which is a very old and very human form of longing.

I felt that longing too, and ran into the woods. Then I felt another kind of longing and took a plane back to the city.

***

I got postcards in the mail after I left Nigh and the commune. I was staying in Chicago, which I picked because it seemed like an OK medium between California and New York City. The postcards had pictures of Joshua trees and redwood trees and on the back he scrawled: Louder than subways. Larger than skyscrapers. I didn’t tack them to the wall, fearing that they might replace my blissful memories of being there. I was afraid that the real would be swallowed in the image.

After I get the cards I call Nigh and tell him that I will come back to California. I tell him that I miss him and I miss how with him I can lose my ego, trade it in for the sunset.

“June?” I ask him. “Can you wait for me until June?”

“June, June, June—what’s June?” he says. The connection is bad; the line crackles; Nigh wades in the Pacific. He has been sleeping inside redwoods. He has been walking along the Oregon coast. “Anna, I am learning,” he tells me. “All those months, those aren’t real. August, October, June, July, what are those? Those are just names that people think are real, but they are not. There is only the moon, Anna.”

“No!” I shriek. I’m pissed. “Months are named after the moon or something. I dunno, months are real too, humans are cool too, humans had to make some order out of all of this and so they assigned names to the phases of the moon or something like that. Whatever.” I always got angry with Nigh when he started going on about what’s the point of sidewalks, what’s the point of money, what’s the point of laws. I got pissed when I believed he was wrong but I could not articulate why because I didn’t know enough about history or law or economics or humanity to defend the civilizing forces he denied.

Nigh: “I’ve got to go.”

***

Winter turns to spring. Online, I order 16 pairs of underwear from the Gap, whose founders’ logging company, Mendocino Redwood, has clear-cut old-growth forest.

***

Fast-forward several months to a few days after Nigh sent me that sexy text. I’m at my family’s country house in the Hamptons; my sister is getting married in our backyard. My father has spent most of his life in New York City, which is a fun town but I think that it messes with your head to grow accustomed to not seeing the stars. The most nature­-y place my father goes is the golf course; one time when he took me there, as we drove past 18 holes of perfect (“SPRAYED WITH CHEMICALS AND FERTILIZER!” —my brain) green, he got choked up and said it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. At the wedding reception, my father has placed me at the table with all his old chums. I’m flanked on either side by two of his golf buddies. Close by, my grandmother and a gentleman swap tales about zebra-hunting on African safaris back in the day.

I, drunk but (as always) oh-so-charming, am explaining to my dinner partners that this—this Hamptons bougie crap—is responsible for the destruction of the one thing that really matters: the Mother Earth. I’m shmoozing and boozing and rambling. I’m on fire: “Did you see the New York Times headlines today? We’ve just gone over some CO2 milestone that we can’t go over. There’s no stopping us now! We’re all dead! Humanity, we’re kaput! I mean, no offense to my sister and the wedding is stunning and all that but oh my gawd it’s just like that movie Melancholia. Have you seen Melancholia? That’s my favvvooorite movie.”

I’m yakking away about the West Coast, land of the free. A childhood friend of my father’s pushes his tortoise-rimmed specs up his nose and reminds me that companies are impressive though, too, right? and that I am not the first one to believe that she has found it in California.

“Mmmmm.” I nibble my Chilean sea bass. A woman asks me if my lip ring gets in the way. “No.” I have another glass. I dance. I stumble back into our big white house and watch the night settle on the tent that is filled with bright light. I note that people are boisterous and that we are enveloped in darkness. I go back to the tent and dance more.

The crème de la crème of portable toilets (“VIP Series”) is stationed in our backyard. Life is goofy.

***

I’ve spent the past two years traveling out West. I’ve barely spoken to my family for a long time. I miss them. I’m sick of being blissed out; I’m tired of being speechless.

When I was living at the commune, I had the overwhelming (and frankly, probably correct) feeling that where I came from was considered hostile territory. (The conversations would go something like this: Me: “I’m kinda homesick…” A hippie: “New York City! That place is the worst! I hope it falls into the ocean! I hope all the rich people burn!” Me: “My family is kinda rich…” A hippie: “Good thing you escaped! Don’t go back or you’ll become one of those awful people! Burn burn burn!”) Going home would mean crossing enemy lines.

I have no tidy words to end this piece. I still have no answers to my Big Question(s). My spirit refuses to scream the answer. At a certain point I have to throw my hands in the air and stop typing. Shrug my shoulders and say, I dunno. I guess that I want to shut my eyes a bit. I guess that I want to be a good daughter and a good sister and yes I will recycle and yes I will be thankful but yes I will also get a job and enjoy the great spectacle that is New York. Anyhow, I’m bored of dealing (or not dealing) with UTIs. I want to flush the toilet without feeling like a monster. (A year ago I thought anyone who flushed was evil.) So after the wedding I called Nigh and told him I was canceling my flight to California, and moving back to Brooklyn.

***

“What did he say?” my mom asks me.

“He said that I’m a Cancer and that’s why I’m flip-flopping. He said that the moon was in Cancer, which must be why I’ve been feeling especially flip-floppy. That yesterday was the new moon, and so I’ve just got to wait a few days and then I’ll change my mind and go back out there, where I belong.”

“Hmm. Actually, the new moon was last week. And we’re all watching the same moon. There’s only one moon that we can see.”

“Nawww. California’s got her own moon,” I say, laughing.

***

Sometimes a postcard is big enough. The world is a strange and beautiful place and I want to be in it, all of it. That includes coming home. ♦

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19 Comments

  • alienbabe June 26th, 2013 11:08 PM

    This is really great, I wish I was able to write like this.

    http://sweetandsourstyle.blogspot.com/

  • Dylan June 26th, 2013 11:16 PM

    This piece means so much to me!

  • Lisa R June 26th, 2013 11:27 PM

    This article is so beautiful!

  • bethleeroth June 26th, 2013 11:40 PM

    I look forward to Anna McConnell’s pieces more than anything.

  • ColoredSoft June 26th, 2013 11:50 PM

    At some point, I’m going to print this out and keep it forever.

  • irismonster June 27th, 2013 1:49 AM

    This piece is beautiful! Funnily enough, I’m from California (but nothing like the conditions of your commune–San Francisco, actually,) and I want nothing more than to live in New York. The feeling you describe of witnessing the wilderness’ beauty is exactly how I feel about New York and the people and the density and the beauty of it all. But I realize that there are some beautiful things about California–the ocean, the trees, the smell, and how people are just too damn nice to each other. There is nothing wrong with wanting the best of both worlds, and being indecisive about which is better for you. Who says you can’t appreciate both ends of the spectrum? (well, those hippies, but nonetheless.) After all, the grass is always greener, and growing up in one world makes us appreciate it less and more vulnerable to anyone who says it’s not that great. Ergh, I’m rambling, but the point is that I love this piece and I feel a lot like you describe.

  • insteadofanelephant June 27th, 2013 2:54 AM

    for someone who is so free Nigh seems very controlling. glad you went home (for now I’m assuming). there’s lots of feelings to feel and places to feel them

    • insteadofanelephant June 27th, 2013 2:57 AM

      also i love the title. one of my favorite sayings is a line from didion’s ‘goodbye to all that’ and it’s “at some point the golden rhythm was broken”

  • coalesce June 27th, 2013 4:41 AM

    hi! weird question, but: are you david foster wallace fan?? your writing reminds me so much of his. (and i mean that in the best possible way! dfw was the greatest.)

    but anyways, geez, this was super. you write about really great honest interesting things in a really great honest interesting way. please never ever stop.

    • rhymeswithorange June 27th, 2013 5:38 PM

      GASP he is my favorite and I totally agree!

  • Sophie ❤ June 27th, 2013 7:38 AM

    All I want to say is, perfect.

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • damdayy June 27th, 2013 8:42 AM

    at this very moment I am interning at this big corparate company, feeling hostile about everything that it represents and the direction that my life is taking. thinking about going ‘into the wild’ because i long for feeling home and a the ‘meaning’ of life.
    thanks anna for sharing a struggle similar to mine. i am not as courages as you are but your experiences help me see my fantasies as what they really are; good and bad

  • wallflower152 June 27th, 2013 10:39 AM

    I love Anna’s hippie commune stuff! I am so intrigued by the idea of living off the land. Person that commented above me, that’s how I feel–like I’m selling out. I want to go out and explore while I’m young but I feel like I’m stuck. Then I feel like even if I did get out and explore I would still feel like Anna does, unsure of where I’m supposed to be. Ack, and UTIs suck!

  • pendulous-threads June 27th, 2013 12:53 PM

    Very moving piece! I hope to be able to write like this one day.

  • kelsey June 28th, 2013 7:32 PM

    Great piece. I’m glad you went back to New York. Your hippies who vilify it make me a little testy! I lived for the first 20 years of my life in California – but when I visited New York after graduating from high school, I felt like my mind finally opened up and noticed the world, other people, and life in general. You can get wrapped up in commercialism anywhere – and you can become a beacon of ethical, thoughtful living anywhere. I live in Arkansas now, and I’ve become way more socially and environmentally consious than I ever would have in California.

  • kelsey June 28th, 2013 7:36 PM

    P.S. Basically, what I meant is that you’re in total control of what happens to your soul. No physical place absolutely forces you to be sooty. Think of all the genius British bands and writers who came from desolate industrial towns.

  • Glenny July 17th, 2013 5:57 AM

    AGH your writing! SO PERFECT.