I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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After a cycling accident left my husband, Ralph, a quadriplegic, I had a furtive fear that, given the opportunity, I might bolt. I might up and leave him and all his problems. Like a deer avoiding an oncoming vehicle, I’d dash away and disappear forever into the safety of a thick, impenetrable forest.
It’s been nine years since Ralph’s accident. I haven’t had too many opportunities to run. Except for occasional help from Ralph’s twin brother, Richard, I’ve been Ralph’s primary caretaker. When Richard comes at Christmas, I go to New Jersey to visit my relatives. At Easter I journey by bus to Mexico and hang out with old friends. On Thanksgiving I pitch a tent with my brother at Sunnyside Campground in Yosemite Valley.
I’ve steadfastly avoided taking the sort of adventurous vacations I used to enjoy with Ralph. We never did anything as mundane as visit relatives at Christmas, or camp with my brother, or travel anywhere by bus. It’s been easier on my psyche not to pursue the activities that remind me of the time when Ralph was able to run, walk, sit up.
Each time I go away, however, I have a nauseating dread that I won’t return — or, if I do return, that my vacation will have been too much fun and I won’t be able to readjust to life with a paralyzed husband. That’s another reason why I travel to New Jersey, Mexico, and Yosemite: they’re not that enticing. I’m not going to stay forever with my parents, as kind as they are. I can’t make a living in Mexico. And I don’t want to spend my life in a tent with my brother. So, year after year, visit after visit, I come home.
Recently I spent four weeks on retreat in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. I’d won a writing fellowship in a literary contest, and Ralph encouraged me to go. Richard promised to cover for me during my absence.
It was mid-October, and the air in upstate New York was sharp and smelled of winter’s approach. The artists’ colony was in the middle of two thousand acres of pristine forest. The foliage was so bright it was difficult to look out my garret window without squinting. Beyond a grassy slope, a turquoise lake glistened and glittered. Honking geese flew south in wavering formation, and when the wind blew, leaves fell like crisp raindrops.
I hiked along the water’s mossy edge and watched sleek brown otters play among the lily pads. I paddled a red canoe from one end of the lake to the other. I saw a black bear deep in the woods among the rotting tree trunks, and I startled a grouse from its nest among thick cedars. I took a moonlit walk on smooth granite boulders above the oaks. I attended candlelit suppers in the magnificent dining room of the grand old lodge and chatted with composers, playwrights, poets, and authors. I did not have to cook or clean. I did not even have to write.
This is it, I thought to myself. The day has come. I’ll never go back to Ralph. I’ll stay right here forever, with the deer, the trout, and the wild turkeys.
But when the time came to leave, I packed my bags, closed the wooden door to my attic room, and said farewell to my new friends, the lake, the cooks, the canoes. Like the geese that had flown overhead while I sat on the wooden dock and contemplated my future, I would go home again. I took the Amtrak train south along the Hudson River, which grew wider and murkier the farther I went — less like an untamed stream and more like an interstate highway. I was happy.