In the lake of the woods

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lovely post about isolation that’s well worth your while. You should read it. For some reason the title and the sort of haunting imagery called to mind Tim O’Brien’s novel, In the Lake of the Woods. That’s quite a book. Stirs together how we think about truth and memory; how we weave illusion into our past in order to shape our present. But I digress.

The best responses I’ve offered, the ones that leave me tingling for years, can not be done by googling around and then taking a couple of hours to pop off. They’re done over months, and sometimes, years of reading and talking with people, and then retreating into the wilderness and confronting the horror of solitude and loneliness. […]

My work space is deep in the woods and wrapped in a kind of silence that a city kid, like me, has simply never beheld. There is no phone, no cell coverage, and no internet. A few days ago a storm swept through, bringing with it a bout of terrific thunder. It cracked through everything–air, trees, bone. I was so scared to be alone out there–no people, just me, the thunder, animals and rain. But after ten minutes or so, I gathered myself up and took my pad out to the covered porch, and just listened. I was still scared, but it was so very beautiful.

And this:

During my early years of blogging, I thought that the back and forth was actually sharpening my own logic and thinking. And maybe it is. But, at my core, I am selfish and each day less interested in polite, high-minded debate. Perhaps I will feel different when I return. But out here in the great green, I’m not convinced that any of it matters.

Sometimes the endless back and forth can truly hone our thinking. Sometimes I think it’s a little poisonous. Sometimes I think we can get trapped in ideas that we don’t really believe, or in beliefs that are more like chains than truths. There’s a lot of pressure to conform or to be contrarian or to focus on one thing that can make you stand out in the crowd. Expectations abound. We begin writing what we think the readers want to hear without even realizing it. At times I just write because I need to write, or because I need to get something posted (anything!), or because this is what I want to do and if I do it often enough and well enough I’ll get traffic, recognition. All that jazz.

Sometimes I find myself writing things I realize I don’t even believe anymore, out of habit, perhaps, or reflexively. Or I run with an argument too long and find myself floundering, the waves already up to my chin, unaware I’d gone off the beach in the first place. Sometimes I think all this argument shrouds our thoughts, makes us less vigilant about the ideas we’re trafficking. When I should be deep in the woods of my thought I’m instead hammering out a retort. I’m lighting brushfires.

Truth is on the other side of that misty elusive glass. Memory, doubt, want, fog. Sometimes silence is the best response. To pause and take a breath and hold it in for a while and not let the steam of our words out in case we lose our reflection altogether.

I envy Ta-Nehisi’s solitude, much as I used to envy Henry David Thoreau back when I was younger and more idealistic and imagined myself a latter-day transcendentalist – back when I tried to be a poet myself for a while.

I would imagine myself up in Montana, in our old cabin with no television, no retreat back to the familiarity of my other life. Books and a typewriter and a fire. Alone and at peace. Simple.

But I stayed in crowds instead, kept friendships that should have withered and died, that had become like cancers, clung to these things perhaps because the portrait of solitude was also a frightening one. One I couldn’t face directly. Alone with my thoughts. Afraid that perhaps whatever lurked beneath the surface was not enough to keep me company. Or perhaps because I was tired of always leaving a place. Wanted to plant my feet deep in the dirt of wherever it was I’d ended up.

And life kept on keeping on. Accidental happiness. Marriage, then kids. The end of solitude. The birth of something else entirely.


The bright eyes of a three year old whose excitement to see me is never exhausted.

(cross-posted, by the way, at my new solo-blog American Times)

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

10 thoughts on “In the lake of the woods

  1. I have lived deep in the Alaska woods and can relate to trying for the quiet mind. I can also relate to imaginary fear. One time I was hitchhiking to the lower 48 and had made it as far as Delta Junction. It is easy to get from Fairbanks to Delta Junction, but there is nothing but Alcan after and that rides are extremely hard to get. I had been in Delta for about a day and a half when, because of boredom, I decided to walk to the restaurant that I knew was about 18 miles down the straight as a tight string road. I had walked about half way when I started hearing crinkles. I walked and heard crinkles and with each little snap of a twig I worked myself farther and farther into a state of fear. By the time this had been going on for about an hour I finally jumped into the middle of the road and pulled out my little buck knife. I stood there and slowly but surely realized how dumb it was to think I could take whatever was following me with this little knife. I could see nothing but woods and the road that ended at a point in both directions. I really was in a state. I did not want to be eaten by whatever was making those fear inducing noises and as I comtemplated my situation I started listening, really listening and slowly, ever so slowly I realized the noise was coming from foraging rabbits. Congrat E. D. on a nice piece of writing. Also, I think Going After Cacciato is a better novel and one that deals with imaginary things.

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  2. I’ve obviously said this privately, but it needs to be stated publicly so there’s no confusion for folks reading. You’re a good dude, running a stellar blog–not that you need any seal of approval from me.

    But bearing in mind our debate from last week, I thought I should say that. Thanks for linking.

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  3. This is an outstanding blog! Your insight is profound and needs to “get out there.” I especially liked your comment of:

    “Sometimes I think all this argument shrouds our thoughts, makes us less vigilant about the ideas we’re trafficking.”

    Ideas have consequences and as you said one of these consequences is: “Sometimes I think it’s a little poisonous.” Having spent time in different lonely parts of the country (survival training in the military) one is supposed to learn to control his fear at twig snappings (easier said than done and to confess I have done what dexter45 wrote about). One comes to the profound conclusion that this forest/desert/wasteland is “their house” and I can become “their” dinner, as such you appreciate home. And yet there is a peacefulness, a centered-ness that can only be found away from the urban life.

    Profound writing E.D. Kain

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