Friday, July 4, 2008
The Dark Tent of the Soul
A lot of the things I've been thinking about and writing about in the last few weeks would seem pretty ridiculous to most of the world who've done things like roast whole chickens and sleep in tents on a pretty regular basis. On the other hand I often take for granted the things city life has allowed me to do that many people haven't experienced. Like, "You've been to Times Square? Like where the Coke sign is?" is a pretty commonly asked question when people find out I grew up in New York.
Of course I'd trade a million Times Square sightings for the capacity to sleep outdoors without having a panic attack.
When I was growing up all my friends were from NY too, and they all had a sense of the terrible danger we were in to varying degrees. They lived in a apartments small enough that you could stand in one corner and know exactly who was home, apartments with a million locks and chains. When I went to college I met people who grew up in big houses with huge pictures windows that had no bars or alarm systems, who left their doors unlocked and walked down dark roads and had camped for fun in their yard as kids. I remember two roommates who asked my opinion about taking the bars down from their window in their new East Village apartment. To me, a window leading to a fire escape with no bars is an open invitation to be murdered in your sleep, but they got out their tool box and did it anyway, against my assertions that they'd soon be dead. Spitefully, they proved me wrong and lived to reattach the bars for their deposit a few years later (though someone did get conked in the head with the gate during its removal...trying to knock some sense into them to no avail).
Two summers ago I went to Utah and on a road trip down to the Grand Canyon. On our way my friend Claire and I attempted to camp along the Green River. We even set up a tent and lit a fire then dragged our sleeping bags to the river's edge. After the gnats settled down and stopped trying to fly into our mouths Claire fell quickly asleep. I lay rigidly awake, fully clothed in a sleeping bag full of sand. I looked over at the tent and thought it was a pretty clever ruse. Perhaps we'd hear the Hook Man slashing through it trying to get to the tender girly flesh inside and we'd have time to run into the river and drown ourselves instead of being chopped to bits.
The sky was very beautiful that night or maybe it just looks the way the sky always looks when you can see stars. There were many layers of them it seemed, almost a fog of stars, and the sky took on depth as I looked at the ones that burned clear and close then the ones that faded in luminescence in the distance.
The vulnerability of being outside at night is not the only thing that makes it so hard for me to sleep there. I was uncomfortable, freaked, itchy but there was also no way to shut any of it out. The sky was huge and the little noises in the darkness innumerable. The whole world was whirring all around and I couldn't make it go away, I could feel it pressing down on me even with my eyes closed. It's like sleeping in a bed with someone for the first time. Your consciousness of them disrupts your dreams, a part of you is waiting for them to stir or speak. I felt like I was waiting for the universe to say something and I didn't want to hear.
When I couldn't bear it anymore I woke Claire and said we had to drive to the nearest motel now. Very obligingly she rose and we walked past the dead fire to the tent to dismantle it and throw it in our car. I would have just thrown everything in the back myself, Claire and all, but I needed her to drive. As we walked Claire whispered suddenly that she was scared of the dark. We started to giggle. She said when she'd been asleep she could shut it out but now she was scared. In turn, now that I was walking around there didn't seem to be anything to be afraid of. I squeezed her hand and we got in the car and drove ten minutes to a motel (the town consisted of about ten motels, a coffee shop and a melon stand). In the room, with walls and a door with a dead bolt and windows that locked I fell into the deepest sleep of my life.
At Frosty Morning Farms I'll be sleeping a tent. Claire, probably thinking of my desperate scrambling by the river's edge, warned me, "You'll hear a lot of noises. Scary noises that sound like something. But they're not." No, they never are. Almost never.
Do I really think anything is going to happen to me? Hmm. Can bears really smell menstrual blood a mile away?
It's not the vision of what is out there in the night that makes me nervous, it's what's inside the tent that I'm dreading. Myself, alone in the dark with out all the helpful mental compression of an apartment building. My own mind rushing, streaming, wandering to some thought I don't want to hear.