Where am I?
by Laura Munson
I’m home now after two months on the road promoting my book, and every morning, I wake up with a start: Where am I?
I could be anywhere. I could be in a Hampton Inn in Dayton, Ohio. I could be in a Ritz Carlton in downtown Los Angeles. I could even be in my own bed. And it’s an interesting experiment lying there, daring the early morning birds, living into that not knowing.
I’ve known exactly where I am when I wake for many years. I am in my bed in Montana, once again waking to the same cool celadon green of my walls, the same mahogany antique desk that I’ve ruined with hot tea mugs, the rings to prove it. There is a stack of books covering those rings, and I’ve read too little of those words, and so usually, I awake to guilt. Guilt in the rings and books and inevitable dust—a dead fly or two on the window sill. I feel guilt, but I feel comfort. I am the keeper of these inanimates.
In My Dinner with Andre, Andre has to climb mountains to know that he exists. Wallace Shawn is happy to wake up to the cold cup of coffee from the day before in his New York City apartment. In both cases, these are proof that they are alive. I have been alive then in dead bugs and low grade guilt. But I’d like to have kinder proof, so usually I try to think of a few nice things to say to myself. Sometimes I think of people to whom I want to send loving kindness. Either way, there is always this butterfly flicking around in my rib cage: when do I get to write? That question is what quells it all. And it is with that question that I get out of bed and enter my day. It is in answering that question, that I know where I am.
I had a friend who spent a lot of time and money getting her masters in creative writing. At the end of it she realized she wasn’t a writer. “I dreaded every minute of it,” she said. “Really?” I said. “I feel like a little girl getting away with something every time I sit down to my writing desk.” It felt that way in 1988 when I realized I was a writer and it feels that way in 2011, and if I know anything about myself, it will feel that way as long as I live.
As I’ve said before, writing is my practice and my prayer. My meditation. My way of life and sometimes my way to life. It is the holiest ground I know. And so, you might wonder what happens when you wake up day after day on the road in a startle, wondering what you will see when you open your eyes and really not knowing what the answer is to the question, once you get around to it: when do I get to write? Because the answer most likely is: this summer. And summer is months away.
So do you feel sorry for yourself? Or worried for yourself like your grandmother worries for you? Maybe a little. Your life, for as much as your dreams are now realities, is dearly out of balance. Writers have nervous breakdowns on book tours because of this imbalance. Their personal lives suffer. Their children suffer. Mothers without their children suffer, whether or not they are writers. I have a writer friend who doesn’t call her kids when she’s on the road. “It upsets them,” she says, and she’s right. Better to extract yourself and to leave them be. They don’t need the reminder. It doesn’t feel good hearing your voice. It feels sad. For both of you.
It’s true that I bring my journal with me when I travel. But it’s also true that I don’t write in it. I can’t quite ask and answer my good questions. I can’t quite go into the woods of my heart and depict my wanderings well or even at all. It’s too painful. It’s what my friend with the MFA felt when she sat down to write. I think that for me, it’s because novels hatch in journal entries. Or at least short stories and essays. And I can’t afford that to happen. Because I can’t take their hand and breathe air into their lungs. They will be like my children. Abandoned for now.
So I am out of practice on the road. I am disoriented. Where am I? This is not just a question of toilet and nightstand and lamp and toilet paper. This is deeply psychic. Where am I? What CAN you take with you? Well here is my answer:
Every so often, like the Pilgrim in the Way of the Pilgrim who travelled with his book and his knapsack, trying to learn what it is to pray without ceasing, we need to find the wilderness that is us. To give up our earthly possessions and even that cold cup of coffee and those dead flies that remind us we are alive, and climb our Everests like Andre or take to wandering with one single intention like the Pilgrim. We need to forget what Monday is from Tuesday and what Portland is from Jacksonville, and just be Somewhere. It’s nice to become aware of a comfortable bed because of the uncomfortable bed in which you slept the night before. It’s nice to know the difference before you even know where you are longitudily and latitudily speaking. A good pillow leaves you wanting to weep in gratitude. The smile from a cab driver. A wink from the woman at the train ticket box. The way the waitress calls you “hon.”
At home, you don’t notice these things quite the same way. You know exactly where you are. You berate yourself for being forty-five years old and still not having the wherewithal to keep a stock of tampons in your medicine cabinet. You feel guilt over ruined antiques and pressure from dead flies, and you forget sometimes that they are reminders that yes, you are alive. You can’t think about being alive. You have so very much laundry to do.
And yes, you are home. You have a place to practice your prayer. And the road reminds you: you have your room of your own…and you are so grateful for it because you forgot: a long time ago, you pined away for that room. You wrote in between shifts at the restaurant and while the babies slept. You have your desk that awaits you. You have your work. You have a life in balance, for the most part. You know where the toilet is. The road has been a great teacher: you need to be OUT of balance every so often, so that you know what balance is in the first place. You need to learn to be grateful for dead flies by climbing the mountain. There are times to live and times to write and times to do both. And so to the road, and to all those hotel rooms and that new question (Where am I?) which for many weeks this last year have replaced my usual question at waking (When do I get to write?)…Thank you.
And now it is summer.
Laura Munson is something of a publishing phenomenon. After writing fourteen novels for which she could not find a publisher, she wrote an article that crashed the New York Times’s website. Forty-eight hours later she had a publishing contract for her memoir, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is. Her paperback will be published in April and she will be touring the country doing events. For her schedule please visit Events: lauramunson.com