When Free Time to Write in Martha's Vineyard Makes You So Mad
I’m not sure exactly what happened. I went to Martha’s Vineyard to stay with two staggeringly talented writer friends I’d met while working on You Don’t Look Adopted a few years earlier at the now-closed Noepe Center for the Literary Arts in Edgartown. I had an idea that I could, in a week, write 93 Things Adopted People Can Do to Feel Good. I’d gotten contributions from other adoptees, first parents, and adoptive parents, and I thought it would be a useful document, the kind of thing you could pull out in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and the open window is starting to look like an option.
Martha’s Vineyard is a special place for me because I went there with my family when I was a child for a handful of summers. I remember my mom as being happy there. I remember all of us as being happy there. I wrote in my book that I wish my mom had held me in her lap in the grassy field by our island rental house and that we had both cried over the fact that I was adopted.
I had an idea I would find my mom this trip. I hadn’t found her last time, but I had the sense this time was going to be different. This time I would hear from my mom and know how to stop feeling so sad and confused about the fact that I both loved her wildly and felt a shocking error had been made by a society who thought one mother was as good as another for a child.
You’ll notice, or what I mean is that I just noticed, that in the above paragraph, I noted my mother had been happy before I checked in with myself. This is a problem, especially now she is dead. How can you steer your ship to please the winds when the winds aren’t even taking note anymore? When my mother died, my own role as mother was still keen on the horizon, but my daughter left for college, and I felt bereft. I didn’t know what my role was, who I was. I was no longer needed to keep my daughter alive. I was no longer needed to try to keep my mom happy. This may sound like an invitation to freedom to you, but to me it felt like an invitation to disappear.
Flying into Logan this time, an airport I have flown into countless time, every time thinking home as we pass over the familiar landscape, skimming over water before we touch down on land, felt like going into my high school years after I graduated and being surprised by how narrow the lockers were, how low-ceilinged the corridors, how small the place felt. For the first time in my life, Boston looked distanced to me. I had come from home to this place, this place that had once been home but that now did not touch me in the same sharp way.
Home stopped being home around 6th grade for a variety of reasons. I always wanted to go home, but as soon as I’d go through the door, I’d realize it wasn’t the right place. My stomach hurt. I felt sad. I spent years and years going away from home and coming back, hoping this time the pieces would click and I could stay.
I did not write much on the Vineyard. I found I had almost nothing to say. I had invested time and money on this trip, and I become more furious, more scared, more depressed. I was not interested in what I thought. I did not feel like a treasure that needed excavating. I felt like a smudge.
Everything shifted on the morning of the fourth day. I talked with my friend Pam who, when I asked her what I was not seeing about my experience, told me control was a substitute for trust. I was walking by the ferry to Chappaquiddick and I thought about what it would feel like to trust, and, for the first time in three days, I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to write about adoption. I didn’t want to write about 93 ways to feel good. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I was trying to force myself down a path because it seemed like the right thing to do, the most helpful for others, the follow-up on a promise I had made to the people who had contributed that I would do this project. I didn’t want to have to be adopted. I wanted to just be me. I was trying to control the world by doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I was trying to get love and acceptance and safety by being right or good.
Some of my favorite memories were times when I was not being exactly good or right. Some of my favorite times were when I said Yes to what felt wild and slightly dangerous. Like, thinking about what I wanted before thinking of someone else. Like, going out at 9 at night for a warm apple fritter the size of my head. Like, singing out loud when I was riding my bike out in public. You know, risky, dangerous behaviors that made me feel like was a celebration.
That day I walked for three hours. I couldn’t stop smiling. The ocean made me happy. The shells. The tourists taking pictures by the lighthouse. The houses with their brightly-colored fall wreaths. The t-shirt shop where everything was 50% off because it was the end of the season and almost time to shut the doors for the winter. There was so much to see. I breathed in the smell of the quiet lawn in the cemetery and I felt overwhelmed I got to see and hear and smell and touch. What bounty I was carrying—my own body! The ability to live in one’s nose and to experience all the world had to offer one’s sniffer—what sweet, startling, sharp smell is this?—could easily lead to a lifetime of joy and pleasure. But I had all the other senses on top of this!
What the heck was my problem?
Thinking I had to write.
Trying to poop before your body is ready to give you some pipe is a painful and potentially hazardous practice. For god’s sake. You can push your intestines out of your own body. Stop, Anne. Knock it off. Eat well. Exercise. Hydrate. Your day will come.
I finally relaxed at the Vineyard. I didn’t have to write. I could help others with their writing. I could take pictures. I could look for delicious things to eat. I could talk to friends. I could pick up shells, dust them off, smell them, live in the ocean.
I had a dream that the pain in my stomach was a heavy black phone. I thought about what to do with it, wondered if I should take it out and bury it. The phone was my mother, and I wanted it to stop hurting my stomach, all her unrealized dreams, all her unsaid sadnesses. I thought about burying the phone, never seeing it again, but I realized I could take it out of my stomach and attach it to the wall so I could both have it and walk away from it.
My stomach felt so light.
I did not have to carry her any more, but she was still there. There was more space in my body for joy to reside now the heavy blackness was out. I could breathe better. Thinking of the future was thrilling. Anything is possible when there is space and freedom.
On my Lyft drive home, I worried the car would break down. It was shuddering as if the smooth road were rough. My driver was either highly caffeinated or really happy. He talked from the minute he picked me up until he dropped me off. He told me how he noticed that all Americans do is work and work and work. He said he noticed people got in trouble here if they didn’t send their kids to school. It’s not like that in his country, he said. He told me he was working hard so he could take six months off to go to school and learn English. Half of what he said was in English, half in Spanish. He talked so fast I thought I understood it all, but maybe it was more like a river of sound. I liked that the chatter distracted me from the car that was dying. I liked that he was talking to me, and that I understood most of what he was saying.
I didn’t have to do anything. All I had to do was listen.
I was happy. I hadn’t accomplished what I’d set out to do on this trip. I hadn’t written anything of note, hadn’t had some big breakthrough for a next project. It felt like such a relief.
My daughter was in college, less than fifty miles away. One night soon I would drive to Berkeley to have dinner with her. I remembered the smell of her hair, her skin.
I was home.