Keeping Your Wilderness Alive

Sage CohenThe life poetic8 Comments

Solitude is the sense of space as nourishing. What usually happens with solitude is that people equate it with loneliness, which frightens them…There is a way in which we treat our relationships almost like a colonial expedition: we want to colonize the space, all the territory in between, until there is no wilderness left. Most couples who have deadened in each other’s presence have colonized their space this way. They have domesticated each other beyond recognition. – John O’Donohue

On a Saturday morning, Jon dropped me off at yoga class at 10 a.m. and kept right on driving with the dogs to Forest Park where they galloped six muddy miles of trail together in the deep womb of urban wilderness. I had dressed for the walk home, and was warm and relaxed as I headed out from class into the mild gloom of March afternoon. Digging around in my purse to no avail, it struck me that we had used my keys in the car, and that the car–and keys–were with Jon; I’d be locked out until he got home. Jon didn’t have his phone with him, and I had no idea when he would be home.

With destination erased from my trajectory, I felt like a balloon cut free, floating purposeless and weightless down Clinton Street.  I remembered seeing a cafe on my way to class and walked east another three blocks to Broder, a Scandinavian cafe. The cafe was long and narrow, about the size of a train car, and had been polished with care to a modern minimalist sheen. The patrons had clearly emerged from a Portland other than the one I inhabit: one of high-style, where darkly framed, dramatic eyegear and strangely proportioned clothes in shades of black and brown slung over heroin-chic bony bodies. The waiters and chefs were waify, underweight young men smattered with tattoos and too-tight black pants with a slick of aloofness greasing down the errant eagerness beneath their cool facades. In my sloppy stretch pants, bunched-down wool socks, fleece jacket and unwashed hair flopping around in a loose clip, I was blissfully out of place. In an urban environment, not looking the part is as close to invisible as you get, and I love being invisible.

I took a seat at the bar, retrieved a small pile of index cards and a pen from my purse, and started writing. Card after card, the ideas kept coming through me, through the pen. A practice established over the course of 20 years, my body needed only assume the position to turn on its freewriting tap. As I wrote, a glorious mug of fragrant decaf coffee arrived with a smart glass jar of sugar cubes and a silver carafe of half and half. Then came the large, frothy orange juice. And then three aebleskiver, quarter-size Danish pancakes dusted in powdered sugar and circled in dollops of lingon berry jam, maple syrup and lemon curd. Compliments of the chef. I had fallen through the rabbit hold to a Swedish heaven.

As I wrote, my baked scramble with wild mushrooms and caramelized onions materialized on the counter steaming in its square, cast-iron baking dish, aligned with a square white plate with a perfectly spiced potato pancake accompanied by a fan of triangular slices of walnut bread. I tasted, marveled and wrote some more. And as I did, I was transported to the life and times of Sage of yesteryear.  This Sage had free time. With little income and minimal expenses, she lived for the indulgence of her weekend cafe breakfasts. With no car but plenty of notebooks and one divine poetry book at a time, she’d ride the streetcar and listen and look and feel and write and weep. This old Sage was spontaneous. Not yet the precariously over-committed and over-scheduled adult she would grow up to be, this young woman had room for surprises.

For a brief hour of homelessness and exquisite food, I returned to this lost wilderness of my early 20’s: the Sage of open spaces. I carried her home like a pressed flower– fragile and old and new. In a flash of lucidity, I could see how I had colonized myself into my own prison of responsibility and purpose and civic duty as year after year, I cut back the rich, fertile thrill of my precious solitude to cultivate a more groomed and professional version of myself. When really all I wanted was something big and impossible and gloriously alive to get lost in.

Poetry does not survive the suburbs we make of our minds. It withers in the cage of constant accomplishment. Poetry needs the wilderness of solitude to call itself up out of the verdant ashes. It needs the darkness and the light to recognize its wholeness. How have you colonized your creativity and domesticated that wildflower of your imagination that once billowed in the wind? How will you recover your lost wilderness? No matter what work you do, what relationship you have, or how busy you are, inch-by-inch it can be done. You can have your suburbs and your wilderness. Your poetry depends on it.

8 Comments on “Keeping Your Wilderness Alive”

  1. What an inspiring post to read this morning! Thank you for the reminder. (Plus, it’s really making me want to check out Broder …)

  2. Thank you Sage, for that lovely reminder….I don’t spend nearly the time on my own in cafes with journal and pen that I used to, and every time it happens nowadays it is like being in an oasis. Good to remember.

  3. Hi Sage,

    I’m enjoying and utilizing the tips and advice in The Productive Writer and decided to check out your blog.

    Thanks to your beautiful post I now have plans to escape to “my wilderness” this Thursday. Our local art museum has recently been renovated with a study room and a new cafe and I’ve been dying to go explore but I couldn’t or wouldn’t take the time away. I’ve been trying to do this for five months!

    I can’t wait to soak in the creativity of others, sit in the new cafe, order something special, and just write. Thinking about this date with myself makes me feel happy and full of possiblilties.

    Why don’t we do these things more often?


  4. I have had your Life Poetic book for over a year now, and I got it out the other night for some inspiration. I tried to sit on the couch, video games in the background, and wondered why nothing poetic would come out.

    Your post makes so much sense. Cafe’s and little spots have been amazing for letting my mind go, and sometimes I forget this. Thanks for reminding me of this. Writing and creativity need space. This will make my day writing today better. Thank you.

  5. Hi, AnnaBeth, So glad to hear it! I think the opportunity of the writing life is to keep experimenting until you find the place(s) that are most conducive to writing for you…Have fun seeking out the spaces that are most inspired and inspiring for you!

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