Inside the fall

  • Cottonwood tree

    James Kay
  • Cottonwood leaves

    James Kay

Flat on my back under the cottonwood, yellow leaves falling, brilliant blue above, an abandoned rake beside me. My two young children sit at my side, feeding sticks to the dog, who likes to chew them up and understands that every time he gently takes a twig and crashes it in his teeth he is causing great delight, and so he keeps doing it, stick after stick.

Sometimes Jake and Eliana leave him long enough to tackle me, and I have just enough time to clench my stomach muscles so they don’t knock the air out of me, and we laugh and wrestle. When they grow tired of all this, I pretend to be injured people so that I can stay a bit longer: an injured knight, injured princess, injured criminal, injured hero, all in need of rest and medical attention. The kids do what they can to heal me, happy enough in this new game, and while we play, I watch the leaves come down, and I am thinking of my arrival. I have fallen into myself.

Interesting phenomena, this. It makes me want to take a poll, conduct a study: When did you fall into yourself? When did you know that, more or less, you were living the right life, doing the right things? Do most people fall into themselves in their 30s? 50s? 80s? Do they fall once, or are there lots of readjustments? Do some people never get there? Are some people there from the get-go?

I am so grateful to be here, feeling so balanced and strong, so far away from the darker times of my life, buzzing with a light energy. It makes me a little nervous, a little scared, a little giddy. I feel settled. I feel healed. I feel home.

Know Thyself. In high school, I learned about the oracle’s advice chiseled in stone at Delphi, and I’ve thought about it ever since.

What do I know?

I wander through the house, collecting diaries. There are lots of them — in my dresser, nightstand, office, bookshelves. I pile them all on the couch, where I sit cross-legged and start to read.

There I am at 7, 12, 18, 24, 32. I am anxious. I am worried about nuclear war. I don’t like President Reagan. Like most teenagers, I don’t like my mom. Especially as a kid, I am just flat-out disoriented by the world. I live on a small ranch in northern Colorado, in a home that is not often happy or calm, and I am tense and on guard. I have no friends except my brothers, of whom there are six. I can’t invite anyone over. There is a raccoon living in the house, too many cats and dogs and chickens, and I’m embarrassed by too much. I start spending time outdoors. Outside, it’s clean and quiet, and I’m safe, and the alone seems less lonely. I go to college in Wyoming, then move to North Carolina with a man who starts hitting me, and it takes me too long to figure out how to leave. I watch depression take down my brothers; see four emerge, the other two sink. I return to Colorado and enroll in school again, directionless. I take an English class that I love. At 21, I meet James, who soon becomes my husband, and we grow up together. We heal together. James and I have two children and we learn what it’s like to move beyond ourselves. We embark on careers and find a house in the country. We fluctuate between good times and bad, we struggle to become settled.

At one end of the spectrum, this journey felt wrong and dark; at the other end, there’s this new energy and joy. I imagine that most of my life will be spent somewhere in the middle, occasionally floating in one direction or the other. But right now, I am at the far end, where happiness and fullness live.

Please, I write in my diary, let me stay here a while.

My new garden, made of curving beds of dirt delineated by river rocks, looks a little strange. I admit that. Probably a landscape designer would cringe, but I love it. I love the work of it. I love that my children and I are shoveling dirt around all day instead of spending our time inside. I let them use a little extra water, and they make a mud pit and become Mud Monsters, slapping mud on skin and chasing after me.

I wonder what the neighbors think about these children, bare-bummed and filthy, running around the yard. I don’t really care, though. Because, basically, I don’t know any other way to parent. I recognize that they’re going to have trouble with schedules at school, and with being inside, and having to act in a more civilized and less rough-and-tumble way, and I’ll make some half-assed effort to mitigate that. But mostly I’m happy that they’re not going to have trouble being outside, being dirty. That they’ve been made aware, at an early age, what laughter feels like. They seem sturdy, and very alive.

As they’re playing, they get into an argument about who should hold the garden hose. Jake pushes Ellie a little too hard. I make a move to step in, but she’s already punched him back. They look at each other fiercely. I hold my breath, ready to impose peace.

Jake does it himself. "You can have the hose, Ellie. But after three minutes, it’s my turn."

"Two minutes," says Ellie, who has no concept of time, and thinks this gets her the better deal.

"Okay," Jake shrugs. "But I keep trying to teach you that two is smaller than three."

"I’m two-and-a-half," says Ellie.

"I know," says Jake. "Just give me the hose."

"Okay, my dear," says Ellie, handing it to him, and then she kicks him, playfully.

Then they are conferring in whispers, and then they start to chase me, ready to tackle me with their dirty bodies. I feign distress and run away slowly, so they can catch my legs and pull me down under the tree where I watched leaves drop.

Yes, I confirm with myself, this is where I want to be.

My first diary contains this: "I would like to become a riter someday."

I have it posted on my wall, because I did become a writer, and I’ve even learned how to spell.

Next to it are photos of friends — friends I prize because there was once a lack, and because I now know how to locate the deepest dwelling spot of myself and how to share that spot.

Past my computer, where I write, are dusty-blue foothills, yellow grasses, red willows. There are honeybees and raspberry bushes. My dog sleeps at my feet and glances up at me now and then. The aspen tree leaves flutter, and sometimes I watch them and feel my heart spin.

I do not wish to sound as if my life is perfect. I am, in fact, feeling more humble these days than I have ever before — and humble is not even the right word, something stronger is needed — deferential, lowly.

I am not yet living in a way that reflects what I value, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been: growing more of my own food, buying substantially less stuff, being outside, being present and playful with my children, caring for my husband, participating in my community.

There are plenty of things I don’t like, of course: certain politicians, the new subdivisions around here, my neighbor’s barking dog, being broke, my back hurting, wars, loud diesel trucks.

But it’s easier to absorb and fight these things from the right location within oneself, and so I pause to consider how grateful I am to have fallen into a good spot inside. I consider the qualities of happiness: the darting and bubbling sensation in my chest, the glow in my cheeks, the energy behind my laugh, my heartbeat and breath inside the fall.

Laura Pritchett’s most recent book is Sky Bridge, a novel set on the ranchlands of southeast Colorado. Her short story collection, Hell’s Bottom Colorado, won the PEN USA Award and the Milkweed National Fiction prize.

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