When I was 17, my family and I moved from California to Wisconsin, where I would be starting college. Though part of me felt at the time that my mom, step-dad, and siblings were following me across the country for the obnoxious reason of keeping tabs on me, I begrudgingly acknowledged another, more reasonable, purpose for their move. My mom had grown up in Milwaukee, and just as I was beginning a new chapter in my life (college, dorm living, new friends), she was returning to her roots for the support and the closeness of her family.
We drove cross-country with two cars and two babies: my sister was nearing three years old, and my brother was not yet one. It was not a quick cross-country drive. Our pace was set, in part, by the needs of the babies, and the interior mood of the car was determined by their crying, sleeping, eating, and fidgeting.
For me, at 17, all of it was torture. Since my mom was driving, I had to be navigator and babysitter. I kept an eye on the map, and I fed, played with, and tended to my siblings. What I wanted was to be left alone to read (The Mists of Avalon) and to journal. That summer, before leaving California, I had met a boy who I was desperately in love with. I was sure, against all sense and logic, that I had found the person I would be with for the rest of my life. And this move, though I wanted it, though I looked forward to college, was tearing us, literally and figuratively, apart. My heart was breaking with each additional mile. And this is what I wrote about.
Time and distance were my themes. The distance became a character; it had substance—it was malicious. Being pulled and stretched were common images that appeared in my journals of that time. I wrote poetry, I wrote prose, I wrote creative nonfiction (and yes, it was creative, since I re-imagined the relationship I had just had—all two weeks of it—and turned the both of us mythical, iconic.) Everything that took place within the space of that car, during that drive, served as backdrop for my own sadness. I really got into metaphors and similes. The features of the landscape filtered into my writing. Desert and greenery meant more alongside my moods. When the babies cried, it was because they sensed my own suffering; when they laughed, they mocked it. When my mom and I fought, I felt determined in my love. The splintered relationship, as I saw it, between my mom and me only served to clarify how deep and strong this other relationship was. I could handle the bickering, the crying babies, the interminable miles cast against the hyperbolic idea of my great love.
After we reached Milwaukee, and I started my first semester, I would sit in my classes, watch the clock tick sluggishly, and will the hours to pass. Time was heavy. I felt mired in it. It was like breathing, walking, talking through molasses. I was sluggish. I remember in one of my communication classes, I was writing a poem about time—something about rope and knots and pulling—and my tablemate reached out and grabbed my notebook, demanding to know what I was writing. She began to read, and I pulled the page out of her eyesight. I made some comment about it being a poem, and not ready to be seen by others. That was partly true. The other part was, at that moment, I believed myself to be the only one who could understand this heartache and the way time was working for me. I remember distinctly her mannish hands as she tugged the notebook, and her tightly cinched ponytail—both somehow further indicating that she could not possibly understand my mood. Or, for that matter, the depth of what I was writing.
Now, at 34, I find that time and distance are still things I write about. I think because of that big move at 17, and because of other moves from childhood onward, distance is something I think about a lot. The way time changes with distance and new sights is also something I think about. Self-imposed distance, in particular, is interesting to me. I chose to move to Milwaukee at 17. I chose that distance. I chose to wait a full year before visiting California again, that boy I loved having moved on by then. And since then I have made other choices that have inserted a physical distance between myself and familiar things. I moved to South Korea for a year, for example. There is a certain tension that comes from this, a certain challenge. Life just can’t be boring inside that challenge. That’s something I learned at 17. My emotions were taut, exposed, hyper-charged, and within that there was so much to write about. So, maybe that’s why I move so much—not just for the challenge and the thrill, but for the material. I imagine that when I’m 68, double my age now, I’ll still write about time and distance. Those themes will be just as fresh, most likely because I’ll have moved again and have a new distance to contemplate and pine over.