Monday morning in Canaan, New Hampshire. January 16, 2017. About five o’clock. Pretty dark out, still. I slept hard and fast–the efficient shuteye that comes after a bender. I was awake because the drunk of the day before had worn off, so morning’s pangs of depression were starting to rise up like sewage in a monsoon. The price we pay. I cracked a book to get my mind off things.
I don’t get hungover as much as I get punched in the liver by a sense of unprompted regret. Well, not unprompted–clearly alcohol-induced, but it’s a sense of regret that is not derived from any regrettable acts, if that makes any sense. I don’t regret drinking as much as I regret my existence, and it’s damn near insurmountable. Best way to beat it back is with a book or a long walk. Alone or with exceptional people–extensions of the self, as the cliche goes. It was too early to walk, but I’d do it later, when the other two in the cabin woke up. The lake was frozen and there were trails for the snow machines and some footpaths through the woods. I was OK for the time being. The wood pellet stove in the center of the cabin threw dry heat, the type you feel at the corners of your eyes–that slight sting. A worthwhile payment to get some blood flowing to my perennially yellow toes. If I’d sliced open the ball of my foot, I doubt I would’ve bled.
Reading is tough with a cluttered mind. And even though I strategically packed good books to read when there’s not a whole lot of open real estate between the ears–pared down prose written about barebones things that make me realize I’m alright and will feel fine after two coffees and a shit–I slipped a bookmark in and shut “Iditarod Classics” after re-reading the same sentence a dozen or so times. I sprawled and writhed on the couch. I stretched and retraced yesterday.
“Not much to do in Canaan,” the woman behind the tourism desk had told me at the Hooksett rest stop on the drive up, when my two friends and I stopped to piss and buy liquor–which would be regrettably consumed at a reckless pace, though none would make its way back up (a small victory). She was too eager to direct me to brochures I didn’t want to see, had white hair that looked like she’d stolen it from the Quaker Oats guy and teeth like a British beaver who’d built dams during the reign of King George III. She didn’t quite look the part she played, didn’t fit the bill (I’ve spent some time at New Hampshire rest stops/liquor outlets), mainly by way of her posture, which was irritatingly good. She was awfully pretentious, uncharacteristic of the area code, so I wasn’t surprised to find she’d spent some time down in North Shore MA–my neck of the woods. She referenced some Newburyport eateries–The Grog and Michael’s Harborside, both of which only earn my patronage when the regular haunts are overcrowded. I stared at her for a second, still taken aback by her quick dismissal of my destination, and mustered up an amiable reply. Nothing to do in Canaan…”Hence the booze,” I said, smiling gently, gesturing to the brown bag of bourbon and red cradled in the crook of my right elbow.
People in New Hampshire tend to occupy two poles on the friendliness spectrum. They’ll often provide genuine kindness and polite inquiries regarding who you are, where you’re from, and what brings you to wherever the hell you’re going. Or they’ll smack you with not-so-muffled guffaws and beady-eyed stares through coffee-steam over styrofoam cups from beneath their Carhartt beanies as you pull into a filling station where they don’t like license plates they don’t recognize. Either way, the kindness or standoffishness of New Hampshire is never unexpected and rarely unwarranted. Some people just like to be left to themselves. I can usually tell what I’m gonna get–kindness or brusqueness–and I usually know what I should give. This is what I like about New Hampshire. These two poles are my wheelhouse. I grin or I glare, there is no in-between. If you’re good, you’re good. If you’re not, walk away.
I was raised with the benefits of Massachusetts propriety, but I could always spit to New Hampshire. I’m a child of fortunate borders. I’m on the line between old-time colonial (and let’s face it, uppity) Newburyport, and the small, rural town of West Newbury. I am closer to wild New Hampshire than I am to Boston. When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll either say “Boston” or “just south of New Hampshire,” depending on the impression I want to make. Much of what I am, I credit to my geographic location. I never moved, growing up. And as much as the woman at the rest stop in Hooksett had a stick up her ass, I felt kinship.
I stretched again on the couch and rolled onto my right to stare into the wood pellet stove, hiking up the blanket to the hairs on my chin and meditating on kinship as the steady hot air blew into my eyes–stinging again, welcome to do so. Kinship. The other two, still sleeping–though not for long–are my kin. Hamlet comes to mind when I think of kin. “More than kin and less than kind.” But I always invert the phrase to apply it to my own situation. Less than kin and more than kind, because those I hold dearest are not tied to me by blood, not literal kin, but I’ve more history with them than most of my actual kin. I’ve bled with them. A few of them have caused me to bleed.
It is only with kin that going to a place like Canaan, where there’s admittedly “not much to do,” is doable. And why should we want things to do anyway? There’s a cabin. There’s a lake–frozen. There are thoughts to be thought. There are people, kin, to talk to. There are stars in the sky, more than most people will ever see, because there are no lights from buildings in which people look for, find, and are assigned things “to do.” Light pollution. Pollution. Spend some time away from the things and people you rely on most days and you’ll be shocked what percentage of them seem like “pollutants.” Too much “doing” eradicates a lot of “seeing,” a lot of kinship.
Because of where I’m from, because I’m able to spend time in places like Canaan, I feel kinship with stars. Laugh all you want, call it cheesy, but it’s something a lot of people don’t understand. People–myself included–tend to laugh at what they can’t understand. Or they’re terribly frightened by it. My cousin from Los Angeles ran through a screen door in fear after seeing all the stars in my backyard sky. He’d never seen so many, couldn’t handle it. I know the constellations. I’ve seen them, I can find them, we had a telescope growing up. I can point to some of them offhand, and they are mine as much as I am theirs. We kept nightly star journals in elementary school because we could. I still have mine.
Because of where I’m from, I don’t mind being alone. The happiest month of my life was spent alone, exploring the limits of my sanity. People in big cities like New York love to talk about being in a city so full of people but feeling so damn alone. Walking down the sidewalk and “feeling invisible,” despite bumping shoulders with tens, hundreds of people. Even the city folk recognize this as hackneyed bullshit. Cry me a river, cupcake, you haven’t been alone until you’ve been alone. Until you’ve been to places that people raise their eyebrows at and say “not much to do”–and even these places are tame. My alone is nothing compared to so many other, wilder alones. But if you’ve ever been really alone, truly, then you probably don’t dislike it so much. It probably doesn’t make you so sad, as the alone of the metropolis does. In seventh grade, my English teacher compared me to a fox. “Because you’re a loner,” she said. I hold that up as one of the kindest things anybody’s ever told me.
With being alone, comes quiet. Because of where I’m from, I don’t mind quiet. You don’t know quiet until you’ve spent an afternoon or evening in the type of woods you find in a Frost poem–lovely dark and deep, downy flake, etc. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. Sound falls dead. It’s like walking through the inside of a pillow. You begin to hear movement on a molecular level all around you, because there is nothing else. You haven’t been alone until you’ve held a conversation with the subtle hiss of water rushing into your footprint, or the booming and bellowing of lake-ice under your feet–begging you test it and mumble back, inquiring whether or not it’ll hold your weight.
I remain a product of borders–small, insignificant really, but my own. I straddle a line between the life I want and the life I must live in the meantime. I want the quiet. I want the alone. I want my kin. I want Canaan or something like it. I want the snow and the moaning of a mirror-like lake. But I have lived for the most part, and I must, a very modern life. I am a tortoise, bearing the necessity of sticking its head beyond the boundary of its shell. I recognize now that quiet is a luxury. Alone is a luxury. Kinship, too, is luxury. And I am lucky to have had, to still have them all in some capacity. There are drawbacks to remaining within a shell, as there are drawbacks to remaining without. It is the border, that sweet spot, that lucky intersection where we take a little bit of within and a little bit of without and let them synergize. It is being able to pick out a star in a city sky, to ride its light from without to within, and feel alone–a proper alone–in a place where you’re anything but, where words don’t matter and nobody cares what they mean.