Alix Kates Shulman and the Long Thought
Told in present tense, the memoir has a simple premise and framework, which allows Shulman to ruminate and digress in interesting directions. It starts with a radical, if not original, personal experiment: at age fifty, she lives a summer alone in an island cabin in Maine, an hour's walk of beach from any civilization, without electricity or phone, the only water from the rain collected in a cistern. The idea is to get some focused time on a writing project, a goal all of us can identify with.
But early on, the plan changes course:
...for the first time ever, I allow myself the reckless thought that it might not matter if I write or not: with no one here to judge me, discovering what exactly I will do may be a more interesting project than writing a book.
What follows is a season of trial-and-error lessons involving the stuff of her immediate surroundings. With the help of Euell Gibbons books found in the cabin, she learns to forage vegetables and shellfish. She takes time gathering and preparing (beautifully described) meals for one. She wears what is comfortable and available; she consumes the college readers in the cabin instead of the books she brought along. And this new, improvisational approach to sustenance is nothing short of an awakening. This long period of solitude teaches her to appreciate "long thoughts." And time isn't as limited as she once believed: "...the more lavishly I spend time, the more I seem to have, like the wild leaves I pluck for salad which grow more lushly the more I pick."
Leaving the magic summer behind and returning to New York City proves challenging for Shulman, who has been deeply involved in the women's movement for years. How can she tell her friends she craves solitude now more than solidarity, without triggering anger and worry? She keeps dried seaweed in her home kitchen, and other island mementos, but they don't bring back the feelings she had when she was there. A Buddhist friend gives her a shot of perspective--the island taught her to pay attention to her surroundings. And this can be done in the city too.
Shulman returns to the island many times over the course of this book, but also takes us to the Rocky Mountains, New Mexico, and Europe, and into the cold war of her New York apartment, where she is struggling through a divorce. The cabin on the island becomes a frame for a bigger story, a guiding metaphor for how she chooses to live, which involves plenty of "long thoughts" and healthy self-study.
We readers get to witness a person making peace with who she is, with what she can control and what she can't, and falling in love with the world around her, crags and all. And as the natural resources on her island become tainted with encroaching civilization, her reaction is not despair and panic, but flexibility, and humble inquiry.
Many thanks to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for introducing me to this exciting voice. I highly recommend her podcast, Writers on Writing.