By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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From the outside looking in, it appears that not only do I live alone, but I maintain a hermit’s existence, an ascetic’s search for bare basics, primitively situated in the middle of a heavily wooded forest, with no avenue of approach, no charming old road bed, nor a new one. There is only a dogpath, barely discernible in the daylight, which disappears entirely at dusk.
Once, there was a crudely-cut road, open for two or three months when building materials were being hauled in. Outsiders were hired to do everything I could not: turn the tiny box I’d drawn on a piece of paper into a house. It had two windows each on the east, west, and south sides, a carefully pencilled-in door, doorknob, and final touch of a stove pipe chimney resting on a roof labelled “roof.” It was all I could afford on any level, and it was my harvest come home at last — an 18x12 foot womb for one.
I helped as much as I could, a little embarrassed by how little that was, holding a board as it was cut or nailed, answering yes/no questions about the pitch of the roof, the matter of trim, any extras. But just in case carpentry was an art I could learn overnight, some skill flying home to its sleeping master, I hung around every time the house was worked on, squatting, squinting my eyes at the goings-on, thinking that some day it would be pleasant to become a carpenter myself, to learn the warmth of wood.
It is stone I am most drawn to, and if I could have built a house of stone, I would have. My walks in the woods off major paths are often magnetic pulls towards large boulders hidden in deep gullies or dense shrubbery. The forest has been touched only lightly by the logging industry, a twenty-five acre hill of five long, thick earthen fingers. They taper into furry tips which touch the valley meadow that marks the boundary. Boulders jut up out of the crevice’s mossy softness, and increase in size as the slope climbs, a giant’s stepping stone path to the top of the hill, where my land ends and a beef cattle farmer’s begins. No one can own the view across the meadow. From this high point, one can see for miles, across hundreds of acres of farmland. At night, the illusion of standing at the top of the world is thickest, the forest behind you and the pasturelands all below, open and sweetly scented, the sky immense and accessible, the planets too bright to ignore.
Sometimes I crawl down into the crotch of the earth, halfway down the hill, and sit on the biggest, least jagged rock, look up at the old trees looming above me, and the ones below, and watch their simple leaning towards light, the life in the leaves rustling to each other and, I feel, to me. Shades of brown, grey and green blur into one another and mirror the subtlety of sound, the wind, the distant caw-caw-caw, the insects’ whine.
I cannot believe these woods do not know me, do not sense my belief in a receptive and sensitive earth, making a magic that never repeats itself, is always awake, that beckons to me, as a fellow magician, to awaken as well.
I park my car off my land and walk to it. In the beginning, this was due to a lack of money to build a road, no skills with a chainsaw, and an inherent confusion about where I actually belonged. Now it’s a pleasurable privacy.
The cabin is accessible, but in no way public, and invisible until you are upon it, nestled in a rocky recess of the hill. It reflects my unfinished business, my budding into full view, my voice released. This house is made of cypress, of wood that will not rot, has no solid steps, but a precarious ladder before the door.
When I get home after dark, the dogs rush to meet me, and together we make our way up into the woods, winding like small ants through our tiny tunnel of a worn path past the subtlest of landmarks — this rock, that one, a sudden slant of the earth, a mossy crest. In the darkest turn of the path, I have hung a possum’s bare bones from the branch of a tree, to reflect the beam of the light.
Every time I reach the cabin, catch sight of my cocoon, I feel I am wide awake in a dream I have been having all my life of such a place as this, where there is no fear, where families are built beginning with one, where there are no limits, no gravity, to ground my flights. Only a friendly burning lamp to mark the spot, to guarantee a safe return.
The cabin’s contents tend to decrease, not increase, with time. It is a machine of distillation, this shelter, shrinking my life, sucking up loose ends, swallowing me whole, a mirror of priorities. There’s nothing in it that is not at the core of my personal civilization — the essential furniture, a steamer trunk bulging with twenty years of letters to the self, and several shelves of dedicated friends: Jane Roberts, Seth, Ram Dass, the I Ching, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and all my Sun’s. Anything that collects dust was boxed and moved out.
Recently I have begun to appreciate my oldest companion again, my journal, seeing that it progressively touches what is untamable in me. For years it felt like a burdensome historical beast, appalling evidence of a self-centered fame, dark and untrustworthy, a potential embarrassment that would scald the hair off my body, making naked my ugliness for all the world to see. I knew it all along as the face of fear, forgivable by me if by no one else. Given enough time, I knew I could help it hatch, ripen; have it teach, not taunt. “Fire and fear — good servants, bad lords,” writes Ursula Le Guin.
If left alone with an honest word, I could carve out a special place of tolerance where there was no need to judge, and set the fear free. In that ironic, splendidly human way, the fear balked at this, at the price I must pay: to give up judgement and keep discrimination, to give up waiting for the Second Coming, for the Messiah, for the Saviour, for arrival of authority from the outside.
My journal tells me now: the fears have ripened, are your riches come home to roost. I no longer need to deny my past, to destroy the evidence, burn my journal lest I be “found out,” dragged out of my conventional closet and crucified for thinking for myself.
So it sits there, this trunkful of journals, encyclopedias of every time I’ve traced my boundaries with the touch of a curious consciousness, set up a permanent post as a look-out for the tide to change. I love to defy time, to use the entries as gigantic levers of the imagination, to follow the careful tracking of the personality, as it meanders like an insect past that ancient elm, through this city gutter.
It has nothing to do with “writing,” with typewriters, pens, paper, love of literature, good English or bad. Its functions are two: to let out and to let in, and to do either well I must be alone.
“The diary” is the letting out, the recording of events, impressions of my own reactivity racing through my fingertips in a longing to gossip, to tell the tale and find beneath it the truth, the unexpressed emotion.
What cannot be captured, photographed, recorded, everything that did not externalize in my day arrives when I “let in,” when I fall into the silence that follows my worded focus, when I light no candle, have no holy intention, simply sit still, eyes closed, and face the emptiness. For a long time, the “letting in” was lonely compared to the “letting out,” in which known personalities paraded past my inner eye, a sumptuous family gathering of my known loves, my daily details, immediate and accessible. The “letting in” requires endurance, a spiritual stamina that must be seeded with care. There must be enough self-doubt, enough hunger for the unknown, to pull me to my post, and enough self-trust to want to play with whatever I find, as an explorer in invisible worlds. It was a while before I could accept the practice of putting words on that space, of opening my eyes, fingers on the typewriter keys, and watch these friendly forces I found take shape — my own creations, I thought. After a time I began to suspect it was the other way around; I had touched ancientness, the sun that seeded my God, me, and the “letting in” was no longer lonely.
Sometimes I see images, sometimes I don’t. The only one that repeats itself is of an Indian scout on a high hill, a look-out. I always see her from the back, have never seen her face, but I know it is my own, and she has been sitting there forever, letting me in, letting me out.
She reminds me never to leave my post, the top of the hill, never to abandon the silence, the focused power that feeds me. My journal will one day die, my post will not. I will look back on this skeleton of words and see a personal truth, with every partial insight, every piece of cultural propaganda ripening to a strong stink forgiven by the writer, bent over her life not out of narcissistic absorption but because the beginnings of largeness are there, the beginnings of a compassion for humanity.
Road-building reflects an enormous amount of energy, no matter how I look at it, as dollars, as duty fulfilled, a cleared passageway to destiny. One must be very careful when road-building. You’d better be sure you want to live at the end of that road.
I grew up at the end of “Meadow Lane,” my grandparents’ back acreage, on the side of a hill much like the one I live on now, with ravines and hardwood trees, honeysuckle, mulberries, wild plums and persimmons, a small stream surfacing after heavy rains. I built camp after camp, carving out paths through the thickest underbrush, wanting a hideout, some insulation from my little girl identity, where I could be the Indian that slept on dried grasses, carved cedar sticks, and collected feathers, turtle shells, snake skulls. On weekends and Wednesdays, my father was usually nearby, pushing his wheelbarrow from the rosebeds to the vegetable garden, playing with peanut hulls, leaves, pinestraw, building a winding walk. More than once, as night began to fall, he’d come looking for the clippers, a necessary tool for my compulsive pathmaking in the woods. I’d show him my camp, and, until it was too dark to see, we’d follow my paths and hack together at the deadends, the impasses I’d reached, the branches too big for me to cut, and talk of the long ago teepee, the one he built for his girls, an authentic wonder for rainy day games.
I’d forgotten all that until I began to clear paths again, fifteen years later, in my own woods. I bought a pair of clippers and wore wistful eyes, knowing what I wanted to do, but not sure I could, alone.
I was 19 when my father died, his death a loss I didn’t appreciate for years because I knew in advance, through dreams, of every step of his departure, and there was time for us to collect moments, for me to stroke his hair, for him to hold my hand and not hide his emotion, the end unspoken and invisible to the diagnostic descriptions of his “recovery.” He lost a lot of weight after the first attack. A neighbor said, “Walker, you look like a gutted shad,” but I thought he looked great, like a boy again.
Sometimes I see his old customers, strangers to me, who seem startled, moved: “Lord honey you look just like your Daddy,” they say, as if they’ve seen a ghost. And I remember that last week, when the torch was passed, without a word; it was all that brown eyes, in their darknesses’ fiery light, could ever say to each other.
I resented the beings that were waiting for him on the other side, the entities that crowded around our kitchen table after his head dropped, the bowl of soup still steaming before him, his napkin upon his knee. But beneath the resentment was an electrified awareness that I was in cahoots with them somehow, and they with all of us, and some mammoth door to nature had opened that allowed me to see where my father was going, which was not very far away, yet would require the deepest detachment to touch. My body shook convulsively, unaccustomed to the weather of that opened door, and I heard my voice say, as if from very far away, “many came to take him.” And then they were gone, my father too, like genies out of a bottle.
Then there was a simple void, some vacuum in space, the door still partially open, and just as suddenly the void was eaten up by the molecules around it, like water filling a pond. This was some sacred ceremony, more awesome than a death could ever be sad. I was exhilarated, numb, a robot rerunning some old familiar record, and I said it again as the rescue squad arrived — “Many came to take him.” My head was full of noises, urgencies, soothing sounds but I couldn’t sort out the levels. The only distinct voice was my own, telling me to take the curlers out of my hair; company had come.
I’d never felt so free. Some chapter was forever over and the “real” work was about to begin. My father’s departure signalled the start. His finger was in the pie of this design, I was sure, but what I did not know was that I could never reach my real work, whatever that might be, until I grieved the man that had died, the father of my male self, my female self, of all of my duality, find out what we still expected of each other and why. Until I did that, I could build no road to my own completion, develop the discipline I wanted in my life — not as a controlling, authoritative force but as a firm field of fearless love, where I was not subconsciously searching for my father, and our unfinished business. Until that was done, I’d need more than a pair of clippers and strong preferences to prepare for the path that led home.
I smile when I come upon old foot paths in my woods, some of them seeming to go in circles, some of them deadends, lost in several seasons’ leaves. When I worked on each one, I had a man in mind, struggling to get to him, or struggling to get away. Out of the ten years since my father died, nine of them nurtured a constant male presence, a wooing with all of my innocence, my scheming, my will to have my way. The first one went from his mother to me, three days after my father’s death, still a baby at 17, with a yin sweetness and a way with children not unlike my father’s. We grew up together, he and I, through the prolonged adolescence of college, as privileged children who played well together. After six years, he wouldn’t fight with me, so I went straight into the arms of someone who would.
It wasn’t just fighting I wanted, or needed, not confrontation but creative conflict, something to wear down my defenses with style, some playful jousting, the kind of contact that encourages strength, not dependency or grudgeholding.
We were both married when we met. Enter: taboo number one — fascination with the forbidden. Taboo number two — sex.
I never thought much about sex until my menses began and my breasts blossomed. What I did with my own body was a goodie from God, and I was left guessing when I heard at age eleven from a know-it-all friend that married men and women made babies by “sticking their fannies up each other’s fannies.” Sometimes they did it on the bed, “and sometimes they even do it on the living room floor, or a living room chair, sometimes the sofa.” I envisioned myself ringing a doorbell selling Girl Scout cookies, and seeing this spectacle through a peephole in the door. I couldn’t imagine how they did it, or why they did it. I just knew I didn’t want to do it. And then suddenly a few years later I did want to. But every imaginable cultural lie had wormed its way into my mind. “There are some things worse than death,” said an aunt, when she told me of an unmarried cousin who got pregnant. “Save yourself,” said my mother. “Men marry one kind and not another.”
So I locked in what was screaming to get out, with every other female friend. “Your reputation is everything,” we were told, and so we saved ourselves, prolonged little girlhood as long as possible, graduating to women’s colleges, institutions to take over the job, finish us off, keep us cut off from the knowledge of our fertility, our power, from owning the bodies only our fathers could give away, from access to men under any potentially sexual situation.
Sex was an “it,” but a reward, or a punishment? I knew it was craziness, wearing sexy underwear underneath, and an armor of virginity outside; something in the psyche had to split. Just as my peaceful world split when I turned thirteen and learned: sexuality is a sin for the girls, a sign of maturity for the boys.
I felt the fear in my mother, that I might live out what she had not, an openly sexual side as a single woman. But if that was what one had to give up to have the kind of marriage she and my father had, I’d do it. I wanted that richness, the mutual lack of self-seriousness, a partnership in joy so successful they attracted children to them that were not their own.
Joy breeds generosity, and my parents’ doors were open. I was proud of them, sure I’d handpicked them. They were the only “old” people I knew, or any of my friends knew, whose house on weekends and in the summer might be full of young people who were there to see them, whether or not my sister and I were home. The pool table in the basement had something to do with it, the fireplaces, the free food, but the nectar was the blended personalities of my parents, the matching graciousness, and the distinct appeal of a liberal and intelligent approach to life compared to the Old South’s. The summer I was fifteen, sixty young people presented them with a silver engraved platter, from “The Basement Crowd,” for opening their hearts, for opening their home, for not sending the kids away when the police chronically came to ask them to move their cars. In the summer of ’66, after 7 p.m., the street in front of our house was often blocked, or noisy.
Being open-minded was one of the values my parents were most proud of. Few of them were phony, with the exception of their sexual rules: what was permissible and what was not.
If it’d been anybody but them, I wouldn’t have saved myself, wouldn’t have bought such an expensive package even though everybody else was pretending to buy it, to stock up on purity, to make marriage pay — one’s ticket to happiness, to unrestrained love, a planned-for sexuality, at last.
I was well into my twenties when I gave up all pretenses, saw my mother’s widowhood as the end of an era, a happy marriage obviously not enough for me to hope for in my life, to stake my salvation on. Your mate dies, and then what? You saved yourself for him but what did you save for you?
I began to trust my sexuality, that mysterious and magical arena of magnetic energies, of surrender to the spirit in all its sensuality. But it was with my forbidden lover, which complicated the creative conflict I’d wanted, the playful jousting, the team of two that would take on life, let loose what was petrified between the sexes, and heal the world of duality.
We nearly killed each other. We stepped in every stump hole, tripped on every piece of matching junk between us, and the majority of it had to do with sex. Our spirits were twin towers of belief, stately and tall, often untouched by the sexual war between us, but increasingly saddened, as we drew closer to our separately steamy rooms of repression, our necks wound round one another, contracted in a constrictor’s starving tension, our free arms flailing, hands gripping knives, stabbing each other in a desperate gesture for freedom. We both were blinded by the slander that there was a limited supply of love; we both had too much of a heritage of hoarding sexuality, separating ourselves from the Creative power, each imagining its opposite held the keys to that inner wealth. Our sexual relationship died a powerful death, after dragging its mutilated body around for a full year, dying slowly and indecisively as the two of us blamed each other for being unable to give a strength and support that could only come by setting each other free.
For three days I sat in the cabin, staring at the walls, unable to sleep, witnessing a death of delusions, and in a forbiddingly empty space, totally new territory. I was not with a man, as daughter or mate, for the first time in my life, ever. I would be again, I knew, but never again without owning my own body, my spirit, without confusing genuine need with neurosis, love with manipulative gifts, sex with sin. It was a triumph, a transforming configuration of all the painful details, but it only soothed me in the situation temporarily. I felt I’d let go of, at last by choice, some subterranean sea that had been blocked off for eons from my expanding ocean, and now it had reached that largest body of water in my spirit, and merged with it, an integration so profound that everything shifted in me, everything, and the intensity of the new world rang in my ears until I couldn’t bear it.
It was about three in the morning and I was facing the windows, sitting there like a live wire, electric and straining with the size of the stretching. Bigger, and bigger and bigger and then I felt, like a woman in labor noticing an insignificant insect on the wall of the room, my father’s presence ease up beside me, familiar and concrete, distinctly him, and I was too intent to talk, to even react. Part of me watched him watching me as I repeated over and over to myself the most grounding, centering thought that had come to me: that I was seeding a new world, now, there was to be no waiting, no clinging, no torn looks back to feed new fears; I am the creator of everything to come.
And I heard his approval and an admission of equality, of brotherhood, sisterhood, and then somehow we switched places and I understood that I was him after his death, caught in this same current of creative energy, left totally alone with the inner God and no hope of salvation except what you can grant to yourself, conceive of, to live in. It was not what he expected, nor I.
I’ve felt him only once since, the month after I hired a bulldozer, and built myself a magnificent road to the top of the hill, where I will move my cabin. It was Easter morning around 6 a.m., and I had just discovered the redbud in bloom at the top boundary. The dogwood was in bloom too, the forest barely green. The beauty of it just overwhelmed me, and I thought, “I don’t deserve this, this is too much,” and then I thought, “Of course I do, of course we do, all of us.” And in that inclusion, I felt the blessing beamed back at me, by my father.
I have dinner with a friend in a busy restaurant on a particularly beautiful spring evening and hear everything he says with an ear of synchronous experience. His hurt and angry face are my own.
He talks about two of his relationships with friends, their longevity, how much he invested in the relationships and how much he wants friends who can consistently choose to work through any walls between them. One friend has withdrawn, become inaccessible, ignores the bridge the two of them created. And the other, after a recent uprising of old conflicts between them, will not display a shred of vulnerability, not the slightest crack in the door to allow for a new beginning.
His body is tense; he is ready to fight as he talks, even with me, particularly when I tell him to wait — “Don’t fight with a stone wall.” He answers, “No, I would rather provoke him to anger than endure this cold indifference between us, even if we both hurt more afterwards.”
I know, I know. How many times have I tried to blast that wall with sheer force, with anger, for all the “right” reasons, all the evidence on “my side”? How many times have I approached that wall with gentleness, with every tenderness and understanding that there are no personal vendettas, only projected ones, and when the wall did not respond I staggered off, wounded and hypnotized by my own self-pity, imagining this pride to be pure, this dignity of good intentions enough.
It is Kali come home, this territory. Kali — the ancient Hindu goddess of Destruction, sweet hurricane horror with single purpose: to sweep away delusions. I know this place all too well, but it remains an unfamiliar passage, even in its predictability, in the fierceness of the fire, as Kali matches tit for tat, attacks self-seriousness in any form, even under the most tragic of circumstances. She comes in drag, wearing a heavy cloak of despair, every imagined loss a looming reality in the fragmented darkness of her eyes.
The truth is forgotten, I am a blind woman on my hands and knees, fingertips following the silk thread through the dark, heart in its season of sorrow, crying “If only’s” and every regret, every denial, hating the moment because I think the light is lost, the beloved gone forever, my confusion the damnation I will be remembered by. It is a short-term hurt for a long-term heal; I suddenly understand, not through some feat of logic but through living alone with the only thing I have ever had or will ever have — the pearl of my Isness. I am not alone, I am the beloved, I am understood, and there is nothing I need ever change.
Starving dog that I am, I refuse to accept the Kali kiss until each time my radar confirms from every satellite signal: yes, this is the way, I can detect no loss, anywhere, in this allowance for everything.
Friends, mates, parents, siblings are separate planets within a larger united universe, not responsible for fulfilling my fantasies of how we meet, or even acknowledging the bridges are there.
My friend’s response: “That sounds too hard, to walk in to see him, and not want him to be nice, not want him to want our walls to break down. That means I can’t want anything.”
“But yes you can!” I squeal like an auctioneer taking bids, an excited host on “Let’s Make A Deal,” urging the lucky lifer on earth to pick a prize! Door number one! Door number two! Or door number thrrreeeee!
My friend sits there looking like a tattered and tired battering ram, his most sensitive side bruised and hidden in the shadows of the curtain behind him. “What can I want?” he says, eyeing me, distrustful of my brand of naivete, my oscillations between arrogant ignorance and innocent ignorance.
“You can want to allow him to come to you when he can, in his own time. You can walk in to see him with that enormous extra freedom, you can walk away knowing you have helped create a space in which he can come to you no more encumbered by the junk between you than exists now, with less fear, a larger opportunity to trust whatever awakens in your meeting. It is an enormous act, the most powerful thing you could ever do, and it is totally accessible as a choice. You just choose.”
His face registered it all like litmus paper confirming the emptiest commandment, an intimacy at last earned not through an ego’s aggression in the name of love, but through setting someone free.
We sit at the table, food forgotten, the clatter of dishes and dinner conversations touching us as if from very far away. I feel like a lioness, an enlightened animal, intoxicated with unashamed love, ready to roar. It’s triumph I feel, for having given voice to the greatest power I know, and for rechoosing it myself. I can’t contain my body; it starts to rock in rhythm and I realize, somewhere, simultaneously, I am a black parson preaching primal spirit. I want to sprout a black bush on my head, clutch a microphone and howl like a James Brown banshee at my friend, “Good Godamighty I LUV ya! CAN’T ya see, I LUV ya!” Instead I laugh helplessly and think, “This is what I live for.”
Elizabeth Rose Campbell