By Ann Conway
“Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” —Simone Weil
For most of my adult life, I’ve been resistant to allegiance—to people, to places. The latter may seem strange, since I’ve lived in northern New England on and off since 1972. In many ways, Maine’s iron earth seems my native country.
But then, on other days, I think—not. It’s an old impulse: I have to be somewhere else. Maybe it’s not so surprising. It’s an American theme, common to many people my age, who have been lucky or unlucky enough to live a life of free movement.
“I’m still waiting for real life to begin,” my friend Marty said, ruefully, a few years ago. At the time, he had two girls in college and been married for twenty-three years. My generation thought always life would begin later on—after you caught the right one, after college, after success, after kids, after money.
In my own case, that restlessness and expectancy was exacerbated by my adolescence, when I thought, I’ve gotta get out of here. I needed it, that fierce will of the young, to move on, to shed a skin, to become another person. I would not be like my family, I thought, so I ran away from Rhode Island, to DC, Maine, and Boston, among other places.
Along the way, I had lovers. On a slow work day, I google one, Adam, a doctor I knew in Boston, the proverbial sophisticated older man. I find him and so, alone in my study, I listen on my computer as Adam speaks at a 2008 medical conference, charming, self-deprecatory, above all assured, as if he’d live forever.
I could have married Adam, I think, living the good life, attending the London theatre, contributing to the Move On campaign and Planned Parenthood. I try to feel tragic about this unrealized vision, but it doesn’t work.
Instead, I switch over to Image online, where Betsy Sholl is this month’s featured artist. I’ve never read much of Sholl. She is a Maine writer, and I don’t read Maine writers. I haven’t wanted to make the commitment.
The Weil epigraph begins Sholl’s poem, “Gravity and Grace,” published in Image #53. It juxtaposes images of the poet’s roughhousing sons with Weil’s suffering and a sense of their mutual longing for God’s presence, to “see a landscape as it is when I am not here.”
“To see a landscape as it is when I am not here”? It’s less unimaginable than it once was, as, at midlife, people disappear with more frequency: the daughter of friends dies in a midnight car crash in Bowdoinham, a lovely man I once worked with blows his brains out on a May morning.
“But he had everything,” people said—a great job, a wife, a daughter, an art collection, an active mind. As if what we think we possess is the point.
Another lesson: “It’s not about you,” a friend says to me a couple of years ago. I’d been complaining about an injustice, for I’ve got one of those Irish boatloads of grievance.
I’m angry with Greta for a couple of days, but come to see her point.
“What if I’m not the central actor in The Tragedy of Me?” I muse. Perfect, I think, I’ll try this idea out for the twenty or thirty years I hope I have left.
Suddenly, just as intensely scary as the thought of actually dying is the realization of how precious it could all be.
So now I want to stay in one place now, see the lay of the land. Read Maine writers. Maybe become one.
Mid-afternoon, I take a walk around the Gardiner estate, where Gardiners have lived since the 1700s. It’s comprised of an organic farm and miles of forest, all open to hunting, snowmobilers, walkers. The world turns toward the oncoming dark: bent asters and browning goldenrod, tangles of vines, small sweet grapes. Far off, I hear the rat tat tat of shots. It’s bird hunting season, about which I am not sentimental. One thing I do see now is the poor. I know what it is to hunger.
“Love is not consolation, it is light,” Weil wrote, longing for the Lord. I long for Him, too. But I’m done with flashing away, startled, flying to the next town, which is like all the other towns.
I’ll stay here, I think. Wait for Him to catch me. With His light.