Excerpt from “Quercus”When I was just out of high school and thought I wanted to be a journalist, I spent close to four years working at several local daily newspapers in California. I wrote about hockey players and real estate agents, about preachers and bowlers, about criminals and mountain men. And often, as I gathered information for a story, I would feel the tug of those other lives that I glimpsed. For a day or an hour, I would mentally abandon my own life and imagine myself as someone else. I wanted to be a convert to another life.
For an afternoon, I dedicated my life to teaching pottery to senior citizens. I became a pyrotechnician and wowed thousands with my stunning fireworks displays. I joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church to become a follower of the charismatic black woman pastor I interviewed. I married the young, God-fearing trucker I met at a truck-stop chapel; he was from Pennsylvania and looking for, among other things, a wife. I became a classic-car buff and renovated a 1952 midnight-blue Chevy Fleetline. I trained to be a computer programmer and learned to design GIS programs for police to use in mapping crimes on a nationwide grid. When the Texan high school football players—whom I had come to interview to find out how much they ate—asked me what I was doing later, I became the kind of party girl who hung out late with athletes. I went to medical school to learn how to perform heart transplants on nine-year-old boys, like the one I wrote about, the one whose photo I took as he clutched a Winnie the Pooh doll in his hospital bed.
Daily I sought conversion: something powerful and sudden like a tornado to seize me up and shake me senseless, something to ravish me, to take me in its clutches forever and never set me back on earth. But working at daily newspapers, every day the view was different, the religion changed, the weather turned, the story was new. I never studied anything at length, I never knew anything in depth. I ran from one story to the next, my knowledge rudimentary. I was promiscuous in my yearnings, my many aborted passions. I took cuttings from all those lives, lined them up on a windowsill, where they shriveled, and all that remains now are yellowing clips in three-ring binders.
Now I am more than a dozen years removed from that life. Now what I want to learn most is how to stay put, how to be a student not of the sensational and transient but of the commonplace, the everyday, the enduring. Now instead of leaves of newspaper print, I collect a different kind of leaves, the real deal. Now I have become the student of a tree.
To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.