Freedom's just another word for nothing left to leave
By the time I heard Timothy Leary chant “Turn on, tune in, drop out” from the stage of New York’s Fillmore East, I had already quit college. The year was 1967, and Leary’s battle cry was for me more a confirmation of what I already believed than a call to action.
I had never been much good at doing things that didn’t arouse my passion. Even when I was a young girl, it was obvious that I had been born without the stick-to-it, nose-to-the-grindstone gene. I was stubborn, tenacious in my devotion to the people and things I loved, disdainful of everything else. There was no in-between. In high school I got straight A’s in English and flunked math. When it came time for college, I enrolled at NYU because it was the only way I could think of to live in Greenwich Village and get my parents to pick up the tab. But I rarely made it to classes and dropped out one month into my sophomore year.
That was the first time I felt the rush of quitting, the instant high of cutting loose, the biochemical buzz of burning my bridges. The charge had to do not with leaving college for something else, but with leaving, period—the pure act of making the break. Suddenly it seemed possible to reinvent myself, to discard my old life like last year’s outfit and step into a new one—free from the responsibilities and relationships that had dragged me down. I got an unlisted telephone number and warned my parents to stay away. “When one jumps over the edge, one is bound to land somewhere,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, and for a long time this was my mantra.
It didn’t take long for me to find a collaborator, a master of disappearing acts who made me look like a rookie. Brian was ready to morph one life into the next on the turn of a dime. I became his loyal apprentice and during the summer of 1968, shortly after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., were gunned down, we sold everything we owned and quit our jobs, our friends, our apartment, the urban jungle, America and the blight of Vietnam, and fled to Europe. But our new life didn’t quite match our dreams: As winter neared, we found ourselves living in a rusty old van on the outskirts of Rome, hungry and cold and hard up for cash. From there, we boarded a freighter for Puerto Rico—which turned out not to be the nirvana we’d imagined, either—especially after the little episode with customs officials over a speck of hashish. Still, a pattern had been set: living in one place, dreaming of another, working at odd jobs (mine included secretary, salesgirl, cocktail waitress, draft counselor, nude model, warehouse clerk, candle maker), earning just enough money to get us to the next destination. We crisscrossed the United States, went north to British Columbia, and lived in every conceivable sort of dwelling from tenements and tents to farmhouses and plywood shacks. Sometimes I’d grow attached to a place and plant a garden, thinking that this time things would work out and we’d stay forever—or at least long enough to see the flowers bloom. But something always went wrong: It rained too much (British Columbia), the cost of living was too high (Colorado), the air wasn’t pure enough (Southern California), or we couldn’t find work that was meaningful, not to mention lucrative enough (everywhere).
For a long time it didn’t matter that we weren’t happy anywhere, because the rush of heading off into the unknown and starting over was more potent and trippy than anything we smoked and we just kept going—even after our son, Clay, was born. But one day, in the mountains of Northern California, when our latest scheme for finding True Happiness—living close to nature, in a house we built, near another family—fell apart, I just snapped. In that moment I knew that I no longer had it in me to continue feeding on fantasies of a future that inevitably turned to dust. That night I made this entry in my journal: “I’m so sick of listening to ourselves talk about what’s going to be—plans, plans, plans. I want to live in the present for once, not in the future. I mean live, settle down, make a home for my son.” I had understood finally that the problem wasn’t in the places we went or the people we found there but in ourselves. We could shed our surroundings but not our own skin. No matter who or what we left behind, our private demons followed, and our differences with one another erupted like a sleeping volcano the minute we stopped running. In the end, there was nowhere left to go, no place left to leave behind, no one left to say good-bye to except each other.
It had taken thousands of miles and one child for me to understand that the quitting I took for freedom was as much of a trap as the social conventions we were trying to escape. Together, Brian and I had been so busy saying no to everything that might limit our options that, except for Clay, we’d neglected to say yes to anything. We had no careers, few friends, and no place to call home. Moreover, what had begun as a journey to find our “true” selves, independent of other people’s expectations, had turned into an addictive cycle of fantasy and failure, followed by another stab at redemption. After seven years, I felt sad, spent, and more alienated than ever—from Brian, from the rest of the world, and, most frighteningly, from myself. More than anything, I longed to land somewhere.
Still, I don’t consider myself a “recovering” quitter. That would put too negative a spin on an act that is sometimes the best, most honest, and most creative response to a life situation, as well as a tremendous source of energy and power. What’s more, in the years since Brian and I went our separate ways, I’ve walked away from a marriage and a number of significant relationships, bailed out of college a second time (just a few credits shy of getting my degree), and moved back and forth across the country twice. As for my relationship to the workforce, it officially ended 15 years ago when I left a long-term (for me—it lasted all of eight months) position as the publicist for an outpatient leper clinic. I simply could not deal with a life in which I was expected to show up at the same place at the same time five days a week and not take frequent naps. So I did what any self-respecting jobaphobic would do: I became a writer.
But, paradoxically, knowing that I’ll always have it in me to be a quit artist has in recent years made me want to hunker down, dig deeper, stick around long enough to watch the garden bloom. (I’ve even gone so far as to plant perennials.) This change has come gradually, on tiptoes, without the fanfare or splash of the Big Quit. Looking back at my current marriage of 12 years, I see that the constancy my husband and I have maintained despite our share of hard times would have, in the past, sent me scrambling in search of higher drama. For me, the act of staying put has required far more courage and humility than it once took to let go. This is somewhat ironic, considering that I used to believe that my capacity to turn my back and walk away from almost anyone or anything was a sure sign of bravery.
Over the years, I’ve also come to understand that even if I don’t go chasing after change, it will do a perfectly good job of finding me. Upheavals, startling turns, and unpredictable shifts have all come unbidden—especially when I’ve been at my most settled. Besides, I’ve watched enough people I love die to know that no matter how hard we try to be the sole authors of our own stories, life itself will eventually have its way and quit us.
And though sometimes I miss the rush of cutting loose—and, God knows, the impulse still arises—I’ve learned that, for the most part, it’s impossible to travel deep and wide at the same time. Now it’s simply more interesting, more richly satisfying, to mine my life just as it is, with all of its wild imperfections and—superficially, at least—lack of conspicuous drama. My family, my home, close friendships, the natural world, and the worlds conjured in my work constantly surprise me with their nourishment—a thick and complex root system I might never have known if I hadn’t stopped severing the ties that bind.