Magnificently Terrified

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The Lost Art of Summer
Magnificently Terrified
Growing Pains
Less Is... Impossible: One Man's Quest to be like Mies

I remember the exact morning clearly, the day my passion became a full-blown obsession. I had gotten up at 4 a.m. to work on what would become my first book, and I couldn't stop writing. I simply couldn't stop my mind or my fingers. The pursuit of my dream what I considered a pipedream at the time had fully consumed me, swallowed me whole.

Already late to my job as a PR director at a private educational institution a position that entailed mucho schmoozing and dwindling self-esteem I had to force myself to stop writing that morning by turning on the TV as loudly as possible to distract myself. The Today Show was blaring as I began racing around our tiny bungalow, leap-frogging the dog who was lying in the hallway between the bathroom and family room. As I hurriedly gulped breakfast, a sign appeared before me on The Today Show. Matt Lauer was interviewing a couple who had quit their jobs and were now running a B&B in Bali, or something absurd.

"We have discovered the secret to happiness. Follow your obsession," they told Matt. "Life is too short. Let your passion guide you."

"You freaks!" I remember yelling at the TV, as I dry-swallowed a vitamin and aspirated hunks of Kashi. "Who does that?"

I was, as you can tell, not much of a believer in signs. I didn't take many chances in life. In the days before "The Secret," I was the anti-Secret.

So I went to work, as usual, where I found myself paralyzed in the comfort of my lumbar-perfect office chair. I may have been unsatisfied with my life's work, but I was oh-so-comfortable. My routine had become daily Novacaine; I was 40 Four. Oh! and I was living, but not Living!

I ended up finishing my book in the wee morning hours, steadily going into work later and later, because I simply couldn't stop writing. And then I sent my manuscript off to literary agents expecting nothing and received three formal offers of representation. My book sold two weeks later.

I should have been ecstatic, but I wasn't.

Why? I felt that I simply shouldn't leave my job, that I shouldn't take the leap to become a fulltime writer, to follow my obsession, because that's not what sane, logical people did. People don't take chances, I thought. Nets don't appear when you take a leap like this. I had been told too many times by too many people that I would simply go Splat!

Moreover, I didn't believe in myself.

And then I remembered Walden, Thoreau's famed ode to simplicity and passion. The book had been a secret favorite of my grandmother's, and she would sometimes mention it to me at our cabin when I was a kid. She would write me years later, when I was in college, and tell me that the Bible was for her afterlife, but Walden was for her "here-life." So I went out and bought a paperback of Walden, and, one night while flipping through it, I came across the following that Thoreau had written over a century and a half ago:

"It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant."

That night, I bolted upright in bed.

At 40, what happened to my dream of being a writer? Where had my youthful passion gone? When had life eroded from leaping to enduring? Would my obsession always be relegated to part-time status?

These questions are not easily answered, because they force even deeper questions of a society that, I believe, is filled more with creatures of habit than creatures of change. I had to ask myself: Can I make a living writing? Can I really start over, start a new life in a new place? Can I leave my friends? Will this harm my relationship? Am I obliterating my future for my present?

These questions rolled in my head. And then late one night, my partner Gary said to me when I thought he was asleep "Stop thinking about what you're giving up, and start thinking about what you're creating. I believe the biggest crime in life is to waste a dream when God has granted not only the talent but also the passion."

Within the next few months, fueled by heavy doses of courage and caffeine, passion and pizza, and stupidity and exhaustion, we luged downhill without any brakes, we uprooted our lives so I could follow an obsession. We put our city home up for sale, we began moving to our little cottage outside of Saugatuck that we had purchased just a couple of years earlier, Gary was transferred by his company and asked to create a new sales territory, and oh, yeah I finally quit my job. This still wasn't easy, because the logical, master's educated, Reagan-era, Wall Street coming of age part of me told me I would rue this for the rest of my life. But, ironically, my decision was made easier by the escalated release date of my first memoir, which I had kept a secret from my employer. The lengthy time I thought I had to decide about what to do with my life became a precious few weeks. Finally, passion was pressured to trump logic.

And so we jumped and found ourselves in Michigan, where I was soon living the life of a writer in the woods. I had become a modern-day Thoreau. I had recreated Wade's Walden.

Dream fulfilled, right?

Not so fast.

One of my first mornings in Michigan one of the first of my new life as a writer I found myself sitting alone, wrapped in blankets on our screen porch, in front of an electric fireplace, my I-Mac open. There was snow on the ground, but the outdoor thermometer registered 42 degrees. The sun was shining, and its filtered rays splayed and splintered through the swaying pines, the light dancing across the old wooden picnic table I now used as my desk.

I have what I thought I wanted. My dream starts today. This is my first day of my new job in my new life.

The screen porch was now my office, the critters my co-workers. I looked out at five cardinals chattering on ice covered, low hanging sugar maple branches.

I had brought Walden onto the porch with me. I wanted to reread it once again, I wished to juxtapose my writer's life in the woods with Thoreau's.

I turned the cover and began to read.

Page 1. Opening paragraph. Walden.

"When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again."

"What?!" I screamed. "Are you kidding me?"

The cardinals scattered, and two chipmunks that had been sitting on a stump filling their cheeks with corn Gary had placed on it ran like hell into the center of our backyard. They stood on their hindlegs looking around, half surprised, half upset.

"He only lived in the woods for 26 months before high-tailing it back to Boston?" I was talking to myself. Out loud. I pictured Thoreau sitting at Cheers with Norm and Cliffy, having a Sam Am, laughing about his short stay in the woods.

I thought he died in the woods when he was like 110. Isn't that what my grandma told me? He returned to civilized life? I thought he had chosen simplicity forever. How had I missed this very important part of the book?

We already sold our house in the city. I have no friends. I have no job. I have chipmunks and birds and trees.

I did, however, have an epiphany this one coming like a car slamming into a guard rail, an "Oh, my God, what have I just done?" moment that comes a mili-second too late: I have deluded myself into believing this is what I wanted. I have ruined my life.

I stood up and pressed my face against the chilly screen on the porch. I looked up, and a hawk was circling, back and forth, and back and forth, like the oldtime gliders I flew as a kid. Suddenly, the hawk dove straight down, five feet in front of me, and picked up in its talons one of the chipmunks I had scared moments earlier. Alvin stared at me as he was lifted skyward, kernels of corn spewing from his now open mouth. My heart was racing.

I looked out in the yard, and saw his little friend, Simon, staring upward. And then he looked over at me, stared at me really, challenging me. He was alone, inconsolable, frightened and furious. We were one.

I had no paycheck coming, no second book sold.

The hawks were circling.

Neither of us had anywhere safe to hide anymore.

My dream derailed that morning.

And then many weeks later, I was helping my partner Gary clear a path in our woods, so he could landscape a trail this was his obsession and he surprised me with a gift that he pulled from behind the trunk of a pine. It was a plaque with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson Thoreau's mentor who let him live on his land by Walden. It read:

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

I stood in the woods and thought: Why do we spend so much of our lives on a treadmill, running toward nothing? Shouldn't we get off, and actually touch the ground before we die, make progress toward that goal in the distance?

For the first time in a long time, my guilt diminished, my fears faded just enough, and my obsession returned. I left Gary standing in the woods, holding a fallen tree branch in his arms, and returned to do what I came here to do: Write.

I once again began waking up at four in the morning to write, too excited to sleep. When it warmed, I wrote in my new office our screen porch watching the sun rise over the swaying pines. The turkeys even got used to my voice, and I would honestly fill them in on the progress of my book. Sometimes they would run, sometimes they would offer gobbling criticism, and sometimes they would simply stand and listen, just like Gary.

I finished my second book that very same year. And now I am onto my third, about our move to the woods, a sort of "Sex & the City Goes Country." It's now less "Wade's Walden" and more "Why's Wade Wearing Waders?" It's about passion, and rural fashion, and the beauty and complexity of lake life. It's a book that, I hope, will make both my grandmother and Thoreau very proud.

A magnificent obsession, you see, never really ends. It is simply a never-ending journey filled with different chapters, just like writing, just like life.