Friday, July 20, 2018
When I entered the cottage my initial response was that I wanted the two people with me to leave. Robert was Dorland’s caretaker (taking care of the needs of the guests), and Cheryl had driven me from San Diego (which took about an hour). The trip had gradually brought us into the mountains, and as we made the last ascent from the highway turnoff we entered ear-popping territory. We first stopped where Robert lived with his wife Janice (both are artists); their trailer wasn’t a promising sight, but not too far away was a pleasant white cottage (unoccupied during my entire stay). We drove further up to a duplicate cottage — the one I would be staying in — and I was relieved to find that it was remote from any sights except those offered by nature. It was perched on a promontory; a back porch overlooked a span of mountains and valleys. Robert opened the door, I entered, was struck by the light, the cleanness, the simplicity. I had a strong feeling that I was home, and I wanted the others to leave.
So one ingredient of happiness was present: the environment. When Cheryl and Robert departed I surveyed the cottage. A living area, a full kitchen and dining space, a bedroom, a bath with a shower. Plenty of room, windows everywhere. Some of the furnishings were top grade: the rocking chair, the floor lamp, an area rug, the dining table. The floors were made up of squares of tile. This wasn’t a purely utilitarian accommodation: it had quality and personality.
In the following days I explored the outdoors. It was a harsh world, arid and windy and hot. A dry heat. Many of the trees grew in forms twisted by the wind; but they had survived the struggles of their early years and now possessed a strange beauty. All the plants (which grew in abundance) were tenacious survivors. The shrubs around the sides of my cottage had little flowers that put off a lovely fragrance (much appreciated by the bees). The mountains that presided over all emanated a sense of massive permanence and peace. As for wildlife, it was plentiful. I often sighted a type of deer called a mule deer (for its oversized ears); I sometimes caught a fleeting glimpse of foxes and coyotes. And, of course, there were all manner of birds, often soaring on the wind currents.
I had a routine. I awoke early and took my morning walk, which was a demanding one. Down the mountain to the highway, then back up. That “back up” was a trek. In the beginning I had to take a break midway, to sit and catch my breath, let my tired legs recoup. But eventually I could make it (even with a side trip added on) without a stop. I finished the walk above the trailer, where I sat for a while by a pond; then went to my home and began my three hours of work. I was in the last stage of editing a novel. It was in the form I wanted; no major changes were intended. I just needed to tie up loose ends involving characters or plot, eliminate any sloppy language or excessive words, sharpen and focus. I enjoy this part of the process. To get it right (or as right as my capabilities allow) is satisfying to me, and it absorbed me for the entire month of my stay. At this time in my life I held to a tenuous belief that I might get a readership (a modest one would be enough; I never had grandiose ambitions). I couldn’t have proceeded without that belief. Part of my affection for Dorland has to do with the fact that it was a place where hope — and a purpose — were still alive in me.
A pleasing environment, purposeful days. What else does one need? Companionship, of course; a sense of belonging, of being liked and valued. I need a little of this — I’m basically a loner — but I do need a little; I can’t get along feeling isolated. Janice and I had amiable encounters, but they were fleeting. With Robert it was different; he provided a meaningful human connection. We spent time together, in part because he was the one who drove me to the places I needed to go. He respected my privacy, but occasionally he would come by my place (especially if I hadn’t been seen for three or four days; I assumed he was checking up on me; we were both up in years, though he was good bit higher up than I was). Or I would stop by his studio, just to talk. Our conversations were always entertaining; even mundane matters took on a unique perspective. He was a storyteller whose stories were worth telling. Our sense of humor was on the same wave length, as was our appraisal of what was of value. On one occasion, at my dining table, we talked of the meaning of life and death; neither of us had any answers. With him I felt at ease, something that doesn’t come readily to me.
I cook for myself, so Robert took me on biweekly trips to the nearest grocery store. (If we set the time for “tomorrow at one PM,” I would hear his truck pull up at three minutes to one.) I don’t recall the name of the store, but it was clean and well-stocked, and had a good selection of organic foods. In the fruit and vegetable section everything was fresh. There was plenty of help, all friendly and ready to go out of their way to lead me to where a particular item was. Besides these food gathering expeditions, I seldom went anywhere. Robert offered to take me places, and once we went to the library (a modern building filled with shelves of the usual fare; I recall checking out one book, the miscellaneous writings of Evelyn Waugh). I spent a day in Temecula, and when Robert picked me up I told him that he wouldn’t be taking me there again. It was a pleasant city, but it was too noisy and crowded. I was content with what I had up at Dorland.
After my three hours of writing, there was lot of free time. Sometimes I’d wander outside, explore, find a place to sit. Inside my cottage was a stack of old New Yorker magazines, so I set out to read a story each day, and to assign it a grade (I think the average came to a D+). Another afternoon project I got involved in was reading a novel Robert had written years ago. I forget the title (it was the name of a man). One reacts to a request of this sort — which was for me to take a look at his book — with trepidation. I’m not going to lie about the quality of writing, and what if I tell him that it isn’t any good? But it was good. Not a sophisticated piece of prose, but that isn’t a quality that impresses me. He got the main character right, and I became engrossed. I saw areas in which I had something helpful to offer, so I started to jot down my impressions, good and bad (by “bad” I’m referring to things he could fix easily enough). He was surprised when I returned the manuscript with my pages of comments; it wasn’t what he expected of me. Weeks later, when I returned home, I received in the mail a watercolor he painted; I have it on the wall of my bedroom. He lived by a code: a generous deed must be reciprocated.
I spent a lot of time on the back porch. Especially at night, after dinner, the dishes washed. I would settle myself on a beach lounger I had found in the bedroom closet, a beer (brand: Stone IPA) by my side. When I was on the porch I could hear the faint hum of traffic on the highway — people going here and there (like the busy insects). No mosquitoes were after my blood: it was too high up for them, and too windy. I would listen to the radio. They had stations that offered unusual programming; I recall a Lillian Hellman play, very well-acted. I’d watch the sun drop behind the mountain, most of the time unceremoniously; but, when there were clouds, with a colorful fanfare. I’d remain on the porch until the moon emerged. Then I’d retire to my bed and make my nightly escape into a novel. Looking up my reviews for that period, I see that I read The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton, Murder in the Pentagon by Margaret Truman, and Vet in Harness by James Herriot. All were enjoyable, particularly the Herriot, but light fare. I also read Waugh’s last piece of fiction, a long story called “Basil Seal Rides Again.” I was glad that he closed out his career on such a delightful note. But it would have been nice to have included a substantial masterpiece during my stay.
When the time came for me to leave (Robert drove me to the bus station) I was ready to go. All good things must come to an end. But, looking back, this good thing — this stay at Dorland — has persisted in my memory. Except for an occasional shadow, I was free from worries or troubles. For a month it gave me the three elements that constitute happiness: a pleasing environment, friendship, a purpose.