July 26th, 2007 - Damien Miles-Paulson
Twenty-eight, living in an old lightkeeper’s house on San Juan Island, the lighthouse long ago automated. My daughter, Isabella, was almost eight, and that summer I couldn’t afford to send her to daycare so she came to work with me. I was working for Washington State Parks then, and much of my job consisted in taking a boat to different islands, Jones Island, Blind Island, Turn Island, Stuart Island, and there I’d clean bathrooms, mow lawns or do small projects. While I worked Isabella looked after herself, and though I knew she’d be fine, each day I told her to stay on the beach, to stay away from the water.
On Jones Island there were apple orchards, leftovers from a failed homestead, and in late summer when the apples were ready I’d climb up into the trees and shake the apples out, and as Isabella picked them up deer rushed out of the forest. I’d jump down and try to chase the deer away but they were unafraid of me.
All the toilets on these islands were composting toilets that I had to maintain by hand. When these toilets were emptied into a large finishing bin it was called downloading. Once a summer I had to stir and rotate the previous summer’s shit. By year three the shit had become night soil, compost, and I’d throw it into the salal bushes.
At the end of each day, on the long boat ride home, tired from the sun, lulled by the motion of the boat planing over the water, Isabella would fall asleep on a pile of lifejackets I had laid out, and even when we skipped over a large wake from a passing ferry, sending her into the air, she never woke up. Those moments made me feel like a good parent.
When Isabella would leave the island to stay with her mother, I barely spoke.
I drove to the library and wrote emails to distant friends saying things like:
A man disappeared from Jones Island. His boat was left anchored in North Cove, his dingy tied to the dock, no sign of him, his wallet and passport gone. He was sixty and maybe while crossing the Spieden Triangle he saw three harbor porpoise and an eagle and he killed the motor and just listened. He hadn't listened for years, so much had passed unnoticed, as if he had been deaf. He said, "I’m going to disappear," and after anchoring his boat and tying his dingy to the dock he swam away. Well, that is the romantic take. The way I'd like his story to end, with a beginning, with a sprint through the final years of his life. Perhaps that is the kind of thing I have in store for me.
I haven't felt the need. My inspiration and imagination have receded like my hair. No longer can I make up. A narrative comb-over.
The ferry from San Juan to Orcas Island on a market weekend, the rain, friends and everywhere the sound of internal combustion. Two young girls laugh in a library. They laugh so loud that they cannot be quieted. I’m reminded of being underwater.
And 30 approaches, as does 29 or 35. What does it matter?
I paint a small wooden bathroom on an island visited by a handful of well to do people each year. I forget. The calls come less and less. I disappear from even my own memory. I don't recognize myself in the plots, characters, narratives and scenes of the books I read. Isabella walks up to me and cares nothing for what I have written to you. She asks for permission to walk down to the beach, I ascent, and she swipes my sunglasses from my face. I squint like mole emerging from his hole. “Oh, funny face, Daddy…the whales, I think they’re passing.”
I want to sit at my small kitchen table with you and smoke cigarettes (a few but not enough to stink up the whole house) and drink good green tea or coffee or wine or beer or water and converse seriously enough to remind us that we are not completely full of shit, to remind us that we do more than repeat ourselves. We can pour the warm beers on the raccoons digging through the garbage cans just below the kitchen window and laugh. Even if we are serious we are still cruel and happy and beautiful for it.
It was a quiet time. I read and smoked cigarettes when I could afford a pack, and when I couldn’t afford smokes I would search my car ashtray for butts. Every cigarette was burned down to the filter.
Damien Miles-Paulson lives with wife, daughter, son in Riverside, CA, where he studies writing at the local chapter of the University of California. It is too hot.
Damien would life for you to check out the Room-to-Grow Foundation is a small, Canadian run NGO that assists orphans and unaccompanied minors on the Thailand/Burma border. They are one of the few organizations along the border that provide mental health support to children. You can learn more by visiting roomtogrowfoundation.org, and, if possible, consider donating to their psychosocial work program.