The Precipice: On Wanting, and Not Wanting, to Know Why

Here are a few of the books I have begun reading in the last six weeks:

A biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A new novel set between contemporary Nigeria and the US. Assorted editions of Best American Essays. A friends’ recent, acclaimed memoir about his mothers murder. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. A sardonic memoir about searching for D.H. Lawrence. A book about goats.

Let us not discuss how many I have I’ve completed. But, well, on second thought, lets–because that’s precisely the point: lately, my attention span has rescinded to that of a teenage Labrador. (In other words, technically, one.)

The urge to write most often strikes when my mind is least clear; so it is that I come to you in the middle of things. Among them: a seven (formerly known as ten)-day juice fast. A new relationship. A recent, cross-country move. A grueling apartment search whose tone I hope to soon turn.

I want to say that I come to you because I miss you. But to be honest, it isn’t exactly “you” I miss–”you” being an anonymous and widely dispersed cluster whose visible gestures (to me, at least) are few.

What I miss is the space to make sense of things.

Even though, at the same time, I don’t.

At the end of August, my family gathered in Vermont to celebrate a confluence of significant birthdays: this month my brother Jon will turn forty, I will (yep) turn thirty, and Pops will be seventy. We don’t often manage to get all of us (thirteen, at last count) together for meals or holidays, much less several days in the country. It was special.

One of the memories I’m currently cherishing is a walk with my nine-year-old niece. Her two cousins had departed the day prior, which meant that she had stopped running, and now had time to indulge contemplative conversation with Aunt Lizzie.

We were walking along a dirt path, flanked alternately by stands of maple and grassy fields where the Brown Swiss graze, and she bounced a small blue rubber ball on the ground, and told me that she hated not knowing things.

I asked her what she meant; she explained that she just hated not being able to figure things out, things like opening a door (what I knew had been a recent issue in the hotel).

“And I hate not knowing why things,” she said. “Like, why I like to ride horses but I hate riding a bycicle.”

I could feel my insides leap at the chance to Preach Writing: this niece has shown a fondness for the written word, and a compulsion to read thousand page books dozens of times. This was it, I thought, the chance to set her to follow my writerly footsteps!

“Well, that’s the really neat thing about writing,” I said. “It helps you figure out how you feel.”


“Well, like if you were to describe how you felt on a horse…”

She played along for a moment—maybe she felt excited, maybe a little bit scared, there was one feeling brought up by jumping, another in that moment right before the jump—but we didn’t get far before her patience ran out.

“Actually, I’m not sure that I want to know after all,” she said, forcing a shrug and a smile, not wanting to let me down too hard.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “You’re only nine.”

But, even at my (rapidly-escalating) age, I know exactly what she means. I sometimes feel as though I live on a precipice: between an urgent compulsion to understand myself, and terror to do just that.

And in these few months away from blogging, that precipice has come into uncommonly clear relief: the urge to write, to connect, alongside that sense of relief–the recognition that I don’t have to connect the dots, don’t have to question everything, don’t have to pull back and ask why things are the way they are.

And I have wanted both.

I have wanted to ask myself: Why this person? Why this place? Why this path and this kind of writing? The kinds of questions that surface for all of us–propelled by shades of doubt or discomfort or those very elusive things whose murky nature compels us to go deeper.

Too, I have wanted to put my head down and just keep moving. To seek shelter from that mode of self-reflection and just be.

I know that I will walk that precipice for the rest of my life. Because it can be terrifying to know what drives us, and it can also be the most compelling thing in the world.