Growing up the only child of a single mother who threw a bunch of wild parties with a bunch of people who were always in or out of jail, I got out of the house whenever I could. It was the ’70s, and we lived in the rolling hills on the Western outskirts of L.A, where all the kids roamed freely, with only a vague plan that we might go home for dinner. Back then, there was undeveloped land everywhere, dotted with sycamore and oak brush, waiting to be explored. But to me, exploring the neighborhood wasn’t just for fun. Being out in the weeds and hiding in the ditches gave me courage and taught me self-reliance. It gave me strength. It was as if by getting lost in the cradle of a tree limb, I could rise above my fear of all the shifty characters in our house, the drugs and sex and my mother’s inevitable raging outbursts once all of her friends had gone home.
I’d heard about how all the hippies carried around a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance in their back pocket, so at the age of 10, I gave it a try. Emerson led me to Thoreau’s Walden, and by the time I was 12, I declared myself a Transcendentalist. That was also the year I sat down before a judge and declared my mom unfit, thus escaping my own life of quiet desperation.
Twenty-three years later, I was back in Los Angeles, living in an urban canyon. In a nearby rental, my mother was slowly killing herself with pain pills. Once again, I needed a way to escape the intolerable—taking her to countless liver specialists, scrambling to keep her from going completely broke, and trying in vain to stop her from popping a steady stream of narcotics.
About 20 feet from my front door, there was a dirt road that wound up and around and into the hills. In the mornings, my dog and I would hit the trail, running and walking, sniffing and seeing: What colors, what light today? Each outing offered something different, in the air, the light, and the colors of the old gnarled pine, pepper and eucalyptus trees, which seemed to me to be reaching like lost children for the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.
It was during this time that I found Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It had won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1975, when Dillard was just 29. I was already older than that, but through her insanely precise description, (“Deep blue melding to an almost translucent yellow, luxuriates in the center of each hind wing,”) and her truly transcendent metaphors, (“The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation,”) she offered me a field guide to my own salvation. She became a mentor, with passages like this one:
I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is and aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.
On my walks during those last days of my mother’s life, sometimes I would see parts: a hawk, a parakeet, three raindrops clinging to a branch. Sometimes I would see wholes: a wave of insight would come at me from all angles. In the end, I couldn’t save my mom, but with the help of Annie Dillard, and many, many walks, I was able to find the strength I needed to survive.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Candace Kearns Read is the author of The Rope Swing: A Memoir (Eagle Wings Press, August, 2016). She teaches screenwriting and nonfiction for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Young Writers Program.