Writers on Writing #76: Emily Englehard
What We Build
I recently realized that a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas seeps through the basement walls of one out of every fifteen homes. It's called radon. Prevalent in the Midwest, it's produced by the decay of uranium in soil. When it enters our lungs, it damages soft tissue with small radioactive explosions, opening airways and bloodstreams to the possibility of disease. What's worse, the gas is concentrated during winter months, when warm, loose soil isn't an option for ventilation, when idleness or busyness keep us trapped indoors.
It's almost fascinating and inspiring, though: radon's perseverance, its secretive nature, how it grows stronger over the colder months, when corn and soybean fields in mid-Minnesota harden beneath Arctic winds. Radon wants out of the ground and into open space. When it can't rise, it finds a way down. It finds a crack. Meanwhile, the rest of us are locked where we don't want to be, at part-time copywriting jobs, cluttered office desks, old buildings, or the library corner where we study most often. All of it becomes suddenly meaningless as we blink from behind a film of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a sludge of emotions stirred by vitamin D deficiency.
Seven years ago, I combated SAD by spending the day outdoors, weaving on cross country skis through New York woods. I rolled down hills, got stuck in drifts, and burned my lungs. I loved it, as much as I loved the passionate bursts of creative writing such outdoor activity often evoked, and I vowed to ski at least once a week every winter for the rest of my life. I always wanted to slide beneath pine branches heavy with snow, bowed to form rooms in the cold sunshine. Since then, I haven't skied again, but I still claim, to this day, the title “Cross Country Skier,” just as I still claim “Creative Writer.” Inclined to believe in my titles, my grandparents recently dug up from their basement an ancient set of skis, boots, and poles. The equipment has since sat in a room's corner, unused, leaning against a wall.
This past winter, instead of braving sub-zero temperatures for a ski or walk, my fiance and I popped vitamin D tablets, 800 milligrams of condensed dust a day, to stifle the effects of SAD and strengthen our immune systems and bones. We usually take them before we sit down in front of our computers to work on technical writing projects. Whenever I swallow the pills, I think of how I used to hike into the snowy woods when I was gloomy. I'd imagine suns entering my body. Standing in a patch of light and closing my eyes, I'd recite the story of a hundred stars exploding and glowing as one behind my ribs, melting the accumulated drifts and ice, making me clean and unbearably alive.
“Alive” isn't a word I hear often from the people I know. It's mostly “survive” or “tired.” When I take rare walks down the street, my feet no longer accustomed to wooded trails, I notice it's mostly children running through yards, across boundary lines, between fences, through winter, around time. Snow forts they built climb from curbs, long blue tunnels carved carefully by hands curling somewhere deep and secret and thriving, leading to a place older passersby can't see anymore. Most of us gave up our imaginative stories years ago. We replaced passion with responsibilities, deadlines, worries, SAD, and supplements, things we never needed as younger people.
In houses filled with radon, we grow old. We stay busy and won't see what will finally end us: hard falls, worn heart muscle, gas in basements and in our lungs, or the barrier of negative reactions we've collected from trudges through winters we can't change, but always seem to fight. We lay idleness or busyness like shields over the emptiness in our lives, afraid to acknowledge that what is most toxic to us are the stories we no longer build. We won't admit that our deficiencies are caused not by what the world refuses to give, but by what of the world we refuse to embrace.
Maybe, sometime near the end of March, when the air is still cold, we will leave our hurried tasks for a moment and move outside more often. There will be a small chair just outside our front doors, one we've always noticed but had never previously sat in because it always looked so out of place. We'll lean back. Our shoulders won't ache like we thought they would against the metal. Our minds won't feel strange sitting still. There will be a huge oak tree, leafless, domed in oxygen, growing in front of us, and its clean air will feel healthier than the radiation we've been breathing in for years. We'll know that this place is where we've always belonged.
Looking at the road, we'll imagine a story we can write. It will be about a sad old man, sitting on his front porch, believing he's too far from the road and concealed by railing for people to see him. He's sat there every morning for twenty-three years to drink coffee alone, staring at people as they walk by. He can feel the distance between him and everything else, as if he's a single point in a huge field of disconnected points. One day, however, a passerby waves at the man. It takes him a minute, but the man waves back. He feels very happy, very alive. He feels as if, together, he and this stranger are filling the same coffee cup with sunlight, holding it easily when it's full, tipping it back and forth between each other's lips with every turn of the wrist.
There's nothing special about Emily Engelhard. Like the rest of us, she's just here for a short time, wandering around on the roads, trying to learn how to see the world as something new, recycled. In the meantime, she's testing the beginnings of how to live on art alone through the start of her new venture, E & J's Creative Services - Art and Writing, on Facebook. She thanks Kindred, Valley Voices, Gloom Cupboard, and The Clever Title for publishing her essays and poems.