I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. — John Muir
In the Kerala state of southwest India blooms a plant called neelakurinji (meaning “blue mountains”); for three months, the hillsides are carpeted with the purplish-blue blossoms. As the last petal wilts in winter’s cold face, parents explain to their children that they shall not set eyes on such a lavish display until they reach adulthood — a dozen years will go by before the flowers bloom again.
From the moon in the sky to termites in the ground, everything has a cycle. Like most creatures, we humans progress through more rotations than we are consciously aware. I have one infrequent phase that I recognize upon its arrival but could never predict, as its orbit is uncharted. Infrequent, but not so rare when compared with the 12 years that span the gap between the periwinkle neelakurinji blooms. I call it my “pensive phase.”
According to reliable sources, not even sleep can keep me from yammering. In my waking hours, even when alone, I am unceasing in my chatter. I might ask rhetorical questions of inanimate objects, say hello to my shoes, or chastise a door for getting in my way. I find comfort in communication, as if by speaking I am connecting with the world around me. My default personality is “gregarious.” I thrive on human interaction, be it a short and friendly encounter at the supermarket or a three-hour phone conversation with an old friend.
But every so often, the little Barbarella I imagine lives in my head — the microscopic me at my mental control panel — flips a switch…and I stop talking.
This time, it happened on a Saturday. Like a vacuum that continues to whir for a moment after it’s been shut off, I proceeded with my plans, unaware that my plug had been pulled. I stopped by Bread & Cie to grab a sandwich for myself and a cheese plate for my sister and brought the goods to Balboa Park, where Jane was hanging out while Bella was at Junior Theatre. After circling for 20 minutes, I parked on the street adjacent to the zoo lot, a half a mile away. I thought it was the incredible crowd that clouded my mood, despite it being a sunny, flower-filled spring day. I thought my irritation was sparked by the rabble of kids climbing all over the sculptures in the garden; their parents, who disregarded the many signs demanding the artwork not be touched, fanned the embers until I was consumed by a conflagration of misanthropy. It was when I snapped at Jane that I understood the problem lay not with the common herd, but with me.
I absently bid my sister and niece goodbye and walked back to my car as if in a trance. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew it wasn’t home. On the few occasions when I’d found myself in a pensive phase while living in Chula Vista, I would retreat to Otay Lake, a small, isolated body of water surrounded by giant shrubbery-encrusted hills. I thought of Otay as I opened the sunroof and windows of my car — something outside the realm of my usual operating procedure, as the wind rushing by makes it impossible to hear the radio or Bluetooth speaker or myself as I talk back to both. With a picture-postcard image of the rural vista in my mind’s eye, I turned onto the ramp for 5 south. Otay Lake would have been 15 miles away, but I only made it to the next exit, onto the bridge that leads to Coronado.
On some kind of reptilian emotional automatic pilot, I took the first right off the bridge, toward Centennial Park and San Diego Bay. Back in the days when arguing with my mother in the evening was as habitual as shaving my legs, I would escape many miles and a bridge away to this very point, where I would lick my wounds and watch the lights of downtown reflect in the black water. Bathed now in the midafternoon sun with only two puffy white clouds in the clear blue sky, the area seemed foreign to me. Regardless, I parked my car on First Avenue and walked toward the water.
During these pensive phases, I crave contact with nature. Conscious of whether or not they’re doing it, the people in my life place demands on my time and attention. For a socialite, this is usually not an issue — the more interaction, the better fed is the beast. But as I strolled along the walkway — past a patch of brilliant yellow flowers and sandpipers whose long beaks were seeking sustenance in the saturated shore — I couldn’t help but wonder if the constant interaction on which I thrive might also be the force that causes mission control to flip the switch. As if when my battery starts to glow red, I am programmed to seek an outlet for recharging. I was out of words. And words are something that nature does not require.
The thing that always struck me about the mammoth mounds at Otay Lake was how insignificant I was at their feet. Any problem I thought I had evaporated the moment I set eyes upon that great hill. I had the same sensation while I stared at the ripples in the water as they grew or shrank, depending on the size of the sailboats gliding by. Interaction takes effort. No matter how well you know someone, you are not telepathic. To phrase an idea, to decipher another’s — communication takes work. With other people, I am forever expending, forever operating within the narrow margins language allows.
A cluster of small black birds bobbed in the water. I could feel the sun’s warmth on my back, the cool breeze from the bay on my cheeks. I inhaled deeply, breathing in the salt of the ocean, the sweet perfume of the flowers. People passed by, but I paid them no mind. The ocean, the birds, the flowers, they asked nothing of me and didn’t care what I might say. As I sat and watched and breathed and smelled, I was free.