Somewhere in the 1970s, a friend gave me a quotation from a book called “The Last Unicorn,’’ by Peter Beagle. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve kept that little quote above my desk ever since. This is what it says:
“I believed...that time was real and solid as myself... I said ‘one o’clock’ as though I could see it, and ‘Monday’ as though I could find it on the map; I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.’’
A few cold nights ago, I watched a remarkable neighbor walk through the walls. Technically, she was driving, but it was the same journey: through darkness, into the future. I know her just well enough to be in awe. She had retired early, sold her beloved house and all her possessions, and was setting out with nothing but her small car and some clothes. She plans to go from place to place, staying with friends, taking classes, trying out short-term jobs, volunteering and seeing what happens next.
I envied her that freedom. But wasn’t it hard, I had asked my neighbor, to let go of everything? Yes, she said. Yes, it was very hard. I gazed around my living room then, wondering: Could I live without that orange rug I bought in Turkey? Without that piece of black pottery from Mexico? Without – well, without every thing I’d ever fallen in love with and lugged home from the ends of the earth? I couldn’t imagine it. But if she hadn’t done it, my neighbor explained, if she had just put her stuff in storage, it would have been a subconscious anchor, holding her here, calling her back. It would have meant she wasn’t really committed to changing her life.
I started to ask her when she was coming home, then realized that the question was silly: She’s not. For her, the word “home’’ has lost its relevance. When she drove away that night, I realized I was seeing a person transform herself. It was like watching a butterfly emerge from a tight chrysalis and spread her wings in the world. Most of us can’t or won’t follow suit, but I am grateful for her inspiration.