January 22, 2013 § 20 Comments
Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness. And feed the hunger. – Indigo Girls
I am not proud of how I felt when I first read about Asia Canaday. Katrina Kenison linked to this letter on Facebook which Jena Strong posted on her blog. The next day, Christa posted it too, these beautiful writers forming a circle around Jena and Mani and Asia, asking the rest of us for help in the form of a dollar or a prayer.
I am embarrassed to say that instead of joining the circle, I circled around it. I shut my eyes and shut my computer, feeling anger well up inside of me, maybe even fury. Just eat, I heard a voice in my mind say and then I was overcome by an emotion I can’t even name and I had to sit down.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that I was actually furious with myself for doing the same thing Asia is doing now. When I was 16, I ate as little as I could, getting so thin that sometimes my legs became bruised from sleeping. I try not to think about those days, about the pain and helplessness I made my family go through. I try not to think of the way people used to look at me, their eyes wide with a certain kind of repulsion.
I’m angry too that this is still happening. After I clattered catastrophically through my own disordered eating, I turned away from the topic entirely, choosing to believe that childhood obesity was what we had to worry about now, not anorexia. Mani’s letter made me open my eyes, reluctantly, to the truth that in addition to living in a country with epic obesity and great starvation, 24 million people suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Clearly, we are a nation with big issues around food.
And yet, this is not an issue about food or even hunger but about our beliefs of our own worth. Maybe I’m wrong but I think all eating disorders are slightly different manifestations of the same problem: a conviction that we don’t deserve to be here, a kind of longing to disappear, by either literally shrinking ourselves or by hiding under layers of fat. This is how much someone who is anorexic is suffering: starvation is preferable to the emotions she or he is feeling. The feelings are so enormous and out of control that self-inflicted pain feels better.
We can do the usual things I suppose. We can give money and support research and stop asking if this dress makes us look fat. But I think what might be even more powerful is to look at the ways we starve ourselves on a daily basis, even if we don’t have an eating disorder. Every time we tell ourselves that we can’t take a break just yet, or we don’t deserve that job, each time we eat a sandwich standing over the sink or resist the urge to sing out loud. When we tell ourselves that that we aren’t strong enough to enter that race or leave that guy, we send clear messages to ourselves and the world about what we believe we are allowed to have. Every time we ignore what Geneen Roth calls “the knocking on the door of our heart,” we are finding a way to disappear, to stay small, and we are passing this on to each other like a plague.
Of course I am not talking about you but about me. I still have very set ideas about what I need to get done before I can go to bed at night. I want to exercise and meditate and do yoga. I need to squeeze in time to write and time to make dinner, pack lunch. I have to clean the bathrooms and hey, are these pants getting tight? I received an email from a friend today whose family was recently taken down by the flu. She wisely told me she was going to try to find a way to get the space and the time she has when she’s sick so that she doesn’t have to get sick to have it. I felt my heart lighten as I read this and then grow heavy again at the ways I refuse to receive what is always on offer to me like an open palm: a breath, a kind word to myself, space and time, even if it is only a moment.
In Buddhism, there is a character called a Hungry Ghost, a creature with a tiny mouth and a bloated distended stomach, a narrow throat that makes eating so painful, the ghosts haunt each generation with their empty bellies, with their ravenous unmet needs, with their boundless, aching hungers. Some Buddhists leave food on their alters for the ghosts, delicacies that satisfy an unnamable longing. Learning about this brought tears to my eyes. Is it possible that we could be this compassionate to each other? To ourselves?
I am going to echo Jena’s request that you leave a dollar or a prayer here for Asia and her fiercely loving mother, Mani. I am also going to suggest that we take an hour or a minute to honor our own hungry ghosts. Maybe we can sit down to eat breakfast or drink the whole cup of coffee (while it’s hot!!). We can carve out a few minutes to gaze at the sky or down at our toes. We can tell ourselves that we are allowed to dance terribly, that what we write can be awful, that we deserve that job, that we can ask for that hug. We can gently remind ourselves that eating kale doesn’t make us a better person, that we are allowed to go to bed at eight o’clock, that we don’t have to finish the whole thing, that there will be more, always enough if we take time to listen to the delicate thrum of our hearts, if we pause for a second to tell ourselves – even if we don’t believe it yet – that we deserve for our life to be good, that we already are good enough.
January 20, 2013 § 13 Comments
“Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” – Mary Oliver
There’s a viral blog event going around called “The Next Big Thing” in which writers give a glimpse of works in progress by answering a set of questions. I’ve been tagged by Betsy Morro, who has finished an incredible manuscript, entitled “Casualites.” I was lucky enough to read a draft, so I can tell you, when you see it in the bookstore, you must buy it!! It’s a beautiful and complicated story but it’s also a page turner. I couldn’t put my laptop down! She also has a great blog which you can check out here.
And for some insight on my “Next Big Thing,” read on.
What is your working title of your book?
Breathing Just a Little
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I am not sure exactly where the idea came from. I wanted to explore the contradictory themes of freedom and safety and what they mean to women of various ages. I am fascinated by the women’s movement that took place in the late 60’s to early 70’s and I thought this would be an interesting time to place a woman (Gloria) exploring the ideas of safety and freedom in her own marriage. Additionally, I grew up obsessed with ballet (but way too klutzy to be good at it), and Claire (Gloria’s daughter) is a dancer who had to give up what she loved and what gave her this incredible sense of freedom. I had to give up running when I was young so I tried to imagine what it would be like for a dancer to stop dancing in the 70’s in that great kingdom ruled by George Balanchine. Finally, Meg (Gloria’s younger daughter) came to me during a writing prompt. She doesn’t want to dissect a frog in biology class, and that was the beginning of this book.
Gloria’s husband is a biologist studying whales. He has tremendous freedom to travel the world and is often gone on long trips. Will is very connected to his daughter Meg, and when Meg discovers his infidelity, she has to make decisions for herself about freedom, versus commitment.
The title comes from the famous line in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?” And of course, it alludes to whales who breathe just a little. Totally cheesy, I know, but I can’t help it. I was a copywriter for way too long.
What genre does your book fall under?
Oy. I have no idea. I would like it to not be chick lit, but honestly, I have bigger problems now, like the ending.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Gloria: Rachel Weisz
Claire– Saoirse Ronan
Meg – a young Claire Danes
Will: Christian Bale (need I say more?)
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A woman and her two daughters discover the challenges and pitfalls of freedom as they unexpectedly find themselves in the middle of the women’s rights movement in the early 1970’s.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Um. I should probably finish it before I answer that.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Any day now …
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I really can’t say. I don’t want to jinx myself. I just can’t compare myself to the writers I love and emulate.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired by my own struggles with the ideas of marriage and my role in marriage versus my husband’s. I am intrigued by power in marriage and the balance of power between two people who have different goals and dreams. Do they come together or do their challenges draw them apart?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The husband and father in this book, Will, is a scientist and behaviorist who is studying how whales communicate. In the book, he is one of the first scientists who discover that humpback whales communicate with unique “songs.” While I was at Cornell, I had the great fortune to study with Roger and Katie Payne who were pioneers in describing the dynamics of whale communication. I would like to be clear that my character Will is NOT based on Dr. Payne, but he is inspired by Dr. Payne’s research and by my own interest in the scientists who studied humpbacks.
Now the way this usually works is that I “tag” two people working on books of their own. The only two I know writing books aren’t ready to discuss yet, so … if you read this and are working on a book, consider yourself TAGGED. Just copy these questions and answer them about your own work and then link back to this blog.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more work to do …
OH, the winner of the giveaway of Katrina Kenison’s book, “Magical Journey” is Kerry Wekelo. Congratulations Kerry! You will love every page.
January 14, 2013 § 40 Comments
If your journey brings you to a choice between love and fear, choose love. - from Magical Journey, by Katrina Kenison
I do this weird thing when I find books I love, which is to believe that the writer somehow knows me, and – even more odd – that we are friends. It happens with some writers more than others. For example, I never thought Hemingway and I could be close, but that Mary Oliver and I would have so much to talk about! For years, I have been talking to Judy Blume, Michael Ondaatje, and Charlotte Bronte. Once, my imaginary conversations translated into a real, physical meet and a genuine friendship. And it happened with the writer who might have influenced my life the most.
This is a bold statement to make, but it’s also true. I discovered Katrina Kenison’s first book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, when my first son Oliver was a baby. This was a challenging time in my life, not because of Oliver but because of motherhood itself. When I found out I was pregnant, I had a job I loved at a biotech company in the Bay Area while my boyfriend (now husband) was stationed in Philadelphia. We were in our early thirties and had talked about getting engaged, but we both knew we weren’t close to being ready. I had always hoped that someday I would be a wife and mother, but still, marriage and parenthood caught me off-guard.
One afternoon when Oliver was about 9 months old, we headed to the library, which was always a cool haven for almost any tattered feeling. Mitten Strings for God wasn’t a title I would normally gravitate towards but I picked the book off the shelf anyway. I flipped open the pages and read: We can learn to trust our maternal selves and to have faith in the innate goodness and purity of our children.
Trust our maternal selves? I didn’t even think I had a maternal self. I took the book home and read half of it while Oliver nursed and then napped, folding down almost every page, feeling elated and also deeply at peace for the first time in over a year. If new motherhood was like walking alone through a desert, Mitten Strings was an oasis. Katrina’s words made me see that there was another way to be a mother that neither repressed who I was nor necessitated a reinvention. From her stories, I began to realize all that was really required of me was to be present, to stay.
Katrina’s books are guides for me, roadmaps and talismans, flashlights and food for when the road becomes dark and I find myself utterly alone. As soon as Magical Journey arrived in my mailbox, I dove into it, flipped to a random page and read these words: I am learning how to stay. And just as they did seven years ago, her writing soothed my ragged edges.
As I continued Magical Journey, I was struck by Katrina’s bravery in facing both her feelings and herself during such a challenging and new time in her life: her boys leaving home too early, her best friend dying too soon, the years passing by too quickly.
And yet, this is not a book about wanting to stop the clock or live in the past so much as it’s about how to stay in the present and be grateful. It’s a book on how to be sad or surprised by life, or maybe a little bit lost, and still find our way back to love, to the big kind of love, or maybe even the biggest: a love great enough to hold and welcome all the sadness and shock and terror and confusion in our lives, and still outshine them all.
For me, this is a book on how to love ourselves, even when that very idea seems repulsive. Katrina writes:
So much of my energy these days seems to go into managing disappointment in the way things are, staving off worry about what might be, fearing that who I am, at my core is not really enough. I want things to be one way, and then, when they turn out differently, I struggle, as if desperate not to fail whatever test I’ve constructed out of the moment.
I read these words and came face to face with the part of myself I try to hide from every day, the same way I whip away from a mirror or my reflection in a shop window. But confronting myself through Katrina’s words has a delicious quality to it, the same way peering into a dark closet becomes less scary when your own sweaty fingers are entwined with someone else’s. She continues:
But making the choice to just hang in there with my own rather pathetic self for a while demands a different sort of perseverance altogether, a kind of strength that lays bare all of my weakness … I have to trust that being right where I am is some kind of progress and that there is a reason I’ve been called to visit this lonely darkness.
Magical Journey closely follows the journey Joseph Campbell outlines in Hero With a Thousand Faces, therein honoring the messy, inglorious, and difficult experiences we endure as we age, change, or get hit in the gut with another of life’s unfair punts. As Katrina begins her month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu, her teacher tells her, “You are not here to remake yourself but to remember yourself.”
Just as yoga is not about fixing ourselves but about becoming more of who we already are, for me, Magical Journey is about going to the places inside of us we dread most in order to love ourselves better. Near the end of the book, Katrina realizes:
Now I see that the journey was never meant to lead to some new and improved version of me; that it has always been about coming home to who I already am.
But rather than a paradox, this process is simple if we remember what Katrina’s friend Margaret told her as she set out for Kripalu. “I forgot to tell you the most important thing,” Margaret says in a low voice, as if what she has to say is top-secret information. “Just remember: It’s all about the love.”
To celebrate this amazing book, leave a comment and I will randomly choose one winner to receive a copy of this book on Friday, January 18th. Don’t miss Katrina’s other books: Mitten Strings for God, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and Meditations from the Mat.
December 21, 2012 § 23 Comments
I have never been a big fan of Christmas although I wish I were. I wish I were the type of person to buy presents in October, like my neighbor or write lists in a little notebook, like my husband. Instead, I am the one who waits for someone else to bring home the tree and then finds a reason to be upstairs while the lights are hung. I ignore my mother when she tells me I need some greenery on the mantle and later pretend I don’t notice her walking through the side door with an armload of pine branches.
Sometimes, Christmas makes me lonely. Occasionally, it makes me feel greedy, and a little anxious as I wonder where we are going to put all the new Legos, the Erector set, the Matchbox cars that we stick in the bottom of the stockings. I worry that I don’t have the right sort of traditions, the same way I used to wonder why I could never get my hair to feather or find a boy who would want to take me to the Christmas dance. The holidays seem to be made of extremes: brilliance and shadow, joy and sorrow, twinkling lights and the longest darkness. Last Friday’s news has made this year difficult for all of us, I think, even the most joyous. We’ve been knocked down by a certain type of grief, the kind that makes you want to fall to your knees and shove your fists into your mouth.
Yesterday, I took the boys down to the bay alone, without the other neighborhood kids. The sun was dropping quickly towards the water and the sky was heavy and low with rain. In front of us, a blue heron silently unfolded himself from a rock and beat his wings in a sure and steady rhythm. It was warm enough still for frogs, so we stood under a dripping tree for a few moments and listened to them.
On the way home, the light was so dim, I could barely see Oliver as he walked next to me, talking about Christmas traditions around the world, which he is studying now in first grade. He told me about the poinsettias from Mexico, the picnics in Australia, the way Jews everywhere light the eight candles of the menorah and remember their ancestors.
It was after five and the darkness was falling hard as it does in December, as it does every night, no matter how much we try to stop it. Time moves on, and eventually the menorah is snuffed out, the Christmas tree is hauled to the curb. It’s February or March and we are no longer hoping for snow. We turn on the news or talk to our neighbor and again learn that we humans can be more wretched than even the most horrible fictional monster.
And still. Nevertheless. I feel drawn to light a fire in that unfathomable space between my ribs, although I have no idea how to even begin. Maybe we are all hoping for a spark, striking whatever kindling we can find, fumbling foolishly in the dark for a candle or a match even as the sodden floor of our grief squanders our efforts.
After dinner last night the boys were too rambunctious, too high on Santa and red hats, the hope of a Pez dispenser this year. They asked me to make cookies and I said yes. I hunted down the cookie cutters and scraped off the Play-Doh. I melted molasses and butter on the stove and stirred in ginger and cloves, cinnamon and allspice.
I thought about what Oliver said about our ancestors and then I thought about mine. I wondered if my grandparents ever sat in front of a radio in Queens, their heads in their hands as they listened to news broadcast from so many of the wars they lived through. I thought about their grandparents who sailed to Ellis Island before the Irish Revolution and the ones before them who suffered the famine and the plagues, Oliver Cromwell and the Romans. I thought of the horrors they witnessed and the rituals they celebrated, and I wondered if maybe that’s the point of the holidays, if we keep them because they remind us how to move forward. Start by lighting the first candle. Begin by decorating the tree. Stop and watch the moon rise on the darkest night.
And so we continue. On the shortest day, we tell each other the light will return, even if we don’t quite believe it yet. We pound our anger into smooth rounds of dough, hoping the heat will transform it into something we can swallow. We consecrate the temple, laying our grief on the altar as if it were our most sacred offering. As incense wafts over the pews we make the sign of the cross and anoint ourselves with sadness. Dona nobis pacem, we sing, even though we might only be mouthing the words. Grant us peace.
November 19, 2012 § 18 Comments
But I have no faith myself. I refuse it even the smallest entry. – David Whyte
I haven’t written much in a while, mostly because of something my Buddhist friend once told me: “If you don’t know what to do, the wisest thing is to do nothing.”
But now that we have been in our house for two months, I am able to think about this summer more clearly, or at least with less fog. This move from Alexandria, Virginia to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this transition from a 100-year old house inside the Beltway to a 1950′s home on a Marine base has been a long haul from normalcy to the absurdist take on the suburbs that all military bases are. More than a move, it has been a shift; a transformation more than a transplantation. This summer dislodged something I hadn’t even noticed was loose. I think what really happened is that my definition of faith – faith with italics and quotations and capital letters – was shown to be rather flimsy and breakable, a saccharine version of something that was never meant to be sweet.
When I left the Washington, DC area, I also left a life of comfort – of Waldorf schools and yoga studios and civilian normalcy – and moved into a single room of a hotel in the saddest town in North Carolina. Every day, I had to drive by the men sitting on the curb outside the unemployment office, the woman who reeked of gin and pulled a shopping cart behind her, the harried mothers in the grocery store who slapped their children with a startling ferocity. I was only 9 hours from DC, and yet I might as well have been 9000 miles away, in this town where Spanish moss hung from the branches and the sky shimmered with heat. After pursuing comfort for almost 20 years, I had finally gotten myself to the most uncomfortable place I could find.
At first, I tried everything I could to make the feeling go away. I did a lot of yoga. I started to meditate. I tried to pray. I longed for more faith. I wanted to lean into belief as though it were a cushion, a pile of feathers, a clean bank of snow. And yet, what faced me every time I stepped on my yoga mat or drove to the grocery store was the sour knowledge that to have faith meant believing in a god who allowed horrible things to happen.
In a way, living on base has been a balm for the raw grief of this summer. I live on a street with one hundred identical houses, varying only in the color of the shingles or the doors. There are no criminals on base, everyone has a job, and no one is hungry. Our neighbors are lovely and three of them now have labrador puppies. Oliver adores his first grade teacher, and often, six children are playing soccer in our front yard. It’s as though I have traveled back in time to 1956, to a world so stable and secure and idyllic, I sometimes have to doublecheck the date.
But then artillary practice begins, and the house rattles. I see one of the five children on my street born with special needs. I drive through the base gate, by the guards with their enormous machine guns, while on NPR, there is more news from Gaza. Another neighbor ties a yellow ribbon to the giant oak in her front yard, signaling that her husband too is gone, en route to a place where the air smells like burning garbage and bombs are buried underground.
And then that feeling returns, the muffled howl that a divine god is at odds with the tragedies occurring every day. It’s so convenient to believe that everything happens for a reason, it’s so comforting to have this thought as the morning sun streams through the kitchen window, the scent of coffee and cinnamon in the air, but then I open the blinds and see the ambulance outside my neighbor’s house. I realize with a wave of nausea that her son is on the stretcher and is being loaded inside.
And so I am trying my best to believe right now in what I can see, in the immense gifts that present themselves each day, like armfuls of flowers. I take comfort in bike rides and Anne Rockwell books and waiting for the school bus. The boys and I walk down to the bay with the neighbor kids, who pretend they are kings and wave sticks at each other. They shout at me to lookit as they balance on the rocks and then we are silent as fish leap from the water. I find refuge in looking both ways before crossing the street as we all head back home. There is comfort in the click of the heater as it comes on at night, in the golden light that pours from other people’s windows on my nightly walks. I find magic in the way the deer snorts from the woods along the path, right before he rushes out – a buck! – only a few feet from me. There is the love my husband gives me, the presents he doles out daily: the smile, the hug, the dash out to the store to see if they have Uggs in my size. And maybe there is even comfort in the sadness, in the immense relief that comes from no longer having to pretend that we are safe, that everything is going to be okay, that we are all going to live forever.
I linked arms with my neighbor as we took our kids trick-or-treating. We have only known each other for six weeks, and yet, her son’s illness and her need of my help – no her acceptance of my help – have made me feel as if it has been much longer, and I am grateful for this too. As the kids ran from house to house, the two of us peered into homes identical to our own and took stock of their decor, their lighting, the flower boxes beneath their windows. We talked about what it was like to move so often, to feel the ground shift under our feet every two years and I asked her how she managed it so gracefully. “I don’t think of this as home,” she confided to me. “This is just where my stuff is for now.”
Something lightened in me after she said this and I felt a divine sort of joy as we watched our children race in their costumes. I realized that this dark Halloween night, these bright autumn days, these years of parenting small children might just be the golden ones, the sweetest ones. I took refuge in the thought that perhaps faith is not as necessary as gratitude, that maybe they are even the same thing.
September 26, 2012 § 16 Comments
I want to remember the way the butterflies here careen towards my head in their ridiculous flight and make me duck, every time. I want to remember my next-door neighbor, the way he came striding over to me in his camouflage and combat boots, the sun high and his shadow arriving first. “I’m Bobby,” he said, just as I was wondering whether to advance or retreat. “Let me know if we can do anything for you while you’re getting settled, anything at all.” The next day, the woman across the street walked over in the rain with a plate of cookies and her phone number and I felt something settle, despite the boxes we had yet to unpack.
I want to remember the way I feel in the morning, how in the half-second after my alarm goes off, I am still not sure where I am. I want to remember how much I despise yoga at five in the morning and how very much I need to throw down my mat, to hear the particular sound it makes on the wood floors when the house is dark.
I want to remember these days, when my insides feel full of the sharp click of needles. I stare down the street at the identical houses and realize I am both tourist and native. The morning after we moved in, I waited for the school bus with Oliver for the first time, feeling such camaraderie with the other mothers. After the bus drove off, one of them told me her husband had been to Iraq and Afghanistan five times, once for fourteen months. I went back into the house after that, into a different sort of day.
I want to remember the sharp taste of the ocean, the bitter reminder of a war, a heat so impressive that it sometimes feels as though I have landed on the tongue of a dragon.
I want to remember what it was like to run through the cornfield behind my house when I was nine, my hands slapping hard at the leaves. I want to remember leaning over the withers of the pony I leased every summer, the moment when she gathered herself up and then exploded into a gallop. Her exquisite speed made my eyes useless until finally I closed them and wound my fingers through her mane.
I want to remember what artillery practice sounds like on Camp Lejeune, the air imploding on itself and the windows rattling as if in an earthquake or a battle. I want to remember the way my new friend folded herself onto the floor of our house, the walls still smelling of paint. She talked about her autistic son, each detail a gift, beads carefully strung. I want to remember what she quietly called testimony, the way she turned her face briefly towards the ceiling and said that her son gave her faith, that he caused her to believe in God and trust in this life.
I want to remember the man with nine fingers who came to fix the air conditioner, whose Carolina accent sounded like a banjo playing in the night. He asked me if I was from Mississippi and when I shook my head he told me, like a prophesy, that I was going to learn to cook black-eyed peas. I want to remember the way he talked about getting injured in the first Desert Storm and how he alternatively called me Ma’am and Sugar. Shuguh.
I want to remember the soldiers in the field next to the post office and how they were taking turns carrying each other over their shoulders, wrists and ankles dangling towards the ground. I want to remember the way Oliver runs with his arms outstretched, pretending he’s a falcon and the way Gus throws his head back and laughs when anyone says the word “stinky.” I want to remember Oliver racing off on his bike, sometimes tossing his legs over his handlebars and how Gus rides away from me, his back straight, one training wheel perpetually off the ground.
I want to remember my college teammate tell me at breakfast one morning what it was like to live in Bosnia in 1992, how her mother made her sneak up the street and check for snipers before she went to school. I want to remember the camping trip to Mexico my second year out of college, how my friend calmly described what it was like to flee the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and travel to Turkey under the cover of night.
I want to remember my new yoga teacher reading from Meditations from the Mat, and how relieved I was to hear something so dear and familiar to me I wanted to cry, hunched over in child’s pose, my forehead pressed against the ground.
I want to remember every bit of how uncomfortable I am here because I am not someone who does uncomfortable well. I am someone who runs like hell from uncomfortable, who would rather turn away than look at the woman in front of me with the baby and the food stamps. I am not here to give testimony to a god but instead, to the way the world crouches between beauty and despair, each a tragic partner to the other. I can only bear witness to those dark and fragile moments before dawn, when it looks as though things could go either way.
September 10, 2012 § 16 Comments
“Sometimes life hands us gift-wrapped shit. And we’re like, “This isn’t a gift, it’s shit. Screw you.” – Augusten Burroughs
“Well Jacksonville’s a city with a hopeless streetlight.” – Ryan Adams
This has been a very difficult summer for me for reasons that have more to do with my own mind and less to do with what actually happened to me. When we moved from Washington, DC to Jacksonville, North Carolina, we knew we would have to wait at least six weeks until a house was available for us on the Marine base here. I just didn’t think that at least six weeks would actually stretch out until fourteen weeks, longer than a Southern summer, all of us sleeping in one room from Memorial Day until weeks past Labor Day.
I am trying to realize how lucky I am to have the privilege of staying in a hotel for this long, and if you could see this town, you would understand. It’s the kind of place where a steady stream of women and children file into the WIC office, and the Division of Employment Security always has a few men sitting on the curb outside, their arms wrapped around their knees. Driving from our hotel to the base, where Oliver just started first grade, we pass countless pawn shops and tattoo parlors, a Walmart, a Hooters and a windowless, cinderblock “gentlemen’s” club called The Driftwood. Before I arrived in Jacksonville, I didn’t believe places like this existed outside of New Mexico or movies starring Michelle Williams. I recently discovered that one of my favorite musicians – Ryan Adams – grew up here, and as I again listen to him crooning those heartbreaking lyrics, I am not surprised. Jacksonville, North Carolina may be the saddest, hottest, dirtiest town I have ever set foot in.
In early August, one of the housekeeping staff stopped me on the way down the hall. She held out her palm and asked me if the small, brass, semi-automatic bullet in her hand was mine. “Um, excuse me?” I asked, feeling my jaw drop open and then I shook my head. “No,” I said, “No, we don’t have a gun.” Jesus, I thought as I walked away and then I turned around. “Where did you find it?” I asked and the woman told me that it was right behind the bed where my sons have been sleeping.
Later that month, I took the boys to the indoor pool one afternoon. We did this a lot as Scott was traveling for a couple of weeks and it rained every day he was gone, the sodden hem of Hurricane Issac dripping over Jacksonville. On that grey day, Gus jumped into the pool, into my arms, before I was ready and his head banged into my eye. “You’re bleeding!” said another woman in the pool so we all got out. By the time we were back in our room, I could feel my eye swelling. The next day – Oliver’s first day of school – there was no amount of concealer that could cover the purple and green lump under my eye and the gash right above it. I met Oliver’s teacher noticing her eyes flickering with concern as they focused on my shiner, knowing that there was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound as if I was making an excuse for something. I told Scott it was a good thing he was out of town.
I’m not who you think I am, I wanted to scream, which has been sort of a mantra of mine all summer, mostly to myself. Since June, I have been trying to convince myself that I am not homeless or a failure or a lousy mother but it’s been challenging as I keep finding myself in situations where it’s easy for people to take one look at me and get the wrong idea. All of my life, I have been an incredibly judgemental person, and this summer, my judgements were turned inward, towards myself. Or maybe that’s where they’ve been all along.
I never thought I would become a military wife. I was born in the early 70′s, in the heyday of Women’s Lib, and as a teenager, I swore I would never let myself be defined by a man. A military wife was pretty much the last thing I imagined, and there is a small part of met that feels like I let someone down. This summer a bigger part feels like I’ve let my kids down, tearing them from their friends in Washington, DC and our big house there and sticking them in a single room with a bag of Legos each. Oliver, especially, has had a tough transition from his Waldorf school to his Department of Defense school, where already, he is expected to keep a journal. Tonight he had to write a paragraph about what freedom means to him.
Freedom. In Jacksonville, the word “Freedom” is everywhere: on teeshirts and bumper stickers and even on the sign welcoming you to Camp Lejeune. “Pardon Our Noise,” it reads, “It’s the Sound of Freedom.”
In yoga, freedom means to be released from the chains of our mind, and this summer, living in a tiny box, I have seen how chained I am to my own idea of how things should be, how chained I am to my ideas of how other people should be, to how I should be. What is true is that I have exactly what I want: I married my best friend, a man I am still madly in love with after a decade of being together, and I am able to stay at home with my kids, which I am lucky to be able to do. Scott supports my yoga habit, stayed home from work one day a month last year so I could go to my yoga teacher training, and he doesn’t complain about eating kale or Gardein Chik’n, which I have been making often in our hotel.
What is also true is that getting what I wanted doesn’t look the way I thought it would, and I get upset about that, some strange combination of guilt at not having a job and resentment that I have to follow someone else’s orders and traipse after a man. Every other place we have lived – San Diego, Ventura, Washington, DC, Philadelphia – I was able to pretend that I wasn’t a Navy wife, that I had nothing at all to do with the war waging in a far away desert.
In Jacksonville, I can’t hide anymore. The town is crawling with soldiers. You can’t turn your head without seeing a Semper Fi bumper sticker or a Marine Wife window decal, a gaggle of young recruits sauntering down Western Boulevard, or a young man in a wheelchair, empty space where his leg used to be. Something about this town has brought me to the bottom of myself, to the place I have been avoiding for years, covering up with power yoga and running, volunteering and a second glass of wine.
And yet, there is a relief in the crumbling of an unstable structure because once the last wall falls, you find yourself sitting in the middle of a dusty, empty space that feels a bit like what freedom might feel like if freedom didn’t stand for guns or bombs or a country’s foreign agenda. Once you find yourself on rock bottom, there is nowhere left to go. You have already eaten the cupcakes and run the miles and held Warrior II for days and nothing has worked. Nothing has changed except the myriad ways you have thrown yourself against the walls. And then, one day, after cursing the sun that beats down upon the ruins, you finally sit up and survey the jagged thoughts shredding your heart. You say, “Well then. This must be the place.”
Jacksonville is that place. Our stale and musty hotel room is that place. Oliver’s new-school anxiety is that place as is my acquired and inherited shame that I will never be good enough. In his yoga DVD, Baron Baptiste says, “That which blocks the path is the path.” This summer, I have been punched in the face with my own resistance, with my tight-fisted grip on the way I think things should be. I have been handed bullets and black eyes and I keep forgetting that these are the gifts. I forget that the lessons are handed out in the trenches, in the foxholes, in the dust of crumbling temples. I am discovering that wisdom hides in the most wretched of places, buried deep in the towns with the hopeless streetlights.
Click here to hear Ryan Adams sing about his hometown, Jacksonville, North Carolina.