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.