September 10, 2012 § 16 Comments

Jacksonville’s Hopeless Streetlight

“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.


Tagged: , ,

§ 16 Responses to Freedom

  • Just astonishing…thank-you. I too am discovering “the wretched places wisdom hides”. So glad we find it.

  • Leanne V says:

    I was listening to NPR recently and caught a bit from a Japanese American internment “survivor”. He was recalling that after they were released and he and his family moved back to L.A., they could only afford the lowest of lowest apartments. After steering around the drunks and loitering addicts on the streets, his little sister asked his mom, “Why can’t we just go back home?” – meaning, of course, the interment camp.

    We find solace in what is familiar, even if it is the inside of a tiny hotel room with bullets. I wonder what your boys will remember of this experience. I know, for you, you will someday look back upon this experience with perspective and wisdom and see the big picture. I’m certain living it on a daily basis without the security of tomorrow is challenging.

    Stay strong. They need you.

    Please, please email me your address. A trader joe’s box will immediately be on its way to you.

    • Pamela says:

      Thanks Leanne! You are too sweet. Scott and I are starting to actually like the bad coffee in this hotel and we joke that we have Stockholm Syndrome. I usually write about what is hard and I have left out a lot of fun times that we’ve had too … the beach here is amazing and we’ve had a very simple summer. One day I’ll wish we were all sleeping in one room:)

      Plus, it’s temporary.

      Miss you!!! xoxo

  • You just keep getting better! What a fine piece in which your self-reflection is deep and honest. I love the line: “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.”

  • Kate says:

    wonderful writing… my therapist genious lady always tells me ‘everything is the way it was meant to be.’… which is true but annoying as hell when perfect is just shitty. sometimes it is, the block in the path being a stinky mess. . . only later do we see if for the gift it was. you are lucky LUCKY to see it while in it…

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for writing this. It touched my heart.

  • Christa says:

    This is incredible poignant, Pam. I don’t really have words.

    Sending so much love to you as you travel a path that would crumble most of us.


    Christa Gallopoulos

    Creativity ~ Compassion ~ Coaching

  • You are wonderful. This speaks to so many of us. Thank you for articulating it for the rest of us.

    You are a powerful wordsmith.

  • Laura Plumb says:

    Pam, You are so good at putting us right in the fray, where it sounds really, really challenging.

    My friend Effie Carmel, a Kabbalah scholar, would often say, When you’ve hit rock bottom, fallen as low as you can go, the only way now is up!

    We look forward to looking up and seeing you in flight ~

  • Cathy says:

    Isn’t it so hard to accept your life when it fails to meet your expectations? I have had an incredibly hard 18 months – longer really if you count the months I endured watching my favorite uncle wither and die. Just when I thought things could not get worse, they did. And so over the past year I’ve worked hard to achieve perspective. It’s been a mantra of mine. I never thought I’d be dumped after 19 years of marriage, forced to move out of my home and start my life over at the age of 43. Yet here I am. A broken family with a broken heart.

    But there are so many people in such worse situations. My good friend diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 37 (and two small boys). My other friend who, yesterday, witnessed the one year anniversary of the sudden death of her husband (age 36 and also with two small children). Daily I walk past the homeless with their feces excreted on the sidewalk, stepped in and tracked down the walk by passers by.

    Yes, as shitty as things are, they could be much worse. And maybe it’s sad, but it helps me see my own perspective. People divorce every day. Luckily I’ve kept my job all these years and have a good one. Things could be much, much worse.

  • Pamela, your writing is breathtaking. Your words never fail to break my heart and then put it back together again.

    My wish for you and your family is that you continue to make this new place a home. I’ve struggled to do that myself over the past five years in a place that is still not me. But by hanging on to the pieces of myself that I love most – and finding new ones that go with me anywhere – I’ve found a way to make it work, just as you’ve done in all the places you’ve moved. I wish you easy strength along the way.

    Always an honor to read your posts. With love from my land of tattoo parlors to yours. xoxo

  • So beautiful, Pamela. As always, I felt the world fall still as I read your words.

    There is something so discombobulating about moving to a new place, any new place, but especially one that is no foreign to you. People don’t know who you are. Maybe, for a bit, you don’t know who you are. That “black eye”, that bullet, that “military wife”. As observers, we think we might know what those mean, but we don’t. We don’t.

  • Your pros are moving. I was communicatig with a former Navy pilot just days ago about find “home” or being drawn to this or that location and yet still being able to find home in locations that we aren’t drawn to or that don’t exactly fit us. It is about finding home within or finding it in community or just finding it enough to live happily until we move to the next location. And it doesn’t matter where we are or whether we like it – the place ends up becoming a part of us; the experience weaving itself into our tapestry and our story such that our lives are never the same.

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    There are times I’ve built myself a such a protective cocoon that I failed to discover it was a prison.

  • I never, never know what to say on your posts. You are the one writer in which I always find myself speechless. My favorite line: 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.

    Brilliant. Your writing reminds me of this:

    The Guest House

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    ~ Rumi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Freedom at Walking on My Hands.


%d bloggers like this: