August 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you. – Hafiz
I had mixed feelings about leaving Oregon last Saturday and coming home. As we rolled our suitcases out of the cozy Victorian house in Ashland and shoved them into the trunk of our dusty rental car, I felt a deep sense of being pulled away from a place that felt more like home than my actual home in Camp Lejeune does. I was looking forward to getting back to my stuff, of course, to my routines, but living on a military base has never felt like home to me. Or maybe it feels a bit the way a house in another country might feel: the smells are different, the language is strange to my ears, and still, after a year, I feel like an interloper, sometimes a spy, and occasionally, a hostage.
We had an easy trip of it, flying from Medford to San Francisco and then on to Charlotte where we boarded a tiny plane to Jacksonville. We had to walk way out onto the tarmac to board and then up those steep narrow stairs. I paused at the top and looked out at 20 rows of Marines on board, their haircuts shocking after two weeks in Oregon. Welcome home, I thought.
The flight attendant had such a strong Southern accent that I could only understand every third word. “What did he say?” I asked Scott, who was across the aisle with Gus. Scott shrugged and said “Got me,” and then we both turned forward to watch the flight attendant shake a young man seated in the exit row. “Hey my brother,” he said loudly, “Hey, wake up!” The flight attendant’s eyes were kind as he stood and asked two boys sitting near the sleeping Marine if he had been drinking in the airport. They shrugged too.
Soon the flight attendant was slapping the sleeping boy’s face, until finally, he sat up. The plane was silent by then, all of us watching, and the flight attendant was speaking slowly to the boy. “Do you want to sleep here in Charlotte or do you want to sleep in Jacksonville? This plane is leaving for Jacksonville.” The woman in the seat ahead of me turned to her husband with a wide-eyed look, and the flight attendant steered the dazed soldier out of the exit row and to a seat just in front of us, where he fumbled with his seatbelt. I turned to Scott and made my own wide-eyed expression, which meant Can we please, please, please not go back there?
“I don’t think he’s drunk,” Scott whispered back, “As much as he’s probably exhausted. He’s probably been flying for 48 hours straight. And maybe he had a beer and now he’s just out of it.”
“We have to give him a ride home,” I whispered back. “We can’t just leave him at the airport,” and then Scott made his own face back at me. “He’ll be fine,” he said.
And he was fine. It turned out that the bags on our flight weighed so much that many weren’t even loaded on the plane. About 20 of us had to wait in line at the Jacksonville airport to file claims for lost luggage that wasn’t so much lost as it was sitting on the wrong tarmac in the rain. Waiting in line ahead of me was the sleeping soldier, and I heard him talk in a clear voice on his phone. “You’re outside?” he said and then, “I’m in line right now. I’ll be out soon,” and I felt my shoulders relax with relief. You see these men and women in their camouflage and helmets, their machine guns in their hands and you think: Soldier. And then you see those young shoulder blades under their tee shirts, those pale scalps on their shaved heads and you realize they are the ones who need protection.
We landed in Jacksonville after midnight, and before we even knew our luggage was lost, we stumbled through the tiny airport, all of us bleary-eyed except Gus, who loudly announced, “I didn’t even go on any naps!” Waiting at the security gate was a woman in a coral maxi dress with a big smile, her make-up fresh and her hair curled. Four young children crowded around her. “Do you see him?” they asked, and “Where’s Daddy?” The woman was holding the handles of a stroller and a photographer stood nearby to record the homecoming. As we walked by them, the children bouncing on their toes, I felt that tenderhearted feeling that is so common to me now that I live on base, the way life here is so close to the surface: way too vulnerable and so, so fragile.
This winter, it seemed that artillery practice on base was non-stop. We live a few hundred yards from a bay, which is really the mouth of the New River, just one turn shy of the ocean. All day, the booms echoed off the salty water, shaking the house, and rattling dishes. The anxiety I felt was a bonecrushing kind, but I could operate on a level where everything was just fine. And then spring came, and the rabbits began to appear on our lawn. One cool morning, Gus was crouched in our flower garden, staring at a tiny, baby rabbit nibbling the dahlia shoots and suddenly it was just too much. I could handle living in a place that sounded like the Gaza Strip. I could suck it up. But to live in a world where there are both bombs and baby rabbits felt like more than I could handle. Goddamned baby rabbits, I thought, as Gus turned to me, his face lit up like magic. I wasn’t sure I could do it.
On Sunday, we slept in until 10, all of us still on Oregon time. And then Oliver’s friend Ella, who lives across the street came over with our mail and I took all three kids down to the water, to the river that’s practically the ocean, and Ella used my iphone to take everyone’s photos. We went to the park and the neighbors came out and said they missed us and I met all the new people who moved in while our old neighbors were en route to Seoul, Fort Leavenworth, Guam, and Camp Pendleton. Somehow, in two weeks, my orange cosmos were almost 6 feet tall, a pine tree was growing behind the hothouse roses and the hyacinth dropped its blooms and had flowered again.
And then something took my breath away: my dahlias had opened. I read that it was almost impossible for a first-time gardener to have any success with dahlias but there they were anyway, all heads high and proud, as white and fluffy as that baby rabbit’s tail. This too is home, I realized, feeling that heartbreak again, my inability to reconcile extremes, the staggering amount of wonder necessary just to get through things in one piece.
Three days later, school started, and all the kids met in my driveway at 7:45 to wait for the bus. They showed up gleeful and shiny, swinging stiff backpacks and trying to kick each other with their new shoes. That morning Oliver woke up early, and found me finishing my yoga practice. “Do we have time to play Legos?” he asked and I told him we did, and then I started to cry about the end of summer, at the way everything changes too quickly. I brought my hands to chest and imagined my heart was as big as an ocean. I told myself that the heart can hold everything, that there is enough room, but still it felt like the shards were slicing through.
After school, Oliver had a meltdown because he didn’t want to go to his first soccer practice. I knew he was just nervous, I know that he doesn’t like anything new, that he’s been through so many big changes in his life that even a tiny change is terrifying. I was wiped out myself, having taught 5 yoga classes already that week, which was a first for me. “I know that it’s a little scary,” I tried and before I could say more, Oliver put his hands on his hips and yelled, “I HAD A BIG DAY,” through his gritted teeth. Regrettably, I tossed water bottles into a bag and told him to get in the car.
On the way to soccer, we stopped at a red light at the turn to the fields and watched the flashing lights of four police cars, which were parked at a house near us. Before the light could turn green, military police walked a young officer out of his house in handcuffs. This happens everywhere I told myself, but still, I never lived in those neighborhoods back when I was a civilian. I didn’t go to those parts of town. And now I live in a place that has no neighborhoods, a place that is more like an outpost, a colony, a tribe with an island sort of transparency, all of us knowing more than we want to know about each other. Even this small fact stretches my heart, and I realize how narrow it gets sometimes and how dangerous that is.
The day before school started, I taught a yoga class just for spouses of deployed soldiers, which is one of my favorite things in the world. On Wednesday morning, we met at a pavilion across the street from Onslow Beach at the very end of Camp Lejeune. I got there early to sweep out the sand, and when the women arrived, we arranged our mats in a circle. We did a practice for self-care and for trust. During pigeon pose, I read the Hafiz quote I love: The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you, and it occurred for me – not for the first time – that I teach what I need to learn most. Afterwards, we sat on the beach and did a meditation I “borrowed” from Elena Brower on open-heartedness, and we listened to the waves echo our breath, although probably it was the other way around. If you could meet these women, if you could see who shows up to my classes with their shining eyes and their willingness, you wouldn’t believe it. It amuses me that I teach on a base where I am almost always the student.
We live about 25 minutes from the beach, and it’s a beautiful drive through pine forests. Then, it’s fields full of shooting ranges and a large cluster of buildings built to look like an Afghani city so soldiers can train for what awaits them. Before the pine forests, just past the movie theatre, and across the street from the Protestant chapel, there is a large field dotted with groves of oak trees. Sometimes at noon, I see soldiers sitting there in the shade, eating lunch. That morning, I saw a cluster of them standing under the trees, looking in one direction as if they were waiting for something. A split second later, another group of soldiers came bursting out into the sunlight. In the middle of the pack, protected by the others, four of them ran with a stretcher on which a soldier was lying back, secured with one of the reflective belts they wear in their pre-dawn PT sessions.
If you could see the fierce commitment in the way these soldiers train and the sweetness in the way they sit in the shade together and wait for the next thing, your heart would burst. And then you realize what they are training for, and you might want to bring your knees down to the ground.
A year ago, when we were moving and all of us were living in a single hotel room for almost 4 months, Claudia Cummins sent me a beautiful email describing a time in her life when she felt homesick and then an epiphany she had that as long as she was in her body, she was home. That her body was her true home. I haven’t had this epiphany yet or anything even close to it and perhaps that is why I am here. Perhaps this place where I am, the one that was circled on the map for me, is where I will learn how to prop open the doors of my heart and keep them that way. Perhaps I am here to create a tangram out of these pieces that don’t seem to fit. Or maybe what I am supposed to do is just leave them alone in the shapes that don’t make any sense and make room for them anyway.