Freedom

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.

Lumps

July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments

Gus in his hotel room fort.

Too often we give away our power. We overreact. We judge. We critique. And we forget to breathe. – Seane Corn

In mid-June, Scott’s parents flew in from Oregon and my own parents drove down from Pennsylvania to visit us here, in North Carolina and to attend Scott’s change of command ceremony on Camp Lejeune. Because I couldn’t possibly imagine our families in this strange extended-stay hotel with us, we rented a house on Topsail Island for a week. It was such a relief to be able to open a door and let the boys run outside, to sit on the beach without driving there, to walk near the warm waves at night and wake up and do yoga on the deck outside our bedroom.

And then it was time to leave. My little blue Prius was so full of suitcases and sand toys, cardboard boxes full of peanut butter and oatmeal, raisins and spirulina powder, a pint of berries and an eight-dollar jar of red onion confit I bought at Dean and Deluca in Georgetown before we moved because I had to have it. The boys could barely fit into their car seats, and on the passenger seat next to me was a laundry basket full of bathing suits, my Vita-Mix blender, a Zojirushi rice cooker, and a Mason jar full of the seashells we found on the beach.

It was a little after eleven in the morning. It was past the time we were supposed to be out of the beach house and hours until we could check into our hotel. We had already spent the morning on the beach, and as I steered the heavy car out of the driveway, I realized I had nowhere to go.

You’re homeless, you know, said The Voice inside my head. You are 39 years old and you have no place to live.

I am not, said the Other Voice. I am not homeless.

And yet, you have no home, said the Voice,  So what would you call that?

We spent some time at the Sneads Ferry library and checked out some Magic Treehouse books on tape to listen to in the car. We drove to a park with a big boat launch in Surf City and boys watched with fascination as pickup trucks hauling fishing boats expertly backed up to the water and set their boats free. We watched a big blue crab walk sideways in the brackish water and the boys threw leaves at the tiny fish that shimmied near the docks. We went to a pizza place for lunch because I knew there were clean bathrooms there and we went back to the beach where the boys were cranky and kept grabbing each other’s shovels.

The night before, when we were still in the beach house, I felt a lump on the side of Gus’ neck and my heart leapt up into my throat. I asked my father-in-law to take a look and he told me it was nothing. “Don’t waste a doctor’s time with that old thing,” he said, which comforted me greatly, but still, while the boys stole each other’s beach toys on that homeless day, I was on the phone with a pediatrician’s office. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow?” the receptionist asked me and I felt my unreliable heart writhe and squirm again.

I gave the receptionist my name and my insurance information. She asked for my address just as Gus hit Oliver on the head. We had gotten a PO box the week before, but I hadn’t memorized it yet, and it was clear that if I didn’t get off the phone, one of the boys would hit the other with a plastic dump truck or the bright yellow buckets I bought a few days earlier. “I don’t have it right now,” I told the receptionist. “We just moved here. Can I bring it tomorrow?”

The next day, we arrived early for Gus’ appointment. The waiting room was nearly empty and as I was filling out form after form, a nurse came out and stood by the receptionist. “She didn’t have her address yesterday, so I couldn’t start the file,” I heard the receptionist say in a loud whisper. “Honestly who doesn’t have an address? Who are these people?”

I felt tears start in my eyes and my whole face ached with shame and fury and a feeling of desperation so great that I wanted to jump in my car and watch the entire state of North Carolina recede in my rear view mirror. Hey, I wanted to say, I can hear you. Instead I said, “I’m almost finished,” and watched the receptionist jump and turn around. I walked up to her desk with my completed forms but couldn’t look at her, my face hot with the shame of having no address, no place to go, no home.

Afterwards, when the doctor told me I had nothing to worry about, that the lump was just a swollen lymph node, I was so relieved I took the boys for ice cream. The main road into Jacksonville – Western Boulevard – is particularly ugly, but the week before, on a walk, I found a little ice cream place called Sweet, which looked brand new and cozy. It was sandwiched between a Five Guys and a Popeye’s, but inside Sweet were velvet couches and soft chairs, a coffee bar and an old-fashioned ice cream counter. A sign on the wall announced that there would be a benefit tomorrow and NFL MVP Mark Moseley would be signing autographs and footballs.

The boys and I sat on a couch and ate our cones and a few seconds later, an older man sat down in a chair next to us with a coffee. His white hair was slicked back and he was wearing a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and a belt with an enormous buckle. On his right hand was a garish gold ring and on his feet were the most amazing pair of cowboy boots I had ever seen. The brown leather rippled in shades of light caramel and gold and deep chocolate. My first thought was to sneer at his outfit. Where do you think you are, Texas? asked The Voice, and then I thought of the receptionist we just left and was flooded with a new shame.

I wanted to be nothing like that receptionist, nothing at all like her, so I looked at the man and said, “Those are some really nice boots.”

The man stretched out his legs and lifted the toe of one boot into the air. “Thanks,” he said. “They’re gator skin. I have four pairs.”

“Four pairs?” I asked, delighted, as I always am when someone has exactly what they want, when they unabashedly showcase more than I think any of us are allowed to have.

He nodded at me and I tried to imagine four pairs of those boots lined up in my bedroom closet. In my head I thought of the tiny wooden closet in our old Virginia house and once again, I remembered I was homeless.

“So how do you like our ice cream?” the man asked me and I nodded and then said, “Oh so this is your place?” because sometimes it takes me a while.

The man nodded again and I watched the sunlight flash on his tacky ring. “I own the Five Guys and the Popeye’s and I wanted to bring in something different,”he said.

I told the man that my friend owns a Five Guys at the ballpark in DC and the man said, “Charlie? I know Charlie. Are you from DC?”

I said that I was, that we just moved here. “Your husband on the base?” he asked and I told him that Scott was a Seabee, that he was part of the huge construction project on Camp Lejeune. “I met with some Seabees last week,” he said. “I’m trying to get Five Guys on the base.” He asked me more about Scott’s job and then we talked about DC for a while. Oliver asked if he could have the rest of my melting ice cream come and I gave it to him. “I lived in DC for fourteen years,” the man said, “I was the kicker for the Redskins. It’s a great city.”

“The Washington Redskins?” I asked, as if there were any other kind. I am not a football fan, but my father and brother are and I grew up around detailed conversations about Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Refrigerator Perry and Mean Joe Green. When I think of those long ago Saturday mornings, I can still hear the tinny theme song of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I can hear Jim McKay’s voice as he announces … the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

I looked up at the sign in front of me: NFL MVP. “So that’s you?” I asked pointing to it. “You’re Mark Moseley?”

The man took a sip of his coffee and nodded. “And that’s a Super Bowl ring,” I said, looking at the thick gold band on his right hand and stating the obvious.

“Mmmhmm,” he said, holding it up. Someone came over then and Mr. Moseley regally rose from his chair and said, “I hope y’all come back and see us again.” And then to the man who joined him, he said, “She just moved from DC. She knows Charlie.” The boys held up their sticky fingers for me and I got up for some napkins and felt something else rise inside me. Maybe it was relief or maybe it was happiness and maybe it was the fact that I had felt seen by this man with the beautiful boots. Moving always has a way of making me feel invisible, as if by changing locations, I have erased some essential part of myself, some piece that the man with the Super Bowl ring just handed back to me.

I’m not who you think I am! I had wanted to scream at that receptionist, just as I had wanted to ask the NFL MVP, Who do you think you are? How little we think we are allowed. How much we think we need.

It was late in the afternoon so the boys and I left Sweet and headed back to our Hilton Home2 to find that once again, housekeeping hadn’t shown up. I set Oliver up with his first-grade workbook and gave Gus some crayons and construction paper. I unrolled my yoga mat in the space between the two beds. I knew I probably only had a few minutes, but I could do some sun salutations in that time. I could give myself back to myself.

Without my friends and the lush Virginia woods, without the comfort of the worn oak floors of my Virginia kitchen, without the hot Georgetown yoga studio, without the refrigerator full of kale and overflowing book shelves and a city to hate, who was I? I looked around the room at the things I had deemed essential: crayons, books, and Legos, a rice cooker and too many shoes, an expensive jar of red onion jam and a long flat sticky mat. How little I think I am allowed. How much I think I need to make up for this.

The discomfort of this discovery is fragile and sharp and I carry it the way you would a piece of broken glass or an armful of thorny roses, a burning match or a dying starfish, objects shaped like heartbreak, whose beauty and wreckage are inextricable. This move to Jacksonville has been a crucible I have stepped into, the heat and shimmer of concrete and sand a mirror to what lies inside of me: the elusive shadows of beauty and bright piles of wreckage.

I do a few sun salutations and then I walk over to Oliver. I put my hand on Gus’ neck and feel the lump there, the beautifully benign node. I remember the way my own heart beat a year ago when I took Gus to the pediatric cardiologist to check out his heart murmur. I remember the way I exhaled when the doctor told me that Gus had an innocent murmur, that I had nothing to worry about.

How lucky I am, I think, as I look around our tiny hotel room, how narrowly I have edged through those clear panes of disaster. I think of my penchant for drama and realize suddenly that moving is neither a disaster nor the end of the world. Disasters are the only disasters. The end of the world is the only end of the world. I stand still for a moment and listen to the boys tell me about their artwork. Gus’ healthy neck is bent over his paper and I see how little I need. I feel stuffed full of all all I have been allowed to have.

Uncomfortable

June 11, 2012 § 21 Comments

A car in Jacksonville

“No Meg, don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” – from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Jacksonville feels like a stain. It looks as dirty and tired as a bar after last call. We are staying in an extended stay hotel on Western Boulevard, the main business route, which is an aggregate of Old Navys and Olive Gardens, Walmarts and Wendy’s. The air smells like fried chicken and cigarette smoke and the sunlight bounces off all that asphalt. At night, shadowy packs of boys walk along the strip, their jeans low on their hips. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and a man in a wife beater and flip flops leered at me. He parked his cart by the shelves of raw chicken thighs and made comments at women who walked by him. I turned sharply into the aisle with the detergent and held a box of Downey sheets up to my nose wondering how I ever could have complained about Washington, DC.

We will probably be staying at the Hilton Home2 until the beginning of August, when a house will be available for us on base. On the first floor of the hotel, a fitness center with a television is adjacent to a laundry room. Twice, I let the boys watch Disney Junior while I used the elliptical machine and slipped quarters into the washing machine. On Thursday, I struck up a conversation with another mother of two boys who is staying at the hotel because her house burned down last month. Marines in camouflage come out of other rooms on our floor, and from behind closed doors, I hear Southern accents and babies crying. I smell food being microwaved and Ramen noodles cooking. The night we arrived here, I had a quiet meltdown – conscious of the thin walls and my sleeping boys – thinking that at 39, I am too old to be living in a place that smells like someone else’s dinner. What was the point of the college degrees and all that striving? I thought back to another hotel room eight years ago in San Francisco. I was up all night helping the president of my company write her presentation and at five in the morning, I staggered off to Kinkos with it, thinking that finally, I was on my way. I would never in a million years have believed that I was on my way here to a town overflowing with soldiers.

Each place I have lived during the last six years has taught me something. In Philadelphia, Oliver was born, ironically, two hours from the town I drove 3000 miles away from when I was 21. In San Diego, I learned how to be an adult, a mother, and a wife. In Ventura, I was taught how to trust my heart and to believe in goodness. Washington DC taught me how to be alone and then how to be with people. I spent a year with this guy:

With Rolf Gates at my Yoga Teacher Training Graduation

And despite being so lonely for my first year there, things like this began to happen:

With Scott and friends at the Cherry Blossom Festival “Yoga on the Mall.”

Tonight I went for a walk along Western Boulevard, a four-lane highway with sidewalks but no crosswalks. After a while, my walk began to feel like a game of chicken with the pickup trucks and I started back to the hotel. I passed by Ruby Tuesday and the House of Pain tattoo parlor, Food Lion, and a dilapidated barber shop. Even though it was nine at night, a couple with a small child was going into Hooters. I wondered briefly if I should be afraid and then decided I shouldn’t. I figured I could outrun an attacker, and if I couldn’t, I would put up a good fight.

Coming towards me was a group of young Marines. Maybe I wasn’t as different from them as I thought. I too am the kind of person who would fight to the death to protect myself, and as they approached, I realized I am ashamed of this. The boys looked so innocent as they walked by me, so young. I wondered if they signed up to serve and protect and if they were surprised when they found out what was asked of them. Or maybe they weren’t. When I looked up, one of them said hello with a smile that lit up his face. And then they all looked at me for an instant, their faces lovely with youth.

I thought about how complicated it is to serve, how the word protect sometimes also means kill and how much that bothers me. I thought that some of those young boys might be headed off to a war I despise while others might build a school somewhere or save a child. They would all be trained to shoot and a few might have to pull the trigger when it counted. I thought about how much I hate being part of the military, how paying the cashier at the market sometimes feels like handing over blood money. And I thought of how proud I am that my gentle husband is a part of the same organization I hate, because he has watched over his own share of young men with such devotion. How contradictory it is to protect a freedom, how much freedom is taken away to accomplish that, how the choice to serve takes away so many other choices.

And then I thought about the first Power Yoga class I took at Downdog Yoga in Georgetown. For the last six months, that studio has served and protected me, which I never would have thought possible after that initial class, which I wasn’t sure I could even finish. On that morning, last July 4th, as we celebrated freedom, I was trapped in my own thoughts of how thirsty and tired and miserable I was. “I’m so hot,” my mind kept saying. ImsohotImsohotImsohot.

Gradually – and despite my best efforts not to – I fell in love with Power Yoga and began to practice at the Downdog studio four times a week, at least. On my second to last class there only six days ago, Kelly, who was teaching, told us that if we were uncomfortable, then we were in the right place. “That’s what you’ve come for,” she said. “To be uncomfortable and to see what’s underneath.”

As I finished my walk under the streetlights on a sidewalk that was still hot, I felt the same way I did in that first yoga class in Georgetown. I don’t want to know what’s underneath. I don’t want to see how I judge, how I hate, how I break every yogic value I strive for. I want to know why I am here in this strange town near the ocean. I want meaning and reason. I want validation that I am in the right place.

But the night gives me nothing other than the smell of fried chicken and hot concrete, the sound of my own sharp panic and stale discomfort. And maybe this is why I am here: to be uncomfortable. To crack off another layer. To cleanse myself here, in this city that looks toxic and not a single bit lovely in the dark.

Where Am I?

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