November 28, 2014 § 27 Comments
When it’s time to move on, there is no one to hold your hand. – Deb Talen, Ashes on Your Eyes
All I knew was that I couldn’t handle Thanksgiving this year. Fourth of July nearly did me in. It seemed as if every dad in the world was manning a grill or out in the driveway fixing something. One of my neighbors was in his garage blasting country music from his F150, and I felt oddly unprotected, even though I couldn’t identify the threat. The cicadas were whirring, the puppy was curled next to me, and the sun was reassuringly hot. Trying to keep things normal, we rode our bikes to the pool- that special summer domain ruled by stay at home moms and kids.
But even that was ruined with men. I sat on the edge of the pool with my sunglasses on while the boys jumped in. Nearby, a general’s wife was giggling and handing out paper cups of wine in a way that reminded me too much of high school. Later, the boys played with a neighbor on a slip and slide and then ran up the driveway with sparklers. The mosquitoes were fierce and I was panicky with a loneliness that was dark enough to feel dangerous. In my head, I mentally ticked off the holiday weekends that remained. Not Thanksgiving, I thought. There is no freaking way.
Last month, I booked a cabin in Boone, North Carolina for this weekend, an extravagant purchase that left me weak with relief. Until Tuesday night, that is, when I cursed my decision. After a busy week, I was finally throwing fleeces and underwear into a suitcase, trying to find large enough mittens and warm enough socks. My neighbor brought over snow pants and I was shocked to discover Oliver is big enough to wear my old hiking boots. Despite the fact that we were leaving, the same panic that haunted me in July was tugging at my ankles; the same creeping loneliness was draping its arms around my neck. I packed and cleaned until almost midnight and then loaded up the car with board games and down coats, suitcases and dog toys.
How foolish I was, thinking I could outrun a holiday.
Still, we got into the car Wednesday even though it was raining so hard, some cars were driving with their hazards on. After only a few miles, I was hunched over the steering wheel, wondering how this was all going to work.
By now, this is a familiar question, one I ask myself daily as I struggle with patience at bedtime or sit in the front of the room before a yoga class I am about to teach. So much of teaching is about being vulnerable, about walking into an empty space and hoping things are going to work out.
On Wednesday after I loaded the boys and the dog and the pretzels and the pears, we stopped at Starbucks. I had been too wiped out to make breakfast and the kitchen was too clean. We ran through the rain, and inside, the smell of coffee was a warm comfort. It was crowded and happy with that pre-holiday hopefulness, that maybe, this year, things would be better. I didn’t hear a woman calling my name until she grabbed my arm and said “Hey you!” It was Terri, a woman who works out at the gym the same time I teach yoga. She is small and wiry with spiky grey hair and eyes the color of sea glass. She was sitting with her friend Maria.
“Oh, these are your boys,” Maria said, touching my arm and smiling. “My girls are all coming home this year.”
“All four girls,” Terri added. “They live in New York. And oh my god – Maria is the best cook. Everything she makes.”
Maria smiled modestly and told me her husband was just home from deployment and that for the first time in a long time they would all be together. I felt her joy beginning to warm through my cold hands and feet.
“You have to try her carrot cake,” Terri said. “Oh my god, I will never eat carrot cake from anywhere else ever again.”
“Are you traveling?” Maria asked me and I said we were on our way.
“Is your husband here?” Terri asked and once again, I felt that shock that I am now part of this community, one that knows what it’s like to not know what will come next.
Last month, my neighbor was almost in tears because her husband was going on yet another training exercise to prepare for his deployment in August. “He’s going to miss Halloween for the fourth year in a row,” she said. “I’m so tired of this. I just want a normal life.”
“I know,” I said, and felt the familiar longing for predictability, agency, and home. Last week, Scott called and told me he just spoke to his detailer – the person who tells him what and where his next job will be. For five years we have been trying to get back to the west coast, and each time, we get farther away from my idea of home. I miss California so keenly, it feels like a phantom limb.
“Well, “ Scott had said. “It’s now between San Diego and one other place.”
“Oh jeez,” I said, because it’s always been between California and one other place. And we always go to that other place. “So San Diego or -?”
“Guam,” Scott said and inside, my mind said I can’t live in Guam. It will be a disaster. And then I remember that it will probably be fine. Because it’s always been fine, at least after a little while, anyway.
“We’ll find out soon,” he said. “I’m pushing for California.” But we both know it’s mostly out of our hands.
I told Terri Scott was in Bahrain and we were running away to Boone. Terri gave me a high-five. “You’re breaking the mold girl! Good for you.”
As we left the store, an older man with a rain-spattered Life is Good shirt held open the door for us and we stood under the outside awning, watching the rain bounce on the pavement.
I did not yet know what the day would bring. I had no idea that outside of Durham, I would drive through a soup of fog and truck spray and rain or that outside Charlotte, the skies would clear, revealing a ragged V of geese. I didn’t know I would stop for gas in a place so scary, it was like something from a Stephen King novel or that the flat land of eastern North Carolina would be so comforting: the low cotton fields and the leaning shacks; the plywood signs announcing boiled peanuts and sweet corn and “tomatos.” (They always forget the “e”). I didn’t yet know that our cabin would be snug and warm and I didn’t know that Wags would be so scared of the stairs I would have to carry her up and down every time we took her out. I didn’t know that for the first time, I wouldn’t get lost, that we would find the hiking trail I read about online and that it would snow as if on cue. I hadn’t yet discovered that pumpkin pie and hot chocolate were the only Thanksgiving foods we would need and that all the things I thought were so important would turn out not to matter very much after all.
Then, I only saw that it was raining hard. I only hoped things were going to work out. I only knew I had been trying really hard to run away from things that are impossible to avoid. Thanksgiving, deployment, the unknown.
“Wait here,” I said to the boys, “And I’ll bring the car around so you won’t get wet.”
“No,” they both said, protesting loudly.
“OK,” I said, watching the rain slant sideways in the wind. “We’d better go.” I took their hands and we ran towards the car, towards the mountains, towards the day.
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.
June 11, 2012 § 21 Comments
“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:
And despite being so lonely for my first year there, things like this began to happen:
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.