For two weeks in August 1975, the temperature in Milwaukee remained in the high nineties, with humidity near 100 percent. After a few days of sleeping terribly, suffering through work, and being unable to completely dry myself after a shower, I grew rather cranky. By the end of the first week, my crankiness had turned to a sort of numb disbelief. To escape the dense haze, I hid in the basement; this was OK, except I had to leave periodically to go to work, buy groceries, and use the bathroom.
Midway through the second week, I turned to my friend and roommate, Dan, and said, “I can’t take this anymore! Let’s get the hell away from here!” Right then and there, we decided to leave town.
We had friends in San Francisco who could put us up until we got ourselves situated. Dan left almost immediately, but it took me until late October to give up the apartment, sell everything, quit my job, and pack. While preparing to leave, I had time to reflect on what I’d miss the most about Milwaukee. Family? Nope. The weather? God, no. My miserable job as a bellboy at a big downtown hotel? Not a chance. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that there was only one thing I would miss about Milwaukee: Michael.
Michael was a close friend — so close, in fact, that I couldn’t imagine leaving without him. I was determined that he would join Dan and me in becoming expatriate Milwaukeeans. But with his secure job as a substitute teacher, his lovely lake-front apartment, and his active social life, Michael had no interest in pulling up stakes and taking off for the West Coast. Not yet a Californian, I wasn’t in the habit of discussing my “feelings” with other men, so it was impossible for me simply to tell Michael that he was the only person I would miss when I left. Instead, I did what guys do in lieu of open expressions of personal affection: I lied to him.
My covert plan was to convince Michael that his career was stagnating, his apartment was a bourgeois burden, his social life was awfully damn dull, and, if he stayed in Milwaukee, he was well on his way to becoming a boring old fart by the time he was thirty. It was probably the single most devious, underhanded, sneaky thing I have ever done in my life. And it worked. Michael went from calling my decision to leave town impulsive, poorly planned, and potentially disastrous, to seeing the wisdom of joining me, in light of his own apparently hopeless life circumstances.
We drove nearly nonstop, arriving on the Bay Bridge shortly after dawn on the third day. I will never forget the shimmering, Oz-like vision of the city that unfolded before us in the clear morning light. I remember saying to Michael, “This is the place!”
And it was. We were, and are, home, and it’s highly unlikely either of us will ever leave.
Some years later, after Dan, Michael, and I had become Californian and therefore “in touch” with our feelings — and long after Michael had determined that the move was the best decision he’d ever made — I felt safe enough to delicately reveal to Michael my underhanded plot to sway him back in the “old country” (as we called Wisconsin).
“Yeah,” he said with a laugh, “you were so subtle! Any idiot could see you were just afraid to go without me.” We are still close friends, but I never play poker with him.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
Be it a blessing or a curse, for the past fifteen years I have owned, published, and edited a weekly newspaper in a small, economically challenged Appalachian town. From the start, I was quick to editorialize about the wrongs, as I saw them, in our community. I made enemies. Our old, wood-frame office twice fell victim to arsonists, with little or no damage. The third try, however, was successful. On a hot August evening the building burned to the ground. We lost everything.
We produced the next issue of the paper on a home computer, and it was only then that our four-person staff began to feel and act like a family. That issue of the paper drew the community around us. When our readers saw how important what we were doing was to us, it became important to them. I believed then, and still do, that the fire provided a true cleansing.
Steven P. Keller
Two weeks after I left my husband, I was fired (along with six other department heads) by a new hospital administrator, leaving me with two small girls to support, no savings, and a nominal severance check. I’d bought my freedom from married life with a thousand-dollar loan from my credit union, but after a repainting fee, renter’s insurance, and first and last months’ rent on our new two-bedroom apartment, there hadn’t been much left over for decorating. Our place could have been mistaken for the Goodwill showroom, but at least it had a second-floor view of the apartment complex’s swimming pool. Watching the pool was even better than watching TV, and we formed our garage-sale and thrift-store furniture into a semicircle in front of the huge picture window. I found a crib for sixteen-month-old Jennie Anna, and Maren, age three, graduated to a rollaway with a three-quarter-sized mattress. None of my sheets fit the bed exactly, but it held us both for naps and sagged enough in the middle to keep Maren from rolling out.
Single parenthood is the mother of invention. To do the laundry, for instance, I had to prop open our door and cart the brimming basket of clothes to the top of the outdoor stairs, then run back for the girls. After commanding Maren not to move an inch, I’d leave her sitting on the dirty clothes at the top of the stairs while I carried the baby in her plastic chair to the sidewalk below. Then I’d race up and retrieve Maren, who’d ride on my back to the bottom and “baby-sit” while I ran back up for the laundry basket and detergent — mustn’t forget the detergent.
All along the apartment-complex walkways, beneath towering eucalyptus and overwatered oleander, lived huge snails that clung to the stucco walls like misplaced fridge magnets. Little Maren would squat and peer under the bushes and count them, her surrogate pets.
In the meantime, I sent out résumés with flawless cover letters, cleaned, studied books on custody arrangements, and started a journal. When my husband picked up the kids for a few days, I finally allowed myself a two-hour vacation. I put on a bathing suit and crept down to the pool. From a chaise longue, I could see the secondhand lamp in my living-room window. The spring sun highlighted my thirty-year-old legs, my glistening stretch marks, my broken nails. I was secondhand, too. Used. Pre-owned.
Then I heard the wind chimes, a Goodwill treasure I’d cleaned up and hung by our front door. They were tarnished, but for me, their song was as good as new.
A predawn chill hovered over Varanasi. I wrapped my shawl tighter around me as the rickshaw wallah pedaled mechanically, his thin shoulders bobbing in rhythm with his feet. He swerved to avoid a cow resting in the center of the road. A person wrapped in a dhoti slept propped against a wall. A woman squatted beside a cooking fire. As we neared the river, Varanasi began to stir. Figures rose from the sidewalks where they had slept. Drivers harnessed bullocks to large-wheeled carts. Women with brass pots balanced on their heads walked toward the river — the mighty Ganges, the sacred Ma Ganga.
The night before, my traveling companions, Randy and Charles, had told me they were going to bathe in the Ganges.
“Are you insane?” I’d said. “You’re both doctors. Don’t you know what floats down the Ganges?”
Now our rickshaw stopped, and we descended a ghat — a flight of steps leading to a river landing where bodies are burned — and waved to a boatman. Charles jumped in and held my hand as I climbed aboard and sat down. Randy made for the prow. The boatman pushed off, rowing us away from the shore and into the shimmering mist. A boat filled with silent pilgrims wrapped in shawls drifted by, then disappeared from view. The bloated body of a buffalo, a vulture perched on its head and pecking at its open eyes, floated past.
As the sun rose, the fog cleared, and I could make out the temples along the shore, where, thigh-deep in the holy river, pilgrims raised their arms in salute to the sun. They prayed, scooping the water up with their hands and into their open mouths. Smoke rose lazily from the ghats as runners carried down a corpse and laid it on a burning pyre. A priest struck a gong: one, two, three deep notes quivered and evaporated into the air.
It was I who had insisted that we come here, to make a pilgrimage to the sacred waters of Ma Ganga. For a Hindu, to bathe in this river is to wash away all sin, to start over.
“How deep is it here?” Charles asked the boatman.
“Deep, sahib, deep,” the man answered, not wanting to row any farther.
At this, Charles and Randy stood up and peeled off their outer clothes, beneath which they had on white Indian pajamas.
“So you’re going to do it,” I said. “To each his own.”
They stepped up onto the gunwales. Charles clutched his body as if to protect it and, with a groan, leapt. Randy spread his arms, gave a cry of exultation, and followed him. Their two heads disappeared for an instant, then reemerged. Charles was spitting. Randy had his hands folded in prayer. I captured it all on film.
That evening at the hotel, we discussed the day’s events over gin-and-tonics and samosas.
“Why didn’t you jump in with us?” Randy asked me.
Charles answered for me: “She’s jumped in enough cesspools in her life. She didn’t need to swim in this one.”
I wish it were possible to mainline sugar like heroin. It would save so much time and energy. Instead, I have to drive all the way to Malibu, to Atelier de Chocolat. There, I have to look the sluglike high-school boy behind the counter in the eye and lie through my teeth about the recipient of the one-pound box he’s packing.
“I’ll take four of those mint truffles; my son loves those. And my daughter adores those cherry-cheesecake creams; give me six of those.” I sample three chocolates and complain that they’re a little dry. The boy, who doesn’t really seem so sluglike anymore, offers to get fresh chocolates from the back.
“No, no,” I say with a laugh. “Don’t bother. My children will eat anything. I’m probably just losing my taste for sweets.”
He finishes packing the box and asks what color ribbon I’d like on top.
“Blue — it’s my daughter’s favorite color.”
I leave the shop, scurrying past a thin woman in a bikini top on her way in. I promised myself I would at least wait until I drove away before I began eating, but I can’t. Once in my car, I rip the ribbon off the box and start devouring the chocolates.
Jesus, Mary, Mother of God, these little fuckers are good! Pretty soon I’ve eaten through the first row and am starting on the second. God, I forgot about these caramels: so soft and sticky and wet. By now my pancreas has dispatched the insulin into my bloodstream. My body is tingling, and I’m starting to lose my appetite, but I can’t stop. I’m on the last row now, cramming them into my mouth one after the other. I can’t even taste them anymore. Like a marathon runner sweating her way to the finish line, I push on toward the end. Three vanilla butter creams left. Two.
No, wait; I am not going to finish this box! One and a half chocolates remain of the eighteen that were there ten minutes ago. Resolve has somehow found its way through my sticky, sweet bloodstream. I am going to lose these thirty pounds and stop eating sugar for good. What’s more, I am not going to wait until tomorrow; I am starting right now. This is it. My love affair with chocolate is over. I glance in my vanity mirror: I look as if I’ve been through a war. I smooth my hair down and tie the blue ribbon around it.
“You can do this, Sheila,” I say to my reflection. “I believe in you.” I put the key in the ignition and am just about to shift into gear when the bikini-clad woman walks out of the store. She’s not even carrying a bag of chocolates, just a cup of coffee. Two guys driving through the parking lot in a Jaguar convertible smile at her. She raises her cup to them.
I look in the mirror again. The slightest wrinkles are starting to appear around my eyes, and I haven’t plucked my eyebrows in months. That new toothpaste isn’t doing a thing for my teeth. I grab the remaining chocolates and cram them into my mouth, then rip the ribbon from my hair.
I don’t even have any kids, and I hate blue.
Sheila Marie Jenca
Los Angeles, California
He held me through a night of grief and illumination, whispering that things would be all right, telling me to breathe with the rhythm of the ocean’s waves. We were together for only four days before he left for LA, and I felt sure I would never see him again.
Twenty years later, a close friend of mine committed suicide, and I made room in my large house for his widow and their two children. Getting rid of years of accumulated junk, I came across an address book that I had kept since high school, and without a second thought I threw it in the trash. As I walked away, however, I heard my departed friend’s voice so distinctly it startled me. You never know, it said. I wouldn’t throw it out if I were you. I chided myself for thinking I heard voices — but I retrieved the address book.
Three years later, at a time when many of my dreams were going down in flames, I heard my friend’s voice again. It told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to find this man I had known for only four days twenty-three years earlier. But how could I find him after all this time? Then I remembered: the day we parted, he had given me his parents’ address “in case you ever need to find me.” I’d written it in the address book I had nearly thrown away.
So I wrote to him, wondering if he even remembered me, figuring he must be married, imagining all the reasons why I might get no response.
Ten days later, he called. When he told me who he was, I felt as though I had been struck by lightning. He said he couldn’t believe I’d found him after all these years. I waited to hear about his wife and family, but he said he was still single, and living in Hawaii.
I flew to meet him there in February. By August I had sold my house, closed my business, and moved to Maui. That was three years ago. We are still together, and the words of my friend are imprinted on my heart: You never know. I didn’t before, but now I do.
Elizabeth W Poole
In the glittering lobby of Trump Tower, I was surprised by my reflection in the mirrored wall. Who was that person dressed in Armani and polished leather shoes, looking so impatient? There should have been a different reflection, of a man in old jeans and a faded plaid shirt, wearing a calm expression.
My architectural-design firm was thriving. Trump was a client. So was the president of Bangladesh. From humble beginnings, I had risen to attain the American Dream. I just didn’t recognize the person living it.
In 1990 I walked away from it all to find myself, and wandered from Florida to Rhode Island. For six years, I searched, but I still couldn’t find the calm I was seeking. Finally, broke, exhausted, and confused, I threw up my hands and said, “I give up all expectations. I am here to be of service. I will go anywhere and do anything.”
The next morning, I awoke feeling that I should take a leap of faith. I sold my remaining possessions to pay the bills and, with only a backpack and two hundred dollars, set out for the Second Luddite Congress in Ohio, after which I would be a feather on the wind.
While at the congress I was offered a ride to North Carolina to visit an old friend. Then I spent six weeks on a nearby organic farm before a quiet voice within me said to move on. So I bought a bike and rode west.
Two weeks later, soaked in sweat and many pounds lighter, I arrived in a small town in Kansas called Matfield Green. I had only a dollar in my pocket, but the quiet voice said not to worry: I was a piece of a puzzle that now fit.
Within an hour I was offered a place to stay and a job designing the renovation of a classic American farmhouse using salvaged materials. Wonderful new friendships soon developed, and out of them have emerged plans to build several straw-bale houses — one of which I hope to live in. We are planting an organic garden, and last week I helped build a greenhouse. Appointments, schedules, and alarm clocks are things of the past. Intuition and flexibility are now my guides. Calm is my reward.
Strong City, Kansas
The next day, I would leave for Dallas to take a business-training class. I’d be gone for three weeks, and my wife was sure I’d meet somebody else. We hadn’t had sex in more than a month. I tried to reassure her, but I guess I knew why she was worried. The last time I’d gone away like that, I’d met a whole bunch of somebody elses, one of whom I’d really cared about.
Her name was Margot, and she was married, too. When we first met she was curious about my “open marriage”; she didn’t believe such a thing could exist. I told her my wife and I both had our own careers, were spending two years living six thousand miles apart, and were free to see other people. Of course, our married relationship was the primary one — that wouldn’t change. I didn’t know how good Margot’s English was, or whether she was getting any of this over the loud music. We drank way too much beer and danced to KC and the Sunshine Band. The affair lasted until I returned home: more than a year.
Eight years later, I still thought about Margot. But I knew now that, when I went to Dallas, there wouldn’t be somebody else; I didn’t want to have to think about somebody else again — not like that, not for so long.
Two days later, in an office tower on the outskirts of Dallas, in a classroom filled with eager men and women in business suits, I met the woman who would become my second wife.
Santa Monica, California
When I first began to read law six years ago at the State Prison of Southern Michigan, I assiduously studied bank-robbery cases for the express purpose of improving my thieving techniques. Amie, my former girlfriend, was not at all pleased when I revealed to her my unoriginal goal of one last big score as soon as I got out. “Why would you do something that can only result in further imprisonment or death?” she asked. Amie had high hopes for me, but I clearly had no intention of living up to her expectations, so we parted company.
Looking back, I can honestly say I’m glad we didn’t get married, as it would undoubtedly have resulted in a divorce. (If the number of no-contest divorces I’ve prepared for my fellow prisoners over the years is any indication, the divorce rate among prisoners nationwide must be astronomical.) “She did me wrong” is what most convicts lament when I thrust a Complaint for Divorce into their hands. I cannot say that of Amie. If anything, I did her wrong by betraying her love and trust.
One day, however, I read a book that changed my life. It was Daniel E. Manville’s Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual — in particular, the message from the author titled “A Personal Statement”:
One of the reasons you are confined under such atrocious conditions is the failure of all of you (Hispanics, blacks, Native Americans, whites, etc.) to set aside your petty jealousies and dislikes and your claims to machismo in order to form a united concrete legal organization which will have a say concerning the conditions under which you are incarcerated. Every person I knew while incarcerated hated those confining them. But almost every . . . ethnic group or gang hated each other even more. This prevented prisoners from organizing into a single united political force.
Until you can set aside the societal conditioning that keeps you from working together toward common ends, you can expect to remain confined under brutal and dehumanizing conditions.
Now I am a certified paralegal and devote my in-cell studies to torts, contracts, and community-property law. I also practice constitutional law, assisting prisoners with civil-rights litigation and habeas-corpus petitions. I correspond with Manville and other attorneys, with legal scholars, and with organizations like the ACLU.
Manville left prison and went on to become the most celebrated prisoners’ rights attorney in the country. If he can do it, why can’t I?
Robert F. Nelson
East Lake, Michigan
Not long ago I accepted early retirement and planned a motorcycle trip to mark the occasion. I cheerfully told anyone who asked that the purpose of my journey was both to celebrate my sudden freedom and to plan my next career. “I want to see the country and talk to people,” I said.
The reality was that my thirty-year career had ground to a halt, and my thirty-one-year marriage appeared ready to follow. Direction and certainty were gone from my life; the future was a blank. Sometimes there seemed to be no options; other times, far too many.
In early spring I headed east along the Mexican border riding the Harley-Davidson I had spent the winter restoring in preparation for my grand odyssey. In the pack behind my saddle were three changes of clothes and a sleeping bag. My black leather saddlebags held a camera, a blank journal, several quarts of oil, a bundle of tools, and a copy of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.
I drifted through west Texas and into the swamps of southern Louisiana. Along the way, hope returned and the future began slowly to brighten. Then, just outside Woodville, Mississippi, I was rear-ended by an eighteen-wheeler.
By some miracle, I lived. I awoke in a small hospital near Baton Rouge, alone, far from home, and with a lifetime’s worth of broken bones. After a week of recovery, a grim trip by air ambulance brought me to a hospital close to home.
Each night my wife bathed me, removing the casts and slings, and stripping away the bandages. All day I would anticipate her touch. One evening, during our ritual, the television was tuned to PBS’s Great Performances. Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto played through the tinny speakers. As my wife tenderly washed my damaged body, the orchestra swelled before slowly falling away, leaving only the piano. Alone in the great hall, the single instrument haltingly searched for a new direction, a new key. Then the orchestra began again.
It is 6:30 A.M. in a few moments my two daughters will run into our bedroom to snuggle with my wife and me. I mentally prepare for another day of parenting.
Today I won’t raise my voice when they play with their food. I won’t lose my patience when they run around the house instead of getting dressed to go to day care. I won’t get angry when they refuse to wear their hats and mittens outside. I will control my fury when, after being put to bed, they emerge from their room for the fifth time in search of something to eat.
I don’t expect my daughters to be perfect, only myself. But I will probably fail again today, and experience those feelings of inadequacy that I hate. And I will have to wait until tomorrow for another chance at a perfect day.
I recently discovered a letter my birth mother wrote three weeks after she gave me up for adoption. In it, she said she was happy to be back home and glad she had decided not to stay at the hospital. She was trying to forget “it” and put the pieces of her life back together. “It” was me.
My birth mother, Lucille, lived at a time when out-of-wedlock pregnancy was widely considered a sin. The youngest daughter of eight children in her Catholic family, she quit school to work in a factory making rubber raincoats for the war effort. When she became pregnant, Lucille felt guilty and ashamed, and tried hard to keep the pregnancy a secret. But after seven months, she could hide it no longer, and took a one-hour train trip to another town, removing herself from the scrutiny of her tightly knit community.
For the next two months, she worked in the hospital kitchen to cover her expenses. There, she met Sister Natilla, who tried to convince her to keep the baby. Lucille’s love for her unborn child was strong, but shame and guilt were stronger. She gave the baby up for adoption and returned home to begin her life again. Eventually she married and had four more children. She carried her painful memory stoically throughout her life until, just before her fiftieth birthday, Lucille died in a car accident. She never told a soul about the daughter she’d given away.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I first came to Vermont seven years ago on a bicycle trip, and thought it so special that I stayed. As the years passed, I began to develop a relationship with the land. Every year I tended a garden — albeit on three different plots of soil — and I took up residence at the Mandala Buddhist Center, where my yoga and meditation practice deepened. But now, just as my roots have begun to burrow into this land, I stand poised to pull them up and move to Japan.
While part of me feels thrilled about this adventure, another part mourns. I want to stay and plant trees, to contribute to the community. I have great respect for those, like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, who teach the value of staying put. When I consider global environmental problems and the degeneration of community throughout the world, I have to believe that staying put is best.
Yet many yogis and sages have made a point of never having a fixed home. This ripping of roots necessarily limits attachment (though it doesn’t get at the source of the problem). Perhaps I can learn from this example, and take this opportunity to pare down my possessions and release myself from personal attachments.
I take delight in both endings and beginnings. Each night I feel a little death coming, and each morning I feel the joy of birth. Part of me will die when I drive away from this town, and another part will be born when I meet new challenges and people in Japan. Preparing to leave, I feel a liberating sadness, an immediateness to the knowledge that my days — both in Vermont and on earth — are limited.
I never planned on starting over. I intended to farm until I became old, rich, and wise. But ten years ago I escaped the farm with only the badly torn shirt on my back.
The downhill slide began with the drought of 1976. We had been raising feeder pigs until then. Afterward we switched to dairying. We got over the hump all right, but a few years later, a back injury from my youth started giving me trouble. Two back surgeries slowed me down. I kept going for a couple more years, but I just couldn’t keep up the pace. Many farmers were going out of business at that time; getting “Reaganized,” we called it. I was older than most, and just wise enough to read the writing on the wall. I concluded that life is too short to bust your ass when you’re not really living.
A lawyer advised us to file for bankruptcy, and, together with the bank, we arranged a friendly foreclosure that left us with enough money for a down payment on a new place to live. We bought a house in a little town surrounded by lakes. I got a job on the line in a turkey-processing plant. Now I do my shift and walk away, leaving the job and its problems behind while I go fishing.
Before I left the farm, Paul Wellstone — then a professor at Carlton College — asked me to come and talk to his class about the farm crisis, but we could never find a good time. Instead, I wrote an essay titled “The Autopsy of a Family Farm.” He passed it out to all of his classes until he left teaching to become a senator. He told me that my story was always received with stunned silence, and that it was a piece of history.
Carl V. Butler
Grey Eagle, Minnesota
When I was jumping rope and playing jacks in grade school, it was easy to start the game over if l dropped the little red ball or got tangled in the ropes. In eighth grade, I memorized Poe’s “The Raven” by starting on line one over and over again. In high school, I retook Algebra I in the summer to make up for the D I’d earned during the year, and changing boyfriends was as easy as giving David back his class ring and putting on Rodney’s letterman jacket. Later, as a mother, I would say to my young son, “Just start over, honey,” as he fumbled with the laces of his tiny sneakers. Even after a devastating divorce, I knew I had it in me to try again, and I did. But now, at forty-six, I find myself once more in the position of starting over, and I wonder whether I can bear it.
My second marriage has just ended, and with it my dreams of a large family, two rocking chairs on the porch, a partner in this taxing life. This marriage was shorter than my first, but long enough for it to hurt when he said I couldn’t meet his needs anymore. I wanted to go to a marriage counselor; he didn’t. Now, faced with finding a new job, a new home, a new partner — a new life — I want to head for my bedroom, close the blinds, and crawl under my warm quilt. I feel as old and weary as my eighty-six-year-old father-in-law, whom I often visit in the nursing home. He and I have something in common: it’s all we can do just to start each day.
Debra A Thaler
I’d spent twenty months with my therapist and was making no progress. Our sessions started off productively enough, but soon devolved into the world’s most expensive kaffeklatsch as she talked about her kids, her vacations, her husband, and so on. When I protested that I was wasting my time and money, she told me I needed to learn to ask for what I needed. I suggested I needed a different therapist. She told me my desire to work with someone else indicated that I wanted to run from my issues; she was the only one who could help me.
So we went back to week after week of small talk. When I complained again, she told me I was projecting my anger at my mother onto her, and that I was nowhere near done and should expect to be in therapy for years. She wasn’t going to do my work for me, she said. I told her I didn’t want her to do my work, just her job.
When I informed her we were having our last session, she insisted it would take at least three sessions for us to say goodbye. She didn’t realize, nor did she care, that I had said goodbye long ago.
Though my trust in therapists was shaken, I have now started over with a new therapist who listens to what I say and does his job by helping me do my work.
I moved from an expansive house on eleven acres with a view of the Olympic Mountains to a tiny cottage at the edge of a horse pasture, accompanied by my children, my exhaustion, and my essential belongings: among them a garlic press, my favorite pillow, and the treasured sculpture of myself seven months pregnant. It had been seventeen years since I’d lived without a partner. I lay in bed that night, alone with my liberation and my grief, comforted by the closeness of the walls around me.
This house is a container for my awakening spirit. Here, I begin to dream unedited. I Scotch-tape quotes and postcards to my kitchen cabinets. I clean the bathroom at eleven at night and play Bonnie Raitt on my daughter’s boombox, leaping and dancing until my internal clutter falls away. I feel as though I am playing house with my children. We make a different dessert together every Friday night, and go for long bike rides. Last week we planted sweet peas and wildflowers in the rain. By living with less, we’ve discovered what we really need. I derive immense satisfaction from keeping the house in a state of Zen-like simplicity: no untidy piles of paper by the telephone; no clothes on the bedroom floor.
I write in the mornings while my children sleep. As the first light of dawn creeps over the fields, I search for words with which to create order out of chaos, reassuring myself that a larger picture exists, and that I am a part of it. With my laptop computer and my pot of tea, I make peace with my sorrow and find compassion for my limitations. Very slowly, the regrets fade, enabling me to turn my full attention to what is before me: this fragrant tea, my cozy kitchen, two gently awakening children, a day that beckons to be fully lived.
When I was growing up, my family ate out only to commemorate birthdays or holidays. On New Year’s Eve when I was twelve, we ate at the local cafeteria. My father liked cafeterias because they were inexpensive and we could each get whatever we fancied. After dinner, we raced through the rain to the car, but, rather than driving toward the neighborhood church where we usually watched the new year roll in, my father slowly eased the family station wagon along the row of darkened storefronts to the far end of the shopping center. There, off by itself, stood the theater where our family enjoyed one or two movies a year. The lights of its marquee were reflected in the black puddles.
My father shut off the engine and turned to me. “Come on, Son,” he said, opening his door.
My sister and I looked quizzically at one another; my mother frowned. I got out and jogged to catch up to my father as he strode toward the ticket booth. Under the shelter of the marquee, I asked what we were doing. He didn’t respond, but began explaining to the teenage cashier that, the last time we had been to a movie, he had paid too little for me: he had paid for a child’s ticket when, in fact, I had been old enough for adult admission. The cashier told him not to worry about it, just to pay full price the next time, but my father persisted, shoving the difference in price through the small opening in the ticket window. Before the cashier could object, my father turned and walked away across the wet parking lot.
Back in the car, my mother asked him, “What’s going on, J. C.?”
“Jimmy and I had a little business to take care of,” he said. “We’re starting the new year with a clean slate.”
Red Lodge, Montana
A guy I know was told by his doctor that he had cancer and would die within a year. There he was, working at a job that was OK but not great, living in a place that was nice but not paradise, dating a woman he liked a lot but didn’t love. He was just warming up, you know? The way most of us are.
So what did he do? He quit his job, sold everything, packed up, and moved to Key West, where he bought a boat, because he’d always wanted to sail around the Keys on a little boat in the sunshine. And he did.
After a while, he went to a doctor in Key West to see how much time he had left. The doctor got the guy’s old records and ran new tests and then said the first doctor had made a mistake: he’d never had cancer at all.
I think about that guy sometimes, sailing around on his little boat in the ocean, living his dream, all because he found out he was mortal.