So then I ran out of money.
Self-fulfilling prophecy or blind luck? I never dropped into the red. No checks bounced. I had said I would travel and write until the money ran out; what I had known was that I would run my finances straight into the ground. But I’m like that now, living with a certain reckless abandon when it comes to money and time.
I believe, before it was all said and done, after the auto-pays for the car payment and phone bill came out, that I in fact got down to eleven dollars. Maybe it was too many lattes. Or too many gas stations, filling up the car and driving on, day after day, sleeping in the car night after night. Searching for a place called “home.”
It’s that hokey, my writing project idea. Even so, how do I tell you a story about searching for home when I have to abandon that journey for an urgent financial detour?
Maybe I shouldn’t have taken this job, though, regular hours, good pay, health insurance I’ll probably never use. Life insurance that makes me nervous, thinking about dying all safe and secure, with plenty of money to bury myself. Not the way to reach Valhalla. Maybe I should have picked up a gig bussing in a restaurant instead; god knows I can’t wait tables to save my life. I tried that once, offered people dessert before they’d ordered their meal, forgot to ask how they wanted the meat cooked, medium, well, bloody and rare. I lasted two weeks.
I wanted a job back then so I could breathe, so I could fend off the crumbling of my sanity, a kid raising kids in the middle of the high mountain lonesome. Nowhere. You could almost hear the banjo twang of our poverty. Never felt so lost as I did living in Walden, Colorado. I remember pushing the dilapidated stroller, the slow desperation of walking through that tiny town from one edge to the other, then turning back and walking it all in reverse, until I once again reached the last worn house, the last dirt street, the last faded corner. Standing there, I’d look out at the road leading away, the old highway narrowing into the distance, out beyond the long grasses in the ditches where I stood, the ranch pastures rippling in the constant wind. I’d reach down and pick the yellow butter-and-eggs, hand a few stems to the baby in her seat, a few to her brothers, tell them, “See? Doesn’t that look just like eggs for breakfast?” But some days, we didn’t have any eggs for breakfast. That’s when I learned that you could still make pancakes with your last egg, water down the dregs of your cheap syrup. French toast was a golden luxury. After a while, I didn’t even bother to make the pancakes, just laid in bed, sleeping off the despair like a hangover. So their dad became the default Sunday morning pancake maker, having given up the church once he found his new Jesus, namely, porn mags and cigarettes while he worked the late shift at Corkle’s Gas. All so I’d have more than the twelve dollars he’d once handed me to take to the grocery store. One time it was seven.
He blew our money on bad cars and new fishing gear and beer and smokes. I blew our money on taking the kids out for cocoa and bacon at the Coffee Pot Inn — and once getting totally drunk at the bar and having to be walked home by the local cowboy twins, tall brothers in Stetsons and Wranglers whose names I never knew.
You’d think I’d hate pancakes, and butter-and-eggs, and high mountain valleys, all those sad associations with reaching the utter limits of failure. But I don’t. I have a bittersweet, wistful fondness for all of them; though not for Corkle’s, which still pisses me off to this day. The last time I went through Walden, I filled up my car at the other gas station, directly across the street, flipping a nice F-you to that damn sign as I pumped my gas. It was this very summer, in fact. While I was heading north to find yet another place called Mountain Home.
The log house in Walden where we lived, watching the world speed past us…over time, it rotted away, until they finally tore it down. Nothing but a wide, smooth spot next to the road now, low purple asters growing along the gravelly edges. Just a placeholder for what I remember of who I was, a long time ago. I don’t need to inhabit that space now. In fact, I can’t. Which is a blessing.
So, eleven dollars. This is how I know I’m on the right path. I look back at my life with forgiveness.
All the suffering I let the world put me through. All the fear, walking from one edge of the flat earth all the way to the other, too afraid to venture farther, convinced we’d never make it, what with the dragons and the kraken and all.
If I say “Home is where the heart is,” I mean it’s where you take yourself. I’m starting to wonder if home means the degree to which I’m living authentically, from the heart. A moment of courage in the midst of spectacular doubt — the will to remain curious about the world, see if there isn’t something more, something possible.
Even if waiting tables really is not. Anything’s better than Corkle’s.
A salty place, Quincy Mass. You say it “Quinzy” unless you want to stick out in this seaside town just south of Boston. It’s something of an offense, not slurring the name, so I’m practicing blurring the lines of enunciation and identity. Let your jaw hang slack just a little bit; say everything like you’re chewing gum. Or like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder.
I think that’s why I thought I might fit in here. I do all those things: blur the lines, try to hang slack, chew on ideas for a while. Often carry a small chip of resentment with me, as if I’d grudgingly earned some kind of bitter token for hard-won street smarts, the kind I figured would be necessary to live on the East Coast for a year.
One day at a time. Right now, I’m holding a mug of coffee, trying not to spill it as I carefully lean back in a wooden rocker by an upstairs window overlooking Quincy Bay.
My balance keeps shifting, moment to moment. To and fro goes the way. It’s a line from the
I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. This is how we recognize that we have reached a turning point — by feeling decidedly off-balance. Even as we seem in dire need of direction. But we must each determine our own next course of action and set off, each wayfarer allowing their own compass to spin and settle, one end pointing toward the horizon they need, the other end pointing back to themselves.
I take a long sip, surveying the view, carefully rocking, simultaneously feeling quite satisfied…and still a bit dubious. I know full well that I’m ill-equipped for the experience I’ve chosen, perched here in the top floor of a triple-decker house, one of these old sea captain’s homes lining the shores of New England that have been cut up into floor-by-floor apartments. I found this spot by luck, and by holding out for what I wanted, for the reason I came here from the desert Southwest: a chance to live by the sea.
The front door of the house is set back under a wide, sheltering porch; my access, however, is up a long flight of wooden stairs on the side of the house, exposed to the elements, specifically (and ironically) those from the northeast. The weathered steps and rails are speckled with chartreuse moss, slippery when it rains, probably deadly with ice and snow. You have to step slightly to the right near the top so you don’t get caught on the bent corner of a rain gutter. At the landing, the second-floor door swings out, crowding you perilously off the wider space and back onto the steps, leaning on the wooden railing. It’s especially tricky to navigate with groceries or, say, furniture.
You enter to find a small room with a fireplace, the opening boarded over, a collection of classic books and glass lamps lining the top of the bricks and the wooden mantle. An antique wash stand with ceramic basin and pitcher fills the corner. I’m always afraid of knocking something over with my elbow as I pass through this snug space. In front of the fireplace sits a solidly built wooden cabinet with a locking drawer, the old lock tumblers still falling smoothly with the movement of the antique key.
“That came off the Constitution,” my elderly guide had told me the day I first arrived. He’d fished out a rental application and a pen from the cluttered drawer of the supposedly historic cabinet. He is the landlord, and also my neighbor in #3. He owns the house. “I built everything myself,” he had told me on the phone, as if he had actually constructed it rather than renovating it. “It was a nursing home when I got it, but I built it into apartments. You have any questions, I can answer.” As we settled on a day and time for me to come by, he had told me I’d either meet the neighbor Holly to see the apartment “or myselfPeterYoung.” He said it so fast in his Boston slur that it took me a second to catch his name.
“Ah! Well, I hope it’s you, PeterYoung,” I had told him, smiling into the phone.
“Okay then,” he’d responded, and hung up.
It was a Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving, when I arrived for the showing. Something about the huge white house with green shutters appealed to me as I walked up the sidewalk. The street was lined with tall trees. Suddenly, there he was: PeterYoung himself, a big man with a round belly and round cheeks and chin, a swollen nose and mischievous eyes, with a thin white mustache and tufts of white hair sticking up at odd angles on his head. He wore a working man’s thick canvas coat and saggy jeans. I walked up and introduced myself.
“PeterYoung? I’m Bo.”
“Yeah. Hi there. Are you Bo?” he asked in reply.
I looked at him quizzically. “Yes — I’m Bo,” I repeated.
“Ah yeah, I’m PeterYoung. I own the house. Wanna see the apartment?”
Hearing loss, I decided. He led me up the wooden stairs, through the anteroom of old books and glass lamps, and opened the door to “APT. 4,” which was labeled vertically down the left side of the door jamb in three-inch metallic mailbox lettering. Inside, I found a private entryway with wooden coat pegs, and also a floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinet looming untethered in the corner; I squinted at the cabinet distrustfully. Beyond the coat hooks, one more flight of stairs led up to the apartment itself.
I emerged at the top, following the old spindled banister up into warm sunlight — in every room, on all four sides. The low-silled windows and original wooden doors, thickly-painted antiques themselves with recessed panels and brass knobs, reminded me of my grandparents’ beloved farmhouse in Iowa. I walked into the bright eat-in kitchen to find a round table and two wooden chairs arranged neatly by the windows, overlooking the neighborhood of old homes and tall trees. So green in summer, I thought. I imagined plants on the windowsills.
“Do you hike?” PeterYoung asked me.
“Yes, I’ve been traveling and hiking for a living.”
“You did that long hike in Spain, right? Isn’t that what you told me?”
“Yeah, the Camino.”
“Yes! I hiked across Spain! On the Camino de Santiago!”
“Oh yeah? Ever been to Switzerland? Hike the Alps? The Zermatt?”
“Yes! Switzerland! But I didn’t hike the high peaks! I did the Wanderweg!” I smiled. The Wander Way, my favorite trail name.
“Oh yeah, the valleys, that’s pretty,” PeterYoung nodded. “Yeah, I’ve hiked all over the world, you know. I’m seventy-eight now, but I still hike.”
“You told me on the phone! That’s so amazing! I can’t wait to hear your stories.”
Curious to see the rest of the apartment, I glanced down the hall toward the living room — and saw the ocean. From the kitchen.
The view was stunning, as if the water was about to pour in through the living room windows and flood the old wooden floors, washing up at my feet. I quickly crossed to the living room, straight for the windows, ignoring the bedrooms on either side.
There it was: the sea.
The bay was full to the brim, rhythmic waves lapping steel gray layers onto the beach directly across the street. The brown sand was nearly covered, the waves approaching a lone tree standing just above the high water mark on a grassy strip next to the broad sidewalk. I watched gulls swooping over the water, and a flock of ducks slowly paddling north, following the shore.
The location felt right. The bedrooms were big, the closets ridiculously huge for the small amount of belongings I had brought with me in my car from New Mexico, my futon mattress tied on top. I had wished for a place by the sea with a fireplace, maybe somewhere to store an old kayak if I could find one. Someplace where I could watch the ocean and get to know it over the course of a year, learn to read the water and the weather here like I’d once learned to read Western skies. Understand why I, landlocked all my life, felt so drawn to the sea.
Filled with this lofty aspiration, I turned from the window to take in the rest of the living room. An oversized electric space heater designed to look like a fireplace hugged one wall. Hokey as it was, I was charmed by the arched cast iron details and elaborate oak mantle. Seaside view: check. Fireplace: check, I thought. Then I looked up.
At the tops of the walls throughout the apartment, two- and three-inch iron pipes ran a foot or so below the ceiling. They were all slathered in the flat white wall paint, as if this would make them blend in. An inordinate number of commercial fire sprinklers perched at irregular intervals atop most of the pipes.
Wandering through the apartment, I counted sixteen sprinkler heads, including two in the living room and three in the hallway, two in each bedroom, one in each closet, three in the kitchen, one in the pantry for some reason, and one in the entryway at the foot of the stairs. In one bedroom, these pipes joined onto massive four-inch pipes. These monsters took a deep dive down through the floor in one spot, while another corner was filled with the iron behemoths running side by side, up and down and across the wall before turning to enter the bathroom. Attached to the huge pipes in this room were two spigots (painted over) and another larger valve handle the size of a dinner plate. The effect was of being aboard some type of sea-going vessel.
“This is Holly! I call her Mary,” the landlord called out, as the downstairs neighbor arrived. “She helps me,” he added simply. “So — you like the place?”
“Don’t push!” Holly said to him in another thick Boston accent, with a thin, tired smile. “Hi, I’m Holly.” She looked to be a few years older than me, maybe nearing sixty. I sensed that my estimate may have been based on the visible results of hard living.
“Hi, I’m Barbara, but you can call me Bo.”
“Bo – I like that,” Holly nodded.
“He calls you Mary?” I looked puzzled.
“He gives everybody a new name, I don’t know.” Holly rolled her eyes. “So you came from New Mexico? I did that, too! Just put everything in my car and drove away.” She beamed. “You’ll like it here. You think…you want the place, though?”
I was sitting at the kitchen table, starting to fill out the application. “Oh yeah,” I nodded. “Definitely.”
“Okay good, ’cause if you really do, I got showings all day but I can cancel them…,” she said hopefully.
“Yup — cancel ’em. I want it.”
“Okay great!” Holly smiled broadly. “I gotta go to work. But I’ll see you soon.”
“So you want the place?” the landlord asked me loudly.
“She wants it!” Holly yelled at him.
“Wants it?” he barked again.
Holly walked up to him and yelled in his face. “SHE – WANTS – IT!”
The landlord was unfazed by this verbal assault. “Okay good.” He turned to me. “You just fill out — oh good, yeah, the application. You got a pen?”
“You got my number,” Holly reminded me. She had texted me information about the apartment before I called PeterYoung. I nodded.
As she left, a large, loud man came rumbling up the stairs, filling the kitchen doorway. He, too, was solidly built, with a workman’s gnarled hands, weathered face and leather neck. His broad barrel chest and stout torso were covered in a white wool fisherman’s sweater that was stained and slightly shrunken, the intricate cables and knot patterns interrupted by multiple moth holes. His wavy hair was so dirty I couldn’t make out the color, other than once-dark-now-graying.
He nodded to me at the table as he addressed PeterYoung in a very loud, very thick Irish brogue. “So you’ll be wantin’ to come have a look at the pipes, then,” he directed. PeterYoung waved him off without looking at him, then smiled at me.
“I can’t do the work until you see for yourself,” the handyman continued.
I looked from PeterYoung to this mountain of a man in the doorway, this old sea captain trying to make repairs to a ship that I sensed might be wallowing in choppy seas and slowly sinking.
“If you need to go look at something, that’s fine, I’m just doing this,” I said.
PeterYoung again waved him off. “Just ignore him. He’s a friend of mine.”
“I think – he needs – you – to go – see – the pipes!” I explained loudly.
The huge man in the moth-eaten sweater chimed in, shouting, “She says – you can come – and see! It’ll only take a minute….”
PeterYoung looked at him over his shoulder and shook his head, smiling again as he turned back to me. “Just ignore him.”
The big man dropped his chin, growling in exasperation. He took in a deep breath and lifted his face to stare up at the ceiling, then slowly began to gaze at everything around him, a practiced act of patience.
“This is a nice apartment, this is,” he nodded at me.
“Yeah, I like it,” I nodded back. “So many windows!”
He turned and looked down the hall. “And that view!” he hollered, stepping toward the living room a few paces.
“Isn’t it incredible?” I called.
“Aye,” he nodded, turning back and smiling. “It’s the sea that does it!” And with this, he pulled himself up to his full height, threw his head back and his arms out, roaring, “Makes you FEEL…ALIVE!!” His smile was as broad as his outstretched arms.
“Exactly!” I laughed, opening my own hands in emphatic agreement, and to my delight, he joined in, both of us laughing at our good fortune to simply be here, a bit bedraggled, a better bit lucky.
“Say — do you kayak?” PeterYoung interrupted as if he hadn’t heard, which seemed impossible.
“Do I kayak? Yeah, I just recently got back into it. I haven’t got a kayak of my own yet, though.”
“Well, finish that up, and we’ll go down, I’ll show you — I’ve got three kayaks stored out back, paddles, everything, you can use ’em whenever you want.”
Bless this feast and all who are gathered here. I never even asked, What have I gotten myself into? Instead, I felt rich. The day before Thanksgiving — that’s when I knew I would live on Quincy Shore Drive, in the crow’s nest of this grounded and broken old ship. Quinzy…Shore Drive, my apologies. For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.
I am, for all intents and purposes, out of money. My experiment with traveling and writing seems to have reached Finisterra, “end of land,” mile marker 0.0 at the end of the Camino in Spain; the last of anything solid under my feet. And yet, this morning, sitting at my 79-year-old mother’s kitchen table, drinking my mother’s coffee, having slept in a bed in my mother’s house, I felt a shift in my mood. I am not miserable or totally beaten, mind you; I’ve just been feeling … confused, with a nagging urge to consult my guidebook, study the map, like maybe I’ve made a wrong turn, taken the wrong road on the Camino. A wrong road leading off my Camino.
My casual, easy defeat by capitalism has had me resigned to re-entering the rat race, having to get a regular job again. The only jobs I can get are back in social work, it seems, and even those — I apply, my resume gets me an interview, the interviews are on Zoom, and, well, I am not young, nor am I a particularly photogenic person. It has been a series of meetings in which I have felt slightly out of place, between worlds. Like I’m faking somehow.
What I’m doing is feigning interest. I’m realizing I am not likely to be hired with my current attitude: that I am selling all those hard years of my working life at a bargain-basement auction. Selling my experience with work, and also my experiences of awakening, in these later years. I’m searching for a job I don’t want, to get money I don’t want to need. It’s buying space in this tightly-wound world, like walking a highway section on the Camino, the shoulder so narrow I have to hold up my walking stick like a roadwork flagger’s sign, hoping not to be clipped by a speeding truck. I prefer the meandering dirt trails. Isn’t there an alternate route here?
This morning, I read the news, then read my Free Will Astrology, because Rob Brezsny, poet-warrior, is one of my spiritual teachers — you never know who your sensei will be. He suggested my plan for the rest of 2021 should follow Virginia Wolff’s guidance: “I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.”
I’m supposed to resist “temptations to retreat into excess comfort and inertia.” And that’s the real fear, for me: that comfort and inertia are inextricably linked. I don’t just fear it; I have experienced this immobility of mind, of spirit, when I have become immersed in a day job. I start to limit who I believe myself to be, becoming an excellent personification of … my job description.
The truth is what I told the people at Upaya, when I interviewed for an administrative assistant at the Zen center: I practice walking meditation. It grounds me. And wandering my unconventional path is what brings me joy.
At the beginning of this writing experiment, I vowed to try it for a year. And I have been — first published in October, traveling since the end of October. But then I added one caveat, as if I knew my own weakness far too well, telling myself, No social work jobs during 2021. See the year out strong.
I’m cheating. Because like all cheaters, I don’t believe I can actually do this. Yet now I see that I can’t go back to a standard 9-to-5 job in a social service agency, either. Somehow, I knew when I started down this road — I can’t return to that work without losing something hard-won. I already quit Denver, to go on Camino, and quit Albuquerque, finding the Traveler writing job. I can’t walk forward if I chain myself to a desk. I can’t free my true self, let it find its dimensions, if I keep stuffing it into a corner office, dressed in business casual.
Or can I?
Sipping coffee so generously provided, after consulting my Free Will, I opened the newsletter from Upaya to read Roshi Joan Halifax’s story, “On the Vimalakirti Sutra: Not One; Not Two.” It made me laugh. At myself.
To quote the great baseball catcher Yogi Berra: When you come to a fork in the road… take it!
Not One; Not Two is a groundless, positionless position of adaptivity, nimbleness, and fundamentally, the positionless position of Not Knowing, of radical openness. Putting it another way, this is the lived experience of actualized wisdom in our everyday lives as we meet the world of suffering and joy.
We’re binary beings by nature; our simple minds try to reduce everything to dichotomies of either/or, fight or flight, friend or foe. Freedom to write or locked down into an office job. But the ridiculous/wise Yogi got it: did you not learn, peregrino, some openness to Life along The Way?
In fact, I am happy to report that I did.
This life, the world, includes suffering and joy. I find myself in the positionless position of Not Knowing what comes next. Who among us can relate to that, eh? This is apparently that lived experience I was so averse to selling to the highest bidder. Seems we get to both use it — spend it, this wealth of wisdom — and keep it, after all.
At the end of her writing, Roshi Joan quoted Antonio Machado’s poem, “Caminante, No Hay Camino.” I remember seeing his words quoted on a billboard in one of the cities along the route, encouragement to us as we pilgrims walked an invisible trail along paved sidewalks, looking for any sign that we were still on The Way. Roshi Joan quoted Francisco Varela’s translation, which uses my soul-word “Wanderer” for Caminante. And so Upaya called to me, a bell ringing, reminding me of who I am.
Here is a version of the poem I love, letting my mind read “Caminante” as both “Traveler” and, under the surface, Varela’s “Wanderer,” a person practicing that unknown wayfinding to somehow travel beyond Finisterra, following the path unimpeded by the marked trail. Where I am going is simply a reflection of where I have been. I’ve reached a fork in the road, and I’m taking it. I guess today, I feel more like myself, temporarily lost and radically open to where I go next. Not One; Not Two.
Caminante, No Hay Camino / Traveler, There Is No Road
by Antonio Machado
translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.
”Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.”
The streets of Santa Fe curve across the landscape, one tracing the Old Taos Trail, another the Old Pecos Trail. Histories intersect at every stoplight, ancient, modern, two days ago when I came through this same intersection searching for a laundromat. Today, I’m looking for the main library near the plaza. I turn into the parking lot “For Library Patrons ONLY” and pull into space 12, realizing as I do so that numbered spaces are generally spaces you pay for. Grabbing my daypack, my laptop, and pocketing my leftover laundry quarters, I walk across the lot to the kiosk near the front door, punch in my license plate number on the keypad, and feed in two dollars to max out my parking time at four hours. So cheap, I think, walking toward the automatic front door, ready to work on writing projects for the afternoon.
The door doesn’t budge.
I walk along the wall of windows to my left, looking for another door. A mother with a toddler approaches the building, standing before the automatic door. Nothing.
“Is this the only door?” I ask.
“It’s the door I always use,” she replies.
“Hmm, well, it doesn’t seem to see me,” I joke over my shoulder, standing under the sensor and waving up at it. Nothing. Then, still looking up, I glance to my right. High above my head, my eyes find a white sign taped to the glass wall: HOURS.
“They’re…not open…on Monday?” I read aloud, perplexed.
The woman takes her toddler’s hand and they slowly walk away to find a nearby park instead, the baby wobbling on unsteady feet.
I walk back to my car and set my laptop on the trunk. I need wi-fi, and had thought to save the cost of a latte by working in the library instead of a coffee shop. Now I’m out two bucks, unless…sure enough, the library wi-fi is available in the parking lot — the hot, sunny parking lot. Nevertheless, curious, I pick up my bags and, carrying my laptop open before me as a wi-fi detector, I carefully maneuver toward the building, along that wall of windows, and slowly around the corner of the building, watching the computer screen, glancing now and then at the uneven sidewalk. Still signal. Finding the library courtyard, I look to my right for a bench but see only a faded, dirty backpack leaned against the wall, tucked as inconspicuously as possible near an alcove. Homeless, I think to myself. Charging their phone at an outside outlet.
I remember back to the days when I used to meet with clients in my office, people carrying everything they owned in a backpack, or a tall wire carryall basket on wheels, or a shopping cart.
Or their car.
That’s what I’m doing now, living out of my car. Travel writing sounds glamorous, but in reality, it’s sometimes pretty cramped living. As a general rule, I really do like vagabonding, exploring new places and heading off again toward a new horizon. But the money’s no good, at least not for someone like me, an unknown name freelancing for $500 a story. Sometimes that’s my monthly income. I’m a happy nobody, living free and slowly going broke.
When I worked as a case manager, and then as a program coordinator, and then as a manager, I had a pat line I used when describing my background. If clients asked about my supposedly high level of education, I’d laugh and reassure them, “Nah, no Master’s degree. I went to community college. I’m just a poet with a sweet day job, getting to talk to awesome people like you.”
Now I look at that drab backpack leaned against the wall. My own backpack is stashed in my trunk, wrapped in a black trash bag to protect it from what I fear might be an infestation in my car — of bedbugs.
I’ve never had to deal with bedbugs before, not for myself. They’re a free gift I’ve picked up on my travels, but not the way you might think. I applied for a seasonal job proofreading legislative documents at the State Capitol in Santa Fe. I drove into town and checked in at a mid-priced motel, to be fresh for the on-site proofreading test the next morning. As I sat on the bed watching a movie, I felt a sharp insect bite at my elbow. I looked down. The pillows were swarming with bedbugs. I grabbed my bags and fled.
I can read the handwriting on the wall, scrawled like some kind of Zen graffiti: the word “impermanence.” This situation cannot last without an infusion of cash. While I have a couple of editors who work with me, one monthly, one annually, I’ve also had plenty of pitches and submissions declined. I’ve been doing this for a year, this roaming, and now it’s autumn again, and the nights are feeling cold, in my tent or in my car. Only now my car has bedbugs. And there is no money left to pay for motels to sleep inside.
Santa Fe has been calling to me, even as it stings and bites me. The class differences of this city are glaring — rich white art patrons wearing squash blossom necklaces of heavy turquoise and silver while attending the symphony on the hill, and ragged people just trying to get by. It’s like everywhere, I guess, full of haves and have nots. For some reason, the indirect roads meandering through town, causing navigational havoc for me, seem to imply that I want things too neat and tidy, too ordered. As a self-styled free wanderer, I find that irritating.
Like bedbugs. I rewashed all my clothes and bags and blankets at the laundromat on hot, and overdried everything, until the snaps on my pants burned my fingers and I dropped them back into the rolling basket, swearing. I just want to live my life; but it’s hard to get away clean, apparently.
The homeless guy found the only outlet. My phone and laptop are both going to go dead, I think wryly. Turning from the courtyard, I see a bench in the shade of trees and claim one end as today’s workspace for as long as my electronics decided to last.
As I’m typing up my story, literally on my lap, a short, stocky woman with long gray hair plops down exhaustedly on the facing bench, parking her luggage cart between her legs. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt over her gray hoodie, dark sweatpants, and black prison shoes. She sighs audibly.
“Ah, mija, I’m so tired,” she complains, and I look up to see that she is addressing me.
I nod agreeably. My typing slows.
“Do you know what time it is? Is it three?” she asks.
I look at my watch. “Ten ’til,” I nod again.
“See? I’m Native, I”m Apache, we know the sun, it’s in our blood,” she nods back.
I smile agreeably.
“It’s wrong I’m out here like this. They kick me out, because I’m Indian, can’t even go to the shelter no more, but I wouldn’t go there no matter what, it’s so bad,” she tells me, emphasizing her point by jutting out her chin. She tears up unexpectedly. “I had a man, but he was no good, he left me here by myself. Now I can’t go nowhere or they’ll take my Disability.”
“It’s hard, to transfer your disability check, that’s true,” I reply.
“I can’t go nowhere, mija — if I even leave town, they’ll take it. But where I’m gonna go anyway? There’s nowhere.”
The tears are real. I’m done typing.
She continues. “I got depression, my mother didn’t want me, she gave me a brain tumor, my man left and didn’t take care of me.” She sniffs and wipes her eyes with the sides of her hands. “I been homeless since I was six years old, you know? I had an apartment but people, they knew, the druggies, they found me, where I lived. They started using on the steps outside my apartment and wouldn’t leave, so the manager didn’t renew my lease.”
I shook my head. “People don’t understand, sometimes, how hard it is to get off the streets.”
“You from around here?”
“Where do you live?”
An excellent question. “I, uh, was living in Albuquerque. But I’ve been traveling around. Hoping to get a job here now.”
“Oh Albuquerque — that place is too bad. Dangerous. Me and my cousin, we went there once. We were both pregnant with our first, but it was too scary, so we left. I never been back.”
“Where’s your cousin now?” I ask.
“I don’t know. After we left, I never seen her again. We went our separate ways.”
She rummaged through her belongings, ignoring a very large bottle of mouthwash that I suspected she might drink later, looking for anything to use as a tissue to wipe her eyes. I had nothing to offer her.
“No bad feelings or nothing, just … we went our own ways.” She repeated her story, how she has no family but her son who is a Marine in Special Ops, how her mother didn’t want her, gave her a brain tumor. “I was raised by Hell’s Angels, that’s why I’m this way.” She nods knowingly at this explanation. It’s actually a fairly familiar story for me, all except the brain tumor. Someone is always in Special Ops.
I’ve sometimes felt like I was raised by a Hell’s Angel. Or maybe I’ve wished for it, to make my early life make more sense. To make my runaway tendencies seem somehow more legitimate and less like I ran out of patience with my life going nowhere and its ongoing, pernicious sufferings, like waking with bites and sores from when you were asleep, at your most vulnerable.
Now I nod and lean toward her. “That’s why you’re so strong,” I say. “I see your strength. You’re a survivor.”
She smiles at me. “You have a good heart, I can tell. I’m an Aquarius and we can tell about people, who’s good and who’s not. We know.”
I raise an eyebrow. “I’m an Aquarius, too!”
Her face blossoms into a grin. “I’m February, on Valentine’s Day!”
“My birthday is in January.” I smile back at her. “Aquarius. Maybe I’m right about you then, huh?”
“Oh, I’m tough, that’s for sure,” she says, patting her belongings back into the cart.
I’m packing away my laptop, hoisting my daypack to my shoulder as I stand. “I don’t have much money….” I say apologetically.
“No mija, I have my Disability, it was just good to talk. I feel the love from you. I feel your good heart, and the love, and I love you, sweetie.” Her eyes snap as a thought suddenly clears away her tears. “What’s your name?”
She smiles warmly. “I’m Tereza.” She stands and throws her trash into the can between us. “You be safe, Bo. You take care.” She nods. “Love you, Bo.”
I shake my head slightly, wondering at her gracious generosity of affection. “I love you too, Tereza. You have a good heart, too.” I shift my daypack. “Maybe I’ll get this job and be able to see you around, say hi. Maybe we’ll be friends, eh?”
“I hope so, mija.” She let me shake her hand. “Oh! Your hands are so cold! You need to get warm,” she advised. Then she let me go. “Bless you sweetie. Take care.”
I walked slowly, back to my parked car. No one gets away clean in this life. Santa Fe might as well be home, I think. No matter where I go, these trail angels are all I see.
“This is a nice sized class this evening, seven plus me,” the instructor began brightly. “Can you let me know what you’re writing? Who’d like to start?”
No one answered, our mics muted, our faces flattening within our computer screens, as if willing ourselves to fade into the backgrounds of our ordinary worlds. I have to admit, I was just trying to manage my irritation, which can be made to appear like hiding if you hold really, really still.
The only man in the group, grey-bearded hd7fal03, who hadn’t figured out how to enter his name to caption his Zoom screen, spoke up. “I’m writing a book about a young girl I met in Afghanistan, when I lived there.” Behind him, a small shrine sat just within the framed screen, the Buddha statue perched atop a flowing tapestry setting a forced scene of mindfulness, round stones staged artistically on a descending pyramid of meditation and philosophy books.
I squinted, frowning, then remembered we were all on camera and quickly relaxed my face, impassive as the blank white walls of the library study room where I sat. But I was too late. Or maybe just first alphabetically.
“Bo, how about you? What do you write?”
I tried to smile as I looked down at the screen to unmute myself. I’m sure that looked great. “I write feature stories for National Parks Traveler,” I began, “but I have a book — it’s a journal of my time trying to be a caregiver — quite unsuccessfully — for my mother when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
“My mother just died,” the instructor noted wistfully, blinking rapidly. “But cancer is easier than Alzheimer’s,” she added. “It goes … so much faster.”
“Oh, I don’t know, cancer is really hard,” I fumbled. “I mean, we just weren’t qualified — we weren’t caregivers — the book is about facing this caregiving work when you have no idea what you’re doing — we didn’t even love this person! We clearly needed professionals.”
She smiled wanly. “Yes, I learned so much — so much — about hospice.” She cleared her throat. “Emily? What are you writing?”
Damn. Well, that’s the end of querying this agent, I thought, hitting the Mute button. Again.
Apparently, everyone’s mother just died. I kept stumbling across advisors, mentors, and publishing gatekeepers who’d just lost their mothers. Their beloved mothers. Saying I didn’t love mine tossed salt right in their wounds. Well COVID, you idiot. I sighed. Then I remembered the camera again and redirected my gaze to my note pad beside my laptop, jotting, “just lost her mother to cancer — didn’t enjoy info on not loving mother.” I’d add her to my list of agent fails later.
Only she wasn’t an agent. “I read query letters and transfer projects to the agents,” she clarified. “I read lots and lots of query letters.” She rolled her eyes.
Great, I thought.
“Editors no longer edit!” she continued. “Your project must be ready to go. And it must be complete. Don’t query if you haven’t finished it yet.”
I finished my book a year ago. Sent it to a developmental editor. Twice. It’s been ready to go since March. Now it’s nearly October. In between, I’ve kept my list of the agents who have ignored my queries.
“What about this online class?” my sister had suggested, emailing me the link to the respected writer’s workshop. She’s a writer, too, working hard to finish her own book, dive into this godawful process herself. I keep trying to warn her, but I think she will actually be more successful in this arena. She’s got a marketing degree. She knows how this game works. She can play it.
I freaking hate it.
I turned my attention back to my laptop screen. “Your query letter is a one-page, professional business letter,” the instructor pronounced. “Like a cover letter for a resume when you apply for a job. Be professional and you’ll be okay.”
I had already created a full-length book proposal. It contained my pitch, a synopsis of the book, comparable titles, potential market. I had a foreword written by a gerontologist who found the book powerful and moving or whatever. It didn’t matter. I had sent the book proposal to an agent who only accepted book proposals for nonfiction, not queries. Then I sent the three-page hybrid query/proposal preferred by the next agent. Then a one-page query to the next agent. Then just a few brief paragraphs the next one demanded. Then a short-and-sweet email to the next agent’s specifications. Weeks went by. Months. The format didn’t matter. No one answered back.
“Because, we know — writers like to be in that liminal space,” the instructor was saying in an incredibly condescending tone. “But we want to know you’re not a person just sitting alone in your attic, writing and sending off queries. We want you to be in conversation….”
I’m supposed to be in a writer’s group, so I joined one. I have talked about my book with another published author, my editor, my sister, my daughter who works in publishing, the gerontologist. I’ve had beta-readers give me feedback. I’ve been following the rules, but in the end, they’re other people’s rules, and the constant bending over is making my back hurt, among other things. My pride, too. My dignity, self-respect. And my sense of fair play.
Know your jargon, but never, ever use any of it in the query letter. “Show” your jargon, don’t “tell.”
“You need to declutter your query! All the writing terminology. But do include the GMCS,” the instructor smiled — weirdly, waiting just a beat too long before sharing, “that’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict, and Stakes.” She beamed like a doting mother, incredibly triggering for me. I felt the distrustful squint resurfacing, even as I made notes.
Editors don’t edit. And agents don’t market. You, Little Red Hen of Literature, you write the book, you proofread the copy, you write your pitch to be the back cover “sell copy,” you get someone to write the foreword, you build the marketing platform.
“The goal is revenue,” the instructor said, bold as brass. “No one cares what your motivation is for writing this book,” noting offhandedly, “we’re not talking about literary fiction.” She then immediately shifted to warning against inflating your credentials, even as she knew she was addressing multiple first-time writers, grinning slyly as she recounted a story — in great detail — about how she caught someone in a lie, a desperate writer saying they had an offer of agent representation. Her triumphant tone, relishing each fateful misstep, was punctuated by the lifting of an eyebrow and a near wink.
But two cannot play at her game. “Never be aggressive,” she directed. “This is an industry that’s mostly women. We keep a whole file on these, like the guy who said, ‘I hope you all die of cancer, you fat cows!'” Her eyes widened in shock. I’d written an exhausted, frustrated pseudo-query, venting my annoyance. I intended to send it to my daughter.
The instructor was still talking. “Don’t talk about your book’s page count. If you use ‘page count’ instead of ‘word count,’ that tells me, ohh, you’re not ready….” She pouted her lips, mocking the imaginary newbie. It felt like I was watching an insecure high school girl auditioning for the popular crowd. I glanced at my image in the small screen in the Zoom corner; my distaste was obvious. I didn’t bother to shift my expression.
She referred us to QueryShark on Blogspot, where an anonymous agent mercilessly tore into writers’ query letters. Our instructor’s advice? “Your query should be easily digestible. Read a few hundred of these. You’ll see how they should be written.”
Our time was up, and several students thanked the instructor for her words of wisdom. A couple of us smiled and quickly clicked Leave Meeting.
Reading on the QueryShark site after the class, I found the same self-satisfied, taciturn guidance, shifting on a whim. One person needed to add detail, another nearly identical pitch needed less. Tell me where the story goes. Don’t give it all away. The stories were desperate for attention, all of them, especially one that involved an old woman, a fatherless man, and the sentient octopus in charge. Aliens who pulled out their own teeth and sawed off their horns, disguising themselves as humans to survive on Earth. What are people reading?
Clearly, not my book.
Fiction sells. No one wants to hear the truth, it seems. That we are unpublished writers, not marketing gurus and online influencers. That we do sit alone in attics, writing and sending off queries. That we do not love our mothers. That in mad frustration, we let this system goad us, egg us on, sending our inappropriate query to an actual agent, as if it were a clever turning of the tables instead of just another sad act of desperation, just another pitiful attempt to join the popular crowd.
“Enough is fucking enough, apparently,” I had written. “No one wants to read my book, Enough, the journal I kept during my time as an Alzheimer’s caregiver, and who could blame them.”
In exasperation with the publishing world, I outlined why I was quitting this game:
“Welcome to a memoir about what we carry, and what we decide to let go — I, for one, am sick of carrying this goddamn manuscript around, begging agents to read it, just to consider the idea of reading it. But no one is even curious to see what happens if you take the dysfunctional family from The Liar’s Club and toss them into the deep end of Still Alice.
“I thought I wanted an agent for my completed manuscript. But now I really don’t think so. And you know why? Because during the search for an agent, I have come to hate this fucking book. No, I mean it, I do, I hate the book, even though carrying its 300 pages around has given me great biceps. The truth is I’ve decided to put it on eBay and sell the manuscript to some other sucker, pounding away on their laptop, writing their own Great-American-Novel bullshit.
“Whatever. The publishing industry is some sort of unholy union of Manhattan Elites and Fight Club, which I’m sure is a novel being turned into a screenplay as we speak. I don’t get your world. And I can’t market this manuscript’s dead weight to save my life. BECAUSE I AM NOT A MARKETER. I thought YOU were the marketer. That’s why I thought I needed a fucking agent. QueryTrack my ass. But that’s just my Gen-X cynicism showing, right? Right.
“(Okay, deep breath … I’m better than this … but this process is just so … sigh, it’s just like the goddamn Alzheimer’s caregiver system, just dumping the bullshit on unsuspecting people …). Sorry, it’s not your fault, I know.
“Thanks for letting me talk this through on paper and get to some kind of resolution. Cheaper than therapy. Or whiskey.”
“That’s so … YOU!” my sister had said adamantly. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. I felt ashamed of actually sending that childish letter out into the world. Because I’m not in high school. I’m not that angry kid anymore. And I was never concerned with popularity then — why would I be now? I’m a grown adult, with better things to do, to say.
I looked the QueryShark right in the cold eye. “The goal is not revenue, Shark,” I said to the dark sky outside the library, walking down the sidewalk. “Go feast on somebody else, poor little chickens.” My footsteps sounded solid as I crossed the street, watching for traffic that never came, the night settling in around me.
“I wrote it because I lived it. My motivation for writing this book was to move on. To learn. To be free. I wrote my book to write it, not to publish it. To explain the whole crazy experience to myself.” I unlocked the door of my car.
“Publishers say ‘you must be ready to go’?” I held the door open. Looking up, I saw the shimmering of clouds passing over the full moon. Its light was glowing past their edges; they could not contain it, the moon reflecting beyond their limited reach.
“So be it,” I replied, dropping my gaze to the stars twinkling at the horizon. “I’m ready to go.” I put my key in the ignition, tossing my laptop onto the passenger seat as I pulled my door shut. The engine roared to life.
I looked in the rearview mirror, at the moonlight shining on my dusty hiking boots and full pack in the back seat. The tools I used to live my life now, free to explore and learn. No more wasted weeks or months. They only become wasted years.
“Getting the hell out of here, that’s for sure,” I commented to the stars, and shifted into gear.
I never wanted a seagoing boat before — until I saw it at the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. This one showed up on the beach at Texas’ Padre Island National Seashore, where I was camped out in my tent. Actually, it showed up where I had originally planned to pitch my tent, up the beach a few dozen yards, before I got nervous about the forecast high tides and reconnoitered, relocating to a higher, more protected spot. So that when I unzipped my tent that next foggy morning, and looked out at my original campsite with what appeared to be a thirty-foot sailboat beached right in the middle of it, I was stunned…and thrilled. As if this boat had come back to me, like a dog gone astray, searching to be reunited with its master.
The day before, I’d avoided wading in the surf, having seen multiple jellyfish washed ashore. I didn’t want to get stung. But this morning, I splashed out into the waves without a moment’s hesitation to greet this beauty, my arms wide for balance but appearing to ask, along with my lovesick grin, Where have you been all my life?
Her name was the Fin of God, a terrible name for a boat, tempting fate by involving God directly in an enterprise where one might wish to remain anonymous, so you could just skate by that whole “wrath of” aspect. But no.
Fin had been boarded by the US Coast Guard on January 29, 2021, presumably checking for persons in distress…or survivors. Black spray paint on her cabin noted “USCG” and “OK” and the date, though I might question that definition of “OK.” Her hull had a scraped gash right at the waterline on the bow. Her mast listed terribly, the sail hanging in shredded tatters from the rigging. One window of the glassed-in pilothouse was propped open like an escape hatch.
I’ve had my share of fixer-uppers — an old house, an old jeep. Rescue animals for pets. Several relationships. My hands were itching to make repairs, see what could be salvaged. Not any kind of a sailor — ever — nonetheless, I could see this boat was just my speed — older style, with beautiful lines, good bones, sleek and lean and ready to break down and dash your hopes just when you needed her.
I wanted to climb on board like a pirate, claim the Fin right then and there, and find a way to set sail. Deep in my heart, I had fallen in love at first sight. Because she represented a freedom so huge, so truly vast, that my inner wayfarer got all sappy and dizzy just trying to imagine it. I laughed out loud as I circled her hull in the shallow water, which I now recognize as this part of myself that walks the nearest plank for the thrill of jumping into the deep end of life. But why not: captivity is the alternative.
I was delighted on my return trip to Padre Island two weeks later to find my beautiful Fin still hopelessly beached, her motor’s fan blades stuck in the sand like an anchor. During my time away, someone had brought more black spray paint, rechristening her first the S.S. Minnow, an obvious if unimaginative choice, followed by the far more accurate Redneck Candi. She could not have caused more unrealistic drooling for those of us of the rural, got-a-tow-strap, how-big’s-your-old-boat-trailer set if she had been Dr. Pavlov. Or a gourmet chef. So much unrequited love. Or hungry anticipation. Whatever.
I will admit that I was sad not to be able to take that beauty home, nor to find a way to join her on the beach, seemingly forever at the rate she was moving. I left Padre Island after the annual Billy Sandifer Clean Up Day, watching wistfully as she receded into the distance behind me, while I kept traveling on.
It was one of the Friends of Padre who helped organize the clean-up, Jeff Wolda, who asked me a few weeks after I left, “You ever find out what happened to that boat?” I reviewed the few facts I knew, including that she was originally from Delaware, of all places, then asked, “Why — do you know?”
“Yes, I do,” he replied, quite pleased with himself. I instantly felt a pang of longing for my beloved, broken Fin, a millisecond of jealousy that Jeff might have somehow taken her, all followed by eagerness to hear her story, at last.
“It was after the clean-up day, and I saw a bunch of people gathered around the boat, more people than usual,” he began. “Apparently, the guy who owned it had come back to claim it.
“The story goes,” Jeff continued, “that he was sailing back to the US from South America when the mast broke in a storm. He went over the side, and was picked up by a Russian trawler. After a month on the trawler, he was able to fly back home — to Austin. There, he got a call from the National Park Service, who had traced the boat back to him. So as soon as he could, he came down. He was busy draining the diesel out of it, when I drove past. Had a salvage crew coming to take it apart and get it off Padre. He was taking care of it, getting it all cleaned up.”
I thanked Jeff for the story. Goodbye to Fin, alias Redneck Candi, now finally boat salvage. Via con dios. Go with God, Fin. I’ll always remember you, my bold camp robber. Somewhere, there’s a boat out there with my name on it, waiting to sail off into just such a wild adventure.
My son is in law school. He sent me some materials he’d gotten from a seminar on incorporating your values into your career goals. He sent the materials — PDFs — by email. Nine months ago. I finally looked at them today.
I’d talked with him by phone at the time, of course, about what he’d gained, lessons learned. Namely this, which he had also spelled out in the email, if anyone was interested in reading it:
“What are values?” You may ask. DEFINITIONS INCOMING!
Values: principles or qualities intrinsically valuable or desirable.
Values: basic fundamental beliefs that guide/motivate attitudes and actions.
Values: self-maintained personal standards rooted in your emotions.
Check out this last one – rooted in your emotions.
When you find yourself in a situation where you are compromising your emotions, you are probably going to feel tension.
When you find yourself in a situation when someone else or society is devaluing/ignoring one of your values, you are probably going to feel tension.
And by “tension,” I of course mean feel a strong, emotional response.
This was just the rocket science I needed to start to figure out why I am constantly flabbergasted.
Ex: I value accessibility (esp. of information) and accountability. When unable to find basic information about how the school operates (say, the role/power of the Board), this might be a minor irritation to some people. Because it is at odds with my values, I find this incredibly frustrating. My response is much more severe. Maybe I also have a limited ability to regulate my emotions. BUT. This might be a tool to build in some of that self-awareness.
He shared this two months before I quit my job. During the COVID-19 pandemic. And he was spot on.
As I finally opened the PDFs, I recognized one as a knock-off of the Values Sort created by William Miller in the early 2000’s that I used in my previous work as an addiction counselor. Presented with a list of 30 values like “Accuracy” and “Efficiency” and “Security,” you’re supposed to choose your top 10, then narrow that list to your top five. Maybe see if you can order that top five to identify your strongest-held value. The one that might really set you off if it was violated or ignored.
For the longest time, “Freedom” had been my personal chart-topper. But, reflecting on why I left my last job — hell, left my former career when I walked — I see that Freedom is only one of the values I was holding dear.
I’d had ridiculous amounts of freedom on that job. But me, as a person — I didn’t matter. Nobody really knew me. And nobody seemed to care about that. Except me. It bothered me, to find myself once again an outsider, an all too familiar role.
For over a year, I’d been expressing my concerns about ethical issues. “Ethical” — that’s surely in my top five. I had forgotten how strongly I feel about ethics violations until I found myself painted into untenable corners. By people half-listening, and then ignoring me. I felt tension. And by tension, I mean strong emotions. I mean constantly flabbergasted. Incredibly frustrated. Maybe it’s no big deal to other people, but for me, it was a big deal breaker.
On the flip side of my love song to Freedom, was R-E-S-P-E-C-T, a tune I hadn’t heard in a while. Which makes sense, when you think about it, this reflection around an axis of symmetry. It’s a Jim Crow kind of feeling, the freedom to sweat and ache through all the work, as long as you bow down and do like we tell you. Who do you think you are, acting like you’re somebody.
Except, I am somebody.
I know…the Jim Crow reference makes you squeamish, coming from me, from me-not-a-Black-person. Except I’m supposed to be trying to empathize, am I not? How do I empathize without comparing your experience to my own? Searching for feelings like yours? I don’t think Empathy is in my top five at work; it feels like too big a stretch, when I’m just shooting for basic Respect at this point.
“Trust.” That’s become huge. And all of these words become part of “Personal Connection,” which isn’t even a choice in the values sort. “Friendliness” is, but that doesn’t mean the same thing. The unethical people were very friendly. And very disappointing. In that “mmm, that seems illegal” kind of way.
That’s why I’ve been taking “Adventure” out for a test drive for the past six months. It’s rising through the ranks pretty quickly. Making me feel pretty cocky.
So now, the PDF exercises, using my new list of values.
What is the meaning or purpose of life?
● What is the relationship between the individual and others?
● Where do family, country, and the rest of the world fit in?
● Is there a higher power, God or something transcendent, and if so,
what impact does this have on your life?
● What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace and
strife in your life?
This is a seminar hand-out?? This has been the work of a lifetime, for me, and I can still only take a weak stab at an answer.
The purpose of life…is to live it. The relationship between the individual and others…is indistinguishable. Which we never, ever remember, try as we might. Or don’t try as we might. Family, country, the rest of the world…see indistinguishable. These are just degrees of self, degrees of otherness, hair-splitting in the grand scheme of things. I was one of the unethical bureaucrats until I quit my job, after all; then I became one of the irresponsible slackers for which my generation is known, and rightly proud of, I say. I love my family, and they all make me crazy. And I make them crazy. And we’d all kill for each other. It’s insane. A microcosm of the world, where toddlers with markers scribble all over maps, defining territory. But they’re so adorable. But they scream so loud if you try to take the markers. Is there a higher power? Noticing. Giving attention is like a blessing. The impact of being noticed in my life has been pleasant for my ego, affirming for my values. The impact of me noticing others has humbled and changed me. And then I find myself thinking, Fuck you.
What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace and strife in my life? That is my life.
That’s your life, too.
So much anger, I carried in Albuquerque. Spurting all over, leaking from pinpricks and stress points, tears speckling my glasses, cursing spittle flying like suds at the University Laundromat on Central Avenue, its windows riddled with bullet holes. Desperation, which so often sounds like anger, adding pressure to my blood, just waiting for the aneurism.
Instead of blowing up, I decided to blow this town.
I’ve sent my story to the L.A. Times. Twice. They don’t want it, long or short. Even though they told the story first.
I read the Times’ story about a homeless outreach worker, stabbed to death at a Pasadena park, allegedly by one of the very people she was trying to connect and build trust with on the streets. I read it two months after I left my job — as a homeless outreach worker, visiting people in Albuquerque’s parks. Work I’d done in various forms for over twenty years. Until the day a guy brought weapons, a knife, a gun, to our agency building. Management did a building lockdown. But didn’t do a perimeter sweep. Outside. Where I was.
Maybe I saw him. Maybe I talked to him. It was a Friday, the day I usually worked in our memorial garden, weeding, planting. Remembering people who had died homeless. A man had walked by as I was digging holes. A woman passing on the sidewalk had asked the names of some of the perennial plants. Another man had said hello. We talked about the garden, that small corner meant to honor those we lost.
When I found out about the lockdown, I was stunned. By the casual, offhand way it was discussed. By my own supervisor, with me, at the end of the day, as I stood in the memorial garden, spade in hand.
I wrote it all, in the story that the L.A. Times didn’t want. About standing in the dirt, my supervisor on the clean sidewalk, as he told me he never worried about me. “Besides – you had a shovel!” How we laughed together, him nervously, me in shock. I wrote about what it felt like, having harped on the agency’s ineffective safety protocols for a year and a half, realizing that the day I had warned about…had come at last. And I had brought a shovel to a gunfight.
I knew in the moment what I wanted to do, watching my boss walk away after he’d told me to have a good weekend, see you next week. But I waited, slept on it. I did not have a good weekend.
On Monday, I met with HR. I said I was done. I told the story the L.A. Times had no interest in. HR took notes. I thought that was something, at least. “What are you going to do?” HR asked me.
“Whatever the hell I want,” I replied.
Over the next few days, I re-read the stated purpose of my personal website. So many stories. Stories of following my path, wherever it leads.
I had the perfect opportunity, right here, right now. I opened up my laptop, and with a few clicks of the keys, gave notice to vacate my Albuquerque apartment.
A few days later, I saw a quick blurb from National Parks Traveler on my newsfeed, asking for volunteer contributors. I emailed. They emailed back. I sent a story I had already written. They replied, “Yeah, I think we can use this.” I pitched a couple more story ideas. I moved what few belongings I had to my daughter’s garage. I packed my vehicle with dried food, jugs of water, and my camping gear. And then I set off to backpack into the wilderness areas of the Southwest. Alone.
At the end of my last blog post, dated only two days before the lockdown incident, I had written:
I dropped [my laundry bag] at the front door. It makes a good doorstop, letting air in that idiotic iron screen door, an icon of the palpable fear of Albuquerque, a place that sells bourbon at fucking Walgreens.
I know what I’m seeing, outside my stupid screen door. I know how to describe it. I hear my chile ristra scraping against the crumbling adobe wall out there, the wind blowing it as it hangs from the vigas on my front porch. Fuck you, Albuquerque. And publishing. And social media.
I’m ready to pack my backpack and chuck this whole thing. Leave the bourbon on the counter for the next sucker. Spiral your over-inflated egos around that, book publishers. I’ll still be writing, even if I’m living in a tent. Go fuck yourselves.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” also said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Mightier than the shovel, too, I hope. I’m betting my life on it.
Social media is not my deal. I’m going to get some stories published, instead. Let’s see if these stories can help me get my book published. Let’s do this thing. Now.
I’m not going back. No more social work. I’d rather fight off a bear or struggle through a snowstorm in the mountains than face my end in a memorial garden where I am already among the forgotten.
This is my turning point. Cheers, Hemingway, wherever you are.
My elderly mother gazes out the window. “I’m imagining a story…about a child…who’d only lived in a hospital…. Finally goes home, on a snowy day…the wonder, of walking out into that first snowfall….”
Snow traps her inside. Washing dishes, I describe the scene. “Fat snowflakes, crunching steps, sharp cold air….” She sits, listening.
Did you know you can buy bourbon at Walgreens in Albuquerque? This is what social media has brought me to. I think, I should tweet that. Then I laugh sarcastically.
It’s been a long time since I paid attention to why I’m writing here, on this website, this blog, this existential purgatory. The spiral. Spiraling out of control. The experiment is working, all right; I’m losing my shit.
I hate social media. For the same reason that I hate interstate highways and jet skis on lakes and rap and alpine ski runs — speed. Speed is poison. Just like this bourbon. It’s cheap Jim Beam, with added vanilla. It would be better in coffee. But tonight, I’m drinking it straight. I’m calling this drink a Vanilla Hemingway. Cheers. He’d have hated social media. He couldn’t even manage society, let alone this.
THIS. I hit the first wall, and knew it the instant I felt it: writer’s block. Stubborn as a mule. My mind refused to write. Absolutely refused. To write. Just to get a publication credit for my “author’s platform.”
Oh, it’s all going swimmingly, thanks to an encouraging editor. I’m doing great. Beautifully told story, skillful, even masterful, writing. My ego fills the room, strutting as it paces back and forth, swirling the vanilla bourbon in the blue coffee mug while not even feigning any sort of modesty. Too true. I can turn a phrase, all right. I can make you laugh, make you cry, make you ponder the mysteries. Yes, I’m fucking amazing.
Except I have no platform. Which in this day and age is defined as a social media presence. Which in this day and at my age so pisses me off, so fills me with revulsion, I feel like buying a gun and shooting my laptop with the cold fury of a hitman, hating that this is the job his talent has led him into. Dangling preposition. Into which his talent has led him. Correct but stupid-sounding, when you cut what’s dangling to appease the people in power. Eunuch-speak. Sorry eunuchs, that’s not sensitive. Take a sip from my coffee cup of not coffee.
Aahhh. Where was I. Right, ranting.
This all started at the laundromat, where all the best self-reflection starts. I loaded almost a month’s worth of dirty clothes, sheets, and towels into two washers and hoped for a cleansing miracle. I felt dirty. I used extra liquid detergent, even though the machines have stickers that tell you specifically not to do that very thing. Fuck you, washing machines. I will use all the liquid detergent I want, and we will all live with the ugly consequences.
I look out my open front door (except for the paranoia screen of locked, scrolled iron), and laugh into this night’s stars. Albuquerque, you are a disaster. And so am I.
While all that dirty laundry swirled in bubbles and water, I sat in the passenger side of my car and read news articles on my phone. Look how twenty-first-century I am. I started a Washington Post article about Trump, but I just could not stomach any more articles about that person. Just — no more. Not now. Not today.
I read about epic megafires and the California prisoners who help put them out every year. I read about Oxford Museum removing their display of shrunken heads. Good for you; that takes the sensitivity of a gnat, to realize showing human heads as art or artifacts is sick and creepy. Scientists Say a Mindbending Rhythm in the Brain Can Act Like Ketamine. I don’t want anything to act like ketamine; how did I receive this? And then I see a Cosmo article that asked to discuss “How to Stop Being a ‘Foster Girlfriend’ Because It Needs to End.” And at first I read that as, “Because It Never Ends.” But that’s just the cataracts talking. They see all kinds of nonsense.
I read about young women who fall into being a “foster girlfriend” by dating broken, emotionally-immature men and intervening, “helping” them, “until they find their forever homes.” The social media of relationships, helping men finally publish themselves. Hilarious and horrible, hitting way, way too close to home. How many of us try to save people in our relationships. They’re hurting, and we care, and with our love, they will heal. Yada, yada, yada, blah blah blah. My cup needs a refill. You get into this type of mess if you’re “used to being second best, feeling rejected, or prone to acting needless….” Dear god. I always did this. Do this. I always feel rejected, act needless, even now. I can always handle it. An expert brought into the article suggests “looking at what you’re trying to avoid in your own life that leads to this behavior.”
That got me thinking, sitting in my passenger seat, waiting for time to pass at an Albuquerque laundromat, avoiding the western sun at the end of the afternoon: what am I avoiding?
Social. Fucking. Media.
I don’t want to write simply to get work published. I’ve never done that, in my entire life. And I don’t want to sell out now, foster my needy stories, counting coup by counting “likes” or clips or awards or whatever. I just want to write.
Oh, don’t I sound noble, me and my coffee cup of how many fucks I give today. Cheers, Hemingway. At least I’m still here. Sorry, Hemingway, that was insensitive.
So I sit in my car and I Google “writers who hate social media.” Let’s get some input from the wider world, yes? I find Jane Friedman’s blog, and a post titled, “So You’re an Author Without a Social Media Presence: Now What?” It’s from three years ago, which still feels relevant in my world, since I was recorded for the Denver Poets in 1993, and had been writing for years before that. Anyway, her article tells me that my bad attitude toward social media in general is essentially going to doom my social media efforts to failure. “If your only motivation to use social media is that you feel you must to market and promote your book, your efforts are likely to be undercut by your own means-to-an-end approach. Your communication may exhibit less curiosity and interest in others, and be more focused on book sales — not to mention you’ll be entering social environments where you’re a stranger in a strange land, unaware of the local ‘language,’ etiquette, or history. For first-time authors especially, the existing social media community is rarely clamoring for you to join them and talk about your book, unless you already have an audience or readership….”
I am always a stranger in a strange land. That is my name, that is my life. My truest experience is this description of a community “rarely clamoring” for me to join. I can’t even connect with my colleagues at work, in a health clinic, let alone this anonymous online “community.” How the hell am I supposed to exhibit curiosity and interest in these unknown “others”? By wondering who the fuck they are?
The next question she answers is: “Do authors have to use social media?” I love that the term “authors” is used, as if by writing a manuscript, I am now an author. Hah, Jane, that is my response to you. Or maybe the bourbon’s response. HAH. I am a writer. But unpublished, I am no author.
She answers, “No. If you hate, dread, avoid, or rail against social media, don’t use it.” I feel huge relief. Until her next sentence: “There are other things you can do: write guest posts or articles for websites and blogs, be a guest on podcasts or vlogs [whatever the fuck those are], do your own audio or video content, teach online classes, organize in-person events….” All right, that is ENOUGH, Jane, Jesus. Message boards. Book clubs.
And then she can’t answer “What should authors do on social media?” Because “it’s like asking me how you should be as a person. Or what you should do with your free time. Or what you should be curious or care about. I have no idea.”
Thank you, Jane, for a fucking honest answer. What I do with my free time is hike, draw, read, write, try to garden a few withering plants in Albuquerque, and play with my grandkids. This is the conundrum: your social media presence, your platform, is supposed to reflect what you care about, and how you communicate that to the public. As if you should.
Go fuck yourself, self-aggrandizing social media. That’s my platform. That ought to be popular. So many “likes.”
Instead, I clicked on her “author platform” link. And here she just gutted me: “…[B]y far the easiest explanation [of an author platform] is: an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” Her emphasis, not mine.
I burst into tears, in my passenger seat, sitting alone outside the laundromat in Albuquerque. Tears of utter frustration and defeat. That should be the slogan on the city website. “Like.” Kiss my ass.
Hear me, Jane, on this, and all you who love social media: I am NO ONE. I can reach…NO ONE. Because I have no network. I am middle-aged, boring, tired of my day job, tired of our high-speed, capitalist society, tired of all the goddamn know-it-alls spewing words everywhere, and I have plenty of other, equally definite beliefs about life and what matters. Yet I don’t even Facebook, let alone tweet out every phrase that enters my brain. Because I definitely believe that this nonstop opinion-chatter DOES. NOT. MATTER. It’s immature, even if it’s momentarily entertaining and all-engaging. Back in my day, we called it a “circle jerk.” Sorry, circle-jerking social media fans, that was insensitive. Where’s my coffee cup.
Aahhh. Where was I. Being a jerk, right.
I wiped the tears away and went inside the laundromat to get my secondhand, worn-out clothes from the dryer. As I loaded them into my bag, and my bag into my car, I became angrier and angrier.
As I drove the broken, uncared-for alley behind the laundromat to the street leading to my apartment, I slowed for potholes the size of car tires, cursing into my steering wheel.
And as I turned onto my street, stopping at the useless stop signs that stop no one in Albuquerque, I thought: fuck you, agents, if you require a social media presence and an “author’s platform” to work with me.
And fuck you, publishers, if you require an agent to even look at my work.
Fuck you, book publishing. I know how to write. Publish me. Or don’t. But I’m not bending over backwards to fuck myself in this stupid process.
I hung up my wet jeans and T-shirts on hangers on my shower rod. I dropped the bag of dry socks and underwear and kitchen towels at the front door. It makes a good doorstop, letting air in that idiotic iron screen door, an icon of the palpable fear of Albuquerque, a place that sells bourbon at fucking Walgreens.
I know what I’m seeing, outside my stupid screen door. I know how to describe it. I hear my chile ristra scraping against the crumbling adobe wall out there, the wind blowing it as it hangs from the vigas on my front porch. Fuck you, Albuquerque. And publishing. And social media.
I’m ready to pack my backpack and chuck this whole thing. Leave the bourbon on the counter for the next sucker. Spiral your over-inflated egos around that, book publishers. I’ll still be writing, even if I’m living in a tent. Go fuck yourselves.
Cheers, Hemingway, wherever you are.