I am talking on the phone with a friend of mine about freelancing and how to make the work of marketing ourselves more efficient. She mentions that a career coach she knows says that the way to get people to buy your brand when you are the brand is to sell your lifestyle as something they, too, can have, if they buy your stuff. Like you can be thin and pretty and wealthy, too, if you go to their ImagineIt! seminar or whatever.
This is about the point when I start laughing like a hyena.
I think it is fair to say you would not want my life and if you actually lived it for a week or so you would totally be pounding on my front door demanding to give it back. You might want parts of it—like maybe you think it would be great to work from your kitchen table with companionable people you don’t actually have to be in an office with so you never have to find out how annoying they really are, or maybe you’ve always wanted to write a book but have never done so, or possibly you wish the silver in your hair was just as awesome as the silver in mine, and like that.
But you know, or you should know if you’ve gotten past the age of, oh, five, that the good parts don’t come without the bad parts and mine has some seriously bad bad parts, parts I would never wish anyone else to ever have to go through. Ever. EVER. But just like you, I look at other people’s bad parts and think I have better bad parts, so I’ll settle for my own life, Alex, thank you very much.
What I try to do with all of my work is to make it so your bad parts don’t feel so bad and when I succeed that makes my bad parts feel not so bad, either, so it’s kind of a reciprocal deal. But frankly I have no idea how to market this, and I’m pretty sure that career coach doesn’t, either. So I just put it out there where people can wander by and see it and some people pick it up and a few of them hate it—boy howdy! do they hate it! with a fiery and somewhat disconcerting intensity!—but I like to think they’re the ones buying the lives other people are selling so this is not a place where they would be comfortable anyway.
But I’m glad you’re here.
I bring all of this up because a while back I wrote a blog post about some changes I am making in my life—how I am leaving town, taking a peek at Europe, spending a couple of months in Florida, and seeing what happens next—and a lot of people—seriously, a lot of people, more than I can count on both hands and all my toes—wanted to know more. They wanted to know How I Did It, and it is very seductive to start writing the how-to portion because that is what I have been doing for most of my career. Like, when you are packing all your things and shoving them into storage, there is definitely a how-to involved. For example, you want to avoid the scary deserted self-storage units where serial killers keep all their dead bodies and instead choose the reasonably priced one with the nice guy who answers the phone promptly and shows you personally how to work the gate.
But I don’t think people are really asking how to stuff all their things into storage and go be like water. I don’t think anyone is actually planning to do that or thinking that is an excellent item to add to their bucket list. Most people are thinking, “I shall watch Jennifer from a safe distance and that will be amusing.”
What people are responding to, or so I think, and if I am wrong they will be sure to correct me, is the idea of freedom. And I don’t mean this in the shopworn sense of freedom to chose from fifty-seven kinds of salad dressing at the grocery store. We need less of that kind of freedom and more of the other kind, the real kind, the self-determination kind.
But that’s wrong, too, or at least limited: I’m not talking about rugged individualism and every person for him- or herself. If you have any kind of connection with other human beings whatsoever, you know that you are not in charge of your own life and your own destiny, and you wouldn’t want to be, anyway.
I am trying to find a way to describe this to a friend, to say what I feel I have lost and need to recover, and I say I am looking for the spaciousness of youth, for the feeling that I had time for everything, that life was magical and not yet boxed in by definitions, all the things a girl can and cannot do, that the infinite possibility of the world belonged to me.
Is it innocence you are looking for? she asks.
But it is not; I wasn’t innocent as a child, if by innocent we mean unfamiliar with anger and cruelty and pain and violence and sex and death. I am not talking about my unformed infancy but about my childhood. Who is innocent in childhood? Not me and probably not you. And anyway I am not a person who prizes innocence; I would have eaten of the tree of knowledge. I would have taken an enormous bite from the apple. I would have consumed the whole thing, core and all, spitting out only the seeds, and never once regretted it. I am looking for the truth and have been since I was old enough to conceive that it might exist. Innocence is a barrier to that, not a means of achieving it.
I sit for a long time to understand what I mean by spaciousness, trying to remember that feeling. What was it? How did I lose it? Can I ever get it back?
The sitting doesn’t reveal anything. Impatient, I pack us up and leave town. It’s nearly the Fourth of July and all the terrors in the neighborhood will be shooting off fireworks and triggering Jessica, it will feel like she is under attack for five days, and I can’t bear it either, not her fingers digging into my arm while she suffers like she has been gut shot and no one will do anything about it. I hate this town and these people at this time of year.
We go to the Grand Canyon. Fireworks are not allowed in national parks, a fact that fills Jessica with gratitude towards the federal government. (“Really? Not at all? Nowhere in the park? That is a very good rule.”)
The Grand Canyon is somewhat inconveniently located but I don’t mind the drive. A change of scenery always changes the quality of my thinking. Quiet time in the car keeps the rational part of my brain engaged watching for cops and trouble while the creative part is free to wander. I’m not thinking of all the things I have to do. I can’t do them right now anyway.
Jessica is the navigator, the atlas and directions on her lap, her eye out for road signs and mile markers. She is a good traveler, willing to meet the world exactly on its terms.
We stop at Santa Fe. I buy a storyteller figure, then another. “I collect them,” I say.
“When did you start?”
I think about this. I got my first storyteller about twenty years ago and my second one today. “I started just now.”
She smiles. “You have been collecting dragons for a lot longer. Did you stop collecting dragons?”
“No,” I say. “A person can collect more than one thing at a time, if she wants.”
“That is not like you,” she says and it takes a while for me to understand what she means. And then I get it: All along, I have done an excellent job of picking just one thing. I collect dragons, and nothing else. I have one good pair of shoes for winter, and one good pair of sandals for summer. One excellent pair of black pants, one comb, one watch, and one sweater.
You might say I am good at closing doors in my life. I am marrying this man, and not that one. I am having this child, and no others. I am living in this town, not that one. I am taking this university degree, and not that.
I have learned to say no and I have needed to. I have gotten rid of the unnecessary baggage, the people who make life harder, the work no one appreciates, the expectations that chained me to a hamster wheel, spinning and spinning but going nowhere. I have made a life that I can just about handle, as long as no one expects me to vacuum.
I have closed a lot of doors and I have needed to. But perhaps I have closed so many of them that I have wound up in a room with all the doors shut. It seems likely; it is just the sort of thing I would do.
Jessica is spinning the postcard rack and picking out a handful to bring home with her.
“We haven’t been to Sedona,” I say, looking at her selection, and she doesn’t understand my point. I choose postcards that represent places I have been. But she collects postcards of sights she thinks are pretty and places she would like to go. It is like she doesn’t understand that there are rules.
I laugh at myself but gently because something hard is happening and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. (Later it turns out that it is not hard at all but I did not know this at the time.)
We get in the car to drive to Arizona, and Jess is quiet and a little perplexed.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I love Santa Fe.”
I think Santa Fe is fine, and by fine I mean I have no interest in going back, but I can see why Jessica feels the way she does. It is picturesque, with a pretty plaza and benches you can sit on to watch the buskers. You can’t walk three feet without running into an artist who is more than happy to talk about the work; art is everywhere and she has absorbed as much of it as she can touch. It reminds me of the first writers’ conference I ever went to, meeting a room full of people who were just like me. It was the first time I ever felt normal.
“I know we were planning to go to Florida but now I am not sure,” she says.
In St. Petersburg there are a lot of artists working in glass and she is hoping to learn from them but she loves Santa Fe in a way she does not love St. Petersburg.
“Well,” I say. “I’m not spending the winter in Santa Fe. They get more snow than we do! But we can come back in the fall and stay a few weeks.”
“Then we will do that,” she says. “And go to Florida afterwards. Until the spring.”
“Excellent,” I say.
About twenty miles east of Gallup, on a dusty road with no one around us, a rock falls from the sky and cracks the windshield.
Jessica jumps. “What was that?”
“Apparently a meteor from outer space,” I say. “It didn’t come from anywhere.”
I think of my friend Debz, who will love this omen. Back in my spacious youth I would have loved it, too, when I thought I might be an astronaut, before I started closing all those doors. A meteor from outer space would have fed my imagination for days.
The crack lengthens as we travel, meandering across the windshield, first horizontal, then vertical. The glass will have to be replaced before we can drive all the way home again, and I start to gnaw on this problem. And I realize that this is what separates the spaciousness of childhood from the narrowness of adulthood. When you are a child and a rock hits your windshield you think about outer space and compose stories in your head. When you are an adult, you think about how much it will cost to fix it, consider whether you should run it through insurance, and wonder how you’re going to find someone who can replace it before Wednesday, and on a holiday weekend, too.
We find our motel, a trading post in the Navajo Nation, and check in, and I go online to see what I can find out about auto glass shops in the middle of nowhere. Flagstaff, sixty miles away, will be the best place to try. I start saving website URLs.
“There is a garden,” Jessica says. “We walked by it on the way to our room.”
“A garden?” I know she is bringing this up because she doesn’t want to sit around while I type on the computer and sigh. There is nothing I can do about the windshield right now anyway. “Let’s go,” I say.
We sit in the garden and watch the birds, sparrows and crows and grackles, the grackles graceful and pretty from a distance but loud and impatient up close. I am thinking about birds, and the sun low in the western sky, and meteors from outer space and not at all about the cost of repairing broken windshields.
“I want to live on a houseboat,” I say. I startle myself by saying it; I had no idea this was on my mind.
“Yes. I’ve always wanted to live on one. But there aren’t any houseboats in Kansas.”
“You want to live on a houseboat when we go to Florida.”
“Yes. For a little while, anyway.”
“Do you even know how to drive a boat?”
“Yes, but not in the open ocean. I want to do that, too. I want to learn to drive a boat on the open ocean.” I startle myself with this, as well; I had no idea I wanted to learn how to do this. Or, actually, I had no idea I still wanted to learn how to do this. When I was a child, I used to think that someday I would learn how, but as an adult, it seemed like a ridiculous idea. I live in Kansas. There is no open ocean here.
I hear myself and start to laugh. “I am going to be exactly like Travis McGee. I am going to live on a houseboat and take my retirement in pieces.”
“Who is Travis McGee?” she asks.
“A fictional character.”
Jessica is silent. I can tell she is thinking that modeling my life after a fictional character’s is probably not the wisest course of action I have ever cooked up, but she doesn’t say anything.
It turns out the houseboat and the open ocean isn’t all.
“Then I want to go to Nashville and learn how to play the guitar,” I say as the sun glows golden across the high desert. I used to play, a long time ago, before I closed that door. “I want to write songs. I don’t know how to write songs but I want to do it anyway.”
“On the guitar.”
“Yes. I mean, I don’t have to learn to write songs so that I can break into the music scene or anything,” I say. “I don’t have to succeed. I don’t want to succeed. I can be terrible at it. I don’t care.”
“In Nashville?” She sounds doubtful.
“Well, you don’t have to come with me for all of this,” I say. “But I’m not moving back to Lawrence right now.” Or ever, I don’t say because that is complicated and she has roots that I want to honor. But I am rootless, unbound. I don’t have to live like this anymore. I have honored my obligations and done my duty. I will always be what Jessica needs me to be but I can be that anywhere, doing anything, now that her condition is stable, now that she has graduated from high school.
When I first began planning our travels—late summer in Europe, winter in Florida—a thing inside me cried for the child I once was, hurt and afraid and alone. Now I am laughing. She is laughing, that twelve-year-old girl, brown-eyed and freckled, barefoot in the grass.
This is what I mean. This is the spaciousness I am looking for. I am not a middle-aged woman edging towards the end of my life. I am a middle-aged woman at the beginning of it.
I am opening the doors again, every door I ever shut, except for a few of the ones over there because I know better.
“And after that?” Jessica asks.
“After that?” I can’t stop laughing. “Anything.”
The marketing blurb (because I can at least try, right?): You can find my collection of travel essays, Travels with Jessica, here. And my alter ego, Alicia Thorne, has a novel in the Summer Sizzle anthology releasing July 25. Less than a buck for six books! Preorder here.