A few days ago, a devastating thing happened. It doesn’t really matter what the thing was – and I will tell the story one day when it’s not as raw – but trust me, it was bad, and I’m not likely to forget about it anytime soon.
After the devastating thing happened, I took a walk down the shoulder of one highway and up the incline of another. It was rush hour, and cars zoomed past me going 70, 80 miles per hour. I could feel the speeding wind at my back — an unnatural sensation that ebbed and flowed according to some stop light that I had already passed miles ago. I wasn’t prepared for this walk, I was wearing the wrong shoes and carrying the wrong kind of load, and I could feel the blisters forming and the muscles in my back starting to rebel. I pressed on, the devastating thing still coursing through my veins, impelling one foot in front of the other, as whole other layers of myself cracked and broke.
I could have waited for a ride. I could have stood – there. Except I couldn’t stand – there. I couldn’t. I needed to move. As far away as possible, and quickly.
There is so much death on a highway. Broken turtle shells, flattened birds, the decaying bodies of stray cats and squirrels. In the decades since I last walked on the shoulder of a busy road, I had forgotten the smell of exhaust fumes, tar, and sunbaked corpses. I had forgotten what it feels like to walk such a dangerous line, where every breath is a gift from the person behind you, who may or may not be paying attention as they eat their burgers, reprimand their kids, or fiddle with their radios. Thirty-six inches is all that separated them from me and the guard rail, and beyond that, the dark and murky Mississippi River, where a lone fisherman sat on a hollowed-out log casting his line .
There have been occasions in life when I’ve felt like a warrior. When I have fought through the muck and mire of circumstance or people, and stood my ground – when pride and strength and a sense of rightness propelled me forward, willing to face any consequence, no matter how harsh. At 16, with nothing but a Greyhound bus ticket and $4 in my pocket, I made it to California, where I walked the highways in sandaled feet, carrying a suitcase full of music and poetry, and a couple of pairs of jeans. I had nothing, but I was strong and determined, and my fear of the unknown was less frightening than what I left behind.
I think of those days, when I was hungry and penniless, and sharp-eyed and full of hope, and I don’t romanticize them. The gnawing feeling of an empty belly, the rains that fell, and the clothes that never seemed to dry, the sticking heat, the chapped skin, the chronic cough, the sleeplessness – they were not Halcyon days, but days of survival, sustained by dreams and quickly made friends on the streets. We traded stories and cigarettes and dire warnings, and then mostly forgot about each other as we went our separate ways. I remember few of their names, but I remember their stories. We were the unwanted children. The often brutalized never-should-have-beens. Our stories were full of anger, sadness and confusion. We trucked in despair and longing and nervous laughter, each of us looking for a niche – a people, a place, or a thing to call our own. Some of us found something to hold onto, others did not. I was one of those who did.
Thirty years later, I walk down a highway, the smell of death in my face, danger at my back, and I wonder if I could do it again. I wonder whether this devastating thing, coming on the heels of lesser others, should be a call to a different kind of battle. One that involves shedding everything that’s familiar, but wounding — omnipresent and unrelieved. The battle of running away from something and not just towards something else.
I know about the bootstrap bromides that would have me stand where I am, facing down adversity, eventually rising with more character or personal strength than ever before. I don’t feel in need of any more character or painful life lessons — particularly of the variety that causes the religious to want to pray for me, or to tell me that God will never give me more than I can handle.
Anyone who is breathing “handles” what they’re dealt. If you’re hit by a tsunami and live, you’re forced to handle the aftermath. If you’re a train hopping drifter surviving on cigarette butts and Listerine, you may stink to high heaven and be half-mad, but still – if you’re waking up every day or two, you’ll handle your life, for better or worse, because until your heart stops beating, you don’t really have a choice. The mere handling of life is not necessarily joyful or fulfilling. It’s a biological imperative – a hardwired response that leaves even the catatonic and brain damaged breathing in and out.
The fight or flight response is also built-in, and as I walk over the broken shells and torn feathers on Hwy. 101, my instinct is to run. Far and fast, past the smell of rot, the certain dangers, and the spirit that’s splintering with every step closer to more of the same.
I doubt my instinct to run, and question its rationality. I have stood so long, and so stubbornly, wielding every type of self-preserving weapon in defense of my right to eclipse the workaday survivor that others wanted me to be. I have built sanctuaries wherever I was, and nurtured dreams, and tendered the words that beat in my chest like a second heartbeat.
It may be that the sanctuaries were made of straw and the dreams were made of impossible things. That the words were just words after all, to be replicated and repeated by any of the thousands of brick-and-mortar writers who are far better qualified and more substantially connected than me – but joy can be found even in a squatter’s paradise, as long as it’s safe.
I no longer feel safe. My sanctuary has been torn apart, the footsteps of predators have shattered my peace, and the ground beneath my feet has grown shaky.
Run run run. Fast and far into the unknown, risking everything for the chance to feel unviolated and whole. Or stay, and take the blows, and count down the years it will take to recover – yet again. Neither choice is easy, and there are no ready-made answers.
There are feet, itching to run,
and a spirit that’s breaking.
There’s a falling in, and a falling apart,
and a want for something miraculous,
or at least attainable.
There are doors that need to be shut
and windows that need to be opened &
a sense that I’ve been here too many times before,
pressing my luck against the jagged glass
until scars felt like good fortune.
I know how to survive. Breathe in, breathe out, put one foot in front of the other, and whether running or staying, don’t give up. Look forward, not back. Hang onto some hope, even if it’s tenuous or temporary.
What I don’t know how to do is build an inviolate sanctuary – one made of bricks and steel, and far removed from mayhem. Tonight, as I stretched out under the light of the moon, it seemed to me that one moment the stars were showing me a blueprint, and the next, Orion was offering me his sword. Even the constellations aren’t clear. I took a deep breath, folded my hands under my head, and closed my eyes — my foot tapping to some ancient drum, my heart pounding against its anchors.