If it’s darkness we’re having, let it be extravagant. –from Jane Kenyon’s “Taking Down the Tree”
Remember “Roam”? If I go back to 1989, I’ll find a girl obsessed with Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, Winona Ryder and Nine Stories. I prefered books written by alcoholics (Hemingway, Cheever), social deviants (Dostoevsky) and the compulsively mad (Sexton, Plath). Routinely, I was summoned to the guidance counselor’s office because I penned stories about small girls hanging from ropes tied to trees–is there something wrong at home? the counselor timidly inquired, to which I’d respond, no, there’s nothing wrong and think, of course there’s something wrong. Why else would I spend a childhood, a life, living in my own head? A girl called Jody use to steal lines from poems I’d written and claimed them as her own, even though she didn’t understand what she’d copied. Back then nobody wanted to know. We lived for the pinprick of anesthesia. Blindness was a constant state.
My worldview was pessimistic, bleak–why else would R.E.M. foretell our doom? It’s the end of the world as we know of it, and the like. I remember assembling a presentation (it was probably for English class, where I practiced most of my teenage dramatics) and blasting the close to “King of Birds”: Everybody hit the ground, everybody hit the ground, because everything around me teetered on ruin.
Naturally, I was sent to the guidance counselor’s office. Again.
I was forever in the guidance counselor’s office. The same woman who cajoled me would later encourage me to only apply to local colleges and state schools, and was visibly shocked when I received scholarships from U Penn, NYU, and Boston University. I hated my high school so much that when I received my ten year reunion notice (a meetup at a fucking pancake house?!), I wanted to torch the computer where the email resided.
In 1989, I cowered in corners, mute, scribbling into notebooks or in the margins of the novels I read. While girls rode in cars with their glossed lips and Liz Claiborne bags during the day, and snuck beers and drove drunk around Grant Park in the evening, I consulted maps and real estate listings. I was in the business of migration. For as long as I could remember, our family was itinerant. Home was a place where mail was simply forwarded. Whether we were dodging loan sharks, eviction notices or months of unpaid rent, we’d pack the whole of our lives in cardboard boxes and had hope that this new town, this new home, would deliver us a better life. We staked our hearts on that deliverance. Sometimes, hope can be a fever, a sickness, because we’d invariably unpack the same old darkness. Hang the same sadness in our freshly-painted closets. After school, my pop and I would drive all over Long Island just to pass the time, just to drive. And if there is one memory from my teenage years worth preserving, worth pulling out of a fire, it’s me and my pop in a car, driving.
Even now, he’ll pick me up from the train station and ask if I want to go for a drive.
In 1989 I was 14, and I regarded the B-52s with their hallucinogenic outfits and towering bouffants with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. Who had money to roam around the world when Con Edison routinely pinched the gas and shuttered all the lights? How does one roam the world without wings (planes?) without wheels (cars)? Were we supposed to pull on our Reeboks and hoof it? And why was everyone in the video happy and clapping? How could anyone be happy in 1989, I thought.
Last weekend, I take slow steps with my pop. I visit him a few times a week at his rehab center in Long Island, and I bring him food, make him laugh and applaud his progress in physical therapy. I tell him that every step forward without pain is a victory. He holds my hand, squeezes it, and tells me that he loves me so much. Sometimes it scares me how much I love him. I tell him about Montana, New Mexico, California and Washington. I tell him about my plan to move four points west, and he laughs at the idea of me surrounded by ranchers. He can picture it but he can’t. He tells me I need to do this, I need to go.
I make him promise me that we’ll run as fast as our legs can carry us before I leave. I want to see you run, I say. He laughs and tells me that he wants to see me run too.
I’ve decided that my first stop will be Montana, late summer. Part of me is thrilled, part of me is frightened, and I know whenever I’m scared I take comfort in reading. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read dozens of articles, essays and short stories about the business of leaving. About roaming. About yanking up roots and re-planting. About the beauty in the harvest. A few of my favorites are below–I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo, text graphic my own.