Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Invisible Distance

. . .surely grace flowed between us as we flung away certainty, and said yes to the unknown, out at the edge of light, where it ends, or becomes more brilliant. --Andre Dubus

I’m borrowing the title of this blog entry; it’s a title of an unpublished essay written by my Oldest Friend. The Dubus quote opens it and I thought it was fitting for my own story of migration. Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I see the end of school years looming ahead on the horizon and we can decide, without a need to consider anyone else, where to live. I was relating this to OF a couple of weeks ago and her exquisite answer was: “Would you really leave. . .after Beav graduates? I don't think you realize how rooted you might be there. No doubt the long winter has worn you down. I remember in Kearney having to cut all the spring flowers in bloom because of a freak late frost. I have read these lines over and over and my answer is simple.

I don’t know but I think. I think I want to find out what it means to migrate rather than run away. I want to see if the light is more brilliant on the edge of the unknown just like my oldest friend has done. Oldest Friend lives terribly far away from me but she is--in these ballyhoo technological times--a phone call, skype or email away from me. OF migrated a few years ago to New Zealand. A big brave move on her part. NZ is so incredibly far away so when I told her we would be visiting Cambodia early June I realized I would only be a quarter world away from her rather than half a world. She feels like people have forgotten her but she is never far from my thoughts. Now she is working on a PhD exploring migration. This process is an academic migration for her to and she is setting out in the wilderness of different disciplnes vastly different from the comfortable enclave of Creative Writing. We met when I was nine and she was almost eight. OF’s family migrated all over the world and now she herself is one prone to migration. Both our families had reluctantly moved to Albuquerque for the sake of Dads’ career. It’s just what you did in the 60’s and 70’s if you were climbing the government ladder. OF lived across the street from us and I’ll never forget the day she came over to see if I would like to play. Her mother had sent her over and when I look back on this; how ballsy of her to just show up. What if I hadn’t been interested in books and ballet and dolls? What if I had been some sort of Tomboy or a psychopath who tortured kittens? If that had been the case, our migration story would have never unfolded. She would have stayed at her house avoiding her mother’s vodka infused wrath, reading books and writing stories; while I played ball with the boys or hid in my closet safe from my sister’s mood swings, venturing out only to torture kittens. Divine providence for me, I loved to dance and make up stories and use my imagination over and above toys; as did she! OF made those three years on that wind swept and naked mesa bearable. Later, she made my early days of motherhood bearable and the last year of my marriage survivable. Once my sister and I were laughing about Albuquerque---that fake laugh-so-you-don‘t-cry-laughter--and Mom stepped into the conversation: “Oh girls, I think those were the best years of our lives! Your dad and I felt like we had made it!”
“Where the Hell were you living? Dad worked all the time, Sister suffered her first major depression and we lived in the middle of a terrible desert that was either too hot, too cold and always without fail, windy.” My mother’s cluelessness took my breath away. Since that time, one of my beggy prayers is the boys let me know just how crappy their lives are, if they are crappy.

I spent half a semester in a writing class exploring those years and how and I spent a year in therapy trying to figure them out. I remember telling my therapist it was like someone had taken an atom bomb to my family; Sister--in her defense--found herself dropped from a fairly backwards small town school in the South into a progressive school in the West. A recipe for rebellion that had the added flavor of the social upheaval of 1970 sprinkled all the way through it. But over and over again, the one thing that surfaced in both my writing and my therapy: OF was the anchor that tethered me. Rather, she helped offer me an escape from the terrible arguments between Sister and Mom; Mom’s own depression, Dad’s necessary absence, my own feelings I had been dropped into the wrong family. I know I was her life line as well; her family was in a greater disarray than my own. When I look back on those years, it makes me cry to think about OF’s own Mother and the losing battle she had with alcohol. J was such an intelligent and talented woman but she was sick and her sickness became the fulcrum of the family’s malaise. Being so young I was only becoming aware something was deeply wrong with her shortly before we moved back to Texas. A few years ago, I wept over the memory of an afternoon at OF’s house and J’s unspeakably humiliating behavior towards her children. I can’t remember what happened afterward this particular episode but I’m sure we left in a confused rush and tried to lose ourselves on the mesa: a place I hated because of its emptiness but loved for its refuge. The winter of 1971-72 was particularly difficult at my house: the arguments between Sister and Parents were at a fevered pitch; mom spent a lot of time on the couch. It was dark and snowy. One afternoon, I’m not sure why, but me and OF decided to walk into the mesa and were going to see if we could get lost. We walked away from our back wall (we were still the last street in the city at that time) and into the mesa towards the foothills. I remember stopping almost a mile from the houses, at the base of a road which ran from one side of the mesa to the other--Tramway Road--and still, despite snow that was blowing and swirling, I could see that stupid house. It was hopeless, I couldn’t leave them, and they would always be there in the distance.

Years later, I purposefully moved away from Them and yet I could still see and feel them in the distance. Always. That’s the amazing thing about migration. You take bits and pieces of that first family with you, no matter how intact or fractured it might have been. Just like the people who have migrated from us via death, they live with you. That home lives in you. I have a mesa that lives in me. Whenever I’m stressed or overwhelmed I dream about the mesa. Sometimes it’s the prairie outside of Lubbock and other times it is the mesa in New Mexico. As an adult I have learned to appreciate and embrace the inherent spirits of those vacant mesas outside Albuquerque and love the sage filled mesas of Taos County which have become almost a spiritual refuge for me. Hindsight has taught me it was a gift to live on the edge of suburbia because we had that magnificent wild place to spin our stories and create separate different lives for ourselves. We spent entire days in the mesa, exploring arroyos, catching horned toads and shouting into the wind. Before Albuquerque, my wild space was the Big Thicket near Houston Texas the antithesis of the vacuous mesa. I believe William Gass wrote an essay many years ago about the importance of wild spaces in children’s lives. I feel like a poster girl for such theories because I know spending the day in the woods or on the mesa helped my imagination fly. As much as I hate to admit it, rediscovering the mesa, albeit in Northern New Mexico, taught me there was a lot of there there. So much that I can’t stop writing about it or thinking about it or finding new ways to frame the experience of discovering the first member of my tribe: the woman who helped me mold my imagination; challenge the exploration of my gifts; and make me think about and learn from the Big Medicine lessons in our lives. Migration is Big Medicine.

I contemplate and dream about migration whenever I feel stagnate in some aspect of my life and sometimes its my children or my career that throws me into a rant about selling everything we own and leaving without a forwarding address to just get the Hell away from this place; ninety nine percent of the time I am that Thing blocking my path. Travel serves as migration away from the things which frustrate me about my life which is probably why “re-entry” is hard for me. Because when I get back: the same things wait for me. A career that no longer delights me and teenagers which are threatening to bleed my soul through my right ear. I have only myself to blame for these two things which makes it all the more teeth grindingly difficult to face all over again after two measly weeks away from my daily routines.

Sometimes migration, forced or voluntary, physical or psychic takes us to ourselves: our true selves; not the person Mommy or Daddy or society wanted us to be. That happened to me years ago as a young adult. But usually, migration is simple movement because in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai: “No matter where you go, there you are.”


Mercury2 said...

Followed by "Bloom where you're planted" and "desert winds bring big dreams".

Big changes - displacement, by design or not, force you to grow or crumble. Dreamers, writers, poets and playwrights, don't really live in a place, but in imagination anyway. Homes are just the shells that keep the rain off the computer and let in light.
What can you shed? What must you keep? Where is the grass greener upon settling in and can any place really feed your restless soul?

Nice blog, EJC. OF's piece was published btw. The invisible distance now could be just that. With Skype, etc., it's almost a counterpoint.

EdgyJuneCleaver said...

Bloom where you are planted is doubly difficult if you are planted somewhere you didn't choose to be or no longer wish to be. Thanks for the thoughtful insights.