Losing Ground

In high school, I had a grand plan. Despite my understanding that college was my post-high-school future, I had an alternative fantasy, a between-high-school-and-college fantasy. I’d step out my front door and not step back in until I had walked across, through, around, over the whole of the country. Yes. The full-on adventure of hiking the United States—at least the 48 contiguous ones.

I started mapping a route when I was a sophomore. I can’t remember now when I first had the idea for the trip. I certainly didn’t know anyone who’d done it. None of my friends were talking about doing something similar. Maybe I read something somewhere that inspired me.

I knew better than to mention this grand plan to my parents. There was no such thing as a gap year back then. Not heading to college immediately after high school, would just be seen as slacking, and neither of my parents would have thought it was a good idea. There were people who took time off between high school and college, but that was usually so they could save money, or because they were having a child. It definitely wasn’t a thing that was seen as the normal course of events. I probably could have told my aunt, Mildred, but I didn’t know that then. I was only 15. I hadn’t yet recognized Mildred for the big-brained family eccentric she was.

I lived in a family with a surprising number of road atlases, so plotting my path was easy enough in the beginning. I studied the maps, at first thinking there was a way to trace a path that wouldn’t require any back tracking, then plotting a course that looked like painting broad horizontal stripes across the country with me trekking west then east then back west again until I’d covered the country. In the end, I decided north-south stripes would be best, moving steadily west then flying home from California or Washington State depending on the direction of the final stripe.

I loved making this plan. Truly. It filled me with so much excitement. One thing that became clear early in the mapping was how long a trip I was talking about. The United States is enormous, and I wasn’t planning on race-walking my way across the continent. (No race-walking, despite the fact that I lettered in race-walking–seriously. The things you don’t know about me! 😉 )

When I’d originally started planning, I’d foolishly imagined I’d need to approach my mother with the idea of a one-year pause between high school and college. Sitting with the road atlas made it clear that the one-year idea was a ridiculous notion. One year? As if! No, I was going to need two, maybe three years. At the least. And, even if there might have been a way to convince my mother to say yes to a year-long hiatus in my education, there was no kind of possibility of getting her to go along with me stepping outside my life for some unknown number of years. Not a chance.

I soon realized I had problems that were bigger than time. First, I realized that leisurely cross-country treks that take years to complete also take lots of cash. My family had lots of lots of things–pets, board games, puzzles, musical instruments, books–but cash we did not have a lot of. I was rich in fantasies about doing things only rich people could do easily, however, and my full-country trek was clearly going to fall into that category.

The only jobs I’d ever had were babysitting–which I was singularly bad at–and collecting payments for my brother’s paper route. Neither of these things a) paid well enough for me to have saved a tidy bundle of travel funds or b) taught me much of anything about the world of work that might have made me a good candidate for picking up short-term jobs along the way to pay for my trip. How was I going to eat? Where was I planning to sleep? I wasn’t mapping out a cross-country camping trip. There was no chance I’d be bedding down in parks and campgrounds across the nation. It was going to be a “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn” kind of situation.

Right. On whose dime?

So, yes, money was my first stumbling block. But it started to look like an easy problem when the real problem revealed itself.

The real program was that the country I was planning to explore alone, on foot … was my country, the good ol’ US of A.

When I started mapping routes, I was planning with an eye to full coverage, to making sure I spent a little time in every state. I traced my finger along path after path, drawing a winding ribbon around the atlas maps.

And then one day I stopped and really looked at the map. Looked at the map … and saw the path I was making through Mississippi.

You may not know this about me, but Mississippi is no-go territory for me. I’m pretty certain I’d never articulated that truth for myself at the time I was planning my adventure, but I for-sure felt it when I looked at the map that day. How had I managed to spend so much time planning my grand tour without taking history, reality, and my Blackness into account?

Because of course Mississippi wasn’t a singularity. Once I viewed the map through my Black lens, suddenly I was carving pieces out of the map all over the place. My meandering stroll across my country began to look like a crazy game of leapfrog, with my feet touching down in a scatter-shot polka-dotted array.

It wasn’t the trip I had in mind. Not even close. I regrouped and spent most of junior year trying to map a course that would work. Instead, I found myself becoming more and more discouraged as my “possibly safe” zones got smaller and smaller still.

Something I didn’t consider until well into this process was the built-in danger of planning to do even the shortest leg of that trek alone, as a teen-aged girl. Really. What was I thinking? I already knew quite well that boys and men were capable of doing me harm, knew I needed to maintain vigilance and full wariness … and yet I was going to decouple myself from everything familiar, from my home and family, and send my 17-year-old self out on the road alone?

Clearly, my ability to fantasize wasn’t just strong enough to make me forget I wasn’t a trust-fund baby. It was powerful enough for me to ignore the truth of predatory men and racism. The rest of my body might have been soft and out-sized, but my fantasizing muscle was toned, Olympics-ready, practically bionic.

I kept fantasizing about the trip, but I set the actual planning aside. There was no way I was going to imagine myself past all the obstacles I’d finally recognized. My cross-country adventure became a pretty dream I’d call up every once in a while to sigh over with regret.

*

Eventually, I had the opportunity to trust my life to the kindness of strangers. I went to Europe for my junior year of college and did some traveling, including a summer of hitchhiking. And after graduating, I went back and hitched around some more. And here I am writing about it, so obviously I survived. (Thank you all the strangers who didn’t turn out to be killers.)

I saw my European travel as dramatically different from my US-trek idea. And, while I thought about that Euro-hitch in terms of race, race was the only filter I used when thinking about my trip. It’s interesting to me how entirely I was able to erase the issue of being a young woman on my own. I was surely in as much danger of rape in Europe as I was in the States, but I didn’t think about it once during trip prep.

That obliviousness to my gender and my body was surely part and parcel of my belief that, as a fat woman, I had made myself undesirable to men and therefore invisible. And my imagined invisibility allowed me to do crazy things like plan solo cross-country trips without ever thinking of my personal safety as a woman.

My safety as a Black person, however, was paramount in my thoughts, and it seemed to go without saying that Europe was safer for me at that time–the early 80s–than my own country.

There was plenty of anti-Black racism in Europe in the 80s, of course. It wasn’t so much directed at me, though. It was also different from the racism I saw, experienced, and expected at home. And somehow those differences gave me a feeling of security.

Those European tours lasted a few months each. And both, but especially the second trip, included extended stretches of me traveling alone, me standing alone on the shoulder of a highway with my thumb out and my face hopeful. There were some dicey moments along the way, yes, but even during those moments, I would still have said I was safer on those French or Spanish or Austrian or Belgian or Czech or German streets than I would have been anywhere at home.

*

I hadn’t thought about my high school trek planning in many, many years … and then suddenly there it was a few months ago, in the front of my brain, called up by who knows what.

It started me thinking about what that trip would look like today. I still don’t have much money, but I certainly have more than I had as a teenager. And I have marketable skills and work experience that could enable me to support myself in random towns across the map. I also have credit cards. I would still be a woman alone, and now I’d have sometime-y knees and a cane, making me look that much more like an easy victim. And, importantly, I am still most definitely Black.

I think about all the places I removed from my tour plan in the late 70s … and I realize that there are far more places I’d need to cross off the trip list today.

If I marked out the road atlas now, it would be the visual aid of the conversation I’ve been having with myself and online for the last three years: the fact that my country, my home, has become that much less welcoming, less mine.

Today, in 2017, the NAACP has issued not one but two different travel advisories for Black folks—one for St. Louis, the other for American Airlines. In 2017.

Had I attempted my trek after graduation, it’s a pretty good bet I’d have come to a bad end—an accident, a rapist, a serial killer, a bear—something. Sure. But I might have had a great time before running headlong into whichever life-ending force would have had my name on it. I’d have covered some ground, maybe seen a handful of states at least, gotten a good look at some of this crazy-huge country I call home. Today, I can’t convince myself that I’d make it out of New York State.

*

I’m not the only Black person who has intentionally narrowed her range of motion. The need for organizations such as Outdoor Afro and Journey Outdoors is real. As is the fact of terrible encounters with whiteness in the wild—I can’t stop thinking about the Black family whose reunion at Rollins Lake, Nevada was cut short when an armed white man threatened their lives. And the number of people creating lists of places that aren’t safe for Black folks to travel. I don’t know how to reconcile these clashing truths. I don’t like feeling that I’m losing my country, but I can’t pretend that very real dangers don’t exist.

 

I don’t have any answers here. I see the tiny pockets of places–both in the US and elsewhere–in which I can imagine being safe. The Europe I hitched 35 years ago is, sadly, dramatically different today, and I’d have little to no chance of a safe, months-long hitch now.

And I don’t see a way to reverse any of this. In high school, the US was a place in which I could imagine being safe exploring on my own … almost. Today I can’t imagine that at all. There are so many consequences of the intolerance and hate that is rolling rampantly across this country and others. The extreme shrinking of my universe is clearly one of them, but I didn’t see it happening because my lens wasn’t trained on that. These last few years, I’ve been focused more acutely, focused on feeling safe right in my own city. And while I was nearsightedly pre-occupied, I managed to miss the larger shift in my landscape.

I have no intention of swearing off travel. I’m currently planning for a big writing trip for next year that will land me in entirely unfamiliar territory, and I can’t wait for that. Still, revisiting my long-ago plan of hiking my country and seeing how much less viable an idea it is today frustrates and saddens me. This is my home and has been my family’s home for generations. And while it is true that this country has never wanted to accept my family or others like mine, we are still here. This additional reminder of the fact that my country sees me as alien is sitting hard with me. It’s not news, but it still hurts.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

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Un Rêve Parisien

In the wee small hours of Monday morning, I dreamed this wonderful, crazy dream:

I was in Paris, and I was with Lisa Ko. We were walking along the Seine, and decided to scale a building — one we had apparently scaled once before, back when I was in my 20s. We wanted to get to someplace on the top floor, no idea why we didn’t just go inside and up the stairs. We climbed the façade, then had to shimmy along a ridiculously narrow ledge the full length of the building. We reached the uppermost corner and had to go up and around it. There were decorative touches to the architecture that made crossing it hard — weird bits poking out that should have made good foot and handholds, except they were made of wood instead of stone, and they were frighteningly rickety. Lisa was behind me, giving me encouragement, but I was terrified. I made it about halfway then froze because the next several decorations moved when I tested them, and I knew they wouldn’t support me. Lisa was really good at giving me a pep talk, but I was still convinced I was going to fall. Finally, I decided to just go for it, that if the decorations had withstood big storms, surely they’d withstand me. [Writing this, it’s so clear how much sense that doesn’t make! My logic was that the storms had to have had at least 100 mph winds … first, I doubt Paris has had a single storm like that, let alone many … and, too, I weigh a good deal more than a hundred pounds, so how would any of those storms have been relevant?] I told Lisa that, if I died, I wanted her to “tell everyone I love them,” and then I started up the last bit, which turned out to be quite simple: I swung my leg up over the top of the corner — bypassing the scary bits entirely — and pulled myself over to slide down the smooth back side onto a much wider ledge. Lisa came over easily — despite the fact that she was wearing six-inch metallic gold platform heels! — and together we came down from the ledge and directly into someone’s apartment. Lisa looked a little sheepish and said, “We should probably get some writing done,” and I agreed. But first, she said, we should get some food. She led the way through the beautiful apartment to the great room. there were people at the dining table — a young woman and a teen-aged boy — and an elderly and middle-aged woman in the kitchen. The middle-aged woman was dishing up food while the older woman watched. Lisa went up and took a seat at the breakfast bar, and the woman put a plate in front of her. “Jay’s mother always feeds everyone,” Lisa explained, and that was when I realized the woman was Jay-Z’s m other. She put a serving of deep, green, delicious-looking cucumber soup into a tall plastic cup and set it beside Lisa’s plate then started on my plate. The older woman leaned over to read the side of the cup, which said: “Happy birthday, Bitch,” then looked at Jay-Z’s mom and asked, “Are you the bitch?” And Jay-Z’s mom nodded and said, “That’s right.”

And then I woke up.

I find this dream supercalifragilisticexpialidociously fabulous for a few reasons:

  1. I love that I was in Paris. I haven’t been in many years, so it was a lovely gift from my subconscious to suddenly be on the streets (and the façades!) of that city.
  2. I love that I was traveling with Lisa of all people. It’s true that we’ve been on a trip together once before and are planning a trip for early 2018, but nothing so grand as spontaneous wall-climbing in Paris!
  3. I love my subconscious’ decision to make Jay-Z’s mother so generous and welcoming. Other than the fact that she’s Jay-Z’s mom, I don’t know a single thing about Jay-Z’s mom — not even her name — so her appearance in my dream is both wonderful and hilarious.
  4. I love Lisa’s six-inch heels and here ability to scale that wall while wearing them. Lisa is fabulously talented, but I had no idea how for and in which directions her talents would manifest!
  5. I also love how patient and supportive she was when I was afraid to start the last piece of the climb. I generally tend not to tell people when I’m afraid of something, and don’t often ask for or admit the need for help (yes, that’s a problem, and it’s on the “Work on This!” list). So that moment in the dream was a nice illustration of what it can be like to let your friends step in and be your friends and help or encourage or support you when you need it.
  6. I love that, even in the dream world, Lisa – who is one of my writing accountability buddies – was still thinking about writing, and reminding me that I should be doing more of it!
  7. I love that the food that made the deepest impression on me was the cucumber soup. It was so green and pretty, and I just knew it would be cool and clear and tart and yummy.

One of the things I love the most is that I tried to encourage myself to remember this dream. Someone recently told me that if, as you’re falling asleep, you tell yourself to remember your dreams, you have a better chance of remembering. I don’t know why that would ever be true, but why not, right? So I said that to myself a few times as I was drifting off … and here I am, recounting this wacky dream. Obviously, I’ll be trying that again!

The other thing I love most is that being able to remember the dream also means being able to see all the places where my conscious self steps in to mess with whatever’s happening in the dream. Because I’m a lucid dreamer.

I’ve written a few times about my dreams and specifically about lucid dreaming. I got interesting in studying lucid dreaming … but then I got busy and tired and captivated by something else. So I didn’t do much study. I’ve learned the tiniest sliver of a bit about lucid dreaming. But this Paris dream makes me want to pick up the research where I left off.

In one of my older posts about lucid dreaming, I mentioned that it was a long time before I knew there was a name other than “dreaming” to describe what I experienced because I thought that was the way everyone dreamed, thought everyone dreamed and was aware that they were dreaming. It never occurred to me that there was anything special about it. Once I learned that it wasn’t so common, I won’t lie: it started to seem a little shinier, a little more special.

Because I’m aware that I’m dreaming, my conscious mind can alter things about the dream or pause and think (or, as is often the case, laugh) about particularly odd things I see and do in the dream. In the Paris dream, my consciousness stepped in a couple of times. First, I gave myself a play-by-play as Lisa and I climbed the building, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing climbing some building in a dress and pumps. I don’t have a great history with climbing things. I fell from a rock wall in southern Portugal. I got stuck on a different rock wall in Jamaica, hanging on for dear life above from unfriendly-looking surf, terrified to move forward or back. I’m not a climber, not really, so what did I imagine myself to be doing scaling that façade with Lisa?

The second consciousness intervention was during the scary part of the climb, the part where I convinced myself to take a chance because, if those weird and rickety wooden decorations could withstand 100-mile-per-hour winds, they could certainly support me and my not make of wind self. That was clearly my conscious mind on drugs, desperate to get me over that wall, even if the “how” of it made no sense.

The final moment of consciousness came when Lisa and I found ourselves in Jay-Z’s mom’s apartment. I laughed as I came down from the wall and saw that I was in a room. I have had so many dreams in which I wind up in strangers’ homes uninvited. And quite often I wind up in the kitchen. In one, I broke into someone’s house just so I could cook. In that dream, I was busy making a big pot of spaghetti sauce. Clearly, there’s something that needs interpreting about me and kitchens, me and breaking and entering, me and strangers’ houses …

* * *

Generally speaking, my conscious self only comments on what she’s watching dream-me do. There have been a few times when I’ve changed the course of the dream action. I usually only do that when things aren’t looking good for dream-me. I remember a dream in which I was being chased – when I think about that dream, I always say I was being chased by a monster, but as I type this, I’m remembering that I was actually being chased by the first wife of my most awful ex (talk about things to unpack!!). She was armed, I think with a knife, and wanted my blood. I was running through a wooded area and found myself face to face with a wall. There was no way around or over it (I guess I wasn’t aware at that time of my fabulous wall-scaling skills). I could hear her closing in … and then I just moved myself to safety on the other side. I didn’t want to see where that story was headed. I literally narrated myself beyond the problem: “Well, somehow I got over it,” conscious-me said in the dream as dream-me reoriented herself on the safe side of the wall and made her getaway. I do love the Deus-ex-machina-ness of that.

In a comment conversation on one of my other lucid dreaming posts, someone talked about being able to bring other people into her dreams and pointed out that I could use my ability to control the dreams to give myself a little Jamaica vacation whenever I wanted one. I haven’t tried either of these things, but now I’m inspired anew by the pleasure I felt at seeing Paris – the Paris I remember from living there decades ago, the Paris I know does and doesn’t still exist. I was happy, at home.

I’m interested in dream interpretation – because of course I want all this wacky fabulousness to also mean something – but I’m okay with the mystery of that. For now, I want to play with this blurred and blurring line between my conscious and unconscious mind, learning what kind of fun I can have poking into my dream world.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I decided to dedicate my NaNoWriMo writing to writing essays, and I’ve been catching up! Whether I reach the goal or not, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

DIY (If You Want Something Done …)

On Thursday I wrote about getting the news that I hadn’t been awarded a writing residency I’d applied for. In their comments, Heidi from Wordsmithing and Akilah from The Englishist expressed interest in the DIY writing retreat I made for myself in 2012, and Akilah’s comment made me realize that I’d never written about it. So today I will.

In 2012, I decided to send myself away to write. In both 2010 and 2011 I’d gone to VONA and had my heart and mind and craft blown wide open. For 2012, I decided not to apply, but rather to take the money I’d spend on a VONA week and create a two-week writing vacation.

I was nervous about doing it because I’d never been particularly successful with writing on vacation in the past. I’d turned out a few pages, but mostly spent my time vacationing and maybe (maybe) writing in my journal. But those had all been vacations and not specifically writing retreats, and I wanted to believe that calling my trip something different would actually help flip whatever switch in my brain needed flipping to get me to be more productive.

So I planned.

  1. Find a place to go. I searched on Flipkey (like AirBnB) for a place to go. I searched in Mexico, in the Caribbean, in France, in Canada … Everything looked great, nothing looked right. And then I clicked to an apartment in Tulum and the first photo won me. It was a slightly fuzzy picture of a sunny kitchen table. When I saw it, the first thought I had was, “I could write there.”
  2. Figure out when to go. The retreat was going to be my birthday present to myself, so I wanted to go in the fall, as close to my birthday as possible.
  3. Make a plan for writing. I made my schedule very simple: I would write all morning and go to the beach in the afternoon (it was going to be Tulum, after all, home of one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet). I also signed up for an online writing class and planned the timing of the trip so that I’d be in the middle of the course while I was in Mexico.
  4. Make a plan for what you want to get done during the retreat. There was a story I’d been fighting with. I knew that, if I was ever going to find my way through that story, I needed to understand this one character I’d been avoiding. So I decided that I’d use my retreat to write about him, to figure out who he was so that I could make sense of what he was supposed to be doing in my story. I don’t know if this part of the equation is necessary for everyone, but having a specific project in mind before I started helped me. I wound up writing other things during the retreat, but having this clear idea already laid out in my head helped me know exactly where to begin on day one.

So I was good to go. I was still worried about whether I’d get much work done, but I figured I’d done as much planning as I could or should, and that I’d have to trust myself.

I got to Tulum, the apartment was as lovely as the photos had led me to believe, I set up my writing corner of the dining table, and went to sleep early so I’d be ready to dive in with my schedule the next morning.

My schedule didn’t work out at all. Not even a little. Here is how almost all of my days went:

I got up early and had a little something for breakfast. I sat down with a cup of coffee or tea and started working. After working for a while, I started to feel ravenously hungry and had to stop writing … which would be when I’d discover that it was somehow 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon, that I had been working all day.

Two weeks in Tulum, and I made it to the beach twice. Twice. That is actually a crime, I think.

But —

I wrote like a crazy person. I wrote more in those two weeks than I normally write in a whole year.

I have never felt more content, more perfectly at ease in my body, more perfect. I was completely exhausted at the end of every day and fast asleep before 11pm … and then up with the sun to start all over again.

A big part of the success of my retreat was signing up for that online class. It was a class with Minal Hajratwala. I’d taken an online class with her once before, so I knew what to expect. Minal is an amazing and amazingly generous instructor. The materials she prepares, the exercises she gives … always fabulous. I was taking her Blueprint Your Book class during my retreat, and I had a huge breakthrough thanks to two of the exercises she gave us. She is an entirely lovely person, and if you have the chance to take one of her classes, I enthusiastically recommend it.

__________

It’s definitely not necessary to go to Tulum or to go away for two weeks to make a DIY retreat work. You can stay right in your town. You can:

  • Find an AirBnB place that’s not crazy expensive (my apartment in Tulum was $50 a night), rent it for as many days as you can, and go write.
  • Apartment swap with a friend who lives a short train ride or drive away, sit at her desk or at his kitchen table, and write.
  • Stay in a hotel for the weekend, order room service, tell housekeeping to leave you alone, and write.
  • Find a co-working space that will let you rent for 2, or 5, or 7 days, and let the fact that you’ve paid for the space inspire you to actually spend those 2, or 5, or 7 days writing.

The important things are to 1) set aside time to work, 2) be in a place where you can work without interruption, and 3) hold yourself accountable to giving yourself that time.

I’m looking forward to planning a retreat for myself for the end of the summer. I don’t know if I could ever be as insanely productive as I was in 2012, but I like having that bar to aim for.



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices

Life in the Leyland

This picture is being shared all over the place:

refurb bus 1

First, I love that some people respond to this as if this is the most radical, crazy, hip thing they’ve ever heard … as if this is the first time they’ve heard of such a thing, as if only a young person in 2015 could think of such badassery. Yeah, not so much.

Second, I love that this bus seems only made for sleeping. There’s no kitchen, no cabinets, no bookshelves, no … anything but beds. This is an odd way to try to travel even a super tiny country!

Third, I love that this reminded me of my long-ago experience of traveling in a converted milk truck with two wonderful, usually-drunk, Englishmen and a very sweet young Dutch guy.

— Oh yes, it’s another travel story! —
(And it’s a long one!)

Back in my many-years-past youth, when I spent some time hitchhiking in Europe, I wound up in Sagres, on the Algarve in Portugal. I arrived there by bus, having temporarily thrown over my hitch after some unacceptable scariness in Spain. I had put the town on my itinerary because it has Henry the Navigator history, and was close to Cabo de Roca, a lighthouse that marks continental Europe’s furthest western edge. I liked filling my planned/unplanned trip with weightless items that left me as free as I wanted or needed to be. On paper, Sagres was an overnight stop before heading to  Spain. But Sagres turned out to be a stop-rushing-and-enjoy-the-sardinhas-asadas kind of place. That “overnight” lasted five days. Nothing to do, nowhere to be, no reason to leave. There was thick, rich cafe leche to drink, vinho verde to wash down the sardines, beautiful beaches to stretch myself out on and cultivate my first deep-in-the-skin-so-black-my-mom-didn’t-know-me-at-the-airport tan.

I did drive out to see the lighthouse on my last day. I love lighthouses, and that one didn’t disappoint. And the view, the wind, the edge-of-the-worldness of the place was fabulous. Definitely worth the spot on my trip plan.

I don’t remember when in those five days I met David and Roger. (Their real names. Because they were lovely, kind people, and maybe there’s a chance that one of them will stumble upon this all these years later and we’ll reconnect.) They arrived with cute, bespectacled, Marcel, a Dutch hitchhiker they’d picked up a while before reaching Sagres. They arrived in the Hotel Leyland, a milk truck they’d converted into a mobile home.

They were my companions for the lighthouse trip, and when they announced they were leaving Sagres the next day and heading for Spain, I happily accepted a ride. Seville is maybe a two-hour drive from Sagres, maybe a bit more. We made the trip in ten days.

We left Sagres late morning and headed into Lagos … where we found an English pub and ate English food and didn’t leave and didn’t leave and didn’t leave. At first, I was anxious — when were we going to get to Seville? Then I let that go and relaxed. What did it matter? We could stay anywhere. It wasn’t as though I had some kind of schedule to keep. (Okay, I did have plans to meet a friend in Siena for the Palio, but that was weeks away.)

Eventually we started looking for a place to stay the night. After the windswept wildness of Sagres, Lagos was too citified for us, so we drove east. On my map, we found Olhão. It was little. It was on the ocean. It would surely be fine. But when we got there, it wasn’t as fine as we’d hoped, so we drove on. A short while later as night fell, we were in an even tinier town, one we couldn’t be sure was on the map. There was no hotel, but there was a campground, so we moved in.

Sleeping arrangements, you ask? Easy. Marcel slept on the bed that folded out of the dining room. David had a one-man tent that he set up beside the Leyland. That left Roger and me … and the bigger-than-queen-sized bed that could be created at the back of the truck.

“Don’t worry about Roger,” David told me that first day. “He’s gay.”

I don’t actually know if that was true. It hardly mattered. Roger was usually so full of alcohol at the end of the night, sleep was all that could happen on his side of the bed.

We woke up that first morning to discover ourselves in a tiny paradise of a place. You could buy a big jug of vinho verde for about $5 … and get your $3 deposit back when you returned the jug … and yes, for $2 you could leave your deposit and just get a new jug of wine. There was a great farmer’s market where we bought delicious produce (Portugal is still one of the greenest, most growing-est places I’ve ever been) and where, to my horror, the guys all bought tubes of sardine paste. Yes, really. Tubes like toothpaste full of something red and fishy and “fishy” that they squeezed out onto slices of bread and called a meal.  A half-step from our campsite was a wide inlet. When the tide was out, it was full of people digging for clams. When the tide was in, you could stand on the pier opposite the campsite entrance, and someone would come by with a boat and take you across to the beach island — a miles-long stretch of empty, pristine sand.

After breakfast that first morning, Marcel, David, and I were standing on the pier just looking around and a pretty young man motored up in a skiff and asked if we wanted a ride. When he told us about the beach island, we climbed aboard. His name was João, and he ferried us across for something like a dollar and the promise to meet him in town for a drink that night.

That beach! Sagres was where I discovered that I am a beach person (shocking that it took me 22 years to make that discovery), and our little unnamed paradise was where I was glad to have made that discovery. It was a skinny strip of sand that went on and on. The three of us wandered together and separately for some indeterminate, sunny time then made our way to the pier and found a ride back across the inlet.

It was on that glorious beach where I read my first Dick Francis mysteries. The bookshelf in the camper was full of them — I forget if he was David or Roger’s favorite — and they were quick, fun reads. I went through at least five of them before leaving the Leyland.

We kept saying we’d go to Spain the next day, and then something would come up — the chance to drive into the hills and visit an lemon farm (random and excellent), a celebration one night that meant everyone dragged their dining tables into the street and cooked and fed everyone else (including us) — or just the pleasure of staying a little longer.

After seeing the men’s fascination with sardine paste, I decided to use some of the hotel cash I was saving to cook breakfasts for us. I am more surprised by this turn than you may be. As much as I love cooking, and as much as I love taking care of people, these are loves I’ve grown into, cultivated over time. Back then, I was definitely not a happy homemaker type, eager to please my man men.

But, clearly, I was. Manic Hostess Girl was lurking under my surface even then. I agonized over what I’d make and the fact that I didn’t have my favorite recipes handy. What (of course) turned out to be true was it didn’t matter what I cooked or how well I cooked it. When you’re cooking for men who’ve been eating sardine paste on stale bread, anything you cook is going to taste like heaven.

After our long, delicious sojourn, we were ready to head for Spain. We made the drive in no time, seeing as we were practically at the border already. We stayed together a couple of days in Seville, but by then I needed to be getting my meandering self to Siena. I forget where Marcel was headed, but he left first. Roger and David drove me to the train station (no more hitching in Spain, thank you), and then drove to Morocco. I’ve always regretted not going with them, but my friend was waiting in Italy (and I could feel that, without Marcel, the dynamic in the truck would have gotten weird fast).

We said our goodbyes, and I watched my Englishmen and their milk truck drive away. And thus ended my stay in the Leyland.

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Roadtripping with your friends in a converted bus is a fabulous idea, but even 30 years ago, I knew it wasn’t an idea we’d made up. And, when you decide to let that photo inspire you, remember to build more creature comforts into your bus. You’ll want more than beds!


 So that was shamefully long-winded! If you’ve made it this far, you’re a kind and special person. You deserve a treat, and here it is:

It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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Poetry in Motion

Heh. I got jokes.

I’m the one in motion — I’ve left own for a conference in Cincinnati.   It remains to be seen whether the poetry has gone on the road with me.

The Poetic Asides prompt for today is a double prompt, offering up both violence and peace. I’m not sure I’m feeling either prompt today. But we’ll see where this goes. I had the strange experience of walking down the street tonight to find some dinner and finding — in addition to dinner — a distressing series of drunk and angry twenty-something men, several of whom spoke to me — but not really to me, but to whatever person they happened to career into.  So I wanted to write about them — I suppose there’s some violence and peace in there after all.

Vine Street, 9pm

Strange
men — boys
really — stalk
my path. Drunk, sad,
one curses, complains.
Love,
leaving,
has left him
bare and in pain.
One misses his mom,
wants
to call
but fears her
many questions,
stinging rejection.

Boys,
tattoos
freshly inked,
boasting manhood,
craving touch, comfort.
Drunk
in their
several
sharp sadnesses,
they see only hurts.
One
calls me.
Says, “Mama,
you hold me back.
You leave, I’m nothing.”

My
hands want
to hold them,
to offer balm,
but I know better.
Their
words call,
but their eyes
are empty, flat,
rage too near the surface.
I
walk fast,
trust the bright,
silver glow-light —
DANGER! — down my spine.

natpoetrymonth1

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Ever since I’ve known about this conference, I haven’t been able to get the theme song from WKRP out of my head.  I wouldn’t have thought that I remembered that song, and yet … Maybe a few days in Ohio will chase it out.  It’s not all bad, though.  It also reminded me of that Thanksgiving episode:

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Voyager

Naima has taken up the challenge of writing a poem a day, and we’ve decided to email or text them to each other each night.  That’s great inspiration for me to make time to get my poem written!

Also, I followed a link from Minal Hajratwala and found myself taking on yet another challenge for the month. At Writer’s Digest, the Poetic Asides blog is offering up daily poem prompts and asking folks to post their poems in the comments.  The best poems from each day will be selected by daily guest judges and collected in an anthology by Words Dance Publishing. Fun times, yes?  Today’s prompt is to write a voyage poem.  That prompt coupled with the fact that reading Vanessa Veselka’s chilling essay “Highway of Lost Girls” this morning has had me thinking about my own experiences with hitch hiking led me to today’s Arun.

I went for something different, writing Arun stanzas for a longer poem. My jury’s still out.  I’m finding the form to be a bit awkward.  When I was writing Zeno poems two years ago, I found it fairly easy to work my way down from many syllables to one (the Zeno syllable count is 8/4/2/1/4/2/1/4/2/1). I find it much more difficult to start with only one syllable.  It feels more forced, contrived.  In any case, here’s today’s Arun, a voyage poem:

Here Alone

Ride.
Lean back.
Watch the road.
Watch the driver.
Hold your bag. Smile. Talk.
Safe —
for now.
Be ready.
You’re here alone.
Climate changes, shifts.
Watch.
Don’t blink.
Don’t miss it.
Stay on, ready,
always set to jump.

Talk.
Listen.
Hear silence,
weight in non-words.
Hold the door handle.
Ride.
Watch him,
smile and nod.
He’s a good one.
Still: stay on, ready.
Watch.
Lean back.
Hold on tight.
Eyes on his hands.
Keep your smile bright.

Luck.
I rode
months. Alone
with strangers, men
I did … didn’t trust.
Rode.
Oceans
from home, from
family. Trusted
strangers, gave myself
whole,
into
unknown hands.
Luck riding close
down every long mile.

natpoetrymonth1

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Change

Happy first day of spring! It’s felt so long in coming this year. I know winter might have one last breath to blow our way, but I’m not worrying about that now. I’m thinking about warm breezes, bright green new leaves unfurling, and the blooming of the forsythia — always my favorite sign of spring.

I’m also thinking about this:

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I was looking through photos from my last Jamaica trip, and came across this guy and realized I never posted many (any?!) of my pictures from that trip.   This is from Falmouth, where I stayed for just a couple of days at the end of my trip.  I was sitting on the verandah of my little shack on the beach writing, saw something out of the corner of my eye … and there he was.  Slow-slow-slowly, I reached for my camera, hoping not to scare him off.  Not only did I not scare him away, I got to watch his excellent little show:

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And I thought about the ways in which we are often required to change so completely to fit our environments, the times when we wish we could change that completely, the times when blending in with the background is anything but desirable.  And I wondered what the lizard feels when he’s changing, how he knows he’s changed enough.  And I tried to remember how I’ve felt in those times when I’ve made a conscious effort to step out of the wallpaper and become visible.

I’ve been focusing on change for a while now, since I made the decision to have my knee surgery, since I began to recover.  Not just the “simple” change of learning my life with this new joint, but deeper and more complex changes to who and how I am and what I want for and from myself.  I’ve been stumbling with a whole lot of one step forward, three steps back, letting fear hobble me.  I’m looking to do the lizard in reverse, step finally and fully away from the wallpaper and embrace my technicolor.  Yes, it means the birds will be better able to see me.  I say: Bring it.

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All the other slicers are hanging out over at Two Writing Teachers!

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