What follows will form the backbone of my work in progress. All entries with the same title are a part of that body of work, and as such, claimed by me as an original product. I invite you to follow me in my writing journey, but I ask that you do not knowingly borrow any part of my work for your own productions. Thank you.
In books and movies, when someone is depicted as feeling like a failure or perceived as such by others, they’re also still doing things. They have a crappy job that pays the bills, they’re just not painting or composing. They still have friends. They still do things and go places. But here I am, 34 and living at home, in possession of an advanced degree and a mountain of debt to match, and I’m not doing anything. Well, that’s not precisely true. I still walk the dog, cook, vacuum, write sundry bits for a few pennies—but I’m not out there in the world. I somehow wound up a hermit, and I don’t precisely know how to break free of it.
Meditations on Road Rash
It’s Easter Sunday and raining as I write this. I have to acknowledge that my particular brand of failure, like a loaf of bread that refuses to spring in the oven, began several years ago. I’ve been running away from the discomfort of it and the bitter shame I felt, ever since. We all make mistakes, have errors in judgment or choose the wrong path in life. My real failure, it seems, was the refusal to get back up after falling. I feel as if I’ve been awkwardly crab walking or scooting along on my butt for several years. And my butt is sore.
Still, I find myself dwelling with most of my mind lodged firmly in the past. I think I’ve always been this way, so that’s not a side effect of my feelings of failure. It’s a flaw. It keeps me from living in the present or looking towards the future in any useful way. But I’ve been reading a great deal about owning my flaws, mostly because I’m trying to find a way out of this cramped, crouched life I’ve created for myself, in which dependence upon others is a consistent feature. There has to be some way out of this. There has to be some way in which I can turn my most fatal shortcomings into tools that I can use.
The Axis of Rain
While the seasonal shifts are not quite so pronounced this far south along the East Coast, they are still discernible. The first thing that struck me about the Southwest was its utter dryness and seemingly static environment. But the longer I lived there, the more I was able to see the motion of the year. The seasons in the desert are not the same as they are here, in spite of the fact that the calendar tells us when the Equinoxes and Solstices occur. Rather, seasonality in the desert seems to move along the axis of moisture.
There’s a fine-tuning of all the senses in arid surroundings. You become more aware of the things needed for survival. Growing up in northern Georgia, humidity was a given. Even during the worst of the years of drought, when Lake Alatoona and Lake Lanier dropped water levels alarmingly, the heavy air was always there, thick with unspoken moisture. When I first moved to Albuquerque, I suffered the loss of that ambient moisture most keenly.
With the absence of rain and humidity, so goes the absence of greenery and growing things. I’ve always known that I could not live in the Plains or even along the coast. I need a place with shoulders. I need hills. But another necessity, and one of which I was totally unaware, is that dense population of growing things–leafing out and embracing me with their rude abundance. The skyline was always there. I felt as if I’d stumbled into a nudist camp by accident and should avert my eyes from the stark lines of heaven and earth. It took me several years to become accustomed to such an obscenely naked horizon.
The first time it rained after I’d moved into my apartment, I was drunk on it. There is no other appropriate way to describe the euphoria that claimed me without so much as a by-your-leave. The heavy, fat drops of water were ice cold and collided with pavement or people in the same way bullets might. When rain happens there, you smell it coming. If you’re lucky enough, the precipitation won’t evaporate before it reaches the earth, and it has the sound of overripe fruit hitting the hard-crusted earth. I am convinced that the scent of water in that place could be substituted for ambrosia.
Learning to Live in the House of the Wind
It’s what I called Albuquerque, a name I settled upon within a few weeks of moving into my apartment. For those of you who’ve never been to the Southwest, the wind takes on a personality. And it becomes a constant companion, like the sound of the ocean if you live on the coast. The wind is Present Tense. It is alive, and if you live in the desert, you live according to its whim.
Albuquerque is built on a substrate of fine, ashy volcanic sand. While the Rio Grande has cut deeply into the bedrock, and her passage is marked by a generous hem of terraced earth, it is the wind that rules the river valley. After four years of learning how to walk leaning against the gusts of wind that can sometimes be strong enough to fling pea gravel several feet into the air, wind on the East Coast rarely impresses. Hurricanes and tornadoes are isolated events worthy of awe, but the omnipresent haze of ashy grit in Albuquerque gave me a new gauge by which to judge this force.
Combined with the aridity, the nudist horizon, and the alienation I first felt in that strange city, I’m surprised that the incessant voice of the wind didn’t drive me insane. It probably helps that I’m already a bit off by the standards of most people. But learn to live with it, I did. I instituted a vigorous campaign of strategies to curtail the spread of dust into my home.
The dust, more than any other aspect of living with wind, was the most irksome feature. It coated skin and clothes, found niches in folds of the ear, creases of the neck, corners of moisture-deprived eyes and sinuses. It was everywhere. But I had a secret reserve of tolerance for the biweekly dustings and vacuumings–I’d grown up in the Deep South, land of the Yellow Season. This is the time of year when all things bloom and everything is subsequently coated in the virulent yellow of their sexual exuberance. As well, that airborn grit was in large part responsible for the fantastic sunrises and sunsets. With beauty comes a price. Always.
I treated the dust as I did pollen, swiping it up with moist cloths, buying a washable vacuum filter, and making housework a regular part of my routine. I also learned to take my shoes off when entering my home. Many cultures do this, and I promise, it is highly effective. Those who challenged my house rule were never permitted to sit on the furniture. Rather, I entertained them on the floor, in order to demonstrate why I’d asked them to remove their shoes in the first place.
During my time in the desert, I came to deeply appreciate the absence of water and its surprising appearance. It helped me to better understand the importance that indigenous cultures placed on it, as well as that they attributed to the wind. Perhaps more than anywhere else I have been, my life there offered me a startling clarity of perspective that is impossible in softer climates. There is nothing to distract from the observation of the qualities of an element–sun, wind, rain, cold or heat. They are unambiguously presented. The boundaries are crisp, as they can never be in the region of my birth, with its blurred presentation of seasonality, its abundant rain and ever-present moisture.
If I had not so drastically retreated within myself, it’s entirely likely that I would still be living out west. But it’s precisely that sort of retrospect that is unhelpful. I did hide away from the world and from my responsibilities. I shrugged off the need to support myself and as a result, I failed. I can’t hide from that, though it still deeply embarrasses me to admit it. I refused to help myself, to get back up and dust myself off, preferring instead to wrap my bitterness and depression around myself and hibernate. The result is that I must now practice a form of archaeology on myself. But that is a story for another day.