Friday, December 31, 2010

Wander and Witness

Don't tangle me with birthday balloon ribbons, ignored ivies and monthly mortgage payments to rounded rusty-bolted mailboxes where stenciled pink flowers fade from rain and the baseball bats of teenagers. Don't buy me pretty pointy shoes that press and pinch my baby toes into crumpled grumpy elders. Don't send me notarized fifty-year plans, life insurance applications or your old baby clothes. I don't need a parachute or several firemen grasping a bed sheet. I need to be free. Free from cell phone bills, arranged appointments and broken down cars. Free from calculated outings where time lines are drawn, erased and rewritten while feet shift in street lamp lit parking lots and restaurant lobbies. Free from decided disappointments and formulaic expectations of me. Free.

I recently read the book, "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakaurer. It is the story of a young man who couldn't stay still in society. Abandoning his wealthy parents, Christopher McCandless donated his savings account balance to a charity dedicated to ending world hunger and took to the open road in his used car. When the car refused to start on the side of a flooding river, he abandoned his wheels along with most of his possessions and began his travels by foot. For the next couple years, he squatted, hitchhiked, and camped, pausing occasionally to work for enough loot to buy necessary supplies and food for his final and most ambitious adventure, Alaska, where he lived for several weeks, sleeping in an abandoned bus, forging for berries and hunting squirrel before falling tragically ill and dying. Alone in the bus and brush, his already skeletal body became crippled by poisonous wild potato seeds, which were never recorded as poisonous in the boy's books. Severely weak, the young man was unable to hike for help and after days of suffering, he died from starvation and the poison.

McCandless and a few others have dedicated their lives to surviving, or not surviving, in the solitude of nature. In the woods of Alaska or in a dessert in Nevada, on an abandoned island in the Pacific, they hike, hunt, fish, think, read and write. These men, mostly men, discover their lives within the creaking trees of the unharmed wind; find God in the kindling of camp fires and joy within the land's voicelessness.

At this point in my little book report, my mother is calling me to plead that I continue shaving my armpits. It is her biggest fear for me. A fear, I've learned, that stems from the summer her sister briefly stopped shaving her underarms. "Rachey, whatever you do, please do not stop shaving your armpits!" With which I always reply, "MUM! I'm not GUNNA!" I will shear my armpits forevermore. I promise. And I will never move to the woods to live in an abandoned bus. The thought of that life frightens me more than running from cowboy bank robbers down steep slippery cement steps in high healed shoes and ankle weights. I don't know that I'll ever want to camp alone, let alone in a place considered an "outback," "wilderness," "the side of Rt.66" or "the woods." I have no plans to abandon society with a ten pound bag of rice, hunting rifle and crinkled copy of War and Peace. I tried making summer dresses and failed, as my immediate family enjoys recalling. I thought I was being crafty and savvy, buying discount fabric with my internship stipend, cutting and sewing pieces of material into makeshift skirts and dresses. Without a sewing machine or patterns, I'd lay on the fabric, wrapping it around myself, pinning it into place and attaching ribbon straps and bodice belts to keep the cheap cotton from falling down my nineteen-year-old frame. I was in Vermont at the time, interning at a community theater. When I called home to boast about my self-taught sewing skills, my mother mailed me a box of skirts. c/o Rachel Cummings.

I can respect the deeply dug desire to be alone. To never know what your day will entail and if you'll even survive it. To never receive insurance bills, angry letters or newspapers of sad suicide stories where little boys hold up classrooms at gunpoint before turning their guns toward their troubled heads. To have a life of leaving. Leaving acquaintances, possessions, gossip, caffeine addictions and the noise of the planet deteriorating.

Still I choose to be here amongst the chaos of humanity than at the mercy of the dark woods. I choose traffic and elevators, shopping malls and family reunions, music and conversations, company and confrontations. Homemade pie crust and citrus scented dish soap. Nights of sitting on stools in my favorite bar, chattering over the crackling of peanut shells and the sipping of hard apple cider. I choose yoga class, salad dressing, fat orange carrots and doughy brie cheese. I choose late nights at the movies, watching bad action movies with scoffing friends who, still tipsy from dinner at Chili's, chuckle with me until the credits roll and the cinema's staff waits with broomsticks, flashlights and trash bins. I choose burritos, tucked and swaddled, a baby of beans and salsa that steams when the flour skin is bit and torn. I choose my family of competitive comedians where everyone yells to be the heard by our mother, the Supreme Court judge of all that is funny. I choose to lay on the couch, listening to my father's impromptu acoustic guitar concerts. I choose to fight my brother's urgings to eat like a cavewoman. I choose to be here, amongst teasing matches with my sisters where my little sister punctuates every fight by yelling, "Well, Rachel pooooped in the closet!" Which, when this happened last week over Christmas' roast beef dinner, I exclaimed, "I was two years old!" And for the first time, my mother made a weird, inclining sound, as if to say, well not really. I looked to her to finish and after some questioning, I learned that the pooping in my mother's pumps incident happened not when I was two years old, but when I was four. ... I choose to be surrounded by strangers. To be alone in my body, in warm cafes and city sidewalks, wrapped between my headphones and in cold weather, my scarf strung around and around my neck like a maypole streamer. I hide in plain site.

But every few months, anxiety from ties, responsibility, and commitment rises in me like dead fish and I wonder my fate to become another one of these young vagrant men, these pioneers of loneliness. I think it might be natural: this vagabond in me. This need for flight. For we, humans, started as nomads, traveling behind buffalo herds, toward berries and better climates. My husband disagrees. "Humans have been settling for hundreds and hundreds of years." He tells me. But this just makes me wonder the historical correlation between symptoms of depression and systems of settlement.

I am starting a new full time job, leaving a perfectly fine job for another perfectly fine job. Two-week notices, I see, keep me sane, keep me sleeping in the same state with the same man. For something needs to change, progress, move. Otherwise, I collapse inside the gray lines of happiness, of happenstance. I know I am lucky to have love that loves me back, warm shelter and good food, lucky to be laughing against my lover's rhythmic ribcage like a cackling crow calling alarms to the corpses of cold roadkill, but all this while I wait for muses to appear in the windows of passing passenger side windows. For if mediocrity appears, it is as morose as the murder of child laborers and newly wed grooms. And boredom exposes time as a pile of mud that must be consumed with a spoon through one's gagging gullet until all that is left is a white flag in a puddle of yellow bile. I have no real tragedy. No grit scratching my skin. No oppression holding my head under water. Nothing to run from but my own uneasiness. So I'm moving. We're moving. Packing our things in boxes once again. Renting another moving truck and driving across town to unload and reorganize our possessions onto our old book shelves and into newly rented kitchen cabinets. By definition, I am happy. In this little marriage we have sweet safe sex where groaning grins and pointed public bones hit, pelvises dual and legs twine like vines and hundred year old wines. We are living a life of content companionship where our country's currency is laughter, debate, camaraderie and kisses. "You're in your happy place. Aren't you Rachey?" My mother asks me. "I didn't get to my happy place until my thirties." Oh but to stand at an altar and not feel so small. To grasp something more than my paper paycheck, the evening's plans or the inside stitch of my pockets. To walk through New York City in winter and not feel like a huddled hunched mass of humiliated bone, flesh and fat. To be a home owning hermit and hitchhiking vagrant with a cabin as my suitcase. To make coffee; buy groceries and drag the vacuum cleaner up the stairs without feeling like feminist fairies everywhere are dying because of me. To sleep on a train as it chug-a-chugs through town centers, cities and farmland. To be rushing everywhere. Wanted everywhere. To run in and out of society like a sprinkler in September.

I walk my dog early every morning. She in her fur. Me, inside mittens, a hat, long johns, jeans and my lime green coat, I wear headphones and watch neighborhoods as they pass by like a movie montage, gazing into glowing yellow windows to bath-robed strangers who pour water into tea kettles and click remote controls to weather channels. Slippers shuffle down sidewalks and driveways to crouch over rubber banded newspapers. Dogs run toward us before springing back to porch banisters, their leashes taut while they bark and wag their tails hello. I like this world. I like its scabbed knees and elbow patched coats, its cracked sidewalks and bold bicyclists. I like its cold quarrels in New Hampshire Walmarts where frizzy haired women in faded Levi jeans and turtle neck sweaters sneer at one another. "I hope you're happy." Donna says, her eyes darting. "Fuuck you Donna." Debbie shoots over her shoulder. "Fuck you Debbie." My friend, Amy and I walk by, witnessing. In our hands, we have a road map, a bag of candy and wide eyed grins.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I drink green tea to pink my yellow fingers while outside the first snowflakes fall like sky scraping suicides, cold and wet with water. They’ll regret it once they hit the crowded cement, I think, strolling through my thoughts, squinting at surrounding violence.

Flower bouquets are pulled from dirt and slashed from their rooted feet by metal knives and shiny scissors before wrapped in plastic and stood in water. In the meat and fish departments of grocery stores, delicatessens and butcheries, hollowed corpses lay open on beds of ice to prolong their destined decay while customers lean over looking and ordering. There is violence in driving past that middle-aged man on Route 5. Thin and sullen, he points his thumb at me while his other wraps around a walking stick. Clean shaven except for his auburn handlebar mustache, he tries to look innocent and clean, but I dismiss him with a look that translates to Sorry but I’m alone and a girl. And girls who are alone are not supposed to pick up middle-aged men in their cars. At the newsstands, black inked papers are reddened with violent pictures, adjectives, casualty counts, tragic automobile accidents and priest pedophiliac convictions. When the headlines do not directly or inappropriately touch us, we tilt our heads and crunch our lips in sympathy for our fellow strangers, blocking potential pain and cold winds by raising our armored elbows and fur-rimmed coats. Then we recycle these newspapers and interactions in guiltless blue bins in the backs of our brains. In the privacy of our cars and kitchens, we consumers consume like we are all dying of imminent starvation. We drink as if face first in the dry dirt of a drought. And when our pants are too tight and our blood pressures warningly high, we blame Clean Plate Clubs, the current economy and diets that start tomorrow, but what is the real benefit of blame? There is violence in blame and in how we fight for excuses like frostbitten, ragged paupers fight for boxes under bridges. Today there are food banks and $1 menus instead of soup kitchens and mom and pop diners. Diet soda and doughnuts have replaced bread and water. Wine and whiskey have been replaced by margaritas and energy drinks. Salty potato soup has been replaced by canned chicken, noodle, bacon stew. Our grocery lists are typed they are so long, yet while we push our deep carts of corn, cows, pigs, chickens, sugar and white flower, there is a Santa Clause impersonator outside ringing a bell for pennies and pocket lint. Where there were once apartment buildings full of extended families swapping books and sharing breakfasts, there are now blocks and blocks and blocks of two bedroom ranch houses, all separated by painted picket fences and drawn blinds. We fight for what we think we want: linear careers, quiet marriages, well-dressed children and yearly vacations to Disney World. We want to kill zombies and animated criminals in bombed out video game cities. We want to watch films where fast car chases leave muscled main characters unbelievably unscathed. We want to play at amusement parks of painted cement and dried vomit, spinning in large teacups and bobbing on plastic pink horses. We want to sit at picnic tables, licking the bottoms of fried chicken buckets and gulping gallons of liquid sugar. We need our eight-passenger sport utility vehicles and nightly pot roast dinners, just as we deserve that hunk of cheesecake for walking to the end of the driveway to retrieve the mail. We deserve to have several spoiled spawns on food stamps, live-in nannies, and free health insurance. We deserve the price of oil to go down even as we press our gas pedals to eighty-four miles an hour and our thermostats to seventy-two degrees before slipping into our thousand-count cotton sheets and duck down comforters.

My sister told me I am too hard on everyone.

This makes me cry on a toilet seat with such a silence, my ribs hurt from pressing out breath. I pull a bloodied tampon out of my insides like the dressing of a wound and squeeze several squares of toilet paper between my fingers before trapping my nose and blowing out mustard yellow flem.
I was sort of sober before this sentence was sent out via email. With only occasional cravings for cups of coffee and red wine, I barely even wanted beer. A cleanse I stumbled upon while in the downward dog yoga position in a steamy studio downtown. After my first class, while my endorphins ran rapidly through the mazes of my veins, browned beverages suddenly looked dirty, not nearly as deliriously delicious as water. Apples, peanut butter, lettuce, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots and peppers were all I wanted until the day my sister typed these words to conclude our tediously troubling email chain.

After my tears on the toilet, I sat on the red and blue rug before the fireplace, sipping stout. I watched the froth, the color of old lace, float on my nearly black beer, occasionally adding kindling and pages of the day’s newspaper to the fire. My family has been in a civil war of sorts. We are all right and rightly insulted, if you are curious, but that’s as much as I feel like explaining. Except to say that it has caused me to cry, drink myself drunk by eight o’clock and wish we lived in a village during the Colonial Age when excuses weren’t worth more than the cow shit on the bottom of your boots. A time before computer communication, hydrogenated oils and Genetically Modified Organisms, before Nazis, the KKK and the Columbine School shootings. Unfortunately, before Antibiotics, equality, democracy and cappuccinos, but before the obesity epidemic, chemical pesticides and atomic warfare. Before airports, celebrity gossip and state highway tolls. If we lived back then, our struggles would be avoiding Smallpox and Yellow Fever, growing food on our family farm, cutting firewood and gathering water before the river freezes, not debates over facial expressions, semi-colons and exclamation points.

Life is tangled with violence, with screaming picket lines, credit card fraud, Internet bullies, national debt, atomic bomb scares, artificial food, deforestation and sexually active eighth graders. I fear this country is run by bulimic teenage billionaires, petty politicians and greedy big businessmen. I fear farms, clean air, quiet and trees are nearly extinct. I fear the world will either implode with all the holes we drill into it or explode in an ultimate sacrifice to some religious extremist's God. I fear every grocery store will soon only carry corn, sugar and Tyson chicken products. I fear everything will get so bad, I won't be so hard on everyone, as my sister accuses, because I will have given up on everyone in a submission to blissful ignorance. Worst of all these fears, I fear God, if He hasn't committed suicide yet, will give up on everyone too and while I retreat back to bottles of beer, He will be flooding the world with frogs, blood, boils and rain, starting fresh with ten new commandments, dinosaurs, apes, Adam and Eve.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Jesus at the Laundromat

Scotch tape crosses the corners of handwritten paper signs. Please remove your clothes as soon as machine finishes...REMEMBER customers are waiting for machines to use. ..thank you for your support. Thumb tacks stab several store bought signs on rectangle cuts of cardboard. NO SMOKING NO SMOKING NO SMOKING THIS IS A NON-SMOKING ESTABLISHMENT

A homeless man sits slumped at the front of this local lousy laundromat. Leaning his hairy chin into a crooked wooden cane, he attempts sleep. A large instrument case lays to his left. A suitcase now, I presume. Outside, a raw rain jumps into the storefront windows, floods this man's spot on the sidewalk, and drenches the rotting benches in the park. The downtown church must be out of cots tonight. Above the man's greasy head is a large black and white sketch of Jesus holding forth a chalice of blessed blood red wine. Perhaps this man mistook this place for a church.

Toward the back of the laundromat, high up on the wall, Jesus, Mary and Joseph stand glowing together in a painted print. An EMPLOYEES ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT sign hangs on the center of the door beneath the picture. To the right of the haloed family is a small poster of a lighthouse with these words in blue italics: Dreams. When you find a dream inside your heart don't ever let it go...for dreams are the tiny seeds from which tomorrows grow. A corny quote written, I think, by some decrepit, yellow toed greeting card writer.

A Latina in turquoise velour sweat pants and a black zip up sweatshirt asks me if I have change for two dollars. I check my wallet. "I only have seventy-five cents." I tell her. She scrunches her eyebrows as if to say she doesn't believe me. "I have a lot of pennies." I say, tipping my change purse toward her. "Did you try the machine?" I ask, having used it myself a few minutes before. "It won't take. I dunno." She says. "Want me to to try?" I ask. She nods her head and hands me two curled, damp dollars. A moment later, I return to where she is dumping wet baby clothes into a barrel sized dryer. I hand her her eight quarters.

Please gently close doors to washers and dryers. Do not slam doors!

The back glass door opens and a middle-aged Asian man walks in. Smiling slightly, he begins conversing with the Latina in Spanish. With the help of his hand gestures, I roughly translate what he is saying. He would like her to not slam the dryer doors, but to close them gently. He then points to the sign on the machine's submarine window and then points to the paneled ceiling. He could hear her from his upstairs apartment, he says.

He catches my eyes as they flick frequently around the room before landing again and again on my notebook's page. I love laundromats. I write. The handwritten signs in broken English. The once white, now stained gray tile floors. The metal baskets on bum black wheels. The coin machines with marker instructions besides the manufacturer's explanatory pictures. The mixed clientele of homeless heat hijackers, filthy rich college students and chubby wives on welfare.

Every laundromat has its owner. Someone who takes sincere pride in his/her coin-operated shop. And this Spanish-speaking Asian man is no doubt this mat's owner, its sign sketcher, cleaning crew, fix-it man and its security guard. He is the one with the dreams made of tomorrows.

If Jesus is the one to thank. Thank you Jesus for laundromat owners. Thank you for middle-aged Colombian busboys, septic tank sluggers, snow plow drivers and trash truck operators. Thank you for the mail men who deliver paper letters and cards. Thank you for middle aged maintenance women who sweep the sticky cement floors of cinemas so that corn kernels and cherry flavored sucker candies do not stick to the rubber soles of my shoes. Thank you Jesus for dreams that may never happen. Thank you Jesus for hope. For scratch tickets and miraculous images that appear in tree trunks, sludge puddles and in the white bread of grape jam sandwiches.

I wonder if this laundromat owner still trusts Jesus as he did when he first taped that church brochure to the inside of his office/broom closet door. Jesus, I trust in YOU! It reads in faded gold letters. I wonder
if he regretfully remembers the seeds of his dreams (the ones that were supposed to bloom into tomorrows). I wonder if his dreams grew into tremendously tangled weeds that now strangle his blue collar under the florescent lights of his rented shop where he decorates rusty machines with sloppy OUT ORDER scribble. I hope not. I hope this was his dream: to be a laundromat owner. To run a small business. To make the rules and then tape them to the walls beside his savior, Jesus Christ.