Yesterday I got an email from my friend Kate, who I met at the writing workshop I took in Guatemala, about a potential reunion this fall.
And then I remembered: Kate fell in the lake.
Our first day. We’d already spent so much time traveling: airplane, taxi, bus, mountains, and finally a boat across the lake, a big boat built to comfortably seat 20 on benches, with open sides, a cruiser boat made for sunny touristy days. But it rained.
It rained and rained in sheets and sheets, sloshing up over my flip-flops.
We had 20+ writers, from just under 30 to just over 70 years old, all departing the boat with luggage, surrounded by Guatemalan children with stick-skinny limbs and big smiles who could not wait to help us with our bags for un quetzal.
The boat wavered a foot from the dock in the choppy water…
In short: mad chaos.
And in the midst of this, I was standing on the dock in the downpour, making sure people had their keys to the guesthouse, when I looked up and saw a blur of shapes and colors torpedo directly down into the water. Fffflooom, all the way under. Immediately people began grabbing for her and pulled her to the dock.
But here’s the thing about Kate. The airline had lost her luggage. So the (soaking wet) clothes on her back were the only clothes she had with her.
Cut to half an hour later: Kate is wearing Susan’s underwear, Joyce’s shirt, pants from someone else… it’s a stone soup-style outfit, whatever people can lend.
And for days, this is how she dresses, just borrowed clothes. And she looks like the happiest person in the workshop. She’s glowing, like, 24/7. Kate’s a journalist: covers tough stories, poverty, crime, international traumas. But with her blonde pixie hair in pigtails, loping around in shoes too big, she’s wearing a smile like she just heard the ice cream man’s around the bend.
She said it more eloquently than this, but basically she said she felt free. Like: whaddyagonna do. And I guess that’s what happens, at the bottom. When you spend 14 hours getting to Guatemala and the airline loses your luggage and then you’re dunked in the lake in your only clothes… well, that’s free.
For the rest of the week, every time we took a boat, the driver Domingo helped everyone step up onto the dock. Slow slow. He said it in a sing-song chant as he gave each person a hand up the two feet or so, from the ever-moving boat tied to the dock. Slow slow. Slow slow.
The cadence of it comes back to me sometimes now, when I’m thinking about being impulsive and itchy. Slow slow. Slow slow. But falling in the lake isn’t always so bad.
They say follow your heart.
THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY.
Follow your passion.
–OR: follow these footsteps.
But: What about following a PROVOCATION
that which stirs hunger
the way a lover’s good morning nuzzle
wakens and wakens and wakens.
Secret: Sometimes I listen to country music on the radio while I drive. This started when a boyfriend and I drove from Chicago to New Orleans for a wedding and found there was just nothing else on the airwaves in rural Louisiana. The melodies were simple and the lyrics repeated — so after a few days we could sing along, and they became our songs too, zooming through the green rolling hills. I cried at the sentimental ones and shouted along with the loud ones. And now that music makes me think of the road. Most of all, they’re story songs, about the big questions and the big heartbreaks, and sometimes that’s just what you need.
David Foster Wallace talking about tuning into the country station in downstate Illinois:
Because that’s like pretty much all there is, when you’re tired of listening to Green Day on the one college station. And these country musics that are just so—you know, ‘Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.’ And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? ‘Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.’ That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable. . . But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?. . . That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.
I have to take long walks. If I don’t walk, I can’t make sense of the tangle in my head. And sometimes, sometimes, I talk to myself while I walk.
I talk to myself when the tangle is especially tight. Like any knot, you have to start with a bit of the string and isolate it from its peers and set it aside — stay there, you crazy piece of string, while I find out where you came from. Sometimes the only way to set a thought aside is to say it aloud, even if you happen to be in public.
There are drawbacks. Like a recent warm summer night, walking north on Clark St. I ran into three friends walking south.
–We thought that was you.
–Yeah, I said ‘that girl’s built just like Lindsay…’
–And then you were talking to yourself.
But mostly nobody says anything. Some people wear those Bluetooth headsets to talk on the phone, and basically that’s what I’m doing too. Except I don’t have to buy a Bluetooth, and I don’t have to find another person to talk to.
Lately the knot is tight, tight, tight because in the past month so much has happened. It happened in a rush/crush/push: I visited my family in Buffalo; saw Janelle and Deanna and Skyped in Janelle’s new Alaskan boyfriend and ate cupcakes with Deanna’s Rochester sweetheart. I drove solo to Vermont, and tooled around in the rolling hills covered in purple flowers, and met the family and friends of J, this boy I like, and spent a day in Cambridge devouring books and pizza, and drove with J back to Buffalo, and spent a day in there– a day of Janelle, books, grandparents, food — and then flew back to Chicago and then drove to Michigan for Eliina’s pre-wedding weekend, which involved wine on the beach, swimming in the lake, dance-dance-dancing.
In summation: new people, old people, new places, old places, and long, looping conversations with those who matter, who are facing crossroads and choosing their yellow-wooded paths.
This morning I got out my bike and went for a ride, a fast ride, the kind I love, but my seat felt too high all of a sudden, my cat-back arched too sharply. So I walked it. And my body realized I was walking, and then I started thinking, and then I started mumbling, and then I knew that the knot was too tight, time to untangle, uncoil, unclasp, unmangle. And remember that of course I did this myself, I made this knot, and if I can only remember which string goes where, and set this thread here, and this one there, it will all fall loose into a line as straight as the horizon, the highway, the edge of the lake, the shortest phone call between two points, the beginning of something new.
i’ve been sick, i’ve been busy, i’ve been typing with my laces tied, i’ve been working on this roof but the shingles came unstuck, i’ve been under the bridge when the troll asked for a toll but my singing voice stank and my guitar’s been unstrung. i’ve been in bed when the cops showed up, i’ve been watching my 83 year-old grandmother strip in her living room, i’ve been calling to my mother from the escalator but she took the stairs. i’ve been sick, i’ve been busy, i’ve been typing with my laces tied, i’ve been watching the clock in the laundromat slip its tongue toward the next minute, the next hour, the next lick of possibility, got a fistful of quarters but i’ve missed the last wash. i’ve been sick, i’ve been busy, i’ve been watching old women fan free lemon slices under sugar-packet sugar and eat them rind and all. i’ve been sick, i’ve been busy, i’ve been dizzy and dying and flying, I’ve been asking you to call me, but nothing rings when the phone’s off the hook, except the metal bats in the park, bells in the dust where an object meets force. i’ve been sick. i’ve been busy. i’ve been here, the whole time.
There’s a way to access the surreal and new without ever leaving town, and that is: Scavenger hunt. Kiss a horse, form a pig pile in the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton, dress in fireman’s gear, drink from Buckingham Fountain, braid a stranger’s hair. You just have to smile and say, “Hi. I’m on a scavenger hunt. Can I…?” And here, anyway, people will let you do pretty much anything. Photos aplenty.
I try not to talk to strangers (stranger, danger) but one of the best parts of Chicago is actually the people who appear out of nowhere. Yesterday I was staring at a flyer advertising guitar lessons when a woman came up behind me and said, “Learn the guitar” with such a jazzy, enthusiastic spin on it, like she was remembering a time she learned the guitar, or maybe it was wistful, like she wanted to learn the guitar.
Last week I was walking down Berwyn when a man carrying a windshield washing stick and a bucket, long stringy white hair, overalls, a leathery Leprechaun who might’ve been bumming with Kerouac on that last box car, approached and said something about the weather. I got that vibe, that I was talking to a crazy person, so I started to edge away, and then he said “Just look at the leaves, so green, the way the sun looks when it filters through them…” and so of course I had to stop, because that’s what I’d been thinking too, so now if he was crazy, I was crazy.
And then he said he’d been thinking about all the roofs in the city, there were thousands of them… and what if you could just go up there and relax on any roof you wanted. What if there were hot-air balloons (like in Vienna, he said) little hot-air balloons that would take you from one roof to the next. You could just keep going from roof to roof, until you found one where you felt at home, and nobody’d bother you.
And for sure, I hadn’t been thinking that — except sort of, I had. That wish for the freedom to choose without consequence, without hurting, until something felt right. I started to nod — not the polite nod I’d planned, but a real nod, yes, rooftop to rooftop, and everyone’s doing it, sherbert-colored balloons against a pale blue sky, just stop when you decide you’re home and set down your picnic.
And then he said, “Or maybe slides… you could just slide from one roof to another……” and then I started to really envision it. Some would be slides, but then some would turn into de facto ramps because of the height difference… “And you could just slide right down into a nice cool blue pool at the bottom.”
I started to detach just then like I’d come face-to-face with a unicorn in the wild, and said goodbye, I had to get going, and backed away and turned down the sunny sidewalk, thinking of a sky full of bright balloons and silver slides. Slides would get hot in the sun, I thought. We’d have to teach everyone to fly a balloon.