Saturday, November 29, 2008

the blue and the gray matter

"If you gave me several million years, there would be nothing that did not grow in beauty if it were surrounded by water."
Jan Erik Vold, 1970

Air plants drip from the giant oak trees that spread out above the Savanah streets. They hang in tendrils, soaking up moisture from the air. Their abundance suggests that they are doing a good job, but my sticky skin and the formation of gills on my neckline suggest that they have a way to go before Georgia runs out of moisture. It's not hot, but my skin is vinyl on bare legs in the summer, sticking to everything, fooling me into believing that I'm sweating. Downtown Savannah is an underwater burg, where pedestrians swim instead of walking, and greet each other with drowned silences, only an Oh of bubbles escaping their parted lips as they pass each other in front of centuries old buildings.

And it's maybe just as well; there's so much to be quiet about. Plantations stand, and white tourists snapsnapflashflash photos of the darling architecture, pretending they lived in the times of southern belles and gentlemen. Beneath their feet are buried the bones of slaves, unnoticed or ignored, like the real history behind this place. I visited one such plantation, a stately old mansion built in 1740, where tours were given on the hour by a white guide. There was only one mention of slavery. No discussion, no questions, and I listened closely. I'm sure that when the tour guide stopped to take a breath, I heard a shovel slicing into the dirt, digging and burying, digging and burying.

But these are perhaps the misinterpreted observations of a mute woman. A woman who has barely spoken in four days. I'm living in my own silent world, created by me. Maybe the shovel I heard was in my own head, as I quieted the dissonance of thoughts swirling about in there, burying that urge to talk talk talk. Less talk, more action, Ms. Darling. Free yourself from the shackles of habitual thinking. Send your brain for a ride on the underground railroad. Freedom is the ultimate reward for your silence.

Last night I had nightmares about my phone. I woke, drenched, as though just pulled back into consciousness after nearly drowning, yearning to turn my phone on, just for one teensy call. I wanted to press the cold glass to my ear, feel the color return to my face as I listen to a familiar voice. I leaned over the edge of my bunk, swung my feet over, and fell off the wagon.

Damn. This is harder than I thought.

"To trace the history of a river or a raindrop…is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body. In both, we constantly seek and stumble upon divinity, which like feeding the lake, and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself all over again."

Gretel Ehrlich (From Islands, The Universe, Home, 1991)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rear differential

Good news and bad news regarding the aforementioned decision to check my rear differential fluid:

Good: didn't get sprayed in the face.

Bad: couldn't get the plug out, no matter how hard I tried, and therefore didn't check the level.

I guess now I need to find someone to show me the secret to removing that damn plug.

call me crazy, or don't call me at all.

Warning to family members: if you don't want to see a drawing of me naked, then don't look at the photo at the end of this post. On the other hand, it is just a drawing, so it might not be creepy at all. It's not like it's really me or anything!

I spent a full week of November sleeping on the floor at Cecilia's house in Corning, New York, until a blizzard came and forced me to head south. Cecilia is a perfect friend for me, because she is one of the few people who is as unique in her outlook on life as I am. We both do things that make others think we're crazy. Indeed, we both wonder if we're crazy sometimes, and at other times we just wonder if we are on the verge of it.

I met Cecilia during the brief moment that she worked at the Lotus last year. I latched on to her youthful energy and fierce bravery that bordered on stupidity (and I mean that in a good way). She was one of the friends who sprouted out of the fertile soil after I planted new seeds of friendship to help occupy the space left by my husband. Cecilia inspired me to begin knitting and commuting by bike, and gave me a bunch of new fashion ideas to exploit. I think what really connected us, though, was our thirst for adventure and constant questioning of life. We are both terrified of being boring, and we are both usually on a hill or valley of some kind of wild emotional journey.

This woman is so rad, readers, let me tell ya. Upset with the high cost of natural gas, she objected by flat out refusing to buy it for her apartment. That means she spent the entire summer without a stove and hot water. By choice. To keep from getting nasty, she improvised baths, used cold water, or even hiked it down to the city fountain. And noticing how little she kept in her fridge, she decided that it was too loud and a waste of energy, unplugged it, and turned it into a table.

If anyone else did this, I'd hazard a guess that they were out of their mind, but if you knew Cecilia, you would realize that for her, this makes perfect sense. When asked about it, she offers a completely rational response, "People don't even question why they need things. They never even consider if they can live without them. Everyone wants to be rich, but nobody asks themselves why." For a single person to burn all that energy keeping condiments and beer cold didn't make sense to her, and I can't really argue with that.

In addition to having a thoughtful brain in her skull, the woman has the Midas touch when it comes to art. She can mold any medium she chooses into something beautiful. Her knitting ability is only outdone by her ability on the potter's wheel, which is only outdone by her fabulous talent on the sewing machine, which is outdone by her jewelry-making skills, which is outdone by her drawing skills. I don't think I've ever met a more talented individual. Move your caboose, Da Vinci!

self taught

We spent the week doing yoga, chatting chatting chatting, making kim chee, visiting the glass museum, knitting, and creating fabulous little meals to share. I even got to model for her art homework! Check it out. Oh, and by the way, this is her very first drawing class!

Captured the caboose!

Quick nude study

I'd been tossing around the idea of having an iPhone fast for a few weeks, and it was Cecilia (not surprising) who finally convinced me to take the plunge. "Mail it to Dan in Albuquerque," she said. "And pick it up when you visit him, that way you won't be tempted to cheat." When I anticipated being without Google Maps, GPS, the weather, the internet, email, and texting at my fingertips, she said, "People did survive before iPhones." And with that I turned it off. But I didn't mail it to Dan. Instead I stuffed it in a drawer where I can find it if there's an emergency.

I've been phone free for two days, with a couple of surprising results. First, I don't have a clock now. Last night I found myself wondering if it was time for bed, and then the thought clocked me in the head: go to bed when you're tired! When I woke up today, my first impulse was to check the time, then I thought: get out of bed when you're not tired. It's so simple that the idea has never occured to me. I went through the whole day today not knowing what time it was. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired. I have felt a little withdrawal from not having GPS, but I suppose I can't really get lost when I don't have a destination. Losing iPhone has given me my groove back.

Why did I need to turn it off? Because I was addicted. I was sleeping with the thing, waiting for it to ring. I'd wake up and check my text messages in the middle of the night. I used it as a crutch when I got bored, randomly surfing the internet. I checked the weather compulsively, and let it dictate where I was going next and when (now, when I get the urge to know the weather, I just take Ralgh outside and I suddenly know the weather!). The iPhone was my connection with Portland, and constantly having it by my side meant I was never really alone. And that's what I need right now. Time to be alone and think.

I do wish I could call Cecilia, though, and tell her how great it is to not have a phone. But that doesn't make sense, does it?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

looking forward, but thinking about my rear

When I bought Vanta C, I promptly enrolled in a DIY auto maintenance and repair class at the local community college. It was the perfect class for someone like me, who was afraid to reach her hands down the throat of her growling van to check the transmission fluid. The class started with the basics, how a car works, identifying major components of the internal combustion engine, and performing oil and filter changes. The class didn't result in my becoming a do-it-yourself auto mechanic, but I did learn basic vocabulary and anatomy, and I graduated with less intimidation and fear. Now I throw around words like "gravy", "aftermarket", and "drivetrain" while getting my oil changed, and I get dirty at gas stations checking fluid levels like a pro.

Today I crawled under my van to have a look at the rear axle. It's been leaking fluid for some time now, and I know I should be checking the level regularly, but it requires crawling under the van and removing a plug, so it has slipped by the wayside of my regular fluid checks. Today I woke up inspired to figure it out, and began by Googling "check rear differential fluid". Between the step by step instructions on the web and the ones in the Chilton book I have, I figured I could TOTALLY do this myself. So I got my gloves on, grabbed a shop rag, and scooted my darling little ass under the beast Vanta C. I found the plug, stopped in my tracks, and my brain took over. What if I unscrew this plug and the fluid gushes out all over the place? What if this is actually the drain plug? But no, it couldn't be, because it's on the side, not the bottom, but what if it is? Then I'll have a big mess on my hands.

So I stared at the plug. This must be the right plug, but I now feel like a chickenshit. So I decided to ignore the differential fluid and focus on breakfast (fried egg sandwich and tea).

Being on the Vantasy means uncertainty, and I am drowning in a broth of it. It's a nonstop barrage of choices, from the teeny-tiny to the mega. I'm standing in a malfunctioning batting cage, swinging as fast as I can, and the decisions keep flying at my head faster and faster. Think about how many choices you make in a day, whether or not to hit snooze, what to wear, coffee or tea, brush your teeth first or put deodorant on first, the red scarf, yes, the red scarf... The average person makes hundreds of choices before noon. But imagine how many more choices are involved when your house moves each day, when there is no forgone conclusion that work starts at 9:00am. Each day, I ask myself when I should leave, where I should go. At first it was fun, but now that the novelty has worn off, I'm suddenly unable to decide what's next. Don't get me wrong, I love being in control of my life, but it's almost like there are too many possibilities. I have more freedom than I know what to do with. Sometimes a little restriction can be helpful, acting as a guide, like the barrel of a gun guiding a bullet toward a target. Without the barrel, the bullet would just fly off in any old direction and we could have another Cheney hunting mishap on our hands.

I've been really stupid about making decisions the last few weeks. I wake up and decide to stay, then a few hours later think that maybe I need to go. I decide to head south to Baltimore, but then on the way to Baltimore end up stopping in Harrisburg and deciding to spend the night there, and then while I'm there I decide not to go to Baltimore at all but instead to visit my cousin in Philly, second guessing my choice all the while. So, I've come to this point wherein I agonize over these decisions because none appear better than any other, and before I know it I'm a big ol' stresscase and things are much more complicated than they needed to be.

Yesterday I was tumbling into a downward spiral of crazy head over my choices, so I called Cecilia. There's so much to say about her that she's going to get her own post, so for now I'll just mention that her advice weighs heavily in my thoughts and decisions. Anyway, we came to the conclusion that certainty is an illusion. Just before I left for my Vantasy, someone told me, "You picked the wrong time for a road trip; gas is going to kill you." Meaning that I could have maybe made a better choice about when to leave. Turns out this was the perfect time to take this trip, as now I'm paying $1.78 a gallon. What I mean is: I can make a decision to drive south, and then a bridge could be out, forcing me to head east. I can make a decision to pull the plug and check my differential fluid, but I have no say in whether the fluid will shoot out all over my face. I can decide to start a relationship, or end a relationship, but I have little control over who I love or who loves me.

We're raised to be aware of the consequences of our actions, which I think is good. But letting go of the constant need to be in control of outcomes is even better. Choices don't need to weigh as much as I allow them to. I've been feeding all my choices Big Macs, Cokes, and cans of Crisco with all this agonizing I've been doing. I need to let them starve, survival of the fittest, I say. I need to sit back and ride the coattails of this journey and give up trying to control it. And I'm going to start by throwing caution to the wind and checking that rear differential fluid!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dear John

Family time is usually challenging for me. I grew up in the cornfields in a big, evolving family of siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, temporarily adopted siblings, parents, and step-parents. Sometimes I think I grew up in a family of black sheep, and if that's true than I'm not black at all, but sparkly rainbow-colored. When I graduated college, I saw no place for me here in Michigan, and even though I love my family, I had to leave. I'm not sure if it happened in high school, college, or after I left, but we drifted apart. Physically and emotionally.

I can blame politics for at least some of the distance. Politically, I'm so far to the left that it takes binoculars to even see my right-leaning family. To the horror of my mom, I became a vegetarian at age 17, then I voted for Clinton, then I studied feminism, then I started traveling and there was really no turning back. I had become a damned liberal. And I had the distinct impression that my family was personally insulted by my political views. We tried just not talking about politics when we were together, but it's become more and more difficult. The personal is political, and politics have a way of creeping into even the most innocuous conversations. We could be talking about salad, then about produce prices, then suddenly about immigration and NAFTA, and our safe little salad discussion has gone the way of last week's lettuce: bitter.

So, what do I do? I visit two weeks before a major election. Way to go, Eva. Never can do things the easy way. I knew it would be hard, but I thought we should just let shit hit the fan and then get the hell over it already.

But I have to take at least a little responsibility here. I moved away, and haven't done a stellar job of keeping in contact. As a result, I think maybe I've let my family cease to know the real me. Instead, they know me mostly by various aspects of my identity: as a liberal, as a traveler, as someone who's eccentric. I've let them forget that I'm just a boring old midwestern gal who likes casseroles with mysterious ingredients, watching home decorating shows on HGTV, and hates shopping for jeans. It's my job to keep in constant contact, to call or write them each week and talk about whatever is going on in our lives. Maybe if I did that, they wouldn't see me first as a straight-ticket socialist liberal. Maybe they'd just see Eva, the girl who dances to Tori Amos in her underwear and socks in her living room in the evenings, and who likes to make poop and fart jokes.

When I'm alienated from my family, there's a deficiency in my emotional self. I'd go as far as saying that even a dysfunctional relationship with a family member is better than the absence of one. Family ties are something I can't do without. They are the B vitamins of my life. If I don't have them, I might still survive, but living just won't have that healthy glow that it could have. My siblings and my parents are my history, and I want them to also be my present and my future. Relationships don't grow themselves, so I gotta get my ass out into that garden and start weeding and hoeing. I start today by writing a letter to my brother, John.

John is sixteen months older than me and probably about sixteen times more of a believer in justice and fairness. Hardly seems possible, I know. He is sensitive and thoughtful, endlessly honest, and funny without even trying. When he smiles, his grin conquers his face, an army of teeth lined up, doing battle against foul moods everywhere. When the four of us kids were little, John provided nonstop entertainment. Once, he took a trip to the bathroom in a restaurant and didn't come back. We found him sharing a table with an old man he'd befriended on his way back from the bathroom, eating ice cream. John could talk to anyone.

Now, my big brother is married and has a three year old daughter. He is currently in Iraq, on his second tour there with the US Army. I don't like him being there. I have disagreed with this war for a long time, but for the past three years it's been personal as well as political. I want John home safe. Not only physically safe, but emotionally safe. I want his brain to be okay after seeing what he's seen. We don't talk much, and I think a lot of it has to do with our political differences. I find it most difficult to talk to him, though, because I'm terrified. When we don't talk, it's easier for me to pretend that he's just in Texas with his family, and I don't have to face the fact that he's in danger. I can't come to terms with the risk he's taking, can't even begin to accept the reality of it, because I'm in such strong disagreement, but also because it's just too scary to imagine something terrible happening to him.

Breaks my heart

On the flip side, I do respect his decisions. He's the only one who knows how to make himself happy, and I applaud that he has the courage to do that. I would never suggest that he's made the wrong choices in his life, even though they're so different than the choices I'd make for myself. It's a tough job to transcend our differences, but I think we have enough love there to do it. I realize now that this starts with me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ode to the Furnace

Though it's decidedly time to head south, following the birds to warmer lands, I have one more friend to visit, who lives in Corning, New York. I wave goodbye to Michigan and hello to the Buckeye State, planning to make my way through Amish country and Pennsylvania forests to New York, stopping to visit my Aunt and Uncle at their home near Cleveland.

Fam Damily

After a night with my family, I roll eastward toward Corning, NY, the cold settles in. I drive through rural Pennsylvania, edging along the Allegheny National Forest, winding along through the trees until I come to Oil City, where I decide to park for the night. Oil City is a cute, but depressed-looking little place. It's a picture perfect northeastern industry town, but unsure of what it will become now that industry is heading south.

I find a darling street and park in front of an apartment building, but it's cold. And since I have nowhere to plug in my van, I have no electricity, which means no heat. I bundle up in my hat, scarf, and mittens. I make pot after pot of hot tea, but no matter what I do, my fingers and toes remain numb. The blanket of night envelopes the town, but instead of insulating us, the dark brings a chill. I check the thermometer: 29 degrees.

At 8:30 I can take it no more. Even though it's dark, and even though it's late, I lock down Vanta C, look at my map, and decide to drive further. It's the only way to get warm. I determine that this is insane, and I need to find a campground so I can plug in. I drive and drive, turning down deserted roads to follow signs promising RV parks, but they are all either non-existent or closed for the season. After a few hours, I get to Warren, where I fill up a hot water bottle for my sleeping bag and bury myself inside, still wearing my hat and scarf, and then I go to sleep.

The next day, a snowstorm hits, and I decide to make it to Corning, where electricity awaits, as fast as I can. Still, numb in the fingers and toes, I maneuver Vanta C through the snow, into New York. I haven't brushed my teeth in two days, because I can't bear to touch the freezing cold water which pours from the faucet of Vanta C, and I certainly haven't changed my clothes. After two days with no heat in weather that's below freezing, I make it to Corning. I'm a day early, and my friend is nowhere to be found. I try to boil more water, but my stove suddenly doesn't work. Shit. I'm out of propane. It's a Sunday night, nowhere to get any until tomorrow, and I think I'm starting to lose my mind from this cold. It's inescapable. I can't take it anymore. I'm hungry, but I can't cook anything. I can't drive anymore. Even if I find electricty, I can't run my furnace because it also needs propane. I really think I'm losing my mind from two days of being inescapably frozen.

Pretty, but effing cold.

I call mom and burst into tears as soon as she answers the phone. She, who, unlike me, has heat and therefore still has her wits about her, comes to the obvious conclusion that tonight will be a hotel night for me and Ralgh. Mercifully, she stayed on the phone with me through my breakdown, directing me through Corning to a cheap-ish motel. In an hour or so, I'm soaking in a hot bath, puffy-eyed and weary, but cheering up.

No news here: people need shelter from extreme temperatures. What I find poignant, though, is how little time it took for an already emotionally worn down Eva to completely lose her shit. I knew it would be uncomfortable to be cold for a couple of days, but I didn't think it had the power to turn me into a useless, quivering mess with furry teeth and dirty underwear so fast. I guess I'm not quite as hardcore as I thought. I want to go home.

But, dammit, I'm not going to.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pussy Present

I sit at the kitchen table of the house in which I grew up, now owned by my brother and his wife. Their daughter, Lauren now sleeps in my old bedroom. There have been a lot of changes around here since I lived here last, in the summer of 1998, but the place still feels the same. Bucolic, safe, quiet. Horses live across the street, deer graze the yard in the morning, stars shine in milky formations and in astonishing numbers on clear nights. The house sits on a small hill on a private drive at the dead end of a long dirt road, seven miles outside of town.


Between paragraphs typed here at the kitchen table, I steal glances of the family cat, called Mama Kitty, who is killing a bird in the front yard. A Tufted Titmouse? No, it's not that big. Must be a finch of some sort. I used to be able to name nearly all the species of bird which live nearby, due to a short infatuation with the feeder birds that frequented our back deck. I'd sit in front of the big glass door with a glossy, photo-filled bird identification book and my cat, Hershey, in my lap. We'd gaze out the window, mentally cataloguing the Goldfinches, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Sparrows, Mourning Doves, Purple Finches, Robins, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, the occasional red Cardinal: state bird of Ohio.

Mama Kitty disables the creature, places it on the ground, and watches it intently, her neck flexed, swanlike, paw lifted, ready to strike a final blow. "Put the poor bird of its misery, kitty." I plead in my mind, empathetic, but secretly proud of the cat. She's a stellar example of existential purity, fully owning her cat-ness: cuddly and purring one minute, instinctual National Geographic huntress the next. She never second-guesses her purpose in life. She is here simply to exist. She's present to each moment, a stranger to generalized anxiety, phobias, depression, quarterlife crises, midlife crises, latelife crises, career crises, marraige meltdown crises, economic crises. No one ever told her that fortyisthenewtwenty, or pressured her into learning the six new abdominal exercises that will have her looking good in a bikini by summer, and she wouldn't care if someone did. She feels no guilt, not even for a second, as the finch's heart beats its last beats tha-thump, tha-thump, fight, flight, fight, flight, tha-thump, thump... thump. Euthanasia is a foreign concept, absurd. The cat grows bored and pads away from the bird, leaving it to die in the yard.

I suddenly realize the absurdity of asking myself overandoverandover Who Am I? Who Am I? Who Am I? Tha-thump, tha-thump, fight flight, fight flight. When I take away the things I rely on for an identity, things like clothes, lovers, my hair, my job, my friends, my music... what's left? I'm not my past, not my future, not my partner, not my job, not my body. I'm not the things I do, I'm not the people I know, I'm not my Vantasy, I'm not Mama Kitty, I'm not the dying bird. Strip away all the distractions and there's just me, naked, invisible, dancing, loving, sobbing, terrified, intoxicated with life. And when my heart tha-thumps its last thump, this is all that I will be.

This realization has left me feeling very, very alone. I've spent the last four days sobbing in Vanta C, reflecting on the life I left in Portland, amazed at how easily we move on. So quickly we adjust to vacancies in our lives! It's humbling to know that life goes on at home without me, and unnerving that I've found it so easy to leave that life behind. I suppose the ease with which we move on is further proof that we are not our distractions, our jobs, or our loved ones. We are inherently alone, no matter what we do to keep ourselves occupied. I've spent a lot of time in the last two years keeping myself occupied. Now that I've taken away the distractions, the silence and solitude intimidate me. I'm terrified to be present to myself and my emotions, but refuse to let fear keep me from going there.

So, I take a deep breath, close my laptop, and go outside, where I find Mama Kitty curled up, sleeping. "It's really not so bad, is it?" I ask her, and she arches up, purring as I scratch behind her ears.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Something to keep you happy

I'd originally had the feeling that my time in Michigan would be a hiatus from my "real" Vantasy. I felt that it wouldn't really count, because it would be easy. I'd get showers, I'd have electricity, I'd have ample time to work on Vanta C's imperfections, I'd eat baked dinners. I figured I wouldn't blog much, because I just wouldn't have much to say.

And I haven't done much writing, but not because I've had nothing to say. It's... It's that I've had too much to say. Too many idea cattle have been stampeding my brain and I can't seem to catch even one in my verbal lasso, let alone name it, let alone tame it.

So, while I work on my next entry, which will be an inside look at last week's emotional breakdown, you fine folks can check out my progress!

I haven't added all of the pictures yet, but it's a good start.

Tonight I sleep in Ann Arbor, and leave Michigan and my family tomorrow to continue my great journey.

Onward and forward,

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