It’s hard to know where a story like this begins — impossible, actually. Where do any of us begin or end? Life is a circle (cue Lion King soundtrack), and a circle is an alive thing, full of movement: a shape that is always returning to itself.
It doesn’t matter so much where we begin, and it doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to exist.
We might as well start with the carpet.
Sam and I had been living together for several months. We weren’t engaged yet — that would come later. It was summer, and I’d just started practicing yoga. I’ve heard a lot of stories like this: Yoga comes along, and it’s like the furniture in your home starts to rearrange itself without your permission. And not only without your permission, but why in the ever-loving-fuck are massive, inanimate objects moving themselves around your home??? It’s disorienting to say the least, but to say the most, it’s like this: I wrote to a yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon around that time and asked her what the hell was happening in my life. She replied, “Yoga will take everything from you, and give you back everything you actually need.”
So I guess in some way, I expected it.
I’d recently picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love. I’ll put you at ease right now: No, this was not the point at which I decided to take off on my own Elizabeth Gilbert adventure. I didn’t have any notions that all my life really needed was a love affair in Bali. I’d travelled alone before, and I knew that what happens when you travel alone is exactly what happens when you’re sitting at a traffic light on a Tuesday in Milwaukee: You’re with yourself, no matter what, and wherever you go, there you are.
I knew this for certain on the day I was leaving Florence for Venice, standing in the middle of Santa Maria Lucia train station with a miniature cappuccino in my hand, struck suddenly by a giant advertisement for Converse. Even halfway across the world, I could be standing in the same shoes being advertised. The world would always be my mirror, and we’re never really alone; some aspect of ourselves goes out before us, holding court for our arrival, where new places become familiar, and the familiar reminds us of what we were never without.
So no, I didn’t jump ship and swim for Bali just because I read a book about some other chick doing it. What did happen, though, was that I remembered myself. Because the thing that traveling alone does do that a traffic light in Milwaukee on a Tuesday doesn’t is offer you wide berth — freedom and space are the luxuries of time spent wandering the planet that, if you can stay with the discomfort and weird food long enough, can start to show you who you are when you’re not on autopilot.
When you pick yourself up out of days upon days where your sole purpose is to grind yourself through some hours that will make you money so that you can try to recover on the weekend, and then do it all over again when Monday rolls around, you start to ask maybe the biggest question there is to ask (at least at the point at which you’re asking it):
Who am I, and what am I doing here, if I’m not just surviving?
Let me back up.
I don’t come from much in the way of opportunity — at least not the kind of opportunity many people would think of as opportunity. There were no silver platters coming my way; if there were any platters at all, they’d have been made of something hand-carved and worn, stained with memory and showing the marks of generations before me: poor people who rose from the dry dirt of Southern California, already tired from a young age.
And then there was my mother. There’s this one picture of her from when she was maybe 17 years old, and she is so, so beautiful. Striking in an almost painful way, with dark auburn hair and turquoise eyes tracing the silhouette of sadness somewhere out on the horizon. She was the second oldest of six children, and her parents were not sweethearts. In one story, my mother’s father broke his hand he hit her so hard. In another, her mother beat the shit out of her for wetting the bed when she was maybe 6 years old, and too scared to go down the hallway to the bathroom by herself. After that, she started keeping a glass by her bed, would pee into it in the middle of the night, then toss it out the window in the morning.
How, then, my mom managed to survive as such a creature of magic is a little beyond me. I grew up with her dragging me to poetry readings, and I knew all the lyrics to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack by the time I was 8 (even though I’ve still never seen the live show). My mother kept her hand held out to try to catch as much beauty as possible, and when she could, she gave it back as a gift to me. One of my favorite childhood memories is of lying on my mom’s bed in the sun, while finches flew around the bedroom chirping in contentedness. She could create a Secret Garden out of three square feet of tilled earth, and never once did she turn me away when, sometimes at 1am, I’d creep into her bedroom with my guitar and a new song I was writing, asking if I could play it for her.
But she was in pain, and we both knew it. This shared knowing between us — my mother in her suffering, and me as the unwavering witness of it — made our relationship feel like the Brea Tar Pits sometimes: thick, dark, volatile and potentially suffocating. Maybe in this way my mother and I were the same back then: always trying to dust off our knees after the shit storm of our upbringing.
When my mom went back to school in her 50s to get a degree in Creative Writing, I saw for the first time what might happen when we question what it is we come here to do on this planet, despite whatever horrors brought us screaming to life, and the ways we cannot — if we’re going to stay sane — avoid the urgency of our souls’ push to know itself through the lives we create.
So that afternoon, I attempted a yoga practice at home. Perched by the floor-to-ceiling window in the bedroom I shared with Sam, I had no idea what I was doing. Even trying to figure out what to do with my body without a teacher chirping instructions at me was like trying to figure out how to use a spoon for the first time: What is this shiny curved madness?? Where do I put it?! Where’s the useful bit, and how will I know when I find it??!?
It reminded me of being probably 9 years old laying in bed one night, trying to fall asleep, going over an episode of In Living Color I’d just seen. They’d done some bit out of speaking Spanish ironically, complete with signs and the phonetic pronunciation of a few choice words. I chuckled to myself, replaying the scenes in my mind, while my mom caught whatever was on next in the living room.
It wasn’t until I heard my mom ask, “What did you just say?” with a little bit of concern in her voice, that I realized I’d been speaking Spanish (the words from In Living Color, at least) out loud from beneath my fuzzy pink afghan.
I froze, hands over my mouth, suddenly paralyzed and totally embarrassed that I’d let Inner Me slip out into the world, unguarded and undefended — a feeling like accidentally stumbling naked out onto a busy street corner, looking roughed-up and dirty, not sure what to do with my two hands and my more than two vulnerable lady parts. And of course, the door that just spat me out onto the street has disappeared.
That’s what it felt like when Sam walked in on me doing yoga. I’d never done yoga in front of anyone who wasn’t also doing yoga — and hadn’t I told him not to come in the bedroom, and that I needed a little time, for fuck’s sake, to be alone???
My heart threw itself into spastic shock and I practically toppled over as he blew through the bedroom door to grab his baseball cap or whatever was so important. “Looks good, sweetheart!” he chortled at me, and then returned to his spot on the couch watching college football.
I pressed my forehead into the carpet. I hated him so desperately — for scaring me, for existing — as I breathed in the years other people had lived there on that carpet, and walked there, and had tiny heart attacks there.
What am I doing?
My pulse raced all over my body — in my ankles, behind my knees. I started to sweat.
I reached for Liz, finding one dog-eared page:
“The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving.”