Where Do I Go From Here

Part 2

I will spare you the details of t20161230_020543.jpghe ugly tears, rest stops, and pouring rain that devoured my drive from Calaveras County to Barstow, California, except to say that for the first hour or so I drove hesitantly in a very roundabout way to the interstate, stalling I suppose, in case he (by now, definitely my ex) called back begging me for forgiveness, or in case I decided the trip was too overwhelming. By the time I merged on to 5 South, I was committed. I had not yet begun to cry. I had the stereo turned up, and a happy dog at my side. I hoped he would call, so I could tell let him know that I had, in fact, gone on without him.

Time passed quickly. There were things I needed to do along the way, like get groceries and fill the cooler, let Reddog run every so often, pull out the atlas and make a plan.

In 2011, I took a job at Yellowstone National Park. It was an unforgettable summer for many reasons, and it was also the first time I drove across state lines on my own. It was the only time, really. I did it as quickly as I could, and I traveled a route that my father had taken the few times in my youth when we had vacationed in the park. I barely stopped at all, except to get gas and to sleep. I guess it was kind of a road trip, but there was an agenda and a due date. This time, on one of the last days of 2016, for the first perceivable time in my life, I could do whatever I wanted.

Let me go back a little. I don’t want to sound like I was overly sheltered or something.

I was a sensitive child. I cried a lot. I was a tattletale. I was second in line of four girls. I never sought attention, but secretly I always wanted more. I was the kind of kid who would wish for a fatal disease to strike, or a broken limb, or something else that was terrible if it meant I would be fawned over. My sisters all seemed to have something that made them stand out, something that made them the center of attention. I felt like I was cast in a shadow all the time. It turns out I was a very fortunate child, healthy in most ways. Only, I was an introvert.

I didn’t learn to make choices because I was stuck in my own head. I had conversations all day with myself about what to do and what the consequences would be. Ultimately, the consequences I devised were the worst options, and did a good job of allowing me to progress in my endeavors. My childhood quirks translated into teenage angst, and college “creativity.” Really, I felt for most of my life that I was an outsider, or like I was lost at sea trying to find a place to land my ship. I was always waiting for a beacon, someone to come along and call me ashore. All that called me were sirens.

Now, if we go back to the interstate, I can tell you that I never made real choices before. I let other people make them for me. I was, and still am, actually afraid of making the wrong decision, mainly because I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I do, and by people, I really mean my family. So, back in the car, just me and my dog, I had full control of the trip. I don’t think I even told my family that I was going on a trip. I just left. It was security that I would go and not be talked out of it. For me, this was an absolute first. There was no one to fall back on, no one to consult with. I had to make choices or I would fail.

About midday the rains hit. Soon after, so did the tears. I stopped for gas somewhere20170106_160151 along the way, and let Reddog run on a leash in the grass. Anxiety welled up inside me as I continued south. I had to remind myself that this was my chance to prove my independence and freedom. I had to stay the course. I stopped for a while at a park called “Wonderful” where I tossed a ball for Red while mariachi music rang through the clouded sky. It was a wedding or a birthday party or something. There were a couple dozen beer drinking men standing on a patio outside of the community building, dressed nicely, speaking Spanish. Reddog tired after a while, and we went back to the car to get out of the rain. I pulled out the atlas for the first time, weighed my options, and decided to head for Barstow, a little stop along Route 66. From there it seemed I’d be able to catch 10 below Joshua Tree.

The sun went down, the rain kept falling, so did the tears, but I made a decision. I got from Point A to Point B. When I got to Barstow, I tracked down one of the cheapest hotels on the main drag, and slept peacefully with my pup beside me.

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Where Do I Go From here?

Part 1

I sat on the side of the highway in my freshly cleaned Ford Focus. It had been dubbed The Little Red Rider, by some of my colleagues at the Forest Service. My beloved Australian shepherd sat up straight in the back seat, concerned for why we had stopped. An empty cooler and a dufflebag, a sleeping bag and tent, and a box of assorted wines occupied the trunk space. I was on my way to pick up my boyfriend for a much needed vacation. I hadn’t had one in at least six years, and had almost forgotten what they were.

The excitement of the trip turned to unease as cars blew past me on the highway. My heart was heavy when I took his call. And it sank even further when he said, “The washer’s broke.”

“So you’ve made up your mind, then?” I asked him. I wasn’t concerned about his washing machine. It was clear that he was looking for an excuse not to go. To be truthful, we had been fighting an awful lot. Our relationship was failing well before the trip came about. It was in part because I had been offered a job on the other side of the Stanislaus. The commute between us wasn’t terribly far, but given our recent outbreaks it seemed unlikely that we’d be able to maintain a long distance relationship. In a fit of anger the day before, I had given him an ultimatum, the first I’d ever given: come with me, or never see me again.

“Yeah,” he said. “Go without me.”

I hung up the phone without a word, and fell into a bit of a panic.

Upon reflection, really, maybe it was a good thing.

Several minutes passed, and the world kept whizzing by my window. Reddi whimpered from the back seat, aware of the strain I was under. Fear turned to sadness which was dissipated by anger, then fear again. I had a decision to make in this brief pause, and I knew I had to make it quickly before old habits sank in.

I weighed my options:

  1. Continue to my (ex)boyfriend’s house and beg him to come with me. I had never been on a road trip by myself before, and I really was afraid. He knew me well, and would certainly understand that. He often sought that sort of reaction from me—a fight, me angry and crying, affirmation that he was right about whatever, his victory. We would waste a day at his house crying over our failure as a couple, and we’d ultimately take an overnight trip to a place of his choosing. We’d prolong the inevitable.
  2. I could turn around and go back home where I’d cry over a gallon of ice cream while licking my wounds and watching Netflix. Call it a loss, and let year seven go by without a vacation. This was the typical reaction that I could count on. I have always given up too easily when my heart was shattered, and shattered it was. It’s a fragile piece.
  3. I could drive. I could go wherever I wanted, money and time permitting, and I could embrace my new freedom. I could do something else for a change. I could become something else.

In my heart I already knew what I wanted, and that’s why I didn’t have much time to think. The longer I took, the more likely I was to give up.

Reddi climbed over the console to the front seat. She looked at me with a broken toothed grin. She was always happy to be wherever I was. Her objective in life was to make me happy. Had I taken any longer I might have forgotten that, I tossed my phone in the back, put on my left blinker, and stepped on the gas. It was freedom, this time, for the win.

The World is Frightening

 

1923165_1023539317233_2298929_nThe world after education is a frightening place. When I was in college I believed that I could do anything I wanted. I suppose my loftiness was inflated by academia and dormitories. I was the cool and quiet writer type, often caught with a book in my hands, belly down on the grass. Eventually I became the upper-class elite, a title granted only by academic stature. Life is easy in college because all you have to do is show up. I was not prepared for the world that awaited.

I moved across the country after school. I went to Chicago. It’s a city that is simultaneously beautiful and awful. It was there that I got my first taste of the horror that is the Real World. In Chicago I learned to tread water. All the while I was drowning in debt.

It was 2008. The city was bankrupt. There were no jobs, or at least not for a recent graduate. As the fall of that year turned to winter, I noticed that along with the cold, there was a subtle darkness over the city. It was never quiet, never peaceful. The lovely architecture was shrouded in a layer of soot. The wind blew through the streets and cast a terrible stink over the busy and driven citizens. At night I dreamt that the buildings would awaken, their dark eyes pealing open, giant fists pulling free from their foundations, and they would crawl out into Lake Michigan, sprawl over the suburbs, creating concrete moraines in their paths.

I missed my home state of California every minute.  After a year I moved home.

Since then, I have worked an incredible number of jobs, all incredibly different, and each another stroke as I tried to keep afloat. I have rarely lived in a reasonable or realistic place for a person seeking decent work, mainly because the cost of my debt has prevented me from affording living expenses. But each job has yielded some kind of experience that has led to the next promotion.

The problems I have encountered since leaving school continue to multiply even as I work harder and harder to fight my debts. I am a stunted child.

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$90,000.

That is what I owe. That is the number that after all of the continuous payments I have made never shrinks.

$90,000 could have been a house.

$90,000 could have been a car and house.

$90,000 could have been spent traveling the country.

It could have been spent writing and getting published.

Without that debt, I could have had the freedom to take risks, to invest, to allow my work to follow me, rather than always chasing paychecks.

That debt doesn’t go away. It has come to define me. I am flat broke, always.  I have tried everything I can think of to make it disappear, but there it is, always mocking me. Because of it I have always had to work. I have most often worked many jobs at a time. I work side jobs, part time jobs, full time jobs, seasonal jobs, any kind of jobs I can get my hands on.

I have found one benefit to having this beast lurking beneath my feet in the puddle that is my life; I have become more creative in my ventures. I have learned to take risks, but they are different now. I have made myself available and put my mind on the page.

Why the Locals Hate You

A piece of purple plastic lay atop a bank of fresh snow. I bent down and picked it up. There were more shards of purple plastic below on the hill. It was a cheap sled that had been purchased and used and discarded in the parking lot. I stepped over the bank, dug my heals in and let my weight slide me to the bottom. The sled had splintered in the cold, and each piece I picked up left two more behind. Once I had gathered them all, I climbed back to the top and tossed them in the bed of my truck where they would rattle around with a supply of open water bottles, beer cans, and other trash on the drive back down the highway to my office.
The day was reminiscent of my first winter in Chicago. The city was blanketed with fresh white powder in the evening, giving it the appearance of a place that was pure and clean. By morning, the snow was a steel gray, covered with soot from industry and passing cars. The snow and ice would slowly melt on the warmer days revealing layer upon layer of forgotten receipts, stray gloves, and piles of dog poo. Each storm cycle brought a moment of refreshing cleanliness followed by a day of dirt and deterioration. A city that glimmered in its winter coat became dingy and old with the beginning of thaw.
That was how it happened on the mountain, though the natural landscape usually held an expectation of purity in its own right. Gleaming snow hung heavily on the branches of pines and firs. It appeared in its enormity over the vast hills of the landscape removing all trace of human existence except near the pull outs and ski slopes where people parked and left their temporary marks. Objects left behind were buried each storm, only to be recovered in a wet pile at winter’s end.
I am a transplant. I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, moved to the Inland Empire, then to the Windy City, before establishing my roots in a small town low in the Sierra Nevada. I no longer travel to the woods to find solace, I live there. In the years since I have become a “local” I have seen many treasures of the forest. Not only are their National Parks like Yosemite that bring millions of visitors a year, but there are off-the-beaten-path campgrounds and hiking trails to jewel-like lakes that rarely receive the warmth of human contact. There are waterfalls, ancient groves of trees, canyons, and peaks. There is beauty and there is adventure. It is no wonder that so many people make the long trek from their homes amongst the populous to seek out their own bit of peace. Each year, especially since America’s recovery from the recession, more vacationers opt for the closer and less expensive camping retreat over the cost of a luxury vacation.
But with the millions of people who flood the forests in the summer and winter months comes as much garbage as each can carry with them. Most people are ingrained with a sense of respect for the wildlands they encounter. Most people make the extra effort to clean up after themselves. Most, but not all. It seems there are always purple plastic sleds, diapers, water bottles, gloves, and scraps of paper left behind by people unwilling to cart their refuse back down the highway where the trash had once been novelty product. Once one person drops a candy wrapper in the snow, more are sure to follow. And each time a wild treasure is discovered by the public it becomes exposed and defiled. Spray painted graffiti coats ancient granite and discarded garments take rest in the duff. Beer cans and bottle caps litter the places that one group of people sought haven for a day. Each time this happens, dedicated locals who have spent their lives in these natural surroundings grow more resentful of tourists as their little gems lose their luster. These same people carry trash bags on their packs wherever in the forest they travel. Instead of fishing and swimming, they spend their days off walking the river’s edge collecting cans, plastic, and paper scraps.
I sympathize with them. I want those places to remain hidden and pristine. But being a transplant they are not my birthright. I, like many, only know of the most beautiful places because I gained the trust of the locals. I have kept those secrets sheltered, but with the influx of visitors, those secrets have slipped out into the open by people who are probably more trustful of their neighbors and friends. People who are not stewards of the land, who can leave a place trashed knowing that whatever they have left will be gone the next time they make the long trip, make their way to last of the beautiful places. I know there is no stopping the migration of people. I accept it. I want people to share in my experiences, but I want them to do it as a guest to nature, not a force of dominance.
I have made my living as an educator and a steward of the land. I have spent many hours cleaning up after the slovenly few who have desecrated our forests. I will spend many more. But I continue to advocate the human right to enjoy natural spaces. Please respect your public lands and take your plastic with you.

It’s Okay to Quit

I grew up with working parents. Between night shifts, double shifts, daycare, and television nannies, my sisters and I were raised to work hard. We did chores everyday with scorn for our friends and cousins who received allowances. Our pockets were empty, but there were always expectations; expectations for good grades, that dishes would be cleaned, beds made, animals fed, floors swept, that we wouldn’t complain, that we would appreciate the things our parents provided. And they did provide. We always had food, Christmas meant new toys, maybe some cash for our birthdays, musical instruments for our betterment, and sports for our health. We learned respect, and we learned to share. Though we were not permitted to get summer jobs with our friends for fear that it would conflict with our educations and our few years left to act like kids, we were given a strict work ethic. We watched our parents start at the bottom and work their ways up. We were expected to do better by going to college.
So I did.
I earned my degree in 2008, and moved to Chicago to actualize my dream of becoming a writer. That was the year the city went bankrupt. There were no jobs for writers fresh out of college. There were no jobs at all, except in the grocery store, where I worked nearly every day of the week to accumulate a part time schedule of twenty-four hours total. I even took hours at another location that was a two hour train ride-bus ride-walk away. My only saving grace was a grace period on my loans, and a cheap apartment split four ways. It was a cold winter, a hungry year, and an adventure that I will never forget. It ended with me moving back to California, to my parents’ new home in the countryside, where jobs were equally as scarce.
I took another job in a grocery store, the only thing I could find that was close enough for me to travel to, still not having a car of my own, where I worked scattered hours in the deli, still only part time. I put in applications everywhere, but no one would take me. I just didn’t have the required experience.
I stayed at that job for three years. I worked my way up to full time. I became the night baker, and made a few pennies more an hour for working overnight. My hours were atrocious—12am-9am. And I began taking classes at the local community college, an hour away in Sonora, during the day. I barely slept.
I would go to school in the morning and stay for about ten hours. With the commute, I was away from home for about twelve hours. I had under two hours to try to sleep, an endeavor that I usually failed, before I had to leave for work. I often started my night in the freezer gathering my frozen doughs for baking, a job that should have been completed by the last shift, but was often overlooked. I’d lay out my dough to thaw and set the oven and proofers to roaring. The flies would buzz back to life in the warmth, and I’d try to spray them with insecticide as requested by the manager. I would wipe down my counters which were usually covered in bleach as a shortcut to proper cleaning by the last shift, and gather my spices and tools for the night. With any luck, there would be workable dough within an hour, and I would knead and shape and proof and bake. Once I could start the baking process, time would pass quickly into the early hours of the morning. My breads would fill the racks, and the smell of donuts would fill the town. Around 6am my boss would send me a list of specialty items that were needed at other locations where ovens had broken or other emergencies had transpired, and with frustration, I would begin again. When that was done, an hour or so before my shift was to end, I would try too package all of my product. I almost always worked through lunch because of the demanding oven timers, and I always stayed over, without pay, to finish packaging and cleanup. New products were a common requirement. Special orders were a daily customer request. Several times a week I would have to create a list of products for order, and a list of things for my coworkers to remove from the freezer, which they often forgot. I did these things without sleep. I grew accustomed to forty-eight hours at a time without any rest. I fell asleep on the road several times.
I asked my boss for help on many occasions. I wanted help packaging. I wanted to be paid for my overtime. I continued to work faster and sleep less. It didn’t change a thing. Instead, she changed my schedule to two day shifts and three night shifts a week, leading to less sleep than before.
I was beginning to snap. I could feel the neurons in my brain firing at will. My brain was breaking.
It began with auditory hallucinations. I covered them up by playing loud music all the time; Jewel, Springsteen, RHCP, CCR, rock, pop, rap, country. There was always music. But in no time the hallucinations became visual. I was seeing ghosts. They were everywhere. There was girl who hid behind the mixer. Something shadowy in the freezer. Glowing eyes in the closet. And I couldn’t sleep no matter how hard I tried. I believe I actually went insane.
I thought about quitting for a long time. But with nobody hiring I was afraid of not having a paycheck to cover the cost of my student loans. At just over minimum wage, I was barely able to make those payments, and I never saved a dime. I couldn’t take sick days or vacation. An offer had been made to the girl whom I replaced to take the title of Head Baker, for permanent status and benefits. She left, and the offer was never made to me. I was in a bind.
So for three years I kept it up.
I busted my butt through each holiday, through hour decreases, and received one twenty-five cent raise in three years, and was reprimanded many times for working off the clock, and even more for not finishing my job (so I’d work off the clock). In my inexperience, I did not understand that the pressure put on me was to prevent a lawsuit, though I could have had a case anyway.Three years of putting up with a miserable life, of rarely seeing daylight, of never moving up, and I really did snap.
To top it off, I had become the victim of the rumor mill. I had lost a significant amount of weight, likely due to how unhealthy I had become from sleep deprivation, and was suddenly getting attention from men all over town. The bakery-deli was run entirely by women. They felt threatened. The day before I quit, I walked into the bakery and caught my boss beginning a rumor in which I was sleeping with a barely legal butcher. It wasn’t the first time something like that had been said. That day, I learned where the rumors originated.
I came into work as scheduled, and with my conscience weighing on my chest, I put down my apron on the counter. I was terrified. I had not quit because I didn’t know if there would be another job. I knew my name would be slandered as it already had been out of spite. I stood there for an hour tossing the idea back and forth. There would be time still for me to get my bake done, but if I walked out, I wouldn’t have to worry about it ever again.
Ultimately, my pride won out over my work ethic, and I left. I sent my boss a text message as she had done many times to me. And I left.
Within an hour I was receiving calls from my boss and the area manager all begging me to come back—put in your two weeks, do it right, we’ll try to make changes, you’ll never get a job after this, come back and we’ll help you.
I went home, crawled into bed, and went to sleep. It was the best decision I have ever made.
When I woke up I spent the day filling out applications. I went to every business I could think of, one by one, and dropped off resumes. I spoke to managers and owners. I smiled and shook hands. I had felt so defeated, and here I was afraid and looking at the wild beast that is unemployment. I applied to at least thirty jobs that day. It was a Saturday. I took Sunday off. I went to the mountains to get away, a small vacation, a reward for three weeks of indentured servitude. When I returned home that evening I had several messages on my phone. I had been offered three jobs, no interview necessary. I was at work again on Monday. Despite the flack I got from my parents, teachers, and grandparents for being a quitter, I made the right decision. I could not get a better job without quitting the one I had. I could not move forward if I stagnated in the bakery. Everything was fine. I was fine. Did not need to waste my time.

Homemade

My dad makes the best pies. His crust is always perfectly buttery and flaky. His apples just soft enough without becoming mush. His pumpkins or squash flavored exquisitely. The syrup from berries thick and rich. My grandparents have also been known to make the most delicious baked goods, from cakes to bars and cookies. I have been dubbed a baker as well. I have won competitions in the past, and it was my profession for years. None of us bake very often anymore. Baking is our lineage, our legacy, but the tradition is losing its trajectory. Even still, we are homemade.

We didn’t go out to eat much when I was a kid. Between my parents, they made all of our dinners, breakfasts, and bag lunches until my sisters and I were old enough to help. We learned to cook. We made simple dishes: whole roasted chicken, pasta with Italian sausage, biscuits, pancakes, and tacos. We always had something with meat, some kind of carbohydrate, and a side of vegetables, usually boiled.Occasionally the boiled vegetables were replaced by a green salad that was drenched in ranch dressing. Maybe we’d saute our asparagus with butter and onions.

And then there were cookies. My dad and I spent many hours bouncing ideas off of each other for the fair. Chocolate dipped orange shortbread sandwiches, triple layer chocolate fudge cakes, lemon bars, fruit tortes, peanut butter blossom cookies (Best of Show winners), mint wafer cookies, chocolate brownies (also Best in Show), pies, jams and jellies, and anything else we could come up with to win. Every day for years it seemed we had butter softening on the counter, and as I grew older I also grew wider. But that didn’t matter back then, not as much as that first bite of those perfect confections, with the heavenly aroma wafting through the house. I was proud of my success. I was proud to carry on our family traditions. But I never seemed to notice the fat that stuck to my bones.

I have dealt with my weight for most of my life. By “dealt with” I mean I always thought my weight was a problem even when it wasn’t. I was never overweight until college, but I was always larger than my friends. Most of them were skinny enough to reveal ribs, to wear bikinis without shame, to put on strapless shirts and dresses without fear of falling out. At one time in my twenties I lost an entire sixty pounds in a year. I had stopped baking at that point, and never really picked it up again, but still managed to gain back all but the last ten pounds.

Here I am now, realizing that as hard as my parents tried to teach me to eat healthy, they did not know what healthy eating was. All of our home cooked meals were disproportionate, derived from the cravings of one person or another, and far lacking in fiber. We are meat eaters and white flour pasta, butter and oils, and plenty of sugar. We’re not exactly strangers to fast food, but we don’t need it to get fat.

Here I am now with a diabetic mother and three diabetic uncles. I switched to drinking black coffee this year, an act that was easy enough, but still leaves me wanting for a mocha with heavy whipped cream on occasion.

Here I am now, thirty years old, without a fitness schedule, with fifty additional pounds on my arms and stomach and thighs, with an ever tightening work uniform, and a tongue that protests fruits and vegetables alike. I do eat them, I really do, but not near as often as I should.

Here I am, trying to figure out how to eat healthy, how to lose weight, how to be happy in my own skin. Here I am, reminiscing about brownies and cookies, warm and fresh and sweet out of the oven, and cursing myself for buying a pint of ice cream. As often as I get cravings for the rich foods that I grew up with, the ones I still make, I spend time looking up recipes that are supposedly better and healthier for me. It is an addiction. I surf the internet for hours, yet I’m still not sure what makes food healthy. I still don’t know how to eat a meal without wanting to vomit it up moments later (I have never been bulimic, but it has crossed my mind countless times). I don’t know how to say no to sweets and junk food. I can’t say yes to apples. In the same way that I wonder how my friends can afford to live alone in apartments or houses, I wonder how their dietary habits are different from mine. I wonder how I have come to have to regard for my body. 10421581_10203140216174759_6742501319574761890_n

Here I am, homemade. 5’7”, 200lbs.

 

A Pledge to Let the Voices Out

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I’ve heard that all the stories have been told. Certainly there are quests and monsters and death and rebirth in various shapes and cognitions. Certainly there are lovers and fighters. There are humans and animals. There is the Great American West. I have read many, and I find them all valuable. Storytelling is our inheritance. Every culture, society, individual has a story, even if it has played before, that is unique in its voice and character. I want to find them. I want to tell them.

Stories flood my brain and flow through me. They spill from my lips and my fingertips. I strain to hold them back long enough to take a deep look into the turbid pool of imagination. I sink a hook and try to get a bite. Sometimes, like trout, the story just nibbles away like a minnow. Sometimes it gets away. Sometimes I land it, reel it in, hold its cold body in my hands and wrench the hook from its mouth. Sometimes I throw it back.

When the floods stop I wonder whose voice it was that guided me. Is it mine? Was I born with something inside me that has, my whole life, been trying to escape? Is there truly a muse? Or are the stories mine at all? When I write the girl who is clenching her fingers tightly against the string on a red balloon is she mine or did I take something from her? What about the man in a striped tie and brown trench coat waiting for dinner at the deli counter, is he telling a different story from the one I have provided? Is it wrong for me to put him to paper, or has the muse brought him to me on purpose? However likely it is that they find themselves in my writing, the dam can only hold back so much. They, or someone like them, will be pulled from the pool on the end of a hook.

Sometimes, like now, I leave the pool for too long and it stagnates. It grows thick with algae and mosquito larvae. Everything else dies back. There is an awful stench. I hate myself for letting it happen. So, like now, I dredge out the silt and slime and try to invite the fish back in. I want diversity. I want voices in my head. I miss them when I am away.

This is my authorial blog. A place for my voice, my voices, to be revealed, to become refined, to wither when the story ends.