As recent circumstances have forced me to find a straighter spine, I find myself walking taller than normal and finding an effervescent glow. In between teaching up to 12 yoga classes a week and reading books and finishing a massively long manuscript focusing on The Golden State and other personal confessions, I am taking a digital detox from social media and other outlets that keep me from my projects. I mean these projects. This year, as I wrote in my last blog, I have been writing with glee in such fury and deep longing, I finally had to stop writing this one story, that’s gone on too long. Sometimes personal confessions in essays about life and struggle make for the best reading. That’s what I have discovered this year in reading more Joan Didion books than I can count on one hand. Prior to Joan’s death, I had read only three:
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN.
There is no coincidence in the fact that Joan is from the Golden State and so is my other favorite essayist writer/thinker, Phyllis Theroux. In fact, it was when I was in staying at a writer’s cottage in Ashland, VA, that happened to belong to my favorite nonfiction author at the the time, Phyllis Theroux. I loved Phyllis. I loved her straight forward attitude her strong womanly presence and guiding force that led me to book a one night two day stay there, to just write alone by myself in her cottage. I had just attended my niece’s college graduation in Columbia, SC. I was supposed to take the train up to Ashland, VA, but there was a death on the train tracks on the the route headed to where I would be boarding…so needless to say, I had to find another way to make it to this writer’s cottage I had dreamed of staying in and even created a Pinterest board to dream about on Pinterest.
Imagine me boarding a greyhound bus at 2 am, my only other option to make it to my dreamworld. I wore a baseball cap and sweats. I was in a unique world where I felt as if I was a visiting another world that didn’t belong to me. I purposely sat right next to the bus driver, hoping to make sure he stayed awake the whole route, which I did for the most part, but soon realized my effort was wasted, because this man was born to drive all night with alert eyes, under in blue greyhound hat.
The road that led to Ashland, VA, north had a barricade of trees on each side. The horizon was hidden from view. Nothing existed except greyhound bus driving with headlights, shining down the road, while all of the passengers slept except myself and the man born to drive the greyhound bus, with such pride in the wee hours of the morning.
We pulled into a bus stop half-way to Ashland, somewhere in North Carolina, to board another bus. Inside the bus stop I wore my sunglasses, because high beam neon lights were too intense for any human being. Others didn’t seem to notice. The floor had white tiles with, dingy dirt in shoe patterns. There was a yellow crime scene tape over the man’s bathroom. I tried hard not to think of the elicit crime that could have taken place may only hours before as the id channel played FORENZIC FILES (a personal favorite) over little television monitors that hung from the ceilings, blaring the shotty sound of the a narrator’s voice through its tiny speakers. Outside by the bus, a mental ward bus just pulled up just as all of the passengers, including myself were about to board. The major detail, I haven’t mentioned is there was a big man, maybe 6’5 in overalls and a white shirt that kept trying to speak to everyone. Do think OF MICE AND MEN here, do think of Lenny.
It was as if he had come to life in the form of this man in my mind and he was real and alive inside the bus stop somewhere in The South at 5 a.m. I watched him for one hour trying to speak to others. He never did approach me. Maybe it was the sunglasses that kept him at bay.
And, when the mental ward van had pulled up, and two cop cars, I was thankful to be boarding the next bus to Ashland, VA, so I could experience the dream writer’s cottage. The trip getting there felt like something out of a Stephen King novel. I was merely the passenger observing the story.
When you ride on a bus, especially as a young woman, it’s imperative to choose your own seating. I always wait toward the end, so I don’t have to end up by some man that might be trying to slip me some weird hand rub on my thigh. However, this time, my theory didn’t work well. The man that I had compassion for, yet, tried to avoid that reminded me of Lenny from one of my favorite American Authors, well, of course, he sat next to me…right across the isle.
I was on the end seat next to a retired gentleman from New Jersey, that was coming up from Florida to meet some family for weekend ballgame somewhere. He was wearing his jersey, all ready for the game. He said to me,
“Wow, we got lucky, hey? What’s with that guy? Maybe not all there?”
“Something like that, maybe,” I responded.
And as the bus pulled away from the bus stop with the yellow tape in front of the man’s restroom, the mental ward van lights just came on, too. I wondered which person they took? I never did see. I assumed it might be Lenny sitting next to me.
What was fascinating about this big man with pink skin without a bag or any belongings, except for empty water bottles in a see through plastic bag, was you could feel the entire bus as a whole unit have empathy for this man. No one said a word to him and allowed him to speak loudly and do his thing, regardless of how disruptive it was. His hands were so large, and body so over powering, maybe we all thought it best, to let him do his thing, too.
I kept my sunglasses on and tried to look to the left by the man from New Jersey, when suddenly, it felt as if I had just drifted off to sleep, yet, we were pulling up to Providence, VA. As my eyes began to focus, I couldn’t believe we had already arrived. I guess my nervous system finally shut off, after staring at the high way with the first bus driver and worrying about Lenny and if he was going to be okay. He had announce he didn’t know where he was going in Providence. No one said a word.
When I started looking around, the New Jersey man elbowed me and said:
“Wow, that’s some talent. You went out like a light. Even the big man didn’t disturb your sleep. That’s impressive.”
“No, I mean, it. Sitting upright on a greyhound bus in the morning sunlight, with that man next to us, you didn’t budge, do you live in Providence?”
“Yes,” I heard myself respond. I didn’t want to tell a stranger my details. I could tell, though, he knew I was covering up on my destination.
“Well, wherever you are going, be safe, kid. And, let’s say a pray for that, guy, right?” He elbowed me again.
And as we pulled into the station, Lenny begins monologuing to the bus driver he doesn’t know where to go or what to do. The bus remains perfectly quiet, in unison, feeling compassion at the deepest level for this man. No one stirred, except, Lenny.
“Bus driver, what am I to do? Where I am to go? I don’t know where I am going?”
Then, the bus driver said something I never forgot:
“Man, that’s not my problem. That’s your problem.” He said it with such force and authority, Lenny sat down and became sullen as the bus stopped, and we all began to trickle off one by one.
I said goodbye to The Man from New Jersey. I watched Lenny walk through out the bus stop in a zig zag kind of way that revealed he was just as lost as ever. I thought of John Steinbeck’s book, OF MICE AND MEN, and wished he had a sidekick to take care of him. I often wonder about that man. I wonder if he is okay. I think about that bus drive through The South, in the wee hours of the morning and the journey that took me to my writer’s cottage and how it was all a mishap, you know. I had booked a ticket on Amtrak; there had been a homicide that took me on a detour in the night on trip that still stays fresh in my memory as if it were only yesterday. It wasn’t that long ago, only seven years ago.
So how does this have to do with reading Joan Didion? I discovered THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING on a bookshelf inside the writer’s cottage. The next day, I had lunch with my Phyllis Theroux in the most quaint cafe in town. I was really into college stuff then, for my son. So we discussed raising sons and college things. She shared with me some fun memories of motherhood (I read all of her books, so I knew some of those stories) and I told her I wanted my son to be happy. She told me, there were other things to consider when going to college.
Yes, of course. I thought that was so accurate.
I remember I ordered exactly what she was having. Phyllis looked like maybe a relative of mine. Her skin color reminding me of my mother’s skin color. She told me I was a lovely thing. I told her I loved her books so much.
When we got to the cottage, I asked if we could take a picture together, “Maybe tomorrow.”
She was taking me to the airport. That night inside the writer’s cottage, I wrote on nonfiction YA self-help book that still lays dormant inside another computer of mine, called HARD KNOCKS. I don’t know why, but I lost steam on that one and just published only the draft copy. I was learning my way in publishing books over at CREATE SPACE, before KDP PUBLISHING became the rage. After writing, I found Joan Didion’s book and took it to bed with me, as I slept by myself alone in The South in the Writer’s Cottage I had dream of and finally made my way there. I was on a budget for this little trip, so I swear I ate only oatmeal, wrote in the kitchen with yellow walls and did yoga under the trees in the backyard.
I read Joan’s book all night. The next morning, Phyllis, took me to the airport. I had texted her early saying I could take an UBER if she couldn’t make it, suddenly feeling panicked, I might miss my flight.
When she arrived, she looked so beautiful, her outfit and light makeup. She said, “You didn’t think I would make it, did you?”
I replied, “OH, no, I just didn’t want to trouble you,” which was true, too.
As we drove to the airport, Phyllis told me about apples in California and a dehydrating them. I told her I had heard about those. I had also offered for her to come visit anytime she wanted to, if she came to San Diego.
As we arrived a the airport, I so wanted to ask her for the picture, but I hesitated and gave her a light hug. I didn’t want to intrude on her beautiful private life. She had already been so gracious and kind.
So as I sit her reading Joan Didion’s book RUN RIVER and parts of YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN, by Thomas Wolfe, I remembered how I found Joan’s books and the journey that lead me there that all began with a dream to write at a writer’s cottage. I found out later, that Phyllis and I share the same birthday. I sometimes email her on her birthday when
I can think of it. I am so grateful for that special trip. I miss Lenny, the bus, the man from New Jersey and most of all, Phyllis. I hope I can go back soon and stay longer. I want to thank her for introducing me to my other favorite writer from California, JOAN DIDION.
(Will edit later, add links. It’s late. And, I don’t know what time it is because my phone is off and the world is away from me for now. I am only here with my books, remembering what my heart wants to remember…