I lost a friend today because I was late. Well, maybe not a friend … but someone I liked, who I’d thought liked me, blew up in my face to lasting effect because I kept her waiting fifteen minutes.
The incident hurt surprisingly much.
In the greater context of this year’s overall shittitude it was a small thing. This wasn’t a key relationship, and while it’s possible that she’s been pretending to like me while nursing a growing grudge, it’s more likely that she was just having a bad day and I made a convenient target.
It hurts that she had a valid complaint that I seem powerless to address. I am alwayslate, and no matter how carefully I plan, how early I set my alarm, how fast I drive from here to there, after a lifetime of trying the best I can do is damage control. When I know punctuality is especially important to someone I can usually, with considerable effort and anxiety, keep my lateness within a ten minute margin, which most seem to accept provided I call when on my way to tell them how late I’m going to be, and am sufficiently apologetic when I arrive. Everyone else is best advised to bring a book – or, if waiting annoys you, start without me – I won’t care. I wouldn’t have cared today when my formerly-friendly acquaintance canceled our arrangement. What hurt wasn’t that she got on with her day; it was the ugly and unexpected intensity of her anger, and my powerlessness to answer it.
I won’t defend a bad habit. Instead, here’s some perspective for the benefit of the model clock-watchers out there, and in particular those whose sanity is challenged by us tardies. (I know I’m not alone.)
First, we know our perpetual lateness is annoying – but as annoying as it is to you, it’s embarrassing and frustrating uto us. You see it as rudeness and lack of consideration; we see it as weakness, a defect, a failure to do something everyone else finds easy. We read books and make lists and watch TED Talks, but it’s like dancing: some people have rhythm; others, no matter how religiously they chant the “one-two-three one-two-three one-two-three” of daily life, cannot keep in step with the minute hand. For you it’s easy – you plan your day, you look at your planner, you know how time and distance and traffic fit together, and everything glides so smoothly into place you simply can’t understand how we manage to trip and stumble every damn time.
Well, allow me to enlighten you. Basically, this happens.
I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve concluded that I and people like me have hooked a heel on a loose thread in the fabric of the space-time continuum. We, too, plan our days and check our planners. We can figure out how long it will take to get from here to there, and what the time should be when we leave. We understand the different kinds of “leaving” – the kind that involves stopping what we’re doing, and the kind that involves actually driving through the gate. We know to add five or ten minutes for bumps in the road, and what we have to do before we go, and how long it will take to get our shit together. We figure all that out and then we start our day, and that old minute hand goes ambling around in its lazy circles, and some of the things on our to-do list get done and some don’t. And then our electronic planner twitters a warning … and at that exact moment a quantum cowboy blips into being, lassos our deadline, and vanishes with a resounding fart and a clatter of hooves through the black hole inside the clock on our smart phone – which at that moment typically shows five minutes to our scheduled time of arrival.
Arriving presents its own challenges. Quite often, this happens…
I’d like to say my new year’s resolution for 2019 is to be on time, but I already have a full tureen of bubbling resolutions to toil and trouble over before the Hubbit comes home. And while it turns out that I have two months longer than I thought I did – because he’ll likely be in rehab until well into March – that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of getting from where I am now to … anywhere at all. Time and space are tricksy devils, whether you count with a clock or a calendar.
Doesn’t mean I won’t try, mind you.
Yeah, well … seriously, Yoda, you need to shut the fuck up. Go read a book or something. And if you don’t know by now that there’s more to me than one bad habit, and that I’m worth waiting for, then … yeah. Better you leave without me.
Let’s talk. How do you relate to time, schedules and to-do lists? Whether you are a Tardy or a Timekeeper, how do you feel about the other kind of human? Do you ever secretly think Yoda is a self-righteous pain in the ass?
I’m superstitious about new year, and doubly so when January 1 falls on a Monday. So it bugs me that I’m not more excited about this one.
No resolutions. Not one. For the first time in my life as a self-aware human being, I am not starting a new diet … giving up a bad habit … launching a new budget … changing how I dress … or in any other way aiming to do, think, feel or be anything other than the person I’ve been for the past 363 days.
No, I’m not depressed. That is, of course I am, but I take mind-altering drugs for that now, so any downward-pressing sensation in my brain/heart/lungs/gut is merely the detritus of feelings past, best ignored until it leaks through a crevice, trickles into a crevasse, and drips into the primordial soup that nourishes my crocodile brain.
I’m just … Oh hell, this is the year I turn sixty, so naturally I’ve been doing what many of us do when it dawns on us that the road ahead is shorter than the one behind: I’ve been reconnecting with old friends through Facebook. And I keep bumping into people who are living my life – mine – the one I staked my claim on back before all this adulting started. They went ahead and figured it out – lost the weight, acquired the poise, managed the money, got the stuff, rose as unstoppably as bubbles in a glass of champagne.
Meanwhile I frothed out of the bottle and splashed onto the table.
See, I’ve always thought of myself as the maverick, the joker, the outside-the-boxer who would one day ascend to my full amazingness (by methods undefined probably involving writings of passion and brilliance, but also acts of courage and, of course, wisdom) and astonish everyone who ever didn’t invite me to parties or wrote “could do better” on my report card.
Turns out that instead of a maverick I might be merely disorganized. Turns out that while I’ve been concocting a work history so random that it makes prospective employers flinch and back away, my non-maverick former fellows have, step by patiently consecutive step (or maybe by many wild leaps – how would I know?) made pictures, earned PhDs, transformed communities, invented medical techniques, won awards, walked with lions, built businesses, climbed mountains, published books.
I’m not proud of this part but I’ll tell you anyway: it made me angry. I felt bitter, dissatisfied with my life. Every story I haven’t told, every place I haven’t been, every challenge I haven’t met, every opportunity I’ve fumbled – that was all I could think of as I compared myself with these new old friends. I felt like a mouse in a corner while they were Smaug on his hoard.
To summarize, I’ve been sitting on 2017’s butt and glowering, while 2018 and sixty and a lifetime of wtf-was-that? hurtled down upon me like a drunken locomotive, and really if one’s crawling beggar-like up the steps to Death’s door, dreaming up yet another set of new year resolutions seems … well … a little pointless. (As does unmixing metaphors. Consider this bit as the verbal equivalent of Smaug’s hoard.) I decided I wouldn’t bother to think about it.
But one has to think about something.
So I’ve been stocktaking, wandering through the cluttered warehouse of my life.
Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t have a warehouse. At best, I have a storage unit. And I don’t “wander through it” – I clamber over the old suitcases and cardboard boxes in which I hoard my stash. Heaps here and there are evidence of past efforts to sort, organize and discard old dreams, hopes, plans, ideas, assumptions. I kick them aside and keep searching. This is not a time for sorting; it’s for appraising. Is there anything here of value?
I find concepts unpacked, half-assembled, and discarded. Stories unwritten, half-written, written but untold. Relationships left out in the weather and faded beyond recognition. Promises I never decided not to keep. I find lists – so many lists – to do lists, goals and action plans, names of people I said I’d pray for, great books and extraordinary places. I wonder how much of my life I’ve spent writing lists. Everything I find tugs at me, whispering “Finish me! Fix me! Read me and check things off!” but I yank myself away. Not now. This time is for assessing. Is there anything here that’s complete?
The process is exhausting. I long to find a saggy old chair, wrap myself in a comforter, and lose myself in a book. But not this time.
This time, I look.
And here, and there, and also over there I see the gleam of treasure. It’s not where I thought it would be. It’s not what I planned to collect, yet here it is.
I’ve raised a girl and set her loose to change the world, her way. I’ve made a school and out of it built a family. I’ve strung together words in ways that make me smile. I’ve said “until death do us part”, and I haven’t killed anyone, and we’re still holding on. I’ve taught, and I’ve learned. I’ve been afraid and stood firm anyway. I’ve pulled a lot of dogs out of sad and sent them back out into happy. I’ve planted trees that grow. I’ve loved when I’ve been empty. I’ve forgiven every hurt. I have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched. I have been, and I still am.
And I’m not dead yet.
So what thoughts have you carried with you into this new year?
Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was a student at Rhodes (a university in Grahamstown, South Africa, which was named for good old Cecil the Terrible –
– although white South African schoolkids during the apartheid era knew Cecil John Rhodes as a man who transformed Africa (which was true, actually) and became very rich and powerful (also true) and was a hero (not so much). Sometimes I wonder how teachers think about the stuff they cram into their students heads. Did the teachers of my generation believe what they taught – that pink-skinned adventurers were heroes, that trekkers and pioneers tamed unclaimed territory, and that the stories of Blood River and Thanksgiving had happy endings? Do teachers of any generation know when they’re lying, or care? Or are they the Sean Spicers of the classroom, expressing the opinions of their master without being in any way responsible for them? Do educators collude willingly in the production of lemmings, or are they just doing their job? And when the job is done … how do they feel when they see ignorance elevated to power?)
To get back to the point of this piece – which I started to share a memory, not rant about social engineering – I just read a recent post by one of my favorite bloggers, Victo Dolore, who likes to ponder while she poops. During her sitting time this morning she remembered a day ruined by a misplaced button, and that got me thinking about the time a button very nearly did for me.
It was toward the end of my first year at Rhodes, when I ran for a seat on the Students Representative Council. It’s not usual for first year students to run for the SRC, but I was compelled to do so by my urgent yearning for Freedom.
Rhodes was a little more old-fashioned than most universities in those days, and women’s residences were locked at 8.00PM on week nights. You could stay out later, but you had to sign out and leave through the front door, and there was a curfew. There were always two students on duty to ensure compliance … unless you were one of their friends … which I never was, because I wasn’t cool enough … which is why I had to go into politics. (Maybe that’s how it all started for Ted Cruz.)
However SRC members were presumed to be Highly Responsible People, and also Leaders Of Tomorrow, so they got a back door key and could come and go as they pleased without signing in.
So I ran for office, which entailed attending dinners at various student residences, where I made stirring speeches about my fundamental amazingness and overall fitness for office, which I did about as well as you’d expect of an introverted fat girl with no clue about style. (Well, Abe Lincoln was also odd-looking and unfashionable, so I was in good company, although I didn’t know it, American presidents not being of great significance within the South African educational establishment.)
By the time I addressed the largest of the men’s residences I was feeling pretty confident, almost smooth, and I’d learned how to look directly at people in my audience without actually seeing them (seeing can be disturbing), and I’d practiced enough that I could talk without quavering. Also, I was wearing a new outfit; my mother had made it and mailed it to me especially. It was a chocolate brown skirt that reached just past the fattest part of my calves (in other words, it hid my knees!) and a nylon cream blouse spattered with dime-sized chocolate brown polka dots that was only a little tight across my ever-expanding bazoom.
My speech can only be described as enthralling. Every eye in the dining hall was fixed upon me. I had one friend in the audience who kept sort of flapping his hand in front of his chest, which was a teeny bit distracting, but when glaring didn’t make him stop I ignored him. When I was done, my listeners didn’t merely applaud me – they roared! They stamped their feet! They even whistled! It … was … amazing!
Then I turned back to the high table (where I was seated with various senior types and authority figures) and one of them leaned forward and softly informed me that the blouse button over my bra had popped open.
My mother always was unreliable in sizing buttonholes.
Anyway, it was worth it because I did, in fact, get elected. There were five open seats, and five people running, so my victory was pretty much inevitable. I was put in charge of publicity, which mainly involved getting high on the smell of marker pens while creating posters advertising university events. I did the words – puns, rhymes and wordplay, all hilarious, of course. My friends provided the artistic touch, under the leadership of the only artist among us, who specialized in inserting genitalia into everything she drew – but very subtle, of course. We had to make a lot of posters; apparently they were popular wall art in the dorms.
The SRC meetings were cool. They took place at night and ran well after bedtime, and featured lots of impassioned debate, voting, questions by the student media, demands by student activists, and donuts.
And when there weren’t meetings, I was free to let myself out through the back door and roam around the campus and the town, in the magical dark, alone.
The way it happened was, I left the highway to buy gas, and on my way back to the highway I saw a dog lying just off the on-ramp. As my foot shifted to the brake I saw that someone was already there, so I thought, “Okay, not my problem.”
I was halfway up the ramp before I heard that still, small voice that speaks to all of us, if only we listen. “Go back,” it said.
“What? I can’t reverse down an on-ramp!” I argued indignantly, but I was already braking. I know that voice. I don’t always like what it says, but I’ve learned to pay attention. I reversed down the on-ramp, and I didn’t hit anyone or go off the road or get fined.
When I was close to the dog, I stopped and honked my horn. The man kneeling next to it looked up, and jogged over to my car. In my rear view mirror I saw the dog raise its head, and then move to a more upright position. I realized it wasn’t hurt – it had just been sleeping … but I was there and the man was leaning to peer through my side window so I rolled it down.
“Is that dog with you?” I asked him. “Is it okay?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, and smiled. I glanced at my rear-view mirror. The dog – it looked like a pit bull – was watching us. It looked healthy, well-fed. I looked back at the man. He was dark, and had gray hair in a long braid down his back, and wore a red bandanna. Even with him outside the car I could tell he needed a shower, yet he looked … well, not clean, exactly, but put together, as though he’d taken some trouble. The air billowing in through the open window was hot and heavy, and I turned up the fan on my air conditioner.
That voice wasn’t saying anything. It didn’t need to; I knew what I had to do. I sighed. “You need a ride?” I asked.
His face split in a huge grin. “Yes ma’am!” he replied. “Are you going near Ellensburg?” I was going 100 miles beyond Ellensburg – further than he’d hoped to get that day. We stashed his backpack in the trunk, and the dog, Bubba, jumped into the back seat and settled down with a sigh.
He introduced himself – I’ll call him Cajun. I’ll pick up hitchhikers when the voice says it’s okay, but I don’t feel obligated to entertain them, so I told him I was in the middle of listening to the final book in the “Wayward Pines” trilogy and didn’t want to stop. I brought him up to speed on the story and we listened together, but every now and again he’d drop a comment, and I’d switch off the CD and we’d chat. That’s how I heard his story – in bits and pieces interspersed with the bloody destruction of the last humans on earth – until I decided his story was more interesting than the book.
He told me he was part Cajun, part Mexican, part African, and two parts Native American. He’s been a mechanic for Boeing and a Marine, and a street preacher to the poor. Now, he does construction work and roofing, and picks up odd jobs here and there when he needs to. He’s a musician and songwriter and has supported himself and Bubba more than once by playing on sidewalks and street corners. At the moment his guitar is in Idaho, but he played me one of his songs that he’d recorded on his tablet. The recording wasn’t good, and I really wished it was. That song sounded worth hearing.
His regular-people life fell apart around 2001. The Man kicked him in the ass, so he gave The Man the finger, acquired a backpack, and hit the road. Since then he’s lived on the streets and wandered the highways of the USA, trusting God to provide, which He does mainly through the kindness of strangers. A few years ago he picked up a job in Sedona, Arizona, and within a few weeks he’d saved enough to rent a home. That job was followed by a couple of others. Life was good. He celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2015 by visiting the local animal shelter, where he found Bubba, and since then they’ve been inseparable.
But things fell apart in Sedona too, and soon Cajun and Bubba were back on the road. I was puzzled that he gave up on a place where it seemed he’d been content. This is not a lazy or stupid or unskilled man. He likes a cold beer at each end of a hot day, but he seemed sober to me. I asked him what had happened and he didn’t want to go into detail, but he said, “I don’t define my work as who I am. My purpose is to live in poverty and share God’s love with the discarded people in this earth.”
He has a grown daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. He had planned to connect with her when he passed through Seattle a couple days before I met him, but something went wrong and a payment he was counting on was delayed. He didn’t want to face her with empty pockets so he canceled, and now Seattle was behind him and she was pissed.
“You think she’d have cared that you were broke?” I asked.
“I wanted to at least take her to lunch,” he replied.
“You’re an idiot,” I informed him. “You should go back, or at least apologize.” (I am so good at telling other people how to run their lives!) I don’t know that he cared much what I thought – why should he? – but a bit later he was texting with her. He didn’t want to go back, though – he was focused on his next destination.
Before Seattle, on their way up the west coast, he and Bubba got a ride with a long-haul trucker, who told him all about the trucking life. So he was on his way to Salt Lake City, where he’s signed up for a training course with a trucking company. Not too far down the road he reckons he’ll be able to buy his own truck – apparently trucking companies contract with drivers and help them do that. He was excited at the prospect of having a real home, but one that wouldn’t involve staying put in the same place.
“Do you think of yourself as homeless?” I asked. I was trying to puzzle him out. He’d told me he could not “live the American life”. Some of the things he says sound as though he’s on the road by choice – a hobo rather than homeless. He says he has no regrets. But then he’ll say something else that aches with hurts and disappointments, both suffered and dealt out, and I wonder what he’d change, if he could.
“I can’t afford a home,” he said, and he sounded sad.
“So you’re not like Reacher – just choosing to live on your own terms?” I asked.
“Jack Reacher? Like in the movie?” He laughed. He liked that idea. He said he personally didn’t want a home, but he thought Bubba would like one, and that’s what mattered most.
Just east of the Cascades he asked for a restroom break, so I pulled over in Cle Elum. While he was taking care of himself and Bubba, I texted the Hubbit to let him know I might be bringing someone home for dinner. The way things work with the Hubbit and me is, we each make our own plans and the other accommodates, but each of us has veto power. So I waited an hour or so, until we were near the Tri-Cities, before I said, “Okay, you have three options. I can take the next exit and drop you in town – there’s a McDonald’s, Walmart, etc. Or I can take the exit after that one and drop you there; there’s nothing there but you say you do better getting rides from country people. Or you can come on home with me, and tomorrow morning I’ll drop you at the truck stop.”
His eyes lit up, then he looked worried. “But won’t your husband mind?” he asked.
“I texted him hours ago and he hasn’t said no. And he’s used to me picking up strays,” I said. Plus, if the Hubbit won’t remember to keep his phone with him and check for texts from his loving wife who is driving along a lonely highway through the barren wastes of Eastern Washington, that’s on him, right? “You’ll be welcome, so it’s up to you. It looks as though you could use a shower and a washing machine,” I added, ever tactful.
So he came home, and the dogs weren’t assholes when I introduced them to Bubba, and the Hubbit was surprised but welcoming. Well, resigned, anyway – and once Cajun had showered and dinner was on the table, the Hubbit discovered for himself that the company was good, as promised.
Cajun didn’t want the spare bedroom. He pitched his tent under a tree in the back yard. The next day we offered him the option of staying on for a few days, helping out a little on the farm in return for his keep, and giving himself and Bubba a rest – but he was in a hurry to continue his journey. He repacked his backpack – traded me some cheap dog food that the chickens like for the better stuff we feed our dogs, and left a small blanket and an umbrella on the washing machine. I guess when you have to carry everything you own, you don’t hang onto an umbrella during the dry season.
It turned out that the truck stop near us, that I’d planned to take him to, was on the wrong route, so we drove into Oregon, and he kept studying Google Maps on his tablet and saying, “It’s pretty soon … I think the next turn-off … Or maybe the next one.”
“I’m not taking you all the way to Salt Lake City, you know!” I groused – not because I minded so much as I was worried about running out of gas, and it was nearly the end of the month so I’d already run out of money. The truck stop was at the next turnoff after that, and he put $30 in my tank, because he may be homeless but he’s not a bum.
I texted with him while writing this story. I had to ask his permission to use photographs off his Facebook page, and I wanted to check in with him anyway. He’s in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, feeling down in the dumps. It seems people there don’t respond to a “Hungry” sign, and no one is stopping to give him a ride. He’s hoping a trucker will come by soon, because they usually stop when they see Bubba. He’s moving on, going to Laramie, Wyoming, where he reckons he has a better chance of finding work. His course is in September and it lasts a month, and he can’t have Bubba with him while he’s training, so he needs to save up for a boarding kennel.
I hope they get a ride soon. I hope they make it home.
Do you pick up hitchhikers? What about hitchhikers with dogs? And … what do you think, when you see a homeless person?
Early this year I decided, “If I finish my first draft in time to book the early bird special, I can go.” Then I decided, “I’m going to book because I can’t miss this opportunity and I want to grab the early bird special, but I have to finish the first draft before the con.”
Two months ago this looked totally achievable. Now? Let’s just say that to meet that goal I have to write approximated 25,000 words in two days and … Honey, that ain’t gonna happen.
Even if I hadn’t spent yesterday and today in a complete funk, it wouldn’t have happened.
The main reason I’m going to the conference is to pitch this book, and in fact the whole planned series. I’m set up to pitch to 21 (TWENTY-ONE!!!) agents and editors, 14 of whom are specifically looking for this kind of fiction. And I know very well that none of them is going to ask for a full manuscript right off the bat. If I am lucky they may ask for a written proposal. If I am very lucky they may ask for a sample chapter or three.
What the fuck is wrongwith me, that I have this … this thing that I want to do more than anything else in the world, that I’ve wanted to do all my life, that I know I can do, and I have this patient and supportive guy in my corner, and I have a laptop that works and a desk to put it on and a view from my desk that inspires, and if I need a change of scenery I have coffee shops or a library to go to or a car to sit in next to the river or at the top of a mountain…
And I stillhave whole days in which fear sticks its hand in my chest and squeeeeeezes. Fear of what, you ask? Damfino. Failure, mainly. Rejection too. Mainly I’m just scared of sucking.
What if it’s no good? Actually … that’s not really what’s worrying me. That’s not arrogance; it’s plain good sense – if I didn’t think I could write, and specifically that I could write this book, I’d be doing something easier and more fun, like gardening or training my dog. It’s not great literature and it needs some hefty pummeling by both me and beta readers, but it’s a fun little story about something that should appeal to quite a wide readership base.
What if I’m no good? What if these agents and editors look at me – my overdue-for-a-cut-and-color hair, my caftans and flat sandals, my foreignness and fatness – and simply don’t believe someone like me can have anything of interest to say to people like them? What if I accidentally say something wildly inappropriate and they think I’m too weird to work with? What if they listen to my pitch about an alphabet series – 26 books, two per year – and think, “Yeah, right, it’s taken you over half a century to produce half a first draft of A is for Aussie and you want us to believe you can do 25 more full books in 13 years? You’re old, bitch – you probably won’t even live that long!”
What if I get to the con, and pitch to all these agents and editors, and none of them likes it? Sometime in the past 36 hours I asked the Hubbit this question. He said, “Well, you know it’s tough to break into writing. So if that happens we’ll simply self-publish.”
Such a huge, magnificent word. I thought about it for a moment, after he said it, and thanked him. And then I crawled back into my funk.
So now it’s Monday evening. I have two days to prepare. But it’s okay – I have a plan.
Tonight I will pack my suitcase. Packing tonight will mean I won’t have to fly out of here on Thursday morning, running late and with insufficient underwear.
Tomorrow and Wednesday I will write my two-minute pitch and written proposal, and edit the crap out of the first three chapters, and I will print copies. I’m not sure how many copies … but some.
Thursday I will attend a training session on How To Pitch Your Novel.
Friday I will deploy all the best words and enchant the shit out of those people (Yes, they are people, not demonic or heavenly powers.)
Saturday I will do whatever’s on the schedule that I can’t care about right now, and I will not obsessively replay whatever insane thing blurted out of my mouth during my most promising pitch session on Friday.
Sunday I will unroll that “we” like a magic carpet, and come back home.
And then we’ll see.
So how is your book going? And will you be at the con? Let’s meet for coffee!