I am writing to you from the lovely Vagabond’s House Inn in the charming seaside village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I am so jazzed to be back on the California coast. The air is clean and cold this morning, and the clouds are deliciously gray. Once in a while the sun peeks through. I am cozy in my room, up early (since 5 A.M.) as I’m still on east coast time. I lasted until 7, then had to slip into my Uggs and toss on a sweater and wrap a scarf around my neck to go forage for coffee and found the Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company open for business. I brought a large black coffee and a hunk of sour cream coffee cake back to my room and snuggled in to do Merl Reagle’s Sunday Crossword.
I’m here in Carmel for a five-day writing retreat that starts tomorrow (Monday). I’ve come with my usual mixture of trepidation and hope – self-doubt a still-too-constant companion, but I’m learning to just step past it and keep going anyway, even when I can’t see the end product (in this case, a completed memoir that holds together). I keep reminding myself that writing – like living – is a process that I can trust, and if I can’t fully trust, well, then, I can at least practice trusting. (Come to think of it, that’s also a good definition of faith, not unlike one that someone once offered as “living as if it were so.”)
I flew out of Charlotte yesterday morning on a nonstop flight, which meant I had 5 ½ hours on the plane. The man sitting next to me was reading a book, Fifty Things to Do When You Turn Fifty. I was reading my own book, Rob Spillman’s new memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, but couldn’t help glancing from time to time at my neighbor’s book. Fifty was nearly fifteen years ago for me (Good Gawd…) but my normal anxiety kicked in to check and see: Did I do it right? (Probably not.) Did I miss anything? (Almost certainly.)
That anxiety of late – ever since I became an orphan and moved forward into my parents’ slot on what I call the “Disassembly Line,” – has had an undercurrent of fear that I’m running out of time, an urgency to hurry and have my full say, to make my mark.
That’s one reason I am so glad to be here for this retreat. I’m going to put myself in the hands of our retreat leader and my fellow writers and trust they will give me good feedback, make good suggestions, offer loving observations. (Again with the faith?!)
I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport yesterday around noon and got my baggage, found the car rental place, and drove off with an upgrade since they were out of the cheapest, smallest compacts I usually get. The Volvo SUV is so far above my pay grade that at first I couldn’t figure out how to turn the danged thing on. See, there is a slot where a key that isn’t a key goes, and then a button that you push that says, “Start/Stop.” Easy enough, right? But I kept pushing it and the radio came on but no engine. Start. Stop. Start. Stop.
Finally, a light came on that patiently related, “You must press the brake pedal to start the engine.”
Geez. You could have told me that the first time! I’m looking around to see if the young woman who brought me to the car is still around. I am ready to say, “Sister, I just come off the mountains of Nawth Car-o-LINA!” But she has already moved on to the next customer.
Next hurdle: the side mirrors. The passenger side was folded in, so I got out of the car and popped it back out, but then, back in the driver’s seat, I could not figure out how to adjust either one so I could actually see. I looked for buttons, knobs, dials. Nothing. A thing that looked like a button but wasn’t, marked BLIS. Bliss?? How about FRSTRATNG?!
In the end, I gave up, driving off without being able to fully see cars approaching on either side, which was disconcerting to me, because Roadcinante spoiled me, what with being equipped with enormous mirrors with inset magnifiers, so I can see everything behind and around me.
But once in traffic, I noticed these little lights blinking at those side mirrors. “Oh, my God!” I said out loud to the car. “You’re telling me when it’s safe to change lanes!”
Well, if that isn’t going on faith, I don’t know what is. “Okay, car. Talk to me.” And it did. (May I just say how quickly I got used to this car that also comes with one of those new-fangled backup cameras that tells you when you are about to incur lots of damage costs by backing into someone else and you will wish you had not declined all that extra coverage the car rental place was selling?)
FRSTRATNG now means “For Real, Starting to Rightly Appreciate This Necessary Gizmo.” (Gizmo was one of my dad’s favorite words.)
Driving down I-280 South toward San Jose, things started to look familiar, since I was just through here this past June. Then south of San Jose I saw the exit for Coyote Canyon Creek Road and slowed down as I cruised past the northbound overpass beneath which I’d parked that first day of triple-digit heat, stuck in stop-and-go traffic with Roadcinante overheating if I turned on the AC, and the 110°F heat blasting the dogs and me if I lowered the windows to circulate air.
That was one scary day. I remember pulling into the shade beneath the overpass and turning off Roadcinante. I remember firing up the generator and turning on the AC unit in back and pouring more water for Connor and Beasley and how they lapped it up. I remember both dogs panting, lying on the hot floor, and watching them carefully and feeling helpless, so helpless.
When I drove past the spot yesterday, I teared up, missing Connor all over again, and missing the magic of the journey, even the scary parts, missing who I was when I was on the road.
Later, nearing Carmel, I passed by a sign that had made me laugh when I’d seen it back in June: “Lightfighter Road.”
“Okay,” I’d said then. “You got me. I’ll try to do better.”
I admit, sometimes I shut down bliss when it is trying to find me. I’m cranky that way, but I hope I’m trainable.
“Follow your bliss” is a phrase made famous by mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, but it is not the shallow American-consumer-I-should-have-whatever-makes-me-happy-concept, rather it’s what happens below the surface,what remakes your heart and deepens your soul, what makes you a fuller human being. How you are willing to be all-the-way awake to the world, even when it’s hard, even when it’s sad.
This morning while I ate my breakfast I listened to Krista Tippet’s interview with physician Atule Gawande, “What Matters in the End.” Gawande is the author of the bestselling book, Being Mortal. The interview is a wonderful listen that I commend to you, deeply thoughtful and ultimately comforting.
I ponder mortality a lot, to be honest. Death has been an early and constant visitor in my life, plus I think I’m hard-wired to question and whine and argue and pick. As I was listening to the On Being podcast, I recalled a Twitter post of Jake Tapper’s that I read this past week, a short tweet that jolted the whine out of me. I retweeted, then shared it on Facebook, then followed Tapper’s lead.
You see, a nine-year-old boy in Maine, dying of cancer, is celebrating his last Christmas early, because he most likely won’t live to see December 25th. The family is asking for people to send him Christmas cards.
A seemingly small thing, but in reality an epically hugely wonderfully enormous thing. What seems a minuscule mustard seed of an idea burgeons into, as Frederick Buechner so beautifully puts it, a “great banyan…with birds in its branches singing Mozart.” Because the human family, invited into a sacred event, RSVP’s with love bombs of cards, videos, artwork, songs, and so much more. And what an honor – how blissful – to be some small part of this outpouring. To join others in holding my candle against the darkness, in truth the most urgent work there is.
(For a major lift, check out the responses to Tapper’s post. )
Jacob’s Christmas party is this coming weekend. Want to send your own card? Make haste. Here is the address:
Jacob Thompson, c/o Maine Medical Center, 22 Bramhall Street, Portland, Maine 04102