I read the following letter in Miss Manners’ column the other day and was quite shaken by it.
IMPERSONAL LETTERS WORSE THAN NONE
Dear Miss Manners: Recently I’ve received letters without any personal touch. These writers discuss activities, life and the future, but never mention personal views relating to the recipient and never answer questions nor issues raised in past letters to them. It is not a one-time thing. One young writer has sent five such communiques—four pages each, informative, insightful, incisive, but with zero “sharing” and/or a sense of one-on-one communication. This may help high-track movers fulfill their social responsibilities to communicate with others, but to the recipients it becomes another sample of Christmas-letter indifference and laziness.
This letter is real. However, I have fabricated the response I wish Miss Manners (who instead agreed with this misguided soul) had made.
Gentle Reader: Get over yourself. Not everything is about you, you, you. These impersonal letters are called ‘zines. The high-track movers who write them work long and hard to make them informative, insightful, and incisive. Kwitcherbellyachin’. If you want “sharing,” get a dog.
But seriously, folks, thanks for renewing. My audience is small but very hardcore. Speaking of hardcore, I was going to surprise (shock) you with an X-rated issue this time, but then I realized it’s December, the time of little children and sugar plum fairies, the time of that other X—the one who put the X in Xmas—and I decided to postpone the profane revelations for now. Consider this a naughty tease.
Of course, an X rating would have been one way to distinguish the mary’zine from those other mimeographed (aesthetically speaking) “Christmas letters of indifference and laziness”—but this way you’ll have something to look forward to—out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.
Xmas-wise, I mostly turn a blind eye to the goings-on and just wait for it to be over. I fully support the Buy Nothing movement and would like to extend it to Do Nothing. I get so tired of all the hype about how well (or badly) the merchants expect to do this year—now with the added suspense about whether people will continue to buy via the Internet—with follow-ups after the 25th on how well they did do and what it all means to the continuation of Western civilization as we know it. But I have to admit, I’ve had some lovely Christmases, spiritual ones, mostly with people who weren’t Christians, come to think of it—where we were able to touch into what Deepak Chopra meant when he said, “We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences.” This is a place I often touch through painting, and maybe that’s what I miss when I look around and see so much hoopla about commerce and so little of the contemplation and reverence that should be the basis for a holy-day of a major religion.
But just on the level of navigating the highways and byways, I always breathe a sigh of relief on January 2. Back to real life, when I can go out and buy socks or toothpaste without fighting the frantic holiday crowds. Funny, when I had a job, I used to get really depressed in January—all those nice paid holidays were over. Now I don’t get paid for holidays (or sick days or vacations); I work 6 days a week. I bill by the hour, so I only get paid for the time I actually work (vs. the average 4 hours of work that most employees do in an 8-hour day); I have no guaranteed income—I have to accrue it $100 or $300 at a time and hope that the work will keep flowing my way; and—guess what—I’m not only happy as a clam but my favorite day is Monday and my least favorite day is Friday. How’s that for weird? I can’t really explain it. My world has been turned on its axis, and it seems to suit me just fine.
Being self-employed isn’t for everybody, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s for me. I don’t have nerves of steel. I’m not super well organized. Discipline is not my middle name. I love working at home, with no one looking over my shoulder, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the tide of household distractions from washing away the sand castle that is my daily accrual of Billable Hours. When you work at home, home becomes this enormous sinkhole of energy and demand. You wouldn’t think so if you saw my house, because it’s not like I spend much time cleaning it, but all my stuff is here, and it calls to me. The washing machine calls to me to put a load of clothes in while I’m fixing my morning snack of peanut butter and rice cakes. The cat box, the cat dish, the cat water bowl, the cat—all of them call to me to take just a minute or two away from that fascinating manuscript about the phylogeny and evolution of low-G+C gram-positive bacteria and scoop, feed, water, or pet. My bed calls very loudly from the next room, especially after lunch—Maaaaary, you are getting sleeeeeepy. I don’t dare open the mary’zine file until my workday is done, because I’ll get sucked in and won’t even notice the hours slipping by.
I do miss having coworkers to hang out with, but I try to take up the slack by e-mailing my colleague Ellie on the other side of the continent. Mostly, we talk about the project I’m currently working on for her, but there’s always room for a weather report (S.F. and D.C.—always opposite), a story about the family (her) or the cat (me), or a joke about George W. Bush.
And of course, Pookie is always a force—sometimes for good, sometimes for eleven smatterings of throw-up across two rooms, which I found when I went downstairs today. He mostly likes having me around, but sometimes I think he sees me as the retired husband who’s always underfoot. He’ll be resting quietly—lounging on a piece of cardboard, as if it’s the finest satin sheet—and I’ll go up to him, all cooing and petting. He’ll crack one eye open, and his look says it all: “Don’t you have work to do?” But sometimes he really seems to get a kick out of me. He likes it when I sing and dance for him when a good song comes on the radio. One day I was doing my serenade routine, singing along to a catchy new song with my arms spread wide, addressing him at high volume—which always makes him perk up, if only to look for an escape route—and I suddenly realized that the lyrics coming up were: “BE my… beeee myyyy… pussycat…pussycat…” and I collapsed in giggles. He gazed at me, pretending to be captivated by my performance, but I knew he was thinking, “Somebody’s bipoooooolar….”
People who work regular jobs have no idea how fast a day at home can fly by. I used to picture myself going out for breakfast, dawdling through the hours I saved by not commuting. Ha! I swear there must be a special subsection of the theory of relativity that covers the paradox of Home Time vs. Job Time. At my job, it was all about finding ways to relieve the boredom—talking to coworkers, running in the park, going for coffee, playing computer solitaire. I still watch the clock at home, but it’s for the opposite reason: Damn, I’ve only worked 1.5 hours this morning, and it’s already time to go for my haircut—or to the dentist—or shopping for dinner—or going to the ATM, post office, Fed Ex, library, bookstore, drug store, or a million other destinations. Suddenly I’m Errand Girl. When did I used to do errands? Did I even have errands? Now, errands are my life. When Home isn’t calling me, Stores are calling me. Life suddenly wants me to be everywhere but at my desk working, and all I want is to be at my desk working. It’s insane. The few days when I have food in the house and have no appointments or other reasons to go out, I’m in hog heaven, if hogs liked to work.
And at the end of the day, I’m like Silas Marner, counting up my gold coins. I guess I would feel more secure having a regular salary, but there’s something about having to earn it one drachma at a time that adds a little spice to the working life. When my job ended, I honestly thought I was going to end up a bag lady. Who would have thought I’d enjoy living on the edge?
If you do not compare yourself with another, you will be what you are.
So can you stand to hear another travel story? It’s pretty exciting, and I don’t want to overstimulate you.
I recently had a birthday. I had decided that this year on my birthday, I was going to take the ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco, no matter what. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 27 years, and I had never taken the ferry, except for a short jaunt on the Tiburon ferry to Angel Island many years ago. I have wanted to do this for a long time but kept putting it off, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to buy my ticket, where to board, where to get off, what to do after I got off, etc. Face it, I am a big chicken, sQUAWWK.
But my trip to Massachusetts (zine #8)—mundane as it may seem to a seasoned traveler—taught me that, first of all, one person’s comfort zone is another person’s scary unknown. Risk is relative. Some people, crazily enough, would find it scary to write a one-woman ‘zine and send it to all their friends. Ha-ha-ha! And some people, sad to say, find the thought of any form of travel that is not conducted from behind the wheel of one’s own car quite daunting. So let’s not judge.
One of my projects in middle life has been to learn the belated lesson that, when you try something new, mistakes are not only surmountable but inevitable. So when I planned this birthday ferry trip, I gave myself permission to make all the mistakes I needed to. I decided it would be a fact-finding mission, an initiation into the mysteries of watery public transportation. I wouldn’t have to do anything earth-shaking (which is the last thing you want to do in S.F. anyway) or glamorous upon arriving on the far shore—just getting there and back would be enough for this maiden voyage. If I managed to walk around for a bit and find a place to eat lunch, that would be the icing on the birthday cake.
It was a good thing I had given myself this permission, because my first mistake was to think I could blithely drive up to the ferry parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday and park. What was I thinking? The commuters fill the place up by 8:30. A uniformed man turned me away but said I could probably find a spot across the road at the Marin Airporter lot. Fortunately, I had parked there for the Massachusetts trip, so I knew what to do. It was a relief to hustle back on foot (threading my way through the acre of cars), find the ticket window, and still have a little time before they let us board. Just that little victory left me feeling flush with success.
On the ferry, I immediately headed for the outside deck. There was less chance of getting seasick out there, and the main point of the trip was to enjoy the view of the bay and the skyline, smell the sea air, and all that. Within minutes, I was joined by a youngish guy wearing shorts, polo shirt, and baseball cap and carrying a knapsack. He asked me if this was the only deck, and I said I didn’t know, I’d never ridden the ferry before.
“Oh, so you’re a tourist too?”
“No, I live here, but I’ve just never….” I trailed off, embarrassed.
To my surprise, we fell into a conversation. I asked where he was from—he had a Spanish accent—and he said “St. Louis.” So much for assumptions. Marty said he loved the Bay Area but that he wouldn’t want to live here because of the way Latinos are stereotyped. He told me he had been driving around lost in his friend’s car that morning, looking for Larkspur Landing (he had driven over to Marin from Oakland! And I had been nervous coming from a couple miles away!) and he had ended up on that strip of Bellam Blvd., in my neighborhood, where Hispanic men gather every morning, hoping to get a day’s work. He had gotten out of his car to ask a passing pedestrian how to get to the ferry, and before he could finish his sentence, she had said, “Yes, this is where you stand.” Obviously, she had assumed from his accent that he was one of the day laborers, even though he was dressed like a tourist.
Marty said to me, “I was offended by that. I am an educated man. In St. Louis, I am treated with respect.” That surprised me, because I would have expected California to be a more hospitable place than the Midwest for any person of color. My assumptions were crumbling fast.
But I immediately understood the seeming discrepancy, and I told him about how, in the Midwest, no one would look twice at me, but here, in the supposed gay mecca, I get harassed all the time. He couldn’t believe it. Turns out he was gay, too (my gaydar had failed me), and he wanted to believe that San Francisco was the Shangri-La he had always thought it to be. But it was exactly as he had been saying about Latinos. The more exposure you have as a minority, the more crap you’re going to get. I think I really burst his bubble.
Marty said he owned three doughnut shops in St. Louis and paid $400 a month rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in a nice area. I oohed and ahhed but politely didn’t say, “But you have to live in St. Louis.”
So we talked all the way across the bay, and the ride was over much too quickly. He had a big day planned—even though rain was threatened, he was going to take BART to the Castro, rent a bike in Golden Gate Park, and ride to Land’s End to check out the nude beach. He hugged me and said, “I hope everyone is as friendly as you are.” I almost choked. I guess it’s true what they say about travel—even 30 minutes of travel a few miles from home—you can be whoever you want, because no one knows any different.
After we landed, he took my picture, and I decided to accompany him up Market to Powell St. So we found the Embarcadero BART station, bought tickets, and descended to the lower level. I had shared with him my near-native knowledge of the BART system, except that I had gotten it confused with Muni and gave him entirely the wrong directions. Fortunately, I realized my mistake in time, though I felt like a complete idiot. (Fact-finding mission, I had to remind myself. Fact-finding means you can’t get the facts until you find you don’t know them.)
On the train, he mentioned that he was always looking for a boyfriend, and I teased him about meeting me instead. He said, “I don’t talk to men, they’re too intimidating.” I said, “I don’t talk to lesbians, either.” We cracked up. Despite gender, age, and ethnic differences, we were totally in synch.
Finally we bade each other farewell, and I got off at Powell and started walking in the direction of Folsom St. I had cut out a newspaper article about restaurants in the city and decided to try to find a place called Mo’s Grill. It turned out to be inside Yerba Buena Gardens, a fact it took me quite a while to find. But I felt so proud of myself when I was finally seated at a table by the window. My favorite singer, Van Morrison, was singing “Brand New Day” in the background, and I smiled to myself, an in-joke in my crowd of one. I had arrived, I had navigated my way across miles of water and city sidewalk to this oasis of urban delight, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Unfortunately, the Dramamine I had taken “to be on the safe side” in case the bay was choppy started to take its toll on my energy level, so I decided to head back to the Embarcadero right after lunch. I passed by the Museum of Modern Art, so I went into the gift store and bought myself a t-shirt—hypocritically, since I have zero interest in what the “art world” is up to these days—then wound my way through the lunchtime crowds—9-to-5’ers, eat your hearts out—and retraced my steps to the waterfront. For the last two blocks I got drenched by a sudden rainstorm and instinctively cringed from the rain until I realized it didn’t matter if I got wet—I was wearing my new microfiber, weather-resistant jacket.
By now I felt like an old hand at this ferry-riding business, but I congratulated myself too soon. After handing over my return ticket, which I had carefully placed in a special compartment of my satchel, I sauntered around, waiting patiently to board. I was pleasantly full and not unpleasantly doped-up from the Dramamine. A uniformed man came along and said the Larkspur ferry would be leaving “all the way to the end of the pier,” so I marched down there, suddenly full of myself and my new travel smarts. Way before the place where the ferry was docked, there was a little closed gate barring the way, so I blithely lifted the pole that kept it in place—proud that I saw instantly how it worked—and was immediately yelled at by the ferry workers, “Go back, go back! Close the gate!!” as if I had wandered onto a firing range. Trying to maintain my cool, I replaced the gate pole in the slot and turned to see about 15 people behind me, people who all knew to wait behind the gate and were no doubt thinking what an idiot I was. But who knows, maybe there was someone in the crowd who would have done the same thing and was giving silent thanks that I had gotten there before she did. Soul sister, this mistake’s for you.
I enjoyed the ride back to Marin. This time I was alone on the deck, so I got to watch the S.F. skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the beautiful storm sky. It started pouring rain halfway across, so I went inside, where it smelled like a bus and was full of silent, world-weary—or at least ferry-weary—commuters working on their laptops. I went back outside as soon as the rain cleared. The sense that I could move, change my mind, make decisions, not know in advance what seat to take or what gate to go through seemed terribly liberating, though of course only on the tiniest of scales, and mostly in principle. I am not yet ready for India.
Half an hour later, we arrived in Marin, home sweet home. Trudging through the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge, and over to the Marin Airporter, I was exhausted and my feet were killing me, but I was feelin’ fine… until I got to the counter where I had to give the man my parking stub. Oh oh. I had thought I’d put it in the special compartment of my satchel, but no, that was the ferry ticket. I started frantically looking through my bag, with a horrible sinking feeling that I had somehow managed to drop my parking stub instead of my ferry ticket in the ticket receptacle at the ferry. If I showed the airporter guy my ferry ticket, would that convince him that I had made an honest mistake and didn’t have to be charged for 30 days of parking?
Me: I don’t seem to have my ticket.
Him [with the most impassive face I’ve seen since Mt. Rushmore]: I need it.
What made it 1,000 times worse is that he was the same guy who had witnessed my losing of the bus pass when I went on the Massachusetts trip. I was even wearing the same clothes. Surely he wouldn’t remember me, surely this sort of thing happens all the time? He continued to stare at me, giving nothing away. Finally, I pulled the stub out of my jacket pocket, where I had carelessly stuck it instead of preserving it in a special compartment. Thank God. Thank you, thank you, beneficent God Almighty.
I can’t help it that everything in my life is a big deal. And actually, there’s an up side to that. If the smallest venture out into the world is difficult for me, then even a small adventure will reap great rewards. It’s that relative-risk thing I mentioned earlier. I see it as a kind of emotional homeopathy. Other people have to jump out of airplanes or climb mountains or seek out dangerous rivers in the jungle to have a feeling of adventure. All I have to do to push the envelope is to lose a ticket or go through the wrong door. My skydive, my mountaintop, my Amazon river is all around me. I’m just living on a smaller scale than some people—like that species of moth or butterfly that only lives for 24 hours.
In my defense, I’ve faced many big challenges on my own—I’ve moved to other states, bought a condo, had a successful career, started my own business—and, of course, I live alone, which creates all sorts of opportunities for bravery—but in some perverse way, the small unknowns can be more daunting than the big ones.
the heart of creation
…when I picture my mother playing the piano, I think of a stillness, a pinprick of a place inside her that is profoundly still. I wonder if a sublime quietness is at the heart of creation.
—Jane Hamilton, Disobedience
But the unknown can get even smaller(bigger) than taking a public conveyance across small waters. Change and movement can be, quite literally, a walk in the park. I went to painting class one Wednesday morning and started a new painting. I had no idea what to paint, so I started with myself—a peach-colored blob for my head and peach blobs for torso and hips, and longer peach extensions for the limbs. I was supremely not knowing what to do, but for some reason my guard was down and I wasn’t too worried about it. I just let it develop any way it wanted to. One thing led to another, and I ended up in a kind of trance state, painting my internal organs—stomach, heart with tubes sticking out, plus lots of imaginary organlike structures, none of which followed any rules of color or shape or function. I spent two and a half hours painting this strange body, or rather, letting it paint itself.
In the group sharing afterward, I felt stoned, deeply touched. I looked around, and everyone in the circle looked like a heroin addict after getting a fix—but it wasn’t lassitude, it was a deep, quiet presence. No one was preoccupied with being somewhere else, no one was putting on a façade or resisting the silence.
I’ll never get over how strange it is that when you go deeply inward, you connect up with everyone else who is deeply inward. You’ve all been in your own worlds, literally with your backs to each other, for 2 or 3 hours, and when you stumble out of the painting room and try to find words to express what happened, you find you can just look in people’s eyes or make a tiny joke, and you’re all right there, together, as if you’re all the same person with many different faces. Strange that it takes diving into your uniqueness to discover your commonness with others on a heart level. This is what the “creative process” is about, not what ends up on the paper.
It’s not that painting always manifests as this stoned bliss of connectedness, but when it does, it’s a gift. On this day, the afterglow lasted for hours. I didn’t want to leave the studio, but at 1:30 I couldn’t ignore my hunger pangs any longer. So I went off to get my usual burrito and eat it at my usual spot—Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. But what wasn’t usual was that I wasn’t in a mad rush to get home to take a nap or check my e-mail. I felt like I was in love with everyone I saw—it was as if everyone was a walking archetype, vulnerable and simple—part of the human family. The young people, the old people, everyone so perfectly themselves. In some cases you could see the pain etched in their faces and in their posture. This one bent old woman walked toward me as if pushing into a steady wind—well, it was pretty windy that day, but she looked like she’d been pushing for a long time. I ached for her in a way that (needless to say) I don’t usually allow myself to do. We think it would drain us to feel so connected to other people; we don’t realize that that connection is what keeps us alive. What’s draining is to insist on our separateness.
It was a beautiful day in San Francisco—cool and sunny, with a fresh ocean breeze that ruffled the treetops and filled my lungs with cool air—and I lost all unfaithful fantasies of moving back east. After I ate my burrito, I walked around the lake, loving every sight and smell. I wanted to drink it all in—the cloudless blue sky, the ducks floating peacefully in the water, the trees moving in the wind. It’s not that I felt like a different person—I was aware of my usual reactions—but I couldn’t be mad at anybody, even the woman who went into the men’s bathroom by mistake because she saw me coming out of the women’s. I walked toward a sea of pigeons on the sidewalk, getting ready to be annoyed at the man who was feeding them, but just as I was about to gear up for my internal diatribe, I came closer and we looked at each other, and I was struck by the kindness in his face. He was wearing green scrubs; there was an old woman in the car, dozing in the front seat with the door open while he fed the birds. Was he a nurse? I took all this in in a millisecond, and then I smiled and said “Hi,” and he smiled beautifully back at me. Was this his usual smile? Was he just naturally sweet? Or did I give him something to which he was responding? It was the briefest possible encounter. Is it really possible to make a difference in the world with just a smile at the right moment? It’s so easy to think of all the times our kindness or generosity fails to transform a moment or to have any effect at all—but I suspect we don’t even know, most of the time, what sparks we emit or what encouragement we give just by being aware of each other.
It was like that—magical—all afternoon. I didn’t even mind the other cars on the road. The radio kept playing all these sweet songs—“What If God Was One of Us?”; “Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now….”; U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I was going to take a nap when I got home, but there was work for me by e-mail. So I spent 2 hours editing a business plan for a biotech startup instead, and even that didn’t bother me. I just felt grateful for having a successful business and having the freedom to schedule my own work and take time to drive to the beautiful city and paint gory, beautiful self-innards, and see my beautiful friends and feel that deep connection that seems so elusive and yet is so available, why do we not always feel it?
To me, that day was a day spent traveling, though I walked in the same steps I’ve walked many times before. It wasn’t about covering miles or discovering cultural differences. It wasn’t about being a stranger in a strange land—except, perhaps, the land of Love. It wasn’t about bearing discomfort or proving one’s fortitude. It wasn’t about going out at all, though I felt I extended myself. Mostly, it was about opening up to the vast world that lives inside of us. It’s not a world you can buy a ticket to, you have to have faith and be a little diligent about gaining entry. Sometimes travel isn’t about conquering the world or confronting strange customs or difficult terrain—it can be about making a small inroad on your own sense of isolation, and discovering that the world will come to you.