I am regularly tempted to run away. It’s been an impulse much of my life that, more often than not, I’ve managed to resist in the literal sense. For someone whose formative mind was instilled with a strong sense of responsibility regarding duty and other acquired commitments–and who enjoys her life overall–this fantasy appears to be in conflict. Who would abdicate one’s life ties so easily? But I’m not sure it is so at odds.
A fledgling “escape desire” flared by age ten to twelve while reading a few pulpy novels about independent young women heading off to dazzling New York, for an example, to pound on doors of business (seeking an editor’s trajectory at a hip magazine) or theater (an actor’s life in musical theater) or medical centers (a doctor’s or nurse’s career). The adventures they had, the surprising people they met! I can yet recall how the books evoked yearning; it lit within me an ardor that fueled childish dreams. And I did enjoy the story lines that ended with satisfaction after a few hairy trials. Heroines of a sort they were, and they sometimes found love.
Yet a secret desire to escape Midland along a more general wanderlust developed even before then. Each month I poured over National Geographic, as well as Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post. Everyone was doing things far more interesting than what I saw going on in my town, and they were doing it in marbvelous places. I imagined what it might be to leave my small Michigan city where we mostly knew one another. To leave heartbreaks already experienced, discarding a sometimes stifling atmosphere of a competitive, properly behaved, often blinkered family. And then to embrace the freedom of options that I listed by adolescence. Too few if things went the way they had been.
On my walls I taped discarded posters salvaged from travel agencies–Paris, London, Madrid, Buenos Aries. I studied them and was transported to bustling public squares, colorful outdoor cafes, saw music and dance performances on the street, and soon almost slipped in the picture to leap along turquoise waves. I kept a bulletin board with more visual and verbal encouragements, each a promise to myself that I was getting out.
The truth was, I was also happy to go to Chicago and wander (close to parents) the “windy city’s” exciting streets or even Detroit’s muscular, diverse energy. I appreciated journeying to see relatives in Missouri and Kansas, Texas and Colorado–not just to visit them. I couldn’t wait to absorb with senses and mind the days and nights of varied countryside, decayed or beautiful buildings, window shop in tiny or shiny, mammoth stores, join the parade of passersby on streets, even quiet byways. On other summer trips cross-country all I had to do was gaze out the back seat car window to find cheery roadside fruit and veggie stands or fancy skyscrapers and historical makers amid deep woods, not to mention places too much to even put into words such as the Smokey Mountains or the Grand Canyon: instant, moving beguilement. Stories took shape at each pause, then we were off to the next part. The whole world was rife with oddness, joy, variety, magic. How to bridge the gap between modest reality when back home and that grander one?
Later, I did run away by skirting limits, then breaking rules and half-submerging myself in a shadowy world of drugs (an escape that ends up as hell), living a double teen-aged life. Not running towards what I’d hoped but trying to get away from much, I was a teen with potential but also issues. By age 15, I was placed in a foster home for a few months; it was terrible, ended disastrously though I learned better to depend more on myself. At nearly 17, it was arranged that I share an apartment with a “respectable” twenty-one year old woman who was working long hours and needed help with rent. That, too, was not any good dream fulfilled but a chance to use more substances, and try to avoid the law. Overdoses, breakdowns, then finally being given a one way ticket to live with a sister and her friend. Now that was something, a log cabin on Lake Washington, freedom, nature surrounding us, new people, a wild boyfriend. But one cannot run from one’s haunted self and eventually I returned to the old hometown, then began university studies at last, feeling defeated but determined to move on and out of there. I didn’t know there were worse hurdles to come. But I vowed to one day return to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with its creatively charged cities (which took me twenty years). The wanderlust had set its tender roots deep within.
But I became an adult in fits and starts as I got clean. Before long I committed myself to being a mother, a wife, a worker bee. I had not well considered being a wife nor had I expected to become a mother due to diagnosed fertility problems. Thus, my learning curve was steep but i am nothing if not persistent, for good or ill. Once setting a goal, I am all in or I admit defeat and try another path. As a mother, there can be no selfish foolishness.
Thus, I determined at last that pockets of daydreams were fine for long pauses but not so useful in everyday life. Daily life held exceptional moments but required diligent attention, sweat, sacrifices. It was time to stop desiring another life. Get on with it, get busy attending those new needs. Escapist fantasies were for selfish people or perhaps cowards.
But you know, it is hard to stop wanting what one feels is needed, yet cannot have. In the long afternoons when rocking beautiful but squalling babies; when tallying up the income, outgo and what little food was left on the shelf; when the night wrapped itself about me in a sometimes too-empty bed; and when more devils of illness and heartache came, that old longing whispered in my ear: ah, to leave this hurt/poverty/backwater place/man and begin anew, to search out happiness, to be gifted with possibilities like dandelion fluff that floats into open palms, seeds for new growth landing in my eager grasp. At such moments, the recollection of old hopes is strong, bittersweet.
I got up in the night and wrote. A song, a story, a three line poem. I sat in the pearly glow of moonlight spilled onto living floors or danced a few steps in dew-spun grass out the back door as my family slept. There was an empty spot within that slowly burned, called out for more. As much as I gave myself over to hope and prayer for a life that filled up the wells rather than readily emptied them, I shouldered a burden of shame. Why wasn’t love of my children and their father utterly enough? It was the 1970s, then the 1980s. It was a far throw from the restrictive fifties into which I was born. Yet I was more often the one in a room full of women without the big career, with little to show for my perseverance to stay fully alive, just to daily do the decent thing. I did own a passport that held stamps from only Canada while my second husband traveled often and farther (and still does).
Of course, life was transformed many times over. I moved to other places on the worn paper U.S. map I spread on the floor to show the kids where to next, our fingertips tracing blue, red and black arteries that crisscrossed the country. I was excited to move again, to meet new people, explore new scenery, thought of myself as a roaming soul. I lived in pleasing houses and raised more children. I went back to work, had a career I appreciated. From time to time, however, I still imagined running away though I knew it would not happen, not the ways I’d once invented. And never unless I took the children with me, for I adored them. (This did occur a few times.) They’d become as much the anchor bolts of my life foundation as my faith in God. Still. The urge to escape, to extend my reach further, was part of my self just like my loyalty to family. I could get restless. I tried to be more content. It could not be denied that there were many golden moments to find. The children and I had delicious adventures and men I’ve loved also have inspired times both life enhancing and fulfilling.
There was, however, another way of transportation to other realms. Not surprisingly, it was what I both felt and learned as a young person: becoming ever better at tuning into both inner and outer worlds; and acting in creative ways in response. By paying attention and loving what and how I chose to see, then letting myself be moved to make something of it–this becomes a door cracked, and then it springs wide open. It is being in the moment and doing any sort of creative work.
In this way, I have found it is not so hard to slip the confines of life’s various conundrums and prisons. I am not speaking to experiences of those who have suffered far worse but only to my own experiences. There are readers of this blog who’ve read of harrowing times, the worst of which I haven’t shared here and some of which have been fictionalized. The point is, in my own strenuous circumstances, there has been a way to get out, to slip the bonds of everything from obnoxious boredom to terrifying events. It is all accomplished by power of mind and strength of soul. And if you have a few extra bucks in your pocket, a road trip always makes the mix more engaging. A brisk walk around the neighborhood can even be a start, for some of us, anyway. The same potential for wonder can blossom in unassuming ways.
I find it rewarding to embark on armchair travels as well, via reading or watching documentaries. I’m good with a trip to our far flung coasts or a hike in nearby valleys and mountains. And my husband and I go on a jaunt to Canada now and again. I avail myself of others’ offerings, such as a brother and sister-in-law mentioned before in posts who travel nonstop and take fine photographs. I just listen to their experiences, thumb through their websites. I am expanded, enlightened more. It’s not being there, but it counts. Interestingly, when my parents returned from European travels after I’d left home, I felt that same tingle of excitement. They shared slide shows and I loved every minute, even my parents’ verbally meticulous notations of each scene.
Most of all, being in possession of an imagination is a powerful tool for all. Sometimes I think this century has lost sight of its most basic operational sense. Do we need to always be entertained by speedy, sometimes shallow offerings, by endless media distractions splashed across screens? Because I’m in my sixties, I didn’t grow up with these things so got used to utilizing my own resources. I know technology does aid us. But we have our extraordinary, DNA-designed “imaginarium”, the human mind. The more it is used, the more finely attuned it becomes and the better it serves–for entertainment, yes, but also to problem solve, to explore strange unknowns, to empathize with others, to engage in a spectrum of possibilities from artistic expression to humanitarian services to entrepreneurial plans. To fashion, then immerse one’s self in a fulfilling life. Spiritually, it is just one step further and forward. For in my view, soul and mind are part of a vast continuum, a powerhouse combination leading us to grander interconnecting, cohesive designs. It all fits together nicely.
Truth be told, I more or less run away multiple times a day. I write something, read widely, dance, sing, listen to music. I make pictures, attend films, plays and concerts. Enjoy talking with other people often, listening to conversations on the street and in cafes, observing from the windows as humanity ebbs and flows past my home. And of course there are daily walks and weekend hikes that are never uninspiring, but both balm and surprise. Escapes like these replenish. Perhaps they are, rather, more of an augmentation of our humanness, enriching and resettling, so that we gather strength and stamina and clearer minds for whatever is to come. So we can better act in accord with our higher selves. Mend our broken spots. Buoy the tiresome moments of life.
But my husband told me once that he doesn’t quite get how I can be so satisfied by simply looking at visuals and reading about places, people, things. It surprised me. I thought everyone felt that way. If I can imagine it, I can claim an experience that is still powerful.
“See that chalet on a Swiss mountainside?” I asked and pointed at a picture. “I can begin to see a life being lived there and I can zoom in and imagine being there, even that it is mine a moment if I choose. It is mentally entering a new country, crossing over into another time or kingdom. I do not have to get on a plane to do that much. It is the cheapest route to exploration!”
There is a last grand escape (not counting leaving the human body) idea for which I do sporadic research: where to live when my husband retires, maybe in five years. Surely not in this traffic-ridden, burgeoning city where housing costs are skyrocketing monthly. I’ve been musing over Boise, Idaho for the grandeur of the mountains and four more defined seasons, and most important, a lower cost of living. Then I am attracted to San Diego, California with its wonderful weather and ocean side living–but a frail pipe dream as we don’t have the budget required. And I have always wondered about the Mediterranean–isn’t there some island we might make a life upon? Say, magical, monastically simplified life on Santorini? Next week it may be Norway or Ireland that I’ll investigate. Or, okay, perhaps upstate Washington, always an area we like to visit.
On the other hand, I can’t take my children from their work and so on, can I? Of course, they’re full grown adults now, plotting their own fun and important ventures. But a few live here and grandchildren, too. We will have to give it a long, hard think. There is more than one way to book a good place and time in this life. We’ll see what happens. Right now I am becoming lost in a recording by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and I am somewhere wonderful that time will reveal, perhaps in the next poem I’m moved to write. But later–when Marc gets home from his Mexico business trip– there is another trip to be planned for a pause in our daily duties. Yes, a small and happy escape.
To be caught and barely held fast!
Drifting through without direction
and without needed restraint,
then to be found before finding,
held without holding, full in the balance.
It is no common or easy thing
to land in the tangle of living
and be content to rest, ashimmer
in elements and shifts of wind,
a being amid beings, simplified, whole.
The broad road feels safe, well trod,
yet in the narrows there is a rise
and spin that takes all higher when
one makes way through thorny places:
go on, blood that’s shed can turn to radiance.
The fire was steadily burning, a comfort to see even from a distance. As Virginia Li Taft, better known as Gin-Li, took her place in the half-circle about it, she found the group smaller than expected. Or it just felt that way, tightly drawn of six kids she’d known to one degree or another her whole life. They sat shoulder to shoulder; you had to squeeze your way in if you weren’t one of the gang–she’d seen that happen.
She thought some must have paired off, left for other places. It was the last of the afternoon, and without thinking she glanced to see if Robbie was there. Of course not. He’d be the last one in; his snowboard was about everything to him. Who could compete? Good thing she didn’t need to; she and Robbie were best friends. Just like she and Liz were, though Robbie was a male, yes. Some of the other girls said, “No, that one’s an actual man, right?” and then further emphasized with eyes widening that they were pleased one of the guys finally was. Gin-Li had noticed but it wasn’t relevant; Robbie was just Robbie. They were all sixteen or seventeen and it was true, though, that plenty of guys acted and looked like they’d gotten stuck in mid-to-late middle school. If Gin-Li was there, they didn’t bother her with speculations about him. He was single the past months but she was immune to his charms and there was no help for that.
Gin-Li felt relief change her limbs into jelly when she scooted closer to the mammoth fireplace. Sinuous flames flick light across shadowed skin. She sank into the rise and fall of laughter and chatter, though she remained quiet. Quietness, even stillness (despite the fact that she was a decent athlete) that caught people’s attention, was a hallmark of her personality–and as defining of who she was as her sleek, dark hair and almond eyes.
Or so her mother said often enough. The statement sometimes held a resentful, even sharp edge, as if every time she saw Gin-Li she had to be reminded of her father, long gone, sorely if sadly remembered. As if Gin-Li was responsible for her continued irritation. But then it would pass as she spoke of other things–until next time. He’d been her mother’s hero, “The One”, until he’d left for the ill-fated rafting trip in Peru. He drowned and left Marley Taft, Gin-Li’s mother, pregnant and unmarried. Mostly Chinese and a tad this and that, John Li was a respected biologist and eager adventurer. Marley Taft, his fiancée, was a geology professor at UCLA. Things changed fast after his death. And after twelve years, Gin-Li had no memories and Marley had fewer good ones of California but they had fashioned a very good life in Colorado. Even though Marley hadn’t yet found another partner that seemed worth keeping.
Arch Mountain Ski Resort was close to the city so a bunch of kids piled into a couple of vehicles with parents at the wheel (they’d drive at least one more year, they all agreed). It got to be a regular trip on week-ends for some, even most of the time for Gin-Li and Liz. They weren’t, perhaps, top-notch skiers but enjoyed it. Gin-Li loved snowboarding and was getting pretty good at it. But they also liked the group camaraderie as they hit the runs, reconvening during breaks. It was a feast for the senses up there, the work out fun, even amazing. You could see the Continental Divide and the brisk sharp air revived Gin-Li even on her less thrilled days. Her mother skied, too, they noted each other in passing which was more than enough.
“You want a coffee or tea?” Liz asked as her elbow poked her friend’s ribs.
Gin-Li shrugged and she stared at the fire. Liz was getting on her nerves lately, always talking about Phil or Denny or Gavin. She knew Liz was going to get caught up in talk if she spotted one of those older boys; Gin-Li might not get her tea until it cooled off.
“Okay, peppermint tea, thanks.”
Then Frieda pressed a shoulder into hers as the semi-circle closed in Liz’s absence. “Frieda the Needy One”, Gin-Li often thought but she could be fun.
“Gin-Li, I’d watch out for Liz if I were you,” she hissed in her ear. “She’s going the wrong direction with those other guys. Better to stick with what we know, right? At least when we’re in school.” She winked. “I saw a guy from Newfield last summer awhile, a senior!”
“She’ll do what she wants. Liz has strong preferences.”
“Yeah, older and wilder. Not like Robbie who is about as mellow as you can get, right?”
She threw Frieda a questioning look. “Well, he’s my best friend.”
“What? More a best friend than Liz? You’ve known her since third grade. You give preferential treatment, too!” and giggled her childish giggle.
Gin-Li hunched her shoulders, hugged her knees and let her hair fall forward to blot out Frieda. She was the kind of person who could make something of nothing with little encouragement and Gin-Li chose to ignore her a bit as years went by, though Frieda was nice to her. She in fact told her she got smarter and more pretty every week; their school lockers were just two apart so she was hard to ignore. Liz suggested archly that maybe Frieda was flirting with her but Gin-Li knew she was lonely and wanted to be noticed. She didn’t have close friends as she gossiped a lot or maybe that was why she did, thinking people valued her speculations when the opposite was ultimately true. But she skied well and was a good sport. People liked that, Gin-Li did, too, even though her alluding to her bi-racial features–Frieda just had to use the adjective “exotic” more than once– could burn inside her. It was how it was. Some people never understood and how could they? Gin-Li was who she was and, in fact, that wasn’t entirely clear to her sometimes. Good thing she had a couple of truly trusted friends, who knew her insides about as well as she did.
“Here’s your tea,” Liz said as she made her place in the loosened group before the fire. A few had clearly gone back to the slopes. “I saw Robbie about to come in, from what I could see from the window. But he sure looked good out there–we all know he’s talented.”
Gin-Li smiled to herself and sipped. He’d taught her a few things that improved her own form and speed. He’d show her a few more things before they left, or tomorrow if they both came back. They’d dissect the moves and tricks, even into the early morning hours if they felt like crazy insomniacs. She yawned; Liz followed with a bigger one. It was either get back out there soon or get drowsier but the fire was so welcoming. If she was going to return tomorrow, she might as well rest now.
“I’m done being lazy, up and at ’em!” Frieda said as she rose and started toward the door.
“Watch this,” Liz leaned her head sharply toward the other girl. “Have you even seen this yet?”
Frieda nearly ran right into Robbie and she apologized with great flair, her hand on his shoulder, her face upturned. He looked down, briefly smiled back and kept on walking. Frieda scowled at his back and left.
Gin-Li saw it, drank her tea. When he got to them the piney mountain air came with him and she shivered with pleasure.
“Hey, you guys, more snow coming in!”
His voice boomed and others looked his way, waving, calling out.
“I want you to come out again Gin-Li, to show you something.”
“I’m tired. Maybe I’m getting a cold.”
“Of course you aren’t, you’re just out of condition, just coming twice last week. A trial to start over this winter, I get it.” He crouched down to her level, the snow melting, water beading and rolling off his pants. “The powder remains excellent and the lights are now on!” he added with a gentle force he used trying to persuade her. “Everything is blue and white out there, see? You know you love that, come on, slouchy girl!”
Gin-Li looked at his chiseled and pinked cheekbones, his lively blue eyes and almost got up. “Nope, six hours off and on is enough today, are you trying to make me suffer? You’re the snowboarding addict so go for it.” She gave him raised eyebrows with a smirk and inched toward the fire’s magnetic heat.
“Party pooper! You should let yourself give in, you’ve got such talent.”
His palm slid across her shoulders then lightly smacked her back so she reached out and slapped him on the leg as he moved away.
“Hey, Robbie, wait up!” Ted from the end of the line called out.
“Yeah, we’re coming.” Two more got up. The small group broke apart like a natural phenomenon.
“Did you notice he didn’t ask me?” Liz gave a short laugh. “I’d be left behind so fast he’d forget I was ever there, I’d be lost in the spray.” She got up, looked around. “Where did Frieda go?”
Gin-Li stood, as well, then walked to the huge glass wall of windows where she could see all. Evening draped the snow in a watery but deep blue. She could track Robbie going up the slope and she suddenly wished she’d joined him. But there would be tomorrow. She would see him dazzle his way down soon. Meanwhile, her mother was just calling it day and chatting with others. Frieda and a bunch of girls had their heads together, all animated, then they started for the lift. She was half in- and half-out the circle, ever seeking her place. Gin-Li was glad she felt mostly at home with what and who she knew and loved. She had learned that during last winter, an event she tried to not think about, anymore.
When she searched for Liz, she saw her at a table with a plate of burger and fries. Gin-Li wasn’t hungry yet but she was warmed up, felt strong and limber even if her muscles and joints did ache a bit. She really could snowboard more, should have taken Robbie up on his tutoring.
But she took in the mountains’ jagged peaks, the snow bright and dark as electric lights more fully illuminated the scene, and that wide star-embroidered sky and all those people, and she was thinking of her father and how she might not have inherited his gene for daring, after all. Or maybe it would light her up tomorrow or next year or in her twenties. Wasn’t he twenty-six when he took off for Peru? Was he thinking that he’d be glad to hurry back to her mother or was he thinking nothing of the sort, only living in each moment until…he could no longer do so? She should try that, embrace it all more heartily rather than just sit with the moment. She wasn’t afraid, though. She was observing. For one example, for drawings she would make later in her candle lit room after her mother turned in. She would take all this and make it open up and tell her secrets as her hand was moved by the pencil. Or so it seemed.
What would John Li think of it? He’d kept travel journals, made sketches of what he saw, too. She had taken one from her mother’s old trunk, hidden it in her closet. It was what she had of him. His eyes and hair, yes, but even more, those rich words and pictures. So she could imagine him just a little better, live what he lived.
The scene below was perfect, astonishing in its beauty and it gave her the tingling feeling that told Gin-Li the whole universe was alive and busy with mystery. And then in the center of that expanse of opulent snow one person appeared in the distance and came forward and down and down and then a singular action multiplied and transformed into something else.
A snowboarder had completed a frontside 360 off a kicker, then landed wrong. Thudded–she could almost hear the body and snowboard, feel the vibrations enter the earth–and bounced once and slid and crumpled hard on the fast descent. Her hot hands pressed against the chill glass and she could hear shouts inside and out. Down the slope the body tumbled and then it stopped.
That unearthly stillness.
Gin-Li grabbed her jacket and raced out the building before Liz could call to her and Gin-Li down the stairs and out the doors, past her mother without seeing her and then slogged through snow partway up the slope where so many had stopped and were looking, gawking, reaching down and recoiling.
“No, don’t come close, we’ve called for help, stay back!” someone yelled at her and then more shouted but she knew what she saw and she was not stopping.
“Robbie!” she cried out and knelt in a twilit pillow of snow beside him, his body all zigzag. With three bare fingertips she smoothed away tiny crusts of ice like snowflake tattoos on the hair on his forehead, along his jaw.
His lips were perfect, chapped. His eyes were closed and his gaunt face, white as the moon but for flaring cheeks, said nothing to her but pain. He was hovering, she knew it, she had felt this last year after her bad car accident, such pain lifts you to another plane and leaves you there when all around people are doing things or not doing anything. Robbie was quieter than a hiding fox, quieter than the snow falling. More still than ever he had been unless he was sleeping in the ratty hammock or tents they’d set up in the woods and even then, she watched him breathe.
More still even than when he’d come last year to sit in the hospital with her, to keep watch as her own agony leaked out, as she ranted and raged about the meanness of rehab therapists. But she did not believe he could die, not now. She held him in her heart and told him so.
“He’s breathing, eyelids are twitching.”
Gin-Li took his freezing hand in hers and blew on it. Where was his glove? Robbie did not speak to her but he was telling her to just hold on, he was only floating nearby. Sudden lights flashed like mad carnival colors on whiteness. The siren wound down.
“Move aside, miss,” the EMTs said and touched him to find where and what things were doing as his eyes started to move behind his eyelids, as he started to come back to the pain.
She let go with the cry of an alarmed bird.
“Come, Gin-Li,” her mother said, arm about her. “We’ll follow the ambulance.” She had to keep blinking to not see John Li’s face looking back at her before he left for Peru. She squeezed her daughter’s hand and prayed.
Liz barely kept up with them she shook so hard. Not again, not another friend she might lose.
After the back surgery to put things together that threatened to come apart via fractured vertebrae and left shin that cracked, he came uneasily into consciousness. In the recovery room she stood behind his parents but Gin-Li kept well away from his bed to let his mother weep his father twist his cap. She was waiting until he could spot her and knew it might take a while. She waited all night and into early morning as her mother fretted, exhausted, with Liz in the waiting room. She now realized how her daughter felt. She so feared they would lose this good and kind one, too–her father, now Robbie. But Liz said she knew better, she felt it would be okay and Marley held onto this small thing.
It was just going to be like this, Gin-Li saw that at last. The difficult things he insisted on doing, the happy abandon he gave to all because he was an optimist. The risk taking. The near misses, downright failures and eager new beginnings. He wanted to find and push limits, “pursue the heart of living”, he’d confided in her as they’d hiked along a ridge that felt close to the sun. And she was willing to be there, cruising or working alongside him or quietly watching, whatever worked best, because she believed in him and he, in her.
He’d told her this last year after her own accident. And now she could not deny it.
“Gin-Li?” Robbie’s groggy voice made its way to her.
“I’m right here for you, my daredevil friend, dear Robbie,” she said as she leaned over, touched her lips to his forehead. His eyelids lowered; he smiled and slept. It was likely that she embraced all these possibilities because she was Gin-Li, the only honorable daughter of John Li, respected biologist and cheerful explorer of wild places (who missed her even now, as she missed him).
Chilled light covered her skin like a warning but she kept on and found her way.
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