Did we ever tell you about the time we lived in a vintage airstream trailer for less than a month?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
That’s a lie (And let me warn you again about people who consistently tell you to Look on the Bright Side when what you really need is quiet empathy. They’re the same people who buy others self-help manuals; Guard your heart from them.) It was simply the worst of times.
We put down a deposit on a whim (I had a lot of those back then) and by the time we drove our pared down belongings north out of the city, and wiggled up miles and miles of roads cut like shimmying hips, I was giddy with a side of nervous. After our first two nights there, I was full on scared: what the hell had we done?
In the mornings, we woke to hostile ant invasions. A surging carpet of ants roamed through our sink, over our clean dishes, throughout our cupboards, up the trailer walls. Marching on all the boxes and bags of food we had carefully sealed up. It didn’t matter. They were relentless.
That was the first ranch lesson we learned. Ant traps, Raid, Clorox, soap, militant cleanliness. It didn’t matter. When you live in a high desert valley, critters funnel toward you. Ant hills are your foundation. And that lovely ancient oak you admired on first viewing, you came to understand as giver of arachnid life. Swollen hairy spiders fell from its branch tips onto our roof and our clothes and down into our shoes and cars and curtains and home. Our shoulders grew perpetually jumpy and our heads sunk like ships in a gale.
The ranch owner lived down the road from the dry quiet clearing where our trailer perched and he didn’t care much for manual labor. He was a producer, playing at ranching; he would have driven your grandfathers crazy. Dry river bed gagged on years of fallen leaves and the land was littered with broken fencing and implements. Snapped hoes and rakes decomposing under seasons of cobwebs. Even the saguaros were swaddled in cobwebs. It seemed sometimes that if you stood still too long in that dusty orange soil, in those drought-dried leaves, the spiders would bind and claim you too.
Horses had free range of our front yard, four crazy dogs too. Anything we dared to leave outside disappeared or decomposed under their urine. The horses were lunatics. All day they’d stomp about, whinnying with horrible angst, pushing their heads into the dirt as they walked, coming up with bedraggled crowns of dirty hay. When we walked, they’d follow us. Creeping closer and closer with determined speed until we fumbled open the thick metal clasp of the gate and escaped the ranch just in time. What would they have done if they’d caught us, we asked each other, running and laughing to our cars, our breath fast with fear.
The airstream itself was maintained with approximately the same level of diligence. We scrubbed years of webs and leaves and dust off the siding. Researched how to open and clean three ply windows and unscrew the original curtains, stiff with mold and long dead spiders. The oven alternately raged and limped, its only consistency in its ability to ruin meals. The sewage backed up into the shower and gathered in lazy, wretched grey pools in which we stood, closing our eyes and pretending our filthy feet did not exist.
Back then, Emaline was still a young cat and she hated the trailer even more than we came to. At night, mice would slide out and commence their rambling nocturnal missions. Which possessed Emaline with her own: she’d scramble after them into every four square inch opening in the trailer and disappear for hours of dirty, clattering, caterwauling, torturous subterranean adventures. Mewing when stuck, scratching when scared. No one could sleep. She and I developed matching stress-induced UTIs (don’t groan - I’m sorry, we did. You’re old enough to stop being grossed out by your mom’s gynecological existence, ok?).
Your father commuted down to Santa Monica every morning (this was before he was the legendary screenwriter and lecturer you’ve always known him as) and after the first few days of epic, bottlenecked commutes, he learned to get up when it was dark and leave with his silver thermos full of strong coffee 90 minutes before he was due. At night, he’d slog back up the PCH, clotted with BMWs and Mercedes and Range Rovers and Malibu bosses with fat fixed smiles and bluetooth conference calls. He’d arrive home at 8 pm and we’d eat a burned or still raw dinner in the premature dark of early fall, pulling ants down strands of our hair or off our necks and crumpling them into the garbage. Too tired and sad to speak. (Did I ever tell you how odd it felt that Los Angeles gets dark so early? When I moved out from Minnesota, I expected endless days. 9 pm sunsets in December. This is not the case; it’s really not any more carefree than Minnesota in that regard so never expect that it will be, ok?)
I was already working from home back then. All day, I sat at the little fold-down formica table in that high dirty valley, a long pain in the ass drive from anyone. It was humbling for independent me to admit how isolated I felt. Moving to LA cultivated in me one precise dream: A cozy, self-sustained, simple life far from the city. Just the people you love most and a garden and a hammock and the nothing-sound that no wind makes. You know what I mean? Have you read Thoreau yet? Or Into the Wild. Ugh. We’ll talk more about that later, but what I mean is, surely you already understand the allure of isolation. Of desolation and simplicity?
But here’s what I didn’t know then, still somehow naive at 35: Everything is an equation. Peace in life is a matter of balance and timing, and sometimes you have to quiet your own instinctive zeal and overconfidence to figure out what you actually need. Learning How to Be a Human is an endeavor of careful precision. Slowness and reflection.
And mistake making.
I think I’d always been a believer that Life is the act of flinging ourselves at the most dramatic, most adventurous, most admirable, most restrictive, most terrifying opportunities we encounter. Everything else is killing time. I am not inherently good at understanding the value of moderation.
We left the city because we thought it was making us weak. We were tired of nights consumed by thoughtless premium cable, of how much time we spent walled off from each other by our lap tops. I sneered at the dishwasher and blamed our lack of writing on our easy geography and the lazy complacency of a big apartment.
We dove toward rugged simplicity and thought it alone would make us rich with fortitude and creativity and purpose. But it wasn’t simple. It was unbearable. Completely complicated with unhappiness. Dirty and hard and lonely and sleepless. It was too far away from where we needed to be at that point in our lives, too impractical. The distance kept your dad commuting for two and a half or three hours a day. Kept me from the comfort of strangers I’d known on walks around the reservoir or down to Casbah Cafe. Don’t ever underestimate how much we need to be a part of humanity, ok? We need each other.
And so we cried and were ashamed at our lack of resilience. Confessed to friends and family that we were miserable, not inspired. Listened to the advice of people who were older than us. And then we left.
We packed up and found a sweet, cozy apartment 15 minutes from your dad’s office. 15 minutes from everything. Introduced ourselves to everyone who walked by, so happy were we for community again.
Sometimes I think the new place was waiting for us. That divine providence knew we weren’t in need of a lesson in fortitude or radical abandon just then; We were waiting for a humbling course on gratitude and contentment.
The second half of the lesson is that a vintage airstream trailer doesn’t make you a calmer person or a better writer. You make you a calmer person or a better writer. You make you anything you become. No one and nothing is going to do it for you. Don’t forget that, ok?
In the end, it was a hard fall, in a lot of ways. We were stressed at home and short handed at work. We lost money on the airstream deposit, spent too much on unexpected travel, moved twice and borrowed the mental weight of too many future-worries. We had so much life on our minds. We fought carelessly and had to make up a song called “Best Selves!” to remind ourselves to be kinder and gentler with each other. Your father’s improvised verses were better than mine.
By November, one of my all time favorite people had died from cancer and I didn’t even know how to talk about it much. I just wanted to remember Verne and hang his explosive goodness like a lock around my neck and miss him in my stomach.
Your Aunt Holly sent me this card. I got it late, after we moved, but probably just when I needed it. Just when I needed a reminder that we are made of divine mingle-mangle. That even in boring neighborhoods and unremarkable homes, our lives are divine and blessed.
Your father and Aaron carved out time to write again, and I found new coffee shops and new stories to get lost in and new strangers to love. We hung our favorite pictures and cooked big autumnal dinners and let life start to slow down around us. Like the golden current parts and swirls around your ankles in the late summer river behind grandma and grandpa’s house, you know?
We were tired, we were recommitted, we were grateful for everything and we felt older. We were lucky. Remember that, ok guys? No matter what, we are almost always still lucky.
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- texturism said: 3 words gifted from a friend, carried in my pocket daily for the past 3 months: pace supports vitality.
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