Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Surrey Lane || Wednesday, 4.29pm

Two weeks ago, when Jenna and Drew came back from their anniversary outing, I saw her slip a check into my purse.

I don’t take money for babysitting anymore; it’s a principle I maintain to preserve my freedom. And between the pleasure of the company of their three girls, and the beautiful garden they have to play in, and the outlandish food Jenna always leaves behind for dinner, money in this particular case seems de trop.

But I’m aware that money is sometimes like the German of emotional communication, expressing more precisely than inflated words can.

So I prepared my acceptance speech, as I unfolded the check.

It was made out for $50.

"No, no," she said, as I began to stutter. "It’s for the travel fund."

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I wasn’t raised to expect money just by asking for it. Money was something you got in exchange for work well done. Whatever else I’ve wasted time feeling entitled to, money never was part of it.

So when someone gives money to me, whether they mean it this way or not, I take it as a symbol that they believe in me. Or what I’m trying to do, which to me means the same thing (again, whether they mean it that way or not).

That feeling is quite addictive.

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Readers of my other blog may remember my reluctant request for money to send me to Africa. During the fundraising process—a harrowing time of dealing with the potential for failure and shame—a friend of a friend, with whom I have only a few shared memories of youth group meetings and a Facebook relationship—messaged me to ask how much money I needed to raise.

$700, I told him.

Ten days later, my parents told me they would make up the difference of whatever I needed to go. It was tough to accept, but I did. And I went. And I came back.

And I got an email from the trip organizer with my final list of donors. This distant friend’s name was on it, with $700 in the adjoining column.

It should be noted that this friend is a missionary, himself. And has a wife to support. And that the closest we’ve come to hanging out is dancing at our mutual friend’s wedding last spring.

I asked him why he did it; he thought I was mad at him. I was mad, in fact, at the intensity of undeserving I felt.

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I spent two weeks after returning from Africa house- and dog-sitting for some friends. I wore a path between the kitchen counter, where my work was set up, and the bathroom. I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t go out except to check the mail, and I think I wore the same pair of shorts every day but Sunday.

It was glorious.

They returned home with a check in their hands. I told them to keep it.

No, they said, it’s for the travel fund.

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People offer me things and it lights up all the filaments in my nucleus accumbens. “Do you want some tea?” or “Do you need a blanket?” or “Help yourself” or “Do you want to lie down?” or best of all “Stay as long as you like, I’ll just be cooking/cleaning/back in a little while.”

Even if I’m not hungry or tired or thirsty or anything, I always want to say yes. Yes!

Jeez, what must be wrong with me, that I’m such a junkie for nurture? It’s not as though I was neglected as a child. I’ve never lived on the street. I must seem frightfully greedy, always slurping and gobbling and cuddling and staying for six hours at a time.

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In preparing for my trip, there are about as many things to buy as there are to get rid of.

So I asked the thrifty housewives of my acquaintance to keep a lookout in the secondhand stores and garage sales they frequent for the things I needed.

It’s been a month of preparation, and I haven’t bought anything. I’ve been hooked up with a travel-size hair dryer; an ice chest; one of those little make-up clutches just big enough to hold a toothbrush, deodorant and lipstick; Rubbermaid bins for storing my pictures in; and a serious sleeping bag, the cocoon-kind that rolls up over your ears, that just happens to be in one of my favorite colors.

Since moving, I’ve also been staying at one of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever been inside, eating out of the kitchen garden, sleeping in a California king-size bed, showering on a granite tile floor, gathering roses from the porch, listening to Miles Davis on the industrial-strength hifi.

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I know it won’t always be like this. It won’t, right? People simply giving, providing, saying “Stay” and “Here” and “No, really. We want you to have it.”

It’s like I won the lottery. But I didn’t even buy a ticket. I just know these people.

---

While I was admiring her adorable twin babies, Rebecca said “I have something for you.”

She came back with a silver St. Christopher medal.

I’ve always wanted one of these, ever since I learned what they signify. I learned it from an old boyfriend, who I liked principally for the travel jones he had. He had traveled much more than me…had been deathly ill in Morocco, had run with the bulls in Pamplona…and after I got over the rejection, I realized that the real devastation was never having been able to hear his stories.

What William S. Burroughs said you get from opiates—this pecular mix of euphoria and contentment and mental freedom—is exactly what I feel when someone talks to me. Especially about something that matters to them.

It’s really like an addiction, because I’ve been known to contort my values and the truth and waste hours of emotional energy, just for the sake of hearing a confidence. I don’t even need it to be an exclusive. If it’s something they’ve shared with a thousand other girls, I don’t care; I just want to be talked to.

I’m not sure what any of that has to do with St. Christopher.

But it’s nice that he now reminds me of Rebecca, an old and dear friend, than a highly expendable old boyfriend, who never gave me anything but my first kiss.

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Sometimes, when I say how excited I am to hear people’s stories in the course of this project, folks respond by saying, “Well, people love to talk about themselves.”

The condescending tone they take in saying this is always such a puzzle to me. Of course people love to talk about themselves; it’s both their greatest mystery and their greatest area of expertise. And not only that; it’s also their greatest resource.

Generally speaking, people love to give; it’s only when they feel threatened by poverty that they get stingy.

And for some people, their inner selves are the only thing they can give, anymore.

The only thing! I’m going to say it’s the very best.

But some of us have intimated to some of them that celebrity gossip is more interesting than their real-life comedies and tragedies. That Ryan Gosling leaving the gym, or a Kennedy buying toothpaste at a Walgreen’s, is a story worthy of international publication, while they’d best keep their hard-won promotion/prodigal child/artistic ambitions to themselves.

Whatever. If that’s what you’re into, there’s a place you can find it. I don’t need anyone to agree with me. I just need people to talk to me.

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In the early morning on a Wednesday in January, my dad drove me to the airport to catch a flight to New York City. I was going there against his counsel; he wouldn’t forbid me to go, and that was permission enough for me.

We checked my bags, and I shuffled my feet in uncertainty of what ought to happen, in a leave-taking of this character.

"Come here a second," he said, stepping off to the side, though there was no one around us. I followed him, and watched as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill.

I remember thinking “Be angry; don’t be nice to me.” In order to get on that plane, I needed to feel that I was escaping from something.

He was still hesitating, and I waited for some kind of final, portentous speech. All he said was, “Be careful.”

Normally, in leave-taking, he says “Be wise.” Maybe it was too late for that caution, or maybe it was just hope that a simpler admonition would be more likely to be followed.

The money stayed in my coat pocket for a long time. I knew he didn’t believe in New York as a good idea. So what did the money represent?

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I’m surprised to find myself crying. Maybe it’s just that I’m tired. Maybe it’s the devilish coincidence of that Mary Chapin Carpenter ballad “10,000 Miles” coming on, just at that moment I was writing about my dad. Maybe it’s the memory of another conversation with my dad, just after my high school graduation, when he said “I have a feeling that once you leave here, we won’t be seeing you very often.”

And that kills me, to think of. Why can’t you?! are the words it pulls from me.

Why can’t you come with me? I want to know.

Love is a real motherfucker to try and leave behind.