When I was fifteen I ran away from home. We had moved the year before from Katonah, a commuter town just a short train ride north of Manhattan, to an isolated farmhouse in Marlboro, Vermont. I was not only a fish out of water with plaid-shirted farm kids but was now alone with my suddenly retired parents. My father’s habit of raging and interest in women other than my mother became harder to ignore and her silence more unbearable.
In Marlboro I was to attend the only school in town: 2-rooms for Kindergarten — 8th grade, after growing up in cosmopolitan New York progressive schools. For the first time in my life I flatly refused. To my initial joy I was allowed to skip 8th grade completely. Then I found out that I was going to be bused along with 7 other teens, some of them fragrant from their early morning rounds in the dairy barn, on a half bus for the 40-mile-round-trip-a-day to high school.
That summer before school started I had every kind of accident under the sun: a tree branch stuck into my retina, permanently damaging my eyesight, I slammed the car door not once but twice on my fingers, losing my nails, and I almost cut off my toes with an axe.
On the day I ran away, my friend picked me up at high school and we raced Dr. Zhivago-like through the snow-laden pine forest to pick up my suitcase where I had hidden it the night before. “This is so dramatic!” she exclaimed. I was terrified. Was I really going to do this? A short time later she waved goodbye as the Greyhound bus took off towards Boston on a cold October afternoon. I settled into my seat looking out the window at the frozen landscape and thought “What have you done?”
I stayed with my friend’s friend on the worn-down side of Beacon Hill where the cobbled streets were so narrow you could see the neighbors making love in the apartment on the other side. I lived on coffee and doughnuts, made friends with hustlers and other lost teenagers who did drugs and worked the streets of Boston. I felt liberated, met my first drag queens, and reinvented my identity with a purple velvet blazer and clogs I found at a thrift shop.
I also felt terribly lost at the same time. I hid whenever I saw a police car, afraid I would be found, even though a part of me wanted to be found. I knew running away wasn’t the answer but I knew I couldn’t go home again to more of the controlling, abusive atmosphere that would meet me there. I was so stressed and malnourished that a month on I broke out in big red target lesions on the palms of my hands and soles of my feet.
One gray day heading towards the holidays I found myself at the icy edge of the Boston Common, a huge expanse of snow and trees in the middle of the city. I felt like I was on the precipice of an anxiety so consuming all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and begin to cross the frigid landscape just to keep warm. Some self-preserving part of me began to silently speak with every step, the words that held the simple hope I yearned for at that moment: “It’s gonna get better. It’s gonna get better.” My feet crunched through the icy glaze. Bundled up people hurried by. My lips were numb. It was too cold to feel like Dorothy. The temperature must have been in the single digits. “It’s gonna get better. It’s gonna get better.” Crows cawed in the bare trees. But not even the Hari Krishna chanters who passed by in glaringly saffron robes against the gray day could stop me. “It’s gonna get better.”
Slowly, almost imperceptibly I began to relax a little with every step and the terror began to seep away. By the time I reached the other side of the Common, my anxiety had eased its grip and I had pulled myself back from the precipice. I felt peaceful and calm.
My spontaneous seminal experience of meditation and prayer arose out of those five words born of desperation: “It’s gonna get better”. They moved in step with me across the frozen landscape and brought me to a new place, so that when the Hari Krishna chanters came around again to the other side of the Common I even joined them for a block or so, just to test my newfound freedom.
Yesterday I thought of the book “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which paints a picture much like now, marked by moments of isolation and anxiety as we try to make the best of it. But its times like these that really challenge us to find our way home to who we really are, beyond the tech trends and political mania, somewhere deep down where we may have lost our way.
Right now, in your house or in a break outside, you can find shelter in the storm. Even while practicing our new social norms. With every step you can say those four words or something that most caringly responds to how you feel right now. With every step: “All will be well” or “It’s going to be okay”, you can walk yourself across the frozen landscape into your new green shire and find yourself home again, no matter the circumstance.
(Photo credit: Janet Monaghan)