It was a desperate, confusing time. I’d hitched my wagon to a star, uprooted my life to chase my dreams back to my hometown. I had seen a shimmering (if rain-soaked) post-graduate school future of career fulfillment, rich sociability, fascinating interests, and wealth (of course). I saw this vision with such clarity I believed all I had to do was go home and the pieces would fall into place. In fact, I remember journaling something along the lines of “this new life is something I feel I can just relax into”, so certain was my hope.
The brilliant sunlight glinting off the Columbia River, the water teeming with people recreating, the golden plains stretching to the horizon seemed to foreshadow the bright future that lay ahead as my boyfriend and I drove west on I-90. We were going home.
Just a couple of hours later the shade of the Cascade Mountains enveloped us as we curved our way through Snoqualmie Pass. We drove across the bottom of a tunnel of Evergreen trees, dense and dark. A deep sense of dread began to spread through me, disguising itself as a stomach ache. I was so out of touch with my feelings in those days, the emotional usually expressed itself physically. I felt off. The glory of my triumphant return home was draining out of me and soon I was on edge. Had I been able to peer into the future at that moment I would have insisted we turn the car right back around for Arizona.
We pulled up in front of our new apartment, a four story 1920’s brick affair in our cherished old neighborhood, exactly the kind of place I’d wanted. It was a soft summer evening, the kind of air Seattleites would crawl across broken glass for in the dead of January. I stepped out of the car and into my new life, and nothing felt right. My sense of foreboding driving through the Pass was spot-on correct. A rough, tough six year grind, sprinkled with bad luck and tragedy began to unfold where my shimmering future was supposed to be. I’m still not sure I’ve fully recovered.
One year after I arrived home with a whimper, I went back to Arizona to visit, hoping to move there again, and reclaim the future I might have had. It was a time of intense ambivalence, bitterness, and anger. It wasn’t fair how hard things were for us in Seattle. It wasn’t fair that we spent the first four months unemployed, unable to even get an interview anywhere. It wasn’t fair that we had to settle for underemployment at wages we’d made more than as undergrads. It wasn’t fair how expensive everything was and how we were getting into debt just to make ends meet. It wasn’t fair how our other friends, some of whom were less educated than we had gotten good jobs right away. It wasn’t fair how closed off people seemed, and how no one would help us. The litany of unfairness went on and on in my mind until a towering rage built, threatening to consume me.
I went straight to Jenn, my soothsayer, who had illuminated my struggles before. She saw me more clearly in those days than I saw myself, and I knew I could trust her to help me out of this terrible indecision, where one day we were chucking it all and moving to Tucson and the next we were running away to Hawaii. What we weren’t doing was trying to build a positive future where we were. My boyfriend and I were feeding the collective hysteria by sending each other novel-length texts 600 times a day about why we needed to get the fuck out. Jenn would know what to do. Jenn would tell us where to go.
She and I sat quietly on her bedroom floor after I explained the struggle, my voice a high whine, eyes wild. She looked closely at me, and then at the tarot cards she’d arrayed between us. She was silent, reviewing the images the deck revealed, checking their meanings against my synopsis. Finally, she spoke. There’s not even anything here for the buzzards to pick clean.
My eyes filled with tears, as the magnitude of her pronouncement pierced my chest. I didn’t want it to be true. I had stuff going on! Sure, I hated my job and resented the seeming lack of opportunities to become upwardly mobile. You bet I was pissed at my poor decision making. Yeah, I walked around in a state of angry negativity most days, but I did stuff. I’d made some new friends and gone to shows and thrown parties. I mean, I had a job and a place to live, at least. Surely there were a few things there for the buzzards to pick at. Wait, why were buzzards circling?
Jenn, ever patient and kind, explained to me that my insides had become a void, a dead expanse. Going through the motions and living weren’t the same thing, and if I persisted in this state of hostile pessimism, I may as well be dead, that’s how good things would be. She suggested my rabid fixation on comparison wasn’t helping my cause, that railing against the unfairness of it all a useless exercise. When I tried to explain my shock and disappointment at running a cash register for $9.50 an hour with a master’s degree, and how much my finances were being fucked she stopped me. Gently she explained I was looking for wealth in the wrong places. That I was trying to build my life on an unstable foundation. She asked me to understand that the richness of life would always be determined by the quality of my relationships, that love was the only commodity worth anything at all. We sat together until my indignation subsided, and dissolving into tears, I repeated after her that my struggle was about love. No more, no less.
I went back home with a renewed sense of purpose. I found a better-paying job. I made more friends. I had some fun. I focused on populating my life with as many interesting, available people as possible. I sought love. I can’t honestly say I ever found the future I was looking for, but I did build myself a life full of good people I was sad to move away from five years later. The people with whom I chose to surround myself made a hard patch of years into something bearable. Time spent with them was a natural anti-depressant. Now, as I draw farther and farther away from those difficult times it’s the memories of holiday parties, and late-night karaoke, and pizza, and festivals, and shows, and big nights in, and walks around the neighborhood with these wonderful people that remain.
As with all lessons Jenn has taught me, this one has meaning that evolves over time. I understand that when I stop participating in the process of building my life, the possibilities and opportunities dry up, leaving nothing for the buzzards to pick clean. Cynicism, pessimism, and bitterness smell like death, and so the carrion birds circle high overhead, warning me. We will strip you clean of everything.
Lately I’ve realized I’m still grieving the loss of my former dreams, the life that didn’t work out the way I’d intended. This grief has made me shy away from dreaming, from planning. From hoping. It’s kept me underachieving, grinding away at a life with tightly managed expectations. I’m so scared of watching my dreams shatter at my feet again, I won’t allow myself any. But see, that was exactly Jenn’s point. In order to have a life worth living we have to fill ourselves with hopes and dreams and wonderful expectations. We have to invest ourselves in the good in order to gain it. Otherwise, we grind ourselves to dust and leave nothing for the buzzards to pick clean.