What Have You Been Up to Lately?

After the fire, after settling into the unsettling routine of living in a motel, still not knowing if my beloved cat, Tucker, was alive, dead, or injured and holed up somewhere healing or not healing; I was trying my best to cope.

One thing I can say for sure – I LOVED going to work each day and I never thought I’d feel that way about working at Williams-Sonoma. I had taken the job several months before the fire, to give myself a steady paycheck; the pressure of supporting myself as an artist had begun to wear me down. But I never thought I would LOVE going to work at a fancy kitchen store, in an upscale mall. Now I did, for the simple reason that it brought me unbelievable comfort within my completely unstable, not-knowing, house-burned-out, world; a comfort that came from order, consistency and time spent in surroundings that did not reek of smoke.

The work brought me a routine. I could spend eight delicious hours in a world of total, artificial constancy. The music that played over and over; now I loved even that ridiculous soundtrack. The detailed and sometimes inane instructions describing how to build a product display, complete with exacting numbers for every product, several color photos to illustrate different versions based on what our stock levels were, mailed OVERNIGHT from corporate headquarters in San Francisco: I now looked forward to all of these things that used to drive me crazy. I could hide inside them and forget my life.

My life that was a mess: I did not know how long the Red Cross would continue to pay for my motel lodging and food vouchers, I had no idea where I was going to live or even if I could find a place that I could afford.

Each night I would leave work and return to the scene of the fire: sitting on the back porch of the burned out house I would whistle, call, sing, or wail for my cat. I had to keep returning, had to keep calling out for him; I couldn’t let him down, couldn’t just give up.

Later when I returned to the motel, I would turn on the TV and find something, anything to lose myself in. Me, someone who had, pre-fire, developed quite a big, fat attitude about people who went home after work, sat in front of the television and blobbed out. I did not own a TV and had not lived in a home with one for close to twenty years. I used to wonder why “they” couldn’t see that “they” were wasting their lives away…how “they” could watch such garbage. It was one of my favorite rants. When I walked into that motel room each night, returning from another unsuccessful attempt at trying to find my beloved cat, heartbroken and close to homeless, I wanted to feel nothing. Television worked well for me.

Even in my unconsciousness I saw what I was doing; saw that I was using television to numb my pain, to hide inside of it, so that I did not have to think about my life, or feel it. It allowed me to forget the pain for just long enough to wind down and hopefully go to sleep. Over and over, the routine was the same and I liked it like that. I had the shows that I watched each night…I was turning into “one of them”. Nothing like walking the path of one whom I’d judged so harshly. I was living the American way: go to work, come home, watch TV and go to bed. And I was relieved that I could lose myself, grateful for a few hours to forget that my life was a shell, and just barely that. It was a mere gauze veil of a life that could so easily unravel. With any scrutiny at all, me, my life, could be reduced to random threads blown about in passing air currents.

On the evening of a day off, I gave myself an enormous treat and took myself to a movie. There was a comedy film playing at a theater on the way back to the motel. And it was a film I knew I would love – one with wit and grace and beauty all wrapped up together. Here was an opportunity for two blessed hours of escape in a big dark theater. I could go in and completely dissolve into the story of someone else’s life. And it worked. I forgot; forgot that I did not have a home, forgot that Tucker was still missing, forgot that I had not much more than a few changes of clothing. And most importantly: I laughed, long and hard. I laughed so much that my face hurt. I laughed so much that I began to relax into that one sweet moment of laughter and joy. There was only that moment; all other moments of my life were utterly and completely forgotten. Because I did not try to forget, or practice forgetting, because it just came so gently, it went deep inside me. I forgot all that weighed so heavily, all my fears, my heartbreak, and my terror that soon I would end up on the streets – all of it melted away in deep belly laughs. My body relaxed as if I’d been in a sauna or had a massage; only this laughing was much better.

Eventually the movie came to an end. I floated out to the lobby, still completely wrapped up in my luscious moment, right there with my laughter and nothing else. I bumped into a woman, an acquaintance, and she repeated words that many of us say to each other as a way of greeting: “What have you been up to lately?” Often the asker does not hear the answer or even the question, for that matter, as it can just be a mindless greeting. But I heard the question. Clearly. Everything in me slammed on the brakes. My in-the-moment laughter and lightness came to a screeching halt and there was nothing after it. I was at a loss. She asked me what I had been up to lately and for a few moments, I had no idea. I could not answer her question because I did not know.

It took me a little too long to respond and she began to feel uncomfortable, not realizing that this was going to be such a difficult question. I had dived so deeply into the present moment of the movie and the laughter and complete relaxation – all so separate from the reality of my life – I actually could not, or would not; remember what I was “up to lately”. My brain refused to allow me to know, just quite yet. It was trying desperately to hold onto a few more moments of peace. And then it all came screaming back. I had completely forgotten my life and with her seemingly innocent question, I came back from forgetting. I returned to remembering. I was crushed.

She watched all this play out on my face in a matter of moments. She had seen way more in those few seconds of a very long pause than she had bargained for. We were, after all, only acquaintances to begin with. Her question meant nothing to her, and everything to me. We never know who it is we are really speaking to…what they are carrying, what they have lost, what they’re trying to forget, or remember.

About a year later I was standing at the cash wrap at Williams-Sonoma one weekday evening. The store was empty of customers until a very nicely dressed woman wearing one strand of pearls at her neckline stepped across the threshold. She approached, carrying a subtle but deeply familiar trauma within her heart that she was doing her levelheaded best to disguise. In her hand she held a sheaf of dog-eared, typewritten pages. She had the presence of a traumatized, domesticated animal that had become suddenly feral – I saw it in her eyes. She handed me her papers, with an almost invisible tremor in her hand. “How much would it cost for these?”

She held a stack of single-spaced, typewritten pages: a listing of household items. My fingers touched the papers and for a moment we both held onto that list: coffeemaker, frying pan, kitchen knives, dishtowels…the list went on and on. Again I looked into her eyes. Fire!

Softly I said, “My house burned too.”

With those four words, she saw that I had made it beyond a terror that quaked in my body every time I smelled smoke, even from a match being lit. She saw that there was something else taking root in my soul that was beginning to push out the homelessness that haunted me, lived in me, even after I found a new home. Our situations were so different, but it was all the same. She was wealthy, she had homeowner’s insurance, the fire had happened only two weeks prior and the insurance company had already told her to just make a list of what was destroyed and they’d replace it – it was just before Christmas, after all. They, she and the insurance company, all thought the look in her eyes, the devastation in her heart, could be buried, or better yet erased, under a mountain of new things. When she looked into my eyes she knew it couldn’t. She also knew that it was possible for new life to sprout, right up through the ashes.