Last night I finished Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I was wiping away tears in the coffee shop and trying not to make a scene; once I was in my car and driving home, though, I really broke down.
It was a new experience of an old feeling—what I know from the Narnia books, which is the longing for complete reconciliation, for a sun-filled courtyard where all beloved are present, and everything is understood, and everything is put right, for all eternity.
But I realized it had also instilled in me a longing for death. Over the years, as my mother grew sicker and finally died, that longing became a romance with melancholy that caused me great damage and would have caused me more, had I not been fortunate enough to have a good therapist and encounter the Buddhist chaplain at MIT, when I did.
So part of me was deeply grateful, again, to Jack for causing me to feel so deeply and to touch the truth that underlies everything, which is that Love wins in the end. But another part of me was angry. I’ve done so much work in recent years to love this life, on earth. I hope my work witnesses that this, too, is truth.
It was very cold when I came back from Belize to my apartment in Durham. I fished out a pair of merino wool socks to put on, but as I unraveled them, there was a susurrus all around me. They were the same socks I’d worn on the cave expedition. They hadn’t been shaken out. So now the sands of Xibalba were covering my diary, my desk, and my floor.
I left them there.
When I come back to the States, I have to reinstall my old operating system. That includes all the programs on humor, ethics, social interaction, and relationship management. And all the individual files on individual people: who just had a baby, who got a new job, who is struggling, and why.
I’m not quite back yet. Mostly, but not all.
Maybe spring will thaw me out.
I wrote this post a year ago, in March 2013, right before the book deal happened. I just came across the draft and thought I’d share it because so much about the freelance life is still true.
Above: receipts. It’s tax time!
I’ve been living the freelance life for about a year. It’s working, sort of. I was thrown into the deep end last winter when a patron who’d signed a contract for my creative work went bankrupt. (Long story.)
As I noted in this entry, I don’t find circumspection to be useful when it comes to artist finances. I want other beginning artists to know what’s involved. Several friends have asked me how they can leave their job, pursue their passion, and head into the wild blue yonder, and they seem to think it’s something only rich people do. It really isn’t. I make very little, but went to Belize for three months anyway because I decided it was essential to my work. It just took intention and planning.
In 2012, for the sum total of my creative work, including artist commissions, fees, publications and performances, I earned $2,230. For my freelance work, including editing, writing and consultation, I earned $10,126. (I should stress that I deliberately under-work; that is, I only invest enough time in my business to pay my bills and save for travel, so that I have the rest of the time to make art.) The sum total of my artist expenses, including fees, mailings, books, supplies, travel, rent and utilities, tickets to shows, health insurance, prescriptions, and doctor visits, was $8,488.
Gaps were filled by (1) liquidating my savings and (2) three microloans from very kind family members. I’m privileged in those ways and others: I have no children, no student debt, and no serious medical conditions. I have a prestigious educational background that was, itself, enabled by privileges of race and class.
I’m really, really happy with the life I lead. I pray I can avoid 9-to-5 jobs for the rest of my life because they make me feel like I’m dying. My mother died at 60. I know how short life is. But still, I look at the numbers above—especially the liquidated savings—and realize my situation probably isn’t sustainable. As Obama says, I’m one emergency away from financial ruin. So this year will probably have to be different.
I’ve taken steps already, and am taking more. Stay tuned.
This past week, I made myself leave San Ignacio to see other places in Belize. I traveled by bus. I saw ruins in Orange Walk and crocodiles on the New River; ate stew chicken in Dangriga and hudut in Hopkins. I passed through ghostly developments on the Placencia peninsula—the moats and mansions of American retirees. They’ve chopped down all the mangrove, so if a hurricane comes, all of their castles will just wash into the sea.
But I missed Cayo, even for five days. I came back home early to see the beginning of Ruta Maya, the big annual canoe race that starts on the Macal River. I wore my prettiest fuchsia circle skirt and a blouse with puffed sleeves and staked out a spot on the low bridge at 5:30am. The day got lighter and the bridge got more crowded, and then the horns brayed and dozens of canoes came around the bend from under the Hawksworth Bridge, including the team in front, in saffron yellow, shooting like a bullet, every movement fierce and sharp and perfectly coordinated. As they passed underfoot we rushed to the other side of the bridge to watch them go. And then they were gone around the next bend.
In minutes the entire crowd on the bank had loaded into trucks to speed to the next viewing location. I hadn’t secured a place with anyone, so for me, sadly, they were just gone.
I sat on the bridge looking towards the bend around which they’d all vanished. Until I was the only one sitting there.
A cameraman came along and said, “Can I take a shot of you? You look very nice.”
I wiped my tears away and said sure.
When he was done, I said, as if to explain, “I just don’t want to leave.”
“You can always come back,” he said, and kept walking.
On Friday night, I put on an orange dress and flip-flops, and went to a basketball game between the Dangriga Warriors (away team) and the San Ignacio Western Ballaz (home team). I sat on a picnic table next to a few teenage girls in tiny jean shorts. I tried to remember the last time I’d been at a basketball game. Was it really high school?…and of course basketball games were not attended for the game, per se, but for the extraordinary social opportunities available to those who knew how to act in just the right way. In the brief period 1993-1995 AD, when I was trying to become popular, I went to these games in carefully designed outfits with meticulously applied makeup. It didn’t go well. My shelteredness was a novelty, then an object of scorn, and then of bullying.
On this warm Belize night, I felt like I was ten worlds removed. I am so happy here. I strain to mark every grackle call, every glass of rum punch, every bowl of escabeche. I tell the people I love that I miss them even when they’re right in front of me.
Today I was riding with my friend Francisco out to the hills, out where the jungle covers all vast ruins of cities where millions of Maya once lived, and I told him, I think that they’re all sleeping under their green blanket, and we are the dream they’re having.
I’m staying at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio. Alexis is the housekeeper, and she’s awesome. I asked her to bring a sign so hang on my door knob because I didn’t need cleaning every day. The sign she brought said “Please Clean Room,” so I thought, cool, I’ll hang that outside if I want cleaning. But she continued to knock every day regardless. I’m sometimes reading or writing or sleeping in the afternoon, so I got annoyed. I clarified that I’d hang the sign on the door knob if I wanted cleaning. It was only after I picked it up did I realize that there was another side to the sign, which said “Do Not Disturb.” So poor Alexis had been coming by my room every day and, seeing no sign, had to knock to find out whether I wanted cleaning or not, like having to open Schrödinger’s box to find out if the cat was dead.
San Ignacio continues to be warm, restful, and peaceful. I feel like I’m on retreat. I go up to the stadium above town to run a few miles in the morning, when the mists still lie like a blanket on the hills. I’ve been out to caves or ruins a few times, but am very content to just stick close to home, practice Spanish on my balcony, and write with the windows open and the breeze blowing in.
Sometimes I wonder whether this is the last time my life will be relatively quiet. I don’t know what life’s going to be like after May 20th, the day The Girl in the Road comes out. It might go on more or less the same. Or it might blow up. I’m trying not to assume anything. I’m not making any plans.
For now, the box is still closed, and I’m content to let it be.
I’m currently obsessed with the idea of travel as religion. At the very least, as ritual. Even though I’ve only done it three times, departing for Belize—and all the stages of transition to Cayo, the western jungle—have acquired the weight of a holy rite in my head. They’re like veils I pass through, the most profound of which is stepping off the plane in Belize City, where the warm wet air cups my face in its hands. Everything realer than real. I forgot how bright the sun is, how bleached the dust. How when I walk on the road, my flip-flops kick up the mud, so that I always arrive at my destination with my bottom spackled.
At the same time, I feel like my perceptions of Belize are indistinguishable from colonialist fantasy. The vocabularies of Belize being both “more real” and also “like living inside a dream.” Living in a postcolonial world is not something I can help, but I can control how responsibly I act within that reality while still honoring my vocation as an artist. That’s a question I’ll just have to continue to live.