Friday, May 18, 2012

There's No Place Like Home

This past weekend I participated in the Redding Road race Run for the Cows. The race took place at New Pond Farm, but I will get to that shortly. I have had a love for cows since I was a small child. It began when my family moved to a new house. The new house was located across the small lake from our previous home. It was a typical New England town and there was field at the end of our dirt road where several cows would graze. I was a shy child. I often dreamt away the days in my own little world, and was slightly disconnected from the world. I felt that I did not fit in and did not have a place in the bustling world. I created my own reality. I would walk to the end of the road and stop at the cows, giving them each names, and enjoying the recognition they started to give me as I spoke softly to them. These cows brought my attention into focus. It helped to bring into focus what interested me and what inspired me. I liked the cows. I found out what they liked to eat, and would give them parts of my carefully packed lunch. I would hand over my apple and they would, in one swoop swoosh it around in their mouths, eating everything but the core. They enjoyed brownies, and, amazingly, anything with wheat germ, which my mother regularly added to our apple butter and banana sandwiches. I watched them with their huge brown eyes observe me approach the fence. I would often miss the bus to my mother’s disbelief as I had more than ample time to walk to the end of the road. I frequently mention my love for cows and other animals to people, and find myself saying: Have you ever seen a cow’s eyelashes? They are the most amazing things. 
As I think back to those observations I made back then, it reminds me of my own son and his remarkable attention to the smallest detail even at a very young age. My compassion towards animals brought me to become a vegetarian at the age of fifteen. That was twenty-five years ago. I learned about vegetarianism, and this in turn made me question what exactly I was eating, where it came from, and what name it was disguised under. Around the same time I was exposed to a horrific movie at a friend’s sleepover called The Faces of Death. The movie depicted slaughterhouses and animal testing. It so disturbed and revolted me that I never ate an animal again. I did learn over the years to rein in my radical and passionate views, particularly those about vegetarianism, animal rights and many environmental issues. I have learned to avoid them in discussion with those with departing views from mine. As I have gotten older, I find that the practice of living by example is far more beneficial to myself and to others: to speak your truth, live your truth, and never judge. As my son grew older this became crucial to me. He too is a devote vegetarian. When he was a baby and then a small child, I received several unwanted opinions about his diet, but the only opinion I listened to was that of my son’s pediatrician, aptly named Dr. Garcia. He said that Elijah was growing fine, and as long as he continued to thrive on a non-meat diet, he could continue with that life choice. I taught Elijah not to impose his values on others. I explained him that he needed to respect other peoples’ choices. At ten years old, Elijah continues to thrive in all ways. He has a deep compassion for animals. This mutual love and consideration we share leads me to the farm.
Several years ago, Elijah and I did not have a home and were living out of the car. We often found ourselves at New Pond Farm. The property is over one hundred acres with farm animals, trails and open fields with streams glistening through the gentle rolling hills. We went there for peace and respite, and it became familiar, like a home. It was an ideal place to keep a small child connected to the outside world .It provided us with easy hikes in nature and a pause from the constant motion of being homeless. The farm deepened our love for animals. This was our shared experience. The farm requires a small fee for membership per year, and, of course, Elijah and I were not members. We would quietly drive in and gently walk among the grounds, trying to stay under the radar. One afternoon we pulled into the farm with our car filled with all of our possessions, and road life wearing us down. We stood outside of the car, greeting the animals we had come to give names. We stood there, exuding sadness, a lost stare over the fields, when a woman approached us. I thought to myself: here it is, they have noticed us all along. They are going to tell us to leave, or pay, or something. During this time, I had encountered the delicate question by concerned doctors and others who crossed our paths. They would inquire if we needed a place to stay. We were often directed to shelters. Most of those who inquired were unaware that we were not allowed in the shelters because Elijah’s father was considered dangerous, and therefore we posed a threat to the others who were staying there. 
The woman came towards us with an inquisitive and concerned look. She softly yet clearly spoke to us and asked if we needed help finding something. I looked to her with faint tears in my tired and worn eyes. I said: “No. We were just looking and sitting for a while.” As I spoke, I motioned to my little child, who looked to her in that moment. She put her hand upon my shoulder as I began to speak again, nervously looking for the right words. She cut me off, saying: “It's okay. Stay as long as you would like and come back anytime. It was in those moments when she turned away from us and walked back to her caretaker’s house that I felt even greater love for the farm. I felt safe and relieved. Those few intervals of feeling that way in my harsh, every day reality were so precious. They kept me going. They gave me hope, strength and the determination to be home, somewhere.
Years went by and Elijah and I continued to visit the farm. We saw our animal friends and explored the farm in depth. Several months back I was looking through a list of the local running races, and I stumbled upon a race billed as the inaugural “Run for the cows” race. I looked over the website, and saw that it was indeed a race to raise money for the farm. I registered immediately and then emailed the director, John, a brief note, telling him that my son and I felt a special a connection to the farm. I told him that if there was anything I could do to help support the race or to drum up runners, I would be willing and able. Soon after I received an email back from him welcoming me to the race. He was enthusiastic. He informed me that this was as much my race as his, and he would love the help. Over the course of the next few months, I helped recruit sponsors, as well as, numerous friends to join me in the Run For the Cows half marathon or ten kilometers distance. I found myself recounting a brief version of my story about the farm to others as part of my explanation of the mission of the farm towards education and land preservation. 
It was a long few months, and at times my own life overshadowed my self-imposed dedication and volunteering to the race. John was very patient, easy going and became a friend for life. The local support together with the support among my running community was present from the beginning. As we all stood at the start line discussing the possible terrain, I felt connected to the farm and to my fellow runners. The first loop took us out around the farm. It was over the same grass hill that Elijah and I would look for four leaf clovers on, and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We ran past the cows. I whispered a soft hello to the land that my son and I still take comfort in. The race was difficult with steep long hills and short rolling ones. The town of Redding still looks like a typical New England town, and has evaded the pretentious atmosphere of many of the other area towns. The yards were managed with the land, and not against. Many of the old houses look weathered, and lived in. I saw no McMansions, and no perfectly manicured, pesticide-doused lawns. Of course, I am certain that a majority of the runners were not focused on these aspects of the course, or perhaps it was an after thought for some of them. The finish brought us back to the farm, through the dairy barn and down a dirt road. I had an elated feeling at the finish of feeling like a part of New Pond farm. I had paid the farm back in a little way, helped to raise money and bring attention to them. John pulled off an excellent race. We all sat in the grass laughing, taking pictures and collecting awards. Elijah and I then loaded up the car with all the leftover food to bring to Dorothy Day soup kitchen in a nearby town. This is where my story of the farm comes full circle, as things often do in life if you are fortunate enough to live through them and, of course, be aware of the circle.
We drove down a road in a rough neighborhood; it was rough even in the early afternoon sun. As we approached the drop off, we saw many homeless people standing outside. I sensed that Elijah was becoming acutely aware of these unique surroundings. He stood up straight as he waited at the back of the car for me to hand him boxes of pizza. A man of around forty years old came over to help us. He was tall with long black hair. He was dirty, had rough hands, and smelled of cigarette smoke. He looked tired and a little sad. It was a kind of sad that Elijah and I knew and understood. He then reached into the car and grabbed a box of sodas. He looked remarkably similar to Elijah’s father; it was as if I could hear my son’s thoughts as he followed the man into the soup kitchen. Patrons of the kitchen watched Elijah, and said things like: “hmm pizza, thank you boy.” Elijah stated that he was glad that for a change it seemed that everyone knew right away that he was a boy. We made several trips to the car. Elijah thanked the man for helping us carry the food. We said our goodbyes and walked to the car. I watched Elijah, and in that moment, he seemed years older. I quietly said to him: “That man was nice. He reminded me of dad. You know, this could be dad, if his parents didn't take care of him.” He then looked at me, and paused for a minute as he took my hand. He said: “Yes Mom. You know, this could be any of us.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Been very busy with various projects and training for a half Ironman on July 1st. Next post up by Thursday...It's a good one!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birds of Prey

 I have had a long and twisted relationship with cars. My stories demonstrate good choices and bad ones. In other cases, they are simply about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few car stories stand out among the others. My very first car was a huge blue gas guzzling Buick Oldsmobile, and it was the embodiment of all the  strangeness and frailty to come in my life.  It also serves as marker in my tumultuous history with my grandfather. Back then, he thought it was so important for me to be able to get around on my own. Over the course of the next twenty-five years my Grandparents would witness my hard luck with multiple cars. They decided to leave me their car in their will; it was a way for them to ensure that I would have a stable, functioning automobile after they had passed. Years later, my grandfather, out of anger from a life of ninety-two years, gave his car away a few days before he died.  
When I turned sixteen, I was in no hurry to get my driver’s license. I also did not have any means to do so. I finally got my license closer to the age of eighteen. I drove a car twice before the driver’s test, and borrowed a friend’s car to use for the road test. Once I did get my license, I had nothing to drive for a few months. Then my grandfather found the Buick Oldsmobile for me. He negotiated a five hundred dollar price. Thinking back, I never really wanted this car or any car for that matter. Yet, there I was, standing in a driveway while my grandfather went over the car with me: the rules of the road, how to do oil changes, and other automobile advice and stories. Owning this car did allow me to get a job a few towns away at a Mexican restaurant. After a few months, the premise of car ownership started to grow on me. I could drive to work, or to my boyfriend’s house or to do teenage-type things, like hanging out in an empty parking lot. After a few weeks, the car began to make funny noises. It smoked and clanked. Then various pieces started to fall off as I drove. When the car went in for its first repair, I was instantly turned off from the whole process of having a car. I dreaded everything from the buying of gasoline to the prospect of breaking down. I was perfectly comfortable being a perpetual passenger. That being said, I had been working in a real restaurant and reaping the benefits. I was stowing away money for a better car, one that was a bit smaller and that did not break down. Hyundai had just started marketing their affordable line of cars, and I was saving up to make a down payment on a four door red sporty sedan. I had for the first time established credit. This would allow me to finance. I was only eighteen, so this was a huge feat. Unfortunately, this purchase would never happen.
After several repairs, the blue car died for good. The car expired one day as I drove along the highway. It started to go so I pulled over, crossing the four lanes of highway to the shoulder. It died right there in the middle of the median. I gathered up a small bag worth of belongings and simply walked away from it on the side of the highway. It would sit there  for months, causing great and regular disappointment to my grandfather.  
I was eighteen years old at the time, and dating someone who, by no fault of his, would cause much hardship in my life. While other eighteen year olds were leaving their adolescence to pursue college or family or full time employment, I was on the edge of something else. In a very short time, I would find myself immersed in a life of a hard core drug addiction. I would lose all sense of who I was and drift away from any sense of human connection. Perhaps this is why today I treasure my connections to others so much. From one moment to the next, I went from being a sheltered, na├»ve, shy girl from a Connecticut suburb to being a strung-out junkie that would steal, lie and manipulate. As I piece together this intense part of my life, my thoughts and words are, without a doubt, raw. They are coming from a place that I have never revisited. Those particular years of my story are not only difficult to relive, but they are rightfully a little hazy. I am telling the story from the end; the end to this particularly gritty, hard chapter of my life. I will go back and fill in the beginning eventually, piecing it all together. Back in those days, months would turn into years, and certain days seemed like a lifetime.  
After leaving my job at the Mexican restaurant, I stopped saving any money. For the next several years, I did not own or drive a vehicle. Any money I came across went to my addiction; to get a fix. The acts of working, saving, driving, and living in any normal eighteen-year old way were things that were no longer part of my world. Several times in those years I would make attempts to pick myself up and force myself out of the of the dark world I was living. Eventually, I was able to get a job as a waitress. 
This leads me to the story of my next car, the car that stands out the most in my life, the Ford Thunderbird; the car that will always be synonymous with Carlos.  I bought the car from Carlos. I met him while I was working at a local dinner during one of the attempts of getting clean. He was a solid twenty-five years older than me. He was Brazilian and stood over six feet two inches. He had dark features: a large dominant nose, a tousled jet black head of hair and dark eyes. He carried himself with confidence, and seemed to affect a prowl-like manner. He would sit at the counter in the same seat day after day. His eyes fixed on me. I was a very young, blonde waitress. I stood on the other side of the counter with a look of being lost in my eyes. I would chain smoke at the end of that greasy counter where there were little, dirty ashtrays parked under the countertop. I doodled on my waitress pad. I was dressed in traditional server attire: black pants, white buttoned down shirt and black apron. Carlos ordered a bowl of split pea soup and coffee every day at the 11:50am, just before the lunch rush. After weeks of this, he spoke to me. He mentioned that I looked tired. He preceded to hand me a tip, and underneath the dollar bill tip was a gram of pure cocaine wrapped neatly in a ball of cellophane wrap. He said it would help, and that it was “on the house.”  I was his prey. He had been discreetly watching me, and then moved in. I made it so easy. He continued to come in every day for lunch, and had the same order and left the same tip. A few weeks went by, and then one afternoon he only left me a dollar. I asked him where the other part of the tip was. He looked at me, and said: “oh, now sweetheart... You have to pay.”
I began the fast life of a cocaine addict. Speed was never my thing, being a person with a naturally high energy level. So I was an out-of-control cokehead. I declined quickly and would go with whoever would support my habit. I would stray from Carlos in the beginning, and then end up back with the heroin addicts. He would pick me up off the street and put me up in a local motel, leaving me there for days. I would wake up to the sight of some tacky framed picture lying next to me in the bed. It had been removed from the motel wall to provide a surface to snort cocaine from.  The glass frame would be covered in hundreds of white little lines. When I would be strung out, Carlos would always appear with a pill, a joint or some other safe offering. Somewhere in my head, I think I expected that one day he would eventually kill me. 
In a sense, Carlos did save me from one bad thing: he continued to get me off the street and off heroin. He pulled me away from the street life, but brought me into the bigger, richer world of cocaine. He also wanted me all to himself. He would pick me up and carry me off somewhere in his van. It was a white van with only one tinted round window in the back top corner. This vehicle would become a fixture in my world during that chapter of my life. I have many stories about those unsavory days with Carlos, but today I am limiting myself to the story of the first car I ever bought.
Carlos eventually stopped giving me cocaine. He forced me to go to a Detox center, wrenching me away from the town and people I knew. He would give me marijuana, shelter, and false security at a job at the local truck stop.  Carlos was drug lord disguised as an entrepreneur. He was in car sales and owned a mansion. Improbably, his mansion sits right behind the current home of the grandparents of my son in what seems like a lifetime later. Carlos would use his cars in an unexpected way: they were often driven across various state lines in the middle of the night, only to meet a person in the early hours of the morning. His crew would remove the lug nuts and pull off the car’s tires. They would be filled with drugs. Once the tires were removed, the car would be set ablaze. I witnessed this many times in the early morning hours in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. I had also been an unknowing participant in some of these operations, driving a car filled with drugs to one of these dark locations. He gave me a fake ID, and told me if I got pulled over while following him to hand over everything in the glove compartment and that he woud be back for me. I am certain that if I had been pulled over while driving one of these vehicles, I would still be in jail today. 
 I worked hard at waitressing, and even harder at trying to get myself out of the world that I had so abruptly plummeted into. I saved one thousand dollars and bought an old Thunderbird from Carlos.  As a former hardcore junkie, saving money serves as a remarkable test to a person who is no longer using, and no longer caught up in that world. Even after two decades, I still give myself gentle praise when I see a pile of money on my kitchen table, and when I drive to the bank to make a deposit. I slowly began to pull away from Carlos, and assert my independence. As I made my own money, I was able to have less and less use for him. This in turn angered him. I also was not entirely ready to let go of my relationship with this man who I hated, but at the same time thought I needed for my survival. He offered me the car for free, but I knew nothing was free from Carlos. I counted out each single dollar bill and insisted he take all the money. He ultimately still had all the control. I drove to my new apartment that was across from a local biker bar and the railroad tracks. I began seeing a regular guy. He worked as a cook at the truck stop. We went hiking, drank coffee, listened to Jimi Hendrix, and smoked pot together. This was one of my first of what would become many connections with “restaurant people.” The diminishing push-pull relationship between Carlos and I was starting to crumble. He was like an embarrassing family member. He would show up in his white van, and insist that I come over to talk to him while I was with my new friends. I would spy him in the van driving by on an adjacent street while I was doing an errand. He wouldn't go away, and I wouldn't leave. Unfortunately, I continue to relive this dynamic, but without the drugs, even today. 
Carlos would tantalize me with marijuana, the way he lured me in previously when I worked at a dinner, only that time it was with cocaine. I owned the Thunderbird for a few months and felt a slight feeling of normalcy, though I was working the graveyard shift from 11pm to 7am in the morning. I never could get it right. I felt the pressure of Carlos. He had given warnings, and was not happy with me. One night when my new friend was over, he went out to his car only to find that all four tires had been slashed. Other friends that I tried to make connections with grew weary of Carlos and his constant sneaky presence. I woke up one morning and walked out my driveway. The car was not there. I knew immediately that he had taken it. I ran into the house to see if the title to the car still there, knowing that Carlos would be shrewd enough to take both the car and the title. It was gone. I stood in my kitchen with a sinking feeling deep in my stomach. I dialed the phone, and Carlos answered my call after only a half of a ring. I shouted in the phone: “where is my fucking car?!!” He said to me in a loud, sarcastic but calm manner that it was down the road from my place of employment. I got a ride over to the partially abandoned roller skating rink parking lot. As I rounded the corner, I noticed black dust covering several nearby cars. I followed a line of parked cars. I found my Thunderbird. Each windshield had been shattered. The roof was caved in down to the back seat. The insides of the seats were ripped apart with large knife cuts. Foam and shattered glass shone on the blue finish of the outside if the car. Each car door was punched in with what looked like a sledge hammer. A thick black coating of burned car interior coated the parking space and covered the white lines where the car had been dumped. My personal belongings in the car lay splattered over the dashboard.  The air smelled of burnt rubber and other toxins. I stood for a moment, glaring at the pile. I took one deep breath, and reached into the shattered glass to retrieve a small rock that I had found recently on a hike. I brushed off the black soot, pushed the small stone deep in my pocket and turned around towards my ride who sat quietly in his idling car, waiting. As I looked over my shoulder one last time, I felt a weight lift off of me , floating away with the smoke that still lingered in the air. The years-long relationship with a scary and powerful man, my drug lord, my life lord, my twisted puppeteer had finally come to an end. I had finally broken free. There in the rubble was the end of Carlos, the end of my painful years as a captive, as an out-of-control drug addict. 
I walked away taking slow, deliberate steps, knowing that I would never see or speak to Carlos again.