Sunday, January 22, 2017

you gotta fight for your right to write

1. getting there is half the fun

“It doesn’t even look like we’re on Earth,” says Janice.

I am in a car full of writers I don’t know, driving toward wet black mountains half hidden by clouds. Today Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president. Our hearts and our friends will be at Women’s Marches around the country tomorrow, but we’ve decided to leave town and write.

Cole took the train from Santa Barbara and met us at Union Station in L.A. It arrived late, so we sat in Janice’s Prius for an hour, watching the rain. Not long after getting on the 210 freeway, Janice’s tire blew. We limped to an off-ramp and waited for AAA.

Sporting a new used tire from Moreno’s Tires New & Used Llantas in Irwindale, we are back on the road now.

Cole says she’s writing a book of lyric essays about uncertainty. I tell her I’m writing about uncertainty too, and proceed to tell my three fellow travelers “my story.” I don’t mean the story I’m writing, although I build a literary framework around it. I mean it the way the homies I work with do: the messy ball of events that reshaped your insides forever. Figuratively but also literally.

We talk about living with uncertainty, and how some people—perhaps violent men especially, perhaps our new president especially—are so scared of being wrong or unsure that they try to shoot their way toward something solid. I don’t understand the action, but I understand the temptation.

I say, “By middle age, most people have discovered that their defense mechanisms only work to a point, and they have to discover a new way of living with uncertainty.”

Jessica, who is sitting next to Cole, reminds me, “Or you can be born into chaos, like I was, and you have to learn how to live with stability.”

The freeway forks off, and we start to climb the mountain. The fog is so thick it’s like being in the belly of a ghost. It’s not snowing yet, but we pull into a cluster of cars at a turnout to put chains on our tires, since we know a California Highway Patrol checkpoint lies ahead.

We want visibility.
An hour ago, the other car in our party discovered they had the wrong kind of chains and hitched a ride to an auto parts store with a local. Putting chains on tourists’ tires for extra cash is a cottage industry in the mountains. Her name was Melody. She was seven months pregnant and behind on her rent. She told them locals don’t bother with chains; they know which roads to take to avoid the checkpoints.

2. tools from our mothers

We inch along the icy road, stopping at every turnout to adjust the cables on our tires. From the car’s undercarriage, we hear flapping and clanging and crunching.

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” Janice asks. We are all a little rattled by the obstacles we’ve already encountered today.

Jessica Googles it on her phone, and I think about how a kind of automotive hypochondria is possible. How, at a certain point, all the things that are normal seem like they belong on another planet, and vice versa.

We are just a mile from our rental cabin when we pull over to take one more look at the chains. This time we slide too far to the right, and one of the front tires ends up in a snow bank. When Janice tries to start the car, the wheel smokes. We use a doggy water bottle, an empty coffee cup and the metal lid of a rice pot to dig at the snow around the wheel. The chain has come off the tire, but seems to be stuck to a part of the car we can’t access.

A man in a Nine Inch Nails hoodie pulls up. “Having trouble?”

He thinks it’s just a matter of pushing the car, but when that doesn’t work, he says we’re screwed and need a tow. Phone service is intermittent, so he lends us his cell to call AAA (“Hi again…”) and then gets out of there.

I redecorated.
AAA tells us that the weather is too bad and they’re not sending anyone out. Once—and perhaps still, if I were the one driving—I would have been crying at this point, but I feel okay. There are houses nearby. We have a car full of snacks and coats. And when no one’s life is in danger, everything else is workable.

“Okay, we have two phones that are getting service,” Cole says. “We have a pot lid. We know the other car made it.” She and I have been doing less of the dirty work than Janice and Jessica, and she pauses. “I can’t do anything except narrate.”

While we wait for two of the writers ahead of us to pick us up, I make a sign that says Please don’t tow us, since it looks like we’re going to have to abandon the car.

Janice says, “Humor me” and does some more digging, this time with a multi-purpose, Swiss army knife-type gadget given to her by her late mother. This time, the car inches forward, and we’re able to pull the tangled chain loose.

Our rescuers—not AAA but Sara and Melissa, two curly-haired women writers in an SUV—cheer for us and lead us to the cabin.

“It’s crazy what busy working women will do to write,” Janice says. Our two-hour drive has taken us more than seven.

Why is it so much easier to write at someone else's kitchen table?
We peel off our wet clothes and pour ourselves red wine. We contemplate our hard-won, very short retreat, and also that any one of us could be going through the same motions—chains, tires, ice—for rent money instead of contemplative space.

One of the toilets is clogged, the WiFi is dead and more snow is expected tonight. We can’t do anything except narrate. But we have a big pot of pasta, a bag of mini marshmallows, stacks of books and a low hum of support—it sounds like percolating coffee and the tapping of keyboards—and that will get you through a storm.

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