One – The Scream
A little girl with a haircut shaped like a bowl rides her bike in a lonesome cul-de-sac. She is dressed in baggy boys’ clothes. She is alone and she can’t see me watching. She rides to the top of the street and looks out, waiting. Nothing happens. She rides on in expanding circles in the empty blacktop circle, wearing my favorite LA Dodgers t-shirt. On her cheek I see the little mole my mom liked to call a beauty mark. I feel the sudden urgent need to grab her by the rosy cheeks and tell her that it’s okay, that she’s okay. I want to take her to ice cream and tell her that she’s allowed to want more and that the emptiness she feels won’t last forever, unless she wants it to.
I opened my eyes and felt my stomach turning and grinding like a broken washing machine. It whirred and roiled with a whine that howled in my ears, subjective and unheard. I turned my head to look at my therapist. Her gaze was infuriatingly casual, as if I hadn’t just hallucinated myself into my own childhood. My body ached, something pulled from deep inside. It clenched so powerfully that organ failure felt like a legitimate possibility. I asked aloud – only half joking – if I was going to expire right there on her couch. “That’s not a symptom, girlie,” she said confidently, “it’s a feeling.” She must have thought I was some kind of idiot because I was thirty-something and she felt the need to tell me that feelings were something that you feel.
“Yes, I know that one could feel feelings, but not like this, not like, in your body.” That space was reserved for orgasms and indigestion. I thought I sounded very erudite and intellectual when I explained to her that emotions were simply concepts to be described with words. “The body,” I argued, “is for symptoms, and anything that deviates from the banality of ‘fine, thanks’ means something is wrong.” And something was wrong, because when I saw that lonely little girl on her bike, I felt how badly she ached for more friends and greater adventures. She was sickly and pained from a lack of giggles, and I needed to fix it for her. Even after decades of growing up and being good, she still rode her bike in concentric circles on top of my solar plexus. The weight of her wheels left tread marks on my insides.
In hindsight, I know what she was looking for at the top of the driveway. It’s the same thing I looked for in sleazy bars and conspiracy forums in the dark corners of the Internet. She was looking for any proof to validate her growing suspicion that life was more interesting than it seemed. That ache in her belly was a seed of dissatisfaction with the status quo, planted by a spoon fed belief that happiness was just on the other side of compliance, watered by contempt for the advice that told her that being good was the key to being loved. She learned to please the teachers and follow the rules, hoping that at some point, life would open up and that howling would stop. That ache she felt for connection was only temporarily soothed by good grades and having a nice time at some sterile and school-sanctioned social event.
Later, I used alcohol and punk rock to quell the surge of sadness or channel it into something that made sense, for a while. I knew, underneath it all, I had been trained that those things that make your stomach flip with excitement, and every impulse that says go, run, play, feel are not to be trusted. “Be good,” was the only way, and it meant not going too wild or laughing too long at the dinner table because if milk comes out of your nose again, you’ll be cleaning it up, missy.
No one had to tell me or scold me or remind me because I felt it lingering in the air, a cloying annoyance with exuberance. Elation-induced exhaustion. Admiration would come only as a congratulations for a clean report card or a favorable review from whichever adult I was on the hook to impress. If it meant a feeling of acceptance that soothed that aching howl, I was more than happy to please.
Pleasing severed whatever connection I had to an inner knowing. Others’ reactions took precedence over my own felt instincts. Tragically, it wasn’t a hostile takeover. It was an inside job. I heard that phone ringing from within and cut the line with my obedient promise to be good because I expected that the goodness would be rightly rewarded with acceptance and the accompanying feelings of stability and order.
Being good called for a lot of doing—doing chores, doing well in school, doing what I needed to check those boxes. I became excellent at doing and at some point when the ringing phone came back online it ripped through me like a tsunami filled with broken glass. By the time I was thirty the hardest thing to do was just to be, to sit still and feel.
By then, after so much doing, I knew I could do anything. I could stand at any edge and leap. I could traverse weird and novel experiences, experiencing humanity in all of its forms and not only survive, but learn through the increasingly high-stakes challenges of modern society. But, in the face of stillness I collapsed. My ears rang and my heart pounded and my throat clenched and I believed for sure that it was the end, even as one therapist after the next tried convincing me to just breathe, that these were just feelings, that they just wanted to talk to me.
It took thousands of hours of sitting and breathing and weeping and dying to discover that deep within me, there was a tiny space that seemed to contain the infinite universe. Sometimes it rolled around and felt like hunger. It was like a compass – magnetic and mercurial. It was the force that powered my little feet to pedal my bike to the precipice and look out and wonder what else there was. It was the hunger for more.
Nobody tells us this. If they do, we can’t hear them. We don’t learn how to listen to that feeling, our inner knowing, because if we knew how it was a call to greatness, and a dinner bell to come feast at the table of our life’s purpose, we would all stop going to work and instead spend our whole lives chasing what makes that little space light up like a disco. Those who would keep us sitting stagnant in mediocrity don’t understand that this little space is not a neutral zone like a waiting room, but an empty and infinite void that howls for our attention in one way or another until we finally sit up out of our stupor and take note. It’s the call to live.
I don’t know when I first started hearing the sound of this void that whined and shuddered as the universe poured itself into me. I knew it roared in triumph when I slid into the world, and when I wailed my very first wail to match it. So, when every day from that point forward I was told to hush, go to school, go to work, get a grip, settle down, do the right thing, I was being guided by a firm hand on the shoulder away from the thing that connected me to you and everything else that hums and buzzes with life.
I was conflicted. I had no reason to believe that school, friends, family, and TV would lead me astray. I walked around like an astronaut grasping for a tether in the limitless expanse of space in my failing quest to just go along and be normal. I hushed the howl and dulled it with the acceptable chaos of everyday life and booze, sex, drugs, ice cream, and pithy comedies. Things started to shake. I was stressed. I was sad. I felt alone. I was pedaling my bike endlessly around the cul-de-sac and no one was ever going to come play with me.
The scream got louder and I lumped it in with all the other demands of life that I thought I would get to later when I had the time to pursue whatever passion it might stir up in me. I let it blend into the background like the constant hum of the air conditioner until there was time. Instead, everything broke and I had no choice but to listen. It grabbed me by the shirt and spat in my face. It bounced around the walls of my skull and made me wonder if I was going fucking crazy. I tried to diagnose this inner scream, this existential uncertainty. I took drugs and escaped into retail and entertainment and busy-ness, but in quiet moments, I heard that wild wail like a coyote at sundown. Too close. It made my skin prickle and my hair stand up and while my brain thought it was signaling death, it wasn’t. That was just its backward way of reminding me I was alive and to stifle it was to snuff out the primal howl of desire that propelled my ancestors across oceans on quests for blood and greatness.
It became un-ignorable. It woke me up in the middle of the night to remind me that life was what happened when I was busy scrolling Netflix. It growled from somewhere deep and forgotten, buried under decades of conditioning that wanted me to play it cool. If I sat with it long enough in a safe space like the couch in therapy, I could hear it switch pitch into an invitation to reclaim the power I gave away to my bad habits and lowered expectations.
With the humble attention of my reluctant ears, the screaming gave way to quiet guidance and showed me that what I craved was just on the other side of the ways I limited myself in the pursuit of being ‘good.’
And so I was in my late twenties making a desperate plea to my fifth therapist that my good job, my college degree, and my dramaless relationships were all the proof I needed to finally feel okay. And yet, in a low roar like a close ocean, something invited me to break down from the inside out. It pointed me back toward the tools I always had, hanging on the inside of my heart dusty and fossilized from neglect.
Moving through pain wasn’t about the job or the proof. My ruby slippers were on my feet all along when I finally listened, trusted, prayed. When I was ready to hear it, this inner scream confronted me with the fury of my own potential and the monstrous possibilities that would emerge if I stepped out of my own way and came home to myself. I held “home” as a mythic ideal. I would know it by its warm-hearted conversations, pot roasts, and golden retrievers. Home in reality was often cold and lonely, even when it was lovely and comfortable.
The scream I heard inside was homesickness. I recognized it as the booming reverberations of the fireworks that God shot off the day I was born. It was a distant ping of the Big Bang broken into billions of pieces and planted like seeds inside each of us. When I listened for the truth instead of for the proof that I was good enough, I finally heard that the screaming was just a cheerleader urging me back to a life that felt like home, no matter how it looked.
I tried on a thousand homes in an eager and mostly doomed quest to find a place that smelled right, felt right, had the right people, and room for my books. What I never did, until now, was find a home within the echo chamber of the screaming of my heart. When I let it whisper from within, it reminded me of the power it has always been asking me to claim.
I let it crack me open.
Two – High Stakes Road Trip
An infantry of ants marched blackly across the windowsill above the small counter that the hosts of this rental cottage called a kitchen. All of my attempts to quell their progress up to this point had failed. Legion after legion stampeded into my space from the fallen oak outside like a victorious enemy army and I watched them helplessly, my cheek resting on the cool porcelain of the toilet. This was their home, not mine anymore.
The space we shared was a small, squat, wooded cottage on a hillside surrounded by ancient black oaks. From the top of the meadow, you could see miles of rolling farmland below and if you squinted you might see the blue strip in the distance that was the Pacific. Signs on the trails across the property warned about the presence of mountain lions, but the more pressing predators at the moment were the marauding ants, and a sudden, violent bout of food poisoning.
I stood up and wiped a long strand of drool from my chin. I shuffled back to bed, defeated. I couldn’t control the flow of ants into my space, the same way I couldn’t control how my stomach responded to eating the slice of apple pie that the waitress promised was gluten-free. My taste buds had known better. That pie was a delicious deception and the proof was in the puking.
I sought a deeper meaning in my setback. As a solo traveler out on the road, I was always looking for signs. This had to mean something. Maybe I was being reminded to stay on my toes, viscerally warned by the unseen forces of the universe that when things are going too well, danger is often around the corner. The ants signaled the need to watch out for the tiny things that become mightier than their size when they stack up against you. The pie deception showed how receiving human kindness could have devastating results. I should have known. There was a reason I traveled alone. Other people made life complicated, messy. I could achieve an equanimous state of beautiful, satisfying aloofness if I followed my intuition and kept to myself. I was being reminded, even punished, that relying too openly on the kindness of strangers was a recipe for disaster. So, my moment of sudden rashy illness made me feel stupid, exposed, tricked. I felt vulnerable, which was not ideal if I intended to succeed on the road alone. If I were to survive this existential obstacle course, I would need to do a better job of watching my own back. Otherwise, I thought, as protective walls went up around me, I was willingly allowing myself to fall victim to people, places, and pie that is lying about being gluten-free.
For several weeks, I sampled at the vibrant sensory buffet of the Southwest, collecting moments of connection in single servings that kept loneliness at bay. The constant movement was comforting. I stayed mobile and avoided the fear of committing to the wrong thing. Heaven forbid I get myself stuck somewhere, where in a month I might be miserable. As a nomad the road kept my mind busy. Knowing where I was going—and that I wouldn’t be there long— made me feel free. There was a lightness in the lack of commitment, but I was looking for something.
A heaviness crept in at night. When the world got dark and I had no one nearby to call, I felt a rush of wind in an empty cavern in my chest and chose to believe it was exhilaration, not sadness. Beneath the buoyancy of exploration was a heavy layer of desire. As my odometer ticked up and up, so did the ache I felt to belong somewhere, for once. In Tombstone I watched couples in matching cowboy garb mail postcards. At freeway rest stops I watched families sharing meals. I was out here looking for a feeling, hoping that someday in the near future, around some distant bend, I’d turn my car down a tree-lined boulevard in some quiet town and feel suddenly, undeniably home. Then I had reached the end of my road, where I could trade exploration for expansion.
In every town and city I spoke to someone who loved their home so whole-bodily that they opened businesses to share it with people passing through. Their local guidance clued me in to technicolor sunrises and heart-pounding hikes to cactus-ringed crests of crimson rock formations. With help, I found treasures on the road—turquoise rings in sterling settings, a rabbit felt hat, and once a fleeting and rare sense of calm as the sunset from an azure sky set the adobe walls on fire.
In Santa Fe I fingered Zuni stone fetishes of animals, set out in bright glass cases to attract the attention of the people who collected Native art or who, like me, sought wisdom in any form they could find it. The woman working in the shop had come to New Mexico when she realized her family would always hold her at arm’s length for her wild dreams of animals and hunting for magic rocks in the creek. I picked up a mountain lion carved from labradorite and held it up to the light. I saw that every angle revealed a different shimmer from within while she explained that cougar medicine was about independence and roaming free. The bluish glow and hidden golden streaks reminded me of the Northern Lights. I wondered if I should plan a trip to see them, next. I found some Velcro and fastened the mountain lion to my dashboard where it could catch the sunlight and show off the glow behind the heavy swamp-green feldspar.
In a dark and wood-paneled hat shop, the maker in residence let me hang out and try on the merchandise while he shared stories of trout fishing, motorcycle rides, and getting electrocuted by a piece of machinery. For an hour or three of a breezy spring afternoon I lived vicariously through his connection with his home, sensing his pride and letting it feed me for a while. All the locals I met said something similar. They all watched their cities change and the cost of living rise. They all waxed poetic with me about finding the next new wild place. I nodded with $7,000 worth of haberdashery on my head while he told me about a stretch of river that no one knew about yet. He thought about parking a camper out there and disappearing. I understood him, the idea was romantic, but I needed WiFi for my job. I couldn’t go feral, at least not yet. He sold me a rabbit felt hat at a discount, maybe just for listening. It kept the sun out of my eyes as I traveled west from Santa Fe.
In Jerome, I heard ghost stories, but the spirits got lost in the sound of a wedding party at the honky-tonk. I ducked into a pawn shop to look for silver. The man behind the counter must have recognized me as the kind of person who was hungry for stories.
“Where you in town from?” He asked the question that he asked a thousand tourists a day, and I answered truthfully, in a way that annoyed me for its ambiguity but also held some pride.
“Nowhere in particular, for now.”
“Ah. Yes. I’ve lived those lives.”
He told me about his past lives, and I eyed the sterling and turquoise rings in a tray on the glass counter. He met the woman who was his wife in this life several lifetimes ago, he said. Back then, she was a fierce warrior priestess who looked kindly on his conquering viking in exile. She granted him clemency in her home land, he says, and that’s how he knew she was his soulmate. His eyes matched the amber in the jewelry case. With conviction he described how it was her wild spirit that helped him recognize her when they met again at the bar in Prescott. She didn’t believe his stories about their lifetimes together, but loved him in her ferocious way anyway. I bought a silver ring from him and he took off forty percent, maybe for listening, maybe because he recognized me as a shipmate from his time on the high seas. He winked and told me I could return the favor in the next life.
I passed into California under an icy white sky with a soundtrack of the freeway roar. My car chewed up the desert swiftly and I began to ascend from the floor of the Anza Borrego just as the sun began to dip behind the mountains. The deepening shadows were a relief after staring into the hypnotizing brightness of the desert sun all afternoon. The higher peaks in the distance held onto the final golden sunbeams as the sky unraveled into the azure and indigo tones of the cool calm ocean that lay a hundred miles beyond. I nosed up switchback roads and rolled my windows down. The air cooled and smelled like sage and sweetgrass.
I was near enough to my day’s destination to begin to transition out of road time—that altered state that feels like walking on a travelator at the airport. From Sedona that morning, mile after mile had slid effortlessly under my tires, but now, the moving walkway was nearing its end. I breathed deeply and let my shoulders drop from my ears as I eased the car into an east-facing pullout. From the precipice, I watched the rising full moon shimmer like a gold coin beyond the ocotillos and took stock of the fading day and those that lie ahead.
I stretched and watched a hummingbird hover briefly above the flowering bushes before zooming onto the next and feeling a pang of recognition. I was also flitting flower to flower, collecting stories and stones. Like my labradorite lion, rocks I bought in shops lined my pockets and tumbled out of my cupholders. I collected them as if their heft could keep me pinned to one place on a map, to weigh down my wandering mind. I traversed the country in my sapphire SUV with a mountain lion on the dash with a silent intention of finding a place to stop for good. My next several stops were mapped out with the intention to sample the facets of California, the state where I was born but had fled a decade prior for college and to indulge the contempt I felt for the insane cost of living. I held California in my heart. I loved and related to the dynamism of the landscape and the lushness of the life I lived here. But I left when staying felt irrational. California seemed to believe that the cure for every ill was a tax or an arbitrary rule. The wildness of the state that held mountains, deserts, and oceans pounding jutting cliffs contrasted sharply with the neutered politics and inconvenience of traffic and crowds. Out of spite and frugality I fled for Colorado as soon as I graduated high school. My friends there swooned over the state, counted their blessings to live in a place with so much natural beauty. I understood it at an intellectual level but that irrational part of my heart missed the ocean. I was back to try to feel my way back in. If, after a decade of trying and failing to make other places work, California truly felt like home, I could swallow my pride and fork over the ransom money.
So the first stop was Julian, where I planned to settle in for pie and the small-town scene. I would stay on a farm, and test the feeling of semi-remote ruralness. Then, I was to trade the farm for a condo on the beach, where I would lean into sun and surf and fish tacos. After that, I planned to visit family in Los Angeles, the city of my birth and evoker of a lifetime of curiosity. I planned my escape from LA with a hard pivot into a yurt in the mountains near Malibu where I would stay before passing through the great expanse of Central California and ending up back where I lived as a teenager in the Bay Area. Up north I would revisit friends and try on my old home to see if it still fit. This trip was a roadshow. Each new destination was unknowingly auditioning for the role of my home. That context added extra pressure to every moment. Each sip of diner coffee came with a dollop of discernment—could I drink this coffee forever?
In Julian, for a moment, I thought the answer was maybe yes, then disaster struck.