I began writing this song while walking the dunes in Montaña de Oro. When I catch me shoulding on myself, singing the chorus breaks up the critical racket in my head, and helps me stop. Note: work in progress!
Shoulda Done It Differently Blues
I shoulda done it differently
coulda done it better
I got the shoulda-done-it-differently blues
shakes his head
“What were you thinkin’, girl?
“Leave her alone
it’s a coulda-done-it-differently world!
The boss is late.
So what’s new?
What were you thinkin’, girl?
Don’t you know?
It’s your attitude
in a coulda-done-it-differently world!
“Your rent is late.
What were you thinkin’, girl?”
But he’s wrong
Shoulda checked his mate
in this coulda-done-it-differently world
The horse is strong
patient, and kind
What are you thinkin’, girl?
That we belong,
and soon he’ll be mine
in this coulda-done-it-differently world
I shoulda done it differently
coulda done it better
I got the shoulda-done-it-differently blues
I’ve been learning Horse — the language. One of the women who boards her horse at this ramshackle ranch is teaching me Equus. Well, she and Jake, her horse, are.
I’ve had two lessons already, both longer than I thought my brain could stand. Learning how to communicate with anyone is tricky, let alone someone of a different species. Intention is 90% of it. Focus, clarity, and confidence make up the rest.
Sunny is the palomino Tennessee Walker I’ve been feeding, daily. I also groom and walk him as time permits. Yesterday felt like a walking day, so I grabbed his halter and went out to the pasture to see if he agreed. He did, initially.
We used to walk in the arena, but the last few times I thought he might like a roomier amble. So I slid the halter over his blonde nose, held the rope loosely in both hands, and proceeded along the fence line of his pasture.
The idea of snakes entered my head. “I’ll keep an eye out, Sunny. I’m looking for them.” We continued and made one full sweep of the area.
We took a small break, and I gave him some cut up carrots. “Let’s try the opposite direction this time, babe,” I said. This go-round started out fine, as before, but as we approached the northeast corner, he spooked. Took off at a run. Galloped back to the southwest corner, his safety zone.
Luckily, I dropped the rope immediately. My heart was pounding, but no rope burns. I stood still, and watched him gallop for several minutes, dragging the rope. I worried that he’d tread on it and trip, hurt himself, but he didn’t.
Eventually, he slowed down. Eventually he stopped. I waited a bit more ’til my own pulse was slower, then calmly walked toward him.
“You’re okay,” I said. “You’re fine. You’re okay. Everything is okay.” I kept up the soothing tone and words as I approached and petted his neck. Reached up slowly and calmly, undid the knot by his cheek, and slid the halter off his nose. Patted him. “You’re okay. I am so sorry. We will never walk that stupid pasture again.”
Snakes. I didn’t see any, but it was a hot August day, and the sandy chaparral has tall weeds and short shrubs that are perfect hiding places for snakes. And I had noticed, when we walked the pasture before, that certain parts of it made him nervous. I thought it was proximity to the road and cars.
“You’re right,” I told Sunny, “snakes are quick. No way could I see them in time. I was foolish to try to do so. It won’t happen again. We will not walk in here again. And yes, I know I promised you an ocean ride and that hasn’t happened. But I know it will happen for you. Not with me, probably, but it will happen.”
I gave him some carrots and climbed through the fence out of the pasture and into the arena. Where we’d first learned to walk together. Also a scary time, but on my end, not his. Nothing like walking with a thousand pound animal to make you realize how fragile you are.
This afternoon, after I fed Sunny his alfalfa dinner, his “owner” turned up. A real, live rodeo cowboy. He’s moving Sunny down the dune to another ranch. I won’t get to feed him anymore. Or have to, depending on your point of view. 6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. might seem a little strange for a while.
I did say good-bye though. After the cowboy jumped on Sunny’s back, they walked over to the fence where I was standing. “Good-bye sweetheart,” I said, and rubbed the place on his forehead that he loves. “Good-bye.”
Then I opened the gate for them to ride through, and opened the next one. Closed the gates behind them.
The last I saw of Sunny, he was heading for the ocean. As promised. Yeah baby, yeah baby, baby baby yeah. Yeah baby, yeah baby, baby baby yeah.
Trying to find a place where I could breathe and rest was taking too much energy. I stopped searching for a hotel or motel room that wouldn’t induce headaches and nausea. I had woken up too many times in the middle of the night with my head on fire and a burning throat, desperate for air.
But I could breathe, sort of, in the car.
Back at Fred Meyer, I bought bedding: a big brown comforter, soft warm blankets in shades of lavender, a small pillow to match. What else does one need for car camping? A plum colored hand towel and wash cloth; a fork, knife, and spoon; a thermos. Groceries.
In the soup aisle, I could not tear my eyes away from the box of beef broth on the bottom shelf. Pacific brand. Organic. I tried to talk myself out of it, but my body would not move until I put the box in the cart. Obviously, I needed protein. Fast. I found Tiger Milk bars on another aisle and grabbed a box of the extra peanut butter flavor. Packets of Emergen-C (powdered vitamin C) followed suit. Then Kava Kava tea for stress relief. Right.
A blank journal with a yellowish cover grabbed my attention. On the front were the words:
think positive you are master of your own destiny
The color of the inside cover matched the biggest new blanket — chocolate.
Back in Olympia, when all this started going down — the difficulty breathing, the heart palpitations, the mold-induced-asthma diagnosis — my father invited me to his house in northern California, “for a respite.” Eventually I agreed, which is why I was traveling south. Respite was exactly what I needed. A place to take a deep breath, if possible, and assess the situation. I hadn’t slept for more than 30 minutes at a time for more than a week. I was afraid I would die in my sleep. Asphyxiate.
The first night in Florence was okay, but I was in a busy part of town. The tourists looked at me funny in the morning when I unwrapped the blankets and climbed out of my car to find a bathroom. The next night I attempted to sleep on a residential side street. But coastal Oregon is damp. And round about 4 a.m. the sprinklers went on and the air became damper. I tried to walk it out, but I still couldn’t catch a good breath.
Throughout this travail, I talked to myself constantly in a reassuring tone. “You are breathing, yes? Not as deeply as you’d like, but you are receiving some air. I know it’s hard, sweetheart. Just in, and out. That’s right. In, and out. Good job. In, and out. You can do it.”
Walking down the dark Florence street, breathing — shallowly yes, but breathing — I suddenly felt Emmett beside me. A big black Malamute mix with a huge plumy tail, we had traveled together through snow and rain and sun for six years. Through forests, on beaches, in boats. He finally left his cancerous body on New Year’s Eve 2007. But here he was, next to me. The comfort was visceral.
Some folks find Jesus or Buddha or Quan Yin in times of trouble, or get religion in other ways. I found Emmett, or rather, he found me — back in 2001, and now here in 2013. Tears of relief flowed down my face.
I returned to the Jetta. On a small flap on the outside of my new journal, I wrote:
Book 1: Project Susie
(My family calls me Susie.)
I need to dry out, I thought. This damp air is not helping. I need to go inland. Back on the same road where I’d met the local EMTs two days earlier — State Highway 126 — I headed east. Eugene, Oregon: 62 miles.
As I drove I sang a new song: Project Susie
Help me out
Help me out.
I can see the sea from my new studio.
Cue delighted laughter.
To get to the sea, I hike down through state park dunes, clocking lizards, buzzards, and bunnies on the way. Sometimes humans on horses pass me, or the ranger on his ATV. Most of the time I’m the solitary human, looking at fuchsia sand verbena, dunedelions (like dandelions, but in sand), sage, and chamise. Chaparral country. Many times it’s foggy here, so I don’t see the sea until I’m almost upon it.
My studio window faces west, so, barring fog, I can catch the sunset every night.
Cue delighted laughter again.
“We’ve got whales!” says my landlady, “Elizabeth, we’ve got whales!”
Sure enough, I spot several spouts mid-way to the horizon.
In case you’re becoming too jealous, there are also rattlesnakes, poison oak, and unexploded ordnance leftover from the 1940’s when the army used the land for training.
But my downstairs neighbor plays the trumpet well, another neighbor surfs, and of course there are the horses: Sunny, Shadow, Cisco, Kady, Magic, Jetson.
Last night my riding teacher was “under the weather,” so our lesson was canceled.
Cue disappointed, catastrophic thinking. I’ll never ride again!
I chopped up carrots anyway, and took them down to the stable. Sunny gets most of them, but I treat the others on the way to and fro his paddock. I’m especially enamored of Shadow, a gorgeous cream and chocolate Paint.
“Barbara’s sick,” I tell Sunny, “no play today.” He’s a good listener, even after the carrots are history. I brush his coat and mane, then say good-night.
Three years ago, I left Olympia and drove straight to the ocean. I was dying of toxic mold exposure, and could barely breathe. My liver was inflamed, my kidneys were stressed. I left everything behind, even the stuffed dog that belonged to my (dead) brother. The only thought that made any sense in my be-fogged brain was ocean ocean ocean. Ocean ocean ocean. I don’t want to die inland. I need the ocean ocean ocean. Please god, help me get to the Ocean.
I sang and chanted in the car, as best I could, making a mantra of ocean ocean ocean. I made it to the Pacific, 75 miles away.
“The cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea,” wrote Isak Dinesen.
She is correct.
After three years of living as close to the ocean as I can get, even if that means the car, I can breathe. My lungs, liver, kidneys, skin, brain, heart — all systems are go.
And so I do. Into the H2O. The Ocean. The Healer. Home.
I wash my clothes by hand – all of them. Detergent sensitivities prevent me from using my landlord’s washer and dryer, or public facilities.
Pain in the ass.
I bought a small, hand-cranked washing machine with a pressurized lid. It cleans like a front-load washer. I can fit my entire sheet set inside, including the pillow case. (Yeah, it’s a twin bed, but still!)
My biceps complained, initially, but then I got used to it. On cold mornings it’s a great warm-up. I use less detergent, and my clothes are softer and cleaner. And about a month after I stopped forcing myself to use others’ stinky machines, my lungs breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now they’re much more inclined to inhale deeply.
Tidying guru Marie Kondo believes you should only keep things that bring you happiness and contentment. She recommends divesting yourself of anything that doesn’t spark joy.
Now that I hand wash my clothes, I’ve noticed a certain reluctance to clean certain things. Because I am using my physical energy, as opposed to money (which I earn with my physical energy, but is now a step distant), I am reluctant to wash the t-shirt a not-a-friend-it-turned-out gave me. Or the mawkish Thanksgiving apron. Or the much loved, bought-brand-new-when-I-was-homeless hoodie that is showing wear and tear.
With big electric washers and dryers, it’s easy to throw in a bunch of clothes without thinking too much about them. White? in you go. Blue and purple? next load.
Washing my own clothes with my own brawn (and brains! figuring out the best cloth-to-water ratio has proved not as easy as advertised) is actually quite satisfying.
Today, inspired by Ms. Kondo, I sang a song of gratitude while I washed: the black v-neck I wore to star in a play; the shirt bought at Whole Foods when I was living in my car; the patterned leggings that kept me warm this winter; the soft black dress that reminds me of the one left behind; the chocolate brown tunic from France; and the underwear that literally covers my ass.
Just as every person has a story (or a million), every piece of clothing has a story, and as I washed, I remembered their stories (or the parts I know), and how each one came to me exactly when I needed it.
They are dripping dry over the tub right now, my riotous clothes, my protective gear, my personable apparel. Cleansed of sweat, sand, salt, dirt, and tears.
On my desk, behind my laptop, is Sylvia Earle’s illustrated atlas of the oceans. All of them. Big book. Heavy. Marvelous: full of marvels from around the planet, like sargassum, whale sharks, flashlight fish. Lately I’ve had it open to page 194: a picture of an Andaman Islands elephant in the Indian Ocean. Swimming Ganesh! Remover of oceanic obstacles!
My father recently disclosed that he’s been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He has no symptoms, but the results of one test (of many many many over the years, including bone marrow – ouch) came back in the red zone, as it were. He’s contemplating chemotherapy.
This, of course, was extremely upsetting to hear. Without any further ado, I burst into tears. Uncontrollable sobs. Time out.
Since then, I’ve been angry (how dare he!), scared, and subject to fits of weeping. But the fact is, I’ve been waiting for news like this my whole life, ever since my brother died – “what? where is he? when’s he coming back?” – of brain cancer almost 50 years ago. I’ve lived in fear of fatal catastrophes removing my mother, my father, my other brother, at any moment.
“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed’s mother told her, in the memoir Wild. Having read the book (which pissed me off — more on that later, maybe), I watched the film a few weeks ago. The phrase stuck and turned itself into a ditty. One morning I woke up, donned my wetsuit, hoodie, and gloves, and set out for the beach. “Put yourself in the way of swimmin’, put yourself in the way of swimmin’,” I sang into the crisp dawn air.
Sure enough, I found folks to swim with, six total! Since then, I swim most mornings, usually alone, if one can be alone in the big, wide, chock-full Pacific. I just needed a bit of moral support, until I remembered, yeah, I can do this. I need this, no matter how cold it is. Total mood elevator. They don’t call it ‘sea-change’ for nuthin’.
When I finally figured out that my Olympia house was killing me with toxic mold, I evacuated. Got myself to the ocean. Got myself back in the way of happiness, and eventually, of joy. I don’t know why it’s such a struggle to remember what is truly important. Perhaps it’s the chatter of the world, our human species, the self-importance of so-called ‘success.’
If I were my dad — and I do know that I’m not, individuation has had its slow effect — I’d high-tail it to the mountains, where he’s happiest. Where he’s most himself. Breathe that rare air, take in the wildflowers. Build a shack. Watch the hawks. Look for mountain lions.
But he’s in charge of his body, just as I am in charge of mine. Or responsible, anyway. So I look at my elephant swimming in the blue ocean. Ears floating, legs treading, snorkel trunk out — she seems to be laughing. And definitely in the way of joy.
I have two brothers: one living, one dead.
The living one was born 47 years ago today. He, too, is a prime number.
The day he was born was one of the happiest of my life. I was six-years-old. My father drove us to the hospital to pick up my mother. Much to my dismay, she was in a wheelchair, pushed down the hall by an ugly nurse.
The French have an expression – jolie laide, or pretty-ugly, which exactly describes this nurse. Her features were plain, but she smiled at me with such great kindness and joy as she pushed my mother toward us.
But perhaps I am mis-remembering. Perhaps my mother was jolie laide, wrung out but radiant.
As I ran toward her, I saw the swaddled baby in her arms. My brother! Que milagro.
I had adored my brother John, who died when I was four. I pined for parallel play, snail races, car chases on the painted cardboard track (with the gas station pump that fit perfectly into the little round hole on the side of the cars).
I was John’s interpreter, talking and explaining for him before he decided to speak for himself. One of his first words, or maybe just my favorite, was my name. I can still hear him exclaim – Susie!
In my world, brothers were excellent companions. The best. I had good memories. And scary ones, too: of hospitals, and doctors, and nurses who wouldn’t let me see him. Incarcerated in a crib on an upper floor. Up. Away.
I remember standing outside the hospital, looking up and waiting for someone to bring him to the window. Waiting waiting waiting. So far away.
But so radiant to see me! Perhaps that’s when I learned to project, a useful tool for a performer. Up, up, up to John.
I sat in the back seat of our Plymouth Valiant and held my fresh-born baby brother, James. But I didn’t call him that. He was Didi to me. And to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” I sang to him while Dad drove us home. “Hello, Didi. Well, hello, Didi! It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”
I can still feel the weight of his snuggly warm body in my oh-so-careful arms. See his gorgeous old man face, his true blue eyes. Love incarnate.
But it wasn’t love at first sight, oh no. I had been loving him for months, listening to his heartbeat with my ear pressed against my mother’s belly, feeling him kick and laughing! laughing with glee.
Our family was too small, then. Just me and my mother in an apartment on Hill Street. Two too small. John and Dad were both gone, strange facts I couldn’t quite grasp. Dad alive but living elsewhere. Why?
So Didi’s birth was anticipated like Christmas. This, I thought, would set everything right.
But it didn’t. John was still dead, Dad still lived elsewhere. And my mother foundered and struggled for homeostasis. Today she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression.
But it also did (set things right). Didi and I had a very different relationship than the one I had with John. But, of course, how could we not? I was six years older, the big sister, the caretaker, the little mother.
I painted his toenails red.
I dragged him around on his skateboard or in the wagon.
I bossed him and cleaned him and patched him when he fell. Put on puppet shows. Watched him surf. Cheered him on.
But I loved all that, caring for Didi. I loved him.
So imagine my dismay, these many years later, to find that we are estranged. Another fact I can’t quite grasp. How did it happen? Why?
I just rescued a snail from a watery grave. I was rinsing dandelion greens in preparation for a tisane. The sink had a few inches of cold water in it to help soak off the dirt.
First I saw the shell: a delicate, cream colored spiral. I thought, good, no pesticides. Then, on the silver metal bottom of the sink, I saw the snail’s body, the same color as mine. I thought, oh, no, too bad. Then, hmmm, good protein; wonder if the farm really is organic. (Yes, now that I’m back in the big city, I actually buy dandelions.)
I finished rinsing the greens, put them in a pot with water, and drained the sink. When I pulled out the strainer-stopper, I looked more closely at the snail. Horns out. Hmmm.
Yep, moving … slowly … shell-less. I took a leaf that had been headed for compost, and tipped the snail out of the strainer onto it. Then out into the big world for both of us. I set the leaf with the snail under some volunteer lamb’s ear in a neighbor’s yard — the neighbor who does not use Round-up like my landlord; the neighbor who pretty much ignores his yard and lets plants live or die as they please.
How long will it take to grow a new shell? Can she survive without one?
I lost my home, too, and it is taking a while to recover my equilibrium.
On my office wall is a collage-type greeting card with fragments of: a picture of a road winding through greenery and around a hill; a map; a dictionary page with the words wandering, vagabond, gypsy, nomadic, migrant; and ‘The American Woman’ postage stamp. The so-called greeting (message) is this: There were times she lost her way. But she never lost her grit and swagger. Oh yeah, and there’s also a picture of a big-ass DETOUR sign at the bottom of the card. My life.
I lost my swagger for a decade or so, though not consecutive. It faded away in dribs and drabs; was beaten out of me by lovers, family members, and my own stupid beliefs.
But swagger’s like a weed – it keeps coming back.
My hips sway as I stride down the street, head up, arms swinging, I’m singing,
Gettin’ my swagger back
I’m gettin’ my swagger back
Can’t stop me for long
Can’t top me for long
I’m gettin’ my swagger ba-ack
gettin’ my swagger
gettin’ my swagger
Gettin’ my swagger ba-a-ack!