Being a native West Coaster, I’d never been through a Nor’easter before. In fact, in Southern California, where all newsrooms go into a “Storm Watch” frenzy if one raindrop hit Hollywood, the forecast was a bit of a joke. But in Maine, when the Weather.com headline screamed “Northeast Under The Gun,” Ethan and I paid attention, wiring shut some of the crooked, recalcitrant windows in our old house and making sure we had candles handy. Fifty-mile per hour gusts were expected to take down trees, branches, and power lines.
“Another negative aspect will be the winds ripping off foliage from the trees right during the peak of the leaf-peeping season,” some genius at the website had added, making me think my writing isn’t all that bad.
Along with the season’s first big storm, all the bullshit of the past six months slammed into me as well when I returned to Maine from Los Angeles after the Jackson Browne fundraiser. Losing my job, jettisoning my career, and leaving LA had all felt good and right while we were on the move, but now that we’d settled in one place for a few weeks, one cold, harsh question kept cropping up in my mind: “What was I going to DO with my life?”
I felt like a total loser – someone good at few things and great at none, destined to spin through life with the accelerator pushed to the floor, revving at high RPM’s but going nowhere. The cognitive knowledge that it was lame to feel this way after planning and executing a successful charity event that would help hundreds of young people with serious problems did nothing to help lift me out of my emotional funk. While I’d never been shot at or had a friend overdose on drugs, I just couldn’t help feeling bad.
I moved around the house as if underwater in sweats and sweaters, teeth chattering and fingertips ice cold in the 37-degree Maine mornings, but didn’t bother to put on another layer or build a fire. I didn’t feel like I deserved heat. Plus, the Maine Mandate in our house is “no heat until you can see your breath” and I didn’t want to be a wuss.
Ethan kept asking how I was feeling (bad) and whether he could do anything to help (no). He finally got so concerned he hooked up a carbon monoxide detector in our kitchen, thinking perhaps a leaky furnace was poisoning me. But the alarm’s warning light remained a boring, steady green.
I realized how emotionally unstable I was when an evening dance performance at Griffin’s elementary school made me cry. Eighteen musicians from the Belfast Flying Shoes –fiddlers, guitarists, a skinny, longhaired dude on a mandolin, and a perky little lady on piano – played folk music in the Edna Drinkwater auditorium (which doubles as gym and cafeteria), under a large American flag hung from the rafters. A fifty-ish woman, her bald head partly
covered by a red felt hat, played the accordion so intensely, I think she was calling on the power of music to help fight whatever cancer is invading her body. But I wasn’t crying because of her.
I was crying because everyone looked so damned happy. Chrissy, who called the evening’s do-si-dos and swing-your-partners, was so cheerful and patient helping the kids fumble through the Contra Dancing steps (kind of like square dancing) that I ached to sit her down in her baggy purple dress and sensible shoes to interview her about the secrets to a successful life. If Chrissy had told me she got her high from the natural upper of traditional Contra Dance songs like “Shove That Pigs Foot A Little Further In The Fire,” and “Nail That Catfish To The Tree” I would have bought it. Unfortunately, I was in more of a “Whiskey Before Breakfast” mood these days.
All those smiling people, looking like they wouldn’t trade the Edna Drinkwater School concert in tiny Belfast, Maine for Carnegie Hall, constricted my throat and made my eyes sting in fierce, quiet envy. Sure, maybe some would go home and beat their wives, kick their dogs and snort a little crack, but somehow I didn’t think so. These people exuded such down-to-earth, granola-eating, Bog-wearing peace and fulfillment that I found myself praying, “Please, let me get there!” I wished for this even though I was fairly sure an accordion and a do-si-do wouldn’t help me much.
I did gain a little insight from another mom that night. Jody is a waitress at Darby’s, a restaurant in nearby Belfast. She had her first kid at twenty-two, went to New Jersey to work in a big hospital laboratory, then moved back to Maine, longing for the slower pace of a small town and a job she enjoyed. As we watched our kids stomp, hop and spin across the floor, looking more like poorly trained monkeys than Contra Dancers, I mentioned I had been feeling fairly overwhelmed and inadequate lately.
“Whenever I’m stressed, I go down to Darby’s,” Jody said, pronouncing it “Dah-bees” like most Mainers. “Even if I’m not working, I’ll just go and organize stuff or clean up. It calms me down – it’s like my family away from my family.” I looked at her in shock, the concept that someone might actually see work as a stress reliever taking a moment to sink in.
“People might say, ‘Oh, she’s just a waitress,’” Jody continued. “But I love it.”
Now I was really depressed. I thought of the time I spent in college, graduate school, and clawing my way up the shaky, selfish corporate ladder of local news, just to end up hating my job and getting fired. Maybe I should have just continued slinging hash at Gladstone’s-4-Fish or The Cheesecake Factory, for God’s sake. I too had loved waitressing – the rush of the rush, the instant gratification of a big tip that felt like a present each time I opened my little black check folder, and the camaraderie of closing time, when ketchups needed marrying, salt and pepper shakers cleaning and everyone finally sat down for a drink. Somehow, in that moment, it did not seem silly or stupid to consider going back to it.
This brought back a memory from when I was about twenty-five, working hard in my first news job and trying to set the world on fire. I asked my dad and his fiancé, Donna, who both had good jobs at Lockheed Aerospace, what they would do if they could do anything they wanted.
“I’d work in the tool department at Home Depot,” my dad had answered immediately. He might as well have said he’d like to be an axe murderer for all I understood his answer.
“I’d be a waitress at a truck stop,” Donna added, confusing my young, ambitious brain even more. “I’d make sure all the truckers had hot coffee and something good to eat.” Duh! I now thought to myself as their simple wishes finally clicked. Do something that makes you feel good.
After the concert, I put the kids to bed and sat watching the Atlantic roll onto shore in endless white-capped waves, the wind ripping the autumn leaves off the trees and tossing them into the sea. I commiserated with the lone sailboat bucking on its buoy, threatening to break free from its mooring and become a little ghost ship going who knows where. Then, I re-read an email from my mom, who usually helps me weather my storms of the soul.
“You are experiencing an earthquake of an identity shift,” she wrote, trying to assure me I’d get through this. “It is like a little death of the self you had evolved. This sadness is a prelude to finding out what’s next. It is necessary and cannot be wished away.”
Sitting there alone in the dark, I wished and wished and wished. But unfortunately, she was right.