Leaving California 2: From the Passenger Seat

November 13, 2012

Here are the rules of the road.

1. The driver gets to pick the radio station.

1a. While driving, the K-LOVEr may choose to listen to “positive and encouraging” contemporary Christian rock until such time as the shotgun Jewess starts accidentally and unwittingly singing along, which is way too close to a Conversion Experience for someone who otherwise escaped six years of Catholic school only marginally scathed.

1b. While driving, the shotgun Jewess may choose to listen to National Public Radio for a maximum of fifteen minutes, unless it is a storytelling program, in which case the full program is allowed.

1c. While driving, the shotgun Jewess may not choose to indefinitely set the radio to “Scan,” even if there is “nothing good on” and the vehicle is deep in the heart of the Bible Belt with no Katy Perry for miles.

2. There shall be no shaming associated with requests to stop for (a) the bathroom, (b) Diet Coke with crushed ice from Sonic, or (c) Cracker Barrel.

3. The shotgun Jewess may not smoke in the vehicle.

3a. No, not even if it’s “just this once.”

3b. No, seriously.

3c. Okay, fine. Can you be fast?

4. Don’t damage the rented box truck within 24 hours of picking it up before you have even left town.

4a. Okay, sometimes rules were made for bending. Or trucks were made for denting, depending.

I like making up rules and systems because it’s been years since anything’s gone the way I’ve expected it to. My time in San Francisco and Berkeley, where I moved for graduate school in 2006, was a period of catastrophic and profound loss. My efforts to hold my family to me by whatever threads I could grab were abjectly destroyed. My mother died in my first year of grad school; I was married at the end of my second year and divorced by the time I finished; midway through my third year, my younger brother, a drug addict and drug dealer living in New Orleans, suffered an acute psychotic break. And another one the next year. When my marriage fell apart I lost my partner and my wonderful mother-in-law, and became a gay unicorn: both gay married and gay divorced in California. My brother became sick again, and then he was arrested and, eventually, imprisoned. At the end I was estranged from two of my older siblings—my sister had a baby I never heard about and will likely never meet—and had a friendly, but not close, relationship with my oldest brother. There was no one left.

Or was there? What drove me to leave the Bay Area was this question: where is my family? After I met Saunia and we found our way toward making a life together, I started to wonder about that. Certainly I had friends, good ones, from all parts of a life I’d lived in six different states, and certainly I heard a lot about “queer family” in the Bay Area. About building “tribes” (ugh). But it never held for me. There are things families (blood or water) do for you that friends don’t, and without parents I live precariously close to all kinds of edges. I would do anything for my friends because I never assume there’s anyone else to do what needs done. For most of my friends, though, who usually have someone (someones), it’s different. I don’t fault them for it, but I always seem to need more.

Where is my family? One answer was “in New Orleans,” where my brother owned a home that stood empty while he was locked up four hours away. What if we moved there, I said to Saunia late one night, and I could visit him regularly? We could live in his house and keep it up for him for far, far less than it cost us to live in a seedy part of West Oakland. We would be closer to someone who mattered to me very much, whose life I had been desperate to save, in a place that I loved. We might find something more like family there, I thought.

We might. Or, as my advisor said to me when I laid out this plan for him, “You’ll still be yourself when you get there. You’ll still have the same problems.” And I guess this becomes the question, the challenge: is it really true that wherever you go, there you are? Can the company we keep help give us different lives? Or connect us to truer parts of ourselves? Is that what makes a family? That’s really what we loaded up the truck with the day we drove away—the outsized hope that somewhere out there, there were places and people who could help us hold everything—joy, grief, wholeness, brokenness—that we’ve acquired in living what author Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “the full catastrophe” with something like equanimity. With something like grace. (by Jacqui Shine)

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