Today is a celebratory day in that I am awake.
Are you awake? Are you celebrating? Thoreau says that to be awake is to be alive. Like it or not, humankind is infused with a sort of undeniable consciousness. And because of this living, I celebrate being awake.
For the longest time I must have been dead. The mere concept of being outdoors made my heart pound rapidly, and I found myself breaking into a cold sweat. For almost 60 days I peered out hesitantly, and ducked back inside. I enjoyed my reclusive days. It was safe in here. Bill collectors didn’t know our new phone number and I couldn’t hear the cars roar by. Outdoors was somehow too big. Orienting myself to this mental compass has been downright petrifying. In the twisty hills of Santa Cruz, I always had a sense of direction. But here, apparently, on this coast, they occasionally move “north” just to piss me off. I did not want to be outside. Dead inside, dead out there (or at least spinning dizzily).
Then, three weeks ago, my wife forced me to get my drivers’ license. I’ll admit it–I didn’t want to. Inside is safe with its lack of car wrecks, no horns honking; no bizarre highways that occasionally meander into parts unknown. My license in California was expired and, as such, I was required to take two written tests *and* the road test, all of which I managed to pass after two and a half hours of waiting in the Department of Motor Vehicles. At 10:30 I walked out with a shiny new Virginia license. I made Judi drive home.
I didn’t want to take the car anywhere. I still wanted to be inside, and I couldn’t figure out why. Possibly this was because chivalry, in our house, is dead? Then it hit me like a ton of clams (and if you’ve ever been hit by a ton of clams, you’ll know *exactly* what I’m talking about). I was afraid because I didn’t want to accept that I *could* navigate Virginia. I was giving myself another excuse to imagine that I wasn’t really here. By telling people that I couldn’t navigate the roads in Virginia, I was unconsciously trying to convince myself (and others) that I really didn’t belong here, this place with the funny trees, all the snow, the crazy beltway drivers, and cable installers who speak like Roscoe P. Coltraine.
So where does a frightened person like myself go, on his first trip alone in the car? Why, to Dulles International Airport, in the pitch dark at 4:45 AM, of course. My friend bravely (and stupidly) asked me to drive him to one of the major airports in the Metropolitan DC area. Did I mention in the dark? Somehow, though, this test proved to me that I could survive this place. I made it to the airport and back without incident. And I repeated this feat of steely resolve three days later, when I retrieved my friend from the same airport.
It was then I realized I could defeat this. It wasn’t beyond me to live in Virginia, and to stop pretending I was really in California.
This place is different – damned different. But I can survive here. I can navigate the stupid roads-with-variable-North. You know how I know?
Of course you don’t, but I’ll tell you anyhow. Because I found the public library. I have a homing beacon for those. The first “me” trip I took in Virginia was to the library I discovered. I took Daniel there to scout it out, while I ran to the grocery store to stock up on coffee. Then, a few minutes later, I met him and we applied for his library card.
Am I a geek? Why yes I am. Leave it to the ex-librarian to simply inhale, and find a second (and infinitely better) library the very next day, within the same library system. I *had* to check it out. I know this library is good because it makes my friend Ben sing advertising jingles. I also know it’s good because it’s only slightly smaller than the library I left, when I ended my directorship in California. Oddly, as sick of libraries as I was, I found a pleasant kind of joy and comfort there. I got Virginia. Virginia got me. More than finding a Starbucks; more than Safeway or Payless (or the multiplicity of other chain stores that make this place resemble the suburban San Jose metropolitan area) the library satisfied me. I felt at home here for the first time.
I walked both my boys to school today. The snow and ice is receding but sidewalks aren’t yet visible. The freshness and newness of it all, the wind against my face, the yard of the Baptist church blanketed in snow, children thick with layers cotton and nylon, urgent parents rushing to work (slightly too fast). And we were the only ones walking. To feel the outside, to take it in like a salve, to contemplate the brittle wonder of winter, is to be alive. And that’s when I saw the birds.
A few months ago, a friend waxed eloquent about the birds in Virginia and how he fed them, watching them daily through the binoculars. I remember thinking “this one is off his rocker.” You see, in California, we really had only three sorts of birds: little annoying brown birds that build nests onto your house out of their own poo, medium-sized annoying birds that squawk and wake you up at 5 AM during the great squirrel rampage, and huge annoying birds like that go through dumpsters looking for delicious gems like diapers and rancid corn. I suppose you’re thinking “what about robins?” well, you see, they aren’t really because they’re not annoying. They just hop and eat worms. I think they’re colorful winged above-ground moles or something.
But my friend is right. They have *cool* birds here. Birds that peep, and have songs, and vibrant colors, and ones that protect their young from *annoying* birds by standing over their nests in bony trees and making an angry racket. These birds are exclusively Virginian. And they’re the first thing I’ve found that I really like, here.
I think I’m awake *and* alive today. Thank the birds. Thank libraries. And thank the prescience of a woman who forced me, again, to get my drivers license.