This has been a L-O-N-G week of days that have started at 3AM and ended close to midnight, most of which have consisted of about 15,000 plus steps (according to my weary Apple Watch) with heavy boxes in my hands. In fact, I can hardly type without wincing, because almost every finger has a hairline crack.
My week began with a 500 mile drive, middled with sorting through 60+ boxes (28 of which just went to the shredder -- yippee!!), and ended with three days of setting up and overseeing an "estate" sale. None of which could have been accomplished without the generosity and kindness of many many loving people who pitched in to make this all possible.
The upshot is that my life is whittled down to a storage unit, my now on-loan-until-I-leave mattress, two office chairs and some folding tables, my hefty donation pile, those final (ugh!) boxes still to sort for tossing or keeping, and my suitcases to pack. The proverbial light is flickering at the end of the tunnel. But the upshot is that I am so exhausted I can hardly think let alone write. The unanswered emails are still piling up, my schoolwork remains undone, I catch glimpses of texts days after they arrive -- and the idea of writing a joy blog feels very, well, un-joy-ful.
So, I thought I would tell you an old family story instead. One passed down to me from my mother.
My mom loved cars. My dad could have cared less what he drove. He would have driven any old heap, and often did. When my dad was asked to be the spokesman for Airstream in the 1960s, it was my mother who arranged for the company to pay him in kind instead of cash -- in the form of a Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. And then, because why leave well enough alone -- she decided that the iconic silver color was not nearly as good as something she could create. After all, she was a famous designer celebrated for her use of color. So, she concocted a two-tone champagne-and-mink color scheme that was decades ahead of its time. My father was so mortified by all this that he went straight out and bought a chauffeur's hat, and then drove around town pretending he was the driver rather than the owner of such an austentatious vehicle.
My mother, on the other hand, felt like she had won the lottery. Which, in a sense, she had.
All parents love to pass down their hard-earned wisdom to their children. My mother's adages and advice were idiosyncratic at best. Among the things I have learned and never forgotten are: Never wear a plaid that does not have a dominant color. The types of woods that have the most interesting burl patterns. And, because she was obsessed with cars of all kinds, the brand prestige of every American brand of automobile. I can still recite the 1960s General Motors hierarchy, instilled into me where, say, cooking tips might have been much more useful. I have not a clue how to bake a cake, but Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac is seared in my memory.
I am my mother's daughter. Car obsessed to the core. Of the many absurd lies my mother asked me to tell, the MOST absurd was hiding the fact that she had bought a Mercedes from my father and stepmother, because she was afraid they would judge her on how she spent her money. She was right to be afraid. My stepmother regularly excoriated my mother about anything to do with money to anyone who would listen -- and as anyone who knew Coral Browne knew, she was the High Priestesss of Nasty. But this meant almost a year of asking my father to drop me off in shopping centers instead of at my house after I had spent a weekend or holiday with him, so that he wouldn't see the new car.
Now my father had been married to my mother for 23 years, so he was no fool. About nine months into this charade, he was driving me home along Sunset Boulevard near UCLA and he turned to the 14-year-old me and said, "Your mother bought a new car, didn't she?" Well, I couldn't lie to my dad, so I nodded and hoped that would be enough. "What kind?" he asked. I was a kid already gifted in the art of truth avoidance, but for the life of me, I couldn't see how to avoid the unpleasantly sharp horns of this particular dilemma. Still I thought I'd give it a try.
"I don't know," was my pathetic attempt at a response.
There were times in my childhood when the Vincent Price of screen and stage melded with my beloved father and I understood why he was such a famous actor. This was one of them. He turned to me and just raised that iconic eyebrow of his long enough to make me wither in my seat, before turning his attention back to the road. And then he toyed with me like a cat toying with a dying rat. As we drove through Bel Air, he pointed out every car and asked me to name them. MG. Alfa. Bentley. Pontiac. Audi. Chrysler. I knew them all.
A week later my mother called him and confessed her Mercedes.
In the hopefully somewhat humorous context of this little bit of family history, I would like to share a story my mother often told me. It comprises her greatest spiritual teaching to me.
There was a man, who walked to work and home the same way every weekday.
When mom told story, I always pictured him in a non-description black suit, Madmen-era 1950s New York City, head bowed under the tedium of his life, on the way to the subway he was taking into the city from some borough other than Manhattan.
But on this morning and evening sojourn, there was one highlight. Twice a day he walked by the shiny plate-glass windows of a car showroom and saw the most beautiful shiny black Buick. And every day, he spent the remainder of his commute daydreaming of the day he would drive that car off that showroom floor.
In my imagination of her story, I think of it as the way it makes having a job he doesn't love bearable -- imagining himself one day the envy of all his friends in that gorgeous Buick.
But to make sure he had his bases covered, every night before bed, he got down on his knees and prayed: Please. God. I'll do anything. Anything you ask. If you can only help me one day to have enough money to buy beautiful shiny black Buick.
Every day it's the same thing -- every day coveting that Buick and every night the prayers to God.
So, God, who my mother wanted me to know listens to our prayers, apparently finally had heard enough -- and one night, as the guy is down on his knees about to launch into the Buick prayer, he hears God's Voice.
God, in my mother's story, sounds like he works in the Garment District, and is used to dealing with the millions of people who hondel with him daily. This God says, "All right all right. You can have the Buick. But for you I had in mind the Cadillac."
For an L.A. car-loving kid, the moral of the story was not lost on me. But in case I might miss the point, my mom told me that story any time she thought I might be tempted to have a better idea of what my life should look like than God (or she, for that matter) did! I heard the Buick and Cadillac story so many times that it has become part of both my spiritual and family lore.
I'd like to tell you that I internalized that message years ago and I no longer fall into the temptation of Buicking my life. But that would be as big of a lie as telling my dad I didn't know what kind of car my mom had bought.
Why is it we all spend so much time outlining what we think our lives should look like? Outlining what we want. Outlining what we think will make us whole, happy, even spiritually enlightened. Outlining what will make us feel better about ourselves.
For me, at least, it is my primary (other than dark chocolate) addiction. I get these ideas so firmly entrenched in my mind that it creates a kind of tunnel vision: If this and this don't happen, then this might and this can't, and what if this does, and then I'll, and pretty soon, all the listening I keep saying is my primary spiritual practice, has flown out the window and is long long long long gone.
Now let me tell you, I am a planner par excellence . . . Certainly one of the ways I've dealt with all the upheaval of my life over the past six months -- not to mention being on the road 250 nights a year -- is that fallback planning.
I'll do this.
I'll go here.
I'll meet them.
I'll sell that.
I'll buy that.
I'll make that deal.
Whenever I'm on that mental monkey chattering roll,
And I remember my mom.
And I remember the story.
Of the Buick.
And the Cadillac.
Today, of course, is Mother's Day.
A week from today, I will be driving away for good from the home I have loved more than any other home of my adult life.
For two and a half years, I have pictured myself buying this place. I have pictured myself nestled in these aspen trees looking out at my beloved Sangre de Cristos, walking four blocks along the river to my best friend's house, in a beautiful space filled with my favorite things. It was a dream of which my mother -- who became a real estate mogul in later life and whose accumulation of beautiful things became her life mission -- would have approved.
She would have had a hard time with the notion that this Buick I have been asked to give up would be replaced by . . . a life of intentional homelessness. (Albeit, as the REI guy who helped me lift my new roof box onto the top of my car pointed out, a homeless life made far more enjoyable by a beautiful car that is a hell of a lot of fun to drive for all the miles I am putting on it. I am my mother's daughter, after all.)
But the fact of the matter is that, as each item of my personal and professional life has found a new home over these past five weeks, it has brought me ridiculous joy!
I am the child of two accumulators par excellence. Art, antiques, books, clothes, papers -- I have been selling and donating the material evidence of my parents' lives for almost three decades now. The weight of it, of their expectation that accomplishment = accumulation, I now see has been overwhelming.
A week from today, as I drive away with only what will fit in my car, my one storage unit in the rear-view mirror, my Cadillac will be my Freedom -- freedom from the mental and material clutter that has drowned out the deep spiritual listening I so value. Freedom to walk where I am led. Freedom to pursue my own passions instead of living my life plugged into society's formula for success.
Many years ago, when I lost everything and ended up so in debt that the number attached to what I owed seemed unbelievable even to me, I read that the Swiss economy (which I think we all know is as reliable as, well, a Swiss watch) is not, like ours, built on the ideal of home ownership. At the time, 85% of the Swiss people rented instead of owned. That little factoid meant so much to me when I read it, and I began uncovering more interesting stories about people who chose to rent instead of own, so that they could have more freedom to to the things they love. (The Swiss, by the way, are also consistently ranked among the happiest people in the world!)
I haven't had the time to find any literature corroborating my current choice of purposeful homelessness. Perhaps that's because this time, instead of reading, I am writing it. But if the somewhat envious reaction of most people with whom I share my plan is any indication, we have become a nation mired in materialism and we are all feeling the weight of it.
The Buick or the Cadillac.
My Buick was my dream home in my favorite state surrounded by the accumulated evidence of the accomplishments of my life.
My Cadillac is the adventure of the open road, the creative life I am living, and spiritual path to which I have dedicated my life.
And my gratitude knows no bounds.
Actually, I think even my mother would agree -- this last Sunday in my home is a pretty perfect Mother's Day. After all, I seem at last, to be living the moral of her beloved story, a moral I think we all need to remember:
For you, I have in mind the Cadillac!