Somewhere along I-89 last night, the part of me that was not hovering somewhere in the ether began to receive radio signals, beckoning me back inside the silver Mazda6 wagon.
It was a recording of This American Life broadcasting the story of a young playwright who had some few years earlier made one big mistake.
At a time in my life where I feel like I am in a constant state of trying to pinpoint my many mistakes, so as not to repeat them, Daryl Watson’s story struck out a heavy, organ-played chord.
Watson had been inspired by the story of “Peace Pilgrim” Mildred Lisette Norman who walked the country with nothing but a small satchel, trusting in a higher power to aid her, and succeeded for a period of 28 years. So, in 2009 Mr. Watson emptied his bank account, put the money in an envelope that said “For Charity” and dropped it in a mailbox (after a pastor refused it). He set out from Delaware to follow in Ms. Norman’s footsteps, beginning by walking to San Francisco.
I imagine many people hearing this story would think to themselves that such an endeavor is poorly planned and downright crazy, but for me it was right on target. I could see myself doing that.
I remember vividly sitting in my basement dorm room during college, reading Ishmael Reed’s beware: do not read this poem and contemplating the logistics of standing up, walking out the door without so much as a toothbrush and just continuing to walk. Indefinitely.
I don’t think it’s uncommon. I believe that many people have trouble making sense of the world and our place in it. We look for any way to make sense of it, often in ways that seem to make the least sense.
In high school I was one of the few girls without pierced ears. It had originally been a parental mandate, but I remember that adapting, and I once told my mother that I wanted to go out of this world the way I came in. No extra holes or markings. She repeated this back to me in a disapproving moment sometime either after seeing my labret ring or first small black tattoo.
Some 15 or so years later I have holes in my ears the size of no. 2 pencils, scars, colored ink in swaths of design, some 50 holes cauterized into the nodes of my heart and the creases of age beginning to become visible in the furrow of my brow.
It is just not possible to leave unscathed, and not preferable. The scars are the point.
Daryl Watson got three days into his cross-country walk. Hungry, cold and exhausted he looked up and saw a billboard that read, “It’s okay to make mistakes as long as they’re not new ones.” He stumbled into a Best Western, called his Mom who bought him a room for the night, and a friend who drove from New York to pick him up.
I know people who would laugh at this. Call this privilege. They may think that he was not tough enough, lacked gumption. Say that some people don’t have friends or parents to call. True though it may be, it loses the point.
Some years ago I was stranded in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I wasn’t on a pilgrimage, just stuck after work without a ride, a thirty minute drive on the highway. It was late and the bus had stopped running. I had some five dollars in my pocket. No credit card. No checkbook. I was 18 or 19.
I also wandered into a chain motel. I snuck in the back door of a Holiday Inn, pulled a cushion off of one of the lounge chairs by the pool and hid on the floor behind an empty bar seemingly for special function. I slept a little and then realized that there was a phone on the bar. I pulled it down to my bed and tried several times to reach the only friend whose number I knew by heart and, moreover, had a car. He didn’t answer, but it turns out that every time I picked up the phone, a little light went on at the front desk.
When his curiosity got the better of him, the night clerk came and startled me as I tried to get some more sleep, still 6 or 7 hours before the bus would begin running.
The man’s name was Jorge, and although he could have kicked me out or called the cops to report me for trespassing, he instead bought me a cab ride home.
This is the kind of grace that followed the original “Peace Pilgrim”, but did not follow Daryl Watson. Is it because she was a little old lady and I was a clean sweet-looking white girl and he is a tall athletic black man? Is it because there were messages for us each hidden in our respective stories? Messages like “Keep Going”, “Don’t Despair” and “Stop”.
In my personal journey I have made mistakes. They have left me scarred, and they have left me comforted. Sometimes I think I am thick and have somehow missed the billboard signs screaming out direction and instruction. Sometimes I have thought that I am not strong enough. Sometimes I still think that. Sometimes I lose hope.
Then, there are the reminders. A simple radio broadcast. Just one story of millions of someone else who doesn’t have it figured out, who is out there, making the big mistakes. Every day. So, let’s see, what can I do wrong today?