8

I quit, and this is what I have

by Lauren McCabe on September 30, 2014

Guatemala Surf

Once upon a time when I was one year out of college I decided to go to Guatemala.

There wasn’t a real reason why I went except that I had saved up enough money to afford the five-dollar a night beach bungalow on the black sand beach that supposedly housed good surf. I told my boss at my unpaid internship that I was going, and he told the client who didn’t know I was an intern that I had earned a well-deserved vacation. Then I left.

I booked a cheap flight that included a 24-hour layover in Atlanta and went by myself. To get to the beach, I reserved a shuttle, which turned out to be someone’s brother in law’s cousin who had a van with garbage bags on the windows. He was looking for extra cash for Easter weekend.

He drove me four hours then dropped me off at a small river and said, Adios.

I said, Isn’t there supposed to be a beach?

He said, A boat will come.

I looked over at the small dock. There was an ancient woman holding a pineapple, sleeping. No boat in sight.

I turned back.

When?

He squinted.

Fifteen minutes.

Then he left.

~~~

Fifteen minutes later the guys with machine guns came paddling up the river and I just about screamed.

But nothing happened. They looked at me funny and said something in Spanish to each other and then kept on paddling. The woman with the pineapple still slept. I sat awkwardly on a bench with my backpack, still waiting for the boat.

And fifteen minutes after that a boat did come. People suddenly streamed out of huts with bags of ice and fish and mangos. I paid the man at the helm a dollar. A young Guatemalan teenager smiled at me and said, Britney Spears.

Then they dropped me off at a dock on the river and said, Adios.

I said again, Isn’t there supposed to be a beach? Except I said that in broken Spanish. No one spoke English.

The whole boat erupted in chatter about this beach that supposedly held good surf.

Finally a boy said, Follow.

He walked me through the winding paths of a sandy village until there it was. The coast. Black sand beaches that shimmered with volcanic glitter, long lines of waves, a bare bones thatched bungalow.

Olivia greeted me, a woman who lived in the village and was responsible for cooking all of my meals since there was no restaurant in the village. There were two other guests at the bungalow, some guys from Norway who were tall and handsome and spoke gravely about everything. The next morning they left, and I was there by myself for five days until two women from Colorado appeared. They were blonde, tall, professionals that had somehow meandered to this small village on the pacific coast for a week of vacation.

They were beside themselves that such a place existed where there were no roads, just sand pathways, no restaurants, just Guatemalan families that cooked for you if you asked kindly, no electricity past 9 pm, just the light of the moon reflecting off the water.

Brightly colored hammocks swayed in the ocean breeze as Olivia showed them the accommodations, a bunk bed for $5 a night or a hammock for $1 a night. That people sleep in hammocks all night long! One woman exclaimed.

Over lunch we talked about what brought us here. They asked me what I did, and I told them about growing bored in my unpaid internship, the desire to find uncrowded surf, and the tienda in my Brooklyn neighborhood where you could call any country for 15 cents a minute, so I called this place and booked a bunk bed.

One of the women told me about her first job after college in advertising where she rapidly climbed the ladder until the day her boss pointed to a VP and said, That will be you in ten years.

She watched the VP storm through the building with high heels and a hard face and thought, Is THAT what I want?

She went home and asked herself that question over and over again and after a restless night, she realized that she had no clue what she wanted, but this wasn’t it.

She quit her job, packed her things in storage, biked across the country and then discovered Durango, a snowy town nestled in the Colorado mountains. When she dismounted from her bike and beheld the frosty pines, she thought, This is it.

Now she worked for a small start-up there, making a fraction of the salary she once did, but she didn’t care.

That’s why we’re here and not in some fancy resort, she said.

For the rest of day she gazed in awe at this small beach town, the hand-made flour tortillas cooked in the village each morning, the scorching sand that sparkled.

From her astonished eyes, I knew that whatever life she had envisioned for herself hadn’t included a beach made from eons of volcanic rock grinding together and a village with sand sidewalks. This was something that she had been incapable of dreaming about ten years ago when she quit her job to giver herself to the unknown.

Here, now, seven years after that chance encounter in Guatemala, I am thinking about that question, Where do I want to be in ten years? Just like that Colorado woman, I woke up one morning, went to my advertising job, gazed at the successful people around me and thought, This isn’t it. I left.

What remains is a blank space, a vortex of time and energy and imagination that has just begun to roil. I can’t even fathom where I will be ten years from now, but I’m hoping that it will be something equally unimaginable because that’s what I want: a future that doesn’t exist now, but will on that day when I sit down, spread my hands wide and create.

1

The Gorgeous Potholes of our Lives

by Lauren McCabe on September 24, 2013

Pensacola Beach Florida

Merman and I went camping on a small spit of moonscape beach nestled between a lazy bay and the wide open mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.

For miles and miles and miles there was nothing but a sliver of road crumbling into the sand and crabs scuttling across asphalt. Shore birds trilled their tiny feet on sand dunes, and a park ranger with an accent as slow and thick as candle wax told us about switching out his corporate tax job in Houston for a a park ranger gig on the panhandle.

“Traded ‘em out even-steven,” he said, checking our park pass.

But we almost didn’t go to the beach.

I had two tight work deadlines on Friday, deadlines that may or may not have been possible to finish, that may or may not have required lugging my laptop home over the weekend to work.

And the house, oh the house, it was in need of work, was always in need of constant, tenacious up keep. Our lives from a busy week had exploded everywhere, clothes in piles in the bedroom, mail spread on dining room tables, dishes piled in a scuzzy sink.

On Thursday night, we took stock of our annihilated lives and wondered at the four hour drive on a patched-up tired in our forty-two year old VW bus. The mechanic on St. Claude said, “Drive ‘er slow and easy. Short distances.”

We considered staying home. A glass of wine on Friday, a lazy house-cleaning day on Saturday and football on Sunday.

But the problem with Friday night wine and Saturday house cleaning was this wasn’t life. There was nothing new in a clean-up on weekends, and wine at our much visited restaurant.

So we rallied ourselves to pack up.

I rushed to work on Friday and drank way-too much caffeine and powered through my presentations, all neatly wrapped up by and delivered by 3 PM. I scurried home and threw everything into the bus and off we went, driving into the humid sunset to the beach.

The bus behaved as much as it could: every stop we parked on a slight incline so I could push it downhill while Merman started it. Push to start, you know.

We heard Ranger William’s life story as cars piled up behind us waiting to check into the camp ground, not beeping their horns because southern people don’t beep when you’re enjoying a good chat mid-road.

We absorbed the sun into our skins and sand into our hair and took big gulps of seawater just to savor the brininess of the ocean, something we hadn’t tasted for months.

This was no far flung destination, this was the Florida, a place that I had road-tripped to since childhood with such fineries as tacky trinket stores and skyscraper condos. But it was removed from New Orleans and everything that came with it: the banal lapping of life at our shores, the erosion of newness.

Travel.

It fits so awkwardly into America’s ten vacation days per year. There are a thousand reasons not to go hop-scotching into a tired Friday night with a desperate hope that Saturday can bring something new.

On Sunday, when I arrived back home, I was exhausted. But on Monday, my cheeks were flushed with no blush required, and sand was still raining down on my keyboard from my scalp refusing to give up the ocean.

Travel may be incompatible with our lives, but so is squeezing a master’s degree in after work or trying to be both a great parent and a CEO. Like oil and water, life and __________ you fill in the blank: work, children, travel, balance — don’t blend with the ease of fairytales.

But perhaps travel is like oil-streaked puddles: the layer that we spread on top of our stormy lives, creating patterns that are intricate, complex and transfixing.

I want to be full of stories that leave the most jaded soul awestruck. I want to experience my life in the same way that children stare at those oil-slicked puddles with wide-eyed wonder at another – yet another! – extraordinary thing residing in the ordinary potholes of our lives.

2

The Only Dating Advice That Works

by Lauren McCabe on August 19, 2013

He was blond and blistering with those big blue eyes. I couldn’t help thinking, sitting in a swivel chair as he picked up a pair of dirty underwear off the floor and handed me a Corona, how differently men treat you when they’re not into you.

He had to clean his bedroom, so we didn’t hang out in the living room. Instead, I sat in an office chair turning round and round in circles while he scuffled across the floor making piles of clothes talking about his time in Spain. I was waiting for the girlfriend drop, wondering how he was going to slip it in.

Questions came up about me, my time spent that summer, and I straightened my back in the swivel chair and gave my speech about how I would never wait tables again.

He threw himself on his bed, and I was still perched straight-backed in that swivel chair when he dropped the bomb:

“My girlfriend lives Uptown. She used to stay here every night until it got messy.”

“Messy?”

“The apartment.”

“Oh.”

So I decided to drop my bomb: “I’m dating this guy from California.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

A pause. He expected me to elaborate, so I did.

“I met him in photography class. We have a lot of similar interests.”

Another silence. I let him take it.

“Is it good?”

“Sure.” I paused before I answered, and he jumped right on it.

“You hesitated. Do you really dig this guy?”

“Yeah.”

I sipped my beer and then I thought to myself, what am I doing here?

I was searching for something that wasn’t in this dimly lit apartment and most definitely wasn’t in the beautiful blue eyes of this man lounging in front of me. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend, this was so not worth fighting for, whatever this was.

I chugged the beer. I took out my phone and said,“Hey, I gotta go, I’m meeting a friend for drinks.”

And he cooed, “So soon?” with a smile that could have melted me.

But what echoed as hard as rocks inside my head was, not soon enough.

This is the best dating advice I can ever give: leave when it doesn’t feel right. When it’s 1% wrong in the beginning it will be 100% wrong in the end.

Each and every single one of us knows when something is almost perfect, almost, except for that twinge of something that grows into something huge.

Learn to love those who love you in a way that is overwhelming, in a way that spills all over you and is 100% right in your heart. Make room in your life for that type of right.

It only needs to happen once.

2

How many times can you start over again?

by Lauren McCabe on November 13, 2013

Lauren McCabe Mandolin

How many times can you start over?

I think of this in musical instruments: piano, clarinet, flute, harp and french horn, the instruments that I played by age sixteen. I began with piano at the behest of my parents and the intention of playing the harp, my true desire, the instrument that at age seven no one was sure I was serious about playing (I was).

Then at ten I couldn’t resist the lure of the school band and the idea of learning any one of a dazzling array of instruments. I played the clarinet, then flute and finally french horn, a noble instrument with a complex knot of brass at its heart center. It had a brave sound that made me think of kings and knights, and as I marched around my house bellowing into its mouthpiece, I imagined myself as the herald of something important, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

After four faithful years of playing the piano, I marched up to my parents and begged them to allow me to play the harp, proving my musical candor with a piano performance of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. With luck, a harp teacher was offering group lessons after school, and I learned that instrument with a motley group of students, odd children drawn to the instrument for deep and mysterious reasons.

My dalliances with instruments didn’t end with the finish of school, and certainly not with the passage of time.

A year ago I took up yet another one, the mandolin, spurned by an urge to have something small enough to take anywhere. Twenty years after my first music lesson I am still starting again, over and over, one instrument after another, year after year.

But then, I am really not starting over again. Music is a language that I learned long ago under the strict instruction of my piano teacher Ms Kitty, who piled stacks of theory books on a TV tray and made me complete each exercise perfectly before I could play. Even now, I already have the tools to play music, I just need an instrument to apply them to.

So it goes with music, and so it goes with life: a career change, a city-move, a relationship transformation, sometimes you think starting anew is starting from scratch, erasing hard years spent shaping your life to be what it is now. But is this so?

Transforming, say, from a corporate accountant to a graphic designer may seem like a near-impossible feat, like crossing the ocean on a straw raft, a voyage that would surely entail demise.

But the truth is the stretch is not that much of a stretch.

Don’t accountants look at graphs? Don’t you, with your passion for design, already have a knack for visual thinking? Your business acumen combined with design skills are a potent combination, one that many businesses need right now. All of a sudden the distance between where you are now and where you want to be starts contracting, and what was once a vast ocean roiling with danger is now a stepping stone across a bubbling brook, the natural hop to becoming happier. It wasn’t until I exhaled vehemently into the flute that I realized my lungs were better suited for the giant puff of the french horn.

A year ago, when I first took the mandolin in my hands I couldn’t fathom how someone could play such a tiny instrument. My fingers were accustomed to the wide planes of the piano and the graceful stretches of the harp, and they creaked stiffly as I tried to press chords into its neck. My mandolin teacher sat across from me patiently drinking tea, making me play chords over and over until my fingers began to curl just right.

And then one day at work, sitting in a meeting around a big conference room table, I began playing an invisible mandolin under the table. My fingers moved over translucent strings, silent chords echoed gloriously in the steely room, my hands snapped when I felt them play the wrong nonexistent note.

Slowly, the motions of the mandolin became second nature, like breathing.

Very rarely do you start over again.

Very rarely do you do something in which you are entirely unskilled, entirely without aptitude, entirely without context.

Even when starting an instrument at age fifty, you have a half century of melodies in your head, you already know, innately, the rhythms that you are about to play. Try it. It’s true.

You are building your life year after year, one elucidating experience at a time, one relationship at a time. You are becoming finer with age, a wine rich and complex with notes high and low so when held to the light you glow richly, a variegated hue.

You will reform and realign, pivot and adjust, shift and deepen just as the flavor of wine transforms with each passing year, but know this: you are not starting over again, ever, and so the number of times that you can change? Infinite.

New Orleans Second Line

Have you ever heard gunshots outside your window?

I have.

In fact, so many of us have in New Orleans that guns and shooting have become part of the experience of living in NOLA, right next to crawfish and Mardi Gras and second line parades.

That’s what happened on Mother’s Day on a corner of New Orleans during a second line parade – gunshots amidst the tuba and the dancing. Within seconds, there were nineteen people down on the ground with bullets in their bodies, blood pooling in potholes.

I almost went. Merman wanted to go, bring his mother along. But no, I reminded him, too much housework. Bring her to lunch next week. Wednesday, perhaps.

( ( (

The story of guns in New Orleans is told so often that it has become something we observe lightly, like the falling of rain.

In a coffee shop on Saturday a woman who has just moved houses tells me, “Our new house is blue. We don’t hear gunshots at night anymore,” one after the other, the bright colors of shotgun houses and then literal gunshots.

A few months ago we called the landlord of a potential tenant and asked if he was a good renter. The landlord said, “He only gave me trouble once about them little shootings down the block,” as if complaining about gunshots was on par with whining about a broken stove.

Next store, the upstairs neighbors got in a fight with the downstairs neighbors until someone’s sons came by with guns and then everyone decided to stop fighting, perhaps the most reasonable part of the situation.

We found a loaded gun under a house that we were inspecting. A bullet hole in the roof, a speck of blue sky held in a perfect circle.

On my old block in the Marigny, a fancy area where Audis with Oregon plates cruise around buying houses, a woman was held up at gunpoint outside my doorstep. It was 8 PM; I was in the front room ten feet from the gun pointed at her head talking to Merman about the Pho he just cooked from scratch.

( ( (

Guns and guns and guns everywhere, so close, their stories zoom past us and this is how we’re brave: we let them bounce off of us as if they don’t mar our joy for second lines and late night jazz shows.

But the truth is, I am scared.

The truth is sometimes I feel as if it’s just a matter of time.

The truth is I tell Merman that if something like this ever happened to me in New Orleans, I would leave instantly. I would never come back. Ever, ever, ever.

Today a coworker talking to someone on the phone says, “My friend got shot at the second line.”

I continue formatting my Powerpoint deck and wordsmithing bullet-points until I realize, I should be shocked.

That this doesn’t shock me shocks me.

( ( (

Sometimes I freak out friends who visit New Orleans because I talk about people getting shot with such ease, la-de-da.

“Doesn’t it bother you living in a city where you can’t walk around at night?” A friend visiting for Jazz Fest asks me after we hear a few pops while sitting in my backyard and I mutter, Probably just gunshots.

I pause and think, yes. But it’s been this way all of my life growing up in New Orleans.

I explain to him the difference between New Orleans and New York City, where we went to college together. In New York there’s a street culture, people wandering around the city day and night so the type of crime that happens at New Orleans – crime of opportunity – can’t occur in such abundance.

New Orleans is a car culture; streets empty at dusk and vacant roads make it easy for someone to rob you.

“Nine times out of ten you can walk five blocks and nothing will happen,” I explain. “But that tenth time?” And my words linger in the air.

What I don’t talk about is getting caught in the crossfire.

I don’t tell him about the drive by shooting at the ten year old’s birthday party where bullets hit people’s faces and a five year old was shot dead.

When I begin with stories like these I can’t stop, they come and come and come and I realize that we’re all insane living here in New Orleans and believing that it’s worth it.

( ( (

This is why I care about the school shootings and mall shooting and movie shootings: because it’s the only way that something will be done about the New Orleans shootings that happen every day.

What needs to be done? Lots of things. I want to start with something simple: less guns equals less gun violence.

I cannot possibly believe that more guns will lead to less gun violence.

I cannot possibly believe that in that second line if we all had guns, fewer people would have been shot.

Okay, then maybe this: background checks. Let’s make sure crazy people can’t get guns.

And this: better education, better access to amenities.

And this: ___________ ?

( ( (

This is why I care about New Orleans, too: it is the most vibrant city in America. Number one. The best.

You can’t build what New Orleans has got: hundreds of years of history and architecture and Spanish and French and African influences and music created from the fields and then, ghosts.

This is a place where my neighbor Jeanette, a 70 year old New Orleans native and mother of ten, hugs my other neighbor Mutt, a punk-rock transplant from Florida covered with tattoos, because he looked so sad after he spent all of his parents’ money trying to remodel a crumbling New Orleans mansion that he wanted to convert into a bike shop.

Jeanette told me, “Yesterday, Mutt looked so sad that I say to him, you get on my porch so I can hug you.”

Jeanette and Mutt hugging. This is New Orleans: compassion that doesn’t judge, compassion that spills out everywhere on everyone.

( ( (

In New Orleans life and death come together like sun and rain.

We dance at funerals.

We share our tombs with musicians because we want to dance with them when we’re dead, too.

But I don’t want to die dancing.

( ( (

One humid Saturday at 8 AM I woke up to a helicopter hovering above my house, vibrating the walls.

It lifted into the air, made a wide arc through the ninth ward, then came back again, dipping low.

On Twitter I read that a policeman got shot an hour ago at the Dollar General; now, there was a manhunt through the neighborhood. The bridge to the lower ninth ward was shut down, every street into the neighborhood was barricaded off, dozens of police cars swarmed St. Claude.

By 5 PM they still hadn’t found the guy. By nightfall the police left.

“When nineteen people were shot on Mother’s Day, why didn’t they start a manhunt?” Merman asks last night as he reads Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plea for the shooter to turn himself in. After all, we have video footage of the guy standing below a security camera as he watched the second line go by, then took two pistols from his pants and began shooting. We know his name: Akein. He’s nineteen years old.

I ask a different question: why aren’t we furious?

Gun violence has been the story of New Orleans for so long that we forget there’s a different way to live. We forget that in other places people feel safe at night, people don’t hear gunshots. We remember, suddenly, when it happens in another corner of the country with safe schools and zero murders. When it happens there, we can’t stop talking about it, we talk and talk and talk and the NRA unpublishes their Facebook page and legislation gets almost passed and then we settle down into complacency once again. The NRA republishes their Facebook page.

I am mad.

I want change.

I want everything to change all over the country and all over my city, my home town of New Orleans, the number one city in the entire world.

I don’t know what to do.

I am so mad, so scared.