I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent the past fifteen years of my life running away from home when the holidays roll around.
I’m not a fan of Christmas.It’s my least favorite holiday. I resent the commercialism, the attitudes, the lack of true spirit. Seeing people hanging up a bunch of blinking Christmas lights the day after Halloween, and walking through a department store full of annoying sparkling trees when I haven’t even eaten turkey yet gets under my skin. Fighting for parking spaces and running red lights in Walmart parking lot is about as tacky as it gets. The other day a woman was going through the aisles so fast that she smashed into my cart (hard!), smiled, and tossed a flippant “Excuse me!” over her shoulder before zooming on. My response? “Merry Christmas!” Was it sarcastic? Yup. But was I laughing? Sure was. Because more than ever this year, I have much more important things to think about.
Yeah, I have cancer. And I’m doing better than expected. But it still changes everything. Before cancer I had little tolerance for bull. After cancer I have zero tolerance for bull. Which might make you think that I have my head buried in the sand while I beg to be airlifted out of my misery. Well, surprise! Quite the contrary. I’ve found some semblance of peace, of wanting to do things differently. By jove, I’m done running.
If you’ve read any of my autobiographical blogs, you know that I come from a broken family. Holidays weren’t ever any fun, because someone was always complaining about someone else being late, or was outside smoking instead of opening presents. Oh, the hours spent on those cigarettes! (None of those hours were spent by me, but I’m the one with lung cancer. How about that.) Perhaps while all this was happening another family member would be missing a lost loved one. Or maybe a loved one a few miles away refused to come. That’s the way it got after a while.
I did my time. Once I was old enough and had enough money to escape, why would I want to hang around?
One reason: Mom. Mom still needed someone to be there for her when the door only swung one way. But Mom left us fifteen years ago on the longest and greatest road trip of all. And that’s when I had a license to run. Not only at Christmas, but the rest of the year, too. And I happily renewed that license on a yearly basis.
Make no mistake about it: I did it because I wanted to. Running turned out to be fun and therapeutic. (The sunset shots above are from Fiji on Christmas Eve, 2015.) And I’m going to start running again as soon as my oncologist says I can. Just with a few differences, and one of them is that I’m staying home with my family and friends for my future Christmases. If I do any running it’s going to be to places where family and friends await me.
I can’t travel right now, but I can still fill up my calendar with things to do, and this year I’m making plans with the special people I want to spend time with. The fact that time is getting a little tight is a reason to smile, not grimace, because it means that I’m loving and being loved back. Hey, I kind of like this!
Sometimes, it takes a total life-changer to figure out things that maybe you should have altered long ago. I’ve been spending Christmas and New Years alone for more than a decade. A new tradition begins this year. Maybe I won’t have the excitement of seeing the coast of New Zealand for the first time out the airplane window, or be able to post a picture from the California desert with a clever twist on “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” by rocking around the joshua tree instead, but I’ll be close at home and close at heart to those that love me most in the world and whom I love most in the world.
Everything in its time, right?
Merry Christmas to all, no matter where or with whom you choose to spend it.
With my recent cancer diagnosis, it’s kind of weird to be going back through old photo albums in order to write these autobiographical blogs. But I’m not giving up on them, anymore than I’m giving up on fighting cancer and winning! So let’s pick this story up where I left off:in 1993, when I learned to read maps and the road became my second home. Or more accurately, our second home, because my mom loved the road, too, even if she was always in conflict with leaving our stationary home.
Summer 1993. I get the big idea to do things a little differently. After mom and I cut our teeth with tour companies, and watched things we wanted to see go by out the bus window without being able to stop, we contacted our travel agent (gee, where have you heard that term lately!) and had her book us a cheap package to Las Vegas where we would rent a car and stay at the new Excalibur Hotel for seven nights. I pulled out my trusty road atlas and started planning. We could go to the Hoover Dam! And Death Valley! And Zion National Park! And the Grand Canyon! And…Jeez, could I really make this happen for us?
We’d also make a special stop at Death Valley Junction, a town that occupied a huge place in my current book, a long, handwritten saga of spoiled youth in Southern California. The Golden State was still my Promised Land, and no map made me hungrier than the one of Southern California. I found colorful names of cities and towns across the endearing area and assigned characters to the places. My favorite character of all hailed from Death Valley Junction, which I pictured to be something of a boom town. Small, but exciting. More on our discovery in a few.
Off we flew to Las Vegas and picked up our car. It was our first time in Sin City, and one of the only times I actually liked being there. I love Vegas now for only one reason: It’s a great jump off point to so many better places. Otherwise, I have little use for it, because I don’t care about gambling or the other activities the city offers. But back in 1993, Vegas was everything it was supposed to be. Given its proximity to California, even better.
In today’s world of “influencers” traveling the globe and showing their IG followers only the very best highlights of a grueling lifestyle, flying to Vegas and driving two hundred miles to Zion National Park must not seem like a big accomplishment. But to the me of 1993, a twenty-six-year-old small town girl with stars in her eyes, this was a heck of a big deal. Did we make it everywhere we were supposed to go? Yes, indeed! But I’ll confess that we took a bus trip to Grand Canyon West, as it was easier to do it on an organized tour. This was long before glass bridges and expensive zip line packages. My favorite part of our trip had to be the Death Valley day. En route to what turned out to be one of my favorite national parks we stopped at Death Valley Junction and found not a boom town…but a ghost town! Another love was born. I’ve sought out as many as possible since then. Here’s a funny page from the magnetic album I made. Check out that cute Mustang!
I had a dead end job at the time, and that’s what I went back to after this life-changing adventure. Friends got me into some local nightlife, but I never gave up on my pursuits of getting to other places. California wasn’t the only state where I found pleasing town names; I had them for every state. Places like Zook Spur, Iowa (another favorite!) and Summer Shade, Kentucky. Always whimsical, always good monikers to inspire stories that were flights of fancy. And always, always, places that made me yearn to get in a car and drive.
In 1994, I started to connect the dots between towns and to see how state highways, US highways, and freeways led to one another. I connected them so well that I came up with an enthusiastic endeavor to drive from Massachusetts to California and back again on a 9,400 mile road trip that would go through twenty-seven states, a dozen national parks and monuments, and to several other must-see spots in a time frame of forty-eight days. What did I expect my mom to say? A resounding “NO”! But Mom didn’t say no. Because we would have a once in a lifetime experience and be better people for it. Sure, Mom! Bless her heart. We set off in, are you ready for this, my 1990 IROC-Z convertible, all three of us total road trip virgins. Here’s one of my favorite unexpected moments on a trip that I still have not topped for length of time or mileage even twenty-five years later:
No, you aren’t seeing things! That’s snow in July at Yellowstone National Park! And I was driving a lightweight Chevy Camaro convertible. Beat that, IG “influencers!”
After the excitement of the road, going back home to our tiny town was pretty tough. I understand a little bit of why musicians go so wild on concert tours then have a tough time readjusting to normal life again. And a pattern started to develop: just take any old job to make enough money to go on the next big adventure. The other idea that I got was that it was about time to get serious about moving to Los Angeles, my biggest dream. Like so many, I wanted to study acting and get into “the business.” I was already past my mid-twenties, so I couldn’t wait much longer. I wanted my mom to come with me, but because of my sister Jeanne she couldn’t even consider it. Jeanne needed her more than me. But as always, Mom swallowed her hurt and told me. “Go to California!”
Still, there was something in it for her: a four week one way road trip to drive my new Geo Tracker to Los Angeles, find a place to live, and fly back to pack up my less than worldly possessions. What turned into a “once in a lifetime experience” in 1994 was turning into much more than that and would continue to, even with Mom and me living on opposite coasts. This particular trip was 5,000 miles one way, and hit many more states that the first one didn’t, including what would become my favorite place on the globe, Southern Utah. Here we are at Monument Valley, circa 1995:
How about that backdrop? It always reminds me of one of those fake pull-down things we used to pose in front of for school pictures!
While on this trip I took perhaps my favorite photo of Mom. Does anyone remember Highway 666 between Monticello, Utah and Gallup, New Mexico? It’s US 491 now. Ahh, them glory days of road trips!
Notice how I had Mom in the devil holding the pitchfork pose. I was always putting her up to some bit of silliness, and she was such a good sport! Here’s another classic:
Living in Southern California was a pretty intense experience for me. I was there for almost five years, and it was jam-packed full of exploration. If I had two days off from one of my many cruddy jobs I’d be on the road in the Tracker. Even one day would be sufficient. Once I drove 700 miles and was home the same evening! Usually, I was alone. But Mom came out several times and we took even more trips together, including a journey up the west coast to Seattle in 1997, and to Alaska the following year. My niece Amanda joined us one summer for fun closer to home, and I made my own trips back to the east coast.
Southern California was where I got my first taste of doing stuff that would freak people out. Notice me in one of the pictures at the top of this post getting ready to go hang gliding. Before that was sky diving!
Yeah, like I said, quite a five years!
My next fabulous idea was to branch out to our second continent: Europe. Mom had three things on her Bucket List, and we did two of them on our 1999 European excursion: we went to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and visited our homeland, Poland, where Mom paid tribute to her father at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home of the famed Black Madonna. We also got to five other countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. A month away from the comforts of home was a heck of a long time for Mom; she didn’t like the change in currencies or trying to keep up with the rest of the group we traveled with. By this time she already had a knee replacement and would be getting another one before long. I knew that the next time I went across the Atlantic she wouldn’t be along for the ride! But road trips were still of interest to us. We weren’t done with them yet!
By 2000, I was ready to go home. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do in L.A. and after studying acting for a couple of years and getting a bitter taste of “Hollywood,” wasn’t interested or impressed anymore. Mom was getting older, I missed her like crazy, and I wanted to spend the rest of her life with her. I did a solo road trip in the summer of 2000 to get back to Massachusetts and picked up more states toward my goal of visiting all fifty.
My timing, it turned out, was excellent. Mom and I still had four years together, and we made the most of them.
Jeez, I’m obviously not very good at keeping up with this autobiography stuff. Only two posts all year! Last time I promised that I wasn’t going to take so long to get to the next installment in my life story, a promise that I wasn’t able to keep. But now that my blog is the focus of my writing life, I may just do better!
At any rate, in case you want to read the first two chapters in the life of me, here’s the story of my first ten years, and here’s the post about my teenage yearsafter losing my beloved Dad.
And now, to continue…
So there I was, with two new loves, writing and maps, but with a family shattered by the death of my dad. My interests didn’t stop me from heading down some wrong paths for a few years, even as I obsessed over road atlases my mom would buy me and created wild stories in my head and on paper about characters who traveled, fell in love, and were a heck of a lot happier than me. At a very young age I found temporary infatuations with drinking, smoking, and being a pothead. I’m not sorry about doing any of those things, because by the time I was eighteen I didn’t care about any of that anymore, but did care about my stories and my Rand McNally’s. Back then I didn’t think I had any chance to travel or live a life even close to the stories I was writing. As it turns out, I was wrong.
Like a lot of people, my travels started out in the obvious place: Disney World, of course! I was fifteen, it was 1982, and Epcot was just opening. My mom scrounged up enough money for us to go together. It was my first flight, and we also went to Sea World, Cypress Gardens, and Busch Gardens, on a guided tour. The travel bug was planted! I have my mother to thank for that. Here’s a real oldie of me from that trip, at Cypress Gardens. I was really in my Ugly Duckling phase in ’82!
Florida was a dream, but to me the real prize was getting to California. It didn’t happen for five years after Florida, though we took some smaller trips. Between 1982 and 1992, Mom and I also made it to Amish Country, Washington, DC, New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Bermuda, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not a bad take for two ladies who had really never been anywhere! I’ve included a picture from each trip. I have to stress here, too, that this wasn’t all about me, it was about Mom, too. Traveling was a new beginning for her. Not an easy or quick one, but eventually a welcome escape from the black hole her life seemed to be without Dad. She always said that Dad would have been behind her decision to take me places. I’ll just bet he would have been pleased to know that she was finally starting to get some satisfaction out of life again.
Mom never forgot her first and only love. But I fully believe she was finally able to let go of him more after fifteen years, ten years of which we were going places together.
I held down a full-time position in a local factory during most of these years. Our travel schedule wasn’t too wild yet, so I was able to squeeze the trips into paid vacations. That would get trickier as our travels got more sophisticated…and personalized.
While Mom and I were bonding ever closer and getting better at the travel thing, relations in our family were falling apart. Assumptions of favoritism were rampant, resentments cropped up that my sister, who is disabled, had to be taken care of while Mom was gone. Money problems were always at the forefront of every conflict. Things didn’t get any better, though everyone said they wanted Mom to enjoy life. In fact, things got steadily worse. I used to say that we weren’t a dysfunctional family, because that would indicate we were functioning, just not the right way. Hardly the case with us; we weren’t functioning at all. Because of this, Mom and I could never be completely happy traveling. She was filled with guilt for leaving her daughter, who required total care, in the hands of someone else, when she had always provided for her. Being far away from home without the option to get back quickly was tough for her. Sometimes she would cry and worry. My job was to cheer her up. It didn’t always work, but we still had plenty of good times.
We didn’t give up. Soon, traveling would get even more interesting. We’d leave the guided tours behind and start making our own fun.
That’s when I learned how to read those maps I was obsessing over. The United States and Canada were soon to be our oyster!
As we get older, the world expects us to look like we’re younger, act like we’re younger, and covet youth. We’re supposed to want to be the Kardashians with their bright orange six-figure cars, or those twentysomethings making fashion statements at Coachella. At 52, I’m all for looking and feeling young. I routinely have others telling me I look at least ten years younger than my actual age. And damn right, I’m going to fight old age every step of the way, like the old Oil of Olay commercials said. But I don’t covet the Kardashians and their ridiculous vehicles and lifestyles, Coachella fashions and the people who wear them, or even youth in and of itself. Truthfully, when I grew up was a much nicer time than now. I know what it’s like to be able to get in a car with a near-stranger and come out alive.
I’ve learned a lot of other things from aging. Here are eight of them.
1. Let Others Have the Last Word
When you’re young and opinionated, you always have to get in the last word, to “make your voice heard.” Getting the final say is gratifying, like “Yeah, I guess I told him/her!” A real adrenaline rush, even. As the years have gone by, I’m so much more likely to give others the last word so they can feel like they told me. I’ve come to understand that last words leave the ball in my court, just where I like it to be, and leave sometimes angry conversations dangling with the other person’s unfortunate or ugly words the last thing said. The ability to do this also says, “You’re right, I’m wrong,” even if you know it isn’t true. We love to be right. Give the other person that pleasure. Maybe you can even say it: “Yeah, you’re right,” with a little knowing smile. Leave them wondering what you really mean. In the end, you’ll feel better, especially when the dust settles and you turn out to be the one in the know. Don’t expect the other person to be able to congratulate you on your know how. Congratulate yourself on giving them the final say.
2. Love Takes Many Forms
I spent a major part of my youth pining “for love,” when the greatest love of my life, my precious mother, was right there with me. (My other great love, my father, passed away when I was ten, so I missed a lot of his wonderful gift.) I don’t regret feeling this way, because even as I pined I got so much from her and didn’t take advantage of it. But what I know now is that I don’t have to be in a committed relationship or be engaged or married to be loved. In fact, I feel like with the lifestyle I lead, not having a steady partner is much better for me. Love comes in many other forms: siblings, more distant family members, friends, students, coworkers, animals. I’ve met people on social media that have become very important to me, even if I may have just seen them face to face a couple of times in my life, or not at all. Once again, it’s our society that makes us believe if you’re not “with” someone, then you aren’t worthy. Complete nonsense. If I can be forever single and build a wall of love around me, believe me, you can, too.
3. Money is Important, But it’s Not THAT Important
I absolutely was one of those young people that wanted to be “rich” and “famous.” Then I went through a phase that I only wanted those things because I wanted to help others. I landed somewhere in between, just wanting to do what I love and be nice to people and help when I can. You don’t have to have millions to do that. Still, it’s not accurate to say that money isn’t important, because it is, to a certain extent. But it isn’t everything. As the years go by, I’ve come to realize that you don’t really need a huge amount of money to be able to live a good life. And money attained by hard work is much more appreciated than funds handed to you by someone else. Having enough money to pay your bills and have some money left over to enjoy life is the best thing. Not having enough is too stressful to enjoy much of anything, having too much makes you indulgent. Time is an important commodity in this one, too. Finding a good balance of making enough money to feel good about things without working more than your forty hour work week and cutting into your ability to enjoy it should be the goal.
4. The Lottery is a DUMB Dream
Guilty! I was one of these, too. In fact, I dedicated a whole blog to the stupidity of the lottery. For starters, read about what really happens to the average Joe when a whole bunch of free money drops into his lap when he never had any. Secondly, this is not a goal. Have a goal that you have some control over, instead of wasting your time dreaming about something so random. Winning the lottery is not the least bit realistic. It’s not even a dream, it’s a fantasy. Do you really want to live your life around a fantasy? Get a job at Disney World. At least you’ll get a real paycheck. Sure, someone has to win those jackpots. But the probability that it’s going to be you are basically zero, and you could end up spending a lot of money trying to make it happen. Think about this, too: having enough money to buy everything your heart desires is a wonderful thought. But just how long is that list of things you want, and do you really need to win millions to satisfy it? I’ll just bet that unless you’re totally greedy and silly you can satiate your needs by going to work every day. And you’ll appreciate what you get more, too!
5. It’s Okay to Slow Down
I understand the unnecessary aspects of speed now. It doesn’t really get you anywhere faster. It makes you crazy and impatient and it puts other people in danger as well as yourself. I talk a lot about the way some people act in their cars. Wrote a blog about that, too!But that’s not the only way to slow down. Are you highly competitive? If you are, why? Do you have the need to be better than other people? I have a groundbreaking idea to suggest: why don’t you just be better than you? Instead of having to bowl other people down in your path? I have friends that go through life trying to do too much too fast, attempting to stuff too many things into too short of a time. How about prioritizing and leaving something for later or another day? How about taking more time to enjoy what you’re doing, and putting a little less time into things you don’t really want to do but feel like you have to do? Part of slowing down is saying “NO” sometimes. I could write a whole blog about that…but won’t right now! I’ll just say this: it’s okay to say no!
6. You Only Have Control Over You
How many times in your life have you tried to control other people? How many times have people tried to control you? If you don’t have control over yourself, you are, inevitably, going to attempt to control someone else. Everyone needs to control someone. (That’s one of my strongest beliefs in life.) Sometimes the need to control comes from envy, from those who see you living a life better than them. They want to bring you down, and they’re called “haters.” Haters rarely have control over their own lives. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be haters and would have something better to do than control someone else. If there are things in your life that you cannot control that you should be able to control, change them. End relationships. Start relationships. Get a new job. Spend less money. Lose weight. All these things are empowering and will do the double deed of scaring away people who want to feed off you.
7. Some People Do Change!
Yes, this one kind of hurts, but sometimes people do change, and you have to accept that they are different. I know this is a really stupid example, but when Guns N’ Roses started touring again a few years back, I couldn’t wait to get tickets. All I heard from friends when I asked them to go with me was what a jerk Axl Rose was, like, two decades ago or more. It really got me thinking how hard it is to live down a reputation. Yet the same ones who don’t let others turn over a new leaf want everyone to accept them when they try to do something new. Jeez, let’s give each other a break! Sure, plenty of people never change and just keep making the same nonsense mistakes over and over again no matter how many chances they have. But that’s not true of everyone. And by the way, Axl Rose is now a consummate professional. Go, Axl!
8. It’s Not That Hard To Be Nice!
Sometimes you’re nice to others and it isn’t very rewarding. Don’t bother with those folks. Just keep walking. But if you say hello, or meet eyes with someone, or smile at strangers, you’d be surprised just how friendly human beings are, and hey, maybe your smile or your hello is the only good thing that has happened to them all day. We tend to forget that we’re all in this race together, we all have problems, we all have feelings. Treat others how you want to be treated. If someone doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, keep moving. But don’t be afraid to put some genuine goodness out there. Lead with a smile and hope that it’s contagious.
Getting older isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. Not learning from your experiences is.