Amazing Grace

Yesterday we got lost in Burbank. Don’t laugh.

See, for better or worse, I spend my days and nights nestled comfortably between the Pacific Ocean and the 405, between the Santa Monica Mountains and the 10.

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It’s, I don’t know – I’m guessing, a 3 by 3 & 1/2 mile radius. I’m not intentionally isolating myself, but you know how easy it is to fall into habits. For those of you who don’t know Los Angeles, suffice it to say, Burbank is outside of the area you see pictured above.

Friday afternoon
Co-worker to Ruth: What are your plans for the weekend?
Ruth: I have to go to Burbank
Coworker: Don’t go!

There’s nothing wrong with Burbank, it’s just that it’s not my beloved Santa Monica. Someday I’ll do a whole post about geographical snobbery. It’ll be filled with irony, as I hail from the tobacco farm country of Prince Georges County, Maryland – An Undesirable Address (if you’re the kind of person for whom those things matter). I’m not knocking my folks for raising us there; on the contrary, I LOVED being 20 minutes from D.C. during my formative years. Even if, as Montgomery-County-bred-Andy jokingly points out, I was on the wrong side of the beltway.

So why Burbank? We have a dear friend who comes into town from the east coast periodically. Usually she stays at a hotel on the coastline you see above. But once a year, she stays in Burbank for a convention. We always join her for Friday night hotel bar drinking, enjoy meeting her truly interesting convention friends, crash in the extra bed in the room she so generously shares and then journey back to our side of town in the morning.

Easier said than done.

I take the blame for getting us lost yesterday. I was supposed to be navigating. But reading those Mapquest directions from the bottom up, trying to figure out which lefts to transpose into rights is a lot harder to do with alcohol-induced dehydration on a full stomach when the sun is shining way too brightly.

To make matters worse, once we pulled out of the hotel parking lot, as soon as we decided whether or not that first turn should be a left or a right, I became engrossed in telling Andy all about the fascinating experience I had had the night before getting to know a Vietnam veteran.

It had been one of those great nights. Our group had the corner bar seats. By happenstance, Andy and I remained at opposite ends of the L tied up in different conversations all night long. I’d periodically point to him, “See the man in the black Morphine shirt? He’s the one. That’s my guy.”

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Midway through the night, my conversation with a couple of people who had just flown in from the east coast slowly wound its way from praising the genius of Joss Whedon to what’s worth watching now that I’ve finished savoring every moment of Buffy on DVD to the inevitable question, “What do you do?” Turns out this woman produces content for a documentary TV show focused on modern wars. She’s got years of experience interviewing veterans. Fascinating! I asked her all about what it’s like getting people to talk about such painful things.

Flash forward to another glass of Pinot Grigio when out of the blue (?) this older hippy guy comes up to us saying he’s taking a poll. Not the most original entry line, but he kept the conversation going in a palatable manner. The three of us could have easily enjoyed talking about whatever non-memorable topic we were talking about for a while longer, but it comes out that this man served in Vietnam. Now, my new friend, the documentarian (I’ll call her D), had not revealed to him what she does. So when he (G) dipped in & out of the topic of being in a war and continued talking about something different – something pertaining to the present day, D followed his lead.

It wasn’t until later, when G stepped away to the restroom, that D said to me, “How weird is that – that this guy was in Vietnam and we were just talking about my job?” We both got that look on our faces – that look that says: there are no coincidences. I told her that I was intrigued watching her talking to him, to see how masterfully she let him change the subject away from the topic of the war. She said (as I had guessed), “You have to do that – it builds comfort. He’ll bring it up again. Watch.”

And he did. Eventually, G started telling us the usual types of things you might hear about Vietnam. At the right moment, D asked him what division he had been in. When he answered with numbers and letters that all flew over my head, she was right with him – they volleyed facts back & forth which speedily narrowed down to a specific time & a specific place; he could tell she knew her history. She sounded so knowledgeable when she respectfully said something to the effect of, “You were in some messed up shit.”

This opened the door. G no longer merely talked about the war, he began describing memories: actual days and nights. Darkness. Silence. Fear. I can’t do it justice. What I can tell you is that hearing him talk, I felt myself get angry. I felt it in my stomach and chest, so physical that it pulled my attention – took me by surprise. I thought, I’m getting angry. And I knew who I was angry at . . . . . God. I tried to refocus my attention onto G and his words; I wanted to be a good listener, but the anger took over the forefront in my mind. I thought, God, you M#$*er F@(*er.

And then realized that I had never been angry with God before. I looked at D & thought about how she hears stories – memories – like this on a regular basis. I looked at G, still talking specifically about things I can only imagine, and I thought, Ruth, get it together. You’re a lightweight. You say you want to have solidarity with the suffering but the first time you hear a first hand account of survival in your entire life, you react like a spoiled child.

I thought about the women and children in Darfur, Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia. The uncles and brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nephews in Uganda. I thought, how do people even hear about these experiences without getting bitter? I felt so weak to turn on God so quickly mid-way through one man’s story. I quickly decided not to bring it up, I’d deal with my little mind trip later and remain involved in listening.

But for whatever reason, some voice inside me triggered the approval that bringing it up would be okay. I said to G, “I’m a faithful person. I’ve got a good thing going with God, but right now, for the first time in my life, after hearing what you went through – I’m really pissed at God. I’m mad as hell right now.

This is the part of the story I’d gotten up to when Andy drove directly into Burbank airport. And that’s not so we could fly back to Santa Monica. I should be happy that he was listening so intently that he inadvertently and willingly drove directly into a place that most people typically avoid at all costs: airport drop off zones. So he’s swearing and I’m apologizing for not paying attention and we’re coasting through the outer lane of the loop trying to quickly figure out if we want to turn left or right when we finally get to the main road again.

A little side note about Andy: he hates detours. He’s spent most of his adult life living in cities where subways and taxi drivers alleviated the need for knowing how to get from door to door. All the skills of maneuvering a motor vehicle from point A to point B that most Americans build intuitively by our age are still catching up to him. Not to mention the fact that street signs lie. And those little “Entrance” signs with tiny arrows positioned right at the point where one is supposed to be turning the wheel make him furious. “Can’t they give us any more notice than that?”

We managed to extricate ourselves from the airport but before a minute passed, we realized we’d completely lost our sense of direction . . . again. So we pull over and out comes my old Thomas Guide: 1994 edition. I’m torn between the nostalgia of always knowing the year a person migrated to L.A. by looking at their Thomas Guide and panicking (on Andy’s behalf) that Burbank has probably undergone some topographical changes in the last 14 years.

Over the last decade, I’ve kind of grown fond of being temporarily lost. I used to feel dread about it, like Andy does. But after driving Cheyenne to the greatest petting farm or latest video arcade in Who Knows Where? I got some practice at making wrong turns. When you’ve got a child in the car with you – especially one that’s not your own son or daughter, when you’re responsible for mentoring this child – you’ve got to remain cool about being lost. The first couple times it happened, I’d would think, Holy F#$ – how in the hell do I find the freeway? while saying out loud to Chey, “I’m not sure where we are; this is going to be a fabulous adventure!” Eventually, it got easier. Now I can say I truly like driving down roads I’ve never been on before; that tiny adrenaline rush that comes from being in unfamiliar surroundings feels good. And finding the way back again is confidence building, self-induced relief.

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But yesterday Andy was behind the wheel. And it bears repeating, he really hates detours. We figured out how to get back on to Pass Avenue but what our Reverse Interpretation of the Mapqeust Directions couldn’t tell us is that there’s no freeway entrance on Pass Ave. So now we were lost for a second or third time (depending on whether or not you count driving around the airport as being lost).

I got the map out again and as much as I wanted to find the right page immediately, it took a few minutes. I whined a bit, playing the “don’t blame me” angle but realized that would only escalate our anxiety. Switching gears, I found my adult voice again, “Andy, this is good for us. We need to get lost & found together. Problem solving as a team will make us a stronger couple.” As I spoke the words, I knew it was true.

He wasn’t buying it, “I don’t agree. This is a waste of time. Let’s just get home. F#$ing Burbank.”

Regardless of his mood, I felt it: the exhilaration of finding our place on the map. Plotting a route. Having the streets signs match my expectations. Slow down, turn right, see? We’re here.

And that’s how we made it to the freeway where there were no more wrong turns we could make. It was as if there had never been an irritation. That’s one of my favorite things about being in a relationship with Andy: passing irritabilities are truly fleeting. When the discomfort passes, I can look over at him and feel utterly grateful to be his partner. I told him so. There we were on the 134 finally heading west and I felt every bit as in love with him as I ever have.

Back on auto-pilot moving towards home, I could finish telling him about G and D and . . .

I wish I could remember why I decided to tell G that I was suddenly angry. I hadn’t intended to pull the focus on to myself. It’s just that something was happening. It may have looked like a conversation on the outside, but something bigger was actually going on. And when I told him, “. . . I’m mad as hell right now,” he grabbed both of my hands and he said, “Don’t be.”

“You know why?” he continued, “I have this way of explaining it in terms a child can understand. I’m not trying to be condescending, this is just the easiest way to put it. Dry those glassy eyes. God is like an octopus with billions of tentacles. I’m a tentacle and you’re a tentacle–“

“We’re all God!”

“Right!”

“Right. I forgot.”

“We all do.”

“And if I’m mad at him, I’m really mad at myself because the divine is in all of us-”

“You got it.”

Somehow I felt better. G had pulled away the magnifying glass of dwelling in circumstance and brought the focus all the way out to the big picture. My anger was gone.

Before we knew it, they were shouting last call. I got to introduce Andy to G as he went his separate way. Everyone at the top end of the L was curious, “What were you and D and that old guy talking about for so long?”

“Oh, everything. He’s an amazing person.”

Today when I think back about it, my prevailing impression is to realize just how sheltered I am. I’ve always felt secure in my faith. That is to say I’ve had confidence that what’s right and loving in the world is going to last. But I’ve never once been hungry, I’ve never once been without plumbing, I’ve never once had comfort denied to me. I’ve never been forgotten or assaulted or truly lost.

For all of that I am grateful.

And yet, I wonder.

3 thoughts on “Amazing Grace

  1. See-this is why I’m thankful for blogs-because you really get me thinking.

    I also understand the geographic snobbery-I grew up in a southwestern Virginia town. So when someone says where’d ya get that accent and I answer they say well my so-and-so is from alexandria or woodbridge or whatever NoVa town I give them the glassy eyes and say oh yeah I know where that is. And in my head I can say f&#$ing NoVa.

  2. Hee hee! I can definitely relate to the geographical snobbery. When people ask where I grew up, I mumble “PG Co.” and indicate that it has definitely changed over the last few decades. ;-) I now live in beautiful Loudoun County, VA.

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