Category Archives: Teen mothers

Thanksgiving and Housecleaning

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you who eat turkey today.  Or tofurky.

Today I am grateful for my freedom.  Of course I’m grateful for freedom of speech and other basic freedoms, but what I really mean is I’m grateful that I have choices.

I spent my first decades feeling trapped because I was broke and had no financial cushion.  If I planned a little weekend road trip, then learned my car needed new brakes, the trip would have to be cancelled.  I didn’t have an extra $250 or whatever those choices cost back then.  I couldn’t get my brakes fixed and take a break.

Often, it wasn’t even a choice between a necessity and a “nice to have,” like a trip.  I had to choose between paying my electric bill or my student loan installment.  Or between buying a full tank of gas or five pounds of hamburger, which was cheaper per pound than buying one.  If I chose the gas, then ramen would have to do.

It was especially hard during the long years it took for me to pay off my credit card debt.  I had a chart on the wall on which I marked the amount I paid and the declining total.  I had to have something visual in front of me or I wouldn’t have been able to stick to it.  Things didn’t get any easier after the card was paid off, because now I had to buy things with real money, which was limited.  But what a feeling of freedom.

Somewhere around the time I turned 35, I finally paid off the student loan I’d taken out when I was 20.  That thing had been like an anvil I’d been carrying on my back.

Then, when I turned 40, I got my first job where I paid my bills and to my surprise, had a few hundred dollars left over.  Wow!  I’d like to say I socked it away in savings but I blew it all on clothes.

It’s been good ever since, with a few tight patches.  As I’ve written before, I’ve mostly lived below my means and this has given me a lot of freedom and choices.  And I’ve said it before but I am super grateful that I found a duplex where my rent, including internet, heat, and electric, totals $1,005.

I am aware and grateful that I was born in a time and place—and of a class and race—which made it possible for me to pull myself up by the bootstraps.

I’ve been working on “financial hygiene” projects to get ready for my UK sojourn this winter.  I’m not in the practice of recommending particular companies, but I just moved my checking and savings accounts to Capital One from my local community bank.  I never thought I would leave my local bank for a global mega bank, but I didn’t want to pay foreign transaction fees or ATM fees and I was only earning about .002% interest on my savings.  I don’t have a lot of money, so I strive to avoid fees and earn as much interest as possible.

It took me a year of procrastinating, but I switched from ATT to Total Wireless.  My bill will be $27 a month instead of $53.  I did the research and ordered a UK sim card, giffgaff, that’ll cost $13 a month.

I set up new and stronger passwords on my accounts and tested paying my rent using Zelle.  I faced opening my car’s owner’s manual to figure out what the indicator lights on my dashboard meant—I needed new brakes!

A friend gave me a Chromecast device when he upgraded to something else and I figured out how to set it up—he’s a computer scientist and he was impressed!  I will take it to the UK and use it there too.

I am going through 22 photo albums, scrap books, year books, and boxes of ephemera and mercilessly tossing out all the photos of landscapes that could be anywhere and ticket stubs for unremarkable performances.  I hope to consolidate down to five albums.

I hate all these chores, but grateful I have the first-world freedom to tackle them.

Thank You

In real time, Happy Thanksgiving, if you are American.  Happy Thursday, if you are not.  I have some news items to share at the end of this post.

Day four in Australia.  Day four?!  It felt like I’d been here forever, in a good way.

We alighted from our bus for sunset viewing of Ularu.  I walked around snapping photos of other tourist vehicles. I have spent many hours in these heavy-duty Toyotas in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There was this crazy sardine-mobile, some kind of motel on wheels.  I’m all for budget accommodations, but this beat even the bunkhouse for the claustrophobia factor.

There was this dusty, Mad Max BMW motorcycle.

A group of barefoot Aboriginal women sat on the pavement selling paintings.  I felt a sharp, uncomfortable contrast as Meg poured sparkling wine.

But then I was distracted by food.  “This is kangaroo jerky,” she indicated, “this one’s emu pâté  and this here’s croc dip.”

“The kangaroo is delicious!” I commented.  “It’s like venison.”

Heidi didn’t touch it.  “I can’t eat it. The kangaroo and the emu—they’re our national animals.”

“They’re animals that can only go forward,” explained Heidi.  “Like our country, I reckon is the idea?”

“I guess I wouldn’t want to eat a bald eagle,” I replied.  Well, all the more emu and kangaroo for me!

The members of our group began introducing ourselves.  Trevor and Gwen had immigrated to Australia from Nottingham, England, 20 years ago.  They were here with their 14-year-old daughter, Tiffany.  Kris and Melanie, a young Swiss couple, never spoke unless spoken to, so I didn’t get to know them at all.  Brenden and Stefanie were another young couple, from Canada.  Johannes and Sandra were a middle-aged German couple who took elaborate tripod-assisted selfies of themselves jumping for joy in front of every landmark.  Mia and Nora were also German; both were around 22 and they were student teachers in a German school in Melbourne.  There was a Chinese couple—father and daughter?  Lovers?  They stood apart and avoided all eye contact.  Another couple, Darren and Kylie, were also a May-December pair.  They said their names and that they were from Melbourne, then also kept to themselves.

I spoke with James, a 30-something Korean guy who spoke confident but almost-impossible-to-understand English. He was an out-of-work cook from Adelaide, blowing all his savings on a last hurrah in Australia before going home to an uncertain future.  He reminded me of Vince.  Because he was a cook, but mostly because there was a soulfulness about him.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it doesn’t involve decorating the house inside and out, buying presents, or any Christmas/Hanuka dilemmas.  You just eat a lot with your family or friends, then fall asleep in front of the TV watching The Hobbit for the millionth time.

Thanksgiving is about—as the name implies—giving thanks, and I have a lot to be grateful for this year.  As I sit here at my writing desk and look out the window at the grey sky and freezing drizzle, I am grateful for a warm home.  I am healthy.  I have friends and family.  I got to spend a month in Australia!  I wish I was there now.

And, some big news: I quit my job last week.  More on that later, but I already feel 10 years younger.

And another big development: Vince and I started this blog together four years ago.  We just published the first year of the blog as an e-book.  It chronicles his time in prison, his recovery, and my ride along with him.

Besides providing insight into why people turn out the way they are, we’ve been told by many readers that it’s just a good read, a page turner.  So if you’re looking for something to binge read over the weekend, or holidays, consider buying a copy.  Only $3.99!

Breaking Free: A Mother And Son Journey From Addiction, To Prison, To Redemption https://www.amazon.com/…/B…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_AbI9Bb9K1SXQM

Please feel free to share this on social media, and thanks for reading—we know it can be difficult stuff but addiction and all its consequences, including imprisonment, are a reality for hundreds of thousands of people every day.

Waterworld, What a World

I’m not sure why we were driven five hours from Tayrona to Cartagena, but Lynn and I agreed it was important that we did because it showed us sides of Colombia we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

We drove south along the coast past more beautiful beaches.  If we had flown from Santa Marta to Cartagena we might have been left with the impression that all of Colombia was unspoiled.

But soon we were driving over a very long causeway with what I can only describe as water-logged slums on either side. I found some photos of the place, Tasajeras, online.

This area stretched along a couple of miles.  Our driver said something about the residents being dependent on tankers for clean water.  Ironic, given that they were surrounded by water, but it made sense.  There were no signs that the houses had indoor plumbing.

And here we were, sitting in air-conditioned comfort behind tinted glass, our suitcase contents probably more valuable than the entire contents of one of these homes.  In dollar terms, anyway.

Everywhere I go, I am very conscious of being a one percenter.  I’m not a one percenter in the US, but I imagine that, compared with the population of the planet, my net worth is higher than 99% of the rest of my fellow humans.  At home, I am probably solidly in the middle, which is fine with me.

As I’ve written before, I started my adult life at 17 by getting pregnant, going on welfare, and moving into subsidized housing.  I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I know firsthand that the vast majority of people in the world can never get ahead no matter how hard they work because they have no social safety net to support them until they get traction.  And the US is heading backward in that direction.

So I have donations to certain causes automatically deducted from my bank account (HIAS is one of my favorites).  I volunteer to do some small part in fighting mass incarceration in the US, and I work for a nonprofit that supports people who have been affected by war trauma.

Lately I have been trying to buy less plastic.  It’s so hard. Everything is packaged in plastic.  I got an Amazon order last week where the item came inside a small plastic tub, wrapped in a plastic bag, mailed in a giant bubble-wrap plastic envelope.  It made me feel sick.  I set the envelope aside and meant to write to Amazon to complain, but I never did.  Now, recalling all the plastic and other waste choking this watery community in Colombia, I wish I had made the effort.

When I travel I tell myself I am supporting the local economy.  Is this true? Would it be better if I stayed home, reduced my carbon footprint, and send a check for the amount of the tour to some Colombian charity?  I don’t know.

We drove through Barranquilla, a city of over a million. I’m sure there are many very nice areas of Barranquilla, but this was pretty much what we saw for 20 minutes as we passed the outskirts.

“Shakira,” said the driver out of the blue, pointing to the city.  Apparently the hip-shaking pop singer is from here.

We drove through a nice residential area down a wide boulevard with signs that announced “Free Wireless,” and just for kicks I tried to connect but we moved on too quickly.  That’s great that they’re making internet available in public parks, I guess.

We stopped at a light and two young men started washing the windshield.

“Venezuelans,” said our driver, as he rolled down his window and gave them some money.  “I don’t need my windshield cleaned but they have no other way to earn money,” he explained.

So a few of my tourist dollars did trickle down.

Two more hours.  The driver’s phone rang and he handed it to me.  It was someone from Responsible Travel.

“We have changed your hotel to a much nicer hotel,” she informed me.

Um, okay?  Who knows what happened and it doesn’t matter.  I was just ready to get to a hotel, any hotel.

Oxford, Again

On the coach to Oxford.  The longest part of the journey, as in most places, is getting out of the city.  There’s no way to magically part the traffic, so you may as well sit back and enjoy the scenery.

The seats on UK coaches are raised up to make space for luggage compartments.  So you can see a lot from a coach that you won’t see at the pavement level. I hadn’t been on this particular route for a few years.  We passed a row of luxury car show rooms … McLaren, Ferrari … the type of gaudy wheels Donald Trump would love.

We passed my favorite hideous but marvelous building, Trellick Tower (not my photos).

I turned my head and there it was … the ill-fated Grenfell Tower.

Grenfell had gone up in flames in June, when I was in Ethiopia. I recalled being in the canteen at work and how everyone stopped eating and stared at the TV, in disbelief that this was London, not Addis Ababa. Seventy-one people died in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

We passed the Hoover Building, as in hoovers, which Americans call vacuum cleaners (not my photos).

This art-deco bonbon is being converted into luxury flats.  I’m sure they’ll be fab, but they’ll still overlook a motorway clogged with traffic that produces plenty of noise and exhaust fumes.

In England, there are Green Belt policies aimed at preventing urban sprawl.  And they really do look like belts. (image by Hellerick).  The big one is London.

While my fellow nature lovers and I love green belts, they have been criticized for pushing up house prices, since 70% of the cost of building new houses is the purchase of the land (up from 25% in the late 1950s).

There are no signs stating, “You are now entering a green belt,” but I have been on a coach many times where I was surrounded by relentless concrete high rises and industrial areas and suddenly it’s like we’ve been transported into a Nature Valley Granola Bars commercial.

We entered the Chiltern Hills.  I have friends who have hiked these, camping along the way; I prefer to enjoy them from a coach for now.

In under an hour we were entering Oxford from the east, along the Headington Road.  It felt so familiar and I felt nostalgia well up.

I have never been so in love with a place.  I think it was because of what it represented in my life at the time.  From the teenage welfare mom living in subsidized housing, when I arrived in Oxford I had a master’s degree, I had traveled all over central America and Israel and some of Europe, and my son was stable—for the time being.  Moving to Oxford was my triumphal escape from St. Small, and I was never going back.

Of course I did come back, because my work visa couldn’t be renewed.  And I have come to appreciate many things about St. Paul, like how affordable it is.  It’s clean.  We’re a hub for theater and other culture.  I can drive five minutes and be at the Mississippi River or two hours and stand on the shores of Lake Superior. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are one of the most progressive metropolitan areas in the US, which I appreciate a lot right now.

But Oxford is a medieval city that is home to the most storied university on the planet.  It’s called the City of Dreaming Spires, and I won’t gush on about it but here are a few photos from some sight-seeing days I spend with my niece when she came to visit me.

I believe we’re atop Carfax tower here.

This is a tourist and TV detective-series directors’ favorite.

There are the Harry Potter-esque colleges.

Everywhere you look there are gargoyles and grotesques.

 

Oxford is also surrounded by woods and rivers and meadows.

Moving to Oxford is how I met Lynn, and Sam, and Possum, and Heidi.  It got me started in the international development biz.

How lucky am I to have lived there and returned again and again?  Most people never get to visit once.

Pigeons

Sometimes I get a notification from WordPress: “Your stats are booming!”  I used to get excited, thinking it must be a publisher in New York reading every post I’d ever written and reaching for the phone to call me with a book deal which would come with a huge advance.

I went to the stats page to investigate and for some reason my last post had attracted the attention of three dozen Canadians.  Why?  I looked at the tags and categories. Were they drawn by the word “England?”  I’ve written loads of posts about England.  The only words that were different were “shopping” and “charity shops.”  Who knows?

Maybe I have a Canadian stalker.  Or three dozen.

Everyone I know is talking about the powerful men in media and politics who are being outed for sexually harassing or assaulting women.  All I can say is: it’s about time.  And I’m not surprised.  It’s happened to me at least a dozen times.  No one famous, but plenty of regular men who had some kind of power over me by virtue of age, title, or size.  It stopped when I hit my 40s—one advantage of getting older.

I never reported any of the incidents because first, I was very naïve and often unsure what was even happening.  Maybe I was misinterpreting things?  I mean, the social worker who was helping me get my act together after I spent two months in a psych unit after trying to off myself when I was 16—when he said he’d like to see me in a lace nightie, he was just trying to help me feel like a woman again.  That’s what he told me.  And that 30-something guy who stopped his car at the bus stop and asked if I wanted to go party—I was 18 and eight months pregnant—he didn’t really want to …?  No!  That’s gross!  I must have misunderstood.

And surely that Greek Orthodox minister hadn’t meant to press his hard-on against my derriere in that crowd of people at the Justice for All rally, right?  Wrong.  When I turned around in shock, he smiled as if to dare me, “What are you going to do about it?”  It must have been my fault.  I had thought how handsome he was and maybe he had sensed that and thought I would like what he did.

Surely my boss’s boss had been fiddling with the coins in his pants pockets when he stood next to my desk talking about nothing and staring at my boobs, right?  I had just started that job and really needed it.  It was 1986 and I had never heard the term “sexual harassment.” It never occurred to me to report him.

A friend described how she tried to get her husband to understand what it’s like.

“Imagine there’s a third kind of human out there.  They’re a foot taller than you and 50 pounds heavier.  They own everything and run everything.  And they want to fuck you in the ass.  Every time you go for a job interview, you know they’re imagining you naked.  They walk past your cube and look at you sideways, and you know they would like to bend you over, pull down your pants, and fuck you in the ass.  They brush up against you and act like it was an accident, but you know they just wanted to cop a feel.  If you say anything, you’ll probably be out of a job and nothing will be done anyway because HR works for them.”           

Back to England, and a more uplifting note.  There are things about the UK with which I have a visceral association.  One is the little teaspoons.  Below are my American teaspoon and a British one, which is larger than many.  Every British home has loads of these.  Something to do with tea, I think. I bought a couple at the £ Store to remind me of the UK.

Then there are the wood pigeons.  When I asked Lynn’s husband, Richard, What’s that bird?” he replied, “What bird?”  He didn’t hear them anymore; their call is so ubiquitous.

It’s this call and these spoons that made me smile every morning.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Belize Bound

When I was poor, many years ago, it used to really piss me off when people said things like, “Why don’t you just move to a better neighborhood?” when I told them I’d been burglarized and mugged in one week, that my neighbors kept me up all night with loud parties, and that I had found a used condom and needles in my front yard.

“I can’t afford to move,” I’d say, gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t launch into a rant about how clueless and insensitive they were.  And these were always liberals—I think liberals are often more out of touch with reality than conservatives.

I’m telling you this because some of you may not have the luxury of being able to buy plane tickets on a regular basis.  Your job may not allow you to work remotely or even offer paid holidays.  You may not own a condo you can rent out while you’re away.  I hope I don’t come off as clueless when I write about travel.  I’ve never claimed any of my adventures have been easy or cheap.  I hope some of my stories may inspire you to plan for something when you can afford it, or try something on a small scale if you can’t afford to do it in a big way.

I was driving down scenic Summit Avenue yesterday in my beloved Mini; spring was in the air and I was listening to Vivaldi.  I felt utter joy.

“Life is beautiful!” I exclaimed in my head.

That’s not a thought I ever had when I was in my 20s or 30s.  It’s not a thought many people in Syria are having right now.  It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to intentionally kill my joy because others are suffering, but it remembering them certainly intensifies my feelings of gratitude for how far I have come.

Back to January in Minnesota.  The holidays are over.  There will be nothing by three months of cold, dreary, short days without a holiday until the end of May.

And so I went to Belize.  It makes a difference, getting away somewhere warm, even if only a long weekend.

This would be an all-inclusive group trip operated by Wilderness Inquiry, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.  Their thing is “inclusive outdoor adventure travel.”  I totally missed that because I Googled “tours of Belize” and went straight to that trip page.  I looked at the color photos, glanced through the itinerary, checked the price, and booked it.

This was back in December, and I didn’t give it much thought until I got a call from the trip leader, Mark, in January.  I have been on group tours before, and it’s good practice to have a meeting ahead of time—if everyone is local—or to at least talk to someone to learn the expectations and ask questions.

Mark informed me about the Wilderness Inquiry mission of inclusion.  “I lead a lot of trips to the boundary waters, and this will be my first international trip,” he said, excitement in his voice.

“You mean, your first international trip ever?” I asked, a little alarmed.

“No, I went to Uruguay last year with my girlfriend.  Her family is from there.  So I’m ready.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.  The Gross Domestic Product of Uruguay is four times that of Belize. But the tour and my plane ticket were paid for, so it was too late to back out and he seemed very confident.  Everything would be fine, right?

The night before I left, I had dinner with Vince and met his girlfriend, Heather.  I liked her a lot, especially since she gave me a beautifully boxed birthday present—a sweater and Moleskin notebooks and pretty pens, which I used to take notes on the trip.  I looked forward to watching their relationship develop.

My birthday.  Vince picked me up at 5:00 am and took me to the airport.  He’s a morning person like me, but 5:00 was even a bit early for him, so it was a very nice effort on his part.  And it’s nice to hug a loved one good-bye, just in case something fatal happens.

Me, Mom

Before I continue to the exciting conclusion of the road trip, I am sharing this post from Vince’s blog he wrote for Mother’s Day.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. Over, and over again I’ve made a mess of my life and brought both of us shame.  There were years where you were unable to explain my whereabouts to family and friends, and times where you yourself didn’t know where I was. I’ve put you through more pain and distress than I care to recall.  I’ve not been a son to you for many years, and I have lost your trust far too many times.

But for some reason, you still love me. It’s an unconditional love that I’ve felt nowhere else. Even recently when we didn’t see eye to eye when we lived together, there was never any doubt that you loved me.  I wish I could promise that I will never be lead astray again by the temptation and allure of alcohol and the world of drugs, but I cannot because it’s the nature of the disease that I am always at risk of going back. Tomorrow, when we go out on our secret trip to an unknown location for Mother’s Day lunch, I will be repairing some of the damage I have caused. I will be repairing the bond that had been broken for so long as a result of my actions. I have nobody to blame but myself, which leaves only me to clean up the mess. And so far, I think it’s working.

It’s hard work, searching inside myself to figure out what’s been broken for so long. But through writing this blog, attending A.A., and working with a sponsor, I’m starting to change my life. I no longer do these things to avoid going back to prison, I do them because I want to be out here living life and being with my family as much as I can.

Although you had help from some family members raising me for a small portion of my childhood, I know that you were solely responsible for bringing me up and I know that you not only did the best you could without a father present, you truly were an amazing Mother, I just didn’t see it until later in life.

You imparted upon me how to be a good, loving person, and it took me about 20 years longer than it should have to recognize that. The things you showed me are the things I strive to emulate now because I know that they are righteous, moral, and honorable.

It doesn’t get any more honest than that. You were instrumental in keeping me sane throughout my prison term. You wrote to me, sent me money, and answered my calls. Not everybody is as lucky, or has a person that loves them no matter what. You moved just to accommodate me living with you when I got out, and I am so grateful for that. I may not have acted like it when I lived there, but that was because I was ashamed of myself, and I shut myself in my room, and my own little world where I felt comfortable. I’m breaking out of that shell slowly, and I won’t forget that it’s because of you that I’m even out here in the first place and had a warm safe place to sleep. Sometimes it takes a while to realize what I have to be grateful for, but eventually it comes.

Tomorrow is your day, and I’m excited that I have the ability to take you out for the day, and the means to make it happen. I think this will be the best Mother’s Day we’ve ever spent together, and I look forward to many more.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. But I’m going to make it up by becoming a good son, and making up for all the hurt I’ve caused. I love you, Mom.

I told Vince, over the sushi feast he had planned, that I appreciated the post. I also told him that by changing his life, he is making amends to me and he never has to apologize for his past actions again.

Sushi n MeSushi n V

Then and Now

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We pulled out of Memphis and began our third 400-mile drive.

This was the most scenic part of the trip.  The rolling hills continued, one long ascent followed by a long descent, followed by another and another and another.  There were woods on both sides punctuated by blooming Magnolias and occasionally something that appeared to be bougainvillea blanketing a full-grown tree.  That was spectacular.  Most of the drive was through Mississippi, which does not have a motto.  It does have a coat of arms which includes the phrase Virtute et Armis (by valor and arms).

And here I must correct what I wrote about Minnesota.  “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is what’s on our license plates, but our official motto is L’étoile du Nord (Star of the North, or in Latin, “I long to see what is beyond.”)

That could explain a lot about me.

Once again, Lynn and I postulated about what could be wrong with the car.

“Maybe it’s overheated,” she said.

“But why?” I asked.  “We’ve only driven 50 miles.”

I had driven many cars that were in much more alarming shape than this one.  When Vince was a baby I had a Buick LeSabre that was so old it didn’t have seat belts.  I would stick Vince in a banana box and put him on the back seat.

Lesabre

There was the 1964 Chrysler Imperial with push button gears on the dashboard.  Now it’s a very cool collector’s car, but in 1978 it was just a “winter beater,” as we called cars that were expected to just barely get us through the winter.

1950s-gear-shift-g

There was the car whose driver’s side door had to be held shut by…my arm.  There was one that never ran.  Never even started.  I bought it from a neighbor for $125.  He pushed it down the alley into my backyard after assuring me that all it needed was a carburetor.

I went to a junkyard and bought a carburetor out of wrecked car for $50.  My brother and his friend Hans came over to install it.  The result was Hans running down the alley with his hair on fire, waving his arms trying to put it out.  My brother tackled him and rolled him in the dirt before any serious harm was done beyond a temporary bald spot.  I had to pay $75 to have the car towed to the same junkyard where I’d bought the carburetor.

So why was I so worried now?

But then a second, bigger engine light came on with a loud DING DING.  I pulled off in the nearest town, Canton, Mississippi, and parked in front of a liquor store, where I called AAA while Lynn read the manual.  I had forgotten there was a manual.

The AAA representative had such a heavy southern accent I was forced to admit, “I’m sorry, but I can’t understand what you’re saying.”  She repeated herself slowly.  “We can come and tow your car, and you’ll have to find a motel in Canton for the night.”

Just then a monster truck roared into the parking lot. An enormous black man got out and came storming toward us—Lynn literally leaned away from him as he loomed into her window, while I fumbled to lock the doors.

“Ya’ll okay?” he asked.  “Ah didn’t mean ta scare ya!  Ah seen yur car and it don’t look ya’ll from ‘round here and ah thought ya might need help.”

Lynn and I laughed with relief and assured him we were fine.  When he was out of earshot, we analyzed our reaction and agreed we’d been scared because he was a huge, aggressive man and we were in a strange town, not because he was black.

Lynn read from the manual, “If the engine light is red, you should pull over immediately and call for help.  If it’s orange, you may continue driving but have the car looked at your earliest opportunity.”

The lights were orange.  Surely, another 200 miles couldn’t do any harm.  On to New Orleans!

The Nitty Gritty

I wrote in my last post about how you can find adventure close to home. But you can experience it even closer—inside your own head. The best example I can give, for me, is the rush of adrenaline I get when I am planning a trip. Not on a trip, just anticipating it. Looking at maps, checking airfares, considering the pros and cons of various destinations, imagining all the fun I will have with my friends.

I’ve written about how these kinds of thoughts cause physical reactions in my body, like a racing heart and sweaty palms. But I’ve never known how that works.

Strangely enough it was an article about solitary confinement that explained the phenomenon. Solitary confinement: the opposite of travel, right? The full title of the article is “How would you do in Supermax? The answer may lie with imagination and grit.”

Solitary Illustratoin

First, here’s the negative side of solitary, which will be no surprise to anyone with a shred of empathy:

“Solitary confinement has been linked to a variety of profoundly negative psychological outcomes, including suicidal tendencies and spatial and cognitive distortions. Confinement-induced stress can shrink parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, spatial orientation, and control of emotions. In addition to these measurable effects, prisoners often report bizarre and disturbing subjective experiences after they leave supermax. Some say the world regularly collapses in on itself. Others report they are unable to lead ordinary conversations, or think clearly for any length of time. The psychiatrist Sandra Schank puts it this way: “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.”

But here’s where the article veers away from the usual, “it’s horrible, we should stop it” article about solitary. This article examines how some prisoners use mental imagery to survive, and even rehabilitate themselves.

Mental imagery is basically imagining something so vividly that it affects you physically or psychologically. Lots of us do this involuntarily—for instance since I am terrified of public speaking, if I have to give some remarks I will probably have involuntary flashes of imagining myself stammering and making a fool of myself, and this will make me even more nervous, and it may actually cause me to do what I feared.

On the other hand, controlled mental imagery is considered so effective that it is used by athletes to improve their performance. Before a competition, for instance, they will close their eyes and imagine every detail of a successful performance, and this contributes to their bodies and minds performing successfully in reality.

With all external stimulation stripped away, some people in solitary use controlled mental imagery to stay sharp, pass the time, and keep their spirits up. No one tells them about it, or how to do it; they somehow figure it out on their own.

Why are some prisoners in solitary able to summon controlled mental imagery to improve their lot, while most are at the mercy of involuntary mental images?

That’s the second point of the article. The thinking is that this small subset of prisoners possesses a quality called grit. I’ve always wondered how it is that I overcame the odds and became as successful as I am, when there are so many other unmarried teen moms out there who are still mired in poverty. Well, I’ve got grit. If you want to find out if you have it, here’s an online test. Apparently I am in the 90th-99th percentile of other users who have taken it.

What is grit? I would call it “stick-to-it-tiveness.” An innate persistence, perseverance, single mindedness, and diligence despite setbacks.

So some prisoners, who happen to have grit, are able to use controlled mental imagery to improve themselves and leave prison better, not broken.

Where does grit come from? Why do some people have it and others don’t? Can it be learned? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that if I could bottle grit and sell it, I would be a wealthy woman.