victory versus failure

I need to compose a monthly Thing for the official blog, but in all honesty, I’m stumped. So here I go.

On February 23, I set out for a life on the road. A seriously, seriously hard life I definitely wasn’t prepared for, but I wanted it all the same. I wanted to know if I could survive far from home, in unfamiliar places, sometimes getting by only by sheer grit.

And I did. I drove all over the place. Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan. Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky. Illinois and Indiana.

On March 17, we were less than two hours from our destination when we hit a deer. We weren’t too worried at first–neither Jess or I were hurt. But then we realized the radiator was leaking, meaning we couldn’t limp on even if we wanted to. And so we came to be stranded in Kansas.

The bad:

Being stranded came directly out of our own pockets. Short and succint summary: the guy we were working for dumped us. Kaput. All the money we’d saved had to keep us afloat till we got home. There were no rental cars available until the following Tuesday–and the only one-way car was a blistering $750. (Ouch.) So we came home, and the search has begun for another job as the costs of meds ($280) and the cost of insurance ($308) are bleeding me dry. And…I still have to settle the costs for the divorce, so getting by on sheer grit isn’t stopping any time soon.

The good:

I can clobber my fear.

Despite a giant cluster of fear around agoraphobia, I drove all over the freaking country at all hours of the day and night. Usually, Jess slept while I drove, so it was just me navigating through places I’d never seen before. Quiet drives through a snowy dawn, balmy nights driving up the Gulf Coast. There was beauty to be seen everywhere, even in the giant interchanges of Dallas, Houston, and Austin.

 

Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma rendered me speechless. And every time we drove back into Appalachia and crossed from the Smokies to the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, it tugged at my heart. Somewhere in the Pisgah region, there is a place that is definitely home, and it’s just a matter of getting there.

Working up enough funds, getting through the divorce, surviving, surviving…There was so much ahead of me when I walked away last September. I wasn’t prepared at all for what was ahead. But I had a rough idea of what I had to do, and I’m doing it.

I stand up for myself now.

I know I’m capable now.

I know I can survive couch surfing and the heater going out in the van when it’s 14 F and tornadoes in the middle of the night. I can stay sane, level-headed enough to get out of a terrible situation and drive back home.

I can find the value in my adventure out into the world and call it a victory even if others declare it a failure.

I can survive.

I could get back up and choose the path where I had no husband, no home, no security. Just a broken marriage and all the pain that came with it.

But…I could, at the same time, deal with the pain that comes with losing your entire support network. I still scrabbled forward. I know I can live on next to nothing and not go into meltdown, because there are other ways.

There are so many ways to survive.

I was lucky to have Jess at my side–rough-and-tumble Jess who knew how to be homeless, how to weather the worst, how to keep thinking even when the screws are tightening and it very much looked like there were no ways out. Every time I thought I couldn’t, he would nudge me with the reminder that yes, I could. I chose to stay alive, and staying alive would always be hard for people like us, but that was the thing:

Staying alive is one of the hardest choices you can make, especially when all you want is an end to pain.

He knew that as intimately as I did–he knew exactly how hard it would be to keep walking forward into more hard choices. More pain. More failures. More rejection. And absolutely no guarantees that it would ever turn out all right.

But neither of us would find that out if we didn’t keep going.

It’s a funny thing. Grabbing someone’s hand and deciding to battle illness together, neither the stronger half. What matters is the understanding, despite differences, that it is terribly, terribly hard, but at least one person knows exactly how hard you’re fighting. It shouldn’t work, because it makes things even harder, but that understanding–that makes all the difference.

So what now? There’s a bevy of temp jobs, continued work as both editor and assistant on a publishing team, a possible job at a tea shop. Good–and necessary, given the staggering bill for the Pristiq ($228/month), the health insurance ($308), divorce costs ($2000), a hospital bill ($800), along with everything that comes with paying the costs of staying alive.

There are still six months to get through, to save up money to find a way to Asheville, and then…

Then the process of starting over begins all over again.

To all that, I say:

“Yes.”

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Marching on

Happy March. From what I can tell driving around the countryside, it seems spring is on the way.

Updates have been a bit slow as I am now part of a delivery team driving freight all over the continental US. I edit, I drive, and I try to stay on top of the rest of my life from a van. Jess, my partner, has already bungie’d a desk to one side, and we’re planning to add a white board so I can write while we’re on the road. (Next to the freight if there’s room, of course.)

Living on the road is strange–but good:

It’s been eleven days since I set out on the road. 4805 miles. We drive as a team and deliver from Laredo to Detroit to Kansas City to…wherever. Whenever. I drove through all of Arkansas the other night, and a good bit of Texas the other night, and last night I slept between 3000 lbs of freight and the driver’s seat.

I’ve learned to live without constant conveniences. It’s a good trade. Kills the OCD tendencies. Every day on the road, I’m taking a hammer to every fear and anxiety I’ve ever had.

I used to have to take heavy duty tranquilizers to travel. I had to take back roads to drive around town.

Now, it’s like all of that is nothing. I’m realizing it was nothing. My priorities are more basic now: safe place to sleep, food, hygiene. Along the way I take pictures. We listen to Duncan Trussell together and I listen to ancient playlists while Jess sleeps.

Sometimes there are tornadoes. Sometimes there is snow. Sometimes the heater goes out in Indiana and it’s cold and we hide under the blankets and screech “it’s freezing! Screw this!”

and other times we doze with the windows open and the curtain fluttering over our toes, and it’s perfect.

Perfect.

When I was thirteen I imagined I’d live out of my car because my agoraphobia was so bad. I thought I’d be homeless and no one would know me and it would be terrible.

But it isn’t.

There are miles of stars in the desert at night. Fields of turbines in the Midwest. Sparkling cities. Tiny pit stops. And some intensely weird heckin’ stuff pretty much everywhere we go.

I don’t know where we’ll head next, but I think I’m getting the swing of this.

 

There’s quite a bit more in my travel diary, but that’s enough for now. Time for me to crash out while I still can.

Take care of yourselves out there, and maybe I’ll see you along the way.

❤ Anne

NYC (a review)

Last week, I visited New York City for the first time. Despite living a mere two hours away from NYC as a child, I’d never experienced the Big Apple. I have plenty of memories of Philly (gray, pretzels, gray, more gray) but New York? None.

So when I got onto a plane at 5:30 AM last Tuesday, I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, people try to prepare you. My mother wrote a very careful itinerary including directions for getting a cab. I was warned that the driving could be a little scary.

Let me tell you. I am TERRIFIED of planes. Like, I cried most of the way to New York (quietly and with dignity…sort of) but that cab ride from LaGuardia to Riverdale? Ha…hahahaha. Hahahahaha.

(It wasn’t quite as scary as the ride from the Bronx to the Met, but at least I had my big sister to protect me then.)

I am so glad to be home where there are proper lane divisions and driving is DRIVING, not furious salmon fighting upstream and/or for dominance. Everything was so much FASTER up there that me and Husband felt like a pair of true bumpkins. Luckily we had my sister to lead us from the Met to St. John the Divine to Broadway and the Bronx Zoo. She compacted a true tour in the space of three days–a miraculous feat, honestly, when you consider she also wrangles three young kids.

So here’s the quick and dirty on New York:

Bus rides can take two hours. The subway involves running and confronting the most harrowing ranges of your personal bubble. Never hang out in the road, because a Caterpillar going 50 mph might run you down as soon as a Lexus. The roads are pure Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, whether you’re driving or trying to amble across. Yet somehow, passengers still thank people when they get off the bus and people can be very cheery and polite.

Everything is big and close together, and deep in the city it feels like you’re navigating around some hectic man-made mountain range. The buildings have a way of making you feel like a mere speck amongst thousands. When I followed my sister through the subway and up into Time Square, I wanted to clutch onto the back of her jacket because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so many people in one space before in my life. I ended up clutching Husband’s jacket instead and watching my surroundings very owlishly because I was experiencing some kind of weird deja vu. I’d seen the city countless times on a screen, but never in person. The screen doesn’t provide the scent of street carts and the sensory overload of hundreds of flashing screens and people shouting for your attention while you try to follow your long-legged navigator.

I followed my sister through a number of cool places. She took us to the Met, and I enjoyed the Asian exhibit while Husband dorked out over the medieval weaponry. After that, she took us to Alice’s Tea Cup, which was rather lovely. I had a white chocolate strawberry scone that was worth flying up for again at a later date.

Thursday, we took off a few hours early for a show and wandered through Columbia’s campus and St. John the Divine. I’m fairly certain that when Cassandra Clare was imagining the Institute, she was thinking of St. John the Divine. It’s IMMENSE. HUGE. I had a true sense of awe walking around in there, and was so pleased at how quiet it was. I’ve never been in a cathedral that big, and wow, I wish I could have used it somehow for a book idea. (Unfortunately, I already picked North Brother Island, which I was able to vaguely see as we crossed over the East River a few times.) It was a nice pause before we headed into Time Square to go see Aladdin.

I’ll say something for Broadway. It defines entertaining. The stagecraft and the sheer glitz of the performance was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I’m not usually big on musicals, but this one made me realize why people make such a big deal out of it.

11196237_10152737032390740_3348405704266045595_nOur last day was spent almost entirely at the Bronx zoo. We met up with a very old friend who drove four hours just to see me and Jeremy, and we traversed the entire zoo. The butterfly garden was wonderful, I enjoyed the birds probably more than anyone else did, and I got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. We picked up like we’d seen each other the day before, same as always, and had a very nice time giggling and just BEING with each other.

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(I also really liked the peacocks everywhere. It’s very clear who actually runs the zoo.)

All in all, it was a good trip. My sister and I got to spend some time together–which is very nice considering how far apart we are. Our family has always been spread between the North and South, and there’s no telling where she’ll live next. However, I did manage to cope with being on not one, but three planes, so hopefully travelling will get easier for me one day. At least I can survive plane flights.

And New York.

For someone as anxious as myself, the fact that I did not experience a SINGLE panic attack in New York is pretty phenomenal. On the planes, yes, but they were easier to control than in the past. It proved to me that if I can survive the subway, terrifying cab rides, planes, Times Square, and nearly getting lost a few times, I can survive anything. It gave me a huge victory over anxiety, which was almost as nice as seeing my sister.

Almost.

So that was the trip! IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST is still in progress (now sitting at 81k, oy vey). I’m close(r) to finishing it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some decent coin with freelance editing projects, trying to get over a rather nasty tooth extraction, and Early Summer. It’s already 90 degrees here in South Carolina, and spring is gone for another year. My yard projects are about to become downright hellish, but once they’re done…they’ll be DONE.

If they get done. Book first.

See you guys next month!

Bethlehem Steel

For the past week, I’ve been up north visiting family. My great aunt passed away, and we traveled up to Pennsylvania to intern her ashes and scatter my grandfather’s. It’s not often I get to visit with my extended family—they’re scattered between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I live all the way down in South Carolina. It was a rare chance to see old places, and since our trip up to Jonestown, PA was less than two hours from Bethlehem, we carved out time for a side trip so I could go snap some pictures.

Nineteen years ago, Bethlehem was home. We moved in July of 1995, and the last time I visited was fourteen years ago. Bethlehem Steel officially ceased operations in 1995 after 140 years of operation. In August of 2000, I walked with an old friend through downtown Bethlehem at night, carefully herded as she warned me to stay close. It wasn’t the Bethlehem that I remembered, and as I took my old home in, the germ of a story took shape in my mind.

There are a number of towns in the Rust Belt that have crumbled under the weight of a broken economy and never recovered. I imagined a city that continued to spiral, its dark, dead heart ripe for an opportunistic madman and what roughly amounted to a terrorist cell. It took many years and two drafts for me to really learn about the characters involved and the conflict that drove them, but it was never a story I thought I could publish.

And then I fell in love with YA, and I realized my story had a home.

For almost three years, I’ve been weaving this story about a girl, her truest friend, and the person she loves most, all trapped at the center of an ancient war. There are numerous settings I’m attached to within the story, but the one I love most is Bethlehem Steel. Research brought me to Shaun O’Boyle’s photographic essay, shot in 2006. The images are downright haunting. Here was the city I imagined, an industrial powerhouse that was once a symbol, now crippled, crumbling, and hollow. The more I dug, the more it took shape in my head. Thankfully, there are a number of photographers and hobbyists who have provided enough photographs and information for me to map a place I’d never walked through.

Until this past Sunday.

Bethlehem was still three and a half hours from our last destination in New Jersey, and we’d been on the road since eleven that morning. I had roughly an hour to capture as much of the remaining steel mill as I could. It took a bit of circling around the city to find it, and along the way I captured a couple of photos.

Southside BethlehemSouthside Bethlehem

Founded in 1857, Bethlehem Steel produced steel for New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and steel for ships during World War II. The heart of South Side Bethlehem is Bethlehem Steel, and it was resurrected in 2009 with the introduction of a new casino. Today, the site is now an arts and entertainment district renamed SteelStacks, home to the casino, a performing arts center, and three outdoor concert stages. We followed the buses and a crowd to the stacks, and once I spotted the entrance, I was so excited I leaped out of the car with neither purse nor phone, only my camera. I broke a flipflop, but it couldn’t stop me, because I recognized everything I saw.

Iron foundry

Iron foundry - back

The iron foundry was a bit different from the photos I studied, but from its relative position to the stacks, I had a rough guess of what it was. I continued on, snapping pictures as I went.

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Somewhere far past these buildings is the site of the climax of AMoA—not sure if it’s still there. It’ll have to wait for another trip, I suppose…

And then I found the engine house.

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I was so thrilled to find this place! It was blocked off by a partition, so I couldn’t see into it very well, but I could still make out the tops of the engine flywheels.

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There was an exhibit of one, which I photographed from a half dozen angles.

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If you think these are big, the engines are even bigger. They had to be, to help provide power for the stacks!

Engine house - front

The cool thing about the engine house? This is where chapter 1 takes place! I wasn’t able to get to the other side of the engine house or continue down to check out the other end—I was phoneless and at this point had lost my family in my excitement, not a wise idea—but I was able to properly map out in my head which direction Eid had run from and how far he’d had to go. I also discovered a number of new details I couldn’t make out from photographs, like the ridge of the railway line running alongside the stacks. I’d known it was high, but I didn’t understand HOW high until I was standing right next to it. The corridor I’d put together from photographs was no longer there, but I had a rough approximation of what it might have looked like, years ago.

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While I couldn’t explore the mill as thoroughly as I would have liked, it was absolutely thrilling to be in a place I’d pieced together in my head. I felt like I’d entered my story and gotten a chance to walk around inside it. If the mill hadn’t been renovated, I’m not sure I would have been able to. It was a great relief to discover that a once abandoned industrial symbol had found new life.

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Musikfest was vastly different compared to the last time I visited, but you really can’t beat listening to live bands echoing off of enormous steel stacks. If you ever have the opportunity, go. The novelty of the site alone is worth the trip, and I’m immensely glad I made it.

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Well, that’s all I’ve got for this trip. It was definitely an eventful one—I got to see my grandfather’s childhood home and visit his favorite creek. Jonestown is strikingly similar to some of my favorite places much further south in the Blue Ridge, and I missed him quite a bit when I saw it. He’d often told me about walking through the woods at night and what it was like growing up on a farm, and it was wonderful to put a place to a name. Perhaps Jonestown will end up in a story or two.

I’ve got some plans for a blog series this upcoming fall, so stay posted! Thanks for reading, and I hoped you enjoyed it. Kris Reisz referred me to the Sloss Furnaces out in Birmingham, and since I also have family out in Louisiana, Birmingham is right along the way. Hopefully I’ll have more steel mill adventures soon. If I do, you’ll know where to look 🙂