Shift 40: Diner

drivehome04

At the end of summer, when Deon came to pick me up to drive me back to YOTO, I asked him if we could stop and eat at the diner on our way home.

“You know, like a tradition,” I said.

“Sure,” he replied. “You and me, we’re getting a lot of traditions.”

When we sat down, he looked at me hard.

“You sure you’re OK?” he asked.

“Fine!” I replied. “Never better!” Of course I didn’t fool him.

drivehome03

I told him I’d been sick over the summer, but that Ted took care of me, and I’ve been resting up, so I’ll be ready for cross country season in a few weeks.

“You’re thin,” he said. “Athletes need to be strong. Don’t train so hard that you just waste away to nothing.”

drivehome01

I told him I was fine. I’d learned my lesson. I’m actually not sure if I’ll be able to compete this fall. And I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to run in the spring, either. I’ve heard sometimes of athletes who get run down and never really recover.

But the weird thing is I’m not upset about it. I might not run track. I might never break another record. I might lose my athletic scholarship, not be able to get an academic scholarship, and wind up not going to college.

I’m honestly OK with that. I’m alive.

I didn’t tell all that to Deon. I just sat there and listened to him going on about nutrition and rest and life-balance, and I just enjoyed the sound of his voice and they way he gets this intense look when he’s really going on about something.

“Are you happy with your life, Deon?” I asked him.

drivehome02

He thought for a minute.

“I accept my life,” he said. “I’ve come to learn that now and then, a happy moment comes. And when it does, I let it in. And then it goes, and another moment comes. That’s it. That’s how I live.”

drivehome13

I wondered if I agreed with him. Since my illness, I’ve been so focused on the simple joy of being alive that nothing seems to matter. If the sun shines on me, I’m happy. If my heart beats, I’m happy. If I breathe, I’m happy.

“Don’t spend all your life chasing rainbows,” Deon said.

drivehome12

“I’m not,” I told him. “I’m letting them chase me.”

We started reminiscing.

“Remember when I first met you and you told me you were a college student doing research?” he asked. “You were like fourteen! I’d never seen such a kid before!”

drivehome11

“I felt so old, back then!” I said. “I thought for sure I had everyone fooled!”

“You really tried to be tough,” said Deon.

“I was so tough!” I laughed. “I was so tough on the outside, but underneath, I was too scared to even let myself be terrified!”

drivehome10

“I know,” Deon said. “I was there, right?”

We laughed about all the good times we had. I remember mornings when Deon would stop by my camp and we’d dance while the sun rose.

“Why were you so nice to me?” I asked. “And even now! Why are you still so nice?”

“You know when you asked if I’m happy with my life?” Deon said. “Like I’ve said, I’ve got moments. And seeing you, how everything’s working out for you, and you’ve got a place to stay and you’re getting things lined up for a future, that brings me real happiness.”

drivehome09

“I can’t ever repay you!” I said.

“You don’t have to! This is me, repaying my debt!”

drivehome08

He went on to tell me more about his younger years. I knew he’d been a homeless kid, like me. And I knew that Ted and other guys had helped him out along the way.

But I didn’t know that for a few years, an old woman took him in. He was like the groundskeeper, and she was like his landlord, only more. This was during the time when he was getting his GED.

“If it hadn’t been for Betty,” he said, “I never could have done it. Everyone I ever met helped me a lot. But there was this big gap between me and society, and I couldn’t figure out how to bridge it. Ted helped–but he couldn’t show me how to bridge it. He’d already dropped out by then. Everybody I met who was homeless like me couldn’t help. They didn’t know how to bridge it themselves. But Betty took me in. She needed someone to take care of her garden and her home. I could do that. And she was a retired teacher. She showed me how fill in all the blanks I couldn’t figure out.”

drivehome07

“She sounds really nice,” I said.

“She was,” he said. “I loved her. I loved her more than a mom. She was beautiful. She was old, but she had this glow about her. True beauty. I mean, I was a kid, and she was an older woman. But man. Sometimes. If I’d been born in a different time.”

drivehome06

I realized that I loved Deon as he said that. He and Ted and Aadhya, they were almost everything to me. They were family. We weren’t related by blood, but we were bound by something stronger. Maybe it was karma.

“Do you know what I mean?” Deon asked.

I felt like I was full of something golden: butter and sugar and sunlight, all spun together.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know exactly what you mean.”

drivehome05

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Shift 38: Another Summer

summer01

When summer came, Deon drove me up to the mountains again. He told knock-knock jokes the whole drive. Usually, his laughter’s contagious, and even if I don’t find his jokes funny, I find him funny. But maybe it was the long drive. I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt a little off and worn out, actually.

Deon stuck around for the weekend. He introduced me to the new ranger, who’s graduated with an environmental science degree from USM.

summer02

He said that USM students do a lot of field work up here, so if I specialize in forest ecosystems, I’d be coming up a lot, too.

“You really ought to think about going into forest management,” he said. “That’s where the jobs are.”

But I’m not into the going to school for the jobs. I really do want to study plant genetics, just like I pretended all those years ago when I first met Deon at Oasis Springs National Park.

summer03

I figure I’ll use the summer to do some of my own investigations on genetic variations in the high alpine plant communities. You don’t need fancy equipment to study genetics. All you need is a good eye, the ability to notice trends, and accurate measurements and record-keeping.

I want to make every second count this summer. If I’m not doing field work, I want to be training. The high altitude will be great for developing speed, strength, and greater lung capacity.

And if I’m not training or doing field work, I want to study with Ted, so he can teach me more folk uses of the wild herbs. I’ve got so much to learn!

summer04

Deon left to head back to work. “Don’t be so hyper focused all the time,” he said. “Take it easy a bit, too! Remember it’s your summer vacation!”

He gave me a jar of Ted’s favorite pepperoncinis to deliver, told me he’d see me after Labor Day, and off he went, driving back to the gardens of the low lands.

And I headed up to the wilderness of the high country.

summer05

It felt like coming home.

Like I expected, Ted was out wildcrafting when I arrived, but he left me a note, telling me to make myself at home, and saying that he was looking forward to seeing me somewhere around my birthday.

I’m gonna be 17 this summer.

summer06

What a luxury to have the place to myself!

I slept well, ate a lot, and of course, I kept up my training.

summer07

After a week or so, I was out in the meadow doing yoga when this weird feeling came over me.

I felt empty.

I figured it must be one of those spiritual things that always seem to happen to me when I come up here.

But it felt weird. It was sort of pleasant, but I couldn’t really feel my body. I just felt really, really empty, and really, really tired. I sort of felt exhausted.

summer08

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Shift 36: Jenny

jrjenny03

I could tell from Britney’s face that she meant what she’d told me earlier: She’s got really big news for me.

When she called to tell me that she had everything in order for me to be Jenny Trevalyn again, all I needed to do was to sign a few papers, she also said that she had discovered something. She had big news.

“Who do you want to bring with you for moral support?” she asked.

Moral support? I supposed there was only one person for that. I called up Deon and asked if he could meet us as the restaurant.

jrjenny04

She was jubilant when we arrived, so I assumed the big news was good news.

I looked through my Twitter account–I could open a new one, I realized, under my real name. Or maybe, I could see if I could change the name associated with this one.

jrjenny01

“Did you really get everything set up?” I asked her.

jrjenny05

“I did!” she said. Then she launched into a big long story that I couldn’t even follow. There were so many trips to attorneys’ offices, and stops by offices of public records, and so many forms that had to be filled out, but she said it was all “a piece of cake.”

jrjenny06

“And the timing is really perfect, Jazz,” she said.

She went on to explain that spring semester of junior year is the best time to get the whole identity thing straightened out.

“Coaches will be watching you during track season,” she said, “and you’ll be fielding offers! And of course, there are your school transcripts. We get it all set now, and it’s smooth sailing during senior year as you get ready for the final transition to college!”

jrjenny02

“You’re gonna do it!” Deon said. “I’m so proud of you. No GED for you! No community college for you! You’re graduating high school and going straight to university!”

I looked up the Twitter page of University of San Myshuno, which is where I’m hoping to go. It’s funny–I was just getting to the point that when I dream, I let myself dream. I finally stopped being paranoid that nothing good would ever happen anymore.

jrjenny07

“So that’s the good news,” Britney said. “But that’s not all the news. I found out more.”

My dreams screeched to a halt.

Why is it terrifying to see someone pause before speaking?

jrjenny08

I tried stalling her.

“So, before we move on,” I said, “I couldn’t quite follow all the steps you told me before. Can we go through it again, and this time I’ll write it down?”

So she reiterated all that I had left to do, which was really nothing but sign a few things, like she’d said, and she’d take care of filing everything.

jrjenny09

“I met a lot of people,” she said. “Your grandmother was one beloved lady.”

This, I knew. Britney shared with Deon that everyone she met in our old town knew of her and spoke highly of her. I wasn’t surprised, of course. I know Gran was loved.

jrjenny10

But it felt weird and sort of giddy to hear people talking about her. I hadn’t even mentioned her–not as a real person with a real name, Guadalupe Cisneros–for years.

jrjenny11

“Your grandmother sounds like a beautiful person,” Deon said. “And I’m not a bit surprised, for she raised you, didn’t she?”

“Yeah,” I said to Deon. And I realized that he’d never told me about his family, too. Maybe he never would. When you go through what we’ve been through, me and Deon and the kids at YOTO, sometimes it means a clean break from the past. Stories sit inside, untold. The people of the past become ghosts within us, haunting us still, but never to be talked about. We carry on layers of “former” into the present, and sometimes we forget who we are for not knowing who we were.

jrjenny12

“There’s more,” Britney said. “I met people who know all your family.”

She went on to tell about meeting my grandmother’s attorney, who told her the “big news.” It was about Scott.

“You know how you were worried about your uncle?” she said. I could tell she was trying to break it to me softly, but I was already so emotional and nervous that I don’t think there was any “soft” way to hit me with a two-by-four. “You don’t have to be worried anymore.”

I just looked at her.

“He passed away, two years ago. He got in a fatal auto accident.” She looked away.

Deon said something. I couldn’t hear it. I just heard his voice–or felt it, really. That warmth that is his voice.

Uncle Scott was dead.

jrjenny13

“Are you OK, Jazzie?” Deon asked.

I didn’t know what to feel. I felt relief, of course. But I also felt mad. Two years when I could’ve been Jenny, stolen from me.

“Why do I feel sad?” I asked Deon. I’d hated my uncle when he was alive. I’d wished I was a boy so I could kill him. Sometimes, on dark nights, I thought of plans of finding him, when I’d grown up, and killing him anyway. I wasn’t going to do it. I’d met too many people whose hearts were full of love to go down that path. But that didn’t keep me from thinking of it on nights when I couldn’t sleep.

Deon said, “Of course you’re sad, honey. You can hate somebody and wish them dead. Then when it happens, you still feel sad.”

“I’m really all alone now,” I whispered.

jrjenny14

There were so many more words. I sort of tuned them out.

Britney had lots of condolences, of course, and there were so many details, still. But it came down to Uncle Scott was dead.

Britney talked on, and I zoned out.

I heard her saying something with excitement when I finally tuned back in.

“It’s not a fortune, but it’s plenty!” she said.

“That’s amazing!” said Deon.

I was still in a daze.

jrjenny16

It turns out that Gran’s estate was never fully settled, and with Uncle Scott dead, I’m the beneficiary, and the attorney was just sort of sitting on everything, hoping I’d show up or something.

So I got some money coming to me when I turn 18. It’s not a lot. But it’s enough to help out with college, in case the scholarships don’t cover everything. And there might even be some left over, to help with a house or something some day.

I don’t know what to feel. I’m just numb, I guess. I mean, it should be good news. I can be Jenny without worrying about Scott finding me. I’ve got a small inheritance. It’s big news, but some of it is good news. Something good comes from every something bad. That’s what Gran always said. I should be feeling relief. I should be feeling good. It’s just that I’m the only one left. I didn’t really want Scott dead. I just wanted him to leave me alone.

jrjenny18

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Shift 27: Anatta

shift2801

Summer ended and Deon came to pick me up. We stopped at a diner in a little town at the edge of the foothills.

“Tell me all about your summer!” Deon said. Instead, I asked him about his Power Walk.

shift2802

“That was such a long time ago,” he said. He got quiet for a long time, and I watched him remembering.

“OK,” he said at last. “So I was different person before then, and a different person when I got back. I was more like the me you know now when I got back.”

“Who were you before?” I asked.

shift2803

“I was one mean dude,” he said. “I used to get in fights. I used to talk rough and act rougher. I was hell-bent to be locked up by the time I was twenty.”

I found that hard to believe.

shift2810

But Deon insisted. It was that one summer with Ted that changed him. He did see visions on his Power Walk. Of course, Ted had stuffed a bag full of peyote pellets into Deon’s backpack, so that probably hadn’t hurt.

He didn’t describe to me any of the visions, but he said they were powerful and they changed his fundamental understanding of the nature of reality and his place in it.

“I suddenly saw that I had a larger role in creating my experience of existence than I had ever imagined.”

shift2809

From there, our conversation naturally drifted to talking about creating our own futures. Deon told me how when he got back from that summer, he took his GED and enrolled in community college. Horticulture came easy to him, after all the training Ted had given him.

He asked me what I wanted to be.

Before I even thought it through, I blurted out “a botanist” because it’s what I’ve wanted ever since I pretended to be one, so foolishly, back when I first went to the park at Oasis Springs.

“It’s time for us to start researching colleges, then,” Ted said. “Junior year. That’s the time to start making decisions.”

“Oh. I forgot,” I said. “I’m not going to college.”

“But you can’t become a botanist without,” he said. “Besides, I know your mind. You won’t be satisfied until you do.”

“But I can’t,” I said. I told him that to go to college, I’d need an identity. I’d need a birth certificate, and social security card, and high school transcripts in my actual name, and I’d need all of that to fill out my FAFSA and even to apply to the local community college.

I told him that Aadhya thought I should use my birth name.

“Are you afraid to?” he asked.

And I realized, no. I wasn’t afraid to anymore. I wasn’t afraid of my uncle. I knew I had something–some kind of strength, and it would protect me, and Aadhya was right, we could get a restraining order, if we needed to.

“Then what is it?” Deon asked.

What was it?

“I’m not Jenny,” I said. It hit me hard. It was Jenny that I had lost through all these years.

shift2806

I wept. Sitting right there in the diner with Deon, while the waitress stood at the end of the counter, holding the pot of coffee in mid-air, I cried like there was no tomorrow. I cried like there was no yesterday. I cried like I hadn’t ever once let myself cry before.

“Jenny’s dead,” I said when I could finally talk.

shift2807

“What do you mean?” asked Deon.

“I’m not Jenny anymore,” I said. And I cried again. I cried for all I’d lost. For Gran. For my years as a normal teen track star. For all the nights when I was too scared and too alone to cry. For being called names. For having to run. For my stupid uncle. For my mom and dad. I cried for all of them. And mostly, I cried for Jenny Trevalyn.

“I don’t feel like her anymore,” I told Deon. “I’ve changed.  I can’t feel who she is.”

Deon looked at me in silence for a long time. I stopped crying and looked back at him. I saw something in him. I felt something in me.

shift2808

“Do you know the Buddhist concept of not-self?” he asked me.

I didn’t.

“In Buddhism,” he continued, “there’s the realization that there’s no fixed sense of self. Our experience of ourselves shifts and changes through time. For a while, I might have some thoughts, and I might think, ‘These thoughts are me.’ Wrong. What happens when the thoughts are gone? Or maybe I think my body is me. It changes at a cellular level every moment. What about my feelings or emotions? Those change, too. My roles? No. What is there that doesn’t change? There is no unchanging identity. No fixed self.”

“But there’s this point of experience,” I said. “There’s this spot of awareness watching it all.”

“That there is,” he said.

shift2804

“That point doesn’t have a name!” I said.

“No,” he replied. “It doesn’t.”

“So. Jenny is just a convenience.”

“A label.”

“A container!”

“A ticket that gets you in a door.”

shift2805

I had to think about that one. I still have to think it over. But I think I might be finding my way towards getting to be Jenny Trevalyn again, at least on paper. On my college application.

shift2811

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Shift 7: Free

I’ve been keeping my focus on what I’ve got.

shift711

I try not to think about what I’ve lost.

shift712

I’m thinking about what I’ve got.

I got the desert. I can run for miles every day.

I’ve got prickly pears and barrel cactus and saguaros that give me sweet fruit to harvest.

I’ve got leftovers in the lounge I can grill up when I need protein.

I got passes to Deon’s spa when I want a hot shower.

I got a cot to sleep on and a camp that I can use.

I’ve got friends, and they don’t ask questions, and they let me be.

shift713

I’ve got freedom.

You don’t get freedom like this when you live with parents or grandparents. You sure don’t get it when you’re in Child Protective Services, and you don’t get it in foster care or group homes.

You get freedom like this when you’re on your own.

shift701

I don’t think about what I’ve lost.

I think about what I’ve got.

I get to sleep in the desert air.

shift702

I get to eat barbecue every day.

shift703

I don’t think about what I’ve lost.

I’ve lost a lot. If I were to start listing it, I’d realize just how much my life has changed.

shift704

I lost my home. I lost my grandma. I lost my parents. I lost my friends. I lost my spot on the track team. I lost my 4.0 grade average. I lost my future and I lost my past.

Man, I didn’t know that you had to lose so much to gain freedom.

shift705

I’m not thinking about what I lost.

I gained a friend.

shift706

Deon checks in on me pretty often.

Sometimes, if he finishes his work early, he’ll stop by camp.

He likes to dance up there on the bluff. He brings me batteries for my boombox and he’ll bring his favorite CDs and we’ll dance up there while the gray hawks call.

We were dancing to Prince the other day, “Still Would Stand All Time.” I love that old song.

“Dance it like you mean it,” Deon said.

shift707

I looked at him. He was getting down and singing. “Leave your paaast behiiind….”

And I couldn’t help but smile, getting my life lessons from a Rock God Who’s Crossed the Rainbow Bridge and a gardener who’s been there, right where I been and moved out of it.

I’ve lost so much. But look what I’ve gained.

shift708

We were dancing to “New Power Generation (pt 2)” when Yuki joined us.

“Just making a general announcement,” she said, “to the world in general. School sucks. That’s the announcement. We now return to our regularly scheduled show, Dancing with the Dork-Heads.”

shift709

I tried to joke her out of her bad mood. But Deon took a different approach.

He said that yeah, sometimes dealing with other people sucks. Sometimes when you gotta follow rules or listen to people who think they know what’s best for you, that it feels like you’re losing your freedom.

He said sometimes school makes you feel like you’re nobody in a world of somebodies.

Then he said something that shot right inside of me. He said, “When you got people that care for you, and you got a place in society all set up for you, then sometimes, you see all the ways that they impinge upon you. It feels like it sucks. But when you don’t got that, and all you got is yourself in the big wide world, then you realize how lucky it is to be able to have that spot where you belong. Freedom comes at a price,” he said. “And it’s a pretty steep one.”

I know he knows it, too. He’s been there.

shift710

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AN: What they were dancing to…

Love you Prince.