Learning to say yes instead of oh-no.
This is my lesson for today as Christmas Day festivities avalanche my plans, causing me and thousands of travelers who’ve had to wait-out the storm to make lemonade out of lemons.
My beloved van. Fixed.
When I picked her up yesterday after a two-week, new, -all-German-parts transmission makeover, the mechanic warned me not to drive very far away: “It’s possible it needs some adjustments.”
My eyes turned into those plastic googly eyes you buy at Michaels.
“Can I drive down to Anza-Borrego or up to the Central Coast?” I asked, excited about my upcoming #VanLife plan to leave the South Bay post-Christmas.
“Nooo,” he cautioned. “Just drive it around town. Put 500 miles on it and bring it back to the shop.”
Drive it around town? 500 miles touring the South Bay?
“But you know I sold my home, that my van is my cabin on wheels?” I reminded him.
“Part of the adventure,” he said, chuckling, one VW Eurovan Camper owner to another. “Expect the unexpected.”
I think it’s time for a divorce, that’s what I think.
But having invested close to $20,000 this year alone into this wonderful, costly old beast, I want to at least get my money’s worth out of her for a few more months before the divorce is final.
New van conversions are well over $100,000. You see my quandary.
What to do, what to do?
It was dark when I picked up Luna Bella Blu. I threw everything I’ve been traveling with from the Forester into the van; no organization, no sense of Zen, and I was immediately stressed out. When I turned on the lights, it looked like an 8.1 earthquake hit; pretty much everything in the van toppled over during the tow ride from Malibu to Hermosa. In addition to the bruised chaos, there were gifts to be wrapped, an e-bike stretching across the center, knotted-up clothes, a tent, burly winter sleeping bag, and Monet’s stuff; there was no way I could go to the storage unit and sort things out, besides the facility is way too dark and creepy. Even if I did attempt to organize, where could I overnight camp?
I started to feel sorry for myself. It’s Christmas. The music. The smiles. The fireplace. The Christmas tree. And here I am, back “home” and there’s no room at the inn, no family who can provide shelter for a couple of nights before Christmas.
I realize that my problems are nothing compared to real problems, like illness, financial despair, loss, and other actual misfortunes, but that feeling of having nowhere to go in a place you’ve always been, is pretty rotten.
As I spoke to my cousin and sister about the situation, they were sympathetic but had no solution because they, too, are couch-surfing at a relative’s home as they wait for their house to be remodeled. This, by the way, is the fixer-upper that was supposed to be finished in December, a place The Three Amigos are eventually going to live our Best Life Ever, but for various reasons the project house remains a project.
So, at 6 p.m. I decided, damn it, life is too short, stop being ridiculous, spend the bloody money and book another two nights at the Portofino Hotel, my new pricey address in the South Bay. The next day and the next, I’ll drive around town, log as many miles on the van as can and have a nice place to sleep.
Done. Charge it.
To celebrate my new and improved perspective, I decided to do something I have never done in my life: order room service. I got into my cozy PJs, turned on “The Crown”, and Monet and I felt like a couple of princesses.
When my Marina Margarita and truffle fries arrived, bra-less, pajamaed-me cracked open the door so that Monet wouldn’t dash out, and the server offered to place the tray on a desk in my room.
“Ms. Barker, do you remember me?” he said, grinning.
This is my fear. Always. That I see a former student when I’m looking my worst. When I’m buying alcohol. When I’m alone, feeling melancholy.
“Of course, I do,” I said to the tall, pony-tailed barer of tonight’s meal. “How are you?”
I wanted to hug him, but the germ thing, the no bra thing, the holding the tray thing, prevented me from such a greeting.
“Oh my gosh,” I said, glancing at the Saran-wrapped margarita, “this is my first time ever ordering room service. And who should deliver it to me—you!”
I was embarrassed by my indulgence and embarrassed at having a former student serve me. It felt like it should be the other way around.
Now in his early 30s, strapping and handsome as ever, I fondly remembered DJ as a loving, happy student. Despite challenges at home, he always tried his best, fought hard to learn, and remains was one of the kindest, intuitive students I ever had in 18 years teaching middle school. When I was DJ’s teacher, I was an uncertain, fledgling educator, who made way too many mistakes; but even then, I sensed that DJ had my back as I had his. And now here he was, holding a tray, handing me a bill (oh, silly novice room service me had no idea I had to pay for the service; I thought it would be put on my tab) and smiling in the exact same way he did when he was 13.
I wondered; how in the world did he recognize me? How did I recognize him? But we do, don’t we? When someone touches our heart, we don’t forget them; we see beyond the wrinkles and window dressings of age and connect to each other’s wounded, hopeful souls.
And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what the season, really every moment throughout the year, is supposed to be about. All the doodads, all the credit card splurges, don’t matter an iota. What counts, what I’m learning to dwell on thanks to the circumstances of my life, are connections that extend beyond a rectangular classroom or an address you’ve had for 30 years or friendships you’ve had for decades even though you haven’t spoken to that person for years or the kindness of a niece who welcomes you and your sick pup to stay with them while your van gets fixed, is love. Love of life, love of the Earth, love for the Almighty and all Her creatures, love for all of who are wounded and lost, abundantly grounded and found.
In this beautiful hotel, a beautiful two days before Christmas, sans grandchildren, sans all the traditions that once defined my life, I plant myself in a garden of yeses, a place where driving 500 miles in an area I grew up continues to produce a bounty of unexpected encounters and insights.
Who would ever think? Who could make this up? That at this time last year, I would be here and not there? That I would meet DJ. That he would serve me, would bring me such joy and solemnity.
The twists and turns that happen—to all of us—create opportunity—hope—for a new beginning.. Lewis Carroll, one of my family’s Cheshire neighbors from long ago, said it best: “Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.”
Cheers to broken vans, broken hearts and broken plans. If it wasn’t for you, I would never have met-up with dear DJ, the father of two, and I bet one of the best dads in the world. Heart of gold, that boy. Paying it forward. Doing his best. Like all of us.
God bless you DJ, and all my former students. Sending love and hope your way.