Friday, May 2, 2008

Reclaiming Arizona

Did you know that I used to live in Arizona?

Some of the people I today consider my closest friends may not even know that. Or they perhaps have only a vague recollection of that fact: an interesting anecdote about their Toronto-based friend. Wife. Mother.

I first stepped on Arizona soil 16 years ago. I was in the middle of a two- month road trip across the United States with a (platonic) male friend. The minute I crossed the state line I felt something special. I felt moved by the red rocks and wild horses and endless sky.

“Life’s too short not to live in Arizona,”
I announced to my boyfriend when I got home. He believed me. And for the next year and a half we saved and planned and researched and I dreamed of ancient canyons and blooming sage.

In June of 1994 we sold all of our possessions, jumped into a jeep convertible and started to drive. We had no jobs, no green cards and very little money. When we hit Phoenix five days later I remember being hot, tried and disoriented. But I had never felt more alive.

Carving out a life was hard. The very first night we huddled beneath the sheets in our cheap hotel room when the junkies came banging at the door, cursing and demanding we let them in. The next night a man lighting a crack pipe veered my way and fell into me as I talked to my mother on a pay phone, assuring her that everything was fine.

Eventually it was. We left the first neighborhood within days and found one that was livable. Our apartment cost $390 a month. It was one room with a Murphy Bed and sometimes we would find cockroaches, more than two inches long, that had inexplicably died on our kitchen floor. Once we found a dead scorpion almost twice as large.

We secured illegal jobs right away. I started work as a nanny and tourist guide for two preteen girls that were visiting their divorced father from out-of-state for the summer. My boyfriend hung around in front of a convenience store with Mexicans every day, waiting to be picked up by landscapers who worked him like a dog in the summer sun and paid $7 an hour cash before dropping him off at the end of the day. He always got picked first. He was white.

In the evenings we cooked our food on the barbecue grills found throughout the apartment grounds, swam in the pool and talked about how we’d make our fortune and build a huge hacienda in the desert.

In the fall we moved to a better apartment complex with a bigger pool and more barbecue grills. We joked that we lived at Melrose Place though we had never been so poor. We sold aluminum cans to recycling centers to get by. I got another job as a nanny for a wealthy family with two boys, one biological, one adopted. The adopted one had been abused as a baby and his rage and confusion was destroying the family that was trying to nurture him.

I joined a writer’s group. My boyfriend started playing trumpet for a ska band that quickly became a local sensation.

We had countless visitors from Canada and I beamed with pride as I showed them my Arizona. We visited Flagstaff and Tucson and Tombstone. On weekends we would go camping in the desert.

My best friend Julie who was living in Los Angeles at the time became suddenly, gravely ill. With one day’s notice I drove all night to a hospital in North Hollywood to hold her hand. I thanked God that I was living in Arizona and able to make it just hours before she died.

I lost my job as a nanny when the younger boy I was minding was made a ward of the state after his family determined they couldn’t control his increasingly violent and disturbing behavior. He was ten. I got a new job, baby-sitting for a family who lived in an apartment complex down the street. I admired their neat-as-a-pin surroundings until I learned the mother was a meta-amphetamine addict who cleaned it frantically when high.

I published some articles in the local newspapers. I interviewed two of Canada’s most popular bands Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip when they passed through. I organized a Terry Fox Run for cancer research, Arizona’s first. I met a lot of Canadians and reflected on what fine people they were.

I thought about moving back - a lot.

My boyfriend became a minor celebrity when his ska band started to hit it big but their success was nerve-wracking because local white supremacists targeted his racially-integrated band and started to cause trouble at shows. I was tired all the time. I tried to make all his gigs, but I rose at 6 a.m. to begin work. On the nights I couldn’t go, he stayed out later and later. One night he didn’t come home at all.

He knew he loved me but he wasn’t sure he was in love with me anymore. I moped for a few days before announcing I would return home immediately to spend time with my family which appeared to be faltering under its own stresses. I couldn’t hold it together if I stayed and I’d be damned if he’d see me weak and needy. After I left we’d see who loved who. Who needed who.

He drove with me to Vancouver and then snuck back across the border while I continued on to Ontario. I planned to make lots of money all summer and return in the fall, flush and confident. We’d start over.

We drove out of Phoenix in the early evening almost a year to the day after we drove in. As the lights of the city receded behind me I burst into uncontrollable tears. Arizona had been my idea, my dream. Why was I leaving? Why did he get to stay? I hated him. I hated Arizona. My heart was breaking - I think I knew I wasn’t coming back.

We broke up over the phone three and a half weeks after I returned home. I barely noticed. My family was indeed faltering and it was worse than I imagined.

I moved to Toronto. My life over the next year was all about survival and parts of it are still a blur. By 1997 I started to feel like my old self. I got a good job and my family started to heal. I cut off all contact with my ex and put away Arizona out of my mind.

It’s been 13 years since I returned to Canada and I rarely talk about Arizona anymore. Sometimes I talk to Rob in vague terms about returning, about wanting to show him where I lived and laughed and made plans to build my hacienda. But I’ve stopped dreaming about red rocks and wild horses and the mysteries of the desert. I’ve stopped waking with the smell of sage in my nostrils and an unbearable yearning in my chest.

But do you know what the damn difficult thing is about leaving your wildness behind and getting older?

It’s the reduction of youthful experiences and passions to mere anecdotes. It’s the quiet knowledge that however full your life is, there will always be, must always be, roads not traveled, dreams not fulfilled.

It’s being forced to accept that life is long and as a result some parts of you will always be unknowable to the people who love you and call you friend. Wife. Mother.

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60 comments:

Dawn said...

You've had such an interesting life. I remember with great fondness my own little "Melrose Place" apartment and sleeping in a Murphy bed- my first place. I was also a nanny long ago.

Mary Lynn said...

Really enjoying your writing and your thoughtful insights the last couple of weeks. Glad to have stumbled upon your blog.

flutter said...

Anytime you want to come to Scottsdale, you have an open invite at my house.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

How wonderful that you took a leap to live your dream.

painted maypole said...

there are things in our past that are sometimes hard to give up, even when they weren't all that great at the time. i know. you've said this beautifully.

we honeymooned in phoenix and 5 years later conceived our daughter there, so it holds a special place in my heart

KathyLikesPink said...

My Arizona was San Francisco.

A lovely post. A lovelier phot.

LaskiGal said...

What an experience. My Arizona was Chicago . . .

"It’s the reduction of youthful experiences and passions to mere anecdotes." So true.

A friend and I had a similar discussion about who we were, who we are, and who we want to be (still). It is crazy to think that often people only know parts of who you are and often never know who you once were. Crazy . . . we live in bits and pieces.

Love your words . . . love, love them.

La La said...

Beautifully written.

I love how you capture your life in words.

Mental P Mama said...

Beautiful post. I have a feeling that you bring Arizona with you wherever you go.

Momma said...

This post (and the one about Julie) took my breath away. There is nothing quite like that life you have before marriage and kids and housekeeping. I remember my salad days fondly - when I made some bad decisions that, even so, took me down some interesting roads.

It's a testament to your strength and fortitude that you have done all of these things, and that you survived the death of your best friend and still honor her though she's been gone so long. I think it's all that any of us can hope for, to be remembered.

Peace - D

oda41143 Missy said...

How brave you were to follow your dreams and take the risk to go to Arizona. I'm way too big of a chicken. I have an entire life full of dreams that will never come true because I am one of those people who follow the straight and narrow path. I need to break away from the group evey now and then. I think that you may have inspired me. Thank you.

E said...

Okay, but then you get a little bit older still. The demads of little children recede and you get some of the old wanderlust back and this time the adventures are padded with better finances and less psychic drama.
Once a diva always a diva. There is more of this old stuff coming at you. I am just far enough ahead to know for sure.....
Beautiful story well told.....

Abbie said...

That was probably the most awesome post I have ever read of yours. What memories....

dkuroiwa said...

This was a wonderful post! I find it totally amazing that, when we are going through something (like you did when you first moved down there) and you do what you have to just to survive....then years later, when looking back...it's like "oh my God! how did I do that?!?!"...or at least it's that way with me.
Someone told me a long time ago..."what you're doing right now, is what you are supposed to be doing." There are some things in life that we were destined to experience!! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!!

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

Yes, sometimes I envy people who have married their teen sweethearts (I mean, as they got older), because they don't have to leave whole chunks of their lives (and themselves) "behind."

Are You Serious! said...

♡ Great post! Wonderfully written and fun to read about that part of your life!

Momma Mary said...

Great Post! It reminds me a bit of a country song.. "There is no Arizona." Or something to that effect.

My Arizona only existed in thoughts and plans. It was Colorado, and a sign language interpreter career. I think about it alot. Mostly when I hear music on the radio and just WANT to sign every word. I've forgotten a lot of the sign launguage I learned. It's kind of sad, but at the same time, not so much.

Mandy said...

What a great memory to have, even if it's not all wonderful. I lived overseas for 6 years (Tunisia, Mexico and Thailand) and I miss it as much as I love my life now.

Tara R. said...

Such a beautiful story. Every moment in our lives adds to who we are. Arizona is and will always be a part of who you are.

David said...

Amazing story. Our travels, our loves, our friends then defines us now. and clearly a piece of you has that flavor from Arizona, and the people along the journey.
Well written as you always do. I so admire your "voice"

THopgood said...

Wow! What an interesting life you've had! Great post!

Karen MEG said...

That will always be a part of you, your experiences make you what you are today. It's wonderful that you had that in you, to pick up and go somewhere you wanted to go, just to try something new, even outrageous in your life. You'll always have this to look back on and to share as stories with Graham. He will love to hear them.

I didn't know any of my own mother's (pre-marriage and kids) world travel stories until after I got married and she told them to my husband!!! I had a whole new respect for her after that.

Redneck Mommy said...

I never got a chance to find my Arizona.

One day.

But until then, I'll live vicariously through posts like these.

Thanks for that.

Melisa said...

Wow Kelly, how interesting! I think you are so brave to have jumped into that experience with both feet. Thanks for sharing that! :)

Kathy said...

It's so true. I think there are parts of me that even my husband does not really know or understand. I guess that's what makes us who we are...these layers and dimensions...I guess I don't really care for those people to know every last detail. I'd have nothing left for myself.

Ashley said...

A really great post---I think a lot about those times, too. No money meant creativity and some hardship, too. Infused with humor and sponteneity. Times are different now, so I make a point of stepping outside of my box. Thanks!

Kyla said...

You are such a character!

I got married nearly straight out of diapers, so I sort of feel like I am who I've always been. But I admire people with all these layers and experiences. They are fun to hear about.

Susiewearsthepants said...

I made the decision four years ago to leave my home state of North Carolina. I had lived there for most of my life. I loved the city, I loved that you go to the mountains or to the beach. I had become miserable there after the break up of my marriage. I had no family and no support system and two young girls I was trying to raise alone. I moved to Tennessee and I have never looked back. I don't miss it like I thought I would. All my family is here and I now have the love and support of brothers, sisters, and parents. Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing if I had stayed. Then when I am able to hop in the car and go visit my sister, I don't think about it anymore. Sounds to me like you have had some real adventures in life. What a great story. Well, except for the lost love.

Backpacking Dad said...

Gorgeous.

jakelliesmom said...

What a beautiful expression of life and longing. You may not be in Arizona, but Arizona is still in you.

kittenpie said...

This is one of the things that I think is so interesting about blogging - it can show a lot of different layers and sides, so those you share it with get to know you in a whole different, deeper way.

I also think that becoming a parent, an adult, need not spell the ends of those dreams. We have a plan to one day, likely once kids have left, go and live in another city for a year, since we loved experiencing NYC in a different way when we lived there than we could have as tourists. There is time later to do these things again, even if you don't want to do them with kids (like me), because one day, the responsibility will get lighter again.

Maureen said...

Wow, such great experiences you've had! Me, I would have been back to Canada at the first sight of the cockroaches and scorpion.

But then I'm a suck who never strayed from the beaten path.

Wonderful story and photo!

Beth from the Funny Farm said...

I always wanted to live in Arizona.

John-Michael said...

Thank You, Kelly, for making a bit of the "unknowable" known by just this small insight. A very generous thing for you to do! (For, I suspect that parts of your recollections stirred some forever-fresh discomforts.)

(I know how lame this is ... but I have been listening to the chorus of "To know, know, know You ... is to Love, Love, Love You ... and I do ... and I do ... and I do." in my funky old head, since reading the "unknowable" portion of this. Can't help it! 'Cause it's so true!!)

HRH said...

Great story.

Leanne said...

Ah, but it gives you something to write about and it helped you grow and become who you are.

Treasure those memories. We don't have to share everything.

Indy said...

How brave you were to take off and live in Arizona. What a great story. We all have stories and experiences that we may not share with those close to us. Thanks for reminding me of mine.

Mighty Morphin' Mama said...

Thank you for sharing your adventure with us.
I think one of the great things about those roads not travelled is that there are always more roads to find and dreams to dream. And all those anecdotes of your lives once lived give us fodder for getting to know each other better and better.
Have a wonderful week DMD, take care,
Kristen

Jenifer said...

I was way to chicken to do something so bold. There is however, an unknowable part of me, a part that even I have trouble remembering sometimes.

JCK said...

"It’s the reduction of youthful experiences and passions to mere anecdotes." Exquisite line. Loved this post.

So sorry about your friend.

shay said...

Wow! What an amazing girl/woman you are!
thanks for sharing this with us.

Shellie said...

That was so well written and a sentiment I think we all experience.
I think after the empty nest we do get to have more adventures again. My family is from Arizona, and the place gets in your blood and never ever leaves. I LOVE that place. I would go back in a heartbeat. My big Arizona however, was Chile. I'd go back there in a heartbeat too. Life just seems to take us somewhere else, no matter what we plan.

Sue said...

Hey, you should be a writer! Ha!

Excellent post, straight from the heart! Thanks for sharing!

Paper Propaganda said...

i know the feeling... i planned on living in europe for far longer than i actually stayed, and now i have two children, married to the type of person i said i'd never marry (too conservative!) and found that everything i wanted when i was younger is something i can't or don't want now. but it's still the dream right? i still picture my house when i lived there alone, and all of the things i did there...

your writings is amazing, very interesting to read!

Kimmylyn said...

This post was captivating from the start.. but what got me (and I am sure everyone else) was the "It’s being forced to accept that life is long and as a result some parts of you will always be unknowable to the people who love you and call you friend. Wife. Mother."

Because you can't share every little memory.. it is just not possible and sometimes not healthy, but those memories have shaped who we are..

Loved this post..

Elaine A. said...

I was just totally riveted by your account of your time in Arizona. Thank you for sharing this part of your past with us.

It is crazy how life can turn us in a different direction than we planned. Obviously you were meant to be where you are now...

Jen said...

This post reminded me in a romantic way of Jeanette Walls' memoir. Loved this post. I'm too stuffy to ever do anything like that.

We are taking a vacation to Phoenix this summer though-do you have any recommendations of what we should do? I've never been down there even though I've lived in the American West all my life.

secret agent mama said...

Those last two paragraphs just touch me, Kelly.

Rachel said...

I couldn't stop reading this, you have such style and wit. This was beautiful honey, absolutely wonderful. Thank you for sharing such an amazing and obviously shaping part of your life.

krissy said...

You certainly live an interesting life. You are very adventerous. I'm jealous. I couldn't leave my parents for the life of me. Hence, why I live in South Dakota.

Natalie said...

I've lived here for twelve years and I'm just now starting to like it.

(Except the summer. I will NEVER enjoy the summer. Nobody will ever convince me otherwise.)

It's interesting to see your perspective. I guess this place is not so bad after all. It's definitely unique. Great story!

chelle said...

WOW! That is so COOL! What a great read! You are so brave to go to the US all illegal and work and live and be free!

Totally neat to read another aspect of your world.

Whitenoise said...

Very nicely said. But would we even want to completely know someone or something, have done it all or been everywhere?

This way there's always presents still under the tree, the joy of new discovery, things to pique our interest.

Thanks for making me think.

Blessings From Above said...

Great description of your adventure in Arizona. You have such a way with words, it's as if we're right there with you.

wheelsonthebus said...

Oh, girl. You are so absolutely right. I feel like I cannot even see the woman I once was when I look into the past.

Mac and Cheese said...

I loved this post. I've always played it safe, so there are soooo many roads left untravelled for me - I try not to think about them.

tommie said...

while I LOVED these memories of your early days, I played it super safe and went to the University. I babysat (though nanny sounds so much more foofoo) for a family that was beyond $$$$. (I think it steered me towards the car I drive to this day!).....

kgirl said...

Great story. I found my arizona halfway around the world in 1998. It's good to have a past, because it leads to today, y'know.

skiplovey said...

I love this story, I can just picture it too.

There is something special about AZ. Luckily my in-laws live there so I get to visit every now and again. Can't say that I'd be able to deal with the heat but love visiting.

Reluctant Housewife said...

Is there anything you haven't done? I admire your guts.