Sunday, February 17, 2013

Breathe Deep

"I now live in a village in the desert. Although we have left the city, it has taken my body months to slow down, to recover a rhythm in my heart that moves my body first and my mind second. I am learning that there is no such thing as wasting time, as whole days pass inside the simple tasks of making a home, meeting new neighbors, watching the ways of deer. My ears have just now stopped ringing as they adjust, accommodate this quiet, this calm in this landscape of time." -- "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert" by Terry Tempest Williams

In Florida, I smelled the rolling ocean, the salt lingering invisibly in the air. I smelled suntan lotion and the dampness of the sand in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. In a stroller at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, smoking was permitted more widely in the park and a certain brand of cigarettes today, though I don't bother to find out which, triggers memories of Walt Disney World, because those were the cigarettes in the Magic Kingdom, like the brand was a proud sponsor of Walt Disney World. I remember walking into the late Lox Haven in Margate and the heavenly heavy and salty smell of lox hit you as soon as you pushed open the door nearest to the carts on the inside. You'd have to push past the old Jews to get a number at the deli counter and then wait, and jostle them some more after your number was called and you wanted to get the attention of the man behind the counter before he went on to the next number. Being a young Jew long removed from Florida, I miss those old Jews, may they rest in peace, which seems likely by now. You never know what you miss about a place until you're existing where you don't want to be.

For nine years, I forgot how to smell, I forgot how to breathe. I couldn't bring myself to make more of Santa Clarita than was already there, which was a nothing of epic proportions. I'd go to the Pavilions supermarket every Friday and get close to the roast chicken, just to smell something different than nothing. The flower displays at the Ralphs supermarkets looked so dismal that I feared if I got near them, they would dramatically collapse ("No! Don't come near me! I'm hideous! It's not going to get any better!"). Malaise is the right word, the only word, for those nine years. I was relieved whenever we walked into the restaurant at IKEA in Burbank because Swedish meatballs, the way they had them, were at least a welcome change for what I usually faced every day, and every week. One of our last visits to anywhere outside of Santa Clarita before we moved was Golden Corral in Hesperia, our beloved buffet that we hadn't seen since Florida, this being the closest location for us in Southern California. The others were in City of Industry and El Centro, as close to the Mexican border as you could get without crossing it.

When we walked into Golden Corral, I wanted to fall to my knees and thank god for recovering part of the life that I knew, although it was a temporary relief. No matter, though, because we moved to Las Vegas not long after this visit. I still believe there should be a Golden Corral in Henderson, along with a White Castle on the Strip, and an IKEA somewhere in Las Vegas. There are plots of desert that would suit it perfectly. And besides residents' dollars, IKEA would also enjoy tourists' dollars. I think they forget about that when they say they're not going to put one here. But they should.

Finally escaping Southern California after nine years, we arrived in Las Vegas as residents last September 14, which now makes it five months that we've lived here, Valentine's Day being that marker. And yet, even though I was mindful that I was going to be a resident, I still traveled badly. Breakfast at McDonald's at Barstow Station in Barstow was two Sausage McMuffins with Egg, a hash brown, and a caramel McCafe Frappe.

I wasn't thinking. All we had in our empty house in Saugus on the early morning that we moved was a box of Cookie Crisp. I was starving. I just needed energy. Surely a bad way to go about it and it got worse, because that night, we picked up dinner from the Hawaiian place in Henderson that we like, in that shopping center on North Green Valley Parkway that includes Smith's supermarket and Brooklyn Bagel. The next night, we went to Wing Stop. You can see where this is going, without vegetables, without fruit. Add to that unpacking boxes and sleeping on the floor for a few nights after arriving and after ordering custom mattresses from a nearby mattress maker (which thankfully only took two days), and changing our licenses at the DMV, and getting my library card at the Whitney Library while totally exhausted, and I was a mess by the fifth day. I quickly learned that you have to immediately establish yourself in some way when you arrive in Las Vegas as a resident, some kind of routine to establish even as you're moving in. Otherwise, this city will eat you alive. After the mattresses were delivered and I finally got some decent sleep that night, I found my footing. I began the process of applying for a full-time job in the Clark County School District, first as a campus security monitor, and now as an elementary school library assistant. The process still has a little more time to go, but it will happen soon, and it needs to happen soon because Blue Shield of California is cutting off the medical insurance I pay for on my own, being that they've found that I don't live in California anymore. Well, duh. Four months since I've moved and they've only just looked at the address they were sending my bill to?

However, it took more time to become accustomed to the landscape around me. No matter how much I read and studied while I lived in Santa Clarita, while waiting impatiently to move to Las Vegas, none of it compared to actually being here. Now, I'm not an in-a-rush type of person like Dad is. I want my life to be as easygoing as possible. But silence here is different than silence in Santa Clarita. At our house in Saugus, you might hear a train whistle in the distance in that bowl-shaped valley at two in the morning, but you'd hear basically no traffic. Some coyote howling during the summer months, but not as much as the dark morning hours stretched on. No traffic in the neighborhood.

Here, you have to listen differently. Being that this is a 24-hour town, there's a nervous energy, a nervous humming underneath all of Las Vegas. It's constantly moving. When I walk the dogs at 11 p.m., there are cars still going by on the street outside my mobile home park. People are going to work, people are coming home from work, people are going out to gamble, whatever they're doing. Anything you want to do here, you can do. But even in Florida, living in Grand Palms in Pembroke Pines, I never heard this much traffic at night either. Things slowed down, tucked themselves in for the night, left whatever needed to be done until the morning. Dad was more surprised about this than I was, but I was still a bit flummoxed by it. I'm still amazed at how people manage to live, those who work at night. And yet, there's my North Carolina neighbor at the end of my block who's a member of the cleaning crew at the Thomas & Mack Center, coming in after the event or basketball game is over to go to work. He comes home early in the morning and goes to sleep until the afternoon. That's where the work is for him and so he goes.

But it's not so much that. There's a slower rhythm to the desert. You can go to the Strip and have a blowout time, but you can also search for the Las Vegas of old. There are museums here for that. They allow for reflection. And libraries in Las Vegas, Henderson, and my dear favorite in Boulder City all carry books about what Las Vegas used to be. The city gives you a choice. You can do whatever you want here, even drive out deep into the desert and let out a primal scream. I've never done that and have no reason to do that since I'm content here. Yet the desert looks after me just as it would look after you. Slow down. Take your time. Figure out what of Las Vegas would fit you and then pull it close to you to enjoy. Whatever you want, you can have it. That goes for residents just as much as tourists. As a resident, once you've balanced yourself soon after arriving, you're good to go.

That all ties into my learning how to breathe again after nine years of nothing. Soon after we got here, one of our early nights saw a steady wind throughout the valley and I was first relieved because this wind couldn't potentially spark a wildfire like the winds in Southern California could, what with all the mountains, but then I was so happy because I had waited so long to feel a true desert wind. It's always windy in Palmdale, just part of the landscape, but here, the wind feels like it dances with the landscape. There are nights when it's still and calm and yet when we drive toward Las Vegas from Henderson, we can see all those lights in the distance and they're all twinkling, seemingly without the aid of any wind. When I felt that first wind, I stood totally still when I was out walking one of our dogs and let it wash over me and all around me. I wanted to feel every moment of it, and I wanted to know it well. I breathed it in and it felt like the wind was made of all of us in Las Vegas, present and the past. Frank Sinatra was in the wind and so were the blackjack dealers on the Strip. Liberace was in there somewhere, and the cocktail waitresses at Caesars Palace were taking drink orders from in there too. The water show of the Bellagio was also dancing in that wind. Also in that wind, Bugsy Siegel was barking orders. I believe that the ghosts of Las Vegas only make their presence known when it's gloomy and raining. But the wind lets off a tiny bit of them, a reminder that we are here because of them, because of what they did before, because of what came before. I like that. It broadens my love of history.

Last Friday, I finally mastered learning how to breathe here and how to smell again. The day was calm when I went to get the mail and I walked to the left, to the end of my street and then turned right onto Lane I, as it's called, passing one street and then entering the next one on the right, my favorite street in this mobile home park because how close the houses seem to be across from each other, but how homey it feels. This street feels like it's protected from the rest of the park, interrupted by little traffic, not hearing much of the traffic outside the mobile home park, with other houses bordering it.

As I walked my usual route, I smelled perfume which seemed like the Macy's kind. If it was a plant that I had overlooked, I would not be surprised because plants here have a certain kind of power, few as they are, but that they're few may be why they inspire awe. Hardiness in the desert. Survival. I'm not quite sure yet what I'm supposed to smell in the desert. I know I haven't smelled sagebrush, the state flower, yet, because I would definitely have noticed. Scents do linger here, though. I've smelled fresh wood, dust from the remodeling of bathrooms in the clubhouse, stagnant pool water, tree scents from the wind blowing as I've walked around, and a lot more that I should work to categorize. I've never thought about smells as much as I have here, but it's the kind of state that makes you thankful to have a sense of smell.

I know to breathe slowly here. Life happens, as it will, and there are tense situations and responsibilities to meet, but there is also such joy in the simplicity of things, of standing outside and taking in all that's around you, especially on days when pollution from Los Angeles doesn't create a haze over the Strip. I walked around my neighborhood that Friday, so content, so at peace. I'm not sure where I would belong in Northern Nevada, as I haven't been there yet, but I know I belong here in Southern Nevada, and in Nevada entirely. I feel like there's so much for me to explore each day, and so much for me to see and smell and hear and even taste at times.

Then yesterday, Meridith and I walked five laps around the large perimeter of our mobile home park, covering every corner from the dumpster near the gate that separates us and the senior mobile home park from the inside, to the maintenance area where those guys and gal store all their stuff for repairs in the park, to the two RV lots where RVs are usually parked, but most of them are gone, their owners having gone to explore whatever of the United States they like. We walked twice around the mobile home park, and then at the beginning of the third time, after we passed the clubhouse, we were walking by the first house after that, and I stopped. The door of that house was open and something smelled so good! It straddled the line between a roast something and barbecue, but without the grill outside. Or maybe there had been a grill in the small yard covered up by that wooden fence and I didn't notice. I couldn't hear anything sizzling, though. It had to be from the oven in the kitchen. After the fourth time, Meridith jokingly suggested that I call Mom and Dad, tell them that they can have dinner without us (pork roast, stuffing, and cranberry sauce), and we invite ourselves in for dinner at that house. I was sorely tempted. It was 72 degrees today in Las Vegas and it was that kind of day. Doors were open, windows were open and a lot of people were outside, taking advantage of this unexpectedly warm weather that leaves us on Tuesday. This was the warmest day out of the past three days, which was why Meridith and I went out for a walk. And as we did those laps, and Meridith was telling me about her cafeteria job lately, I felt that same peace I achieved on Friday. I know now that it's in me and it's not leaving. Every time I walk outside now, I'm curious about everything. I want to know if those currently empty mobile home lots might have been occupied years ago. I want to know what holds a carport up. I want to know what kind of plants I'm looking at across from the beginning of Lane I. I want to know what in that maintenance area hasn't been used in years, but that they don't throw away because they don't feel like it. I want to know more about the RVs parked here. I want to know what kind of bulbs are used for the noirish orange lights on my street and all around the mobile home park at night, how long they last, and when they possibly need to be replaced next. In our first week here, I saw the maintenance people with a cherry picker, one person on it, rising up to the lights, opening the glass to that light, and cleaning the glass on the inside and the outside. I had never seen anything like that before.

Finally, I can breathe without worry, I can breathe without boredom, I can breathe knowing that every breath carries the full weight of the desert and all that it entails. I know that it gets mighty unfriendly in the summer, and I will experience that in due time, but to breathe this easily, and to really smell things, for them to linger like they do, this is where I belong. This place requires a thesaurus, but there are times when no thesaurus can ever help describe my experiences. I've done a little of that in this entry and in others, but it's not even a quarter of what I feel when I walk the dogs at night, which I'll be doing in a little while, nor when I visit Boulder City, nor when I'm on the Strip. I've said before that if you can't find anything to write about in Las Vegas, you should quit. I still believe that. But now I know that there are times when words can't do it. You can only stand still and let the wind embrace you. If there's wind tonight, or even a breeze, I will gladly give myself to it. Peace has never felt so good.

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