“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery …”
– Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and author
Writing is a lonely life. Right now, I’m typing in the bedroom of a man named Bubba, whom I just met the night before. My mother is downstairs drinking Johnny Walker Black with our host, who opened his Dallas home to us on our journey. Sounds of raucous laughter and the televised Cowboys football game rush beneath the closed bedroom door, amplifying my aloneness.
I’m not lamenting my lot in life. There’s no place I’d rather be than at a keyboard or sitting in a chair with pen and notebook in hand, crafting stories. I’m a hermit by choice. My friends often chide me for not returning phone calls or emails promptly, for inhabiting a perpetual state of seclusion. It’s odd that I would forsake my community of one and hit the highway with my mother, Lola, in a purple van to do the very thing that scares me most – interacting with people.
It’s been exactly ten days since we pulled out of my garage in Los Angeles to tour the nation and spread the word about my new book Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage. In that time, I’ve done book readings in Sacramento, Las Vegas and New Mexico, and I leave tomorrow for another reading in New Orleans. I’ve been interviewed twice – once for WYLD radio station in New Orleans, and then for VOICES, the radio program for the Office of African-American affairs in New Mexico. Each time, I address folks, I share my story, I meet new friends, then I return to the hotel or house where we’re staying and repack my suitcase to get back on the road again.
Throughout this journey, I’ve been touched by the kindness of strangers. My mother and I were taking pictures outside the entrance to the Grand Canyon when a woman approached us. “Have you paid for parking yet?” she asked. When we told her that we had not yet paid the $25 vehicle entrance fee, she handed over her prepaid parking ticket. People – family and strangers, such as Bubba – have allowed us to sleep in their homes, have fed us, have moved their cars so the Beckyville Bookmobile could park in their garage. Their generosity and on-the-spot love have shown me what I’m missing most when I’m holed up in my apartment huddled over a laptop – family.
Ever since moving to Los Angeles nearly twelve years ago, I knew I’d be moving away from all that is loving and familial. Most of my relatives reside in Pennsylvania , Georgia and Alabama, and I didn’t have any close family members in La La Land. But somehow, the culture of my new city felt right to me. It was the perfect place to bask in anonymity, to make friendships that were close but not too close, to hone my writing and stretch my imagination to the limit. A writer’s paradise, but hell for the lonely girl. Maybe that’s why when I decided to quit my job at a top-rated talk show and drive 6,000-plus miles across America, I asked my mom to be my co-pilot, my road dog.
As of this writing, Lola and I have racked up around 3,050 miles on the trip meter of the Beckyville Bookmobile. Although my mother and I often snap at each other, and perhaps grow weary of each other’s presence during the long hours in the van, she’s good company. One night in particular, I was especially glad to have her with me. We had left Sacramento and the home of her first cousin, Paulette, had traveled to Las Vegas for a reading and were on the road to New Mexico and the home of my first cousin, Ranae, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. It was nearly midnight, and we were driving down a lonesome stretch of desert highway. According to the navigational device, we had 27.6 miles to travel down a two-lane highway that had no lights. It looked like something out of The Hills Have Eyes. There were no houses by the side of the road, no businesses, no signs of life, and only three other cars passed us during the half hour that we were on the highway. It was utterly black, and even the moon peeking out behind the clouds seemed menacing. I prayed silently (and aloud) that we would make it to our destination safely, that no man, beast or extraterrestrial would leap across the road and into the path of the Beckyville Bookmobile. During our ride through the dark, my mother joked. She said the three other cars were getting the hell out of Dodge, and we were driving deeper into it. She helped calm me with her laughter, her equanimity, her strength.
My mother is garrulous with others, the life of the party when she’s around her friends or mine, but often silent with me, unless she’s issuing some directive. But there are those rare and precious moments when she opens up about her parents, or brother and sister, and I sit enthralled, wanting to know more about family members who have passed away or whom I have not seen in years. She reminds me that my grandparents’ house was a way station for relatives who blew in and out of my grandmother’s living room like autumn leaves. There was always a card game going, corn liquor being consumed (I learn that my mother soaked her moonshine in raisins to sweeten it and give it a smoother taste), children playing tag in the basement or backyard or someone clamoring for a slice of Mom-Mom’s famous orange pound cake, a recipe that lives on long after the death of that tall, quiet, bespectacled woman. The way my mother tells it, her older brother, Butch, was the rebellious one, her older sister, Dolly, who is mentally challenged, was the conniving one, and she was the obedient child, the sickly one, who had rheumatic fever as a child, who was bedridden for a year. She tells me that when my Uncle Butch was fourteen, he got his hair conked. He bopped home with his chemically processed tresses wrapped in a doo-rag. “Daddy stood on the front porch and spotted him about a mile away,” she recalls with a smirk. “He told Butch that he had no business getting that conk, and he made him go down to Jack the Barber to get that mess cut out of his hair.”
Remembrances such as this remind me of what my soul is longing for when I’m holed up in my apartment with my mechanical companion (that’s my laptop, by the way.) When we arrived in New Mexico at my cousin Ranae’s house, we were initially going to stay one day. One day stretched into four, and it was hard, hard, hard to leave the bosom of family, of laughter, of reclaimed memories. I envy Ranae, because her loved ones all live within a fifteen-mile radius. Her brother, Ray, and mother, Charlotte, are a three-minute drive away. Her sister, Legeia, and her family are down the road a piece, and her oldest daughter, Jasmin, just moved into her own apartment less than fifteen minutes away. They often get together for dinner or barbecues or other gatherings. They are the first to witness the new tattoo, to hear of the new boyfriend, to learn about the new job. When we are all together drinking wine and eating home-cooked meals and reminiscing about long-gone days, it feels like we’re back at Mom-Mom’s house again.
On our last night in New Mexico, my Aunt Charlotte leaves an urgent message that I must come visit her before I leave. I’m sitting in the living room watching Tangled with Ranae’s 10-year-old daughter, Matison, a little cousin I’ve never met before this day. Matison and her 16-year-old brother, Gabriel, were visiting their dad in Virginia, and had my mom and I left the day before as we planned, we would have missed them. Ranae, the kids and I hop into her car and head over to her mother’s house. Charlotte is sniffling when she comes out of the back bedroom. Through tears, she tells me she feels bad that she never got the chance to be “a true auntie” to me because she and my Uncle Butch divorced when I was young. She laments that I never gave her any of my childhood drawings or writings, and that had she received those stick-figured pictures, she would have kept them. Then she presents me with a white jewelry box. I open it to discover a beautiful butterfly ring. Charlotte is a woman of Native heritage, and she explains that the turquoise in the ring will help me find balance and keep me grounded in my travels. The abalone and red coral represent the land and the sea and will remind me that wherever the journey takes me, I will always have a safe place to return to, a home.
At times, this journey seems overwhelming. Sometimes, when I wake up in a strange bed in a strange city, it seems that I am traveling farther and farther away from myself. But the more people I meet, the more family I gain. This Beckyville adventure reminds me that the world is bigger than L.A. Life is more than selling a script or “making it” as a writer. It’s about community and kinship. I’m sure my friends will remind me of this the next time I don’t answer my cell phone or return a text. But I’m evolving, one relationship at a time. As Pilate says in Song of Solomon, “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would a loved ‘em all. If I’d knowed more, I’d a loved more.”