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Lions Roar : July 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2011 68 Vacation WE WERE STAYING at a resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. From the lanai that served as our kitchen, we could hear the rustle of palm fronds in the trade winds. The electricity depended on a generator, and when they said lights out at 10 p.m., they meant it; ready or not, we were plunged into the velvety darkness of the tropical night. We drove to a black sand beach along a road lined by guavas ripe for the picking. Turquoise waves curved and exploded into white foam. Nude sunbathers, their bodies gorgeously tanned, dove into the sea. Children ran along the water’s edge and built obsidian castles from the shining sands. A man rolled a joint and was suddenly surrounded by five new friends, all desperate for a hit. A little boy howled. His mother told him to shut up. She crouched next to the man with the mar- ijuana, waiting her turn. The boy’s back was half-covered with an oozing, sand encrusted gash. The breakers were so rough we had to fight our way in, tossed about and gasping, before we could reach the deep swells beyond the surf. Back at the resort, I opened the kitchen cupboard. A very large rat stared back at me. I hurriedly shut the door in its face. School ON A BRIGHT WINTER’S DAY in Williamsburg, Virginia, I walked down a cobblestone street that stretched exactly one mile from the edge of the college campus to the end of the Colonial Williamsburg historic district. I was walking away from the school, down a road that led nowhere but the past. I had just flunked out. Colonial Williamsburg was an empty, beautiful place with each building freshly painted, each boxwood trimmed to a per- fect shape. There were no chickens wandering the streets, no sewage, no arguments, no signs of the lives that were lived there in the eighteenth century. It was a town historically accurate in its physical details, and much farther removed from reality than three hundred years. I reached the end of the street and turned around to walk back to the school that no longer had a place for me. How could this have happened? I was cast adrift in this empty town of artifice. I had been majoring in biology. I hated the stench of form- aldehyde, zoned out during the lectures, was bored by the read- ing, dreaded chemistry lab, and yet was absolutely convinced that I should be a biologist because I loved nature so much. I had been punishing myself with positive thinking, ignoring the signs of my own discontent. After my failure, I stayed on in Williamsburg and waited tables on the low-paying breakfast and lunch shift. I struggled to find what it was that I really loved. I tried writing poems and stories. There was one beautiful thing that I managed to notice through the fog of my misery. Every morning, as I walked past Bruton Parish Church on the way to my dead-end job, peals of organ mu- sic floated through the early spring air. That hard time was an opportunity for gratitude. My college roommate kept me hidden in the dorm room, and spirited food from the cafeteria until I could find an off-campus apartment. After I’d been floating in a lost world for a few months, my parents took me back home and paid for a creative writing class. I reapplied to college, and returned as an English major. I plunged happily into all the courses I had missed while I was pretending to be a biologist: “Tragedies of Shakespeare,” “Art of China,” “History of Film,” “Modern British Literature,” “Bur- mese Supernaturalism.” Sometimes disappointment is the only thing that can slap you hard enough to wake you up. It turned out that the path of the writer was my way into the natural world. Now I write articles about bat surveys, birding festivals, sea turtles hatching. Work WHEN I WAS EIGHTEEN, I spent a summer as a nurse’s aide in the hospital where I was born, in the small town where I grew up. I worked the night shift. It was a county hospital that served everyone, from the ex- tremely wealthy to the most impoverished. I sat up with old farm women whose unbound hair flowed to their waists. I lit a ciga- rette for an ancient man who was as thin and dry as a stick. He suckled the cigarette in a single drawn-out breath until it was one long red ember. In the nursery, a baby screamed. When I went to investigate, I saw a tapeworm six inches long writhing next to the baby’s head. The nurses told me that the anti-parasite medication had driven the worm out through the baby’s nose. Edith was the other nurse’s aide. She was black and in her thir- ties, a generously proportioned woman who liked to make me blush by saying, “There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned or- gasm. Don’t you agree?” I nodded as though I had any clue what she was talking about. There was one beautiful thing I managed to notice. Every morning, as I walked past Bruton Parish Church on the way to my dead-end job, peals of organ music floated through the early spring air. ELIZABETH BROWNRIGG is the author of the novels Falling to Earth and The Woman Who Loved War.