I clock in to my job at Trader Joe’s and I begin my training by shadowing a seasoned worker for the entire 8 hour shift. I have learned much in 7 days. I stock product on the shelf and I talk to customers and help them find items. I barely know the products we sell and I rarely know where they are located. I figure it out anyway and I get lots of help from my very cool and friendly co-workers. Last night, I learned how to use the cardboard baler (a task that if done improperly could maim you) and I loaded up the cookie and snack aisles for about 4 hours non-stop. I worked second shift last week. This week, I will work the early morning shifts and learn how to run the cash register and all the detailed tasks that go along with this particular job.
I have been spending my shifts with predominantly men and listen to them announce their “bro love” in words that consist of “dude,” “fuck,” “asshole,” and other creative cursing phrases that are said in jest. This is genuine locker room talk that has no malice or perversion to it whatsoever. They punch each other in the arm, steal the box cutters off each other’s hip holsters, or give each other high fives in passing. One morning, I came in at 6:30 to help stock shelves before the mandatory store meeting at 7. A guy next to me, who is a profound meditator and wears mala beads and talks about listening to Tibetan singing bowls as he does his chores around his house, dropped a head of lettuce on the floor and got upset with himself. His friend nearby picked it up for him and then twisted his nipple and cajoled him before moving on to his task. My work mate laughed and said, “Thanks, dude. Sometimes I can be such a vagina-whacker.” I laughed and he noticed me and blushed. He apologized profusely and I told him we were cool. “Aw, dude, thanks,” he said and then asked me about my yoga practice and gave me tips on how to better my meditation practice.
All the guys now call me “dude,” and they have started pulling out my box cutter from my hip holster, giving me high fives in passing, and cursing like sailors in front of me. Towards the end of the night, one trainer and I stocked wine bottles and talked like hillbillies as we searched for the “pea-nut no-ear” and “Shar-don-ay.” Another guy nearby took down his man bun and started metal thrasing in the middle of the aisle to the rockin’ 80s tune blaring from the speakers. Heavy metal hair guy later gave me two rules I should follow while working here: 1.) Put Things On The Shelf (P.T.O.T.S.) and 2.) Don’t be a “dick.” Easy enough. It is a sweet relief and a welcomed initiation into the realm of happy, good natured male energy. I am working my body and my mind is at rest. I can relax and know that as long as I work hard and am nice to customers and my co-workers, I don’t have anything else to worry about.
I had coffee with my friend Randi the other day and we walked past Trader Joe’s to the coffee shop nearby. I saw two of my coworkers cross the street and my heart swelled. Their Hawaiian-themed colorful tshirts marked them as members of my new tribe. There went my new friends who sang their work tasks in the middle of the aisle and smiled at me and laughed when I made a really clever joke. There was the young woman who talked books and “deep shit” conversations with me in the break room. Inside that space were managers and crew members probably dancing to the grooves of Chaka Khan and rapping as they sliced open boxes of brown organic rice or singing to Huey Lewis and the News and making up new lyrics as they walked a customer to the frozen food aisle.
These men and women are artists, writers, musicians with mad skills and creative advice. I have also cultivated friendships with some strong, beautiful women outside of Trader Joe’s who are published authors and teach in either the yoga studio, or local colleges and universities as well.
It has been a blessing to not have to come home and worry about grading papers or writing lesson plans. I don’t have to solve people’s problems and I don’t have to handle bad behavior or manage up to 30 teenagers (and sometimes their parents and the administrators and random students in the hallway) every hour, every day, five days a week. The “Sunday Dreads” that used to fill me with anxiety of the upcoming week are beginning to fade away from my consciousness. I am in the process of divorcing myself from my old self in which I had married myself to my job and my duties and sense of profound responsibility and mentorship.
I am working on releasing myself from old baggage and bondage and stuck-in-the-groove recordings of negative thoughts I use to tell myself about who I believe I am. I am shifting away from identifying as a former high school English teacher and I am giving myself permission to tell people I am a writer.
The pace of living here is much slower and laid back than I am used to. About three weeks ago, my friend Alex and I drove up Lonesome Mountain Road. It is about twenty minutes away from here and is filled with twists and two tight hairpin turns. We were going to have dinner with my former neighbor, Darby, and his buddy Leigh. Leigh built a treehouse on the edge of a trout pond and Darby is living there while he searches for land and a home to buy. The treehouse is a compilation of dreamed up ideas and ecologically sound ideals, and it is riddled with piles of used lumber, old tools, and a compost toilet nearby (i.e., a “poop in the woods” hole in the ground that is covered behind a tattered tarp). We arrived an hour later than planned and Darby was still grilling the meat and sweet potatoes and yams. Leigh asked for us to gather around for an offering before the evening began. He passed around a roach clip with his best marijuana rolled tightly into a joint. Darby and I stepped out as everyone else partook in the ritual.
I walked down the edge of the gravel road and admired the beauty of the place. Here before me were wildflowers and marigolds rich in abundance and color. No streetlights were around and the setting sun was beginning to dip below the tree line. My dog raced with someone else’s golden retriever. Both became muddy and exhausted on their foray around the property. Leigh, Beth, Ron, and Barbara all walked down to the pond to harvest water lettuce and other vegetables and greens from Leigh’s garden. Darby bustled around the tiny space. He lit the stove’s pilot light and cursed when the flames shot up and wrapped around the cast iron skillet. He popped back outside to check on the grill while the others were still moseying around the pond, ogling all the wild things in their presence.
I asked where the bathroom was. Darby pointed to the tent about 50 feet away from the treehouse. I knew this was the “compost toilet” he had mentioned. I shook my head and started that way. Darby has complained numerous times that he can’t bring himself to poop in the woods like a bear. Although this pooper and makeshift shower has a compostable filtration tube that you have to aim into before it is washed away by the underground water system and filtered through the rocks and sand, Darby says it feels more natural to him to poop in a bag and dispose of it when he goes into town every couple of days. “It seems more civilized that way,” he told us when the topic got brought up again for the third time that evening. I hated to tell the man that he was one step away from adult diapers so I marched myself out into the woods, away from the contraption to let myself flow freely with nature.
When I came back inside, Darby was griping about Leigh’s lack of initiative and unwillingness to thank him for all the work he’s done. He went on about how he cleans up the place, cooks them breakfast and dinner every day while Leigh smokes another joint. Once their morning routine and bickering is over, they go outside and work on constructing another out building across from the tree house. Leigh walked in on Darby’s tirade and smiled at his best friend. Darby put his arm around him and said, “We bitch at each other, but at the end of the day we just fuckin’ bang it out, don’t we man?” Leigh shook his head, his curly white locks shaking in front of him. He patted Darby on the back and sauntered over to the table. He turned up the Bob Marley song on his computer and shoved a cracker and slice of cheese in his mouth. All was right with their world.
Later in the evening, Leigh had us gather around the campfire outside and he did a “two minute” ceremony where he mumbled out his gratitude for all of us being in his home. His buddy Ron scratched underneath his chin, shaking his white beard that was tied up into a braid. Ron replied, “Yeah, thanks, man for having us out here.” We all said our thanks in this ritual while Darby hustled around and offered us our meal of either BBQ chicken or venison and sauteed greens from Leigh’s garden. We finished the evening with an apple cobbler I made and talked about art and writing.
When we left, my friend pointed up to the night sky. We stood near my car and looked upward. The Milky Way was twinkling above us in shimmering dots of yellow and swirls of purple and pink. I’ve never witnessed anything like it in my life. The doorway to an infinite realm stretched out above us. Below was the dirt and the grass and us. All these elements and more from those stars.
Days and weeks have passed by me at a snail’s pace. Yet, I also exist in a swirl of creativity and waves of emotion. I feel more connected to this land and this city now that I am developing a routine and meeting more people. I still struggle with opening up to that same creativity and emotional surge that is brimming under the surface. My head tries to work out the logistics of my new lifestyle. It worries daily about money, bills, connections, schedules, friends and family, and any other scheme or strategy it can lock onto as a way to keep me safe and keep me small. I try to dance the dance between creative freedom and expression and living practically and sensibly. I still have this belief that I must accomplish some type of creative project and become successful with it in order to prove to myself and others that I made the right decision to come out here. I also struggle with this imaginary time line where I believe that I must choose a definitive date to end my sabbatical and have something to show for it before I go back to a “normal life” and a “normal routine”.
My heart, on the other hand, is swelling with emotions and longing to be expressed.
I struggle so much with this desire to be purely creative. Thankfully, an eight hour shift of putting things on the shelf, bagging groceries, and being nice to people erase all fears and doubts for the day. After work, I was free to go with a small group of friends to Max Patch bald an hour away. We hiked up to the Appalachian Trail pass and witnessed a 360 degree view of the mountains and the gradual changing of the leaf colors. My dog ran in and around us. We sat in the grass and looked upon the swelling moon that was just beginning its tour of the horizon. The sun was to our backs and warmed us as the mountain breeze blew over us. All of us sat in silence, alone with our thoughts.
I laid back in the grass and let out a sigh. These mountains have called me and I have heeded their call. It is not up to me to work out and carve out a “normal life” that brings me money, success, recognition, or a comfortable pension. I am to be worked on by the grandmotherly love and ancient energy and medicine of these mountains. All those who live in this area or visit here have said the exact same thing. These mountains heal and offer up gifts to those who are willing to receive.
I rested my head on the tufts of grass behind me and could still see the soft curves of the mountains. My friend asked me what I was thinking. I said to him, “I’ve never let myself do anything like this before.” I honestly don’t know what I meant by those words. It was the best I could come to expressing that I was healing my old wounds and letting the cool breeze, the mountain landscape, and the pure clean air erase all traces of self-doubt. Two tears dripped down the sides of my face and landed in the dirt. I closed my eyes just as my dog jumped over me. The mountains were working their magic on me.
This is Asheville time. There is no rhyme or reason or linear way of being. It is as near to mythical time as I can get. I must yield and open up to these gifts. They will come out in their own time and in their own way.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll put on my Chaco sandals and buy a Subaru (the official car of these mountains). Then I’ll be able to drive to town in style and meet Darby for a cup of coffee after his daily dump.