i got home last Wednesday for a few days this week in between legs of my book tour; feeling very sorry for myself because I was so tired. Thursday night I was scheduled to do an event with Charles Schulz in front of a big audience, when in fact I was so exhausted that there was nothing left of me but buttons and hair. I was on the verge of hysteria. Perhaps it's hard to believe how toxic and lost you can get when you're traveling from city to city flogging your latest novel. But you do. You become the tiniest bit self-obsessed. The bitterness arrives with its little trunks brimming with equal changes of self-loathing and conceit, its festive little hat of Schadenfreude. Your mind whirs with resentments and cravings, and then you become the person in the cartoons who blinks, hears the ring of the cash register, and suddenly has dollar signs for eyes.
I woke up Thursday with my mind completely on the fritz, with tremendous anxiety about how soon I had to leave Sam again and head back out. I forgot that I end up feeling both grateful to, and deeply welcomed by, people at my readings. Instead I felt hysterical. I kept touching my forehead gingerly like Blanche DuBois. Finally, after Sam went to school, I took my dog for a long walk, because it was a warm spring morning and I wanted to practice being where my feet were. I felt that this was the only operating instruction I needed to remember, to be where my feet were; until I had a moment of deeper spiritual understanding and realized I needed to go get a manicure.
I get them about four times a year. I like them because they usually make me stop for half an hour, and force me into letting someone tend to me. I know it's a superficial example of this, but still it's a chance to deal with spirit, spirit that is intangible but that you're able to take care of anyway, through the body. However, on the way to the nearest salon I passed an empty space between two office buildings and glimpsed a group of homeless people encamped there, under a canopy of sheets and a T-shirt and towel. There was a black man in a bright Hawaiian shirt, a grungy white man and a white woman, all with obvious and major dental issues, plus an older teenage boy, a little girl and a little boy as dusty and bedraggled as Pig Pen in the "Peanuts" cartoons. They looked like they were having a garage sale, but then I realized they were displaying, maybe savoring, their best belongings. There was a kerosene lamp, a large blue statue of Mary, some bright and dirty plastic toys, a bunch of raggedy potted plants, even a tall lamp that was not plugged into anything. It was a very together little space, with garbage scattered just beyond. I smiled at everyone and kept walking. It was a hot blue spring day.
I went into the nail salon and asked for a manicure from an Asian woman, who turned out to be from North Korea. There were two bright Buddha dolls on the floor, with a glass of water in front of each, surrounded by candles and incense cones. She began soaking my nails in soapy water. We were alone but there were a number of people in the back room, down some stairs in the back of the shop, from which wafted a slight but unpleasant cooking smell. I closed my eyes and listened to unseen women talk in what I assumed was Korean, and little racist thoughts floated into my head like piranhas. I had bad thinky thoughts -- the women sounded like angry birds, and whatever was cooking smelled like dog -- and I tried to squinch the thoughts away but I floated in and out of a cauldron of racist weirdness.
She began to push at my cuticles and then to snip them. I thought about how terrible things are in North Korea now, and I suddenly imagined writing a large check to Doctors Without Borders, to send to Korea, and I thought maybe that was why God had put the desire for a manicure in my head: So I could give a starving Korean some money.
She began to put light pink polish on my fingernails.
I remembered that I was going to be onstage with Charles Schulz in a few hours, and I had a little shot of adrenalin and fear, and I made myself practice being where my feet were. I tried to really experience this woman painting my fingernails. Then my mind began to wander again and I saw the little boy in the shade of the sheets and T-shirt, a kid who looked like Pig Pen, somber and perhaps a little myopic. I thought of the people with him, and then of the other "Peanuts" characters. It cheered me up to think of them, those deadpan clumsy little kids, hanging onto their raggedy identities. It made me happy to stop thinking racist thoughts, to stop channeling Tim McVeigh.
The manicurist finished putting polish on and I dutifully held my nails out to the tiny fan and let them dry for about eight seconds. Then I got up and announced that I had to go. I just felt very compulsive and unable to sit still any longer, stressed to the nu-nus with tiredness and my bad thinking thoughts. I wanted to go home and be alone. I remembered that when all else fails, follow instructions, and my instructions are to love and serve God's other children. That if I do this, God will take care of me. What could be more simple?
I left the salon. A famous priest once said, "Sometimes I think that heaven is just a new pair of glasses," and I prayed: Help me change glasses.
Then the black man from the lean-to tapped me on the shoulder. I was deep in thought and I nearly screamed. He was holding a Starbucks cup out.
"Please," he said. "Help me."
And I really really wanted to. I did. But the thing was that I couldn't. Because even as I began to reach in the front pocket of my jeans to get some money, I remembered that my nail polish was still wet. My heart sank.
"I'm in SUCH a terrible hurry," I implored, and kept walking.
"That's OK," he said.
I kept walking.
"I love your hair," he called after me.
I actually blew on my nails as I walked. I fanned the air. Then I stopped, and rubbed my eyes -- carefully, so that I didn't dent or smear my wet nail polish. I was coming up on the lean-to. I couldn't see it yet, except in my mind -- the blue plastic Mary, the big bright plastic toys; the pride that was on display, each object numinous, holding something more than itself. There they were making something out of nothing; surrounded by ruins, you assemble what comforts you. It's real wealth, a little like heaven, or at least the most temporary little heavenly encampment, where you grow things and hang out in the sun with your friends in your fine Hawaiian shirt.
I knew I was doomed. I retraced my steps, reached into the pocket of my jeans, brought out some dollar bills, handed them to the black man.
"I am dying for a burrito," he said. I nodded. I thought of the lamp that was not plugged into anything; then of the boy who looked like Pig Pen, blinky and dense, then of Linus, and Schroeder, of the ferocity and poignancy of our illusions. You think a blanket will protect you? That you are really making lovely music on a toy piano? But the blanket did protect Linus; and Schroeder does play beautifully; and maybe more than anything, they keep at it. They believe.