Into thin mud

Sometimes you have to fall on your butt to get your head out of your rear end.

Published September 11, 1997 10:06AM (EDT)

Everything has fallen apart in the last month. There has been ruin and chaos and emptiness, where before there was union and hope. There are cash-flow problems and small health disasters and a relative who is going down slow but hard. On top of it all, my darling boy went and grew himself his first sty -- someone took a picture of him in a tie-dyed T-shirt, and he looks squinty and half blind, like it's still the '60s but the drugs are beginning to wear off.

I am not exaggerating how awful this month has been. I mean, forget you ever knew me. My heart was broken and my central nervous system was on the fritz and my skin was in major confusion about whether we are in extremely late adolescence or early menopause: It was two, two, two mints in one. I cried a lot. I felt like a crack baby with bad allergies. My boy's sty grew worse.

Finally I did the only thing I could think to do. I got a new car. I leased a new Jeep Cherokee. It was very expensive and massive and fabulous, deep amethyst almost to the point of being purple, like something Norman Schwartzkopf would drive Elizabeth Taylor around in. And it gave me and the crack baby inside my heart such a new lease on life that I believed for close to half an hour that I'd been wrong all along -- that there actually WAS something out there that was really going to do it for me. A big new almost-purple Jeep! I roared out of the lot and tore off toward San Francisco with the radio blaring, feeling almost normal for the first time in a month, and I rounded the corner out of Sausalito as cocky as a 16-year-old girl who had just that day gotten her license, and then I ran into gridlock. It was bumper-to-bumper all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

First I started to feel like I was having an MSG attack, then that I might start sobbing. I felt so defeated that I thought about throwing myself under the wheels of the car and running over my own head, but I couldn't even do that, because I couldn't get up any speed. You could only creep one or two feet forward at a time. So if you ran over your head, you probably wouldn't even end up dead, and your hair would be all fucked up.

And I'll only mention in passing that that night, driving home, I looked into my rear-view mirror and discovered that I could hardly see -- or rather that everything looked like it would through night-vision goggles. The dark-tint windows that had blocked out the sun during daylight when I'd bought the car now made me feel like the psychopath stalking Jodie Foster at the end of "The Silence of the Lambs."

In the morning I lay in bed thinking about what a hard life I have; then I prayed for God to help me get my head out of my ass and see these gold-plated problems for what they were. I drank too much coffee, and that helped, then spent a little time gazing from the porch at my new car and thought about driving it off the cliffs out in West Marin. Instead, I gave Sam a ride to his friend's house. "I love that bright orange light," he said, pointing to the dash. It was the Check Engine light, which had just gone on. Also, the brakes had developed a clicky new voice, like a tiny dog's long toenails on linoleum. "I like that you can't see out the windows," he said, squinting the eye that had the sty.

So later in the morning, when my friend Neshama called and suggested we go for a walk, I declined. "I really shouldn't be moved," I said. But she needed to do an errand at a church 20 minutes away and wanted company, and more or less insisted that we hike down from the church to a salt marsh where neither of us had ever been. It sounded like an awful idea, pitting ourselves against nature, what with me in my current condition. I'm not sure why I agreed to do it. Maybe because even now, while I'm feeling that love can't conquer all, I swear to God it seems to anyway. It goes down into the rat hole with me, in the shape of my friends, and it swells and comforts and works.

I wore the nicest possible clothes in an effort to raise my spirits -- great jeans, walking sandals, a white blouse, lots of lipstick.

An hour later Neshama and I were walking down the street toward the marsh. It looked fertile and abandoned from up above, surrounded by nondescript suburban houses and anonymous buildings, like Mesopotamia in the midst of some trailer-park military complex. You felt that no one living there was even aware of the marsh, that they and their buildings had turned their backs on it. It also looked quite boggy from up above, like maybe you should be wearing waders instead of sandals, but I figured, what the hell -- that this must be where we were going, because this was there we were.

We left the road at the hillside where it dipped down into the marsh, a brackish tidal channel with lots of pickleweed and cattails. A dirt path ran alongside it. There were snowy egrets in the channel, with star-shaped yellow feet. "Please," I begged Neshama, "it would help me so much if you would catch one for me." And she said she would, and tiptoed toward them in a burlesque of sneaking-up-on, but it was obvious that she was patronizing me, and I told her we couldn't be friends anymore.

Everything was very quiet. Even though the freeway was not far away, you could hear only white noise and soft rustle, as if the marsh had sucked up all the other sound. Sometimes you'd hear a grackly crow noise, or one of the egrets, who tend to sound as if they need oiling. We walked along the path until we got to a thin ribbon of water flowing out from the channel toward the bay. And suddenly the ground and vegetation at our feet began to get a little watery, and then sucking noises began, swampy quicksandy sucking noises, and pretty soon my overpriced walking sandals had been swallowed up by mud.

We moved as quickly as possible through the bog to drier ground on the other side. Then we stared down at our muddy shoes, and we started to laugh. It's just mud! we realized. It washes off! So we tromped on, until the path came smack-dab up to a stumpy wet slope, with ratty little shrubs growing out of it. The path picked up again at the top. There was nothing to do but to scale it, and I use "scale" loosely here, since the slope was only about three feet tall.

"Let me help you there, little lady," I said. "I'll go up first, and then give you a hand." So I planted a foot on the muddy little dune, grasped a root, and would have pulled myself up the hill if the root had held. But it didn't. It pulled up out of the slope, and I slid down on my butt to the wet ground. Both of us started to laugh. Then I got up and tried again, like Sir Edmund Hillary's dauntless little fiancie, and this time I made it up. Planting one foot firmly on the driest ground I could find, I reached back down for Neshama's hand.

"Is this a good idea?" she asked. "Are you braced?"

"Yes," I insisted, and pulled her toward me, and she lifted up off the ground and moved upward a couple of feet, until I started sliding back down toward her and we both landed noisily on our butts in the mud.

I looked at her. She was wearing a blue linen dress and ballet slippers because she was going directly to work from here, and she was utterly covered with silt. I became hysterical. It was like being knocked over by waves when you're close enough to the shore not to panic. It was so odd, to be so old and to have gotten so muddy; to have such dirty drawers and no angry parents around, and no more face to save.

I was actually howling with laughter, and yet was not sure that I wasn't about to start crying; tears and laughter are so intertwined. I felt like my blood was getting fresh oxygen for the first time in nearly a month, like air was bubbling into a place inside that had gotten impacted. I looked at Neshama's ballet slippers, which were unrecognizable as such. "Boy," I said, "are you going to get it when mom sees you," and she nodded. I couldn't stop laughing. It made me feel helpless in the best possible way. The laughter rose from way below, from below my feet, from underneath my butt in the mud. I don't know why the truth is a paradox that doesn't soar until you get way down: Maybe it's because this, the mud, the bottom, is where it all rises from. Maybe without it, whatever rises would fly off or evaporate before you could even be with it for a moment. At any rate, we sat there for a long time after we stopped laughing, and we looked around. We finally really looked around.

There were egrets on a telephone wire above us, above that smorgasbord of wiggly jumpy things in the shallow water. Maybe they like to get up so high so they can see if there are food patterns in the swamp. There were also two blackbirds on the wire, on either side of the egrets, like bookends. You don't sense much conversation between the birds; I think they pretty much keep it to "Watch out!" or "Help!" not getting heavily into the beauty of the swamp, or the niceties of the weather. I felt a breeze, heard the cattails rustle, smelled dried grasses, a little like a laundromat; wonderful, like being caught inside a Mary Oliver poem, celebrating the moment by focusing on what's around it.

Finally, we got up. We walked around for a while longer and then hiked back up the hill to the church. I was in despair about getting mud all over the remains of my new car, but in the church bathroom I found some tissue-paper toilet seat covers. I said goodbye to Neshama and went to my car. I put several toilet seat covers down on the driver's seat, and that made me start to laugh again. I climbed in and started the engine. The Check Engine light came on. I could tell that I smelled mucky, but I was soft again on the inside. All that mud was like a tenderizing mallet. Where before there had been tough fibers, hardness and held breath, now there was mud, dirt, water, mess; and it was good.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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