My mother grew up in Kirby, Wyoming, a tiny desolate town out on the sagebrush prairie, ringed by the Wind River Range and the Bitterroot Mountains, sacred to the Shoshone as the place where the Wind River and the Bighorn River come together at the Wedding of the Waters, though really, it’s the same river and only the names converge in one beautiful spot. I remember it from my childhood, when I was a skinny, scabbed-kneed girl in a home-made dress, cap gun in hand, the smell of gunpowder on my fingers. The hot desert wind, dome of painfully blue sky, the luminous red rocks of the canyon, and sunlight dazzling on the cold rapids. I love to go back and sometimes dream of reclaiming the place for myself, rent one of those little Sears and Roebuck kit houses with a dirt yard and a huge old Cottonwood tree about to fall over on the tin roof. I could run away there.
My mom ran far from Kirby after a bad breakup with her high school sweetheart, to become a Braniff Girl, a flight attendant for the hippest, coolest airline ever–The airline of Playboy Bunnies and Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
The stewardesses were like models, weighing in on the scales every day, twiggy-thin, makeup by Estee Lauder, uniforms by Pucci. The girls were sent to Dallas Love Field for training in a dormitory with a den for entertaining pilots and celebrities that featured a center fireplace surrounded by white fur rugs and white mod couches. My mother never really went back to Wyoming, except for brief visits. It was a place of heartbreak and loss for her, and even worse after both her parents died less than a year apart when she was still young. It was a harsh land with a long history of reneged promises.
My mom’s version of glamour combined the advertising-boom sexuality of the early 1960’s with the advent and passion of Billy Graham revivals and a new religious awakening sweeping across America. It was the beginning stirrings of what would explode into the Moral Majority and Pro-Life movement of the 1980’s. But in 1964, to my mother, it was an escape route out of provincialism and insecurity and a sudden arrival into cosmopolitan charm and power. My mother could do the strip-tease at take-off, an innocent enough performance, the girls unzipping their hot pink trench coats to reveal orange culottes and Go-go boots underneath, and find herself in Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta a few hours later watching the sunset on the beach, and by Sunday be back in church, white kid gloves on her hands, Bible in her lap, sure in her salvation, a promise of love that was irrevocable.
My mom passed onto me her love of travel and adventure (unlimited free airline passes–back in those days you got an empty book and could go anywhere for free) and tried to hitch me with her own desire to see me saved and the desperate fear that I wasn’t, so in the 1980’s when I was 15 and 16 she sent me away twice to Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri International, once to headquarters in Huemoz, Switzerland and once to an off-shoot branch in Greatham, England. Francis Schaeffer was an Evangelical theologian who thought of himself as a philosopher. An eccentric figure in his signature knickers and white Amish-inspired beard, he was hugely inspirational to the Christian Right and credited with igniting the Evangelical political activism of the 70’s and 80’s. Randy Terrill of Operation Rescue was a big fan, as is Michele Bachman.
For half the day I was supposed to sit and listen through headphones to cassette recordings of Francis Schaeffer’s lectures, walking me through the entire arc of Western philosophy and art and literature and why the Gospel was superior to any philosophy man proposed.
But what I learned were the names– Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Marx, Heidegger, Sartre and then the artists and their movements, Picasso and Cubism, the Surrealists, Abstract Expressionism and all the greats of literature, Joyce and Conrad and Tolstoy and Proust –and Schaeffer wanted me to know how they were all searching for the truth but how tragically wrong they all were and to understand why Jesus was the one and only truth, but I fell in love with all those other gods. I ran right into their arms. My indoctrination backfired big time.
I ran away from L’Abri twice–once to a Charlie Chaplin film festival in Locarno, Switzerland where I met a stranger who didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French or Italian, but we ended up wandering by the canals and kissed on the quai. Another time to Camden Markets in London with a boy who was back from the Troubles in Ireland and probably had some significant PTSD, and then I ran away from him. Both times were moments of revelation for me, a time of strengthening my endurance and breath for more running away, an act that would come to define me and save me.
A few weeks ago, while I was in Brooklyn for the fourth time in the last six weeks, doing my own wonderful adult version of running away–My good friend, the journalist and writer, Julie Scelfo, gave me the book I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp, the autobiography of Richard Hell –of the Voidoids and Television and CBGB fame. The book opens with these gorgeous and perfect lines:
“Like Many in my time, when I was little I was a cowboy. I had chaps and a white straw hat and I tied my holsters to my thighs with rawhide. I’d step out onto the porch and all could see a cowboy had arrived.
This was in Lexington, Kentucky, when everybody was a kid. I looked for caves and birds and I ran away from home. My Favorite thing to do was run away. The words “let’s run away” still sound magic to me.”
Everyone should run away, more than once even, at different times throughout life. Sometimes I get asked what advice I have for writers who may just be starting out. This is it. Run away.