My Big Quit
To define “epiphany” is to tread on mist. Any definition is uncertain, illusive, temporary. There are a multiplicity of meanings within a thousand synonyms. There is the religious definition—the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi’s arrival reveals Jesus as both human and god. There is the more generally spiritual meaning—a moment when the divine is made evident. There is the literary, or Joycean—a rhetorical device in which a character has a profound revelation that brings essential change. Within the Joycean, there is the rhetorical device, and there is the “genre” from which it gains its name, as Joyce wrote dozens of “epiphanies”—short examples of revelation—which can be found in his larger works. At another end of the spectrum, there is the prosaic—the so-called lightbulb moment.
None of the above are satisfactory, but they all have one thing in common: the revelation arises from the mundane (a manger birth, for example), and the revelation is always more than the sum of its parts.
Sometime during the year 2018: I have been teaching full-time, at the same school, for twenty years. I receive a gift card from my employer for 20 dollars. This seems a too-apt summary-gift. Anger and discontent make me laugh out loud when I think of it. I try to keep it unspent, as a reminder of my value to my employer.
My patience for almost everyone wanes. I can do no right, even when—especially when—I try. Ideas I propose are shot down, repurposed and re-articulated by others, praised, and implemented. One day I suggest I would like to chaperone the trip abroad someday, to no response. I repeat this another day; someone rolls her eyes. I imagine (I discern?) that I am held in contempt. I have no doubt that it is through my own fault—I have become unpolitic, even impolite; sardonic if not outright sarcastic, and sloppy in most every way.
My bank account is soon empty (again); I use the gift card.
On May 31, 2019, my parents die in a single car crash on the interstate outside of Monument, Colorado. My father was driving. Perhaps he had a medical emergency; I think he simply fell asleep. He had that tendency. People tell me to take my time grieving; these same people seem to want me to move on, already.
A familiar time and place to find me: dusk into night, sitting in a chair in the backyard, a glass in my right hand, my left hand on the dog’s shoulder. I look out and up at lawn and branches and leaves, listening when I can no longer see. Eventually I recognize this as my father’s exact position, most evenings that I can remember, on a back porch whenever possible. I used to think he was reviewing his day and surveying his domain.
I now know he was thinking of the dead, and how much he had not been able to accomplish.
March 2020, and school is dismissed for remote learning due to COVID.
For the foreseeable future, nothing will be good enough for anyone. Various proclamations of hero status are made, followed by disdain and vilification. Remote becomes “hybrid,” which means everyone must do everything twice—once digitally, once in person. Students come, go, return, disappear, reappear on a screen to disappear again. I teach in a replication machine for viruses; sports continue, despite; group activities continue, despite. It is fashionable, a declaration of personal freedom, to let one’s naked nostrils be the focal point of any interaction.
I picture myself in the hospital, prone and on a ventilator, my back fat exposed to the world.
It is March of 2021, and my principals and I are in a meeting. I am sitting in a too-small maroon-cushioned office chair. There is a fly of Dickinson-like significance (or insignificance) buzzing around and about the windows and corners. I am positioned to see a clock. And I am watching it.
Oh, I am not being fired. There are concerns. Am I happy, am I satisfied. Yes, yes. It has been a hard year. COVID, etcetera. Yes, of course. I nod thoughtfully; I am wondering how the dissatisfaction of many has been reduced into me. I know again it is my own fault; perception is reality is a concept I have never been able to manipulate to my advantage. Still nodding, I consider defending myself, but I know I am too late. That is not my role today. Today I am to be contrite for sins real and assumed.
I find myself nodding like a bobble-headed doll.
At 4:53 all feelings trite enough to be named slide away, and I am left with this clear directive:
Capitulate. Relinquish all pride and shame. Something has ended, something has begun. This moment is important.
Also, this moment does not matter.
A metaphor: I have experienced the moment when centripetal force lets go, and I am free of my weighty orbit. It is the moment when my trajectory became synched to the direction the forces of nature had flung me.
April, May, and June, work and life continue as before; everything is the same.
Nothing is the same.
In August, 2022, I hand in my resignation. My house sells quickly as a flip, and I live with my sister in Colorado for a number of weeks, though my destructive cat and over-exuberant dog make my welcome somewhat frayed at the edges, and I hurry toward something more completely my own. I pay off all my bills; I junk my old car and buy a newer one.
I research RV living. I consider a conversion van. I read about Tiny Houses and watch the television show. I price out sheds and complete homes on wheels and mobile homes and vehicles of various kinds. I take day and multi-day trips through mountains and deserts and the alien landscapes of New Mexico and West Texas, aware only of the general compass points, ignorant of state and national borders. A proud (though late) explorer, I revel in my “discoveries” of ancient volcanoes and vast mesas, swooping sandhills and oceanic prairies. At night in motel rooms, I write the next third of a novel it has taken me a year to write the first third of. I get stoned for the first (second, third) time since college, but it is still not really my thing. Ideas and research coalesce into an indistinct mass. I picture a glob of primordial goo waiting for a lightning strike.
But the lightning has already struck. It is only a matter of watching what develops.
September 2021, I buy a tiny house on Facebook Marketplace and move to a tiny house village in northern Texas, 1200 miles from my previous home, but not far from my brother. It is a bright, cheery space, easy to maintain and easy to afford. I watch almost every sunrise and sunset. I have no debt. I have great expectations of myself.
If anyone has expectations of me, I am not aware of them.
I think about that epiphanic moment in the too-small chair in the office with the fly and the clock and the clucking bosses, and I wonder: would this moment have happened had my parents been alive? If my family had a crest, the motto would have been “Never leave one job until you have the next.” I have proven myself brave enough to plunge into the void now; but would I have been cheeky enough to break free of my parents’ advice-cum-dictum?
In a similar vein, my parents’ advice on a lasting marriage (51 years), and my father’s (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek wedding toast, was “To have a long marriage, don’t get divorced.” My brother is now divorcing after 17 years. My sister is divorcing after 25 years.
Perhaps “epiphany” is not such a private and individual experience as one might imagine.
In September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a steady monthly increase in “quits” with September coming in at 4.3 million workers; October backs off slightly; November tops September with 4.4 million quits. The trend is expected to continue.
I picture tens of millions of people, each on his or her respective spinning carnival ride, flung into wide open space on tens of millions of trajectories. We fly through space. Some scream in joy, hands in the air, catching the wind; others tuck into protective balls and cover their eyes.
I have resurrected an old habit I had in my 20’s, of picking a direction and driving as far as time or gas money will allow–stopping when I want to stop, whether for a strange bird or unusual view, an odd shop or restaurant, or simply an interesting place to stretch and pee. I find that Texas is especially amenable to this type of exploration. The terrain is exotic to me; a spirit of entrepreneurship and apparent lack of zoning laws create unusual businesses and strange juxtapositions that beg to be explored; people are friendly and speak to strangers with ease, it seems, and there are a plethora of well-labeled historic markers, independent museums, and state and local parks.
On one trip, I drive as far west on I-20 as my wandering mind will take me through the frantic industriousness of the Permian Basin. A dozen booms and a dozen more busts are evident in hundreds of miles of oil and cotton fields and objectively ugly roadside businesses on the endless frontage roads on either side of the interstate. I am ready to turn around (or head north, or south, as the next major interchange may pull me) when I begin to see signs for “Odessa Meteor Crater.” I continue to follow the various signs and arrows, some from businesses (or former businesses, the advertisements abandoned like the Eyes of T.J. Eckleburg), some from local authorities, some from the National Park Service. I exit the interstate and follow an empty four-lane highway that ends abruptly three miles later at a low, small building with a large, empty parking lot. A half-dozen industrial picnic tables with sail-like awnings sit lonely around the building and lot. I might be the only human being between the interstate to the north, Odessa ten miles east, and perhaps anywhere 100 miles west or south.
I exit the car and scan the almost uniformly gray-brown terrain for signs and information. There are several, but none indicate whether the visitor’s center is open. There is no clear order for exploration, so I meander from one sign to another by whatever forces push or pull me. I learn that it dates from the Pleistocene, when Neanderthals wandered the Earth. I wonder if they could see the streak through the atmosphere or feel the implosion, and if it was exciting or frightful; I wonder if they noticed the strange bright colors of the sunrise and sunset through the resultant dust.
I find myself at the edge of the crater. It is disappointingly shallow, about 15 feet deep at the center, the other 100 feet or so of the crater filled with sand and dust nearly to its top over the last 63,000 years. I walk down the paved path to the point of impact, indistinguishable from its surroundings except for a plaque. It is a strange, lonely walk across to the opposite side. I am surrounded by the hum and clank of a thousand oil pumps and a thousand more squat giant windmills and ten thousand more stumpy electrical poles with lines that skim across the horizon for as far as the eye can see. Energy surrounds, the air buzzes.
I walk the perimeter of the crater, noticing along the way a lone figure in a window of the visitor’s center. In the age of COVID, I am still uncertain whether this means the building is open. The wind is hot. I return to the car.
It is time to go home. I leave the visitor’s center, picnic tables, and empty lot and follow the foreshortened four-lane road back to the interstate.
I picture the tens of millions of spinning carnival riders on our tens of millions of trajectories. Where do we strike? How deep is our impact? Will anyone notice the strange brightness of the sunrises and sunsets our landings have kindled?
Perhaps we are not meteors, one-off flights through space headed for some distant impact.
I picture myself on the free-wheeling trip of a comet, swinging from gravity to gravity in a pattern too grand to discern, my tail blazing behind. I light the night sky like a guiding star, waiting for the magi to notice.
~ Greta L. Ode ~