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Notes on Possibly Dreaming Ways Home

by Chaya Babu

There was a rabbit on the road in Wyoming. We could have been on the moon. The ground was white with rocks of ice, the snow met the sky in the somewhere beyond of unknowable horizon, the air was white in the evening’s somewhere blackness. Everything was moon dust. I only know what state we were in — there was a period during which we drove and drove and every other mile or so we’d see a Welcome To Utah, Wyoming, or Idaho sign — because of the miserable, unplowed, beautiful road.

Our rabbit stood tall on its hind legs, ears up, frozen — like she had seen a ghost. She did not flinch at our presence, a phantom chariot passing in the night. She had other business. What did she see that kept her wrapt, her back to us, looking on into that specter-of-blue-mountain moonworld?

Once at some other dark hour in the late dark part of the drive, we saw a tree on the right side of the road, a bare, gnarly, twisted thing that seemed like winter was not the sole reason for its charm, and we were like, “Ah! A tree!” Later we saw another tree, after a forever of nothing and though we had not turned or stopped, we could swear it was the same one.

Eventually we got there. A little town called Freedom, which N kept saying, with a kind of marvel, was between two places, (I think it sits right on the border of Wyoming and Idaho). She paid more attention to the maps than I did; she made us go to the post office, which was indeed on the state line; she wrote postcards with cowboy stamps at the big table in the Rambling Hills Road cabin, which makes me smile even now.

I had said to her somewhere in the middle of December, “I’m going to Wyoming, want to come?” And then she boarded a flight from LaGuardia just before the New Year so we could drive together. Everyone else had been like, “Why the hell are you going there?”

At last I’ve learned: “Because I want to.”

It has been so hard.

I moved to New Mexico exactly a year before I got on the road again with N to take one of the trips through the Wild Wild West that I had promised myself would be part of leaving the city. I wanted to see America. Know it. Brooklyn, Manhattan before that, Westchester through high school: that had all been one thing, even in its multitudes. I’m covering 38 years of living in those aforementioned chunks, and even New York’s maximalism had ceased to be enough, for the time at least, for my roving heart. And now, I think maybe I’ve achieved a kind of freedom, in as much as liberation can be thought of as a destination, which I know it’s not. It’s the going, the practice, the ongoing.

And yet I’m in a time of heartrending.

The last PechaKucha event in Santa Fe was themed “Lost/Found.” Artist Max Neutra opened the evening with a meditation – the notion that perhaps, given that most of us can attest, however begrudgingly, to having grown in some way through our pain, we should think of loss and its (typically down the road) corollary of gain as the natural equilibrium of being alive. Like energy cannot be created or destroyed. Like we lost a thing, but we found another. It got me thinking about how the reverse must be true too then — if there’s something we’re seeking, like desire or beauty, we have to be willing to give something up along our quest. I thought about why, in this reversal, the barter is so immediate. Like an offering we weren’t aware we’d have to make. A killing.

Although now I feel foolish. Of course, freedom could never have been free.

Neutra told us about an illustration he had done but then misplaced, of a blue and red human heart tucked among a fluffle of white rabbits. Our rabbit was white too — I looked her up and found that she was likely a White-Tailed Jackrabbit. She haunted me after. I found her sinister, but in the most poetic of ways. She possessed me for that instant, made me know myself. Then she was gone again. Or we were, our phantom chariot in the waxing moon night.

New Mexico was random as fuck. The high desert of the old Southwest with its dry chamisa lining the arroyo. Piñon forest and backyard coyote at marigold dusk. Indigo mountain. Mosaic longhorn. UFOs and our chupacabra, lowriders, ghost hands. Jackelope. Sometimes I say I could have packed up and gone to Shanghai and it would have been closer. Some people get what that means. I had a career in New York. That thing where I followed a line, even if it wasn’t always completely straight. One could argue there was a logic to the way the dots of my life — well the dots of my work, because it’s always work,because capitalism — connected. I was a city girl, fast and sharp and driven. I remember standing on the sidewalk outside of Sake Sushi on Church Ave about to pick up my takeout; I can’t recall where I was in the process of the move, but I think it was early fall, 2021. I was in sandals and cutoffs, and the early chill blew a piece of trash over my feet like a tumbleweed. As in, it was underway. My dad called. I faced the nail salons and the Polish deli next to the halal meat market.

“But what are you going to do there?” he pleaded.

“I did it your way, and now I want to go work at the flower shop.”

Flower shop was my proxy for the job where I could be left the fuck alone once I walked out the door into the sun, where if my editor, oops, boss, was abusive I could quit without the fear that it would destroy me, where my brain was my own so I might have space to write — or not write! Whatever! —but also where I could be around beautiful things. Beautiful days. Wild things. Windows for god’s sake. I can’t believe that this was the dream, that it had to be, that it was so odd and so foreign to all of us. I had restive longings which had long cast me out despite the fact that, materially, I had played by the rules. Or at least I felt like I did, but isn’t it always this way when we haven’t walked far enough out to the edge for our liking? Meanwhile other people watch from afar like, look at that crazy bitch.

My poor dad. I could sense him at a loss, thinking, sardonic: oh, good. A surgeon who’s built a 40 year old practice, who migrated to the US from India for prosperity, security, and at the same time maybe even his own kind of freedom, he was terrified.

I — for once — was not.

Like the old me, wild rabbits are everyone’s prey. Their survival instinct has to be razor-sharp, which makes them hardwired for fear as a constant. I love the shadow puppet narration in the Netflix version of Watership Down. It tells of Frith, the mythic god or creator of the stars and the animals, whose anger at the Prince Rabbit for his children daring to eat abundant clover and flourish leads him to bestow a kind of curse: the elil, or the thousand enemies of rabbits.

“You have condemned my people to lives of fear, Lord,” Prince El-ahrairah tells Frith.

The god responds: “Do you not wish to see what blessing I have for your people, Prince Rabbit?”

Behold, the trade.

Frith explains that though all the world hungers to destroy the rabbit, “first… they must catch you.” Digger, listener, runner. Those were the gifts. To stay running from death.

The question of whether those of us who crave the road are just running, afraid, unable to face whatever ghosts are interminably at our tails is one I have considered. On the road, are we driven by fear or desire? Are we going towards a place or away from another? What if it’s neither? What if Freedom, for some of us, is the place between two places? The movement itself. The seeking, its loops and unfurling. What might be found just beyond the moving headlights on the moon-road.

Why did this make me so wrong? I am haunted. The story of my madness follows me. That self that I’ve always been a little bit, a little off or out of range, neither here nor there, interstellar, interstitial — people want to know: why can’t you just be normal? I documented the entire transition as if it were an epic poem, from picking up the first round of boxes that jutted out from the back of the black Acura to Ramsey the ram at the Sandia Park AirBnB that I was instructed to hit with a shovel if he tried to charge me in the ass. I unearthed the detritus of nearly a decade of writing, found old birthday cards from my dead best friend, and hired a contractor to sledgehammer away the structure I built with my hands and 22 cinder blocks in my Ocean Parkway studio (I always have good ideas). There was the day that I lost my car keys at Home Depot during the last five-minute trip for more boxes while I waited three hours for a Triple A tow (they never came), and the movers were due the next morning. Then there was peeling glitter stars off the wall. Wrapping seashells. Discovering lost tarot cards (The Star). There was eating momos with N on the hardwood floor with a single lamp just before that final night in that empty box of an apartment. Then I started the drive. Four and half days, flat expanse across Middle America, trunk full of clothes, two black cats in the back. It was the most fun I had had in a very long time. All of it. I had no plan and no logic, no one waiting for me on the other end. But I was kinetic again, in that breathless euphoria of reaching, of trying, of dreaming ways.

My dad said to me, “You can’t just try forever.”

I remember wondering to myself, isn’t that the definition of living? Trying forever? I remember the sensation then of a truth that jumped through me and was swiftly gone again: that the tendency toward the unknown, a willingness to peer into the nothing and nowhere place, was not what I had been told but, instead, wisdom.

Divine folly.

Silly rabbit.

It was true, though maybe also not, that I had done it their way. Class president through middle and high school, early admission to Duke, a journalism masters from Northwestern, and later a fully-funded mid-career MFA at Pratt. Prestigious fellowships and rustic farmhouse residencies, feminist arts orgs boards, a long list of publications that made me somebody.And yet, I suppose, I was still a writer — no number of accolades could compensate for this. It crept, cunning, between the lines of my resume, this fact of my listening, thinking, writing. Feeling. It was itinerant, ungovernable. It gave me ideas. I alternately birthed them in forms much smaller than their essence and was immobilized by the ever-present fear of the story of my badness. So when I began to notice, around the time that I had what looked like a promising first manuscript — when that’s the place I had come to in what could have been the neat line of my work; I was “the next rising star” someone smart and literary told me they had heard — that I was all of a sudden in the middle of a dry riverbed, the flow of not just opportunity but inchoate creativity, stanched at some beyond place I could not see, I did the right thing and I flailed hapless in those invisible waters. For a very long time. And then. I decided to listen.

I told a new friend a few weeks ago over a flight of sotol at Paloma, “Nobody knows this but I came here because I was never going to be young or cool enough to get the flower shop job in Brooklyn.” Which was true — though of course also not. It’s both, or somewhere in between.

Sometime in the summer before the move, I watched Nomadland. There’s a quote in my phone’s Notes app dated July 2021 that must have held meaning to me at the time. Linda’s sister, who’s trying to get her to stay because that’s what family does, but also because Linda’s chosen lifestyle is at best unconventional and possibly unsafe, says to her, “You know, when you were growing up you were eccentric to other people, maybe seemed weird, but it was just because you were braver and more honest than everybody else… You left a big hole by leaving.” It’s a quiet moment. Loving.

Also around then, my sister instructed her kids to not have contact with me anymore. A little boy and his baby sister who call me Chachi (a portmanteau of “Chaya” and “Chikamma,” which translates to “mother’s younger sister” in Kannada, my mother tongue), whom I met at the hospital just minutes after their births. In the first years, also about ten years ago, I bought my nephew this pair of chunky knit booties from WARM in Nolita which my niece later inherited; there’s a video of her at almost two years old wearing them with nothing but her curls and wobbly thighs and a white onesie, my sister’s voice asking her, “What did you want to tell Chachi?” She lisps into the camera, “Bout the booooties.” When my nephew was five, we hung a gallery show of his Ninja Turtles collection — mostly Crayon on White Paper — and I interviewed him for his artist talk. He kept blushing when he answered my questions. My big man. My niece couldn’t tell the difference between me and her mother if I grabbed her in the middle of the night to soothe her wailing (I’m not so different, am I?). Together the three of us built the elaborate End-Times Fort during the first weekend of lockdown (there was a tunnel to get to the coziest part), and then later the haunted house with the Hall of Doll Heads and the skeleton walk projection (my best artistic work if I’m honest). Now they make digital illustrations of me, a brown girl with a fierce high-top fade at a desk, writing. I guess as a kind of memorializing. And they research me on the Internet to try to find the truth. Because my sister has told them I’m a fuck-up who doesn’t know how to do life (some who hear of this want to know the precise form this severing of the auntie-niblings relationship has taken, as if the technicality matters, as if it’s not so bad because children have their own devices these days and can sneak a message every few months — as if it’s not enough to condition their innocent growing minds to perpetuate the scapegoating that defined my own childhood). I intuit that all this has been less about the move per se, people move all the time, but rather because of what it revealed. Which is that I was getting braver and more honest. Which I’ve learned that people don’t really like. Especially those who have made generous investments in our fear. This is my elil.

The last time I saw the kids at my parents’ house on a visit to close out my storage unit and get the last of my belongings, I offered, simply: “That must be very confusing for you.” It was all I could say. Because wasn’t that why I had left? Because this was always there, wasn’t it? The danger of being cast out at any moment, with any arbitrary move on my part, thus I had been frozen all along as a means of survival. Of belonging and family and of having a home. Running was both — towards and away — and, by definition, somewhere in between.

I am in a time of heartrending.

The ride to Freedom, Wyoming, was not just long and dark, but hard too. It took 18 hours and snowed nearly the entire way. We looked for food in Helper but everything was an abandoned gas station. There are no words for some of the places we drove through — N was like, “I suppose then it’s concealed forever.” The white void of flat ghostland in the night drive, the desolate road, the jagged canyon. Avalanche watch. I put my beanie on as another car sped up to pass us in the black and snow-filled ravine. “I want them to think I’m not me,” I said. We were so alone on that cold, snaking pass.

Both of us were thinking about the casualties of moving, or movement. We talked about it as we watched the road, about our daughterness, our duty and shame and what people call rebellion. Because little brown girls aren’t supposed to be out in the big world or have big wants. We should be like shadow puppets, moving only at the whims of another. To be sovereign, knowing, revealed too much. How long we had been hiding. And running. How strange we were. Unfathomable.

In the wake of my wreckage, I return to Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ philosophy of descansos. In Old Mexico and New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, descansos are resting places: usually marked by crosses and flowers, sites of literal death along the road. You pass by, you know that right there a life ended. At particularly precarious points, jutting cliffs and barbed edges, a descanso may be sparse — a pair of sticks tied perpendicular with perhaps a single artificial stem of a rose or carnation, or even a painted cross on a rock: these are treacherous places to visit to be sure, but the ritual of laying to rest who and what has departed is vital to those who held them dear.

So too for us and whatever has gone before its time. We must mark the ache, the longing, the injustice in certain loss. “They are… profound tragedies and have to be grieved as such,” Estés writes. “We mark where there were roads not taken, paths that were cut off, ambushes, betrayals, deaths.” Without this reckoning, we risk staying endlessly bereft. Barren. Without this, we can’t grow something from the ghostland.

A few months after my arrival in Santa Fe, someone who had witnessed me closely as I tried to parse the debris from the deadening of so much that I had worked hard to nurture, said, “You made this Chaya, you chose life.” It was a soft moment. Loving. By then I was running a little boutique next to a bookstore and a witch shop, where I spent my days in an old saltillo-tiled casita with a back patio and a giant swooping crocus tree outside the big window. I created my home space with thrifted goods from local consignment shops and put an orchid in each room facing the juniper wood. This life I chose, or found, is palmy and full of shifting light. I can feel my heartbeat, and myself, the one I misplaced when I was birthed into unbelonging. It has taken so long to find her. The road, with all of its losses — its flowers and ghosts, its tricksters and crosses — has been so very long.

I think of the rabbit. She stays with me now. I wonder if she came to tell me to follow her, as in, into that everwide deserted moonworld, to look at it, look hard toward the wishing place: wilderness within, pink-threaded apache plume against pink adobe, Alsadir’s beauty (“beauty is most self”). Art and indigo mountain. Away from fear.

Behold the trade. Freedom is blooming.

Notes on Possibly Dreaming Ways Home
Painting courtesy of Deborah Stein
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