"...I have so craved silence and solitude that in the past half-year or so I have had recurring fantasies of using the keys to various churches we have at the flower shop--to just sneak in some afternoon with a book or a pillow or just me..."
~~Me, in the Spiral Notebook Journal, Thursday, January 13, 2005
On Tuesday nights, residents at the halfway house where I work have the choice of an in-town AA meeting or an out-of-town AA meeting. For the first few months that I worked Tuesday nights, my coworker drove to the out-of-town meeting and I drove the guys to the in-town meeting and then snuck home to poke around on the internet or watch DVR'd shows with Hubby for an hour before having to return to work. That routine changed after one too many complaints about the driving skills of my coworker--he was working two jobs and going to school; some of the guys suspected he was occasionally dozing off at the wheel. (Happily for everyone, the coworker moved on to a single higher-paying job that required significantly less driving.)
So, I took over the out-of-town meeting--about a half-hour trip one way to a town with very little going on at any time of the day, still less between 8 and 9 p.m. on a weeknight. Short of spending the whole hour in a back corner of the tortuously brightly lit McDonald's out by the highway, I was stuck in the van in the parking lot of the church where the meeting is held.
Mostly, I didn't mind. I got into the habit of lugging my pansy bag full of books and notebooks and magazines and paper scraps along on these trips. I would crank the radio and contort myself into some pretzel-like-yet-oddly-comfortable position and read a book or write a bit and, yes, sometimes take a nap with my cellphone alarm set for five minutes before the meeting's end.
Sometimes, though, I felt guilty over having to run the van's engine against the cold--that made me itchy from both an environmental and a budgetary standpoint. Sometimes, I couldn't contort myself into any remotely comfortable position. Sometimes, not just limbs but whole quadrants of my body would end up numb and tingly.
One night, a couple of months ago, I had the seat fully reclined and my left leg bent up in such a way that my foot was on the dashboard beside the steering wheel and my right foot was resting in the cup holder. I was reading the latest issue of Harper's magazine and a Tom Petty song was blaring on the radio when there was a knock on the window next to my head.
I sat up immediately and looked out to see a sensibly dressed older woman smiling up at me. She was wearing a navy skirt and a white button down blouse with a gray cardigan over it. Her hair was graying and pulled up into a loose ponytail. She adjusted her glasses and introduced herself as "Jackie Somebody, from the church."
She pointed to a house peeking over the fence at the end of the parking lot and said, "I live right over there. And for over a year now, when I walk past my upstairs window, I see you out here in the van on Tuesday nights and think to myself, 'I'm going to go out there and introduce myself.' and then I never do, but now here I am."
She then told me I was welcome to go inside the church, that there was a room upstairs, away from the AA and Al-Anon meetings, where I could sit to read instead of tangling myself up in knots in the van. My first instinct was to politely refuse (which tends to be my first instinct practically every time anyone offers me any sort of aid--an instinct that really needs to be looked at, probably professionally), but as I started to say I was okay in the van, she said in a voice somehow eager to please and vaguely annoyed at the same time, "Why don't you at least let me give you a tour?"
So, I let her give me a tour. There was a nice sitting area and a meeting hall full of tables and a kitchen where she told me to help myself to something to drink whenever I wanted. She showed me where the rest rooms were and even took me into the sanctuary briefly. She told me I was welcome to come in any time and that if anyone saw me up there and asked what I was doing I was to tell them, "Sister Jackie said I could."
After the tour, I knew I would never be sitting in the van again on Tuesday nights. Instead, I lug my pansy bag full of notebooks and books and magazines and paper scraps up the steps into the dark upstairs of the church and find my way to the meeting hall where I turn on the row of lights second from the right, which shine on the round table nearest the door and I sit down and open my notebook. Every week since Sister Jackie said I could, on Tuesday nights, for one hour, I do nothing but write, undistracted by music, momentarily untormented by budgetary and environmental concerns, and wholly, blessedly unpretzelized.
A few weeks into this routine, still giddy and reveling in what had started to feel like a sacred hour in my week, I thought to myself, "I'm going to dedicate my first book to Sister Jackie I-Can't-Remember-Her-Last-Name." I get more writing done in those little snippets of time than I do the rest of the month combined.
A few more weeks into this routine and it hit me that I was absurdly grateful to Sister Jackie for a gift I could've given myself a long time ago. Not the mostly empty church part, of course, but the hour of quiet where I focus entirely on my writing part. And, I could do that more than once a week.
Oprah likes to talk about "Aha! moments." Let's call this one my "Duh! moment."