It’s amazing the lengths you’ll go to to connect two homes in your head. You’ll take a walk next to a razor-wire-fence-protected golf course and remember a similar one back home, the only difference being that here there’s North Carolina red dirt in place of the rich black kind you’ll find in Chicagoland. You’ll pass by the hole that’s been cut into the fence and see yourself as a weed-grazing adolescent, sneaking into a defunct fisherman’s lagoon to get covertly high while your parents fought back home.
You’ll walk an hour or more in this land that isn’t yours and transpose old haunts from where you used to live. You’ll find an open, empty field in the middle of nowhere and pretend it’s the one just off Western Ave. back in Chicago, the one that was so wide and so vast that you could actually find something like quiet, right there, in the busyness of the city. The cars that streamed past in the distance were so far away that they might as well have been lightning bugs dancing in the summer sky. But there are no lightning bugs circling this North Carolina field. Nothing but land and air, sweat and earth.
These comparisons are unavoidable. Every slice of pizza you have will be compared against what you’re accustomed to, every Carolinian hill will remind you of the flatness of the Illinois earth. But still, this is your adopted land. Your transplanted town. So you walk. You remember the failed relationship, failed job, failed lifestyle that got you here. All of these failures that led you to where you are now, scarred and battle-worn but otherwise okay. Otherwise thriving. You watch as pounds are shed from your body, pounds you put on back home when it seemed like you were in a hole that went down for miles without even a glimpse of sun. You walk and fight, train and run. You go from proving yourself to others to proving yourself to yourself. You stay hungry.
In a matter of months, you go from barely getting out of bed to make a package of ramen before falling asleep again to working for yourself, doing MMA training, and working on getting your master’s. You realize the absurdity of this transformation as you go on another one of your walks, passing this razor wire that’s meant to protect the golf course from the denizens of your neighborhood. You laugh at the concept of it.
You write some more, like you did in the old days, simply putting yourself on the page. It’s fiction, sure, but it’s real enough that you’re basically in there. You’re basically contained in that little box, waiting for someone else to read you. You read Wallace and Tolstoy and Beatty and Murakami and Hoban. You write like a fucking madman. You stay hungry.
It seems as though anything you decide to do simply happens. You’ll come to realize that this is actually a more involved process, that it requires a mental toughness you’ve honed over years of putting up with unbelievably crazy shit. You’ll remember the story you heard over and over again at the Zen temple you used to go to back home. The one about the ambitious monk who wanted to reach enlightenment, who desperately asked his teacher what he had to do to reach it. And the way your own teacher’s eyes would light up when he’d relate what the story’s teacher had said, that the ambitious monk had to chop wood and carry water.
You didn’t understand it then, but you think you might have an idea now. The thing was all that mattered. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to write. If you wanted to be a fighter, you had to train. If you wanted to be a student, you had to study. It was as simple and difficult as that.
People will ask you how you keep up with all of it, how you stay so active, always looking for a new challenge, always trying to beat yourself at whatever you’re doing. You’ll laugh and shrug it off, but there will be an answer, an answer you’ll never give but will always think. The answer is that the alternative is worse than death. It’s an alternative you watched your parents go through, with crumbling marriage and lost jobs and addictions and homelessness. It’s an alternative you saw the beginnings of in yourself back home, toward the end, working a job you hated, engaged and stuck in a relationship that was breaking you down into tiny tiny parts, confronting your past traumas in bits and pieces, here and there, only remembering scattered details but never seeing the whole picture, like an ant unaware of the human world that surrounds it.
You’re a little more achey, a little more creaky, but you’re stronger. You’re smarter. Nothing can really bring you down the way things used to before. It’s funny. There aren’t any Zen temples for you to visit where you live now, but you understand the teachings better now than you did back then. You don’t try to win the approval of others, you just do the thing. You don’t chase enlightenment, you just chop wood and carry water. You stay hungry.