Gimme shelter 

One woman’s odyssey in Missoula

They administered career tests in school, and my results were always the same: Molly, you're a withdrawn, intuitive feeler. You're not suited for any job. They said I should do arts and crafts—which, okay, I may have been a child, but I knew that wasn't a real job. I’ve known people who strive to find their purposes, who settle on dentistry or accounting because they’re fine trades. Barring a brief period in kindergarten where I waffled between rock star and dinosaur bone digger, I always knew I'd be a teacher and a writer.

It's winter semester 2012 and I’m teaching a freshman composition course at a community college in the suburbs of Detroit, where I grew up. The last time I spent any time on this campus was 10 years before, when I was made to scrub gum off the bottoms of desks as a condition of my probation for underage drinking. Now I’m standing in front of a white board showing a bunch of 18-year-olds where the commas go. It’s my dream come true. But did you know that most dreams are actually unpleasant? You’re always being chased, or you’ve lost an important key or you’ve said a dumb thing to a room full of strangers and they’re all laughing at you.

The semester is almost over. We’re starting the last big research paper, and I’m projecting as much enthusiasm as I can muster. “You can write about anything you want,” I tell them. “Anything at all that interests you.”

I tell them that school writing is the same as any kind of writing, that it’s about engaging the reader with a good story. Twenty smooth faces stare back at me. They don’t read books. They’ve never heard of David Foster Wallace or Joy Williams. They’ve never even seen Pulp Fiction. They’re having a hard time picking a research project because these kids aren’t interested in anything. They want to know if spelling counts. They’re interested in pointing at the word “tense” that I wrote in red ink on the margins of their paper and asking how much they’ll be marked down for it.

After an hour, most of the class has nailed down a topic: Coral reefs, FoxConn, a paleolithic diet, video game violence, diet pills. But there’s one girl in the back of the class whose name I can never remember because she never speaks, who can’t think of anything to write about.

“Can you think of some topics you’ve been learning about in your other classes that might interest you?” I ask her.

“Not really,” she says.

“What do you plan on majoring in?”

“Human resources,” she says.

I literally don’t know what that is.

“I don’t know what that is. Come on. There must be something. What do you like to do outside of school for fun?”

“Sleep?” she says.

I know it’s illegal to shake a baby, definitely, but what about a young adult?

Eventually, she reveals an interest in reality television and we settle on something to do with a changing media or whatever. The experience rattles me. It starts to seem like their skulls are filled with fireflies, that the next generation is a sleepwalking army of gamers and TV babies. I don’t care about where they put their damn commas. I just want them to want to know things.

These kids come to community college straight out of high school because everybody tells them they’ll never get a job without a college degree. It’s a four- to five-year plan so scary you’d think Stephen King wrote it. Spend $40,000 and the prize at the end of the line is a job, maybe?

Higher education feels like a lie.

Teachers make expensive promises the world can’t deliver because we’ve got student loans of our own to pay. As an adjunct instructor teaching two sections of composition for a semester, I make about $3,500. After the money spent on gas to commute to campus, food, clothes and movies to make the pain go away, by the end of April I have about $1,500. Take into account my student loans, in a perpetual state of deferral, slowly accruing interest like an abominable snowman rolling down the mountain to crush me, and I’m worth negative many thousands of dollars.

But that’s okay. I’m not interested in money. I just want to go to the woods and live deliberately. I want to stand in a field of rye and catch children. Barring all that, all I can think is, how can I get back out West, to Montana? And once I’m there, how long can I get away without working?

“I’ve had it,” I tell my mother. “The day after the semester ends I’m going back to Missoula for the summer, and then who knows!”

She doesn’t understand. She wants to know where I’ll live. My car is on its last legs, she reminds me. How will I get around? What will I do for money?

“I don’t know, but I have friends with couches,” I tell her. “I’ll watch people’s dogs when they’re away. I’ll read tarot on the street. I’ll get a bike and ride the bus.” As for money, there’s the savings, but savings get spent. “The money part is a little iffy,” I admit.

It’s not true that I don’t want to work. Or, it depends on your definition of work. I want to make my living as a writer, which is an audacious notion at any time, but particularly now, with book sales down and print journalism gasping. I just want to finish my novel and write articles and get an agent and a dog. When you’re a kid, they say you can be anything you want to be. It’s not a lie per se, but then again, we can’t all be astronauts. If everyone were a ballerina, they wouldn’t be special, either. They’d litter the streets like crows in dirty tutus, begging for change. At some point, you’re supposed to give up and get a real job—but when? And what?

There’s the work of building and moving things with your hands. My father started doing maintenance for a rich school district in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., when he was 19, before my parents were married. He put in his 30 years and retired at age 50. He worked with machines because he could leave his job at the door, freeing up the rest of the week to party. These days, he loves smoking weed and traveling the country in a VW bus with my stepmother. He plays bass in a cover band called Ruff Edgez.

My mother started out as a secretary and worked her way up to an important job in intellectual property law. She works long hours in a beautiful building surrounded by woods, on a street called Corporate Drive. When I’m living at home, I’m like a dog. At night I hear the garage door open and I brace myself for her slow, sad trudge through the breezeway. Always it is this way: She sets her parcels on the table and sighs. The sigh is terrible, not just for its content but its bleak predictability. Every night it’s a shank in my belly, a voice that whispers: “Here’s what life looks like when you make all the wrong choices.”

I don’t want to be a patent paralegal or a custodian—although I did work a few summers in my dad’s school district on the summer cleaning crew. How’s this for a humble brag: Remember Cranbrook, the school where Mitt Romney held a kid down, cut his hair off and never once felt bad about it? In the summer of 1998, I applied hot wax to Cranbrook’s gymnasium.

In 2008, I went on the market with a bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology. The Detroit Lions lost every game that year. GM went under. The banks failed. It took me six months to find a job, writing ad copy for an online sporting goods retailer. “You’ll love these skis!” I’d write. “These skis will make you so fast and good.” I made $9 an hour, and by the end I started to unravel. I remember a description for a $200 child’s ski jacket. I wrote: “You should probably buy your kid this ski jacket, or else something really bad is going to happen.” It only took a year of office work for me to arrive at a fundamental truth. Working hard in order to make a living doing what you love isn’t just important: It’s the most important thing.

A voice inside me says I should go to the REI in Troy, Mich., and spend all $500 of the birthday money my mom gave me on backpacking equipment. “How much for a hiking backpack, a sleeping bag and a tent?” I ask.

The floor salesman tells me he can get me into a pack, gladly. The people at REI are always trying to get you into a pack. Also, goose down sleeping bags.

“What’s the vegan position on goose down?” I ask. “Oh, they’re against it,” he says, so I go with synthetic.

There are all these questions:

“What kind of a trip are you planning on taking?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long will you be out?”

“I don’t know.”

“For your tent, are you looking to sleep one or two people?”

I tell him I’m planning for a moment in my future that I’ve seen in my dreams, when I won’t have a home. Luckily, he thinks I’m kidding and we’re spared the heaviness.

The night before I set out to leave Michigan forever, I have a breakdown. I have a few couches in Missoula to sleep on, but the housing situation is tentative at best. There’s the money I saved. Still, it will never be enough. I got blonde highlights in April, but who will love me in June when my roots start showing? Every morning I spit blood in the sink from my gums. It’s troubling. What if I fall off a mountain or get my foot caught in a trap?

My mother’s been crying nonstop in the weeks leading up to my departure. We were born 30 years apart, in April. She just turned 60. A week later, on my 30th birthday, we look at the photo album of my home birth and weep. I am my mother’s third and youngest child. In the photos she looks happy and beautiful. My father hovers over her with a thin mustache and curly hair, poised to cut the cord. I cry for my mother’s red hair and everything that came after. I’m leaving her alone with three cats and that job. Fold the moment in half and in another 30 years I could be standing where she is.

First, I fly to Boston so my brother can draw a baby elephant on my shoulder. The tattoo doesn’t mean much, or it means that I love my brother and I’m proud of how good he is at putting ink on skin. I’m proud that he’s my idea of rich, because we were once poor together. He used to paint trains and everybody hated him for it. Today, my big brother owns a horse and a motorcycle.

In Boston, I go to an open-mic night at the Cantab Lounge, where I read a poem about unrequited love:

“No one ever talks about the second world, but it exists, like plate tectonics exist: It’s called Detroit. Imagine we’re standing there the moment the city splits in half. It’s not your fault, but you’re the reason. I want to know you.”

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