Most cultures have a ritual period during which someone needs to look closely at her life to determine if the path she is on, as religious leader Krishnamurti put it, has a heart. Nearly all Native American tribes put their young people on a vision quest. Natives of the Amazon River basin regularly undergo ritualized experiences to ensure they are doing what their gods require of them. Aboriginal peoples of Australia visit the Dreamtime while going walkabout. And this past Friday was the start of Ramadan, the month-long annual fasting period when Muslims are expected to examine their lives closely and make necessary changes.
I remember driving along a back road in rural Arkansas listening to the radio and a Bruce Springsteen song came on. It was “Hungry Heart,” which was a few years old at that point. This is a small decision that led to a bigger one. The smallest decision was to leave that song on; I wasn’t partial to Bruce Springsteen and especially not to something as loud and as sentimental as “Hungry Heart.” But I said to myself, No, leave it on, and before long I was singing along with it.It’s almost funny how, even though you never pay attention to it, a song on the radio heard often enough comes to get stuck in your head, its words floating around making a mental picture, and you end up remembering them as you let your thoughts wander. That’s how it was with “Hungry Heart.” I was roaring out these lines—“Everybody needs a place to rest, / Everybody wants to have a home. / Don’t make no difference what nobody says, / Ain’t nobody likes to be alone”—without having noticed what they said before. And I realized with a fierce pang that I was lonely. Three years into having been homeless, living in my car and on the streets, I wanted a place to rest, a home, and despite my saying so to friends, no matter how often I denied it, I really didn’t want to be alone any longer.
I pulled my car over to the side of the dusty road and I wept like a beaten child. All the anger and the frustrations of years alone and solitary experiences came bubbling out of my gut and my mouth. The single, simple truth was that I was very, very lonely. I had denied it to myself for so long and so hard that when I could admit to it, it was like someone had taken a sliver of ice out of my neck and I could slump down with my head nearly on my own lap to cry.
After fifteen or twenty minutes I turned the radio and then the car engine off and sat there quietly, peacefully, staring off into the horizon which was a series of hills leading north to the Missouri border. I had no clue what it was I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. All I was certain of was that I didn’t want to be alone any longer. I didn’t want to drink myself into sleep at night because I was alone. I didn’t want to drive into another state or another part of the country, telling myself I was doing it for the experience, not admitting it was because there was no one whose presence kept me in one place. I didn’t want to go into towns and cities and walk the streets and talk to everyone I met hoping I would find someone who could join me or at least leave me feeling like I had been with someone for a little while. I wanted to go out each day and do things with someone else and then go home with her and curl up for a peaceful night’s rest together.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, or maybe I thought it would follow a different sequence of things I had to do, but I needed to give up drinking so much and doing drugs so often and not working for more than a few days at a time and being angry and belligerent. What it would also mean was giving up thinking only about me, making decisions that only revolved around my needs or wants, and doing things that I thought only affected me. I discovered all of those things I had to get under control, not before I found someone, but before she wanted to stay around me. If I had known it, I would probably have been too scared to make a move, certain as I was that the solitary life I lived was the one I was most adapted to. But the first decision had been a little one: to leave the radio on at a song I wasn’t sure I liked. The second decision had been a little bit bigger: to pull over and cry. The third decision had been the biggest: to admit to myself that I wanted to change. The fourth and fifth and hundred seventeenth decisions were yet to come and I had no clue what they were. But for now the third decision was the one I needed to keep warm.