Turn On the Lights
After law school I was a bit of a lost soul. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer – a realization not as unusual as you would think, even after you’ve dumped $100k on a legal education that now seems unsuitable and uncomfortable. I was working as a student worker in the public information office for one of the city’s environmental agencies, and enjoying my work tremendously. As a precursor to “surfing the net,” my duties mostly revolved around reading the daily editions of several local and national newspapers, then switching to a stack of monthly magazines of all manner of topic and perspective, and culling from all this material anything and everything written on air pollution or environmental protection. I’d then painstakingly photocopy these articles and collect them into an in-house memo, complete with my own, “hand crafted” table of contents and then distribute this memo to everyone in the department. Basically, our department had anticipated the email newsletter by about a decade.
But when law school ended and my roommate moved out, I went from being student poor to just poor; working minimum wage and unable to meeting my daily living expenses, let alone the monthly student loan payments that were waiting for me at the end of a six month respite. Reluctantly – with lots of shame and disappointment – I decided to move back in with my parents.
When I say move back in, that’s not really true in the sense that they were no longer living in my childhood home. They weren’t even living in my childhood state. They’d actually relocated to Bullhead City Arizona. Located on the banks of the Colorado River, located directly across from Laughlin, NV – home of second rate casinos and second rate tourists – at the time I lived there, Bullhead City was dominated by a sea of mobile homes (these were the days before the PC “pre-manufactured” label lets people feel better about living in a trailer), placed with geometrical precision on a grid of dusty, unpaved streets.
In the winter, as snow topped the picturesque Hualapai Mountains in the distance, cold winds ripped across the desert, triggering sandstorms and delivering a tidal wave of trash that snuck into every crevasse. From about November to March, you couldn’t drive down the street or walk a block without dodging flying plastic bags and rolling cardboard containers. Fences were thick with debris. Chaparral and mesquite trees stood adorned with all the colorful leftovers that had managed to escape trash bins and find freedom in the winter winds.
In the summer, the temperature would hit 90 degrees and just keep going up…and that’s at night. Finding your seatbelt became an act of bravery as you attempted to dodge third degree burns. You could leave nothing – and I mean nothing – in your car during the day. I once had the glue from a hardback book dissolve under the pressure; when I went to pick it up the cover melted off and pages flew everywhere. Anything that wasn’t completely solid melted (lipstick, toothpaste, even the occasional plastic water bottle), and even solid items faded or warped under the unrelenting desert sun.
Fall was doable, and spring mildly tolerable thanks moderate temperatures and a splash greenery thanks to seasonal monsoons. The monsoons themselves were a revelation – torrential rain wiped out roads and pounded dry landscapes for days while Technicolor thunder and lighting storms raged across the sky. In LA people watch car chases live on the evening news, in Arizona during monsoon season, you watch vehicles washed away in storm surges bump and bustle down newly made rivers of mud.
There were moments. Those lighting blasts. The snow topped mountains. The sheep herd that waddled out every morning during my commute. The silence out past the city. The way – despite the dust and the wayward trash – everything felt so clean.
Nevertheless, I was bereft. How could have hit such a high and end up unemployed and living with my parents? Being a law student always seemed carry with it a certain cache, and it indemnified me for four years while my peers struggled and strained under regular interrogations regarding their adult ambitions. It certainly let me off the hook when folks started to pry into my future plans… “gonna be a lawyer, you must your shit together”…
I was supposed to spend this parental sojourn strategizing and plotting my escape, but after a few weeks I realized that without some cash flow, I’d never get anywhere. Alas, in many ways getting a job only made matters worse: more minimum wage insured that everyday the interest accumulating on my loans guaranteed that I was eternally in the red, costing myself more every day I was alive.
I’d always wanted to write. Had always felt comfortable on the page. And so that’s what I went back to – writing…awkwardly at first, using letters to friends and tiny, descriptions as crutches. Eventually I started thinking in terms of stories – of characters and plot arcs. And along the way I picked up some valuable mentors, including the two ladies I’ve mentioned in here several times already: Julia Cameron and Anne Lamott.
In the end, what helped me change the direction of my life…what got me out of the desert and back to the coast…what jumpstarted my career and lead me to an independent lifestyle…was writing.
And I say unequivocally and with as much sincerity and passion as I can must, that the single greatest tool I picked up along the way was Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.
Morning Pages are three pages of long-hand writing, preferably every morning. It sounds like a drag, and I haven’t always been the consistent practitioner myself, but the power behind those pages is amazing. It really can – trust me – change your life. That doesn’t mean you win the lottery or find your soul mate, but the quality of your life, how you live and what you live with, will change fundamentally for the better.
“Morning Pages bear witness to our lives,” explains Cameron in The Right to Write. “They increase our conscious contact with spiritual guidance. They prioritize our days while they miniaturize our censor, allow us to write freely and effectively.
“They allow us to empty our minds and hearts of disturbing distractions and simultaneously open our minds and hearts to deeper reflections.”
I know you’re going to resist this advice – every body does. But I will tell you now freely and with no irony or agenda, that if you really want to transform your life, if you really want your writing to expand and improve, if you want to increase your skill or change your circumstances, Morning Pages can help you accomplish all of it.
In the end I can’t say it any better than Cameron…
“Morning Pages quite literally ‘turn on the lights.’”