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Adrienne Ross

The Lady Medea

The van appeared on the side road between Aurora Avenue and Green Lake Way, remaining through February, March, the first weeks of April. It was white, squat and grime-streaked from past roads, bedecked with parking tickets, its thick tread tires immobile amid cobble and conifer twigs, with eight-inch black letters painted above dented front fenders: The Lady Medea.An old story, bloodier than most Greek myths, of an adventurer named Jason and his spurned wife Medea, of homes lost, revenge and journeys without end now parked under boughs of cedars and spruces amid Honda Civics, Sport Outbacks, Saturns, Celicas, the occasional Porsche. Dying is a wild night, wrote Emily Dickinson, and a new road.

One day, exhausted from the rut of weeks spent in hours, days, nights in my home office, writing grants for children's museums, homeless shelters, modern dance companies, and water trusts to the Gates Foundation, the Medina Foundation, the Seattle Foundation, the Fish America Foundation, I looked through The Lady Medea's front window. A tiki torch lay stretched across the dusty dashboard. On the front seats were scattered playing cards with the Joker and King of Diamonds face up, crushed crimson Coke cans, blue jeans, and a brown canvass shoved into the passenger side wheel well. In the rear compartment was a mattress covered by a dark blanket, a wooden apple crate, a box of Manischewitz shabbos candles, a 3-flame pagan candelabra, and white plastic bags crammed with clothes, papers, rubbish. Jammed by the stick shift was The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, more crumpled and well thumbed than my own copy.

I sympathized with dilemma of The Lady Medea's captain. Do I take the endless road, like Medea? Or do I stay home, like Dickinson? Both are alluring. Neither are a panacea for all my heart's desires. Yet two more unlikely travel companions than Medea and Emily Dickinson would be hard to imagine, much less find in the same cramped and dirty van.

Medea's passions crashed against the world; Dickinson's crumbled before it. When Jason captained the Argo to Colchis and demanded the Golden Fleece, he soon realized that victory required love, and promised marriage to Medea, a sorceress and the King's daughter who had fallen in love with the adventurer. With her spells fire-breathing bulls were cowed, armed men fought each other, and the sleepless dragon guarding the Golden Fleece slipped into slumber. Jason grabbed his prize and fled with Medea.

Medea and Jason journeyed past the legendary Scylla, Charybdis and island of the Sirens, past Crete and to Iolcos until they and their children found refuge in Corinth. Dickinson spent less than a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, enough to make her return home for nearly the rest of her life. Rejected by Jason, Medea killed his new bride and father-in-law, and then killed her and Jason's children before fleeing in a chariot drawn by winged dragons. Rejected as a poet by literary critic and life-long correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson accepted her "BareFoot-Rank" as a poet who would never be known in her lifetime. Medea gave up home and the known world. Her life became murder and recurring flight. Dickinson's home was the known world. Her life was white dresses and reclusion. Medea grieved for her children. Dickinson wrote on scrap paper, the torn remains of envelopes, the backs of recipes, whatever daily detritus was spacious enough to hold the importance of clover, bees, and revery, publishing some 10 poems anonymously in her lifetime and circulating others in letters to family and friends, and after her death leaving nearly 1,800 poems and verse fragments, most tied into neat bundles, abandoned to the slightest, slimmest chances that an unknown yet kindly reader might discover and cherish them. Dickinson abandoned her inspiration to the cracks and wedges of daily, ordinary life.

But by the time I looked through The Lady Medea's windows, the daily and the ordinary had become the same worn jeans and Rockport walking shoes, the same 2.5 mile lake trail, the same $10,000 and $20,000 and $100,000 grants, the same calico cat crying for kibble, the same tuna and mayonnaise and stiff hunks of once fresh potato bread in the back of the refrigerator, the same white cardboard buckets of brittle Jasmine rice and tofu with black mushrooms, and Qwest and City Light bills tacked next to photos of long distant places and friends. I couldn't help but wonder if my car had enough gas to hit the road for points unknown. When all you know is all you know, nothing more or less than that, what is there to do but what Dickinson says: Good-bye to the Life I used to live - / And the World I used to know - / And kiss the Hills for me, just once - / Then - I am ready to go!

Dickinson was arguably referring to death, but there are less final ways of fleeing a mundane life for one more mysterious. For there's a time for home and a time for the road, and laboring in one too long only births the other.

I've hit the road before, traveling endless highways under truly unending skies, wheels turning 80 mph as I crossed the Mississippi River in a caffeine induced haze, or shifted gears coming out of the Eisenhower Tunnel to plummet 100 miles per hour after traversing the Continental Divide, or navigated the California coastline to the Pacific Northwest's rain and fog. Traveling alongside me were Buick Skylarks, Honda Civics, Dodge Darts passed from grandmother to grandchild, blue Chevy pick-up trucks, Saabs, Subarus, Cutlass Sierras, front wheel or rear wheel or four wheel drives churning over what used to be Indian foot trails, Viking outposts, Conquistador tracks, wagon train ruts. Like myself and, I believe, like The Lady Medea's captain, most of us were searching for a greater freedom than what could be imagined in the same old home, the same old life. That was my first road trip, taken a few months before my 30th birthday and a few months after I realized I was about to spend my life in the same state where I had been born, amid friends who swore they knew everything about me, a neat career path and a shark-jawed complacency looming ahead. Another time I sojourned across the Pacific Ocean when illness led to a rambling, bittersweet recovery begun by wandering dusty tracks and growing fruit in other people's gardens. And before that had been the inner and outer peregrinations taken along well-worn Himalayan trails.

I can't say I've traveled as much or was well as I could have, but I remember the longing for the vision of the better life, the better self that was to burst before my eyes once being away from the all-too-well-known world of home burned the cataracts off my inner sight. But I also remember the exhaustion of trudging past strangers down a cobblestone Paris street with 23 pounds on my back after a day and a half without sleep. I remember, too, discovering the breath-taking beauty of bison and antelope painted on Dordogne cave walls by artists dead 30,000 years or longer. I remember the studied isolation of strangers shoved eight to a room in an Auckland hostel, all eyes blank to mile-smelly panties being sorted on the linoleum. I remember the warmth of friendship that lasted a night discussing international politics in an Abel Tasman yurt before morning separated us to American, English, Belgium winds. I remember the wire-bound or black sewn pocket size or full size notebooks filled with smudged pencil or ink faded words bouncing between thin blue lines from writing while walking, talking, flying, sailing but mainly waiting. Whatever wisdom there was along the roads of all those miles would have to wait days, months, years until I was home, and only then by writing explore it all again, my steps less stumbling as the true destination emerged.

The Lady Medea can travel endless roads offering endless promises of a new place, a new life, a new hope. True journeys have an arrhythmic heartbeat. The hero leaves, gains the prize or enlightenment, and returns to where he began, or where she finds a new place, a new home. Neither Medea nor Jason ever left the road. The journey's end for Medea was endless flight; for Jason, it was death from the Argo's falling timbers. The Golden Fleece disappeared from history and story. Dickinson wasted few words on the tale: Finding is the first Act, / The second, loss / Third, Expedition for / The "Golden Fleece" / Fourth, no Discovery / Fifth, no Crew / Finally, no Golden Fleece / Jason sham too.

And The Lady Medea's captain ? Perhaps he ran out of money for gas or to repair the transmission. Perhaps he ran out of heart, or fell in love, or meant to return one day while The Lady Medea sat parked beside stone road posts, unnoticed by couples roller-blading past or grandfather's fishing for carp, the white parking tickets eventually replaced by a bright orange Notice of Intent to tow.

And myself? There's a middle road between Medea's flight and Dickinson's domesticity. It leads to the true promise of all those miles: a chosen home with an open door. Home and the road are like a pendulum swinging back and forth along the same journey. We all have lives within lives within our too short life, like the Russian dolls nestled inside each other, and every open road, for me at least, has always lead to a new home. I could drive, circle, backtrack all I wanted. Sooner or later I always end up someplace in particular, where there's this corner with its Ponderosa pines and #358 bus stop, this coffee house of klezmer music and unfinished novels, this apartment where sunlight streams through Strassbourg crystals to make rainbows on the black and white checkered floor, this backyard where roses and strawberries grow, this bearded lover and not another, this beautiful and imperfect life, the only one I've got.

©2006 by Adrienne Ross

Adrienne Ross' creative non-fiction essays have appeared in Fourth River,Tikkun, Under the Sun, Many Mountains Moving, the anthology An Intricate Weave:Women Write on Girls and Girlhood, the American Nature Writing anthology series, and other publications. She received a 1996 Seattle Arts Commission literary award and the 2001 Artist Trust Literature Fellowship.

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