“Fire, or, How I Landed in Roswell”
by Colette LaBouff
It was spring 2011, and the green season made me feel more stuck than before. I had a growing dissatisfaction with my job at the university, an administrative position, which had been reduced to 67% of full-time. I’d been keeping afloat during that time with the great experience to teach undergraduate and graduate writing courses, but it – like all positions at the university that were not tenured – was precarious and I had been lucky. My yoga practice – that which had buoyed me through my job’s demise, divorce, going-nowhere-relationships and days in which I did not write at all – had begun to feel like a trap I’d set up just to deal with being stuck. I’d get this glimmer, sometimes, of torching everything. A little like Frank, in Tom Waits’ “Frank’s Wild Years,” who watched –from across the street– his not-quite-right-life burn down and drove away: “Frank put on a top forty station / got on the Hollywood Freeway /headed north …”
I told Peter, from whom I’d been divorced for six years, about feeling stuck. His reply was “Why don’t you come out here?” Here was Roswell, New Mexico, where he’d lived since 2007 and where he now lived with his wife, stepkids, and his adult sons. Sure, I thought. Like I’m going to move to Roswell. The conversation meandered on, as it always does with Peter, to some book; he was talking about Robert Frost that spring and trying to get me to read some poems along with him. That was something I liked to do, and talking with Peter about a line or two of a poem always helped.
It’s best to say now that, after Peter and I split up, the separation of our married life was immediate, but our break in terms of proximity was not. In 2005, when I left the house we lived in, I moved across the street and leased a condo. We shared two dogs that year, and I couldn’t bear to abandon them, too. The next year, when Peter moved to Mexico, he asked me to take care of the dogs; I moved back into the house we’d lived in before, rented it, and was glad to be with my dogs. Then, when Peter finally left California and moved to Roswell in 2007, I also moved – just a little further south – to San Clemente. On the day he left California, he drove me and my belongings there to my rented house on his way out of the Golden State. It was just like that. We were always friends. Even when we weren’t married. Even before. Even after.
So, when he suggested I move to Roswell, I have to say that the first objection I had was not that it was where my ex-husband lived. That part seemed fine. It was more that I had grown averse to the idea that I’d ever leave home, the ocean. I hung up the phone, forgot the idea, and went back to going through the motions. The truth of what was happening to me was not that I was growing more unhappy but that I was waking up to the inability to tolerate it. Now I was a little more like Brad, in Robert Frost’s “The Star-Splitter,” of whom the speaker says the following:
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
Yes, fire again. A little different from Frank in Tom Waits’ song. Here, with Frost’s poem, there was also seeing beyond what was already gone. And knowing that there was something else. I wasn’t a farmer, but I was failing. And I was beginning to look beyond — though maybe not at stars – what a failed-at-what-you-were-currently-doing could be. I needed to go telescope-far. I had been ten years in my job and I was turning 45. What had happened between 35 and 45? The list I made in my head was a mixed bag.
I woke up one morning in May, now even more like Brad McLaughlin when he decided to burn down his house with a plan for the telescope but a little less bitter than Tom Waits’ Frank. My decision went something like this: you will never be as free to go as you are now. You are not married. You have no children. If you need to be home – here– it will be at some other point in time. Go. Run. Find something else. Now.
I called my parents. I told my dearest friend. Telling people you are making a move like this isn’t like telling someone your job is being relocated or you have this amazing opportunity for wealth or fame or possibility. No, I was going to Roswell. Where my ex-husband lived. Where I had no job. Where there were not that many people. Where aliens may have landed. Where I had no idea what I would do.
I was leaving behind plenty: besides my family and friends, there was the university and writing community, which had raised me as a writer, too. There was a yoga community, the people with whom I had practiced with for six days a week for nearly six years. All the teachers who nourished me were nearby.
I knew I would do yoga again if I left southern California. I knew I would write. I knew I would find work. I just didn’t know what any of it would look like: prose? Poems? Who would I practice with? How might I change?
Four days after I turned 45, I left southern California. I drove east with my dad and stepmother; they forged the way in their truck, and my dog and I followed behind.
Not much money. No tangible sense of what would happen. And what happened upon my arrival in Roswell can only be described – at least by me – as amazing. It won’t, however, sound that way if you’re looking for some get-rich-quick ending. It’s no blockbuster. It’s only miraculous if you’re interested in a story where life makes more sense.
I arrived here, home of the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident, and within two weeks, I knew I needed to work. Peter had said there was adult and senior center nearby that offered yoga and maybe I could find out if they needed another instructor. I thought, well, they already offer yoga and this is a small city; they probably don’t need another yoga instructor. Still, I called and reached the supervisor. “Actually, I really do need a teacher. We just lost ours,” she said. I went over that afternoon and was told that the longtime yoga instructor had recently stopped teaching.
Flash forward a couple months, I connected with this teacher – as yogis do in a small town – and she took me to dinner. She was still teaching yoga elsewhere in town. I told her the story of leaving California, and she told me that she’d just decided she didn’t want to teach as much yoga anymore. She said she had started praying for another yoga teacher to come to town.
Three weeks after I arrived, I was – a newly certified yoga teacher who had until then only taught my family for free –teaching three classes a week to mostly older adults. And about a month later, one of my students at the Adult Center suggested that I see if the community college in town might want to hire me to teach yoga. I called the dean and, when I showed up to his office to introduce myself, I found out he’d already penciled in a time for me to teach yoga in the spring. He looked at my resume, wanted to know if I wanted to walk over to talk to the Liberal Arts Dean about teaching some English. I politely explained to him that I was trying something different.
After that, well, things snowballed with yoga if anything can snowball in Roswell. My ex-husband, Peter, started talking about opening a yoga studio in town. We talked and talked about it and, while I spent time teaching, he had a studio space created.
All of my work these days is spent teaching yoga. It’s still most certainly teaching. But it almost never reminds me of the years that I taught writing. For the most part, teaching writing always involved a group of people who had to be there (even if they were already poets). And teaching yoga almost always involves people who don’t have to be there but who move away many obstacles to show up and practice.
I liked it as soon as I got here. It is dusty, windy, and dirty. The pecan trees make me sneeze. Sometimes there’s the faint – or strong – smell of cow-shit. There are plastic bags in trees and trash on the road all year. Last spring, a Valentine’s card from 1983 blew onto my front porch. Everything is a little sad that way. There’s no real mall, or large, organic grocery store, or cupcake shop. The recycling program is wanting. Big dogs are chained. Little dogs run in packs. There is no ocean. But there is a huge sky. For one who likes to swim her way slowly toward something far off, there is space to think and feel, and no one will rush her to find her way.
And now more like Brad McLaughlin who needed to see far: “He burned his house down for the fire insurance /And bought the telescope with what it came to.” There isn’t anything here I had before in California. But whatever I was missing is here.