Life Is A Highway (Or, The Fool and The Phoenix).

28 Feb

the fool

Since my early 20’s, my father has often lovingly referred to me as “The Prodigal Daughter.”

“Go and explore,” he would say, “but know that you can always come back home.”

This used to make me strangely angry; like he always assumed that I would surely fail in whatever new endeavor I was chasing and have to come back home to the nest to roost.

As I get older though, and especially now, I’m very grateful for this enormous luxury.

I’ve been on the road for over a week now. I got held up for a few extra days in Denver due to weather, which was not a shocker, but anyway, for much of that time, it has been myself and the highway. Needless to say, this is a lot of time to be living in your own head. Part of it has resulted in crippling anxiety and fear, definitely. But much of that time has also been a transformative trip down memory lane. I am, after all, literally and geographically retracing much of my twenties: from LA, to Denver, to St. Louis (where I lived for three years after college when I was engaged), and finally home to Cincinnati. The I-70 version of “Erica Russell, This Is Your Life,” so to speak. Not surprisingly, it has provided plenty of food for nostalgia, reflection, and catharsis.

In tarot, there is a card called “The Fool.” I hate tattoos, because hey, your own skin is usually prettier and less permanent, but if ever I were to get one, it would be The Fool. I suppose this harkens back to my love of symbolic, esoteric languages that I discussed in my last post. They always seem to inspire me in interesting ways. Anyway, The Fool shows up a lot inside veiled pop culture references, films, and really all over the place if you’re paying attention (including The Simpsons, of course). The card represents a particularly salient concept for many coming-of-age artists, so it makes perfect sense that it gets injected into all kinds of artistic product.

To anyone without context for tarot lore, “The Fool” might at first sound like a bad card to draw. In modern culture, we think of a fool as a hapless idiot; easily misled; a naive simpleton. And while this definition certainly informs the tarot interpretation, The Fool in tarot is in fact the hero, the protagonist, the heart and soul of the tarot story. Per tarot lore, The Fool is the open-minded yet sheltered young man who embarks, alone, on an epic journey in search of wisdom and experience. He is the innocent Odysseus of the tarot, only The Fool has no aim but his own edification. Rather, The Fool has an inherent sense that one day he will rule over and be responsible for his own dominion, and he knows that he must gain wisdom which he does not yet have to be of use to his world. Knowing only that he does not know, The Fool undertakes the long journey ahead with zeal and youthful optimism, weighed down with nothing save a pitifully small rucksack that carries only the essentials. He is followed only by the faithful dog who nips at his heels in constant warning of the dangers that await, not least of which is the cliff whose edge stands directly in front of him. But The Fool is blind to danger, gazing heavenward toward his source of divine guidance and inspiration, completely faithful in its providence, wholly undeterred.

Christ, I should just call it a day and be a college professor.

Anyway, despite these clear dangers, The Fool is not a cautionary tale if drawn upright; rather, he is a signal to shore up your courage in the face of the unknown and simply go, go, go. Again, he is the protagonist of the tarot, the very lens through which the story is told. During the course of his travels, The Fool encounters every other character in the tarot, learning something invaluable from each and every one of them as he goes, taking the bad with the good, all the while becoming wiser and more valuable himself. At the end of his journey, The Fool returns home, ready to rule over himself and his kingdom.

What a cool fucking story, right?! I actually think the tarot could be adapted into a very cool children’s book; the structure itself would make a perfect episodic bedtime series that could be a really beautiful introduction to the abstract concepts of human nature.

I mean it might not hit so big with Middle America, but I feel like gay NYU professors living in Brooklyn brownstones would pay about $400 a pop for a hard-cover illustrated version to read to their kids. Not that it’s about money.

But I digress.

Anyway, on my current cross-country journey home and indeed back through my own past, I can’t help but compare myself to The Fool. Right after I dropped out of law school and had not the faintest clue what the fuck I was doing with my life or where I was going, I had my cards done for the first time with a friend of mine, totally on a whim. Not shockingly, the first card in my spread was The Fool. I was told I was going to be embarking on a long journey that would leave me forever changed.

And thinking back on the last couple of years, yeah, I would say that’s pretty damn accurate.

But again, my interest in esoteric stories, symbols, etc., isn’t really in their actual predictive or applicable value. I like them simply because they supply me with new frameworks with which to interpret my experiences in meaningful ways. And so in thinking about the concept of The Fool, I wasn’t thinking about how my life experiences since that particular reading have held “true,” but more about how The Fool’s journey has applied throughout my 20’s in general and as a concept; where I have been, what characters have influenced me, and what I’ve learned.

And whatever you want to call it; The Fool, The Prodigal Daughter, the Penny Lane, the goddamn gypsy, I’ve certainly seen a lot of the world. And this drive has been the first time in a while that I’ve had cause and opportunity to stop and really process it all. I mean, Jesus Christ on a cracker, I’m basically the female Forrest Gump.

And so, dear readers, without further ado and in no particular order, I Erica Vandemark Russell give you an honest and exhaustive list of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Fool’s journey of my twenties. Why? Because I can. Because I have worked to have these experiences, and paid for them in kind. Because this is my bizarre life, and I am proud of it. Because I am a writer and these are my stories.

Sorry in advance, Mom and Dad, though at this point I doubt any of it comes as a surprise:


I have said “yes” to a man with a diamond ring on Christmas Eve. I have held the cold hand of my darling aunt as she lay dying in bed. I have been asked to stand up and be recognized in Ohio Stadium as one of the top 10 graduating GPAs in my undergraduate class. I have spent an entire summer on network television. I have let a coked-up Andy Dick grab my left breast at The Hollywood Improv and mutter simply “those things could start and end a war.” I have kissed a man I desperately loved at the top of a Colorado mountain at midnight on a full moon in a snowstorm. I have botched a trade on the New York Stock Exchange and lost 1.7 million dollars that weren’t mine for roughly 10 minutes until I somehow bought it back at a profit. I have been a size 10. I have said “no” to a man with a drinking problem after I said “yes” to him the previous Christmas Eve. I have taught summer school English to 11th grade students in South Central LA. I have performed a stand-up set at The Comedy Store in Hollywood. I have gone to a clothing-optional dance at Sarah Lawrence College (don’t worry Mom and Dad, I only went Britney Spears sexy schoolgirl). I have sipped champagne on the arm of my artist boyfriend during his opening at the New York Gallery building. I have lived with him in his parents’ basement after that. I have dressed up in a platinum blonde wig and a Playboy cop’s uniform to sell Jello shots for five bucks a pop plus tips at a piano bar. I have sat in the passenger’s seat of a Maserati next to an (again) coked-up real estate tycoon who owned 1/5th of the real estate in Midtown as he drove exclusively on the sidewalk to “avoid traffic.” I have slept on an air mattress for 10 months. I have talked on the phone for hours with sobbing, wrongfully convicted inmates I was trying to get out of jail as a law school student fellow. I have sobbed to my father as a rightfully convicted DUI offender as a law school student fuck-up. I have been an honorary guest at the table of the entire writing staff of “Community” after wooing one of the writers at a fancy bar in Santa Monica, which I went to by myself for no particular reason. I have gotten rejected by a man on national television. I have been told that I had a “spare tire around my stomach” after wearing a bikini on national television. I have done a lot of things on national television. I have had a Spanish financier named Diego feed me asparagus spears on a boat and tell me I “leave no man unchanged.” I have grabbed the cold hand of a recently-divorced 66 year-old German bartender to make him tango with me on the beach in Barcelona after he said he thought his life was over. I have held the hand of a 67 year-old Native American woman across the bar I worked at until the day she didn’t come in because the sauce had finally killed her. I have worked as an ad copywriter for a British male pornstar selling sex tip videos for men. I have shrugged helplessly at my first love after he asked me whether I was in love with someone else and we both collapsed onto my living room floor in sobs. I have sobbed on the same living room floor with the same man a year prior when we both had to make the horrible decision that we were not ready to be parents. I have made my own way from Southern Italy to North London by five different trains with three suitcases in the course of a single day. I have spent weeks in bed wishing to die. I have quit smoking. I have started smoking again. I have been really blonde. I have been not as blonde. I have watched my brother become a wonderful husband and an even better father. I have desperately wanted to be the mother of my ex-fiance’s seven year-old little girl who already had one. I have been roofied. I have written a sitcom pilot. I have cried on an English soccer player’s shoulder as he dropped me off at Heathrow and called me “love” for the last time. I have been a size 4. I have spent Super Bowl Sunday on Venice Beach playing cornhole. I have spent Christmas alone eating street tacos and watching Swingers.

I have learned about pain. I have learned about love. I have learned how to be invincible, and then learned how to be vulnerable again. I have learned how to be an enigma, and then learned how to be a trusted confidante again. I have learned how to be an adult, and then learned that being a child is, in most cases, wiser.

Most of all, I have learned about people, and decided to see only their goodness. I have learned about myself, and fight every day to see only the goodness there, too.

I have been, above all else and throughout, a perfect fool. Or Margot Tenenbaum.

And as I think about it all on this return trip home, I feel lucky as hell to have lived all of this; good and bad, taxing and fortifying, magical and traumatic. I have said yes when I should have said no, and “no?” when I should have said “never.” And I suppose what I learned is that “should” is something you shouldn’t do when you’re young.

Anyhow, I have no regrets. Well, okay, a few, but just enough to have assured me that the stove is, indeed, hot. Which I have truly, finally, completely learned for myself.

And I guess all of this is coming up in accumulation now because of this heartbreaking yet relieving sense that this is the end of an era for me. The close of a chapter. Hell, maybe the start of a whole new book. I don’t mean that I am going to stop dreaming big or going for what I want or stay in Ohio forever; who knows what the future holds. I put no restrictions or watermarks on any of it; it is, after all, the future, and I am now wise enough to know not to feign any dominion over it. I just mean that my days of accumulating experience for experience’s sake seem to be at an end. My soul is satisfied, but naturally weary, and I find myself smiling and counting my life’s novel episodes the way a sleepy, glassy-eyed child counts Halloween candy at the end of the night. My work here is done, and I have done good.

And I have lived in choas for so long that normalcy seems like the next great adventure. My body is tired and my mind is reeling. Experience comes at a cost, and life itself can be a war. I’m ready to come home and heal. I’m ready to start experiencing the simple things, as a dear friend advised me to start doing at this stage in my life. My parents aren’t getting any younger, and my nephew won’t be this cute forever (okay, maybe he will). What my heart wants is just to go home, give my physical body everything it wants for a while, hold my baby nephew until he falls asleep in my lap, talk about life with my father, talk about love with my mother, take the boat out on the river and have a couple beers (only a couple:) over the summer, write a little every day, figure out what the hell is next, start a family of my own, and get healthy enough to use my gifts to help a lot of people. Boom. That’s a good recipe for a happy death. Which I hope doesn’t come anytime soon. :)

Anyway, I’m taking a break from everything for a bit. I’m going into treatment when I get home, because I’m crazy or whatever, which I’m sure I am, but I’d prefer to stay that way as long as they can help me be happy. My crazy is pretty fucking special, folks. The world needs it. But not at the expense of my own happiness, and since I have accumulated more than enough experience for about fifteen lifetime; it’s time for me to just be happy.

Strangely enough, in the reading that I referred to above, the one where I drew The Fool in the present position, I drew the Four of Swords in the future position. Now that I think of it, it’s odd that I even remember this. It was a year-and-a-half ago. Anyway, the Four of Swords depicts a knight in armor, resting peacefully inside a tomb. He lies in immaculate repose, dead or asleep, as his body heals from battle. This is the card of convalescence, of tending to the physical body before the spirit can go forth and conquer again. And that seems pretty on point to me, too.

Because it’s a crazy world out there, folks; even moreso if you’re crazy. A fool like me can burn out quickly, and it’s taken me a surprisingly long time, but I am burnt out. I am ash. But from that ash rises the Phoenix, and I have this powerful sense that that is exactly what is about to happen with me. I will take this time and come back a million times more powerful and capable and joyful. I am completely open to transformation, whatever that may look like for me. Healing my body has been my inclination for some time now, but I’ve tried to load way too many responsibilities and undertakings on top of it. I’ve tried to do it alone. This is my time to concentrate on taking care of me, with my support system all around me, learn what makes me happy, lick my wounds, and learn how Erica is going to live and what that is going to look like from here on out.

I think I might just figure out a new way to be a happy artist (gasp). And frankly, I’m excited. This might sound shitty or arrogant, which is not at all my intention, but in thinking about the next stage of my development, I am left wondering: when I have my body and moods regulated, what WON’T I be able to do?

Besides, have you ever heard anyone say they were grateful to have been an early bloomer? :)

Anyway, I love you all, and I’ll be back with more stories, I’m sure. Especially after what’s coming. As always, I am honored to be your Fool. Go out and be one yourselves if you haven’t and can afford to. Trust me, there is much to be learned.

And to my father: the prodigal daughter returns once more.

And to my father, who wrote me yesterday to tell me that, no matter what “poor wretch I see in my own mind at the moment,” when he closes his eyes to picture me, what he sees is “a smart, pretty girl laughing.”

Thank you.

3 Responses to “Life Is A Highway (Or, The Fool and The Phoenix).”

  1. msjoellen February 28, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    As you know, and I have told you for some time now, you have such a talent for writing! In my modest opinion, this piece is just stunning! I hung on every word and I don’t think it is because I am your mother. More because I didn’t want to miss a single word. I felt privileged to be reading such a wonderful piece. I am so excited to have my little girl home, at least for awhile. Dr. Zeus’s last book was “oh the places we will go”. Lets do that, at least for awhile! Safe travels today. Call when you can. I love you XWP! Sent from my iPad

  2. karyssma February 28, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    Oh, Erica, you remind me so much of myself. Granted, I didn’t have quite the extensive adventures that you have had, but my 20s were something I’m surprised I survived. People never believe my experiences from that time period.

    I’m 33 now and can tell you that it does get better. The Fool does become wise. I, too, got treatment. SAD, depression and anxiety. I’m still wonderfully crazy but without all the crying spells. I hope the same for you!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and wonderful writing. Relax and let your homecoming do the healing it is meant to do!

  3. Sarah Fisher March 5, 2013 at 12:47 am #

    Whew. Took a lot out of me just reading that.

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