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Buying In by Eileen Shields | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

February 15, 2016      

Buying In by Eileen Shields

Listen to a reading of “Buying In” by Eileen Shields.

The narrow road snaked endlessly through barren landscape. How long since we’d left the highway? I wondered, certain we were lost, when, peering through drizzly fog, I spotted the cardboard cutout of a gory, disemboweled human. I hit the brakes, pulling off into a rutted parking lot stacked with cars and punctuated with blue Porta-potties.
      We’d arrived at Run For Your Lives! A 5K run advertised as, “preparedness training for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.” My children (twins) were twenty-five years old, and no longer living with me, but my daughter was always game for a free plane ticket home, and my son was, like myself, a Walking Dead fan.
      I was fifty-two. I wanted to do something fun. Most of all, I wanted the three of us to be on the same team again.
      Trudging the swampy quarter-mile from the parking lot to the check-in point, we crossed paths with the participants who’d already finished the race (which had staggered start times). Some were wearing funny shirts (Don’t Eat Me Bro!) and all, without exception were caked, head-to-toe, in mud. They were so filthy that it was difficult to identify their race or gender. However, they did all have one thing in common. They were all younger than I was—most of them by a couple decades.
      My children ran cross-country in high school and have maintained their athleticism throughout college and into their adult lives. I don’t run. I do a little yoga. I also walk the dog, sometimes briskly, but never more than two miles, at which point both of us like to rest in the shade for a bit and enjoy a cookie.
      My daughter yelled, “Look,” pointing to a mountain in the distance.
      The peak rose high…very, very, high. A colorful river of runners, tiny as ants, cascaded down one side, undulating on and on and on.
      “I don’t remember anything in the information packet about hills,” I said.
      But this wasn’t the first time that buying into pop culture had led me astray.

In August of 1996, when my twins were eight years old, a dear friend invited me to join her for a women’s retreat in Abiquiu, New Mexico. The retreat was being offered in conjunction with a Jungian analyst whose recent book about “running with wolves” had sparked a feminist movement. This was around the same time as Iron John and a slew of other self-help mythologies, were hell-bent on getting modern men and women in touch with their drum-beating, primal selves.
      Did I mention I was a single mom? And that my ex, busy with family #2, had absented himself entirely from my children’s lives? I was grateful for an invitation to anything. When my mother offered to babysit for the five days of the retreat—I was in. I was banking on all the running and wolves being metaphorical. Even back then I did not run (unless being chased), and although I am fond of dogs, I am pretty sure an actual wolf would scare the bejesus out of me. But the brochure (which I still have) offered, “an opportunity for each of us to find that quiet place–in the desert and inside of ourselves; to simply be, without the distractions and demands of our busy lives.”
      Also, it was super cheap.
      But the part that really hooked me, was where it said, “meals are provided.”
      No grocery shopping or cooking or serving or cleaning up for five days? Sign me up!
      The friend, Barbara, is an artist. In her younger days she ran a fancy gallery in Manhattan. Now married, and a mother, she dabbles in a variety of mediums, mostly photography. She was intrigued by the Jungian guru, but even more excited that the retreat would be held at the Ghost Ranch, which was famous for once being home to the iconic painter Georgia O’Keefe. Barbara is also, unlike myself, open-minded about mystical and spiritual concepts.

This essay is not just about a ridiculous woman (me) doing ridiculous things. The reader needs to understand that I am a cynic. I am what a multitude of old boyfriends called ‘jaded.’ I am good sport who will go along for the ride, but going along should not be confused with believing. I have friends who put their faith in psychics and astrologers, while others are unwavering in their religious dogma. Some even place blind trust in such dubious constructs as monogamy, ghosts, vitamins, wrinkle creams and positive thinking. I recognize that nobody likes a killjoy, so I listen and nod and try to keep an open mind—but not really. Only sorta, and sorta is crap—right?
      But once in a very great while, I take that leap. I call it ‘buying in.’ and when everyone buys in—that is a powerful thing. ‘Buying in’ can build churches. It can also burn witches.

The New Mexico women’s retreat was one on which I struggled to ‘buy in,’ despite the fact that I was eager to go, and that upon arriving, was captivated by the dramatic red plateaus and wide blue skies and all around spectacular beauty of Abiquiu.
      The first day, women from around the country trickled in by car, shuttle-bus, and taxi. There was only time for registration (long lines) and a late dinner (where I was scolded for improperly bussing my tray) and then lights out.
      Things quickly deteriorated. Barbara and I were placed in a group cabin where another woman, sporting an Amish nightgown, had already claimed the middle bed in a row of three—and she was not moving. After monopolizing our introductions with the long-winded details of every crooked branch on her family tree, she fell asleep promptly at 9pm and began to snore like a chainsaw ripping through virgin forest. Barbara and I tried a series of escalating measures; shining our flashlights in her face, pelting her with shoes, physically shaking her bedframe and, eventually, desperately, shrieking “shut up shut up shut up” inches from her ears. Nothing worked.
      The next morning our roommate rose, bright-eyed at 6am, and we collapsed, hoping for one hour of peaceful slumber before our first scheduled group meeting—two if we skipped breakfast.
      Then from the bathroom came an unmistakable roar. The bitch had brought a blow-dryer. Instead of breakfast, we joined the long line of women demanding a change in accommodations.

The retreat managers granted our request, and we all had a good chuckle about the hair dryer. Certainly another big selling point of this holiday was the unstated obvious—grooming products were optional. Other than our roommate, we hadn’t seen so much as a smidge of eyeliner since our arrival.
      The room change caused us to be tardy for the morning meeting, and when we arrived at the pavilion, the rustic adobe auditorium was already packed, wall-to-wall, with 300 women in metal folding chairs. At the front were risers with a few larger armchairs for, we assumed, our guru and her staff.
      According to our schedules, these morning meetings would offer, “contemplative teachings of simplicity and strength…topics such as cycles of creativity, the uses of prayer, divestiture of the world, the importance of dreams, silence and listening for La voz mitológiga—the mythical voice…”
      This audience was already in silence and listening mode. Heads spun around and eyebrows that had never met a tweezers drew together in hostility as Barbara and I stumbled our way to two empty chairs in the back. From this vantage point I could see the entire community, and I realized that along with the wolves, most of these women also ran with the Indigo girls, and the WNBA. I began to suspect that we’d been roomed with the blow-drying snorer the previous night in some sort of outlier, hetero ghetto.
      Then our guru entered and the room exploded in thunderous applause. She took the stage, accompanied by an older woman, who was to be the moderator, and a very pregnant younger woman, whom the guru introduced as her daughter.
      That first morning’s talk involved the wisdom of crones and trusting our intuition. Because she is a Jungian psychoanalyst, the guru explained that during our evening sessions, she would be analyzing dreams. We were encouraged to record any dreams we had while at camp on slips of paper. There would be dream receptacles to place them in, and a few would be selected for examination each night.
      Barbara was thrilled. She is a big believer in the meaning of dreams, whereas my bullshit meter was pinging all over the place. Admittedly, there was something compelling about guru’s presence. She had this mesmerizing voice that was simultaneously childlike and ancient. Also, I had not slept in over 24 hours, so I was beyond impressionable.
      The session came to a close, and we were each assigned a breakout group to meet with immediately following—just like at a business conference. Barbara and I were split up. I was tempted to sneak off for a nap, but didn’t want to be seen as a poor sport on the first day, even if I was one.
      My group leader herded us outside onto a patch of grass beneath a tree. She introduced herself as a counselor/facilitator, with some vague sounding credentials, and explained the purpose of these groups was to discuss our daily thoughts and impressions, as, with the exception of mealtime, we were urged to maintain silence or ‘sotto voce’ while in camp. She then asked the twelve of us, all sitting cross-legged in a circle, to introduce ourselves and explain why were there.
      I panicked. I couldn’t tell the truth—that I was simply tagging along, eager to get out of the house and enjoy an inexpensive desert holiday, (meals included!), and I was too groggy to invent a good lie.
      I needn’t have worried. The first woman stated her name and launched into her reasons for attending which involved an absent father, some ugly high school bullying, an abusive college relationship, eating disorders, promiscuity, drugs, and self-destructive tendencies mitigated by boatloads of pharmaceuticals.
      At the end of the hour, we weren’t even halfway around the circle, each woman barely getting beyond her name before falling to pieces. It seemed they all had some complicated, gut-wrenching reason for making this pilgrimage, which, in turn, required a lot of comforting reassurance from the rest of the group. I was dumbfounded.
      I also felt incredibly shitty about myself.
      I didn’t want to share my sad story with these strangers. I was tired of being a cliché, the faithful wife dumped for a younger woman, (which, given what I had just heard, was small beer indeed.) Furthermore—and this makes me sound heartless—I didn’t want to spend my entire vacation listening to their sad stories either. At the end of the session, after we’d held hands and done some goddess praying, I was the first to break away from the tearful group hug; sprinting to my old room, grabbing my duffel, and hightailing it to my new room (which by the way was super-cool with a huge O’Keefe cow skull on the wall which we took turns wearing around on our heads). There I found Barbara, shell-shocked, perched on the edge of her bed.
      “How bad was it?” she asked.
      “Awful,” I said.
      “Mine too,” she said. “Let’s not go back.”
      And we didn’t. Turns out, at a retreat all activities are optional. We ate our group meals and went to the morning and evening sessions with the guru, but we skipped the daily group therapy and went hiking instead.
      Barbara is a terrific photographer, and we’d climb up those gorgeous buttes and scramble down those box canyons and she’d talk about light and energy and vibrations and snap away while I thought about my life and my kids and my place in the world. Years later, I can still close my eyes and conjure the image of a red desert stretching out around us, endless and unforgiving, the sky an inverted blue bowl, and, in the distance, the grounds of Ghost Ranch, speckled with huddled groups of weeping women.
      Occasionally we stumbled across other retreaters playing hooky, once rounding a switchback to find a half-dozen, naked, middle-aged ladies splashing about in a desert spring, laughing like children. Another day, after passing a small group of hikers on the trail, I heard them snicker behind our backs, “There go the pretty girls,” which set Barbara and I cackling. This, undoubtedly, was the only place in America where either of us, grubby, sunburnt, ratty-haired, and let’s face it, well beyond our ‘best-by’ date, could be considered anyone’s idea of a pretty girl.
      In spite of myself, I started to buy in. It was hard not to. The desert was magical, full of wonder and surprise—and that Jungian knew how to weave a spell.
      Those evenings in the large hall, she’d cast her nets upon us with some meandering folktale laced with mysticism, lulling us into a trancelike state, then, slowly, reeling us in. Her moderator would select a dream from the box, and read it, and our guru would tell us what it meant. I wish I could remember some of what she said. Though I’m certain that printed black and white on this page the words would lose their enchantment and sound like nonsense.
      But inside that hushed auditorium, we believed.

I did not expect to experience any buy in, on my zombie run. Intellectually, I grasped that the colonies of zombies roaming the course were only volunteers in gory make-up. There was little possibility I’d be eaten. There were rules. Instead of biting, these zombies would be snatching the Velcro flags we wore strapped around our waists. Lose all your flags, and you are dead. Or undead.
      Before our heat began, the twins and I were herded with everyone else into a dark, narrow chute closed off at the far end with an iron gate. Packed in, tight as cattle, nervous energy spread through the crowd like a virus. At the sound of a gunshot, the gate swung open, and the mob stampeded through clouds of machine-made fog, shoving and elbowing and kicking up dirt. When the mist parted and the dust settled, we were staring at that mountain.
      I think I yelled to my children to “save themselves,” but I needn’t have. They were out of sight within fifteen seconds. I stumbled and staggered; cresting the hill only to find a zombie blocking my path. I froze, struggling to locate something human lurking beneath his very convincing rotted flesh and shredded, bloody clothing and hideous gurgling moans. He grinned at me like I was easy pickins’, and snatched a flag.
      There was no way I’d survive on my own, so I attached myself (uninvited) to another group, tagging along behind them. We were a tribe, and we had a strategy.
      Because everybody in this race was buying in.
      As the afternoon drifted on, I abandoned one group for another, sometimes going it alone—aware that my age singled me out as a weak link. The terrain was hot and barren and dare I say, apocalyptic. There were mud pits topped with barbed wire, shack-like mazes and climbing walls, and a tall, rickety ladder that dumped you into a vat of cold, filthy water…and always zombies. The fuckers were everywhere.

Night four of my New Mexico retreat, we filed into the auditorium and were informed that our guru would not be joining us. A rumor spread that her daughter had gone into labor, which led to much celebration and goddess dancing among the ladies. Everyone (of course) hoped for a baby girl, though, “a boy would be fine.”
      We filed out into the night, flashlights bobbing as we made our way down the dirt pathways to our rooms. And I felt myself inhabited by the other me, the one who didn’t buy in. The one who believed in Western medicine and sterile hospitals. As you might expect, our guru’s daughter was planning on giving birth with a midwife at home, which here in Abiquiu amounted to guest lodging a couple miles from the ranch, accommodations only slightly more civilized than our own.
      It’s one thing to home birth in the city, where you can dial 911 and paramedics will be at your door in minutes, but Ghost Ranch was hours from the nearest hospital. I knew this because when we moved into our new adorable rustic casita with the cow skull, Barbara and I had briefly had a third roommate, an easygoing, non-blow-drying woman. But she got a spider bite, and, untreated, swelled up like a pumpkin. They had to call a car to transport her to the hospital, and she never returned.
      These thoughts were sacrilege. All around me women were chanting and ululating like they were a victorious matriarchal nation instead of the world’s saddest lesbians. I was immune to their joy, because faith is a risk. To have faith is to abandon your contingency, your back-up plan.
      I just couldn’t do it.
      The following day, our morning meeting was canceled, but no one was surprised. Instead the hubbub around camp was all about the baby. Surely the guru and her daughter intended to bring the child to camp tonight, our last night. How thrilling that would be! Even the breakout groups were sparsely attended. Everyone was too excited to feel miserable.
      Everyone spent that long, hot, listless day hanging around camp—waiting. Barbara and I sprawled in our room. She’d gathered some dried grasses and was using them to weave little totem dolls, and I was scribbling in a notebook. Like most friends who are mothers, we already knew each other’s birth stories, but we shared them again, as you do when someone has a baby. I’d been a small-boned woman carrying big twins, and required a C-section. Barbara’s daughter had been breech, an arduous and complicated labor. The fact is, neither of us would’ve done well without medical intervention, and thoughts of what might’ve been lost weighed heavy on our minds.
      Just then, I missed my kids. A lot.

Math isn’t my strong suit, but I figured I was down to the last K of my 5K run. I’d abandoned hope of ever catching up to the twins, and was trudging toward the last obstacle, when a zombie popped out in front of me. She was dressed in blue hospital scrubs—so I guess she was Dr. Zombie. I had just scraped through a 50-yard gauntlet of teen zombies losing most of my flags, and I was spent. Heart jack-rabbiting against my ribs, I hunched over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. She shuffled towards me.
      But a glimmer of something in her dead zombie eyes made me think I could reason with her, despite her lack of a brain stem.
      “Look at me” I yelled. “Look how old I am. I’m like your mom running out here. You know how hard this is for me?” I spat out the last words, “Don’t take your mom’s last flag.”
      Dr. Zombie shrugged, and let me pass.
      After that all I had to do was wriggle on my belly under an electric fence, and I was home free. I saw my children, muddy and torn, cheering me on at the finish line. Victory was mine.
      Then, some punk asshole zombie snuck up behind me and snapped up my last flag. I stumbled across the finish line, undead, but happy.
      Later, when my daughter and I were in the ladies tent, changing out of our muddy clothes, some zombies came in. But the race was over. Now they were just girls playing dress-up, and no one bought in. I listened to their conversation. They were sharing war wounds, complaining about being punched and shoved by people who got too excited, people who were frightened, people who forgot it was all pretend.

Our final night at Ghost Ranch, as dusk settled, we were called to the pavilion. The air inside was charged with the hum of the wolf women, who, at this point I fully expected to raise the infant to the heavens in a basket and parade it up the mountain Lion King style. They seemed barely able to keep their bodies contained in the metal folding chairs.
      Our guru entered the room. The restless fidgeting and nervous chatter stopped as she made her way to the center of the dais. Her daughter was nowhere to be seen.
      “I apologize for the confusion of these past days…” she began.
      She went on to reveal that the baby had been lost. This may have been followed with a prayer? It must have been. But all I remember is being swallowed by an oily darkness, as though I had summoned this tragedy by believing it possible.
      I can only describe what happened next in that humble auditorium as the sensation of being in the eye of a tornado—when for a moment there is this terrible void, a sudden intake of breath, right before the fabric of the world is torn in two.
      We rose from our chairs and staggered silent and aimless out into the night. Many women, blinded by grief, ran into the desert darkness, keening and wailing and tearing at their hair. Barbara and I shut ourselves away in our room, overwhelmed by it all.
      “Look,” Barbara whispered, passing me one of her totem dolls of woven grass. It resembled a swaddled baby, a strand looped around its neck. “I meant it to be hung as an ornament,” she shuddered, “but it looks like a noose.”
      We spent the night huddled together. We didn’t want to buy into this experience. Instead, we wanted to reassure ourselves of the reasons why this terrible and senseless loss could never happen to us. It’s a pathetic human behavior, conjuring some arbitrary set of rules to keep you safe. Only a fool believes she can keep the wolf from her door.
      At some point we fell asleep to the eerie howling of grieving women. In the morning we packed our bags and left before breakfast.

The twins and I recently talked about doing another zombie run. We set and broke a couple of dates, but no one’s heart was really in it. The last time I checked, Run For Your Lives had filed bankruptcy, overshadowed by newer themed obstacle races like Foam Fest and Gladiator Rock n Run.
      Maybe zombies have lost their cachet. Or maybe, like us, after experiencing the smoke and mirrors (and fake blood and bruised volunteers) that hold the race together, people could no longer buy into the zombie fantasy, and moved on, looking for the next experience. Another challenge where nothing is really at stake. One where, for a small fee, we can buy in, lose nothing, and then drive home.

shieldsphotoAbout the author:

Eileen Shields recently received her MFA from UCR PD. Her essays appear in various publications including The Los Angeles Review, Rumpus, Alimentum, Slice, The Toast, and XOJane. She currently lives in Manhattan Beach where she writes about food for the local paper and spends a lot of time worrying over the status of her first novel, which has just been sent out to publishers. You can find her stuff at eileenshieldswriter.com

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