This is part of the Mystical Journey series. If you’re new to the journey, you can begin here.

What follows is a true fiction: Wherein we see how the Ordinary World contains the secrets to living well

The Bureau of Interconnected Meaning, also known as BIM. Or maybe it’s the Bureau of Interpretive Messages? I can never remember, and since they don’t have a website, just voicemail, I can’t look it up. 

Anyways, the voicemail is where you leave your question, because that’s where it all starts–with your question. And I’ve found, over the years, that some questions are far better than others. 

Take, for example, the question I asked on March 3, 2004 (according to my receipt): “Why am I always broke, no matter what I do?” I must have been working at the restaurant in downtown Chicago; maybe I was in school at that point–I can’t remember. 

But what I do remember is every mind-numbing, non-drunk detail of my week-a-day life was merely a prelude. Friday and Saturday, dancing and dancing and dancing, was the only thing I gave a shit about.

It’s why I got up for work, it was the relational currency of my closest friends. Talking about our plans, meeting up in Boystown on an afternoon off, trying on outfits–can I dance in these shoes? Even though buying anything meant eating ramen for the rest of the month–reminiscing about last weekend.

And then, later, after everything had been danced away, my spinning head pressed against the sharp cold of the cab window, sore feet half-slid out of too-tight shoes, nothing expected of me but to watch Lake Shore Drive unspool like a ribbon in the predawn light, taking me home.

I don’t recall exactly what form the response came in, because that’s part of the BIM method:

For each question, you get a…how to describe it? An assemblage. Usually it’s a box of some kind, but regardless, you get a group of items, like letters or photos, maybe a thumb drive or even an old toy or something, and together, they represent a carefully curated selection of your memories

Sometimes you’ll find them someplace weird, like a Chinese takeout container. You’ll open it, expecting beef broccoli, and instead there’s a rolled-up slip of paper tied in ribbon along with maybe an old-school mix tape and a pack of Fruit Stripe gum with something written inside the wrapper.

Sometimes it’s much more prosaic, just a package turning up in the regular mail. But you never know.

The memories are the response to your question. If you can figure out what links them all together, you’ll have your answer. 

Well, sort of. What I said earlier about some questions being better than others?

I’ve started to realize that BIM doesn’t really give you an answer answer–they help you ask better questions, and then live with the questions you’ve got, if that makes sense. 

That money question I asked back in 2004, it’s funny to look over my BIM receipts and see how I kept circling back to that one, in some form or another, but I can also see how my questions got better.

Okay, here–this one’s from 2008: “I feel panicked at the thought of saving money, even though I hate living paycheck to paycheck. How can I want something so badly but be totally terrified of it at the same time?”

That ended up being a good one.

And the response–I’ll never forget how it arrived. I was working in a pastry kitchen and it was early, so early. The normal day for normal people still hours away from starting. I’d ridden the near-empty subway to work, the only other passengers wearing stained black-and-white chef pants like mine, all of us jerking awake when our stop was called.

I’d been making a batch of moon-shaped lemon cookies. I loved those. Their perfectly soft sugar-cookie texture, like a crumbly little pillow, with just the right amount of lemon glaze sheened on top. We made them with part regular flour, part cake flour so they’d be extra soft, and I’d run out. It was there, in the industrial-sized box, nestled between the individual sacks of flour, that I found my response

I couldn’t open it at work, of course, the morning stretching on for an eternity, until finally, the box gripped between my knees on the clattering subway, index finger rubbing impatiently over the sharp, taped corner, more wide awake than I ever was after a long shift. I couldn’t wait to get home

What was in the box?

The first thing I pulled out was a page from my diary when I was eight. I’d completely forgotten that diary, with tiny teddy bears printed on the bottom of every page. Sometimes I’d give the bears little mustaches and glasses, or thought bubbles so I could see what they were thinking. 

On this page, the bear thought, “Grandpa doesn’t like when we go to the mall.”

“We” was me and my grandma, and the mall was our escape. Everything looked more promising, actually worth experiencing, when it was arranged in plate-glass windows. The echoey bursts of laughter from tight clusters of teenagers, sunlight filtering through church-like skylights, everything spacious and bright like outdoors, only better.

Here, there was no grandpa muttering under his breath, just loud enough to be sure you could hear every jagged word. No mom watching with narrow, suspicious eyes, waiting for me to do something disappointing. Knowing she’d never have to wait for long. 

The mall had Babysitters Club books, all of them, lined up just so with pastel-colored spines.

Bottles of lotion that smelled like powdery candy and summer. And clothes–so many clothes.

Passports to another existence, one where I didn’t have braces and bad skin, bowl-cut bangs and bony knees. One where people never called me Michelle or Melanie or other names belonging to better girls than me. My own name somehow utterly forgettable, like everything else about me. 

But this–the sequined jeans, the oversized, rainbow-colored sweaters, the tie-dyed scrunchies–were the necessary ingredients of an identity that would sear itself on people’s minds with grill marks of longing and envy. Why, who could forget the charming, bubblegum-scented girl with her long, long legs in leopard-print leggings and crunchy perm, poofed to Madonna-like perfection and a well-placed mole that–wow–looks just like Cindy Crawford’s?

The mall would make me remarkable.

It hadn’t yet, but that was only because I hadn’t assembled the proper collage of ingredients. I would, though. It was just a matter of time and endless, endless trying. 

All that from the wise thoughts of a paper bear, tucked in a diary long forgotten until BIM, with their mysteriously omniscient algorithm, raised that little bear from the grave. 

So, my question about desperately wanting to and desperately fearing to save money, that diary page was my clue. And everything it led to–my grandma and I conspiring to escape reality on Saturday afternoons, the savior of impending perfection through stuff, stuff, and more stuff–that was my answer. 

Why I was terrified of never having enough. And terrified of having enough. Terrified that, either way, I’d still be me. 

I won’t even tell you what else was in the box, because we’d be here all day. Look how long it took us just to talk about one little bear!

You’ll have to submit your own question, see how BIM works for yourself. See where the clues take you. 

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