Sarah Einstein’s memoir Mot opens in a seedy neighborhood in Amarillo, Texas. She has traveled there, from her home in Morgantown, West Virginia, to meet the person she describes as “an unlikely friend” at the KOA campground. Her friend is Mot, a homeless man she met and befriended while working in a drop-in center for adults with mental illness. They are to spend a week together in a KOA Kabin, which is an unlikely setting for this unlikely friendship. In fact, everything about this story is unlikely.
Except that it isn’t. Among other things, Mot is the story of how unlikely things become inevitable, given the right circumstances. It’s also a story of how this unlikely friendship was the catalyst for a series of events that, while impossible to predict, were entirely likely in the end.
Mot and Einstein are a set of mismatched bookends, each holding up the story. Mot is a sixty-something homeless vet who hears voices (he calls them the Big Guys Upstairs), lives in his car (when he has one), and drifts between WalMart parking lots, living on social security and canned food. Einstein is an early-forty-something, increasingly disillusioned social worker coming to terms with the truth that no one person is enough to save the entire world. She isn’t even sure she can (or wants to) save her own marriage. They meet at Friendship Room, a drop-in center in Morgantown. Mot eventually moves on, and Einstein stays in this increasingly demoralizing and dangerous workplace. By the time they meet at the KOA in Amarillo, she has resigned from her job. Physically assaulted by a client and afraid of the people she serves, she turns her attention to Mot to reset her internal compass and try to believe in doing good again. She makes the trip as a way to “pour all the hopes I had for the job into my friendship with Mot, to see whether the smaller project of making one life better—my own—is possible.” She is aware, as narrator and writer, that this is a selfless journey entirely into the self.
At the KOA in Amarillo, Einstein and Mot cook dinners in Kabin 1, float and swim in the campground pool, go to the movies, drive around while they chat and look out the windows, and talk about the voices in Mot’s head. Einstein gets a closer look at Mot’s illness than she perhaps wanted, and she has multiple occasions to question the reasonableness of this journey. But she concludes, “although I can’t articulate why I’m here, I’m sure it is not to insist that everything be reasonable.” Calls home to Scotti, her husband of one year, confirm that things on the domestic front aren’t any more reasonable, so there’s no hurry to get home. She describes herself as “weary of his complaints about what I buy at the grocery store, how I fold the laundry, the three dollars I spend to have a cup of coffee with a friend at a coffeehouse instead of at home alone.” Time with Mot is, if nothing else, time away from all that.
Mot and the author meet again in Oklahoma City (for the Pho, of course, about which Mot is skeptical at best). His condition seems worse, things go terribly wrong with his car, and he moves to Morgantown. Einstein and Scotti continue to fail as a couple, though it seems they both try as hard as educated, progressive, world-problem-solvers possibly can, and eventually she loses Mot. He just goes. In spite of her helping, her caring, her trying, her driving him to WalMart to pick out curtains, he goes. Einstein is surprised, if not bereft .To her horror, she also feels something unexpected. “In the weeks after Mot leaves, I am forced to face an unpleasant truth about myself: I’m as relieved that he’s gone as I am sorry.” Whether Mot comes back or not (and you’ll have to read the book to find out), the lesson is learned. Einstein feels defeated, but smarter. “My limitations are more obvious to me,” she writes, “and I now know that wanting to do a thing isn’t the same as being able to do it.”
Mot does that thing that memoir is supposed to do: it functions as a compelling, on-the-ground, in-the-moment telling of events while also delivering a powerful story that transcends its own plot. Einstein deftly brings readers into the here and now of finding her friend “pissing into an old soda bottle” in his car. We are with her as she is attacked by a drop-in center participant. “He muttered something I couldn’t understand and held me in place with one large hand in the middle of my chest while he worked the other around my throat. The blood rushed into my ears and my airway closed. The edges of my vision went dark. I could smell liquor and fried food on his breath.” Not all the visceral details are gritty and sad, though: We chuckle through the scene in which she and Mot take their differences of automotive opinion to the experts by calling Car Talk. But even these lighter moments are weighted with gravity and the flavor of danger. When Ray (or was it Tom?) calls Mot a “wacko” (as the famed radio hosts were known to do), we cringe and tense our muscles until Mot signals that it’s okay by relaxing his body into the cushions of his couch. Threaded behind and above and through this story are Einstein’s cunningly placed moments of reflection. She makes this writing thing seem effortless.
Mot is not a book about succeeding. Einstein does not successfully “save” her homeless friend. She does not quiet the voices in his head, she does not teach or convince him to live indoors, and she does not prevail over his history. She likely should not have tried. She does not successfully stay married, and she does not successfully follow her mother’s footsteps into a lifetime of social work or social services or generally rescuing those too disenfranchised to rescue themselves.
But she does not fail either. Near the book’s conclusion, she writes that the person who once thought friendship would be enough to save Mot is gone. “In her place, there is only a middle-aged woman who knows her own limitations well and has come to accept that some things can’t be changed.” It was always unlikely that her devotion to this person would be enough to turn everything around, and it was equally unlikely that this story could have a nice Hollywood ending. But it wasn’t unlikely that something would change—somewhere, for someone—as a result of all this effort.
“There is meaning in attempting difficult things, whether or not you succeed,” writes Einstein near the end of the book. If no one person can change the world, then you adjust the size of the world.