The week that was

This week I sat in a (Zoom) class for people (mostly parents) supporting someone with a mental illness. It was our third session. It was the “tell your story” session. It was brutal.

(I will not be telling my story here. It is, of course, my story, but it also isn’t. This isn’t a place I feel safe to tell it.)

We all bore witness for well over an hour to each others’ stories. There were differences in our experiences, but motifs emerged: resistance to support, depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety, mania, delusions, eviction, housing issues, substance abuse/addiction, financial problems, police visits, medication failures, hospitalizations, treatment centers, rehab, broken relationships, estrangement, incarceration, abuse, assault, PTSD, anger, frustration, sadness, grief, powerlessness. Love. Overwhelming, heart-breaking, life-breaking love.

It was a lot.

This week on my local Nextdoor, someone wrote about a man at a busy intersection who, for the second day in a row, was walking around naked from the waist down. Lengthy threads–about obscenity laws (or lack of them), police responses (or lack of them), mentally ill support services (or lack of them), penalties (or lack of them)–ensued. In the midst of one thread, a woman shared that she wants to kill herself. Four people responded to the woman, but more than 30 (I stopped counting) continued yammering on at each other about laws, police, services, et cetera et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseum.

There’s more than one way to be naked in the street. Most people aren’t going to stop their cars to help. I closed my laptop and cleaned my oven, which made me think of Sylvia Plath. We don’t do what we can’t.

This week I got a rejection that was so encouraging it almost felt like an acceptance: “We admired your essay, but we’re going to have to pass this time. “Resistance” reached the final round of our decision-making process. We would love to read more of your work, and we hope you will submit to XXX in the future.”

It’s the only writing I’ve submitted anywhere in the last year. Speaking of not doing what we can’t. It was a micro-essay about mass shootings. And ice skating.

I want to write about that class. I want to write about these people–us people–who gather in virtual rooms at the end of days that look ordinary to everyone else and unzip our normalcy suits to let the alien life we carry inside us breathe a little freely for a few hours. I don’t know how to write about that, any more than I know how to help the half-naked man or the woman who wondered if she should burn herself up in the house her grandmother and mother once lived in.

One person suggested that, perhaps, the explanation was simple: The man was without pants because he had no bathroom and had soiled them by defecating in them, and he had no others to replace them.

My daughter wants me to compete in an in-house ice skating competition at our rink. I want to want to, for her sake, because she wants me to and I like to do things that make her happy. It’s so easy to make her happy, really. I don’t know how to explain why I don’t want to. There are decades of layers of feelings I’d have to scrape away to get to it, and they all feel both inconsequential and as if they’ve been baked in by years of harsh weather, like paint on an old house. I feel too tired to scrape.

I began working with a new therapist this week. The session was exhausting. The whole time, I wished I was skating.

I want to write about that class because it flattened me, the collective weight of suffering we humans carry. Not just our own, but also that of those we love. Not just the weight, but the invisibility of the weight. I want other people to see what I saw. It feels like something that should be seen. I also don’t want to write about the class, the weight, the invisibility. I don’t know what words to gather, how to arrange them, how to share them without causing harm. Anything else I might write about, though, feels trivial. And how can anything else I might write about from the last week–the skating competition, the rejection notice, the pod of whales that stopped the ferry I was on, the first day of the year for sipping a beer in the sun on the front porch deck–be as true as they might be if I don’t write about the class? How can those things be anything other than trivia?

There is conflict and disruption brewing at my brother’s home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I can’t really write about it here. Or anywhere. But I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about autonomy, and about what it means to live in a “safe home” and to have a “meaningful life,” words from the home organization’s mission and vision statements. I have been thinking a lot about my brother and my parents, especially my mother, who at 79 is still, literally, on the regular, cleaning her child’s bottom.

I didn’t think my brother was a person who qualified me to sit in that virtual room, but he does, too. Of course he does. Visibility sledge-hammers denial.

We humans are so dumb. I say this with anger, frustration, sadness, grief, powerlessness. And love. Overwhelming, heart-breaking, life-breaking love.

One blogger I follow seems to be wrestling with purposes for writing her blog. Another is wrestling with resistance. Or has stopped wrestling with resistance and is becoming resigned to “the way everything’s a giant tire-fire and *has* been for the past three years at least.” At least. Another published a post that told truths about our giant tire-fires that she was afraid could cause later harm to those she cares for, and so she censored herself after publishing it–something I did, too, a few posts back. (Maybe I’ll do it with this one.) All resonated for me, this week.

There is writing, and there is submitting.

Screen shot from Merriam-Webster dictionary for "submission": 
: a legal agreement to submit to the decision of arbitrators
: an act of submitting something (as for consideration or inspection)
also : something submitted (such as a manuscript)
: the condition of being submissive, humble, or compliant
: an act of submitting to the authority or control of another

A few weeks ago, I said to someone I love: “It seems like maybe you’ve been white-knuckling your way through life for about the last 10 years or so.” But maybe I was talking about myself as much as them.

I have trouble submitting.

The essay about shootings and ice skating is not something I’ve shared here. It really was of a moment, and the moment has passed, so I likely won’t. If you want your writing to appear in a “real” publication, it generally has to be exclusive to that publication. It can’t have been previously published, and if I had shared it here it would have been considered published. I learned this week that some editors are beginning to think differently about this, which I appreciate, but honestly: in a week (in a world, in a time) where a nearly 80-year-old mother has to worry about who will wipe her son’s bottom when she can’t, and men walk half-naked down the street and “neighbors” respond by bickering about obscenity laws and mostly ignoring a woman who proclaims her desire to kill herself, and aging parents unpack their deepest traumas and fears in a virtual room to a facilitator who will observe, “you have all been through a lot of heavy shit,” and a person wonders if a man with no pants simply (simply!) soiled himself because he didn’t have a bathroom, it becomes hard for me to think that where a piece of writing is published matters more than that it is.

Why was I so surprised by the things revealed to me in that virtual room?

I rode the ferry twice this week. I’ve ridden it so many times in the last month that I’ve stopped getting out of my car to better take in the spectacle of expansive water and sky we are traveling through, but I did get out on the second trip this week to see what I could see of a pod of whales swimming across the ferry route. They seemed to be taking their sweet time. The captain of our large barge brought it to a stop, submitting to the fins we could see in the distance poking above the surface of the water. Others on the car deck also got out of their vehicles, and we stood at the bow and helped each other know where to look. We arrived late to our destination, which I didn’t mind. I liked that there are beings we will surrender our schedules to care for.

The application for the skating competition is still sitting on our dining table. I can’t bring myself to fill it out. I don’t really know why. My daughter’s reasons–about community, encouragement, revising the past–are good ones. But something inside me is resisting: An audience changes things. I want to just skate. I don’t want to be judged.

Will I share this post on social media, where people I’ve known since kindergarten might stumble upon it? Probably not.

I want to write that I was surprised in that class because all I’ve ever seen of mental illness were its fins poking above the surface of the water. I want to write that I’ve occasionally caught the giant body of it leaping above the waves, giving us all a glimpse of its size and power and strength, but that, mostly, you know, the whale lives down below the surface of our days, our lives, our society. Maybe those sentences would be true, even though I stopped counting the number of family members and friends who qualify me for the class. (We humans are so often so dumb.) Here is something I know is true: That class took me under the surface. That class was a place I don’t want to belong. I did not–do not–want to submit to belonging there. (I have resisted belonging there.) But I do and I have. Submitted.

Also, it was the first day of spring this week, and one glorious afternoon we sipped a beer while sitting in chairs on our front deck. We talked about plants we want to plant and smiled at the neighbor boys playing in the street, remarking to ourselves about how much they’ve grown since last year. We turned our faces to the sun, grateful for it. I’m guessing that the people who looked at us as they passed by have as little idea of what our week was really like as we have of theirs.

I go back to February 1963

Last month we celebrated my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. As the milestone approached, I kept thinking of Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937,” and the words she uses to describe her parents on the brink of their marriage:

“…they are about to get married,   

they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are   


From “I Go Back to May 1937“)

I tried to write about this, but it felt unkind to share that these are the words that came to me when I thought about my parents marrying. I worried how they might feel if they were to read my writing and see them. On the weekend we celebrated their anniversary, though, my mother made a joke about how she was sure no one thought their marriage would last.

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” she said. “We were so young and dumb.”  

How could they have been anything else? They were only 19 and 22, for god’s sake! Before their second anniversary, we were a family of four, which means that I have memories of my parents in their 20s, 30s, 40s and all the decades that followed. It means that we were all very young together.

It’s a long story, the one of their marriage, our family.

Olds’s poem is harsh and bleak. For a time–back when my dad was still drinking, when my own life was unspooling–it was the kind of poem I might have written myself. I understood the desire of the poem’s speaker to go back and prevent a marriage that was an impetus of pain. I read her words and wondered if my parents, too, were the wrong people for each other, and if it would have been better for all of us if they hadn’t married. I wondered that even as I knew it would mean that I wouldn’t exist to wonder about anything.

Later, when we were all a bit older, a bit more developed–when my dad was sober and I’d managed to stitch together a healthier life–I no longer wished to spare us all by undoing their union. When I would look at their wedding photo I’d wish instead that I could wave some sort of magic wand and cast away the hard things we were all going to live through, keeping the good and tossing the bad. I’d keep the dad who did math problems at the kitchen table with me after dinner and came to every one of my track meets, but not his moods that could turn suddenly, frighteningly dark. I’d keep the brother I shot baskets with in the backyard, but lose his long-undiagnosed autism that no one understood or knew what to do about. I’d keep the kind, gentle mother who was my refuge, but also, somehow, let her have a larger life in which she could more fully be an artist or athlete or activist.

But that’s not how any life works, is it? That’s probably for the best, for who would my parents be, if I could possess such a wand, and who would my brother and I be, if we were not the people our fates have forged us into being? Who is to say that an alternate life would have been any kinder to us, that our sorrows would be lesser or our joys greater? After all, my parents are still here, together, by choice. Not habit nor dysfunction nor impossible-to-escape circumstances, but by deliberate choice.

When I was lost in the forest of my own marriage’s demise, I asked my mother why she’d stayed in hers.

“I always loved your dad,” she said. “Even at the worst times, I never wanted to be not married to him.”

What a great gift, to live your days with someone who has known and loved every adult iteration of yourself you’ve ever been and continues to willingly, purposefully choose you. It’s hard for me, who will never know that, to think of a better foundation for a good life.

I hesitate to let that last paragraph stand. To share any of this post, if I’m being honest. I have struggled to write it. I have struggled to find words that are neither sentimental nor simplistic, to convey truths more complicated than our usual narratives about long unions tend to be. I have struggled to find words that are both kind and true. Because the truth is: My childhood was hard. My parents suffered. My brother suffered. I suffered. My children have suffered as a result of the ways in which my suffering formed me. These words feel unkind, and how do I explain that even in the face of these truths, I wouldn’t go back and tell those young, dumb kids not to do it? It’s not just because, like Olds, I want to live. (Though I do. I want to live.) It’s because I want us to get to where we are now.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that all you need is love, or that eventual benefit outweighs earlier harm, or that our pain didn’t matter or wasn’t significant. It did, and it was. But our suffering is not the whole story, and while things that happened cannot change over time, our stories, like people, can. I want to get to the story I know now.

When I look at my parents’ wedding day photo today, I still see two innocent kids who were far too young for marriage–especially the one they were going to have. But I also see in their faces, on what my dad recently told me was the best day of his life, a story about the kind of bright hope we all have when we are making our first important choices, and what I feel most for those kids now is tenderness–tenderness and the kind of protectiveness I feel for my own children, who are already older than my parents were when I was born. I look at that photo and I want my dad to have that day. I want my mom to smile that brilliant smile. I want these things because every life has its moments of tragedy and sorrow, no matter how carefully or prudently it is lived, and no matter what things did or didn’t happen afterward, their joy on that day was pure and true. I want that kind of joy to have happened, to have existed in our broken world. I want that joy to be what it has been, the seed of so many others we have all experienced throughout our lives. I want it for them, and for my children, and for myself.

When I look at that photo and then ahead to my childhood that will follow it, what I see now is how young and tender and gorgeous we all were, together, and, often, how dumb. How we were everything all at once, and still are.

I couldn’t see that when we were in the thick of it. I couldn’t see how much we all, more often than we got it, needed some grace and a hug. Of course my parents did damage; how could they not, damaged as they were by their own parents, who were in turn damaged by theirs, and all of them damaged by living in world of damaged and damaging people? Don’t all parents do harm, no matter how old we are when we make a family, no matter how much we are determined not to? Don’t we all struggle, doesn’t life throw hardballs at all of our heads? I tried to tell myself once, when I was a teenager, that they didn’t really love me, but it was no good. I knew that they did. I knew they always had and always would. And I know fully now what some part of me grasped only a little at 14: They always did the best they could with what they had, and that counts for more than a person might think. What I also know now that I didn’t then is that not all parents do these things–love unconditionally, do the best they can. I know that, in some ways, despite the ways in which fate was unkind to our young family, I have been all kinds of lucky.

Now, when I go back to February 1963, I see them the night before their wedding, she in impossibly tiny capri pants, he in a button-down shirt and chinos. He is lying on his back, legs raised to the ceiling, with her girlish body balanced atop his feet. She’s facing him, their hands clasped, and she smiles down at him, looking, perhaps, like she knows a secret. They are playing like the kids they are. They are young and dumb and all they know is that they are in love. In a few short years, when he plays this game of airplane with his daughter, she will fear falling but will also willingly choose the rush of flight, begging “do it again!” each time he lands her safely on the ground. This will not be a metaphor for her life with them. It will be only one kind of memory out of multitudes. She cannot have the one without all the others, which is why, when that girl grows up and is getting old herself, she will write her way to a place where she imagines going back in time and saying to them:

Yes, go ahead, do it again. Do what you are going to do. Fly.


Things resonating this week:

Can We Put an End to America’s Most Dangerous Myth? There’s some pretty stiff competition for the title of “America’s Most Dangerous Myth,” but this one is surely a contender. I think my life’s biggest regret is moving away from my extended family. My greatest hope is to build a retirement life within a web of familial interdependence (with “family” being any who, when you have to go them, have to take you in)

All True at Once (TW: suicide) A poem of an essay, with a question that I am now, like the writer, carrying inside my chest: What if it’s all true at once?

My Author Photo Brought Me Face to Face with the Body I Hated I love how honest this piece is. I have things to say about how I struggle to accept my body as it is, but I’m not ready to say them today.

Cocaine Bear Kerry Russell’s portrayal of a mother in this gross, hilarious (I laughed out loud when a teenager got his head shot off, and I’m not really sure how they made that funny, but it was) romp of a movie is what I needed to see this weekend.

False Witness Not your typical violent crime thriller. I mean, she’s got a blurb from Stacey Abrams. Had a creepy encounter with a creepy man this week, and I wish I had more Leigh Collier in me.

Unlikely Animals Gilmore Girlsesque vibes with so much more important things to say. (Haven’t finished it yet, but it kept me good company on a day with nearly 8 hours of driving this week.)

We’re Book Nerds… Maybe someday. And if not me, I’m glad for these other women.