Two days ago I published a little piece here about a trip I’m on right now, and then I deleted it almost immediately. It didn’t feel true.*
It is true that I am (and have been) in London, on a trip that looks pretty fabulous on paper.
It is also true that I have been mostly unhappy on this trip, despite all the gifts and privileges that, combined, should have made this the most wonderful time of my year. Instead, I have mostly been lonely or angry or sad. And most of the time I’ve been those things, I’ve also been upset with myself for not being able to be joyful about what I have rather than sad or angry about what I do not.
Today, Christmas, all of those feelings intensified. I was so blue I wanted to do nothing but descend into a black hole of Netflix binging, but I made myself go out for a walk instead. I stomped around Regent’s Park, wishing I could just go home, frustrated with myself for not being able to change my attitude or outlook or approach to the time on this trip, disliking myself for not being the kind of person who would be thrilled to be here. I felt exactly like the kind of person I don’t want to be: someone who dwells on the negative, someone who is unappreciative, someone who wallows in their misery–which only made me feel even worse than I already was.
I really wanted myself to just snap out of it.
“You feel what you feel,” a character on some show I’ve watched too much of in the past week said to another, “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.” Meaning: You don’t choose your feelings, so don’t judge yourself for them. Her words popped into my head as I plodded up Primrose Hill, stopping me short.
No, I thought, she’s right; we don’t choose our feelings. They just are.
Still, there are plenty of voices telling us that we can choose how to respond to them, and that if we choose the right responses we won’t suffer.
I’m just going to flat out say that I think that’s harmful, bullshit thinking right there. I’ve learned that I can’t will my feelings away or simply choose different ones–believe me, I’ve tried–and suggestions in “inspirational” memes that we can feel almost aggressively hostile. People with depression don’t choose their feelings. People grieving or living with trauma don’t choose their feelings. Those feelings just are. It’s hard enough to deal with those difficulties; we don’t have to intensify them by blaming ourselves for feeling badly about them.
Which got me thinking about what we can actually choose when we’re feeling shitty, and I realized that I was already doing one of those things: Physical activity. That is something we can will ourselves to do, and it was something I was doing even though I didn’t want to.
Hey, I thought, maybe I’m not just a weak-willed, dour, negative person after all.
As thoughts of blame and judgement cleared, I found myself thinking also about what I know about trauma and grief, and it occurred to me that sad and angry and lonely might actually be exactly what I need to be feeling (fabulous trip be damned), and that they might be walloping me right now precisely because it is the first time I have been able to take a real breath since (maybe?) March. Maybe I have been unable to summon the motivation to do much on this trip because nothing is what I need to be doing.
I’d like to tell you that something equivalent to clouds parting and sun breaking through happened, but it didn’t. I just felt a little less shitty.
It didn’t make my Christmas great, but it made it alright. I had a day that was mostly OK, with a few moments of true joy and light. I sure had bigger hopes than that for Christmas in London with one of my favorite people, and I’m feeling embarrassed that when people ask me how I’m loving it I can’t honestly tell them that I am, but I’m going to put today in the victory column. A win doesn’t always look the way we think it should.
And I’m offering this story–plain as it is, but true–in case it might help anyone else who is struggling with something today. Consider it my Christmas gift to you.
*Updated 12/27: I made it public again. It’s not that it was untrue. It just wasn’t the whole truth. And sometimes we need to let things sit a bit before knowing if what we wrote is truth.
A little more than twenty years ago, I found myself one morning strapped into a car on the Stratosphere, the Las Vegas roller coaster with a run that took its passengers off the roof of a high rise and suspended them over the city’s famous Strip.
I was there with my extended family, celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday, on the cusp of my own middle-age. I hadn’t been on a roller coaster in years, and, somehow, riding the Stratosphere that July morning seemed as if it were an opportunity I should not pass up. It really wasn’t my kind of thing (nothing in Vegas was my kind of thing), but I didn’t know when I might have such a chance again, if ever. I did not want to be the kind of person who passes on opportunities that might not come around again. I wanted to be the kind of person who tries things that aren’t really her kind of thing. I wanted to be the kind of person who experiences all that life offers. I wanted to be less like my usual self and more like my grandmother, a woman who brought her clan to Vegas to honor eight decades of living and made everything fun.
So that is why, after drinking a Bloody Mary and eating a spicy sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich, I decided to carpe the shit out of my diem and let myself be buckled in to a car set to go screaming down a steel track that would hold me more than 900 feet above air over the side of a building. Me, who feels a bit lightheaded at the top of the Marquam bridge every single time I drive over it.
It was long before the days of inspirational internet memes, but I imagined the moment feeling something like this:
Panic started within seconds of the car’s moving, when I realized that my decision was irrevocable. No matter what the experience was to be, there was no turning back from it. The long, slow ascent to the first drop, during which I could do nothing but contemplate what was coming, may have been the cruelest part of the ride. I spent the entire time telling myself that I wasn’t going to die (or that, if I did, I wasn’t likely to be aware of it) and that it would be over relatively quickly and that I would survive it.
All of which proved to be true, but still: It was fairly awful. In fact, I hated every single second of it and nothing about it made me a better person.
“That was so awesome!” my younger cousin squealed when she exited the ride. I was already slumped on the ground, head spinning, hoping I wouldn’t throw up. Thanks to the Bloody Mary, the sausage, and my own proclivity for motion sickness, the ride for me didn’t end when the car stopped moving. It was a good 45 minutes before I could really walk again, and it was half a day before I no longer felt nauseated.
Well, I thought at the time, that was a really stupid decision. I should have known better. I should have known myself better. I lost half a day of this trip because of some idea I have about who I want to be (youthful! spontaneous! adventurous!) that is different from who I actually am.
If there’s one thing my life story would illustrate, it is that I do not learn lessons well the first time they are presented to me. And because of the way life or the universe or whatever works, the lesson delivery ramps up in some way on each subsequent go-round.
This is why, in the days leading up to my departure for a trip to London over the holidays, I found myself feeling not unlike the way I felt when strapped into that roller-coaster car.
When the opportunity to travel to London for several weeks over Christmas presented itself to me last fall, turning it down seemed like the kind of folly I could only regret.
After nearly a week on my own to decompress and learn the lay of the land, my daughter (on her way to a semester abroad in Sweden) would meet me there, and we would stay for free in a friend’s flat, taking care of her dog while she returned home to the states for her winter break. London! Christmas! Mother-daughter bonding! Free lodging! Sweet dog!
Who would turn that down?
Certainly not the kind of woman I still would like to be, one who regularly travels outside of her comfort zone and, as a result, finds it expanding. I would still like to be adventurous, spontaneous, free-wheeling. Dare I say it? FUN. (Yes, in all caps.)
My friends who know and love me encouraged me to go. “You have to,” they said. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” (What none of us talked about was the deeper reason why I might have wanted to go away for Christmas, which is that it would be my first one since the life I’ve been mourning the loss of ended.)
And so, I said yes. I told my friend I would care for her dog. I told my daughter I would meet her in London. I bought a plane ticket. I ignored that feeling in the pit of my stomach and the little whisper in my head that said, “Don’t do it.” As the day to leave grew closer, the pit grew larger and the whisper louder, but I was already strapped in. Tickets had been bought. Arrangements had been made. “I will be fine,” I told myself. I watched a sappy Nancy Meyers movie and even though I know her entire oeuvre is the grown-ass woman’s equivalent of an old-school Disney princess fairy tale, I let myself imagine a journey that would somehow shift me toward being more of the kind of woman I’d like to be.
“Aren’t you so excited?” people asked in the days before I left. I smiled noncommittally in response, unable to admit the truth to anyone but a long-distance friend. “I feel sad and anxious,” I confided, missing my dogs and my house and my routines before I’d even left them.
There were a few mishaps, but nothing catastrophic. I looked foolish at customs, where I didn’t know my friend’s address or place of employment and couldn’t produce evidence of my return flight home. My cell service wasn’t set up as I thought it would be, and that caused a few stumbles (such as not being able to produce proof of my return flight home at customs). Henry, the dog, didn’t immediately warm to me. But after a few days, I settled in. I learned the spot to get a most delicious pastry rolled in sugar and cinnamon. I went to a pub by myself and thoroughly enjoyed my burger, chips, and book. I walked miles every day. I fell a little bit in love with urban living and searched Redfin for condos in the heart of Portland, imagining a home even smaller and closer in than the one I downsized to last spring. Henry and I bonded.
I know this is the paragraph where the the magic is supposed to happen, where something comes along to change my perspective and part the clouds, letting my sunshine back in. But–spoiler alert–it’s not. The closest I’ve come to a meet-cute was when a man young as my son and scruffy as Henry smiled at me and asked to pet the dog–an encounter I was inordinately grateful for because it was the first conversation I’d had for days that didn’t include a credit card transaction.
Truth is, in spite of some truly lovely moments, there have been more in which I’ve been lonely and missing home and wishing I hadn’t come. Because, I’m not the star of a Nancy Meyers movie, and when I was saying “yes,” to this adventure, I was forgetting another piece of ubiquitous internet advice/philosophy/religion:
Yes, I am in a whole new place–a really wonderful place–but I am still me. As much as I believe travel can take us out of ourselves, it also takes us in. By stripping us of much that is familiar and comfortable, we can see more clearly who we actually are.
And who I am is not the kind of person who is going to easily strike up conversation with strangers. I am not the kind of person who is going to fall into some interesting new situation of some sort an ocean away from home; I’m far too cautious for that. I am a person who likes routine, familiarity, and feeling competent, none of which travel is conducive to. I am an introverted, socially anxious homebody who is exhausted from a challenging school year and the loss of a life she didn’t want to lose. I am a woman walking around in a rather thick, brittle shell that she hopes will protect the bruised soft tissue at her core. Being away from home for the homiest of holidays isn’t distracting me from that, much as I hoped it might. It is helping me see it all the more clearly, and that I am not going to Eat, Pray, Love my way out of pain I haven’t yet made peace with. And now that I’ve seen all that, what I’d really like to do is go home where my daughter and I can binge Netflix on our own couch and we can sleep in our own beds and I can recuperate in my comfort zone from all the other things I never wanted that have pushed me out of it in the last 12 months.
Before you go thinking that I’m just not trying hard enough–that I need to be more open to what this experience has to offer, I want to assure you that I’m not this woman:
I’ve gotten out. I’ve ridden the tube and the bus. Hell, I even got lost on the tube. (Okay, I have been to Starbucks twice, but only for their internet.) And this post really isn’t about asking for sympathy or advice, and I know (I know) all the ways in which I am privileged and lucky as hell to be where I am right now. I KNOW. (So please keep any judgement to yourself, too. Thanks.) I’m just offering this story in case any of you are also struggling a little with how your life right now isn’t resembling a Hallmark holiday movie–even, or especially, if you’re fortunate enough to be in some situation where it seems it should or could–and how every time you see an inspirational meme floating through your social media feed of choice you feel like posting this one in response:
I am far too much like Anne Tylers’s Macon Leary, the Accidental Tourist who writes travel guides for those who wish they were at home. Only, I’m pretty sure that there is no kooky, bad-clothes-wearing dog whisperer waiting in the wings to heal my grief and fill my life. Our real lives so rarely follow a traditional narrative arc; most of us are living our way through a much more meandering kind of tale, one in which nothing much dramatic really happens–more Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky than just about any character in any popular film.
I wish I could tell you a better story here. I wish there was some satisfying denouement, or even something resembling rising action. I am still in the middle of the ride of this trip, so maybe there is more to come. But so far, all I got for a take-away to this rather flat narrative is this:
My grandfather died in 2003, and if it were true that time heals all wounds his death is one I should be long recovered from, but I’m not. The missing waxes and wanes, but it is never entirely absent. This month, this year, I have missed him more than at any time since he left us.
We seem to be having quite a conversation about men recently, and perhaps that is part of why I am missing him. He was one of the best men I’ve known. My grandfather was, in many ways, a guy’s guy. I’ve seen photos of the strong young man he once was, and I know there was some turbulence in his youth. I know he had no trouble holding his own, at any time in his life. He was a tough man who spent his life doing physical labor, but he was also a gentle man who wrote poems to his grand-daughter:
Because his father, an immigrant from Germany, died in a construction accident when my grandfather was still a teen-ager, he was not able to pursue a formal education as he would have liked to. Instead, he became a machinist and welder and served our country working in the Bremerton shipyards during the second world war. Later, he owned his own small business, Ott’s Welding and Machine Works. He was a lifelong Republican and a devout Catholic. He was also the person who taught me about the injustices committed upon native people and black Americans. He hated Hitler and the tactics he’d used to gain and keep power. One of his favorite sayings was, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This, during an era of so much protest against actions with which he likely agreed.
He also taught me much about how men should treat girls and women. I remember only one time in which his anger was directed at me. I made a face at the asparagus my grandmother had made for dinner, and both the words and tone of his rebuke were sharp. Later, he apologized for the sharpness and explained what had made him angry. He did not want to see my grandmother’s work disrespected. He adored her and viewed her as his partner in their business and home. They were always a team.
As I became a young adult and developed my own political views, we both became aware that mine were different from his. That never changed our relationship. We knew that despite our different ideas about how to achieve the kind of America we wanted, what we wanted was the same: a country with equal opportunities for everyone, in which who you are matters less than what you do. He taught me that it is important to play by the rules and to play fair. To be honorable and to have integrity. He never suggested, in words or actions, that I mattered less than anyone else because I’m female, or that any person mattered less than another because of their skin color. Those were not his political values, they were his human values, and he imparted them to me.
I know that many of the ideas and beliefs I had for decades about what our country is and how it works were, at best, incomplete. I know there are things he never saw or knew about what has created and denied opportunities for all of us, but that doesn’t change the goodness he embodied. I miss him, and I miss living in a country where I felt confident that most people wanted those same things for everyone that both he and I wanted for them. Where I believed that our systems were strong enough to protect us from those who did not.
I know that my grief and sadness and feelings of loss for the man my grandfather was are all mixed up with those I have about losing the beliefs I once had about my country. The country he taught me to believe in because he thought it was what I know he was: decent, fair, just, humane. What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk with him again, and to feel about all of my countrymen what I once felt about and for them. To believe in them–in us–the way I still believe in him and what he stood for.
This house of mine and me, we’re not the stuff of fairy tales. I did not fall in love with her at first sight (or second or third or fourth…), and while I’m hoping we’ll live happily together I don’t think it will be ever after. (But you never know, do you? You really never know. Boy, haven’t I learned that.) Ours is a practical union, forged by the things each of us needs and can provide the other.
We’ve been together since mid-May. I’m still not all unpacked, and the kids’ rooms were a disaster for a good two months and still aren’t functional. (But they don’t live here, so that doesn’t really matter. Hate to think how much energy I’ve wasted on things that don’t really matter.)
At first, for a lot of reasons having little to do with the new house and everything to do with why I left the old one, I didn’t like her much. Oh, I tried, but some nights I wandered alone around her rooms with “Once in a Lifetime” playing on repeat in my head, feeling like somehow things had gotten completely away from me. Even though I’d made my choices consciously and knowingly, even though I felt, given the things I’d accepted I could not change, that I’d made the right ones, my brain couldn’t stop singing, My God, what have I done?
At first, I thought I would move the things I loved best from the old house into the new, and that would make it feel like home.
None of them really fit in this new house, which I blamed on the house. But to be honest (which I was having a hard time being with myself), my heart was broken. There was no sexy new romance of any kind (house or otherwise) to keep me from feeling all of its jagged edges, and those reminders of what I once had just made me feel my losses more deeply.
One low day I took down all the art I most associated with Cane and the life we’d had together and put them out in the garage. That felt better, and I began to understand that it wasn’t the new house’s fault that our things didn’t fit within her walls. I began giving previously beloved items away, keeping only those that didn’t carry strong memories of what once was.
I also started bringing out things that had been stored in boxes for years, things from my family. At the same time I was moving, my grandmother died. When I returned from her funeral with items from her home, I found that they didn’t fill me with sadness, even though they, like those from my old house, might have been fused in my heart and head with loss. Instead, they grounded me in who I was back in the beginning of my life, before I ever had a home of my own. Sometimes they made me sad, too, but it felt like the right kind of sad.
I kept telling myself that I needed to unpack the boxes with practical things, but instead I spent hours arranging sentimental objects and working in the garden, pulling and deadheading and cutting back and planting. Those tasks felt more necessary than finding my extra towels or kitchen gadgets.
As I did those things, I started to feel flickers of affection for the new house. I began to feel her charms, not just tell myself that she has them, and when a trip away went several kinds of wrong and I longed to go home, it was this house, not my earlier one, that I wanted.
Still, it’s been a process. It is a process. We’re a work in progress, the house and me. When I’m really not feeling it from or for her, I sometimes pick up my camera and wander the rooms and garden looking for things I can love. I zoom in close, so I can truly see them, framing them from different angles in order to find the ones most pleasing. (As my friend Kate recently said to me, “there’s something to be said for cropping.”)
I’m finding that love this time–for the house, for my life in it, for my new, transforming-yet-again self–is not about a sudden falling. There isn’t even anything I could call love yet, but there is gratitude, and it is something that’s growing through the small things I’m collecting and discovering and doing over time:
A bouquet I cut from the hydrangea bush and arranged in a pitcher on the kitchen table.
The way the afternoon light spills across the sofa now that we’ve thinned the shrubs in front of the windows.
My mother’s childhood milk cup placed against the backdrop of a thrift store painting.
Morning birdsong in the weedy part of the yard I haven’t yet tamed (and might not).
A quilt top my great-grandmother pieced and that I spread on the bed in what will be my son’s new room.
The patina of a worn dresser that’s become a potting table in the greenhouse, where I hope to grow flowers and vegetables from seeds next spring.
The more I’ve noticed, the more I’ve realized that the things turning this house into home are those I could take to or create in any place I might live. They are things with the right kind of history. They are the things of and from me, not the architecture that surrounds me–things I can carry with me when I once again find myself starting over. Because some day I will. Isn’t life always the same as it ever was, in more ways than it sometimes feels we can hardly bear knowing?
A few years ago, I used to try to call my grandmother on Sundays, and often when she answered her voice would be thick and scratchy. She’d clear her throat and explain that she hadn’t spoken to anyone all weekend, and so her voice wasn’t clear.
It is the same with writing–when the words haven’t come through our hands in awhile, they feel a bit clogged and it’s hard to get them out. The only remedy, I think, is to just start. To trust that our voice will find itself if we just start using it again.
I don’t think I wrote about it directly, but I began this year with a vow that I would not end the next one as I’d ended the previous three. I suppose if I had the gift of foresight and were still interested in such things as choosing a word for the year, mine for 2018 would have been “grief.” I knew, on New Year’s Eve, that things needed to change–and I changed them–but change is always ending and ending (at least for me) always has at least some element of grief to it.
In the months since I last wrote here, I left the home that was always more dream than simply a place to live. I lost the grandmother I used to call weekly (and then wrote to weekly), ending my run as a grand-daughter. I made and put into place a plan for finishing my career. I’m living in a place of more questions than answers, which is perhaps how life should always be, but it’s new for me. I am wading in as much possibility as loss, but sometimes all I can see is empty horizon. Sometimes I get knocked down by sneaker waves of sadness or anger. But other times I walk in deep enough to release my legs and float. It’s good to remember that floating is an option, always.
This isn’t much of a post, but it’ll do. Off to unpack some boxes and put up some shelves and pull some weeds.
Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.
Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.
It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now, I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.
For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.
So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.
All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do: My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.
I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.
Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.
It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:
“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”
Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:
Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.
How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then: There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.
All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.
“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog
I come from a family of women who laugh.
Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.
It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.
“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.
“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.
I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.
As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them: my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.
That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.
As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.
My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.
I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously: To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.
I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.
As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.
I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.
Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?
Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t): Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.
There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.
I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.
I have a room in my house set aside for creative projects. It used to be the bedroom of a child who can’t live here any more. I think I thought that making it a generative space would be healing in some way. That hasn’t quite been the case.
My words have dried up. I am interested in images, but I spend more time looking at others’ than making my own. I’ve thought often of Ira Glass’s words about how creative beginners have to struggle through a (usually long) period of producing stuff that doesn’t live up to our vision for it. He thinks we’re driven by a desire to create works that match our good taste, and that we have to understand that our work won’t, at least initially.
My grandmother is 100 years old. I send her a handmade card every week. Originally, I thought I would scan or photograph each one before I sent it–so I’d have some record of them–but I haven’t. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When I visit her, I see all of them in a stack on her kitchen counter. I guess I will get them back eventually, probably sooner than I would like.
Whenever I get them it will be sooner than I would like.
A blogging friend writes about taking photos to help her see the beauty in everyday life. I like this idea. My photos aren’t particularly great, don’t capture what I see–but they are enough to remind me of what I was doing and how I felt when I saw.
Maybe when I can no longer stroll through a farmers’ food coop in Chimacum, WA with my mother, a photo from a June morning in 2017 will remind me of how I felt and what I had when I once did. That will be good enough reason for its existence.
My grandmother knit sweaters when she was younger. She used gorgeous, high-quality yarns. Wool, not the cheap synthetic stuff. She taught me the rudiments of knitting when I was 8, but I’ve never made anything more than cotton dishcloths. When I was in college, I wrote a poem about her knitting. I called it her art. She gave me her knitting needles when she was done with them.
I want to take the time to muck around with images and words and paper and cloth and ink and yarn and thread, but I rarely do, other than when I make the weekly card. I cannot quiet the voice that says, Is this what you want to do with what remains of your “one wild and precious life”? And the one that says, “What are you going to do with your not-very-good art, anyway?” I don’t hear them when I’m making the cards. The images I make are not the point. My uncle tells me that the cards are a highlight of the week. He tells me this three times when I visit for an afternoon.
A Facebook friend I never really knew in high school posts his anguish one night over the death of a childhood friend, a musician who was once almost famous. Something about his words reflects like a mirror, and I write back. Later, he thanks me, and I respond that I know something of grief. Don’t all of us, once we reach a certain age? Doesn’t the exchange of words about that make us real friends?
When my son is leaving for Marine boot camp, I tell him that I will be cleaning up his room. “Just don’t make it, like, a sewing room or something,” he says. “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”
I want to say, “That’s not what cleaning your room is about. That’s not what it will ever be about.”
What I say is, “I already have a room for sewing.”
When I am done, the room is both his and not-his. I open the door every few days, wishing and not-wishing that I will see a tangle of blankets on the bed, dirty clothes on the floor, an empty chip bag on the nightstand. I don’t know why I keep opening it, but I do. Every time, it’s so damn clean. And empty.
It will never be my sewing room. I hope he knows that.
A friend I first met in a poetry workshop 32 years ago tells me to write whatever I want. He tells me not to worry about genre, or form, or making meaning for anyone else. He tells me to write–or not write–for myself, that it is time for me to do that now. He tells me it is OK if I’d rather grow flowers or make food than write. He tells me I don’t need to serve the world with my words. I don’t need to serve the world with anything. I have served enough, he says. His wife died last year. I worry about his heart, which is failing. Who will tell me these things if he’s not here to say them?
I go to lunch with my grandmother, my uncle, my parents, my brother. I look around the table, wondering when everyone got so old. I feel the engine of us shifting into a lower gear. I miss my grandma. I miss summertime lunches in her backyard, tuna salad on her homemade bread, iced tea in a sweating glass, bees buzzing among her flowers. I hate this Applebee’s, with its TV playing silently on the far wall, its too-big plates of pasta with gelatinous sauce, its air-conditioning that leaves all of us cold on a warm day.
On Saturday, a different writer friend posts on Facebook about how she misses writing. She says she is going to start telling stories again. On Sunday morning I am here, after making my weekly card, gathering the first of these words without worrying about genre or form or serving anyone else, in the former bedroom of the child who doesn’t live here any more. (I am tired of stumbling over what to call this room. What will it mean if I give it another name? Which stage of grief would that act represent–denial or acceptance?)
The world as we know it is ending, you know. No one’s going to save it. But here’s the thing: The world as we know it is always ending. Ira Glass tells us, “You’ve just gotta fight your way through,” and he’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Being creative is not about persevering to make things of good taste or to achieve ambitions. It’s about staying in the gorgeous struggle–and living to tell.
Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:
Drive past the White House.
Go to a single museum.
See a monument.
Visit the Library of Congress.
I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.
I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.
The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.
(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)
It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.
Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.
Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.
Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.
In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.
As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.
Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.
As the weekend unfolded, it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show: Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.
Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.
Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town: How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.
I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.
What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before— “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”
I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.
Oh, hey there. Long time no see. Whatchya been up to?
Me? You know…busy busy busy these days…
I’ve only made it to half the sessions of my writing-about-hard-topics-with-humor class. Which means two. Yeah, that might not have been money so well spent after all, considering the per session cost. And that the response to my last piece was heavy on adjectives such as “hard,” “dark,” and “serious.” I believe the word “grim” might have been used. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be looking for places to let some light in.
Funny how a seemingly innocuous prompt–
“Two dollars doesn’t seem like much, unless…”—
became a piece about income inequality and powerlessness and regret. (Except it wasn’t funny. At all.)
So, I guess I haven’t been busy going to my writing class. Or writing, with humor or anything else.
I think it’s because I’ve been really busy fighting all that’s wrong in the world on Facebook. (I know that sentence’s likely got a misplaced modifier, but it kinda works just the way it’s written.) Scrolling Facebook these days is like driving down a highway clogged with one horrific accident after another. I know that I should just look forward and keep moving (or stay home more–a lot more), but I can’t seem to stop myself from getting on the road and then fixating on the wreckage. I’m either staring in fascinated horror or actually stopping to try to do something–even though I have no useful skills to save anyone or anything and am really just adding to the carnage by getting in the way.
Unless, of course, I’m posting mindless things I think are funny, like this exchange between my son and me in the hours before the stormaggedon that never quite materialized here in the northwest last weekend.
Sometimes I get something positive out of my social media travels, though–like this piece by Magda Pescayne at AskMoxie–which helped me understand that what I’m feeling in response to this damn presidential election (and systemic racism and rape culture/misogyny and violence andandand…) is grief as much as anger and fear. (If you’re in the same place, take a minute to click on through. It’s got some great advice on how to get through the next few weeks. Not that I think everything is going to be all better when the election is finally over. In fact, I’m starting to fear that things will be worse.)
It’s not like I needed another thing to add to my List of Things I’m Grieving, but I guess there’s some comfort in recognizing that that’s what’s going on.
Speaking of grief, well…that’s the kind of thing that can just fill a person’s day right up, isn’t it? It takes so many minutes to talk yourself into getting out of bed, to wander aimlessly around the house from one unfinished task to another, to remember what it is you came for at the grocery store, to make and cancel the plans with friends you promised your therapist you’d reach out to, to make and cancel appointments with your therapist, to pick up take-out because grocery shopping used up all the energy you have, to fixate on the question of how one can distinguish between grief and depression and get online to Google it and get sidetracked by Facebook (which only exacerbates your grief/depression or whatever it is), to revise and revise and revise a blog post you’re never going to publish, to fight a series of migraines and other physical ailments, to put on a happy face so you won’t have to talk about any of the things that are making you sad/numb/angry/numb/hollow/numb.
But even though I’ve been so busy with those things, I have found time to pick up a needle again. I’ve decided that embroidery is my version of all those adult coloring books that are going to be on all the year-end lists of things that are this year’s equivalent of the pet rock.
A long while back I found a piece of fabric with finished edges that I bought because I wanted to embroider on it.
Rather than embroider on it, though, I let it sit in various closets around our house. I think I didn’t let myself do anything with it because there is no practical reason for me to spend hours embellishing this piece of fabric. It won’t even serve any kind of decorative purpose, most likely, as the style and color scheme is unlike anything in the rest of our house.
But a weekend or so ago I picked it up because I was home alone and feeling really sick with migraine-med hangover and my grief/depression/whatever means I don’t have any house-related projects to do (because I no longer care much about doing things to make our house nicer) and because I just wanted to. I turned on an old movie and made a cup of tea and sat on the couch with the dogs and started “coloring.”
This is not going to be an awesome work of original art. It may well end up spending more time in various closets when I’m done with it. But, when I am lying awake in bed and my mind is spinningspinningspinning about all the things that trouble me these days, I’ve started turning it to this canvas. I imagine what I might add to the tree’s white foliage. I wonder how I can make it look like the trunk has been yarn-bombed. I consider the kinds of stitches I might use to fill the leaves.
Something about those middle-of-the-night wonderings calms my mind the way the actual work of it does in earlier hours of the day, and I’m usually able to get back to sleep.
That’s a good thing, I guess. At the very least, it keeps me from becoming another wreck for others to rubberneck at on their journey through this world.
So, yeah. That’s what’s new with me. How about you?