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:
Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.
The Student Who Shot My Other Student
He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.
I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.
I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.
I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.
The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.
Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.
In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.
Remember when you thought going to bed was the best time of day, the way you curled your body into the curve of his, your torsos and legs a pair of nesting commas, his arms holding you like the string on a present, something to both secure and decorate your wrapping?
Remember when you thought that finding the love of your life meant no more choices to make, that it would last until death parted you from it, biology’s ruthlessness the only unbreachable barrier?
Remember the day your father told you that if a ship were sinking and he had to choose between saving your mother or saving you, he would choose her? Remember nodding, yes, of course, of course that would only be right, even as you imagined your little-girl arms flailing for someone to hold onto?
Remember your great-uncle Shorty, who came back broken from the war and never mended, how one time he pointed at you from his chair in his mother’s dark living room, saying nothing, pipe dangling, and how you ran to your mother in the kitchen and hid your face in the space between her legs? Remember how, later, you said it felt as if he were claiming or marking you as one of his kind?
Remember the space between your legs, how important it seemed to fill it, that tunnel a conduit to your hollow core, the empty package of you?
Remember the boy who drank too much one night and fell down the stairs and how for a while afterward said the kind of things we think but don’t say, and how he told the boyfriend who would become your first husband that you were damaged? Remember after the divorce, how you would think that he had been right?
Remember that package you got once in the mail, how its box was so tattered and mashed that you were sure its contents must be broken, that the whole thing would have to be returned?
Remember how you were wrong?
Another exercise from the poetry group mentioned here. Guess I’m working on some things.
Because it was there to notice in the cardboard box where I once put it, the box in which I keep all my earrings
(because I’m not a jewelry person, the kind of woman who owns enough jewelry to warrant a proper box), the box I keep meaning to go through and clean out
Because so many of the earrings are missing mates that aren’t going to reappear, no matter how much I once loved them–that funky teardrop turquoise one, my birthstone; or the expensive gold hoop my parents gave me; or that silver heart-shaped one I lost somewhere in the old house, the one I lived in with the man I didn’t marry–and
Because for some reason I notice it this morning, when it’s been there so long that I usually don’t, and
Because I am in a place where, it seems, so many things must be tested, I stop to try it on my finger to find that it no longer fits, and then I wonder
Why I keep it and all the earrings I will never wear again, and
Why I never quite know what to do with things that no longer fit, and
Why I am not the kind of woman who would ever have an asymmetrical number of piercings, or who might wear a mis-matched pair, and
Why I am the kind of woman who hangs onto things she loves past their point of usefulness, and
Why I can’t part with a wedding ring even though the circle has been broken, and
Because I don’t have any of the answers, and
Because perhaps some day my children might want this piece of metal bent into the shape my finger once was, this little glittering rock to tell them that they came from something that mattered enough for their mother to hold onto an emblem of it,
I put it–all of it, the ring and the questions and the becauses–back into the box and go on with my day, knowing it will not be one in which I discard anything
I’ve never been able to commit to NaNoWriMo (or any other WriMo that requires doing a prodigious amount of writing every day in the month of November), but this year I did decide to join an online poetry writing group that runs Nov. 1-30, led by Jena Schwartz. This writing (poem?) came from one of the prompts Jena provided to the group this week. I have decided that for me, writing might be not unlike exercise: I’d like to think I can just go it alone, but I probably can’t. There’s a synergy that comes from reading others’ words and talking about their words that I can’t manufacture on my own, a force that energizes whatever it is that makes me want to find my own. And, like exercise, there is a value in just showing up, putting yourself out there and doing the work, even if it’s not a contest for a prize. That’s what publishing this piece here is for me. I appreciate whatever it is that comes from being part of this group that made me stop and think about why I noticed my old ring and what it means that I still have it–which makes this, in some ways, also like the kind of daily gratitude practice some take on for the month of November. It’s been a well-spent $30.00.
It is the first week of November.
The roses are blooming, still.
The petals blush and bloom outside the window where I sleep, and they are lovely in a gangly, over-grown way, but I am starting to wonder if pink is the color of doom, a gentle warning from a planet warming.
I remember a childhood summer day, Marie Osmond crooning on the radio about paper roses while I dug rivers and tunnels in my grandparents’ garden. Summer was mild sun and dusky July raspberries and watermelon with seeds and Puget Sound water so cold it almost made your teeth chatter just to look at it. Today I look out the window to the roses and wonder if I will ever have grandchildren who will know such summer days, or if instead I will have grandchildren who look forward to the brambly November blooms of feral roses. (Will I have grandchildren?)
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s always the end of the world as we know it.
In the first week of November I spend a Sunday afternoon at the library, listening to a poet I know talk about the role of poetry in times such as these. On this last Sunday before the election that will be the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, I sit in a room and listen to the words of a poet who first came into my life 27 years ago, right before the first time the life I was living ended and I had to find my way to a new one, and who appeared again at a later time when another life was ending. Perhaps that is why I have come to listen to what he might tell me today. Perhaps I am looking for the kind of support his words offered through those other transitions.
I want to enter into his words, but I cannot. The room is filled with gray hair and white skin, and we are sitting in the open space at the top of three flights of marble stairs, and while part of me fills with something like awe for our humanity and faith in such things as poetry and libraries, another part of me wonders if we are all fiddling away this fall afternoon while our Rome burns, if we should be out knocking on doors and sounding the alarm and telling everyone we know to vote, vote, vote instead of listening to the gentle poet’s gentle words about writing and living and folk songs. I doze off while sitting up, his words and music (because yes, there is music–guitar, not fiddle) more lullaby than anything else.
I wake up to these words, with these words: “Poetry is a luxury that could save your life. So maybe it can save your country.”
I am a poet.
I don’t write poetry any more.
He tells us that poets don’t have to be great writers. They have to be great observers, able to catch the poems as they wander by.
How can poetry be both luxury and necessity? How can roses bloom in the season when flowers are supposed to die?
The first week in November I am reading Anne Lamott,* who tells me that all truth is paradox “and this turns out to be reason for hope.” She tells me,
“…paradox is an invitation to go deeper into life, to see a bigger screen instead of the nice, safe lower left quadrant where you see work, home, and the country. Try a wider reality, through curiosity, awareness, and breath. Try actually being here.”
I put things out in the world, things that feel important for everyone to know: the caravan is a humanitarian crisis; the president lies; our kids don’t have librarians to teach them how to find sources of truth. Only a few people seem to reach out to catch them, these little nuggets of doom I offer the way some people offer prayer. “You think that if you just explain everything clearly enough, other people will understand and do the right thing,” a friend tells me in a conversation about how I am naive.
In the first week of November it is the mundane things I share that friends latch on to: a Halloween candy debacle, my clogged plumbing, my acceptance of leggings as pants. Maybe this is more fiddling, but I don’t think so. Maybe it is a kind of grabbing for life rings to keep us afloat in waters we don’t really know how to swim. We have a debate about leggings that is also about norms and appropriateness and oppression (OK, so I’m the only one who brought up oppression), and we all talk about how our ideas about leggings have evolved. For my daughter and her friends, this is a non-issue, a ridiculous conversation. For them, leggings have always been pants. That’s just how it is. Perhaps roses blooming in November will just be how it is for them, too.
The world is ending, as it always has, always will, and the most improbable things are getting me through it. My old, toothless, and increasingly threadbare dogs. Characters in books I haven’t read in decades (Francie Nolan and Harriet M. Welsch and Ole Golly.) German pancakes in a neighborhood bakery that fills with people and sunshine and sugar on weekend mornings. Friends who live half a continent away, people I’ve never met in real life but who give me comfort and laughter, a conduit to joy not possible in the world I was born into. One of them writes to me in the first week of November,
“Nostalgia kills me. Either I dwell on negatives I can’t change or I miss the positives that are gone and not coming back. So what works is focusing on the present…. The moment is right where I belong.”
And later in the first week in November, at the end of a long day, I walk out of school to a nearly empty parking lot and am struck by a wonder of red leaves swirling to the ground in the golden light of a sun about to set. I am weary and frustrated and going home to a house empty of anyone but those tired dogs, but in that moment I breathe in the joy of those leaves, that light, and it becomes something palpable, a good weight in the pit of my stomach. I share this moment later with my friend who belongs in the moment, though we may never share moments through anything other than code that represents them, and only after the moments have passed.
This moment in time is full of paradox, endings that are beginnings and beginnings that are endings. All moments in time are.
Each night I go to sleep alone next to the window next to the roses and remember when I didn’t sleep alone. My life isn’t what I thought it would be, what I want it to be.
I love my life.
The roses, they are breaking me.
The roses, with their common, uncontrollable beauty, they are saving me.
At the reading, after I wake up, a woman sitting behind me asks a question. I recognize her voice, though I haven’t heard it in nearly 10 years. She is the friend of a friend I once had, another poet whose words helped save me when I needed saving. How I have missed Sarah, miss Sarah still, will always miss Sarah, who died too soon, and our friendship that died with her before it had a chance to fully bloom. How I sometimes miss that life I was living when she was my friend and her friend was someone I knew, a life filled with mothering and teaching and writing poetry and living on a mountain where the seasons behaved as I expected them to. How grateful I am for the missing.
Before the reading ends and the poet puts his guitar away, I pull out my yellow pad of paper and begin writing these words. I don’t talk to the poet who gave the reading or the one who asked the question, but in writing I feel connected to them just the same, and grateful for the gifts they are giving me, these words among them. After I capture all the poetry I can in prose, I walk down the three flights of steps and outside the library, where I take photos of the leaves and the light before getting in my car and heading home to my dogs and my solitude and my roses.
I don’t really know anything.
I know more than I ever have.
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.
Sometimes you think you really know a plant, know a season, and then you discover that maybe you’ve been mistaken. Maybe you don’t really know strawberries, or September at all. Maybe there are a whole lot of things you don’t know.
One early fall evening that still feels like summer, almost, you’ll think about how all of the seasons pass too quickly for you, now. You’ll think about how, at the end of each one for the past few years, you realize that it’s ending and wish you’d done more, somehow, to hold onto it. To relish it. To savor it. And so, instead of doing the dishes or paying the bills right after dinner, you’ll head out the front door with your garden clippers to cut a bouquet of roses–knowing that, too soon, their blooms will cease and the yard after dinner will be dark and windy.
That is when, poking around your strawberry plants to get a closer look at the first reddening of their leaves, which reminds you of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his Margaret and her grieving, you’ll see it–the fruit you never expected to harvest now: strawberries.
This will make you catch your breath just a little, making it more of a “Windhover” moment than a Margaret one, because for you, strawberries are June. They are summer. They are warm and sweet as the anticipation of long days and hot blooms and languid afternoons. These berries? Here? Now? They are as wondrous and doomed as Hopkins’s birds. You don’t know what to make of them. Are they some sign from the universe or your Muse, a metaphor sent for you to discover? A weird gift courtesy of climate change? Some kind of Monsantoesque mutation? Should you eat them, or should you leave them alone?
You don’t know.
You decide you don’t need to make anything of them.
You decide that all you need to do is appreciate them. You’ve lived enough to know that not everything has to mean. Some things should just get to be. The roses under your window that keep blooming and blooming and blooming. The strawberries you couldn’t have predicted or expected. You, savoring the early autumn of your life.
I was 10 years old the first time I got cat-called–not that I had that name for it then.
I was in my front yard, wearing a bathing suit, playing an imaginary game with my small ceramic dogs and horses in the dirt under the fir trees that grew in the front corner of our corner lot. I really loved that bathing suit, my first two-piece. It was hot pink, and cute. I felt free in it in a way that I didn’t in a one-piece.
There was a stop sign at that corner; a car full of teen-age boys stopped and the hooting and hollering and laughing began. I don’t remember exactly what they said. What I remember is my surprise and shame. What I remember is that they said something specifically about my bathing suit, and I never felt as free in it again. What I remember is packing up my little dogs and horses and going inside to play, even though the trees’ roots created hills and valleys that they loved to run over.
In the grand scheme of hurts, this one–and all the many others of its nature that followed for years and years–was not a big deal. Maybe, especially in the moment, especially if looked at singly, it had an impact on par with a paper cut. And who is going to make a fuss about a paper cut? No one. We all get them. They sting like a mothertrucker, but they aren’t a big deal. They’re just part of how it is, with paper.
You know, it’s not like I go around feeling fearful of paper all the time. No one does. I mean, I’m an educator and a writer. I love paper. I need paper. Hard to imagine my life without paper. But then–never when I’m expecting it, usually when I’m being a little careless about something, when my mind is on something else, when I forget that paper can cut–one of those sheets slices into me. And it hurts.
A lifetime of paper cuts, though, adds up to a sum greater than its parts. Each has contributed to my understanding that cutting is something to avoid and paper is something to be careful with. It’s part of knowledge I carry so deep in my body that my caution and wariness around any technology that can sever–knives and saws and all manner of power tools–feels instinctive rather than learned.
Of course, this is just a metaphor, and like most it doesn’t hold entirely true. Men and boys are not tools, and the proclivity many have to treat girls and women as objects for their amusement are not an inherent part of their design, the way, say, being sharp around the edges is part of paper’s. I suppose if we really cared more about paper cuts, we’d change our way of making it, and maybe there is something in the way we make boys, the way we raise them, that makes some of them treat us like things and, seemingly, not even know that they are doing it. But unlike paper, men have the capacity to change themselves, even if we haven’t raised them as well as we might. They have the capacity to learn and transform.
Because they can’t experience this in the way we have and do, they will never have the capacity to truly feel how it is for us. But they do have the capacity to understand that ten year old girls should not have to pack up their toys and play inside to avoid sexual harassment. They can believe us when we tell them how pervasive it is and how it impacts us. They can take the lead in transforming our world so that we do not have to walk so carefully and vigilantly through it, always aware, at least in some way that feels instinctive, of how the sharp edges of men might at any moment slice us open.
Why, yes–I did move back in May. And yes, I’m still unpacking.
I’m down to the boxes where I find the kinds of things that can gut you just a little bit, if you let them.
I have always loved this photo of my girl. There’s something in it that captures exactly who she was then and is now and, I suspect, will always be. It’s in the line of her mouth, the set of her shoulders, the directness of her gaze. And, too, in the flush of her cheeks and the tender curves of her legs, dangling because they are too short, yet, to rest on the pegs meant to support them.
Earlier today, I wrote a long-postponed letter to the daughter of a man I loved when he and I were young, who wanted to know more about the person her deceased dad once was, and I shared tea with someone from high school who I didn’t know then but wish I had, and sun shone through the rain-splattered window we sat next to and warmed us as our talk flitted from one age we’d been to another, quickly, as if we knew we couldn’t fit nearly enough of three decades of living into a too-short hour, so later this afternoon, when I lifted the flaps of a box to find this photo that I framed nearly twenty years ago, past and present wove themselves into a sheer tapestry shot through with metallic threads of joy and grief and gratitude and regret, forming a scene in which words such as “past” and “present” have no meaning, in which everyone I love and have loved and will love were simultaneously all the ages they ever were and ever will be–and just for a fleeting moment, it was almost as if I could hold it all in my hands, tangible as actual fabric, almost as if I could put words to it that could tell the excruciatingly beautiful facts of our brief existence true.
But I couldn’t. This is the best I could do.
I’m still looking for the right place to put these things, a shelf that can hold the weight of them.