Last weekend I made another trip back to my old stomping grounds, the college town where I went to graduate school. For a variety of reasons, I decided to stay over Monday night too. My friend & hostess suggested we could go tubing that evening when she was done with work, but we hemmed and hawed about it all day long. Then I decided: fuck it, we should go. Just go.
Forty-minute drive to the parking area. Wait a few minutes for some other friends. Short walk to the put-in. Compulsory discussion of how to get my fat ass in a tube. Unceremonious leaping. Some selfies in the lagoon. Drifting and spinning, drifting and spinning. The languorous pace of the current was initially frustrating to my city-girl need to go-go-go, but I eventually settled in. Slow but steady progress down the river.
Drifting, spinning. The river takes control. You don’t fight it, unless you get hung up on the rocks, which is usually your own damn fault for picking a bad line. Then your ass drags the bottom in a punishingly undignified metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the folly of your error. Go where the water runs deepest. That is the path. The river knows.
We saw a lot of wildlife. A doe and her shy fawn trotted parallel to the bank. A fisher or mink darted into the overgrowth. Kingfishers swooped back and forth across the water. A great blue heron stood still as a sentry in the shallows.
And then, in front of us, on a narrow stretch of river in which the hill on one side and the tall trees on the other created the feeling of a canyon, we saw it: a bald eagle.
The eagle swooped in from the left, turned towards us, and followed the river’s path right over our heads. Its wingspan was huge, intimidating. The yellow beak and dark eye pressed against the white of that distinctive head–it was like something out of a painting. Sure, one of those terrible, bellicose, patriotic meme-paintings, but a painting nonetheless. We were so close, perhaps only 30 or 40 feet below, that we could make out individual feathers as it passed by. It was stunning.
“Epic,” said my friend.
The encounter lasted eights seconds, ten tops. The eagle flew upstream and veered right, disappearing around the bend. We all agreed, it was an awesome sight. Rare. A true gift.
And, as I realized on the long drive home yesterday, a miracle of timing.
If the river were running a little faster. If the rocks had hung us up a little longer. If our friends arrived before us. If we had stopped off to buy beer. If I had gone home instead of staying over. If I hadn’t come to town at all. If my friend and I had never met.
The encounter with the eagle–brief, powerful, and random–made me think of everyone I have known and all the people I have loved. There is probably a sacred math to explain all the vectors and intersections that allow us to find and know and love one another.
If I had used a different exit. If I had sat in a different seat. If I had gone to a different school. If there hadn’t been a war that delayed my parents’ marriage. If I had swiped left instead of right. If he had swiped right instead of left. The smallest variable can make all the difference.
I am grateful for the love I have, but I wonder where other choices might have led me. We saw an eagle fly right over our heads. Who knows? Perhaps if we had been a minute earlier, we might have seen a bear. Or a minute later… and nothing at all.
I hope wherever you are, you are celebrating your independence with friends and family!
As for me, I am parked on the couch listening to Chopin and doing everything I can to delay wading into a lake of email that’s a mile wide and a thousand miles deep. The Fourth of July is one of those holidays I love (along with New Year’s and Halloween) that also makes me a little sad. Because I have nowhere to go! My social network is rather like a sprawling fishing net–vast, durable, but with a very loose weave. I have several good friends here and there, and over there again, but most of them do not know one another, and the majority do not live nearby. I listen to the sounds of festive gatherings when I walk my dog around the neighborhood, we both drool over the smell of barbecue, and it feels a bit like I am missing out.
I would like to be independent from this feeling! And from the work that is piling up, and the weeds in the garden, and the grime that sullies my carpet. I suspect today’s Big Treat will be renting a carpet steam-cleaner (first time ever!) at the hardware store. MY LIFE IS EPIC.
I have had a few memorable Fourths of July, and I’m sure there will be more someday. Since the alternative is soul-crushing email, I’ll share the good ones here with you.
Decades and decades ago, I visited friends in Washington, DC, which hosts a phenomenal series of free public entertainments around the Fourth. On a whim, we decided to try for fireworks on the National Mall and set off late and without provisions to join the enormous crowd. We ended up right at the base of the Washington Monument–prime real estate–where we nestled into the gaps between blankets to watch the Blind Boys of Alabama, who put on a great show. People all around us had set up nearly permanent encampments, with coolers of booze and bags and bags of food. And at this point, with less than an hour to fireworks, they were starting to realize that everything they didn’t consume would have to be carted home. Plus everyone was super drunk and friendly, so my group ended up eating and drinking for free, as our sunburned blanket-neighbors sought to eat and drink down their provisions. Then the fireworks started, and as I recall, they were awesome–a fully choreographed show that featured the voices of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. We looked up into the night sky, mouths agape, as fireworks splashed behind the Washington Monument like a postcard come to life.
I’ve also attended Columbus, Ohio’s “Red, White, and Boom!” Fourth of July celebration. For some reason–maybe my young age at the time, maybe my deep inebriation–that crowd was much scarier than Washington, DC’s. Then again, there is something vaguely menacing about the potent mix of corn, obesity, and evangelism that is the Midwest.
I spent three summers in Wyoming in my youth, but I don’t recall any Fourth of July celebrations–probably because every night out there involved a keg party and a barbecue, usually on a lake with mountains in the distance. Plus fireworks were banned in the national park where I lived.
In grad school, I lived in a small town where everyone had their secret spot to watch fireworks from afar. I definitely enjoyed some heteronormative Fourth potlucks when I was in a long-term relationship there. These events always culminated in camp chairs, mosquitos, and a radio finely tuned to the music accompanying the distant show.
After I was single, the Fourth became the lonelier, hit-or-miss affair it is today. I used to live in a little house along a creek, where the shooshing water and the din of the frogs kept me company all summer long. My first Fourth there, I figured out that I was able to see and hear fireworks from my living room window, and I could simulcast the local TV station’s broadcast of the event. One year, I was watching the fireworks on TV, but nothing was happening out the window. Turns out, the fireworks were cancelled due to technical difficulties, but the TV station couldn’t have dead air. So they just broadcast an old version and called it live!
Another year, a close friend was in the process of moving out of state over the long weekend, and she was eager to get the security deposit back on her apartment. She never focused too keenly on housekeeping, though, so cleaning her kitchen proved a mighty task. After her other friends bailed to attend various Fourth parties, I stayed–and spent several hours scraping melted soap and wax off the interior of her range top (from making soap and candles; we’re crafty!). I was vaguely mad about this, because that year I was invited to two parties, one of which had a band, plus it was my last summer in that town. But I also loved spending time with my friend and knowing that we were the kinds of friends who could know each other’s secrets–really dirty secrets, like what’s living under the refrigerator–without judgment. We finally quit working on the kitchen at dusk and drove out to a lonely ridge to watch the town fireworks, with the music piped in on the car radio. The display was a few miles away, like watching fireworks on a postage stamp. But it was beautiful.
Years ago, when I was in Peak Happy at my job, I convened with some work friends at their home in the country to celebrate the Fourth. We had a fabulous meal that stretched out over hours, then we popped our adult beverages into opaque containers and strolled a few blocks into “town” to watch the fireworks. It was a modest display, not that long, not super fancy or expensive. But I think of all the fireworks I’ve seen, it was my favorite. Here’s why:
Impressiveness of Display ÷ Hassle of Getting There = Fireworks Success
One should always judge fireworks using this formula. Sure, the Big Apple’s fireworks are mind-blowing. But is it really worth 9 hours squatting in Central Park, getting sunburned and having to wait in line an hour to buy weed (or pee), followed by an Incredible Journey-type trek with 500,000 of your closest friends just to get home? In the end, the Fourth should be about feeling free, from hassle, obligation, and especially disappointment. Basically, two yahoos with some M-80s is fucking awesome if your only investment is a three-minute walk with your friends and your beer!
It’s a good reminder, of the importance of managing expectations. Sure, the Fourth of July celebrates a revolutionary idea, that a rag-tag bunch of extremely wealthy slaveholders who ran their colonies could fight a war for the rights of a bunch of extremely wealthy slaveholders to run their new country. The ideals inscribed in the Declaration of Independence have yet to be ratified, is what I’m saying. Emancipation, female suffrage, a black president, followed by a lady president–those are a good start, but the project of creating freedom and equality for all remains ongoing. So if anything, the Fourth of July is celebration of a promise to be kept, a check to be cashed, a bell, if you will, that, once rung keeps on ringing. Until everyone has tinnitus and says, “Enough already, let’s do this equality thing, because fireworks are starting soon, and those burgers aren’t going to flip themselves.”
Yes, the American Revolution was the good-enough revolution, so I think it’s ok to give the Fourth the good-enough celebration it deserves. For me, this year anyway, celebrating the Spirit of ’76 means a blog post, some email, pay the bills, pet the dog, and steam-clean the fuck out of this carpet. No fireworks, but still a good day.
The driver in front of me was uncertain and plodding as he or she cautiously navigated a windy, two-lane road strewn with potholes and slicked with rain. As we approached the light, I hoped I would be the only car to go straight, the only driver undeterred by the rain, flash flooding, and an unlit road. Sure enough, the other cars broke right and left, and I forged ahead into the darkness: a rural, wooded stretch that I love to drive for its twists and turns, its clever delivery at the far side of the city in record time, and, sure, I admit it, its potential for mayhem.
I was perhaps only two hundred yards into my shortcut when I saw something light-colored dart in front of me. My mind flashed on, then eliminated, the possibilities: fox, cat, giant rat. Too furry, too clumsy, too big.
It was a dog.
I slammed on the breaks. As my car fishtailed to a stop, I saw that it was a 15-20 pound mix from what I call the “bedroom slipper” family of breeds–Bichon, Shih Tzu, Pekingnese, Maltese, etc. Its light-colored fur had grown completely over its eyes, and it looked altogether like a frazzled mop or unkempt wig skittering across the road.
But no, it was a terrified dog trotting in that way new strays do–a quick, nervous gate designed to create the appearance of having someplace to go, when really, they have no idea what to do next–the doggy equivalent of fronting. The fact that this dog was out in the rain crossing a road after 10 PM suggested to me that it was new to being alone in the elements. My own dog, a shelter mutt, survived for weeks in the woods as an abandoned puppy, and even now she retains vestigial traces of what she learned there: sunset is the time to find a place to hide, and pure darkness is the time to stay there.
In the seconds it took for the car to skid to a stop, I reconnected briefly with a former version of myself–the bleeding heart, the rescuer. I opened my door as the dog darted back into the oncoming lane, oblivious as to whether there were more cars behind us. Thank god there weren’t, or I might have gotten us all killed.
“Hey puppy,” I called in my sweet, doggy-come-hither voice.
It kept on going. Then there was a fraction of a second’s pause, when I had to decide my next move.
I ditch the car in the middle of the road. I step into the rain and continue to call out. The dog looks over its shoulder at me, then keeps on going. I go back to the car, move it to the shoulder, and grab some of my dog’s treats. I chase the stray into the waist-high weeds, where it lets me get a little closer, but not close enough. I draw it into the tall grass by the side of the road. I keep calling, it keeps slowing. We do this dance for half an hour. Cold and soaked and filthy, we eventually connect, I eventually win its trust to pick it up, I take it back to my car where–oh, shit, that’s right, I have my dog in the car. Holding the stray in one arm, I move my dog to the front seat, make a training lead out of my dog’s leash, and clip the stray to the back seat, hoping it won’t strangle itself to death on the drive to… Right. Where am I taking this dog again???
I knew what would happen, that by pursuing the dog I was committing myself to potentially days of hassle, as I tried to find its owner or get it situated in a no-kill shelter. I didn’t have it in me. I got back in the car and drove away.
I tried, but only a little. The old me would never have given up. My heart used to be so full and tender that I would never let an animal go. But over the last 20 years, it’s happened more and more.
The mewling I maybe heard, but didn’t investigate, because the last thing I needed was a basement full of feral kittens to re-home.
The dog I maybe saw at 70 MPH on the highway that I might have chased for an hour while my own dog sweltered in the car.
The wounded bird I surely saw as I was on my way to meet friends. I calculated: put my dog back in the house, find a box, find the bird, collect the bird, find a wildlife rehabilitator on a Sunday, deliver the bird… I had theater tickets. People were waiting on me.
“Yes, a cat or car will get the bird tonight,” I reasoned. “But we’re not going to run out of robins any time soon.”
Old Me would be appalled. Time, mud, theater tickets, standing people up, the maddening complexity and hassle of trying to resolve the intractable problem of the stray–I used to be undeterred. I didn’t care what it cost, how long it took, who else was inconvenienced.
There have been many easy saves–dogs with tags that you can return within a day–over the years. And many hard ones too.
There’s the kitten my friend and I lured out from under a shed at a garden party, then re-homed after a lengthy campaign of signs on bulletin boards in literally every vet’s office and pet store in town.
There’s the 9 feral cats I TNR’d after I failed to rescue 4 kittens from under my porch. It wasn’t my fault–their mama moved them, and we didn’t know where to until it was too late: two kittens splayed lifelessly in the gutter after being hit by cars. A neighbor took in one of the survivors, and I managed to trap and neuter the fourth, along with 8 other ferals in the neighborhood. I am very good at trapping wild cats, by the way, and accidental possums too!
There were the two dogs I picked up at the side of the interstate as my friend John and I returned home from a road trip to Branson, Missouri, where we practically invented hipster irony in the summer of 1994. John was furious. I nearly killed us, then I brought two elated but flea- and tick-infested dogs into my Civic hatchback, then I delayed us further by procuring pet supplies and making phone calls to shelters–not easy, in the days before cell phones and the Internet. A few days later, I delivered the dogs to the Humane Society in my home town, where I made a hefty donation (for me, anyway) with the understanding that the dogs would be quarantined, then put up for adoption. A week later, when I learned they had been destroyed, I was devastated beyond description.
And then there was Jessie. Sometimes I rescued people too, especially elderly people in distress. They are unlikely to murder you if you give them rides, and doing so on very hot days might save their lives. I was staying with my sister after my first year of grad school, and my summer career plans–barista and professional dog walker–had fallen through. During the day, I would bum around the city, then I would pick my sister up at the train and drive us both home. If I didn’t show, she would have to walk a long, hot mile in her work clothes. She appreciated it when I made it. She did not appreciate it when I didn’t. And since I was living in a group house for very little money at her invitation, I felt obliged to accommodate her needs.
That day, it was about 1000 degrees and humid, so I spent the afternoon cooling off in an airy, downtown art museum. Just before closing, I used the restroom near the lockers. As I came out, there was an old, old woman fussing with the security guard. She was in her 80s, stooped from osteoporosis, and dressed tidily in the flowing layers of a lady artist. As I recall, she was wearing a floppy sunhat that, like her, must have been fabulous back in the day.
It quickly became apparent that Jessie had lost the key to her locker, which contained her purse, which contained her wallet, and she had no way to get home until she found them. The security guard was not-so-patiently opening every single locker in search of her belongings. It was a fascinating little drama, because the guard was clearly unconvinced that her purse was in any of the lockers. Suspenseful! I decided to see how it played out.
I was also acutely aware that it was hotter than blazes outside, and this old woman did not seem capable of making her way to the exit, let alone to an outer suburb. I was worried for her.
Eventually they did find her purse, and the guard took his leave. I followed her out of the building and into the harsh sunlight, where she looked around as uncertainly as any stray. She had no idea which way to go. I approached and asked if she needed help.
Over the course of the next hour, Jessie and I got to know one another as I addressed her immediate needs and tried to figure out where she lived. She was a widow and an artist and had painted President Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, she said, though years later I could discover no concrete evidence to support such an astounding claim. She was also hungry (that I could believe) and dehydrated, so I procured snacks and water. As we sat in some shade, I tried to make a plan to get her home. Since I was unfamiliar with the buses, I suggested we take the train to my stop, fetch my car (and pick up & drop off my sister), then I could drive Jessie the rest of the way. But she was reluctant to go with me, and she could not remember her exact address, just the name of the complex she lived in. She preferred the bus, and I demurred, being 23 and reluctant to impose my will on an actual adult. We wandered around from bus stop to bus stop trying to find one that seemed right to her. Eventually we found what she surmised was the correct bus, and I waited with her until it came. I helped her board, I paid her fare, then I asked the driver if he could make sure she got off at the right stop.
“On or off,” he charged dismissively.
“What?” I said, completely flustered.
“On or off?” he said again. I realized he meant me.
“Ok, but can you just make sure she…”
“On or OFF!” He was nearly yelling as he cut me off.
The driver was clearly a no-go, so I quickly turned my attention to the sweaty commuters spread before me. “Could somebody please make sure this lady gets off at [such-and-such stop]?” I pleaded.
“ON OR OFF!” the driver bellowed once again.
I quickly did the math: If I stayed on, I would end up in a far flung part of the city with this old lady, entirely unsure of where we were going. If I ever did get her home, I would then have to find my way home as well. I didn’t have enough cash for a cab. And with every passing minute, my ability to retrieve my sister from the train station receded as a possibility. I could only imagine her wrath if I failed her on such a miserably hot day.
I got off the bus.
My sister was home already, and furious, by the time I arrived. I was desperately worried about Jessie, that she might collapse in the heat and die because I had abandoned her on the wrong bus. (I would search her name in the obituaries for weeks after, but I never found it.) I was so upset, I poured out the whole story to my sister. She listened but was unmoved–only exasperated with me for making her walk home.
In a way that’s inconveniently trite for this essay, my sister settled firmly on dogs as her metaphor du jour. Old people who can’t take care of themselves should not be venturing into the city, she lectured me. Because “it’s a dog eat dog world out there.”
And then, with a patronizing weariness that was tremendously unflattering to her 26 years, my sister concluded:
“You can’t save every stray dog in the world.”
She said this, without irony, about an 80-something year old human woman. I think about that statement now, as we argue over how best to serve our mother, an old woman who has lost all independence and who–if she ever starts to wander–will require the kindness of strangers to find her way home again. But that night, in the summer of 1995, my mother’s illness, our parents’ mortality, even our own middle-age seemed further in the future than jet packs and time travel. The issue at hand was this: a selfish, naive, hopelessly idealistic little sister needed a lesson in what mattered.
I left that conversation horrified–and certain. Jessie might not have painted Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, but she certainly drew a clear line between my sister and me. “Maybe you can’t save every stray dog,” I told myself. “But you can try.” I quietly vowed that I would never give up on my impulse to care, to help, to save; that I would never privilege propriety and deadlines above service to vulnerable creatures of all kinds; that I would never be like my sister.
And yet here I am. I let a sad, scared, soaked little dog run off into the night, because its fear of my gentle hand was convenient to me:
It was late.
My primary commitment was to my own dog.
I just had my car cleaned.
I couldn’t be less a person I respected when I was 23 if I supported legislation to legalize recreational whale torture. I look back on that girl and marvel at how strong and dumb and powerful she was, at how little she knew and how much she cared. She thought she could change the world, even just a little. Now, two decades on, the world remains all aleak, as though no one lifted a finger, ever. She’s tired and tied-down, but not by things that matter: a mortgage, work deadlines, and unsavory obligations that keep her tethered like a yard dog. Yet, with no kids, no husband, no boyfriend, not even an Internet date on the horizon, and a family tangle of sadness and recrimination–in her relationships, she’s untethered like a stray, trotting nervously at the social margins in order to create the appearance of direction and purpose.
“I have a life,” says the stray.
I have people, I’m not out here all alone.
I don’t need to be rescued.
It’s the lie stray creatures tell themselves when they are too scared to accept the lifeline right in front of them. That dog slipped into the darkness as though it never existed. Jessie waved to me from the bus window before disappearing without a trace. Marie looked over her shoulder one last time before she left for good.
Every minute of this life, we perch uneasily on the brink of catastrophe and at the cusp of salvation. We are all rescuers and rescued alike. Somehow I knew the world at 23, but now I am learning it all over again. There is no line between saving and being saved.
The last few weeks have been exhausting for a variety of reasons, good and bad.
For Memorial Day, I attended an actual memorial, for a friend who died of cancer last year. It was an educational, weird, but ultimately affirming experience. I was often reminded that weekend of something my dad always says: “Visiting family is not a vacation.” It is doubly true if you’re visiting someone else’s family, and triply true if that family is kinda dysfunctional. But it is also triply true that I loved spending time with my friend’s widow, who is also my friend, and a dear one at that. And I got to meet my dead friend’s best friend, who told me stories that brought my friend to life in my imagination. I felt his presence in the cabin where we stayed, looking at the gorgeous lake he used to paddle on, and in the epic mound of pulled-pork barbecue I ate to the point of meat intoxication. I could hear his laughter again, and I am so grateful to have been there.
After flying all night, I landed, retrieved my car, and went to class, where I crushed an Intro to Nutrition midterm. Then I fetched my dog from my parents and gave my dad another computer tutorial. I finally arrived home at 4 PM, a full 27 hours after departing the site of the memorial service. I lay down for a quick nap… and awoke at 2 AM. A few hours later, I met another friend at a surgical center, where she was having her lady business removed. It made me nothing but happy to be there for her, as she has so often been there for me.
Eventually, I got a full night’s sleep that actually happened at night. But since then, I have pulled several all- or near-all-nighters, to complete a paper for the class I am taking, to prepare for the class I just started teaching, and to provide material to a publisher for a project I agreed to write. I am tired.
This past weekend, I retreated to a friend’s house in the town where I went to graduate school. There was a brisk breeze that cooled the whole house, and a verdant lawn with a shady hammock. Three dogs slept soundly on the floor beside me, hypersensitive to my every move. Going to the bathroom was a crazy, collective endeavor! I love going there, because my dog has so much fun being part of a pack, because my friend takes such good care of me, and because time slows down–no traffic, no demands, no one to disappoint.
As I made the long drive to and from, I thought a lot about my last post, my current relationships, and how I feel about myself. I spent 11 years in that town, as long as I have lived anywhere, and though I was in my 20s and early 30s, it was the most formative period of my life. Most of my closest friendships were forged there, and I think I was the happiest I have ever been when we all lived near one another. For the last three years, as my friendship with my host bloomed anew, I have returned every couple of months. I find myself wishing that people who know me in other contexts–work friends, city friends, boyfriends–could know me there. With each passing mile of the drive, I become a better version of myself.
The last post was also about traveling, and burning bridges as I go. I am very good at it. But in fairness, I can be ok at mending them too. I try to recognize my part in a conflict and to render an apology that matters. It’s hard, though, because I have a history of being too quick to apologize–I said the words “I’m sorry” more than any other during my longest, most fraught relationship–and I can be too slow to stand up for myself. I tend to go from zero to “Release the Kraken” when standing up for others, or when I am just losing my shit. There is a tension there that I am only beginning to understand, but I think I’ve almost got it:
Not setting boundaries and articulating my concerns when I should leads to toxic levels of resentment that then seep out as vicious and deeply unproductive anger.
Basically, to borrow some language from my Introduction to Nutrition class, my consumption of other people’s bullshit often exceeds not just the Recommended Daily Allowance, calibrated to meet the needs of 97.5 percent of the population, but also the Tolerable Upper Intake Level, which is the highest dose that will not lead to toxicity in a human being. I have to accept responsibility for what I put in my body. Just because Tootsie Roll Industries makes Tootsie Pops doesn’t mean I have to have one (or five) in my purse at all times, and I certainly don’t have to eat them. And, just because people spew bullshit–and let’s face it, we all spew bullshit–doesn’t mean I have to consume it. I’m allowed to close my eyes and mouth. I can pull out an umbrella instead of a spoon.
With my recent conflicts, I am doing ok. I continue to protect my time and interests with that publisher, in order to disrupt my usual self-destructive spiral: hiding >> blowing deadlines >> imperiling other people’s work >> feeling horrible about it >> more hiding >> more blown deadlines >> Repeat Until Fired.
Negotiations with my Friend With Benefits have yielded no benefits, but we are still friends. No one in my family has spoken to me in days, and there are no plans on the horizon to see my sister and her kids. I fear that I have crossed some kind of Rubicon, with no bridge behind me for the retreat. I just have to trust that it will all work out ok. On the plus side, not seeing my family has dramatically reduced the frequency with which I feel like a worthless piece of shit. I am learning, slowly, to chart my course towards people who appreciate me.
As for my fight with J*, I think we did ok. We are both volatile people, and we are both learning relationship behaviors that other people seem to have mastered long ago. In the hours and days after my outburst and then his, we texted and talked, sorted and shared. It was good. Nothing changed in our dynamic, except that we demonstrated the ability to work through conflict. If nothing else, we are practicing productive communication for when we meet the people who will be our people. In the meantime, all I can do is try to be a good friend to him, though I often wonder what that means. I can’t tell where we are headed or for how long, and I don’t know what kind of snacks to pack for the trip.
This is true of all of my relationships, I suppose. Should I bring a sweater? Should I jump from the car? Who is driving, anyway? Did I leave the oven on?* Where is there a safe place to pee? And who will I be when I get there?
I know the answers to these questions when I make the long drive back to my grad school hometown, because I have traveled that road many times. But for the other journeys I am on, who knows? I guess I’ll just look out the window and enjoy the ride.
*I did not leave the oven on, because my oven hasn’t worked for nearly two years. To repair or replace? The issues associated with that decision created such a renovation conundrum that I simply set it aside. Not having an oven has not really been a problem, because as it turns out, the only thing I bake is frozen pizza. And now I know how to cook frozen pizza using a microwave and a skillet. Like so many facets of my life, the process isn’t pretty or efficient, but the end result is good enough. It’s not how you get there, but that you get there, at least as far as frozen pizza is concerned. And I really shouldn’t be eating frozen pizza anyway.
Bridges have so much poetic potential, and yet they terrify me. I do not fear falling; I fear jumping. This impulse is common enough that it has a name, “The Call of the Void,” which sounds real and literary but also a bit like a high school metal band. My fear extends a little past the usual uneasiness, however, because the times in my life when I have been suicidal, it was the height and accessibility of bridges that romanced me. When I felt that pull, it was such a relief to realize that I could simply avoid them.
At present, though, I live in a city that requires me to cross a bridge frequently. It bothers me not a whit and, in fact, I am very good at navigating the complex merge that devastates the flow of traffic. For now, anyway, bridges have ceased being an imminent threat and are usually just a means of conveyance.
I am here, I want to be there. The bridge allows me to make the journey.
Bridges connect. Musically, the bridge allows us to return from the chorus for another verse. In paintings and photographs, bridges provide focal points and perspective. And they make great metaphors. Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer for writing about a bridge, in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love that book, and that bridge, so much that I quoted its last lines, in a nod to my mother’s dementia, during my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary toast:
Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
Fundamentally, a bridge of any kind spans a divide. We build them, we connect. We burn them, we sever ties that cannot be resurrected.
All my life, I have tried to build bridges, to connect, to make friends and find love. And yet here I sit, on my little island, sullen and resentful as I toil in my lonely job and return home to an empty house each night. And, truth be told, I am pissed off that I didn’t stand up for myself when I should have, that I allowed other people to dictate my terms, that I appeased when I should have fought, that I lingered when I should have walked away. I was so conditioned in childhood to “choose my battles wisely,” so concerned about “dying on the wrong hill,” that I gave up the fight long ago or directed my enmity at the wrong people altogether.
Now, I have arrived at midlife, tired and foolish and well stocked with matches.
In the last ten days, and for what reason I’m not sure, bridges have been crossed, terms set, matches struck. I threatened to walk off a project–and away from a much needed paycheck–because the editor was pressuring me too hard about a deadline. I threatened to cut ties with my FWB for creating a dynamic that no longer works for me. I put my father and sister on notice that my participation at family gatherings is optional and dependent on respectful treatment. And just today, I told J* off for insulting me.
How did it all work out? Mixed results!
The editor caved and offered reassurances that I am indispensable to the project. My FWB called me for the first time ever (we only text or meet in person) to apologize for his behavior. Time will tell if anything is truly going to change with him. My sister wrote me to apologize for her mistake, but there’s been no word from my dad, who has always quoted John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” on the subject of apologies: “Never apologize. It is a sign of weakness.” And my sister’s apology doesn’t change the fact that I feel the need to disentangle myself from my family as a whole in order to preserve a shred of self-esteem. I can already tell, the holidays are going to suck extra hard this year.
And what about J*? I did a fantastic job of calling him out, except that he didn’t actually insult me; I insulted him. I manufactured a conflict and lobbed some grenades because I was angry and hurt at something he told me about another woman, in a conversation the night before. They dated, and it didn’t work out, but they are still friends, and he is going to visit her later this summer. She’s 18 years younger than me, with doe eyes, creamy skin, and a tender heart that makes him want to protect her.
“I have to remember that I hurt her,” he said gallantly. “So I need to be sensitive about her feelings.”
He could fuck this girl into the next century, and all her hot young friends too, on a bedspread emblazoned with my ugly mug at its ugliest, and it wouldn’t bother me as much as that statement. Because he also hurt me, repeatedly, and yet he exercises no similar sensitivity about my feelings. In fact, he shamed me brutally for wanting to cut ties after he rejected me, talking me out of my own efforts to spare further injury to my broken heart. This girl is beautiful and desirable, vulnerable and valuable, and no one wants her feelings hurt–including me. And I guess I am some swamp rat garbage callus held together with barbed wire and toenail clippings, like the glob you leave at the bottom of the trashcan for the sun to burn off, or an object of strange familiarity you slow down to ogle and then blow past on the highway. Nothing that warrants special handling, that’s for sure.
I was not exactly thrilled with this realization, so I picked a fight about something else the next time we spoke on the phone. I was driving across a bridge at the time, doing my best to navigate the merge. I hit him where it hurt, touching off our usual cycle of vitriol, self-recrimination, ultimatum, and apology.
There was nothing but flames in the rearview mirror by the time I was finished. And I felt nothing but sadness as I approached the far side of the bridge, more alone than ever.
Its modern American founder, Anna Jarvis, campaigned to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in the 1910s, and she went so far as to trademark the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day” as she did so. The position of the apostrophe was quite deliberate. “Mothers Day” implies celebration of mothers en masse or the concept of motherhood in general. “Mothers’ Day” implies a day for mothers as a collective. Ms. Jarvis wanted a day on which individual families would convene to honor their individual mothers, giving the holiday a distinctly individualistic and personalized flavor.
It’s a lovely idea. But that apostrophe is also responsible for a lot of angst, especially in the age of social media.
While I have dedicated no shortage of space on this blog to complainingaboutmy mother (I know, it’s so original), I have always observed Mother’s Day with, at the very least, a card and a phone call. Since my parents moved nearby three years ago, I have also endeavored to give my mother meaningful experiences for Mother’s Day, whether she will remember them or not. (She doesn’t.) Today, for example, my sister, my niece, and I took my mother to a local botanical garden for a long walk in gorgeous weather, then out to lunch at a local market. I gave her a handmade card, and I spent $50 on Korean tacos. The only deficiency in this year’s observance was my failure to give her a handmade card from the dog. She didn’t notice, because she had the actual dog. At one point on the walk, they both laid down in warm grass with yellow flowers, and my mother laughed and laughed as the dog lolled beside her. It was nice to see her happy when she is in so much pain.
I have never minded performing these rituals, and I still don’t. What I mind is the public performance of Mother’s Day on social media, which has metastasized into two virulent strains of observance. I don’t know which one I find more upsetting.
First, there is the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that celebrate one’s own motherhood. At 44, I still have many friends and relatives who are in the early years of motherhood, and some of them feel the need to exclaim, loudly, about how it has shaped their lives. Goody for them! But attendant with these declarations is a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, conflation of womanhood with motherhood. Variations of “I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman until I became a mother” have saturated my Facebook newsfeed on Mother’s Day for the last few years.
From the perspective of the childless woman–whether due to infertility, the death of a child, not finding the right partner, or not wanting to be a mother–the only appropriate response to this pastel narcissism is, “Go fuck yourself.”
The other offending strain of Mother’s Day observance is entirely inoffensive, and yet, somehow more hurtful. It involves the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that declare one’s own mother to be thebest mother. Today, fully 95% of my Facebook newsfeed consists of photographs old and new, with declarations of love and thanks to mothers for what sound like magical childhoods. Profound sacrifices, shared confidences, shared adventures, unconditional love–these are the themes that animate my friends’ posts.
I am glad for them, that their mothers embodied the ideal. But I am left wondering, too. Are their mothers really that great? Or are my friends just better than I am at presenting a happy face to the world? Am I the asshole here?
Families are mysterious organisms, and because we spend our lives enclosed within perhaps just one or two, it is hard to know what is “normal.” Take violence, for example. What is an appropriate amount of violence within a parent-child relationship? All my life, I thought I knew. And then one day, when I was 28 years old, I learned that I had no idea.
Ellen was a new friend, but we hit it off so well that people who just met us assumed we had known each other for years. As new friends do, we spent a lot of time sharing our stories, including those of our families. I don’t remember what I was telling Ellen about my life growing up, but I will never forget the look on her face or the incredulity in her voice when I mentioned something about my mother’s discipline.
“Your mother hit you?” she asked, as though the concept was completely foreign to her.
I resented the implication that there was anything wrong with how I was raised, so I immediately sprang to my mom’s defense. “Well, no, she would just, you know, like, lose it. And then, WHAM”–I smashed my right hand through the air and tossed my head back to signal the impact–“right across the face.”
In my mind, I thought I was tempering the severity of the outbursts, which were frequent throughout my childhood but also totally unpredictable. My mother did not hit me as rational means of dispensing discipline, because there was no order or predictability to when she would lash out. She hit me when she needed to hit someone. And she only stopped hitting me when I got taller than her, in about 8th grade. One day she went to hit me, and I grabbed her wrist mid-smash. I held her arm firmly in the air, looked her dead in the eye, and said sternly, “If you ever hit me again, I will hit you back.” I was bluffing–I have never hit anyone, ever–but it worked. She never struck me again.
It took another 15 years for me to understand what that meant: there was nothing righteous about her anger towards me; she only hit me because she could not regulate her emotions; there was no perfect way I could behave that would not eventually incur her wrath; and the only way I could make her stop hitting me was to threaten her. My friend Ellen’s reaction helped me to untangle this.
“Your mother hit you in the face!?” Ellen exclaimed, even more aghast. What I thought was a mitigating detail was, for her, the final indictment. Not only had Ellen’s mother never struck her in the face, her mother had never struck her at all. Here, I was thinking my childhood was normal, but to Ellen, I might as well have grown up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. And to me, her childhood–and especially her relationship with her mother–seemed like a fantasy.
Actually, it seemed like a Hallmark card, one of those with the trifold and the florid script. And that’s why I tend to make my own Mother’s Day cards, because it is so hard to find a store-bought one that doesn’t force a bitter laugh.
I have no idea what is normal. I have no idea what goes on in other people’s families. I have no idea whether people who claim their mom is their best friend (whut?) or their biggest supporter or their greatest source of inspiration are really telling the truth. I hope so! But that’s not my situation. I haven’t spent much time alone with my mother since leaving for college. She is not my friend, and I have learned to carefully tailor the information I provide her about my life. She is sometimes a source of support, but just as often she has undermined my self-confidence and -esteem. She loves me, but not unconditionally.
Still, I am lucky. My mother worked hard to provide a nice life for our family. She taught me to be well-mannered and considerate of other people. She encouraged excellence in school and at work. She never abused alcohol or drugs, and she never hit me with anything other than her hands. She taught me how to take care of elderly parents. If it seems like I am damning with faint praise, it is because this is the unqualified list of traits I can offer. But still–I could have done worse. Much, much worse.
A long time ago, I visited a run-down community museum where schoolchildren’s poetry substituted for actual artistic and historic content. Elementary school students had obviously been asked to write poems about their mothers, and the little scraps of paper hanging on the museum’s walls were silly and touching, as you might expect. There was a line in one of the poems, though, that to this day stays with me, because it so elegantly captures the simplicity and ambivalence of Mother’s Day–and mothers–for people like me:
My mother is my mother
And I love her.
That’s really all there is to it. It’s not the individualized and personalized celebration of one’s own mother that Anna Jarvis envisioned when she slipped that apostrophe into Mother’s Day. But it is honest and sincere. Maybe next year I will post it on Facebook.
“To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.” –Jacques Derrida
I lie. A lot.
Several people have commented on the honesty of this blog. They aren’t wrong, unless they are. Writing is manipulation, after all.
In the post “General Longing,” about a man whose daughter died in a plane crash, I wrote, “She died while he was holding her hand.” That was a lie. Her hands had been surgically removed due to catastrophic burns. He was in the room with her when she died, along with his wife, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife’s husband. I am sure they were touching the girl as she passed, but she had no hands to hold.
Likewise, the post “In Lieu of Flowers,” about attending the visitation of my friend’s 10 year-old son, suggests anger and frustration at the senselessness of the boy’s death. That part is true, but this part is a lie: “It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.” The fact is, when I stood before the boy’s open casket, I felt nothing. I looked for what seemed like an appropriate length of time, then I stepped away. I could have looked for longer, because I found his lifeless body fascinating. I was trying to remember the details for the essay I knew I would write.
I am good at conveying emotion through writing, whether it’s emjoi-laden texts, personal email, or even scholarship. Indeed, a graduate student I ran into last week told me he planned to read my book–a dry piece of research if ever there was one–because another professor had confessed that my writing brought him to tears. The ability to convey emotion has to do with being able to read emotion. You have to know how the reader will perceive the imagery, phrasing, and especially the pauses. Silence is not golden, because it is the space into which we flood our fears. The words distract, then silence catches like an icy breath, then more words, then silence, words, silence, repeat: like a beat, like dance, like a river. If you can make the reader hear you, you can make them feel whatever you want.
Right now, dear reader, I am trying to make you feel betrayed.
But how do I feel? I do not know. I wonder sometimes, do I feel anything? Or do I merely convey appropriate emotions because it is the productive, professional, personable thing to do? Am I a sociopath? Or am I just so badly damaged that it takes extremes of mirth or pain for me to feel anything at all?
I am probably not a sociopath, because I am a sap, and because other people’s pain deeply affects me. I used to bawl at those maudlin long-distance commercials about people reconnecting across a great divide. I cried at pretty much every Country Time Lemonade commercial in the ’90s, because they traded in nostalgia for summers past. And that Folgers commercial, where the son comes home from college at Christmas and makes coffee for everyone before they wake up? Devastating. (Maybe it was just because that poor family was waking up to such terrible coffee.) I also cry when I see other people cry, even John Boehner, whom I despise. And I feel sorry for people who are suffering, no matter who they are. The execution of Saddam Hussein and the final footage of Muammar Gaddafi were very troubling to me, because my heart defined them in those moments not as the brutal dictators we know they were, but as sad, vulnerable, old men confronting the loss of their stature, their history, and their very lives.
Sociopaths don’t think that way. That leaves damage.
I have always been a very sensitive person. In fact, I meet virtually every criteria that defines a Highly Sensitive Person, answering affirmatively to 26 of 27 questions on the scale. For example, I am extremely sensitive to color. I love looking at colors, and choosing a palette of colored pencils for an art project has taken me an entire day. Recently I noticed that staring for 30 seconds at a fluorescent pink piece of paper when I am tired stimulates my brain like a dose of caffeine. I would prefer the caffeine, though, because it doesn’t have all the emotional connotations of the pink piece of paper, which strikes me as aggressively hostile. I wonder, after more than four decades of managing my fragile system, whether it has ceased to function properly.
Often, I feel numb. The post, “A Lack of Emotional Concern,” which drew so many followers to this blog, is about that very thing. I am not bothered much anymore by my mother’s illness, the collapse of my relationship with my sister, my niece and nephew becoming strangers to me, my friends drifting away–because I simply choose not to think about it. Any of it. Instead, I self-medicate by eating junk food, binge-watching television shows, and endlessly surfing the ‘net. Oh, and writing this blog!
And I lie. When I walk my dog, I smile easily and wave hello to my neighbors, even though I am desperately sad that I have not talked to another human being for several days. I mount a charm offensive for my mother on the phone, enveloping her in happy anecdotes about the dog and eager questions about her day. I check in with friends who need support, even though I fundamentally question whether I am of any value to them. I lie in this blog, though less here than on Facebook. I lie to myself: do I really have the courage to quit my professor job and become a nurse, with all the stress, financial hardship, and loss of prestige that will entail?
It is when the lies collapse that I am in deepest trouble, though I have become so good at lying and so bad at feeling that it is hard to tell when that happens. I think, though, that it has happened. And, as you might have guessed, there is a boy involved.
My ex, J*, came home from overseas a few months ago. We started texting, then talking. We have seen each other twice. He talked about coming back to my city for a few weeks this summer to spend time with his nephew, which got me terribly excited. He remains disinterested in dating me and totally not attracted to me, though in his own maddening way he concedes that he loves me. Somehow, without me even knowing it, I took these disparate bits and composed myself a story: J* is my person, I am his person, and we are going to get through this life together. It is a lie, but deep inside I think I have been counting on it.
I am (was?) connected to J* in a way that I cannot mechanically explain. When he was overseas and not writing or talking to me, I would be moved to write to him at odd intervals based on a feeling that he needed my support. I have no idea if I was right. Since he returned, I have noticed that I can sense when he is in town. I have joked with him that a “disturbance in The Force” (who doesn’t love Star Wars?) alerts me to his presence, and every time it has been true. Last Thursday night, it happened again, but in a different way. I was walking in one of our old haunts, and I felt something distinct. If it were a sound, it would have been a click. Then I felt J* slip away, like a railroad car uncoupling from the rest of the train and drifting down the tracks. An enormous sadness rushed in to fill the empty space.
I wrote J* the next day and joked, sort of, that I had yet again felt a disturbance in The Force. That night, he called me and we talked for 2.5 hours. In many ways it was wonderful, and in ways that surprised me, it was painful too. I’ve known for over a year that he has been dating other people, but somehow the revelation that he had a first date planned for this weekend shook me to the core. Eventually, he told me he made those plans in a text conversation on Tinder at the very time I felt him decouple and drift away.
“That’s kind of weird,” he admitted.
“Do you really believe it?” I asked.
“No,” he answered.
Yeah, me neither. Except that I can feel his absence now, in a way that is new and scary and raw. Maybe he has finally met the lady with whom it will all work out effortlessly. When that happens, he has told me more than once, there won’t be room in his life for me anymore. She will be his person, the one he checks in with, the one he wastes time with, the one he plans with. Not me. And I will be alone again.
Part of me wants it to be true, because it would affirm my special powers–that I was so sensitive, so highly attuned, I knew his love was leaving me from 250 miles away. Then, if it is true, part of me wants his new love to fail, because he will return to me. And part of me wants his new love to work out, full stop. If I can’t make him happy, there is no reason for me to wish that no one else will either. (Note to Self: Nurture that last part, and starve the rest.)
Regardless, I know now that I am a liar. I deceived myself into thinking that J* and I could be friends, and that I could be content with that. This new situation exposes the lie of it. We can be friends, but I won’t feel content. I guess I was always hopeful that J* and I would be together again someday. Because love isn’t what makes life divine or never having to say you’re sorry or even a battlefield. No, love is pine sap: it sticks to everything, and it never comes off.
I am a liar, but not such a good liar. And not such a good writer either, because I suspect you knew this about J* and me all along.