The last 24 hours have been trying, to say the least.
Yesterday, my friend and neighbor Damon passed away suddenly–accidental overdose–at age 23. Damon lived two doors down from me, just 16 feet away. He died in his friend’s house, just five doors, or eighty feet, in the other direction. I have never seen so much grief confined in such a small space.
I am friends with Damon’s whole family, though it is complicated. His mother was my friend Ana, whom I wrote about in an early post, and whose death two years ago simply gutted me. Damon, her youngest son, struggled mightily after she died, though he had struggled long before that too. Damon’s father sexually assaulted me in February of last year, and I did not set foot in their home again until yesterday. Damon’s sisters, with whom I am friends, have no idea about the attack, though I know they became aware of their father’s obsession with me. We never talk about it. Their father leaves me alone, but I sometimes catch him staring at me. The look of hate in his eyes chills me to the bone.
And then there are the girls, three of them, and the little boy–ages 14, 11, 8, and 2. They are Damon’s nieces and nephew. They help me in my garden, I take them for walks, we do crafts and sing songs. I love them. My concern for them was a large part of why I never filed a police report. (I also was under the impression the father/grandfather was moving home to Central America.)
As I said, it’s complicated. And that made a terrible day all the more trying.
Yesterday I held a shuddering, sobbing 8 year old on the sidewalk and coached her into deep breaths and a happy memory of her uncle. Yesterday I listened to an 11 year old girl tell her friend about seeing her uncle’s lifeless form, all purple and swollen, because he died alone and no one found him for hours. Yesterday I heard a 2 year old boy, a child I have never heard utter a coherent sentence before, say “Damon dead” over and over and over to no one in particular. Yesterday I watched a solemn procession of family members, dozens of them, file past my house on their way home after watching this boy’s body get carted off by the coroner, a full six hours after 911 was called. And then last night, after midnight, I walked my dog and looked up at the house where Damon died. The front window was alit, shades up, revealing the homeowner–a woman in her 70s who still works full-time as a nurse to support the ne’er-do-well, 20-something grandchildren who sponge off of her–mopping the floor where Damon’s body had lay. Her grandson stood there watching her blankly, doing nothing to help.
It was a perfect snapshot of the whole, grim situation of drugs in my neighborhood: powerless young men, overwhelmed and numb, doing nothing while devastated women clean up their mess.
Yes, yesterday was an awful day. And today is not much better.
But, like a lot of awful days, it has provided clarity in three important areas:
1] In this midst of Damon’s tragic death, I am acutely aware that I am not a sociopath, and that I am not emotionally dead inside either. I was really starting to wonder. But no. I am heartbroken. And angry. Because addiction is a vicious disease.
2] I spoke with J* last night, and it was terrible. Something broke between us this summer, and I don’t know how to mend it. I still care for him, still want him in my life, but I find myself increasingly empowered to draw lines and limits, as does he. We’ve both set so many tripwires, there is no longer any safe ground to walk.
3] My family is seriously fucked up! I get confused sometimes into thinking that I’m the asshole and that they are just nice, normal people. And mostly they are. But they have… issues. Let’s call it “emotional rigidity.” Whatever it is, it’s fucked up!
Last night I received an email from my dad, of an email from my uncle, of an email from my cousin’s wife, explaining that my cousin is suicidal, he survived a previous suicide attempt, and he has been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. Over email, my sister and father decided that the “ethics” of how they learned about this situation superseded the urgent necessity of providing emotional support to my cousin and his wife. That is, they felt my uncle never should have told them, ergo they will pretend they do not know.
But wait, there’s more! In my email reply to my sister and dad, I wrote,
“It’s been a shitty day all around. My friend Damon died of a drug overdose today. He was 23. They don’t make greeting cards for this stuff, they really don’t.”
And both my sister and my father responded to this information… by not saying anything at all. Not “I’m sorry” or “that’s really sad.” Nothing. Not one word. *crickets*
What. The. Fuck.
I ignored my sister & dad’s “decision” that our family will pretend we don’t know about my cousin’s mental illness and wrote to his wife anyway. She has already replied with a hearty thanks: vindication. If Damon’s death points anywhere, it’s toward being relentless in reaching out to one another. I will regret that I did not do more to help him for the rest of my life.
In the midst of this, I am on a deadline for a relatively lucrative writing gig with a publishing house in London. I am behind, and on the brink of being fired. I got email from my editor today demanding, “Where is this? and “Where is that?” Today I wrote to Damon’s sisters, I wrote to my cousin’s wife, I hugged sobbing women, I raised money for funeral costs, I sat with a neighbor going through chemo. A young man lay on the sidewalk, weeping inconsolably, outside my house this morning.
It feels like there is a hole in the world, and all I have is words to fill it.
So I’m sorry, mean English editor lady. I’ll write for you tomorrow.
I had a little revelation today, while sitting in traffic at an epically tangled intersection, where construction and driver nit-wittery turned a 7-mile toot into an hour-long odyssey. I realized as I sat, inching forward, what my problem is: I am terribly lonely.
It is not for lack of friends or human contact, though I could do better on both counts. It’s that there is no one in this world who knows my whole life, or at least as much of a person’s life as can be known. The solitary nature of my work, my social awkwardness, strained relations within my family, having wonderful friendships with individuals but not being part of a friend-group, even the difficulty of navigating the city I live in–for all of these reasons and probably others, most of my life is lived silently…unobserved and unasked after. And, well, when a tree falls in a forest…
Sometimes I wonder if I even exist.
Social media adds another layer of complexity to this vanilla slice of dysfunction cake. Like all of us, I have many online personas. Each of them is simultaneously true and also a thundering lie–but only a lie of omission.
On Instagram, I am relentlessly optimistic, taking pleasure in my dog and the small beauties I encounter on our walks together. That is where I “practice”gratitude and mindfulness, and boy, does it sometimes feel like work!
On Snapchat, which I only do with my teenage niece, I am goofy as fuck. I had no idea I would love looking at myself with dog ears so much, or that sending 4-second movies as a maniacal squirrel could be so fun!
Facebook offers perhaps the greatest insight into my life, but only if you consider the silences. Most of my Facebook “friends” are acquaintances who cannot see anything beyond the basics. I try to remain hidden from the public (especially my students), and I routinely ignore or delete friend requests without a second thought. My own sister unfriended me almost two years ago, and we pretend not to belong to the same family on Facebook. Yet we coordinate via email who will accompany my parents to the next parental doctor appointment or share information about our mother’s newest cognitive deficit. It’s weird (but her choice). Due to my family’s predilection for gossip and judgement, just last month I had to wall off my parents, brother-in-law, and some family friends from seeing anything except photos of my dog. As a grown-ass woman, I just couldn’t take another stern lecture from my father about “how I use Facebook.” They probably haven’t even noticed. As for my “close friends,” they read acerbic observations about teaching or politics or my own foibles–nothing of import, nothing worth remembering. I used to whitewash my Facebook wall–delete literally everything in my newsfeed–but I stopped after a friend died a year ago. I realized that I might someday want to read those silly exchanges again, after my friends stop being my friends, after I stop being me.
This blog offers yet another perspective on my life. Here, I think, we see process more than results. These essays are the literal act of remembering, but they are also effort and strain, grasping and sputtering. Through writing, I search for meaning, understanding, and hope–not from you, but within me. With each shared reflection, I grope the darkness for a way forward, or at least a switch to turn on the light. If I could just get some clarity, I could finally find the exit!
I have friends IRL too. My longest friendship dates to 7th grade. Thanks to Facebook–truly, thank you, Facebook!–I have reconnected with a few friends from high school that I see every now and then. For some reason, I am not connected with anyone from college, which I approached with an “I’m not here to make friends” work ethic–and I didn’t. Well done! But since I endured a sea change during graduate school, I have invested mightily in friendships, and I have five close friends who date from 1999-2000. There are other friendships, forged through work connections, that also mean the world to me. And there is J*, to whom Tinder owes its redemption. All of these people–wonderful people–are my friends, and I love them, and I would wrestle alligators for them. But I wonder sometimes whether the feeling is mutual, and also whether they really know me. Even J*, who has seen me naked in every respect, has never witnessed me laughing with people who love me. And the people who love me and make me laugh, well, there are dark corners J* has wandered into that I will never show them.
We are probably all unknowable to some degree, so these musings and frustrations aren’t particular to me or even to singletons. But I look at my friend L*, who is planning her wedding and future with a man she loves, who loves her back. And I think, “That must be nice, to be someone’s priority. To have someone who wants to know as much of you as can be known. To have everyone who loves you meet one afternoon under the same tent to share their collective hope for you. Because they all know you, the one and only you, the person that you are.” I don’t begrudge her a second of this happiness, because she well and truly deserves it. But it makes me wistful just the same.
Of course, I thought of all of this today, while I was stuck for 20 minutes at a single intersection, inching forward but going nowhere, besieged by panhandlers and post-brunch ennui, with Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on autorepeat the whole time. That could fuck with anyone’s head. So, you know… take it with a grain of salt.
I am thinking about jumping into the Wayback Machine. No, not the Internet Archive, more like the WABAC Machine from Rocky & Bullwinkle. “Jumping into the Wayback Machine” is what I call “using the Internet to reconnect with people from your past.” In any case, I’ve been thinking about an ex boyfriend. He is much younger than me, and I have no (nor ever had any) illusions about a future for us. So I am not looking to rekindle anything. But I am curious how he’s doing, and I don’t like how we left things.
Also, I’m bored.
The Wayback Machine is a funny thing. Jumping in usually leads to disaster and humiliation, like when I travelled to visit a high school crush a few years ago and got so drunk from drinking in a hot tub for six hours that I was hungover for two days. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to drink in a hot tub! How did every single person in the world get this memo except for me? The hangover wasn’t even the worst of it. The tears! The drunken tears!! It is mortifying in retrospect. I unfriended him on Facebook a year later, after we got into an email pissing contest over whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. During our Wayback Rendezvous, I accidentally peed his bed, then lied about it, and I’m kind of glad, because honestly. There’s more, but I think I’ve made my case:
The Wayback Machine is a threat to basic human dignity.
On the other hand, I have a friend who met her husband that way. She got in touch, out of the blue, with her old college boyfriend twenty years on. They flirted, he traveled to meet her, he booked a hotel room that he never used. They dated long distance, he moved here, he moved his children here, and they made a family. They’ve been married a year, and by all accounts seem blissfully happy. In fact, they write each other a love poem every day. It’s kind of nauseating. And amazing!
I haven’t yet reached out, but through the miracle of Facebook, I was able to glean a little of my ex’s life, namely that he still likes hockey and that he’s lost all his hair. Clicking on “Message” brought up our last correspondence, which ended abruptly in August 2010. He was back in town for the summer, and I tried to get together, but he blew me off a couple of times, then returned to law school without ever seeing me. I called him out on it, it didn’t go well, and then I cheerfully and abruptly unfriended him.
I regret it. He was fun and funny and a good person. There was no reason not to keep him on as a friend. But my feelings were hurt that he didn’t want to see me, and I was disappointed that when I nearly died (truly), all he could muster was a two-word text: “Be well.” I wish I had handled the whole thing better, but I suppose I did my best. I could do better now.
I haven’t decided whether to write to him, but scrolling back through our last few exchanges in the Facebook Message app, something curious caught my eye.
It was a year before I was up for tenure, and I was working furiously on my book, which was moving through the publication process at a glacial pace. I was worried I wouldn’t make it–that the book wouldn’t be far enough along, that I was creating an argument for my colleagues to vote against me. No tenure means you’re fired, I had just assumed a mortgage, I was nearly broke, and I had never had a grownup job outside of academia. I was scared.
Meanwhile, my ex was struggling to find his first job after law school and had suggested, only half-joking, that he might become a bike messenger. In commiseration with his frustration at an uncertain future, I wrote:
Sorry to hear about the lousy job market. If law school doesn’t pan out, I suggest nursing. That’s my Plan B.
I have no recollection of thinking about nursing at the time, though much of that year is a blur due to some major health problems that landed me in the hospital a few months later. I don’t know, in retrospect, if I was kidding about nursing, or serious, or both. I had long joked that my Plan B was to join the Army, and I paid attention to the maximum age for enlistment, making note a few years ago when I aged past it. Nursing has for years been in the news because of the anticipated shortage, so I’m sure I was aware–and envious–of the choices nurses have for employment. I have also thought about second careers in social work (not enough money) or police work (not enough patience). If I were a social worker, I would likely lose my house. And if I were a cop, I would definitely lose my temper–and then probably get shot with my own gun.
Even if I was kidding about it, I was thinking about it. Because there it is in a message I typed at 11:21 PM on October 10, 2009.
It wasn’t meeting J* in 2014, who also turned to nursing late in life, or reconnecting with my friend from high school, who graduated with her BSN last year before returning to her previous profession. (Unfortunately, that’s not an option in academia. Leaving the professoriate is a one-way trip–what a friend likened to leaving a parking lot by driving over the tire spikes. You can get out, but you are FUCKED.) No, those friends didn’t give me the idea of becoming a nurse as a second career. They just demonstrated that it was possible.
To an extent I didn’t realize, until I saw that old message in my personal Wayback Machine, I have been thinking about this for a long, long time.
If you’ve been watching the Democratic convention this week, you’ve seen a lot of women in the audience with tears streaming down their faces. On my Facebook page, several female friends have commented that they have been crying too. I’ve lost it a few times. In fact, last weekend, sitting in a theater watching the “Ghostbusters” reboot with my niece and nephew–who were enjoying it immensely, totally oblivious to the transgressive nature of an all-female cast–it happened again.
What is going on?? We can’t all be on our periods!
At the same time, I’ve noticed in public discourse, and especially among my students, a distinct ennui. I think Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye so long, and women have come so far, that many people–especially young people–regard her candidacy as an inevitability. I thought about pointing out the historical significance of her nomination in my own classroom this afternoon, and trying to explain all the tears. As a humanities professor, it would be mostly within bounds. But in the end, I didn’t want to incur the heavy sighs, eye rolls, and negative online comments that would surely result. I kept silent.
This is what I would have told them:
When my mother went to college in 1959, she had three career options reasonably available to her: secretary, nurse, or teacher. Back then, college for women was regarded as a fall-back in case they didn’t get married. My mother became a teacher. I wonder what she might have done if she’d had more choices.
When my sister was a little girl, her class took a field trip to the local firehouse. The boys were allowed to climb on the big red truck and sit in the cab, but the girls were not. Because, the little girls were told as they watched the boys play, you can’t become firemen when you grow up. (Not firefighters, firemen.)
When I was in fourth grade, our class did a big unit on the Middle Ages. There were many assignments and academic opportunities to earn points. The student with the highest number of points would become “king,” which conferred certain privileges in the class. I worked my ass off, and I bested the nearest competitor–a boy, Jim J*********i, whose name I will never forget–by 10 or 15 points. On the verge of me–a girl–becoming “king” of the class, my teacher decided that a leader should also be able to demonstrate strength–physical strength. The entire class was marched down to the gym, where we all had to demonstrate how many pull-ups we could do. I did 2 or 3 (I was not an athlete). Jim did over 20. With each additional pull-up, the class cheered him, and I watched the value of my academic success diminish. Jim became king, not me. I felt betrayed and bereft. I can’t imagine how the girl in my class with cerebral palsy, who couldn’t even reach for the bar, must have felt.
When I was a junior in high school, I had a picture of Janis Joplin–a famous nude that I cut out of an anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine–in my locker. Some boys broke into my locker, tore up the picture, and scrawled “dyke” all over the door. My friend Alicia saw them do it, and she told me their names. I reported them to the disciplinary officer, who did nothing.
Also in high school, my health teacher–a man charged by our state with teaching young people about sex and relationships–announced on the first day of class that he would be assigning seats. He said, out loud, to a room full of boys and girls, that he would be putting all the pretty girls in the front row. And he did it. (Yes, I sat in the back.)
My senior year, I was repeatedly and aggressively groped by a hulking sack of shit named Kurt F*****n as I walked in the crowded halls of my high school. I did not report it, because why would I? In fact, at the time, I didn’t really understand that there was something wrong with what he did–that my body was mine, and no one had a right to touch it without my consent.
In college in the early ’90s, I was the only woman in a class in a male-dominated field. One woman, in a class of ninety. I had two majors and took a million credits, and yet I only had 7 or 8 female professors in four years of college. At present, I am part of a faculty in which women are well represented, but I have also worked on a faculty in which women were just five of forty.
(There is no way, in an age when a majority of doctorates in my field go to women, that that number is not the result of systemic discrimination. Two years after leaving there, I was approached by a female faculty member who was considering a lawsuit over equal pay.)
In the workplace, I have dealt with harassment in a few contexts, including my present job. Every time my former dean inquired about my dating life, discussed pornography, talked about my body, stared at my breasts, or patted my head like a dog, I felt angry, humiliated, and powerless.
I once took an inventory of my friends and realized that the number of girls and women I know who had been sexually assaulted ran into the double digits. Eighteen months ago, I added myself to that list. Only one of all those cases was reported to the police, and none of them resulted in prosecution, let alone someone being convicted of a crime.
This is my inventory, after just 44 years. When I think back on it, I feel sad and angry, but mostly just weary. I and my mother and sister and most of my friends–we are middle-class white ladies. Women decades older than me, poor women, women of color–I can’t imagine the inventories they must have, the indignities they must have endured.
Why are all the ladies crying?
We are crying because we are thinking about all the times we felt afraid, objectified, degraded, diminished, and powerless–because we were women.
And we are thinking back to the girls we once were, and to the women who came before us. We are crying because we thought we might never live to see this day.
And we are so fucking proud–politics aside–to finally see a woman standing up there.
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.