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.
I love being a student, because it allows me to love the first day of school like I never have before–not even when I was a kid (too nervous). Being a university professor also involves first days of school, and lots of them. But, like most academics, I approach first days with dread.
For a professor, the first day of school means the end to languid, flexible days when you are responsible to no one. It means 16 straight weeks of lecture prep, boring faculty meetings, endless service commitments, an unrelenting tide of email, and grading grading grading. The first day of school also brings with it the Crushing Awareness: no meaningful progress will be made on your research agenda for another four months. The weight of projects left unfinished settles over you like some combination of deathly pall and nettlesome hair shirt, ensuring that every free moment is tainted by a gnawing guilt: “I should be working.”And when I say “every free moment,” I mean, when you’re on the treadmill, or in the shower, at a party, eating breakfast, having sex, crashing your car, writing your blog, walking your dog, caring for your mom, suffering a heart attack (or stroke, in my case–true story), walking the beach, or opening Christmas presents–that feeling is always there.
I have had homework every night of my life for 22 straight years.
But, as a student once more, I love first days of school. The classes I take are like a well-made play: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most significantly of these, they end. And then a pleasant feeling of accomplishment sets in. Every moment leading up to that, starting with the night before the first day of school, is relished in anticipation of that simple, golden realization: I finished something I set out to do.
That happened to me once, as a scholar. I finished my book, sent the final draft off to the publisher, and eventually–after dealing with permissions, cover art, galleys, and feeble attempts at marketing–there was no more work to do. At last–7 years since it was a dissertation, and 11 years after I started it–I could cross “Finish book” off my list of things to do. Then, almost immediately, pressure started to mount to begin the illusive “second project.” And the guilt set in again..
Tomorrow I start Introduction to Nutrition. I am excited! I bought my textbook early–brand new, but something called “looseleaf,” meaning I had to buy a binder for it. No matter–I got a sassy green one with a clear cover. I’ve already packaged it up, inserting the textbook’s fruity cover into the sleeve, and it all looks fabulous. I got a matching folder, for handouts, and I bought a new sheaf of college-ruled, 8.5X11″ (none of this 8X10.5″ bullshit the kids are into) notebook paper for my notes. I cleared my A&P notes (nearly 100 pages, taken by hand) out of my Grand Teton binder, printed out my new syllabus, and packaged that up too. I also restocked my mechanical pencil with lead and a fat new eraser. Finally, I cleaned my A&P I books and note cards (100s of those too!) out of my school totebag. The best part was when I found a flattened, but still totally edible, Reese’s Peanut Buttercup in the pocket. Score!
Perhaps when I have finished Introduction to Nutrition, I will no longer be so romanced by candy. I hope so!
The totebag, btw, was purchased at a street market by my friend (since middle school) while she was on shore leave in the Philippines. It has weird cartoon cats on it, and polka dots, and its broken-English captions read, “Plip!” and “My heart will is about to burst!”
That sounds about right. My hear will is about to burst, because it’s the first day of school!