Story Time

It is the longest night of the year. Our planet leans away from the light, and we lean with it.

At the same time, it’s THE HOLIDAYS, an inescapable set of events, obligations, rituals, colors, sites, sounds, smells, and stories. As I’ve explained before, I don’t love it. With the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back, I suppose.

And forward.

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The Atlantic examined our tendency to anthropomorphize the year in a recent story.

People have been complaining about how awful 2016 was, and I don’t disagree. But in many ways, I found 2015 much harder. Lots of bad things happened in 2016, sure, but I was just a witness. In 2015, bad things happened to me. This year, not much happened to me at all. Which is, in its own way, a problem. Sometimes I feel like I am in a story that has no plot.

Here is what happened:

I taught two classes in the spring and another in summer. One went well, one went ok, and one was a disaster. I continued my administrative responsibilities and managed to negotiate a pay increase for my troubles. Unfortunately, that means I have to keep doing it, which exposes me to the toxic hysteria of academia-in-decline. I took a few short trips, one to an academic conference, one to an invited speaking engagement, and a few to my grad school home town to visit friends and enjoy the pace of country life.

This fall, I was on “research leave,” which has been unproductive in the traditional sense, but very productive in other ways. Basically, I figured out definitively that I do not have a second book in me. I had all the time in the world, but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter. For the time being, I will continue to pretend to colleagues and supervisors that I am making progress, but now I can stop lying to myself. That’s something!

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How beautiful is that!

This year, I picked up three more nursing prerequisites and had a wonderful time doing it! I got to dissect a fetal sheep brain, a fetal sheep kidney, a fetal pig, and a cow’s eye. Tapetum lucidum, the blue-green shimmer coating that allows animals to see at dusk, is possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I remain confused as hell about my path forward: Stay in academia and find a way to make it work? Quit my job and go to nursing school full-time? Split the difference and go part-time? Find a different job altogether? With just three more classes to go, 2017 will deliver me to a crossroads.

My personal life is pretty dull. My friend got married, which was wonderful, and I have enjoyed getting closer to her and her husband as a couple. They are family to me. Other relationships have proved challenging, with four friends doing the friend equivalent of taking a shit in my purse. The common denominator is me, I know. But it’s also my ability to pick friends. I am hardwired to put up with other people’s shit. Figuring that out took 40 years. It will probably take another 40 for me to put a stop to it.

My family drives me crazy. That’s really all there is to say about that.

The last date I went on was back in January. I am just…done.

In terms of what happened to me this year, probably the worst thing is that I sprained my ankle. That phrase really doesn’t do justice it, though. The initial injury was excruciating, and I still question whether I don’t actually have an avulsion fracture. The night it happened was beyond depressing. I could not walk, and efforts to find someone to help me gather my things and go to urgent care were fruitless. A neighbor I barely know finally came over and helped me into an Uber. I spent a Saturday night at urgent care, getting wheeled around by various medical personnel who parked me in a series of empty rooms. The room where I waited for the radiology tech contained enormous trash cans for medical waste, compounding the feeling that I had been discarded. The next day was better, so much better, as two friends helped out with groceries, meals, and comfort. But it was a hard two weeks, carefully planning each trip up and down the stairs and timing the long, arduous trek to the toilet. I contemplated peeing in a jar in my kitchen but cut back on my water consumption instead. Almost seven weeks later, I am still in pain and wonder if it will every fully heal.

Probably not.

But I am lucky, right? Because that is the worst thing that happened to me this year. On the other hand, I bore witness to a lot of bad shit.

My dad’s eye exploded during a “routine” cataract surgery, leaving him partially blind and unable to take care of my mother for several weeks. My sister and I filled in, and we have decided to take a more assertive role with their medical care (to the extent my dad, who has serious control issues, will let us). Smash cut to me, my dad, and my mom conversing with a very frustrated gastroenterology nurse practitioner about the consistency of my mom’s poops. (My mother cannot effectively participate in her own medical care, but she rages if we treat her like she can’t. It’s tricky.) My father also recently purchased his first smart phone and a new laptop, and I am his on-demand tech support. It has not escaped my notice that my sister’s interactions with my parents consist of game nights and apple picking, while mine consist of Apple tech support and discussions of my mother’s bowels.

It’s fine.

I also went to four funerals in 2016, which kind of seems like a lot for someone in their 40s. One was for an old friend’s young son, hit by a car while riding his bicycle. One was for my friend who died of cancer the year before. One was for my neighbor/friend, who died of an accidental overdose. And one was for my cousin, who killed himself. I felt tremendous grief this year, but witnessed even more.

When someone dies, all that’s left are memories, stories. The story lives as long as there is someone to tell it. My friend’s son was just 10 when he died last April, and the story of his story is that it ended too soon. His parents have done an incredible job of hanging on to life, attending concerts, taking trips, and talking enthusiastically about their boy. Almost every day, my friend posts a “memory” on Facebook that features her son. I wonder, What will happen next year, when there are no new stories, when all she has to post are memories of the memories?

I will never understand this story.

My friend who died of cancer–there were stories at his Memorial Day service too. I learned so much about him that weekend, as friends and family swapped tales and jokes that gave me a glimpse into private facets of his life. A narrative emerged: after years of unhappiness in our shared workplace, and then a year of professional humiliation (he was denied tenure, which is like dangling from a cliff for 12 months and then falling anyway), he had one good year before he got sick, a year in which he was content and hopeful. That made the nine months of dying not so bad, I guess?

I will never understand this story.

In August, my neighbor Damon died of an accidental overdose–prescription drugs, booze, and maybe spice–in another neighbor’s house down the block. He was getting high there because he wasn’t allowed to be altered at home. A story emerged at his funeral that Damon was never the same after his mother died in 2014. The story gave his senseless death a patina of romance–a young man who loved his mother so much he sought to join her in the afterlife. But he was troubled long before she died: he had a baby at 16 that he did nothing for, and he was a high school dropout, in and out of jail, unemployed, disengaged, high all the damn time. I suspected years ago that he suffered from depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Still, he was a sweet guy, and he was always kind to me. I helped him get out of jail the last time. He was my friend. His family never acknowledged how troubled he was, so they could never really help him. The silences of his life were profound. At his funeral, a born-again Christian pastor presided over his coffin, but Damon was a muslim.

I will never understand this story.

My cousin died two days after Damon. The story at his funeral was that he suddenly died of Crohn’s disease. The truth is that he had Crohn’s, but he died of depression. He was suicidal, and he owned guns, and his wife thought she had hidden the key to the gun case. At her urging, he voluntarily committed himself to a mental health treatment facility, then snowed the clinicians into thinking his suicidal ideation was just a side-effect of medications prescribed for the Crohn’s. Once the drugs cleared his system, they released him, and maybe legally they had no choice. But they didn’t even tell his wife. He drove home, found the key to the gun case, and blew his head off. His wife found him hours later when she got home from work. In her remarks at his funeral, she shared the fiction that he dropped dead of Crohn’s. That’s her choice, and those of us who knew the truth abided by it. But the lie is not without consequence. The stigma of depression intensifies its effects and prevents other people from getting help. How powerful it would have been to attribute the death of this beautiful, successful, winning-at-life man to suicide. Who might have been helped by that? And then there’s the boy. My cousin’s young grandson has Crohn’s and plaintively asked if he might die suddenly too. But on the other hand, how do you explain suicide to children?

I will never understand this story.

I tell stories too: I am writing a second book, I am going to quit the job I hate, I am going to be a nurse, so-and-so loved me or even just liked me a little. The truth is, I don’t have anything more to say, let alone write, as an academic. The truth is, I buy new clothes at Target to avoid doing laundry, so it’s highly unlikely I will get it together to change jobs. The truth is, I have two FWBs who aren’t very nice to me. The truth is, J* replaced my friendship with podcasts, which makes me wonder whether he ever cared for me. When we broke up as a couple, I had the same feeling: Was any of it real? Some people, when they are done with you–it’s not enough to withdraw their love or friendship. They have to take your memories too.

The truth is, stories are so much better than the truth.

Even so, 2016 was better than 2015, for sure. And 2017 will be better still! This long, dark night will end, and we will lean towards the light once more. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

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Holiday

Plans are firming up to take my mom to my cousin’s memorial service next month. My father gets a pass, because he will be recovering from cataract surgery. So our party will consist of me, my sister, her two children, my mother, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which is so intrusive, it needs its own suitcase.

Last night, I went over the plan with my parents–well, with my dad while my mom looked on:

  • The dog and I will stay overnight with them and help my mom pack in the evening.
  • The next morning, the dog will stay with my dad, and I will drive my mom & I to an out-of-town airport (cheaper flight) at the asscrack of dawn.
  • We will meet my sister and her two children at the airport and fly to a city close to the rural memorial service.
  • We will get in about 9:30 AM, rent two cars, and drive to the beach. (My mom loves the ocean and doesn’t get to see it much.)
  • Burial service that afternoon, memorial service the next day.
  • We are all staying in an Air BnB, along with my weird uncle.

My mom really struggled with the rental-house concept. “I don’t want to stay in someone’s house,” she said initially. Later, it became clear that she understood the concept of “rooms” only in the context of “hotel rooms,” and she became confused and angry at the thought of my nephew sleeping on a couch.

“He’ll be all by himself?” she asked plaintively, over and over. I think maybe she was picturing him in a hotel lobby. Who knows.

The other problem with this plan is that we know–including the kids (ages 11 and 14)–that my cousin killed himself. But there are some relatives–we’re not sure which ones–who do not know. My cousin’s widow apparently wants to keep up the fiction that an athletic, 49 year old man with Crohn’s disease mysteriously dropped dead, out of the blue, in his own home. Among those who don’t know, and are not supposed to know, are a bunch of kids. So, we now have to have The Talk with my nephew, rather like Jewish parents do with their children about Santa: “You cannot say anything to the other kids.”

My niece is rock-solid, unswayed by peer pressure or a desire to impress. My nephew is more of a joiner, and I could see him divulging if he was trying to impress an older kid, but I think fear of punishment will keep him in check. The wildcard is my mom. She can’t remember anything, including, increasingly, my name. (She often cycles through several possibilities–dog, niece, sister–before remembering the name she gave to me.) She will undoubtedly ask, “What is this?” or “What are we doing here?” repeatedly (as in, every 2-5 minutes) while we are at the burial and memorial services. She will very likely forget that my cousin is dead and ask after him to his father and widow, at his funeral. (This happened at another funeral she attended. It is very awkward.) And she will likely announce, with a parrot-like vigor, “B* killed himself, right?”

She kept doing this last night, as though we were playing trivia, and she finally got an answer right.

“He’s dead, right?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“And he killed himself, right?”

“That’s right.”

The show “Roseanne” (which I LOVE) got many things about family life exactly right, including what it is like to deal with elderly relatives in times of grief.

If you have this exchange more than a few times, all of the appropriate emotions–shock, horror, grief–get displaced by frustration, irritation, and a fervent desire to end the interaction. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has told my mother the circumstances of my cousin’s death: he shot himself with his own gun a few hours (not the next day, as I first thought) after being released from a psychiatric hospital. His wife found him when she got home from work.

(If you’re wondering what kind of psychiatric hospital releases an in-patient with suicidal thoughts into his own custody, without even notifying his spouse, when there is a gun in play, the possible answers are: A) The one my cousin was in hours before he shot himself; B) The one I hope his widow sues the fuck out of; C) Both A and B.)

When you really sit with it, the horror is breathtaking. Maybe I should thank Alzheimer’s for turning my cousin’s suicide into just another incidental detail, like who is running for president or what Mom needs at the drugstore. My mother writes information like this down on sticky notes, and we find them everywhere–on mirrors, lining every cabinet door, inside every pocket. There is no emotion with it, just cold information: “Cough drops, Shampoo, B*’s death. Suicide. Need paper towels.” And, just like a Post-It, none of it sticks.

If a tree commits suicide in a forest, and no one ever talks about it, did it really happen?

The irony here is that the silence and stigma surrounding my cousin’s suicide is mirrored perfectly by the silence and stigma surrounding my mother’s dementia. My cousin’s wife feels that it is disparaging of her husband’s memory to acknowledge that the pain of his depression and Crohn’s, braided one into the other, eventually became too much to bear. And my mother is mortified that she has committed the grave sin of contracting a fatal brain disease, while my father is in denial about her cognitive abilities. Just last night, he excoriated her for not knowing what kind of coffee–regular or decaf?–she put in the coffeemaker. Of all the things she cannot remember–who’s dead, where she lives, whether she has grandchildren–he thinks that’s information she’s got filed and ready for retrieval??? Regardless of the context, my mother’s condition is a Dirty Family Secret.

My sister is coming around to the idea that we should be more open, even with strangers, but she treads more lightly than me. I am pretty upfront about it, if my mom isn’t within earshot, because people are kinder and more helpful if they know what’s up. Like, for instance, the post-op nurse who kept giving instructions to my mom, but not also to me, about caring for my dad after his hernia surgery. Or the ladies we lunched with at a friend’s birthday party, who treated my mother like furniture because they didn’t know what to make of her inability to remember the finer details of the table’s smalltalk.

Gate agents, flight attendants, waitstaff, funeral guests…together my mother and I will run a gantlet of socially awkward encounters perched always on the edge of rage. This trip is shaping up to be one of the longest, strangest weekends of my life. Only the walk on the beach will afford a moment’s rest and contemplation, when the sound of the waves drowns out the yammering questions brought forth by my mother’s disease.

And the brisk winds focus her attention on seashells and grandchildren and the gorgeous feeling of bare toes in wet sand.

And the vastness of the sea brings all our little tragedies down to size.

 

Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Get Up & Goat

Yeah, no one liked that last post. As in, literally, no one [active verb meaning to signal approval by clicking on “Like”] liked that post. Especially not me.

No one wants you, suicide post. Get bent!

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I went to my friend’s memorial service yesterday. The lesson there is, Don’t Do Drugs. Or, if you do them, don’t do them alone in an empty house sitting on a mattress on the floor with a shitbag “friend” who takes the $100 in your wallet when you pass out, and leaves you without calling 911.

No, definitely don’t do that.

*     *     *     *     *

A world away, but in the same neighborhood of grief, my cousin’s wife memorialized him on Monday. She is doing ok, as is his father (my uncle), who lost my aunt to Alzheimer’s five years ago. They are both alone now (no grandkids from that union), but bonded to one another in heartbreak. My family will convene in a few weeks to bury my cousin’s ashes with his mother in a lovely New England cemetery. No one will utter the word “suicide,” because we are not the kind of people who talk about such things, let alone do them.

*     *     *     *     *

I will write more about these sad, strange events in due time, I am sure, as I am fascinated by how the storytelling has evolved in both of these tragic situations. In the meantime, I am a fully articulated human being who does not live every moment in introspection. To prove it, here I am petting a goat:

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Goats are awesome, kind of like dogs that bleat. I highly recommend petting one at your soonest convenience, because when you are petting a goat, or eating a caramel apple, or riding a ferris wheel, it is very difficult to ponder anything, besides whether the meth addict who strapped you in remembered to check the safety thingamajig, or who first discovered the genius of the apple-caramel-peanut combo (on a stick, no less!), or how badly that goat wants to eat your hoodie string or your shirtsleeve or your hair.

We’ll call it County Fair-apy. And we could all use a little of it now and then.

 

Grace

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.

 

There Is No Pain, You Are Receding

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.

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The world’s longest traffic jam took place in China and lasted 12 days!

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.

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R.E.M. used the collective loneliness of the traffic jam to great effect in the video for “Everybody Hurts.”

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.

 

 

 

The Bridge

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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.

False Witness

“To pretend, I actually do the thing: 
I have therefore only pretended to pretend.” –Jacques Derrida

I lie. A lot.

Several people have commented on the honesty of this blog. They aren’t wrong, unless they are. Writing is manipulation, after all.

In the post “General Longing,” about a man whose daughter died in a plane crash, I wrote, “She died while he was holding her hand.” That was a lie. Her hands had been surgically removed due to catastrophic burns. He was in the room with her when she died, along with his wife, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife’s husband. I am sure they were touching the girl as she passed, but she had no hands to hold.

Likewise, the post “In Lieu of Flowers,” about attending the visitation of my friend’s 10 year-old son, suggests anger and frustration at the senselessness of the boy’s death. That part is true, but this part is a lie: “It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.” The fact is, when I stood before the boy’s open casket, I felt nothing. I looked for what seemed like an appropriate length of time, then I stepped away. I could have looked for longer, because I found his lifeless body fascinating. I was trying to remember the details for the essay I knew I would write.

I am good at conveying emotion through writing, whether it’s emjoi-laden texts, personal email, or even scholarship. Indeed, a graduate student I ran into last week told me he planned to read my book–a dry piece of research if ever there was one–because another professor had confessed that my writing brought him to tears. The ability to convey emotion has to do with being able to read emotion. You have to know how the reader will perceive the imagery, phrasing, and especially the pauses. Silence is not golden, because it is the space into which we flood our fears. The words distract, then silence catches like an icy breath, then more words, then silence, words, silence, repeat: like a beat, like dance, like a river. If you can make the reader hear you, you can make them feel whatever you want.

Right now, dear reader, I am trying to make you feel betrayed.

But how do I feel? I do not know. I wonder sometimes, do I feel anything? Or do I merely convey appropriate emotions because it is the productive, professional, personable thing to do? Am I a sociopath? Or am I just so badly damaged that it takes extremes of mirth or pain for me to feel anything at all?

I am probably not a sociopath, because I am a sap, and because other people’s pain deeply affects me. I used to bawl at those maudlin long-distance commercials about people reconnecting across a great divide. I cried at pretty much every Country Time Lemonade commercial in the ’90s, because they traded in nostalgia for summers past. And that Folgers commercial, where the son comes home from college at Christmas and makes coffee for everyone before they wake up? Devastating. (Maybe it was just because that poor family was waking up to such terrible coffee.) I also cry when I see other people cry, even John Boehner, whom I despise. And I feel sorry for people who are suffering, no matter who they are. The execution of Saddam Hussein and the final footage of Muammar Gaddafi were very troubling to me, because my heart defined them in those moments not as the brutal dictators we know they were, but as sad, vulnerable, old men confronting the loss of their stature, their history, and their very lives.

Sociopaths don’t think that way. That leaves damage.

I have always been a very sensitive person. In fact, I meet virtually every criteria that defines a Highly Sensitive Person, answering affirmatively to 26 of 27 questions on the scale. For example, I am extremely sensitive to color. I love looking at colors, and choosing a palette of colored pencils for an art project has taken me an entire day. Recently I noticed that staring for 30 seconds at a fluorescent pink piece of paper when I am tired stimulates my brain like a dose of caffeine. I would prefer the caffeine, though, because it doesn’t have all the emotional connotations of the pink piece of paper, which strikes me as aggressively hostile. I wonder, after more than four decades of managing my fragile system, whether it has ceased to function properly.

Often, I feel numb. The post, “A Lack of Emotional Concern,” which drew so many followers to this blog, is about that very thing. I am not bothered much anymore by my mother’s illness, the collapse of my relationship with my sister, my niece and nephew becoming strangers to me, my friends drifting away–because I simply choose not to think about it. Any of it. Instead, I self-medicate by eating junk food, binge-watching television shows, and endlessly surfing the ‘net. Oh, and writing this blog!

And I lie. When I walk my dog, I smile easily and wave hello to my neighbors, even though I am desperately sad that I have not talked to another human being for several days. I mount a charm offensive for my mother on the phone, enveloping her in happy anecdotes about the dog and eager questions about her day. I check in with friends who need support, even though I fundamentally question whether I am of any value to them. I lie in this blog, though less here than on Facebook. I lie to myself: do I really have the courage to quit my professor job and become a nurse, with all the stress, financial hardship, and loss of prestige that will entail?

It is when the lies collapse that I am in deepest trouble, though I have become so good at lying and so bad at feeling that it is hard to tell when that happens. I think, though, that it has happened. And, as you might have guessed, there is a boy involved.

My ex, J*, came home from overseas a few months ago. We started texting, then talking. We have seen each other twice. He talked about coming back to my city for a few weeks this summer to spend time with his nephew, which got me terribly excited. He remains disinterested in dating me and totally not attracted to me, though in his own maddening way he concedes that he loves me. Somehow, without me even knowing it, I took these disparate bits and composed myself a story: J* is my person, I am his person, and we are going to get through this life together. It is a lie, but deep inside I think I have been counting on it.

I am (was?) connected to J* in a way that I cannot mechanically explain. When he was overseas and not writing or talking to me, I would be moved to write to him at odd intervals based on a feeling that he needed my support. I have no idea if I was right. Since he returned, I have noticed that I can sense when he is in town. I have joked with him that  a “disturbance in The Force” (who doesn’t love Star Wars?) alerts me to his presence, and every time it has been true. Last Thursday night, it happened again, but in a different way. I was walking in one of our old haunts, and I felt something distinct. If it were a sound, it would have been a click. Then I felt J* slip away, like a railroad car uncoupling from the rest of the train and drifting down the tracks. An enormous sadness rushed in to fill the empty space.

I wrote J* the next day and joked, sort of, that I had yet again felt a disturbance in The Force. That night, he called me and we talked for 2.5 hours. In many ways it was wonderful, and in ways that surprised me, it was painful too. I’ve known for over a year that he has been dating other people, but somehow the revelation that he had a first date planned for this weekend shook me to the core. Eventually, he told me he made those plans in a text conversation on Tinder at the very time I felt him decouple and drift away.

“That’s kind of weird,” he admitted.

“Do you really believe it?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

Yeah, me neither. Except that I can feel his absence now, in a way that is new and scary and raw. Maybe he has finally met the lady with whom it will all work out effortlessly. When that happens, he has told me more than once, there won’t be room in his life for me anymore. She will be his person, the one he checks in with, the one he wastes time with, the one he plans with. Not me. And I will be alone again.

Part of me wants it to be true, because it would affirm my special powers–that I was so sensitive, so highly attuned, I knew his love was leaving me from 250 miles away. Then, if it is true, part of me wants his new love to fail, because he will return to me. And part of me wants his new love to work out, full stop. If I can’t make him happy, there is no reason for me to wish that no one else will either. (Note to Self: Nurture that last part, and starve the rest.)

Regardless, I know now that I am a liar. I deceived myself into thinking that J* and I could be friends, and that I could be content with that. This new situation exposes the lie of it. We can be friends, but I won’t feel content. I guess I was always hopeful that J* and I would be together again someday. Because love isn’t what makes life divine or never having to say you’re sorry or even a battlefield. No, love is pine sap: it sticks to everything, and it never comes off.

Never.

I am a liar, but not such a good liar. And not such a good writer either, because I suspect you knew this about J* and me all along.