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 Stray

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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!

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Apparently it’s a perennial question, but at least now the Internet can help. Shelters are overloaded, though, so PREVENTION is the best option: Please spay/neuter your pets!

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.

Silence.

“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.

 

 

Road Trip

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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.

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.

 

In Lieu of Flowers

This weekend I attended a funeral visitation for a friend’s son, who died suddenly last week. Suffice it to say, if there are Lego toys in your casket, you are gone from this life too soon.

My friend and I attended together. I was reluctant to go, because I worried that the value of our presence for our mutual but distant friends would be outweighed by the emotional disturbance it would create for us–cryers, both–in an otherwise peaceful weekend. Better to reach out to the grieving parents in a week or two, to see if they want to get together, I suggested. We can go, so we should go, my friend countered. When you’re stricken with horror and helplessness, showing up to represent the collective good wishes of people at the outer edges of a community of grief is both an honor and a duty.

She was right. We went.

The receiving line was long, which gave us time to adjust to the fact that we were going to see the body of a 10 year-old boy. I never knew him in life, except as pictures posted on Facebook, so seeing him in death did not take my breath away as it has for others whom I knew personally. But still, it was surreal and simply awful. Living children have luminous skin that seems to glow from the inside, and their cheeks and lips burst with color. There is no way to replicate those features of youth on a dead child. There is no way a dead child can ever quite look at rest. A dead child can only look dead, or perhaps like a statue. What we saw, effectively, was an artist’s rendering of a boy, composed of embalming fluid, waxes and fillers, heavy makeup to conceal the violent effects of the accident that killed him, and the boy’s own little, lifeless frame. It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.

His family was good natured and kind, patiently receiving the condolences of guest after guest after guest. The boy’s grandfather held our hands and said something about “God’s plan.” We nodded kindly in assent. But silently, I thought what I always think when someone invokes God’s plan after a tragedy: God is a bad planner. Seriously. Show me a military tactician or city engineer or marketing strategist who says, “This brings us to Step 4: Killing a Random Fifth Grader,” and I’ll show you an idiot and a psychopath. Finding meaning in a child’s death after the fact doesn’t make that death an operational necessity. Any decent, productive plan would have all of the 10 year-olds survive to become 11 year-olds. But of course, the chilling truth is that there is no plan, and no god probably either. There is just the terrible physics of car versus kid, in which a second’s difference either way would have yielded a different outcome: an uneventful excursion, maybe some broken bones, or even a different mother’s child being life-flighted to the hospital. One second.

After twenty minutes or so in line, our friends greeted us warmly, almost as though we ran into them in a restaurant, not a funeral parlor ten feet from the body of their only child. I have never seen a woman look more tired than this boy’s mother.We laughed and made small talk. Someone said something about “under better circumstances,” and I replied stupidly, “This is shitty. This is a shitty thing that happened.” She laughed, looked me in the eye, and nodded. Because it is.

A lot of people invoked the “there are no words” trope in their online condolences at the death of this boy, but I think “shitty” is pretty good for describing a senseless accident, a tiny corpse, some Lego toys buried in a casket, and childless parents comforted only by their memories.

Songs from the Heart

My heart cried out, “I miss my friend.”

It was one of the purest emotions I ever felt: crystal clear, exquisitely painful, and easily translated into words. “I miss my friend.”

Last May, my friend M* died of cancer, diagnosed just nine months before. What is the difference between a memory and a dream? I’m not sure. I had memories of sitting on a porch laughing with M*’s wife and our friend C*, the funny foursome we used to be. And I had a dream of revisiting those golden moments on a different porch, after they all moved away. M* died, the dream died, and the memory became tinted with sadness.

“I miss my friend,” my heart cried out, as I explained to other people who he was and why the world should mourn him. Someday maybe I will try to explain it here.

But today, and most days, I just miss my friend. M*, but others too.

I miss pouring a stiff drink and working my way to the bottom while talking on the phone to my friend from grad school. Now, thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I haven’t spoken to him in years. Instead, we play Scrabble–for 8 years straight–and the sum total of our discourse is, “Nice bingo!”

I miss my friend picking me up in her obscenely American muscle car and driving around town smoking cigarettes from the stale pack she kept in the glovebox. We still meet for “date nights” every few weeks, and I love them, but there was something great about back then, when we lived in a smaller town and had loads of free time and the best days unfolded spontaneously.

I miss stopping by my friend’s office and convincing her to go outside and throw a disc with me in the grass, even though both of us were wearing skirts. Now she works in a fancy building with a security desk. It would take hours to get there and park, and there’s nowhere to throw a disc in that concrete wasteland anyway.

And so many others. My heart cries out, “I miss my friend.” I wish they lived closer, I wish we were closer, I wish we had more time.

For good or bad, M* led me back to J*. I was so close to being done for good, because I had grown accustomed to thinking of J* not as a friend but as a memory–someone I used to know, someone I used to care about, someone who had caused me a lot of pain, someone who would not be allowed to do so again. But when my heart cried out “I miss my friend” in the wake of M*’s death, I realized I had heard those words before. It was the exact phrase J* texted me about 10 days after we broke up. I was struggling to function. I asked how he was doing.

“To be honest, I miss my friend!” was his reply.

Four months later, I heard my heart speak those exact words. I reached out to J* again.

“You were right,” I texted him the day M* died. “I am never going to see my friend again.” (Having worked with critically ill patients, J*’s assessments of M*’s condition were always maddeningly rational.)

“I’m sorry,” he replied. Over the next few days, we met, we met again, he texted and called to check on me. It was kind and necessary, because I was falling apart. Over the next few months, we pieced together a very odd friendship. Despite all the baggage of our previous relationship, despite him moving away, despite both of us being totally nuts, it endured.

I saw J* today. He texted, we made a quick plan, we met up, drove around, talked. It was everything I miss about friendship now that I’m in the throes of middle-age: intimacy, spontaneity, simplicity, fun.

It made my heart sing.

 

First-Date Friday: When Your Date Likes Little Girls

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Can you imagine? Your date states openly and without shame that they like little girls?! So creepy! What must he have thought of me when I said it!

Yeah, that’s right. When said it.

My next Tinder date was with an English professor at a nearby community college. We met on a rainy Sunday afternoon at a coffeeshop that was mutually inconvenient for both of us. He was very, very late due to much of the city being cordoned off for a marathon. I was ok by myself, though, because I had papers to grade, free wireless, and a delicious breakfast sandwich. “Like a pig in shit,” I texted him. “No worries. Take your time.”

I liked him. He was decent looking and fit (a distance, open-water swimmer), he was smart, and he seemed nice. We didn’t have super sparkly chemistry, but talking to him was pleasant enough. He came alive when talking about his daughter, who was 7 or 8 years old.

“Such a fun age,” I said. “What’s she in to?”

It wasn’t the first time I noticed that my interests tend to align with those of girls ages 5 through 15. They like cake, candies, and cookies. I like cake, candy, and cookies! They like animals. I like animals! They like craft projects. I like craft projects! And so on.

I really do like little girls. I used to be one, I had lots of friends who were little girls when I was one, and my 13 year old niece is one of the lights of my life. Also, perhaps unusually for a middle-aged woman with no children, I have friends who are little girls.

My neighborhood is a collection of townhouses with tiny front yards separated by picket and chain-link fences. The neighborhood is gentrifying fast, but it retains some of the ethnic, racial, and economic diversity that I have prized since I bought my house six years ago. I’ve noticed that the white parents maintain chain-of-custody control of their children so tightly, you’d think the kids were FBI evidence in a presidential assassination. In contrast, the black and Latino working-class parents are too tired or too poor to schedule their children’s every waking minute, or perhaps they just believe in letting kids have freedom. There are a lot of unattended kids, mostly girls, playing together on the sidewalks, is what I’m saying. And for about 9 months of the year, I’m out there too, tending to my high-maintenance front yard that is entirely covered with flower beds, a charming patio of Pennsylvania field stone, and a collection of reclaimed sheet-metal lawn ornaments named for various neighbors (Moses the Turtle, Marcos the Squirrel, Hector Bunny, and Iris Byrd Bird). Ever since I moved in, my constant presence in the front yard has drawn the kids’ interest, especially the girls.

“What are you doing?” they would ask me, when I was new to the neighborhood and they were new to gardening. I would explain whatever the day’s project was, and invariably they would ask if they could help. Over the years, they’ve ranged in age from 2 to 13, with the older ones moving on to boys and cheerleading and fussing with their phones. The younger ones find me and my house and the garden fascinating. (I’m glad someone does!) Sometimes I would have five girls “helping” me in a yard that is just 15 feet wide. Watering is always the favorite project, but they have also learned to weed, mulch, fertilize, and plant. Over time, some of them became quite skilled, and the help they provided was real. I keep several pairs of garden gloves of various sizes in my storage bench, and I have extra tools, including the coveted Pink Trowel. I also keep colored chalk on my porch, because if there’s no work to do in the garden, the sidewalks could always use some fresh illustration.

Other shared activities have included long walks with the dog, visits to the playground, gardening in their yards, caroling in the neighborhood, and participation in a PTA cleanup at their school. I have also had the girls over to my house to make Christmas ornaments or work on sewing projects, and for hot chocolate and cookies after fun in the snow. I had an ice cream party once, and I hosted a dance party to celebrate the success of our summer reading club. My favorite thing is when one of the girls reads to me while I pull weeds.

Much of the above list reads like the grooming tactics of a child molester! Well, ok, a child molester who really believes in the importance of reading, sewing, and applied math and science. Why do their parents let them come with me? It blows me away that adults who don’t know my name, don’t have my phone number, and barely speak English are willing to let me walk away with their daughters. But it really is innocent! We all just like to do the same stuff–grow flowers, eat cookies, and sew animal-shaped pillows out of felt. Or, more likely, they like the extra attention, and over the years their interests have been shaped by mine. Either way, we both benefit.

After I told my date that I like little girls, I tried to explain what I meant–that I tend to have a lot in common with them, that I find them interesting as people, that I have friends who are little girls. No matter what I said, though, the hole I was in just seemed to get deeper.

I have talked about my little friends on Facebook and to my adult friends, and it never seems sketchy. But with my date, we just couldn’t escape the shadow cast by his daughter, who seemed far more interesting to me than her dad. Even my tortured explanations left open the possibility that I was using interest in her to ingratiate myself to him or, worse, that I was insinuating myself in his life to get to his daughter.

“Just stop talking,” said the voice in my head.

When we parted, he initiated a goodbye hug and said he would like to see me again. I enthusiastically agreed, mindful not to say anything about his kid. “Whew,” I thought. “A reprieve.”

He must have thought about the date differently in retrospect, though, because he went silent after a couple of texts. Maybe he decided I was a little too into little girls. Another possibility is that, as an academic who tried and failed to get a tenure-track job at a research university, he felt threatened or otherwise put off by my professional success. A third possibility is that he just wasn’t in to me.

It’s too bad. His daughter sounded really cool.