Don’t Question the Steps, Just Dance!

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Today was insular yet interesting, a lovely mix of reaching out, reaching up, and hunkering down.

I took my first biology exam today, and it had me very, very nervous. The amount of material was overwhelming! We had to know the basics of anatomical directions; the regions, cavities, and systems of the body; the organization of living things and the requirements for life; basic chemistry (atoms, ions, chemical bonds, solution chemistry, etc.); and the anatomy of a human cell, including the name of every protein, carbohydrate, lipid, nucleotide, and organelle therein, as well as their composition and function. WTF!

And when did human cells become so complicated?! From what I recall of biology in middle school–the last time I took it!–a cell looked like a cracked egg and consisted of a membrane, a nucleus, and some cytoplasm.

What, then, is this monstrosity:

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I know what this is and how it works! 😀

It appears that scientists have discovered a whole bunch of extra crap in there, and I am expected to know what it is and what it does at the molecular level. Thankfully, I actually like sorting my proteasomes from my lyosomes, and I can now label and (sort of) understand everything on this diagram.

I also love how dirty some of it sounds:

“Can I use my secretory vesicle to transverse your phospholipid bilayer?” she asked thirstily.

I did my level best on the midterm, depleting what I thought would be three exams’ worth of index cards in a marathon flashcard session. And it was ok: I missed one out of forty questions. Had the exam not been open-note, I would have missed perhaps five or six, which is still respectable. I am pleased and hopeful, even though I have no idea where this is headed.

While I was getting ready for the exam, I texted about my nerves with a few friends, and they wrote back with all the affirmations and assurances I needed to hear. I am so grateful for their support.

Interestingly enough, one of those friends was J*. After my exam, we talked for the first time in five months, and it was wonderful.

Most of my closest friends will shake their heads ominously and ask, “Why would you muddy the waters with that piece of dirt?” And I can’t blame them, because they love me, and they worry for me, and they remember the disappointment and heartache I experienced with him as it was unfolding. Plus they never met him, so they regard him more as abstraction and distraction than as an actual human man that they might like.

The reality, though, is that J* is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I have missed having him in my life. And when we talked today, he said he missed talking to me too. That lifted my spirits immeasurably, not because of some fragile hope that the path he is on will one day lead back to me. Truth be told, my heart does go there sometimes late at night, when I can’t sleep and need a story to put my mind at rest. But that’s not why I loved talking to him today. It’s because I loved hearing his story and learning that he’s ok. Better than ok, actually–he’s excited for a new job, a new living situation, and a fresh start in a new town. I am happy for him. Talking to him also made me happy because the one thing I can’t abide is his indifference. Though I know to my core that no time is ever wasted (a sincere thank you to the poet Richard Brautigan for that wisdom), it would pain me to know that my time meant nothing to him.

And yet, even if that did happen, I would remain hopeful and still. Relationships ebb and flow, people come and go. I know this. Some of my closest friends right now–I didn’t talk to them for years, once upon a time, and now we walk together . People tend to find their way back to love, all kinds of love, if you don’t place barriers in their path. So you never know how someone might filter in and out of your life, because it’s not an orderly process like, say, protein carrier-assisted passive diffusion across a phospholipid bilayer. It’s more like osmosis: water flowing back and forth, in and out, filtering through aquaporin channels or caressing the gently undulating tails of the phospholipids themselves, until it finds its equilibrium. (I never realized the beauty of plasma membrane transport until just now!)

I don’t know the right metaphor, and maybe biology isn’t even the right science. It might be astronomy, with friends traversing hidden corners of the universe, then reappearing suddenly as a bright light streaking across the sky. But no, comets are predictable. People are not, though they can shine just as brilliantly.

Maybe we’ll just leave this one to the humanities and the Analects of Confucius: “To have an old friend come from far away–isn’t it a joy!”

I almost titled this post, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” because I am exploring a way out of an unsatisfying career by returning to the soothing embrace of school. And, ok, talking to J* long-distance again does feel very 2014. But I stopped myself from using that title, because the saying implies linear directionality–you’re headed towards something, but you’re having trouble getting there. Instead, I don’t know which way I’m headed, nor towards what, and I have no idea who, if anyone, will be with me when I get there. Even if I do take two steps forward for every step back, the steps do not go in the same direction. And sometimes the steps back aren’t so much a retreat as a return, to a warm and comforting place I need to experience from time to time.

“Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat!” We’re all doing this, all the time, crossing paths with one another in the process. That’s not walking a line.

That’s dancing!

First-Date Friday: Tom Tiny Horse

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I met Tom Tiny Horse on Tinder around the time J* moved to town. Tom was funny, and we had great chemistry in texts, so I felt bad when I disappeared on him. When my relationship with J* intensified, it seemed appropriate to delete Tinder altogether, but I wrote to Tom before I did so. It was one of those, “I really like you, but I met someone else, bad timing, etc. etc.” messages. I can’t recall if I ever deleted Tinder or not, but not long after I gave Tom the heave-ho, the universe delivered a lesson in karma. J* dumped me like a hot sack of shit, and suddenly I was single again.

I got back in touch with Tom, who was genuinely kind when I explained what had happened. He asked me if I would like to meet, and we continued to discuss and joke and plan over email. It gave me hope in some very dark moments. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when we actually met, demonstrating yet again that online chemistry is not just elusive but illusory.

The first-date plan was for Tom to take public transportation to my side of town, where we would meet for dinner. He did a little research and suggested a kabob restaurant based on positive online reviews. I had eaten there and knew them to serve delicious food, but I also knew it was not First-Date Friendly: it’s a fluorescently lit carryout favored by cab drivers that serves no alcohol.

I gently offered these details to Tom, but he was undeterred. He must have had something else in mind, because when we finally met, and he realized how unromantic and unforgiving the experience was going to be, he apologized profusely as we fetched our silverware and napkins from the bins on the counter.

Like my previous date with Nose Hair, this date involved a bait-and-switch, but with a twist. From his photos and online profile, I understood Tom Tiny Horse to be tall, athletic, and about my age. In fact, he was of average height for a man (meaning, my height or shorter if I’m in heels, which I was); he was out-of-shape with a belly, sunken chest, and stringy arms; and he looked many years older than I was expecting–more gray hair, less hair overall, and a tired, defeated mien. Tom was ever so slightly more self-aware than Nose Hair, however, because he tried to get out in front of the situation. About an hour before the date started–too late for me to gracefully back out–he texted me a selfie unbidden. He sent it under the guise of providing me with information about what he was wearing. But implicitly, he was also confessing, “This is what I actually look like.”

Later, I did some online sleuthing that enabled me to date the photos he had posted in his profile. They were all 5-8 years old. I was able to narrow it down so specifically because the largest cache of information about him was the publicly available Flickr stream for his wedding. 

Yes, through the miracle of the Interwebs, I got to see about fifty photos from my date’s betrothal to some other lady. He was divorced, and he disclosed that. But still–I think, if you’re going to go online looking for a new partner, perhaps you should Google yourself first to ensure that the first thing your date learns about you is not what kind of flowers your wife carried down the aisle.

Tom’s appearance wasn’t the only problem. As it turns out, our online chemistry did not translate into real life. The conversation was pleasant but not engaging. I felt no attraction. I wanted to go home.

Instead, I drove him to the train station so that he would not have to walk. When we parted, he pecked me lightly on the lips, kind of how you would kiss your sister if you were from one of those families that does that. I let him, because it seemed easier than resisting. But I knew I would never see him again.

All in all, it was a sad night. It was only about a week after J* dumped me, and we had our first “conversation,” via text, on the afternoon of the date. It did not go well. J* misconstrued everything I wrote, then he announced he had to “cut ties” with me altogether. It took me a long time to do my makeup for the date because I couldn’t stop crying.

Tom Tiny Horse had traveled to Iceland with his young daughter, where they visited a farm with miniature horses. On his Tinder profile, there was a photograph, from several years prior, of the two of them petting those horses in a stable. It was an adorable picture of an adorable girl, an adorable, tiny horse, and a strong, handsome man joyfully together in a beautiful place. Until I met Tom, I could see myself in that picture, in that life, which gave me hope at a time when I couldn’t imagine being happy again. Tom probably looked nostalgically at that picture too, for the intervening years had not been kind to him. I realized in retrospect that his wife must have taken it.

Even If I’m a Nurse, I’ll Always Be a Doctor

If you’re following along regularly, you no doubt think I should rename this blog, “Everything Is Terrible, Including Puppies, Christmas, and the Amish, All the Time, Everywhere.” Actually, when it comes to domestic abuse and animal rights, the Amish are kind of terrible, but I digress. My point is, for me, things are looking up!

Today I registered for my spring class: Introduction to Human Anatomy & Physiology. It took a little doing, because I had to visit an academic advisor in person to get them to waive the prerequisite, English Composition. I brought my transcripts for both of my degrees, but not the transcripts from the other two schools I attended part-time before settling in at my undergraduate alma mater. “Surely a bachelor’s and doctorate are enough,” I reasoned.

The advisor scanned the transcripts quickly and casually, as though he was looking for something specific. I sensed there was a problem.

“Is there a particular class you’re looking for?” I asked sweetly.

“Yes. Something like English composition.” He continued to flip through the pages, scanning, flipping, scanning, with greater urgency as he failed to see what he was looking for.

“It’s been a long time since I went to college, and I don’t really remember how I satisfied that requirement,” I explained. “It might have been AP, or maybe a placement test. I went to two other schools…”

“Do you have those transcripts?” he asked curtly. “Maybe on your phone?”

I found this suggestion wildly hilarious, since course registration wasn’t even digitized when I started college! We would queue up in an endless line at the Registrar, our hands full of paper catalogs and registration forms in triplicate. We didn’t have phones, so we read newspapers or talked to each other. When you finally got to the front of the line, a weary clerk would take your requests, and your alternate requests, and do their best for you. Today, that part felt comfortingly familiar.

“No,” I said softly, realizing that he had lost the forest for the trees. “But… you realize what that is, right?” He was holding my doctoral transcript, which showed a near flawless academic record. “I have a PhD.”

His eyes drifted up to the top of the first page, then he flipped to the end, where the tiny letters affirmed my greatest achievement: a doctorate in the humanities from a research-one university. Surely that would be enough to get me into an entry-level Biology class at a community college?

Just in case, I had my second greatest achievement, my book, in my laptop bag. Plan C was pulling up my faculty bio on my phone. Thankfully, I didn’t need to go that far. The advisor started tapping at the computer, and the prerequisite disappeared.

I always tell my graduate students, “Your degree is the one thing no one can ever take away from you. Your home, your spouse, even your kids–those can be taken away from you. But your doctorate, and the accomplishment it represents, will always be yours.”

If I do this thing–this brave, terrible, crazy thing–of abandoning my scholarly career in order to become a nurse, I will need to start telling myself that too. Because, despite all the frustrations of academia, I am truly proud of what I have accomplished. It is an amazing thing, to have that degree, even if it only gets me out of English comp on this new path that I am following. And no one can ever take that away from me.

Onward!

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With a little luck and a lot of hard work, all of the knowledge in this book will be in my brain come May!

 

 

2015 Year in Review: Poisoned, Set Adrift

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2015 began with a poison kiss.

I didn’t even know I had New Year’s Eve plans until a few hours before midnight. J* texted me while I was at the gym to see if I wanted to spend the evening with him, and I rationalized, “Hey, better late than never.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7 to drive an hour to visit friends of his in a far suburb. That gave me a leisurely two-and-half hours to finish my run, stop off at the store, and slap on the pretty stick. About 30 minutes later, he texted again, wanting to know if I could be ready to leave at 6, just an hour hence.

I was still on the treadmill.

With a mighty effort, I managed to get home, stop sweating, and be ready when he arrived to pick me up. We were trying to be there in time for something called “an Irish toast,” though neither of us understood what that meant. Because I thought we were going to his English friend’s home, I imagined a custom of some import, a break in the evening’s festivities at which our absence would be noted. J* drove with urgency and then like a madman. At one point, lost in conversation, he missed our exit, trapping us on an airport service road. He got angry. Then, when we missed the last bailout, he got angry some more.

I had witnessed one of his outbursts on the phone, but never in person. Now, I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car that felt like it was going way too fast, driven by a grown man having a tantrum. He muttered and yelled, addressing himself in the second person. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel. He shifted the manual transmission in waves of anger. When he slowed in the airport parking lot to ask for directions to the exit, I looked at the glittering terminal in the distance and wondered if I should make a run for it. I froze.

I dated a violent man once, so in those seconds of uncertainty, I reverted to what I knew: be quiet, stay still, act small. Even so, when J* challenged me to confront him, I foolishly took the bait.

“Go ahead, say whatever you’re going to say,” he demanded.

“I’m not going to say anything,” I fumed, “because I don’t want to get punched in the fucking face.”

In the twisted logic of our relationship, my words became the most grievous transgression of the night, a presumed accusation–that J* was an abuser–we never quite got past. I offered context that he declined to consider and apologies that neither of us quite believed. He offered very little, pushing back hard that my words exceeded his actions in their terribleness. In retrospect, that argument exposed the power deferential of our relationship: his ambivalence towards me could put me on my heels even if he was in the wrong. In the end, having resolved nothing, we just moved on.

We arrived at our destination–not an English home, but rather an Irish bar–about ten minutes to seven. J* bolted from the car without a second’s pause, leaving me trotting after him in heels across the icy parking lot. We exchanged no words to bridge the angry divide between us. Moments later, I was meeting his friends for the first time, smiling a plastic smile that I hoped would hide my deep discomfort.

As it turns out, an Irish toast is simply an acknowledgement that it is midnight in Ireland. The bar distributed little flights of Guinness, a canned version of Auld Lang Syne blared from the PA system, and then it was done. A piece of actual toast would have been more satisfying.

It was 7:01 PM, and the five hours to midnight spread before us like a cold and lonely road. I drank a lot, I ate too much, and I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room. As the hours passed, J* and I found our way back to each other. He held my hand, he touched me lightly under the table, he checked to see if I needed anything. At midnight, he smiled broadly as he took my face in his hands and rendered that sweet but fateful kiss.

I was wary but hopeful as our lips met. Lost in softness and warmth, we failed to notice the poison seeping like a fog. Within hours, I was toxic. Within the month, I was adrift.

We went to J*’s friends’ house, where we watched them drink themselves into oblivion. Then we drove back to my house, where J* dropped me off as unceremoniously as a taxi service–no hug, no kiss, no promise to see me again.

Days later, my body started to go haywire–my first bout with the fun! fun! fun! of serious hormonal imbalance.

Two weeks after that, J* broke up with me in a brief text message.

Three weeks after that, a trusted neighbor assaulted me in my living room, violently groping me and attempting to tear off my clothes. I fought him off but did not call the police, because he was leaving the country the next day, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. Even now, he lurks at the edge of my dreams. And when he returned to his house, just 16 feet away from mine, last spring, I found myself feeling panic every time I had to walk the dog.

Spring semester, I endured a two-month bout of bronchitis and a crushing to-do list: teach three classes, give four presentations at three conferences, attend a hundred meetings, grade a thousand typed pages (that is sadly not an exaggeration), write a million emails. All of it felt like work. By fall, I felt broken.

My relationship with my sister deteriorated. In January, she unfriended me on Facebook for a slew of infractions she declined to mention until I noticed I could no longer tag her in family photos. She made it nearly impossible for me to see her children, who used to be the lights of my life. Where we once had monthly excursions, I took them out just twice all year. My parents remained neutral or erred, understandably, on the side of seeing their grandchildren. Throughout the year, my family gathered frequently without me, having decided preemptively that I was too busy to join them. My mother started to forget me.

My friend was sick. He got sicker. In May, he died. My friends, also his friends, lost their friend. My friend, his widow, lost her husband. My loss was so small compared to hers, but still–the losses associated with this one man piled up atop one another, so that everywhere I turned I saw someone I cared about struggling to breathe through their grief.

Days after my friend died, I reached for J* and he reached back. After months of silence, we struck up an amazing, awkward, amazing friendship. It was an invitation to healing but also more pain. In August, I fell into a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. J* pulled me out. Then he left the country without saying goodbye.

The remainder of 2015 was defined by depression, loneliness, workplace misery, family problems, health problems, and another painful breakup. I could not make anything turn out right, as though the poison coursing through me wilted everything I touched. In that powerless state, I felt adrift.

The year began with a crazy night and a fateful kiss, but, like all measurements of time, midnight on New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary beginning for a period of decline that probably started years before. In some corners of this story, I can say comfortably that someone else was the agent of my misfortune. But in others, it was fate or chance or no one, and in still others, it was me. I made choices too. I opened a door, or closed one. I said things I shouldn’t have said and failed in a hundred different ways. J* kissed me, and I kissed him right back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Other people–who knows, maybe even 2015 or the Universe itself–might have shoved me out to sea, but I’m the one who untied the raft from its moorings.

Now I write this blog, as if from the safety of that raft. Life often seems like a forbidding sea, and only the moon and stars at night help differentiate sky from the dark water all around me. The writing helps.

I tell my story, I vent the poison.

I plan a new future, I chart a course to safety.

I don’t know what 2016 has in store for me. But just in case, I am staying in this New Year’s Eve.

And the only person I’m kissing… is the dog.Photo on 2013-11-04 at 16.58 #6

Self-Arrest

I have never climbed a glacier (though I did slide down one on my butt in high school!), but my understanding is that one has to be prepared to conduct a “self-arrest,” whereby one uses an ice axe to stop a potentially fatal slide into oblivion. That’s kind of what happened this Christmas.

As I’ve discussed previously, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. The holiday involves too much waste, too much self-indulgence, and not enough actual spirit-of-Christ giving. It has also been historically fraught in my family. I won’t go into that here, just trust me. I’ve earned the Girl Scout “Ruining Christmas” merit badge too many times to mention.

This year, I did Christmas differently, albeit somewhat unintentionally. On Christmas eve, I departed my family gathering early–for a booty call. It was fucking awesome, in the most literal sense. On Christmas day, I elfed with Santa and my sister-elf at a rehab center filled with ill and lonely people. Yes, “elf” is a verb, meaning, “To assist Santa by handing out gifts, greeting people, singing carols, and feeling palpably grateful that you are not a patient in that terrible place.” That afternoon, I played host to a friend who unexpectedly arrived at my house, pregnant with weariness and no place to stay. We played tourist and visited my parents, then we met up with another friend for Thai food and booze. Over the next few days, I texted with far-away friends, I went to a play, I went for a hike with a second surprise houseguest, and I laughed so hard I nearly peed myself on a public street.

Doing good for others was, as always, a soothing experience, which helps to explain nursing’s appeal for me. And being with people who appreciate me for who I am was soul-saving. After months of feeling like I am sliding into oblivion, slipping the bonds I share with everyone who cares about me and spinning not off a glacier but off the planet altogether, the choice to go my own way–to serve my own interests–this Christmas gave me a sense of purchase I haven’t felt in a great, great while.

I can feel myself starting to slip again already. The booty call was great, but I wish I could meet a guy who wants to take me to the movies. My friends are doing well, but sometimes it feels as though they are leaving me behind. And being with my parents the day after Christmas made me very sad. I worked a jigsaw puzzle with my mom, and it felt more like occupational therapy than a shared project. “I can’t see it. You do it,” she said time again, as she struggled to fit a piece into its place.

But still–it feels good to know…

that self-arrest is possible,

that sometimes I can make the pieces fit,

that there are people who can still make me laugh and, despite my precarious attachment to this world, who can help me to enjoy the view.

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Maybe when this guy gets safely off the mountain, he can be my boyfriend.

 

The Perfect Day

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I don’t like this time of year, what with its relentless focus on endings and beginnings, its ruthless celebration of children and families, and its vicious indulgence in nostalgia. Not to mention, you’re a loser if you don’t have a date.

It isn’t all bad. There is my friend who makes care packages for homeless people–600 this year! There is the holiday concert at my niece’s school, replete with happy kids so excited about their clarinets and alto solos. There is the t-shirt I got with my dog’s name on it, perhaps the greatest article of clothing ever gifted to me. There are the holiday lights that help to blot out the inky darkness, which seems to begin around lunchtime. There is a lot of candy.

No, it isn’t all bad. Just…most of it.

I haven’t always felt this way. Most years, I decorate the house inside and out. I practice Christmas carols at the piano. I send out a funny Christmas letter to connect with old friends. I volunteer. I try.

This year, I haven’t even switched out the fall wreath for the winter one. (Yes, I am That Lady, who has artificial wreaths for every season.)

Last year, in fact, I had a perfect day, just a few days before Christmas. I am starting to think it might have been the best day of my life, and as I ruminate on it, I wonder: Will I ever have a day like that again?

It was fall graduation, and a young woman whom I had mentored through personal, legal, and financial problems was finally graduating with her Bachelor’s degree after several years of struggle. Seeing her walk across the stage when her name was called–that was perhaps my finest achievement as a teacher. Later that same afternoon, I hooded my first two doctoral students, also an incredibly satisfying moment.

That day, I never looked better. My skin was clear. I was down almost ten pounds. I was wearing a fetching black dress and heels with fancy fishnet stockings–a rare sartorial success for me. Over that, I was sporting my brand-new academic regalia, purchased in collaboration with my parents (multiple years’ worth of Christmas presents) to celebrate finally achieving tenure. My hair looked great, all straight and shiny beneath my tam, which I perched at a cheeky angle. I was beaming as I walked across campus. I took a selfie, and I actually had someone to send it to.

On the drive home, J* suggested I come to his place, and he would make me dinner. That felt wonderful–a place to go, and a handsome man to greet me warmly when I got there. He told me my body looked great in that dress, and I gently laughed it off as though I heard compliments like that all the time. We snuggled into the couch to watch a documentary, basking in the twinkling white lights of the Christmas tree. Then he had to meet some people, and I went home to walk the dog and go to bed. Not a perfect ending to most people’s perfect day, but it was good enough for me.

Perfect, actually. I felt at home in my own skin, I felt successful professionally, and I felt loved. I even had the grace to realize, as it was unfolding, how special it was, and I was so grateful.

It all started to unravel about a week later, and the unravelling has accelerated with each passing month, until here we are in December 2015, and there is almost nothing left.

I’ve gained weight. My hormones are a mess, so I get to enjoy my first serious bout of acne in middle age. I cut my hair, and it looks terrible most days. I haven’t worn the dress or stockings since that day, and the shoes are going south due to neglect and misuse. (Speaking as a former shoe-care professional, suede is a bad investment.) I didn’t attend fall graduation this year, and I’m certain I wasn’t missed. J* is long gone, and there is no one new on the horizon. I won’t even get started on the mess that is my family. It was a mess last year, too, but I had people outside my family for whom I was a priority, so that made it seem not so bad.

This year, it’s just me. Me and the dog, and the fall wreath, and a long, long night.

Community College

In a week where noted sack of diarrhea Donald Trump has suggested that the United States ban all Muslims from entering our borders, and in which many of my fellow citizens apparently see no problem with that, I find myself appreciating the diversity of my community all the more.

In my undergraduate class–the one I am taking secretly at my local community college–my classmates come from all over the world. Here is a list of their first names:

Alexis, Ansomah, Darlin, Dayany, Evelyn, Fatima, Floriin, Fredericia, Juliana, Kargbo, Katrina, Khadija, Lucius, Matthew, Mauricio, Mayra, Nirmeen, Pratichhya, Raymond, Rodrigo, Sarah, Susan, Suvd, Thomas, Victor, Waleed, Zainab

Some are native born, but most are immigrants. They hail from every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

I love their accents. I love their perspectives, often so different from my own. I love the women’s hair (but this white lady knows you don’t touch), which in some cases is outrageously and awesomely huge. I love the variations in their bodies and faces. I love the way they seek to reconcile their family’s culture with “American culture,” whatever that is. I love the way they make me appreciate my privilege. I love the way they are overcoming adversity. I love that every day I walk to class, I pass taxicabs and a plumber’s van in the parking area. The average student is so obviously a working-class person who is going to school to have a better life.

I love that my classmates inspire me to try to have a better life too.

 

The Kindness of Strangers

I am a little overwhelmed. I don’t work especially hard at my job anymore, due to depression and burnout. But even so, the little details of life tend to elude me. There are leaves that need raking, plaster and drywall that need patching, an oven in need of repair, a tree in need of an arbor, there’s that light that hasn’t worked right for years, shoes that need to go back to the store, laundry and dishes and bills piling up, the dog’s tick treatment, issues with the title on the house, email to my mom’s doctor, that prescription waiting for me at the wrong pharmacy, and on and on and on.

I write this list in the passive voice deliberately, because the grammatically potent, active-voice truth often feels too lonely to bear: All of these tasks–and many others of far greater consequence–fall to me. There is no one to help. On the great sea of life, I am the only person keeping me afloat.

And yet.

Every now and then, someone does a kindness that takes off just a little weight. It happened today, the smallest thing, but when I realized it, it felt like I had been saved from drowning.

I know of what I speak, because I almost drowned. Let me tell you a story.

Senator John McCain and I have precisely one thing in common: We both have been plucked from the water by kindly Vietnamese people, though thankfully I was not subsequently incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton for five years.

I was on a three-week tour of Vietnam with my parents, who were in their late sixties at the time. Escorting two senior citizens–even seniors as chill and capable as my parents were back then–through a developing
world country–even one as gorgeous and hospitable as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a little stressful. Ok, more than stressful. After about ten days, I was ready to either defect or kill them both.

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Fan boats in Ha Long Bay.

At just that point in the trip, we took an overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude, a replica of a 19th-century French paddleboat, in majestic Ha Long Bay. It was a luxurious experience, complete with free mini mai tais upon boarding, which both of my parents declined. Not being one to leave money on the table, and desperately needing to relieve some stress, I drank all three.

Nicely toasted, I enjoyed the balmy breezes as we set sail for our first stop, a small island that featured a swimming beach, a mountain, and a pagoda atop a winding flight of some 400 stairs. We decided to try it, my father with his bad heart, my mother with her bad knees, and me with my mai tai-impaired judgement. My father petered out part way up and sat heavily on a bench to catch his breath. (He would have four stents put in his coronary arteries about six weeks later, so my great fear that I was going to have to find a coffin in Vietnam for a 6’4″ man was not totally unfounded.) Mom and I made it to the top in good time, but then, as we climbed down, her pace slowed dramatically.

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The island.

In concern for both parents, mindful of the departing pontoon boat, and desperate to keep moving after 10 sedentary days, I kept climbing down to my dad, then back up to my mom, then down again, perhaps doubling or tripling the number of stairs in the journey. By the time we all reached the bottom, I was tired and ready to scream. I needed some me-time, and I remembered this talk-show anecdote Drew Barrymore once told about feeling pent up on a cruise, and how she dove off the boat and swam to a nearby island. I could do that in reverse, right?

It didn’t look that far.

I’ll add here that I grew up in the midwest, and we are not “boat people,” so while I was a strong swimmer who had completed advanced lifeguard training in high school, I had little experience with the sea. Apparently, people like that–like me–tend to be very bad at judging distance over open water. I learned that pearl of wisdom from a fellow passenger, a boating instructor in Sydney Harbor, after I became known on the Emeraude as “the girl who nearly drowned.”

I gave my parents my ID, room key, and sandals and told them I was going to skip the pontoon boat and swim back to the Emeraude by myself. Uncharacteristically, they didn’t really say much except “Ok! See ya later!”

Which makes me think they were sick of me too.

I walked into the water wearing nothing but some black shorts, a sports bra, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and the tipsy confidence of a would-be manic pixie dreamgirl. The water was warm and lovely! I paddled capably through the swimming area and made it to the floating ball that demarcated the edge. It was slow going! I was breathing HARD and clung to the buoy while I caught my breath. I had lost track of time and was starting to worry that the pontoon boat might beat me back to the big boat, my parents would think I was somewhere aboard, and the Emeraude would leave without me. I needed to press on.

Plus, it didn’t look that far.

While I was weighing my options, a young Vietnamese man stopped to check on me. He lived on the island and had swum out to the Emeraude to see friends who worked on the ship. There was a little swimming platform on the back of the boat where guests and off-duty crew were enjoying the water. I saw him waive goodbye to his friends, jump in the surf, and swim towards me, passing by as I was clinging to the buoy and heaving for breath.

“You…ok?’ he asked in halting English but with obvious concern.

“I’m fine! Fine!” I cheerfully waived him off. Then, as if to prove it, I set out once again. Freestyle, sidestroke, breast, other sidestroke–I kept switching it up as my muscles would start to fatigue.

Almost there! It didn’t look that far.

In my midwestern ignorance of open water, I hadn’t considered the current. Of course! The buoys marked the borders of a “safe” swimming area that was unaffected by current. Once outside it, the water’s calm surface hid a secret power, pushing pushing pushing pushing me away from my destination.

More swimming, different strokes, but my strength was failing. I knew I was in trouble, but I still had perhaps 20 yards to go. It might as well have been a mile. (And yet, it didn’t look that far!)

I was struggling, and my limbs felt like lead. Due to my lifeguard training, I knew that the most important thing was to remain calm. I did. I paused, vertical in the water and barely able to keep my head above its gentle waves. I called out to the Vietnamese men on the swimming platform.

“I need some help!” They ignored me.

I saw a white woman standing at the railing nearby. “Would you tell them I need some help?” She stared at me blankly, like a cow waiting to be fed. Then she walked away.

Shit.

Or should I say, “Merde.” I learned later that she was French, and neither she nor the Vietnamese men lounging on the deck understood English. My calm demeanor belied my desperation.

I kept going, advancing against the current in a mighty effort. I had two worries. The most pressing was that I was going to die. A close second was that I was going to be nude from the waist down when it happened. You see, my shorts were not actually board shorts. They got all stretchy in the water, and they kept slipping down below my hips, causing me to expend energy I couldn’t afford pulling them back up. Oh, did I mention I wasn’t wearing any panties? I pictured my mother’s embarrassment when they pulled my lifeless, pants-less body from the water.

And still, I forced myself to remain calm. I had a plan. I estimated that there was enough life in my limbs to swim for another 30 seconds. At that point, I was going to shift to a “dead man’s float” to conserve energy. I would let the current carry me out to sea and hope that someone would notice and come to my aid. Basically, I was going to surrender my life to chance, beyond any further control of mine, having expended the last of my reserves to save it.

I was now perhaps 30 or 40 feet from the Emeraude’s swimming deck, where the Vietnamese men were chatting happily in complete indifference to the life-or-death struggle unfolding just yards away. I called out to them once more.

“I need some help!” This time, the brittle edge to my voice caused them to stop talking. They looked at me, but no one moved.

I was exhausted, spent, perhaps ten seconds away from the dead-man plan. “Remain calm” was so ingrained in me that I failed to realize: Now is the time to go insane, to scream, to disrupt the calm of those around you, to demand, “HELP ME SAVE MY FUCKING LIFE!”

Instead, I was silent. Time to float away.

And then something miraculous happened!

The young man, the one who had asked if I was ok when I was clinging to the buoy–I didn’t know it, but he had been following me, in anticipation of the great danger I was now facing.

At just that moment, when all my strength was gone, he swam up behind me and gently took my hand, as though he were assisting a lady as she stepped across a puddle. It was nothing, just the barest gesture of assistance, and yet it was everything–literally everything. With him taking off the slightest amount of weight, I found my strength again, and my head rocketed above the water. He called out in Vietnamese to the men on the boat, and they realized in horror what was happening. Lots of scurrying, shouting–I remember thinking, “Maybe y’all shouldn’t keep the life preserver in the closet.”

They threw it to me. I am a person who has literally had a donut-shaped life-preserver thrown to her. It landed a few feet to my front, my rescuer helped me reach for it, a guy on the boat jumped in and frantically thrashed towards us, and in the commotion I found the strength to kick my way to safety. I still had to climb the ladder, however. I slipped, badly scraping my shins, but I made it up and onto the deck…where I promptly fell down, because there was nothing left in my legs. I sat there in tremendous embarrassment while kind Vietnamese people fussed over me.

“Thank you. Cám ơn. Cám ơn. Thank you.” There was nothing else to say.

Today, I was finishing some errands on a miserable late-fall day. I returned to my car in haste, trying not to linger in the cold rain. My electronic key worked instantly, I hopped in, and drove away. Later, I realized…the key was supposed to be broken.

For weeks, that key has been a source of constant irritation, as its battery slowly died. And yet, I could never remember to add it to the list of mundane, yet overwhelming tasks that need attention. Today I took my car in for service. The guy who did the intake would have noticed that the key wasn’t working. He must have changed the battery for me. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and started crying when I realized that sometimes there is help beyond what my tired body can do.

I’m sure if I called to thank him, he would say that it was nothing, just the barest gesture of assistance. And yet it was everything–literally everything. Because removing even the slightest amount of weight is sometimes all you have to do to save a stranger from drowning.

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I took this picture of the Emeraude (right) from atop the pagoda. You can’t even see the beach from whence I began my swim down below. Turns out, it was really fucking far!

 

 

First-Date Friday: Hurricane J*

from-the-calm-to-hurricane-1892Two days before my first-ever online date with Col. Asshole, which was the day before I met J*, my friend died. These stories will always be connected in my mind, because they meet at the intersection of grief and hope where life is lived most richly.

Ana was my neighbor of five years, and she had been critically ill most of that time. She was in her mid-50s, but she seemed much older, having survived kidney failure, the amputation of all her toes, a heart attack, a stroke, multiple falls and broken bones, and a million other trials, including war, loss, perilous border crossings, and endless poverty. Through it all, she was mostly positive and always strong; I called her a “warrior woman.” We had very little in common, as she was born and raised in Central America, very traditional, a woman of no formal education, and had different politics and beliefs. What I loved about her was the way that she loved. Her children made terrible mistakes–teen pregnancy and fatherhood, drug use, catastrophic financial mismanagement, violent criminal activity–that would represent unspeakable, irrevocable failures in my family. And yet she loved them, fiercely and without end, no matter the mistakes they made. I loved living on the periphery of that love, like sitting on the shores of a calm but powerful sea, because every now and then I would catch its breeze. My heart sang when she would refer to me as one of her girls.

Ana died. Three days later, I met J*. And within days of that first meeting, I had come to believe that Ana sent J* to me, that somehow, in a final act of motherly engineering, she summoned a great storm to wash away the loneliness in me that worried her so.

More particularly, I believed that she had J* run over by a truck so that we could meet on Tinder. (Yes, I know how that sounds!)

Ana believed in witchcraft and spells. She didn’t engage in them, mind you, because she was a Christian and they were the Devil’s work. But she had the option, and she definitely believed in them. And when she would squint her black eyes in disgust at something that displeased her, she made you believe in dark power too.

J* believed he was just going for a bike ride while visiting his friend from out of state. He got clipped by a pickup truck pulling a trailer and was sent flying, resulting in serious bruising and abrasions that prevented his departure from the area. This happened about 1,000 yards from my house. The accident occurred before Ana’s death, true, but in my grief at her passing and amidst the great surge of hope I felt when I met him, it seemed like she must have had a hand in it.

What do you do when you’re bored and laid up after getting run over? You see who’s on Tinder. He found me! He was funny, he asked the right questions (“What are you reading?”), and his photos suggested an average-looking man who might actually be handsome if he’d been photographed at better angles. (Turns out, I was right, so don’t give up on someone just because their profile pictures suck!) Most importantly, he was recovering from his accident right nearby. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and we decided to meet for coffee an hour hence, because he was leaving for home (some 270 miles away) the next day. Both of us engaged in the mad scramble to appear effortlessly presentable on short notice. I texted something like, “Why don’t we cut each other some slack.” He wrote back, “Deal.”

We met at my regular coffee shop. I got there first, unsure of who I was looking for. I was doctoring my coffee when I heard a man cheerfully call my name. I looked up and saw him standing about 10 feet away, backlit–no shit, it’s so corny, but it’s true–by light streaming in through the windows behind him. He was literally tall, dark, and handsome, with broad shoulders, sunglasses perched rakishly atop his soft, dark curls, and he had black eyes the likes of which I had only seen once before. He was wearing khaki pants and a light blue polo shirt. He was smiling.

We sat outside and talked. We didn’t have much time, because he had to fetch a friend at the airport, and it passed so quickly. It’s hard to isolate what I learned that day, because over the next year I came to be–in his words–the person who knew him best. And he came to be one of perhaps two or three people who know me at all.

Over the next year–and I mean, exactly 365 days–J* blew in and disrupted everything, in full awareness of his destructive power. He was the one who coined the term “Hurricane J*,” not me, and he did so long before we ever met. As our together-story unfolded, I imagined myself as the rock, the immoveable mass around which the storm could rage without effect. But at other times, I was clearly the poorly situated trailer park, shredded to bits by the wind and carried away by the surge. I still don’t really understand what happened, much like those sad people standing in the rubble of their homes the day after a Category 5, who grasp for metaphors to explain the incomprehensible. I don’t know what it was, I just know that–for me, anyway–it was big.

But that day, that first calm day, he was just a kind, sweet, curious man who liked listening to me tell stories. We had coffee, he departed to pick up his friend, then we met up again to take my dog for a walk. We strolled back and forth along the path, we stood in the cold waters of a creek while my pup splashed in the dappled shallows, and we lingered at our cars until long after dark. I learned that he was a former infantryman/medic turned trauma nurse–a potent mix of tough and tender that made me tingly in my bathing-suit area. He also dispensed with some pretty unsavory details: a divorce, a vasectomy (actually, a plus!), a complicated family history, and a history of emotional volatility. He disclosed the divorce last, as though that particular detail would be the most troubling to a prospective partner. In fact, the worst was a story he shared before that, about how he used to beat his ex-wife’s dogs for imagined infractions as a way of releasing his pent-up frustration. I suggested that, on future first dates, he lead with the divorce and close with the dog beating, because it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

But all of that was in the past. He was more than four years sober, and he had made a new life for himself in recovery–a life of gratitude, service, and honesty. It was such a compelling narrative; I was hooked.

This is First-Date Friday, so what happened next, and after that, and next again is a story for another day. What I will say is, Hurricane J* challenged me as no other man or relationship ever has. I grew more, I loved more, I hurt more, I loved some more again.

“What is it about him?” several friends demanded to know, their frustration and concern palpable in the query.

“He is a beautiful disaster,” I told told them. “And I just can’t look away.”

As strong as my feelings were, and as much as J* affected me, I often wondered during that year whether I had any effect on him at all.

A hurricane is mindless destruction, there is no explanation or meaning in its actions, and–unlike a tornado–it provides just enough ebb and flow to wreak havoc in your life for months: the ominous warnings in the weeks ahead, wind and waves that build over days, intermittent downpours as the eye spins slowly overhead, a devastating storm surge that carries everything away, then weeks without power or succor in the aftermath. It is no accident that J* used this term to describe himself, but it was more indictment than badge of honor. “Hurricane” was the ultimate term of self-loathing, because the storm doesn’t care about the people it affects, and it never ends so much as it just moves on, without apology and without ever looking back.

365 days after that first date, J* and I had a falling out so degrading that I’m not sure it’s a story I can ever fully tell. It wasn’t even the breakup–that was months in the rearview. It was worse, a revelation that threatened to undermine once and for all the fragile faith I placed in him. And still, I hung in there, because he was the storm, but I was the rock.

One day, in the wake of that final tempest, we were chatting happily about nothing important, and the conversation came around to the first time we met.

“I bet you don’t remember what I was wearing,” I said.

“Your little jeans skirt and a green t-shirt,” he answered correctly, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you.”

I was stunned. A hurricane would never say that! Those were the words of someone who allowed himself to be affected by me, if only a little; of someone who cared for me, even if it was just once upon a time.

I don’t know if J* was the hurricane or just a man I met on Tinder who maybe saved my life. (Time will tell.) I don’t know if Ana sent him, though I love to imagine that she did, because it suggests a comforting order to the universe. There was definitely a storm. And somewhere in the storm, there definitely was love.

 

Thanksgiving

To follow up on my last post and its little cliffhanger:

I made the call and left a voicemail. He called back. We talked. He was funny! We made a date. I went on the date.

I can’t tell you about it, though, because that’s a story for First-Date Fridays, and I have two dozen first dates–plus a few aborted attempts–stacked up in the queue ahead of this one.

Patience.

As I have said to a couple of broken-hearted friends lately, no one knows how their story will end. We don’t even know where we are in the story, or who will–and won’t–be on the next page. Including loved ones, including ourselves. We can look back on what’s already been written, and we can seek to understand it, but we can’t change what’s done and gone. We can also wonder about the blank pages to come. Where will I be? What will I be doing? Who will be with me? And, taking nothing for granted, how many more pages are there anyway?

Four days ago, I would have loved to learn that I was merely living in a short story, and it would all be over soon. I am feeling better today, so I’m thinking I might be able to tolerate a novella or even a full-length book. If I could fall in love, find happiness in my work, and (or?) have my loneliness assuaged, I might someday desire to live an anthology!

But that is mere anticipation. All I can live is the present page, in the little spaces between the letters and words that write my life. I am glad to be here. Four days ago, I was in a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. I am grateful for the sky. I am also grateful for the hole. But I am most grateful for the page on which it has all been written.

Later today, when we go around the table and account for that which we are thankful, I will adhere to the script and reply, “My family and friends,  my job, the dog.”

But I will be thinking: me.