Grace

The last 24 hours have been trying, to say the least.

Yesterday, my friend and neighbor Damon passed away suddenly–accidental overdose–at age 23. Damon lived two doors down from me, just 16 feet away. He died in his friend’s house, just five doors, or eighty feet, in the other direction. I have never seen so much grief confined in such a small space.

I am friends with Damon’s whole family, though it is complicated. His mother was my friend Ana, whom I wrote about in an early post, and whose death two years ago simply gutted me. Damon, her youngest son, struggled mightily after she died, though he had struggled long before that too. Damon’s father sexually assaulted me in February of last year, and I did not set foot in their home again until yesterday. Damon’s sisters, with whom I am friends, have no idea about the attack, though I know they became aware of their father’s obsession with me. We never talk about it. Their father leaves me alone, but I sometimes catch him staring at me. The look of hate in his eyes chills me to the bone.

And then there are the girls, three of them, and the little boy–ages 14, 11, 8, and 2. They are Damon’s nieces and nephew. They help me in my garden, I take them for walks, we do crafts and sing songs. I love them. My concern for them was a large part of why I never filed a police report. (I also was under the impression the father/grandfather was moving home to Central America.)

As I said, it’s complicated. And that made a terrible day all the more trying.

Yesterday I held a shuddering, sobbing 8 year old on the sidewalk and coached her into deep breaths and a happy memory of her uncle. Yesterday I listened to an 11 year old girl tell her friend about seeing her uncle’s lifeless form, all purple and swollen, because he died alone and no one found him for hours. Yesterday I heard a 2 year old boy, a child I have never heard utter a coherent sentence before, say “Damon dead” over and over and over to no one in particular. Yesterday I watched a solemn procession of family members, dozens of them, file past my house on their way home after watching this boy’s body get carted off by the coroner, a full six hours after 911 was called. And then last night, after midnight, I walked my dog and looked up at the house where Damon died. The front window was alit, shades up, revealing the homeowner–a woman in her 70s who still works full-time as a nurse to support the ne’er-do-well, 20-something grandchildren who sponge off of her–mopping the floor where Damon’s body had lay. Her grandson stood there watching her blankly, doing nothing to help.

It was a perfect snapshot of the whole, grim situation of drugs in my neighborhood: powerless young men, overwhelmed and numb, doing nothing while devastated women clean up their mess.

Yes, yesterday was an awful day. And today is not much better.

But, like a lot of awful days, it has provided clarity in three important areas:

1] In this midst of Damon’s tragic death, I am acutely aware that I am not a sociopath, and that I am not emotionally dead inside either. I was really starting to wonder. But no. I am heartbroken. And angry. Because addiction is a vicious disease.

2] I spoke with J* last night, and it was terrible. Something broke between us this summer, and I don’t know how to mend it. I still care for him, still want him in my life, but I find myself increasingly empowered to draw lines and limits, as does he. We’ve both set so many tripwires, there is no longer any safe ground to walk.

3] My family is seriously fucked up! I get confused sometimes into thinking that I’m the asshole and that they are just nice, normal people. And mostly they are. But they have… issues. Let’s call it “emotional rigidity.” Whatever it is, it’s fucked up!

Last night I received an email from my dad, of an email from my uncle, of an email from my cousin’s wife, explaining that my cousin is suicidal, he survived a previous suicide attempt, and he has been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. Over email, my sister and father decided that the “ethics” of how they learned about this situation superseded the urgent necessity of providing emotional support to my cousin and his wife. That is, they felt my uncle never should have told them, ergo they will pretend they do not know.

But wait, there’s more! In my email reply to my sister and dad, I wrote,

“It’s been a shitty day all around. My friend Damon died of a drug overdose today. He was 23. They don’t make greeting cards for this stuff, they really don’t.”

And both my sister and my father responded to this information… by not saying anything at all. Not “I’m sorry” or “that’s really sad.” Nothing. Not one word. *crickets*

What. The. Fuck.

I ignored my sister & dad’s “decision” that our family will pretend we don’t know about my cousin’s mental illness and wrote to his wife anyway. She has already replied with a hearty thanks: vindication. If Damon’s death points anywhere, it’s toward being relentless in reaching out to one another. I will regret that I did not do more to help him for the rest of my life.

In the midst of this, I am on a deadline for a relatively lucrative writing gig with a publishing house in London. I am behind, and on the brink of being fired. I got email from my editor today demanding, “Where is this? and “Where is that?” Today I wrote to Damon’s sisters, I wrote to my cousin’s wife, I hugged sobbing women, I raised money for funeral costs, I sat with a neighbor going through chemo. A young man lay on the sidewalk, weeping inconsolably, outside my house this morning.

It feels like there is a hole in the world, and all I have is words to fill it.

So I’m sorry, mean English editor lady. I’ll write for you tomorrow.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

To Be Blunt…

I hate weed.

It’s April 20th–4/20–which I suppose is as good a time as any to explain why I hate weed.

I don’t know anything about the origins of 4/20 as a holiday celebrating marijuana, but I do know a fair amount about the drug itself. Well, enough to know I hate it!

I hate weed because it gets you in trouble. The first time I smoked pot was my junior year of high school, in the late 1980s. I was at a cast party for a high school theater production, and somehow I found myself in a parked car with two boys trying marijuana for the first time. Of the sensation of being high for the first time, I don’t remember much. But I distinctly recall that the smoke felt like a wolverine scraping the back of my throat, and the cotton mouth was terrible. I also got in Big Trouble, for not calling my parents when I got to my friend’s house, where I was spending the night. I suppose I forgot to call because I was hella high, but I don’t remember. I didn’t smoke weed for a long time after that, in part because I was terminally grounded.

The last time I smoked pot was the summer of 1993. On my way back to school from a summer job, I was pulled over in rural east Texas by the Tex-Ark-La Narcotics Police, on the pretext that I was not wearing my seatbelt. This was A) not true, and B) not a primary offense, but, as the trooper in mirrored shades screamed at me, “YOU. DON’T. ARGUE. BY THE SIDE. OF THE ROAD.” The police were looking for drug mules, I had out-of-state plates, and I guess it was my turn. The encounter was terrifying. They separated me and my passenger, the ne’er-do-well, one-legged biker I’ve promised to tell you about, and interrogated us. Thankfully, we did not say anything that gave the officers probable cause to search the car because, unbeknownst to me, the boyfriend did have weed in the car. After that close call, which could have cost me my entire future, I vowed never to put myself at risk again. If only I could have stuck to my guns!

I hate weed because it is so undignified. People debase themselves for drugs, and they look like morons while they do them. That thing where you inhale and then talk while holding your breath to give the smoke time to penetrate your lungs? It is an embarrassment to adulthood. And then there’s the spit-swapping. The one-legged biker would put his entire mouth around the bong when he inhaled, like some kind of toked-up, wide-mouth bass. And then pass it to the next loser, who would latch on without so much as a wipe. So gross.

I am guilty of undignified behavior too. I once smoked weed out of a Pepsi can at a desolate spot behind my high school called “the flats.” Somehow my friend had weed, but no pipe, so we improvised. We emptied a Pepsi can (god, I hope it was ours, and not one we found on the ground!) and folded it in half, then my friend used her earring to poke holes in the crease. I think we placed the weed on the holes, then we inhaled through the mouth of the can. To a third-party observer, I am certain we looked like complete trash.

I hate weed because it makes me sick. Yes, a substance known for alleviating nausea makes me puke. It wasn’t every time, but it was often enough. And there was one time when I became epically ill, vomiting again and again in the kitchen sink of a vacant apartment while my baked friends sprawled on the floor. That night I prayed for death.

I hate weed because it turns otherwise decent people into assholes. Marijuana causes people to dissociate, which is a fancy way of saying that they check out. They do not perceive social cues as unaltered people do. The experience of being high can be wondrous and absolutely hilarious to those who are having it, but to sober people, high people look like tools. And if there are people counting on them, the wonder and hilarity of being high is selfish and cruel.

I actually only smoked marijuana a handful of times–perhaps three times as many as I have recounted here–and I never bought it, never rolled a joint, never packed a bowl. Not once, ever. It was easy for me to leave it behind, because it so often made me sick. And even if it hadn’t, I didn’t especially like being high. It was fun for a hot minute, then I wanted it to stop. Weed also made me profoundly sleepy and hungry, which are my default states anyway. Why spend money or risk jail time for the privilege of being your worst self? Despite all my antipathy for weed, I ended up spending a lot of time around it in my late 20s, thanks to the most addictive drug of all: love.

The relationship did not end well, so let’s call him Cheesefart.

I met Cheesefart a year after my roadside encounter with the Narcotics Police, and one of our first big fights was over my refusal to allow him to transport marijuana in any quantity in my car. Even so, I fell in love with him, and we dated for several years. By the end, he was growing marijuana in our basement and selling it on the regular. That is when I went from merely disliking weed to outright hating it.

My relationship with Cheesefart was fraught, especially after I moved in with him. We fought over common issues like household chores and how to spend our meager, grad-student funds. The short version was, Cheesefart had no money if I wanted to take a trip with him or go out to dinner or buy groceries other than ramen. But he always had money for CDs, guitars, and weed.

I’m a practical gal, and I love to garden. I have no moral qualms about weed, and I oppose its criminalization on principle. Further, purchasing weed supports criminal enterprises that trade in murder and human suffering. So, it seemed to me that the most responsible way to free up funds for couple-time was to stop buying weed–and start growing it.

Oh, the things we do for love! Growing weed, in our house, was my suggestion. But boy did Cheesefart run with it.

He set up shop under our basement stairs in a secret little room tucked behind the washer & dryer. At first, I found the process fascinating and regarded it as an elaborate craft/garden project. You can’t just buy weed seeds–at least, not back then–and information about growing it was hard to come by. There was an elaborate process of sorting seeds, soaking them, and sorting again, to ensure the proper gender. After they germinated, they required artificial light. I was so proud of the solution he devised, which involved fluorescent lights hung in a panel under the stairs that you could lift and lower at will. To maximize growth, he hung washers on the branches so that they would leaf out more broadly. He experimented with fertilizers and found bat guano to be the most productive. He added fans to simulate wind, which strengthened the plants. This went on for over a year, maybe more than two, resulting in multiple yields and a shit-ton of pot.

When you have a lot of pot, you have a lot of “friends.” But they aren’t real friends; they are weedfriends. Weedfriends don’t want to get to know you, and they certainly don’t want to help you; they are just around. They come over to buy weed, and of course every time they buy some, they have to smoke it too. But weedfriends often have no money, so they just come over to hang out and “help” with the plants–another overture to smoking. As a result, my home had an endless parade of losers coming and going at all hours.

They were not discrete. Some concerned friends–real friends–told me that they could smell weed from the street when they drove past our house. Add the constant sound of live music or over-amplified acid rock coming from Cheesefart’s fantastically expensive stereo system–given to us in payment for, you guessed it, weed–and the situation was just begging for police involvement. I read with horror in the news about women just like me, who ended up serving multi-decade prison sentences for allowing pot to be grown in their homes. I researched mandatory minimums and learned that the presence of an elementary school around the corner from our house would tack years onto a sentence. I scrutinized our electric bills, because I knew that the police did so as well, in search of homes that used unusual amounts of electricity. I lived in fear of a break-in when Cheesefart was out of town, because I knew that calling 9-1-1 was not an option for me. I was risking my safety and my future for those plants–and I hadn’t smoked pot in years.

Cheesefart and I fought all the time. We fought about the time the plants were consuming–the watering, the weighting and grooming, and elaborate trimming rituals in which sticky weed leaves covered our dining room table. Sometimes he would disappear into the tiny grow room for hours. Cheesefart’s commitment to the plants bordered on obsessive, and it prevented us from ever going out of town together because someone had to look after the plants. We fought about weedfriends knocking on our door, peering in our windows, and skulking around the yard. We fought about the future, and whether he could continue his habits with children in the house. We fought about weed smell, which necessitated the purchase of equipment to mitigate it. Then we fought about the electric bill, which was as high as Cheesefart. And of course, we fought about how much pot he was smoking.

I suggested he grow pot to save money, not to fuel a burgeoning habit. But that is what happened. The more weed he had, the more weed he smoked. The following activities required getting high:

  • waking up
  • going to bed
  • having sex
  • studying
  • watching TV
  • all household chores
  • all yard work
  • cooking and doing dishes
  • driving anywhere
  • grocery shopping and other errands
  • biking
  • playing ultimate frisbee
  • playing or listening to music
  • petting cats
  • brushing cats
  • eating
  • drinking
  • social gatherings of any kind

By the end of the relationship, he was high pretty much all the time. He told me, when we broke up, that he smoked so much because I made him miserable. I believed that for a long time, until I saw him at a Sunday morning pickup game a couple of years later. It was 10 AM, and he was tapping the contents of a bowl out onto the tray of his infant daughter’s stroller.

I thought to myself, “Thank heaven that is not my life.” And also, “I fucking hate pot.”

I loved Cheesefart dearly and hoped to make a life with him. But over the years we were together, he disappeared into a private world that was insulated with weed. He imagined that marijuana made him funnier, more musically creative, and a better ultimate player. What it actually did was make him an insensitive jerk. We lived together, ostensibly because we loved each other and were going to make a family. In reality, though, he lived with a nice lady who was emotionally present, loving, and trying to be a good partner. And I lived with a man who was high literally all the time, because he loved weed more than he loved me.

I support legalization of marijuana, and I think the War on Drugs is a shameful waste of resources that criminalizes poverty and exacerbates longstanding social inequalities. I also think marijuana is addictive, I think it makes people who smoke it boring and cruelly insensitive, and I loathe the way it smells. I simply hate it.

Enjoy your 4/20, smokers and tokers! But please do it far away from me. Because I think you look dumb, and the smell of your blunt is dredging up bad memories.

The Garden of Love

Every garden tells a story. Many stories, in fact.

There is the story of conditions: too much rain, not enough rain, too much sun, not enough sun, too much clay, not enough sand, too close, too deep, too early, too late, too tempting for the squirrels. Some plants thrive, others struggle. You tweak the variables–water, nutrition, pest control, even location–but the outcome is beyond anyone’s control. In the end, every garden story is a parable about patience and humility.

There is the story of the work: The bulbs I got as a party favor at my friends’ gorgeous May wedding that I forgot to plant and then secretly discarded with tremendous guilt. That time I waited too long to treat my Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus for parasites, and now it looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. When my friend died, and for days all I could do was garden. “Too many weeds,” I thought as I pulled them. “And somehow not enough.”

And then there is the story of origin: Those hasta came from my friend Liz’s old apartment. My boyfriend and I drove 100 miles out of state to buy the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar out back. That Christmas Rose and those other hasta came from my mother’s garden. That Live Forever came from my mom’s garden, along with the Snow on the Mountain in the back, and she took them from my grandmother’s garden maybe ten years before that. Some of the plants came from my great grandmother’s garden, which ones, we’re not sure.

A garden story can go on like that forever.

In my family, touring the garden is a tradition. Whenever my mother comes over, she checks out the plants in the front yard, commenting enthusiastically about whatever is in bloom. I inevitably start pointing things out: This came from your house. That Andromeda is really struggling, can’t figure out why. Yes, that Live Forever will need to be divided soon. Before long my dad has disappeared inside to check sportz on his tablet, and my mom and I are wandering through the backyard too. It’s true, her memory problems ensure that the legacy plants always come as a revelation, but the ups and downs of weather and season ensure that there will forever be new news to report. “I really need to get out here and        ” is usually the final word.

Because the work is unceasing.  A garden is a process, not a finished product. Gardening is a journey, not a destination. A garden story never ends.

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Strong man, stronger back. I took this photo when I went to visit him in Guatemala a few years ago. More on that later!

But it does have a beginning. My garden began as a rectangle of grass with a single, tidy bed that hugged the porch. Then I met Marcos, a neighbor and professional landscaper. Gardener, actually. He was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He was also the most beautiful man I ever dated–black hair, mocha-colored skin, dark eyes rimmed with lustrous lashes, thick lips like a Mayan god, and a gorgeous torso sculpted by honest work. He loved plants more than he loved women, and he loved women a lot–the curve of their hips, the mysterious depth of their bellies, the way they moved and smelled. I should know–I was one of them. “Beauty,” he called me softly.

Marcos never told me he loved me. Instead, he said, “We should do your yard.” And he did. One morning I awoke to a chopping sound. I looked out my bedroom window and saw him working out front, wearing nothing but white cotton pajama bottoms that he quickly sweated through. He had borrowed a pickax from the golf course where he worked, and he swung it like John Henry digging tunnels through solid rock.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Over and over, never stopping, he dug up six pernicious Rose of Sharon that threatened to devour the whole house, Sleeping Beauty-style.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Gone went the sucker trees that proliferated behind the neighbor’s crumbling shed, preventing my plants from thriving in their shade.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Out of the ground came tap roots five inches in diameter that denied water to the tender plants I was trying to nurture.

After two hours, his brown skin was slick with sweat, and his soaked pajamas concealed pretty much nothing from the neighbor’s prying eyes. I brought him ice water and strawberries, and he kissed me sweetly. I am sure the neighbors who saw us together, then and later, told themselves a nasty little story, of a middle-aged white lady who hired a Latino gardener to redo her yard and then ended up sleeping with him. Over the next several months, we did little to dispel that rumor, in part because the myth that he was my gardener (and not my boyfriend) helped him get side jobs in the neighborhood, in part because we found the narrative titillating, and mostly because it was none of their fucking business. What actually happened was, I dated a talented man who loved me, and he gave me the most gorgeous yard in the zip code as a symbol of his affection.

When Marcos was done with the pickax that first morning, he pointed at the epic piles of debris and angry roots still protruding from the ground. “The rest is yours,” he commanded. “I’m going back to bed.”

Yes, he could be blunt and patriarchal, and he had some retrograde opinions about gender. But this aging feminist found it hilarious, endearing, and sexy as hell.

Over the next few months, Marcos terraced my front yard and built two patios and paths out of Pennsylvania field stone. He meticulously worked the soil to create flawless drainage and maximize the plants’ growing potential. We worked together to weed and sew. He called the final result “The Garden of Love.”

Every garden is a labor of love, but from the very beginning, my garden was made of it. Some of the plants Marcos chose did not do so well when the winters turned cold again. The neighbors drastically pruned their tree, and a few shade-loving plants withered from exposure. After Marcos returned home to Guatemala, I lamented about how much work (and life) he left me to do alone. But I take comfort that many of the plants we chose together are thriving, some so well that they need to be divided and shared with friends and family. And of course, the stones he laid in the ground will be here forever.

Like our love for each other, like the story itself.

 

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: Shaft

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You know the old saw: sometimes you get the elevator, sometimes you get Shaft.

Shaft seemed great on Tinder–funny, smart, attractive in an accessible way. He played guitar in a band, he liked my sassy mouth, and he owned his baldness in his profile pictures. All in all, I was psyched to meet him… not so much because he was relationship material (which I would not recognize if it bit me on the leg), but because I figured he would be fun. New people, new adventures, a reason to put on big-girl clothes and leave the house. I count those as successful relationships too!

We made a plan to meet for dinner in his neighborhood a few days hence. I had bronchitis, though, and was feeling pretty bad as I was getting ready for the date. Just taking a shower had exhausted me. How was I ever going to get myself together, drive to the train, ride the train, walk to the restaurant, be all sparkly for dinner, and then make the long trek home? As I was drip-drying on the toilet trying to muster the strength to straighten my hair (that ship has now sailed), he texted.

“I’m not feeling well,” he wrote. “Can we reschedule?”

Periodically I would cough so hard I would pee myself, which really puts a crimp in your date-night underwear options. I realized that rescheduling was probably best for me too. Plus, I thought he meant it.

I’ve mentioned that I’m pretty dumb about dating. In fact, I’m pretty dumb about people in general, because my cabbage-headed, Midwestern sincerity means that I take it for granted that people are telling me the truth. Turns out, people lie all the time! Despite my hard-nosed cynicism in other areas, this still catches me by surprise.

I took Shaft at his word that he was sick, because, Hey! was sick. It happens. If he didn’t want to meet me, he would just find a nice way to say that, right?

With that sad set of assumptions in mind, I reached out a week later and suggested we try again. I was going to be in the city near his work getting my ‘do done. Maybe we could meet for lunch? He wrote back enthusiastically that he was game for meeting me. I took that to mean, “I would like to meet you.” I left the house correct: ass jeans, no food stains on my sweater, full yet light makeup, and shitty hair–because soon it was going to be Salon Hair. It was on. 

While I was sitting in my stylist’s chair, less than an hour from date-time, Shaft texted to tell me that he had to cancel…

Because he had dropped his wallet down an elevator shaft.

“Gee, that sucks,” I thought, as I texted him with sincere concern.

“God this woman is dumb,” he thought, as he deflected me once again.

He said he didn’t have any means of paying for lunch.

I said it didn’t matter, I’d be happy to spot him.

He said he didn’t want to be “vexed” (full disclosure: I still like that he used that word!) and ruin our date. So he just cancelled it forever instead.

Part of me knew he didn’t want to meet me. But the hopeful part of me would not be silenced. For all the sturm und drang surrounding my fraught relationships, my low self-esteem, and my professional dissatisfaction, I am at times a ridiculously optimistic person. Hope rises in me like a buoy, ever springing back to the surface no matter how hard life tries to push it down. And when my dark humors seek to drown it–you will look foolish, you will be hurt, just let it go–I settle the debate with this:

I have to do me.

And doing me means erring on the side of other people’s sincerity and decency. Someday this annoying tendency is going to pay off.

Someday! But not that particular day.

I wrote Shaft a day or two later, asking whether the wallet ever turned up. I have a hard time crawling into the mind of person who can’t muster a simple sentence like, “You seem like a lovely woman, but I’m not interested in meeting you after all” to extricate himself from an unwanted engagement. What was he thinking when I wrote to him yet again? If I were such a person, someone incapable of being forthright, whose default mode is to dissemble, and who lacks the moral courage to be unliked–even by someone he never planned to see again–I might think that this lady asking about my lost wallet was trolling me.

She wasn’t. Part of me really thought, “Maybe it turned up, and we can go out now.”

He never wrote back.

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