The Bridge

bridge-burn

Bridges have so much poetic potential, and yet they terrify me. I do not fear falling; I fear jumping. This impulse is common enough that it has a name, “The Call of the Void,” which sounds real and literary but also a bit like a high school metal band. My fear extends a little past the usual uneasiness, however, because the times in my life when I have been suicidal, it was the height and accessibility of bridges that romanced me. When I felt that pull, it was such a relief to realize that I could simply avoid them.

At present, though, I live in a city that requires me to cross a bridge frequently. It bothers me not a whit and, in fact, I am very good at navigating the complex merge that devastates the flow of traffic. For now, anyway, bridges have ceased being an imminent threat and are usually just a means of conveyance.

I am here, I want to be there. The bridge allows me to make the journey.

Bridges connect. Musically, the bridge allows us to return from the chorus for another verse. In paintings and photographs, bridges provide focal points and perspective. And they make great metaphors. Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer for writing about a bridge, in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love that book, and that bridge, so much that I quoted its last lines, in a nod to my mother’s dementia, during my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary toast:

Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Fundamentally, a bridge of any kind spans a divide. We build them, we connect. We burn them, we sever ties that cannot be resurrected.

All my life, I have tried to build bridges, to connect, to make friends and find love. And yet here I sit, on my little island, sullen and resentful as I toil in my lonely job and return home to an empty house each night. And, truth be told, I am pissed off that I didn’t stand up for myself when I should have, that I allowed other people to dictate my terms, that I appeased when I should have fought, that I lingered when I should have walked away. I was so conditioned in childhood to “choose my battles wisely,” so concerned about “dying on the wrong hill,” that I gave up the fight long ago or directed my enmity at the wrong people altogether.

Now, I have arrived at midlife, tired and foolish and well stocked with matches.

In the last ten days, and for what reason I’m not sure, bridges have been crossed, terms set, matches struck. I threatened to walk off a project–and away from a much needed paycheck–because the editor was pressuring me too hard about a deadline. I threatened to cut ties with my FWB for creating a dynamic that no longer works for me. I put my father and sister on notice that my participation at family gatherings is optional and dependent on respectful treatment. And just today, I told J* off for insulting me.

How did it all work out? Mixed results!

The editor caved and offered reassurances that I am indispensable to the project. My FWB called me for the first time ever (we only text or meet in person) to apologize for his behavior. Time will tell if anything is truly going to change with him. My sister wrote me to apologize for her mistake, but there’s been no word from my dad, who has always quoted John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” on the subject of apologies: “Never apologize. It is a sign of weakness.” And my sister’s apology doesn’t change the fact that I feel the need to disentangle myself from my family as a whole in order to preserve a shred of self-esteem. I can already tell, the holidays are going to suck extra hard this year.

And what about J*? I did a fantastic job of calling him out, except that he didn’t actually insult me; I insulted him. I manufactured a conflict and lobbed some grenades because I was angry and hurt at something he told me about another woman, in a conversation the night before. They dated, and it didn’t work out, but they are still friends, and he is going to visit her later this summer. She’s 18 years younger than me, with doe eyes, creamy skin, and a tender heart that makes him want to protect her.

“I have to remember that I hurt her,” he said gallantly. “So I need to be sensitive about her feelings.”

He could fuck this girl into the next century, and all her hot young friends too, on a bedspread emblazoned with my ugly mug at its ugliest, and it wouldn’t bother me as much as that statement. Because he also hurt me, repeatedly, and yet he exercises no similar sensitivity about my feelings. In fact, he shamed me brutally for wanting to cut ties after he rejected me, talking me out of my own efforts to spare further injury to my broken heart. This girl is beautiful and desirable, vulnerable and valuable, and no one wants her feelings hurt–including me. And I guess I am some swamp rat garbage callus held together with barbed wire and toenail clippings, like the glob you leave at the bottom of the trashcan for the sun to burn off, or an object of strange familiarity you slow down to ogle and then blow past on the highway. Nothing that warrants special handling, that’s for sure.

I was not exactly thrilled with this realization, so I picked a fight about something else the next time we spoke on the phone. I was driving across a bridge at the time, doing my best to navigate the merge. I hit him where it hurt, touching off our usual cycle of vitriol, self-recrimination, ultimatum, and apology.

There was nothing but flames in the rearview mirror by the time I was finished. And I felt nothing but sadness as I approached the far side of the bridge, more alone than ever.

If Scarlett O’Hara Had Taken A&P, She Wouldn’t Have Had Time for Boys

panic

I’ve felt panicky the last few days–butterflies in my stomach, nausea, a tight feeling in my chest. Perhaps my heart attack will commence shortly?

There are a few things going on.

First, I’m nowhere near ready for the classes I have to teach this semester.

Second, the class that I am taking is kicking my ass after only one week. It’s not the amount of material, though it is daunting. It’s that the course design assumes a working knowledge of chemistry and basic biological processes–at the cellular and molecular level–that I simply don’t have. The last time I had Chemistry was 10th grade, in 1988. The last time I had Biology was 8th grade, in 1986. The mental bandwidth it required of me to focus for 3 hours in class both days, plus study time, was absolutely exhausting. And I had just a tenth of the work that I will need to complete starting next week.

Third, I am questioning whether I have the stamina for nursing and if I want to do it at all. Part of the questioning is my own exhaustion, which triggered a string of migraines, and part of it is that two of my role models are struggling. One of them is having trouble finding desirable work. Another is having health problems and experiencing on-the-job bullying that may cause her to quit. It wasn’t until I watched their narratives of late-in-life success fall apart that I realized how invested I am in those stories. Apparently I need to have people with whom I identify–ie, not 22 year olds–succeeding on this career path so that I can imagine an alternative story for myself.

What I’m left with is the thought that, if this doesn’t work out for me, I will be stuck in my current job for the rest of my life. Or, perhaps worse, I will have left academia and will be unable to return. Then what?

“Where shall I go? What shall I do?” I’m feeling a little Scarlett O’Hara-at-the-end-of-Gone With the Wind. I wish I had a Tara I could return to, some place to give me strength, and the time to figure this out. But I don’t.

What I’ve got is a course to design, 16 chapter-length essays to read and edit, a manuscript proposal to review, three articles to write, a program assessment to plan, and I need to master basic chemistry so I can understand cellular respiration.

Time to panic!

I’ll add here, that just rereading the above is helpful. I am trained to analyze texts, and my default setting is “criticism.” When I see words in print, even words I myself have written, my brain automatically alights on a critique: “There are other options besides your current job and nursing.” I’m sure you see that too. It is a false binary, the result of depression-induced tunnel vision. The time pressure is self-imposed as well. I can drop the class I am taking. I can retake it if I get a C or worse. I don’t have to decide if I’m leaving my job for at least a year. I don’t have to decide anything today.

There’s Miss Scarlett again: “Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow…. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

gwtw