Oh Lordy am I eager to get moved in. To be one with my stuff again, and to have my stuff unpacked and settled in. It’s going to be a while, since I have to make that trip back to Texas, and then the long drive back, but I really cannot wait.
I started packing in Austin a long time ago — the stuff that could easily be packed, spare closets, books, stuff off the walls, various storage — so I’ve been living amid boxes and clutter for weeks. And in NYC, bless his heart, my husband doesn’t even seem to notice clutter. Every flat surface gets covered with STUFF, and I don’t like that. It makes me feel suffocated and panicky. And now, in preparation for heading upstate to the house today, he has been gathering all sorts of stuff to take up there (“Honey, do you have coconut milk? Honey, do you have an extremely large bowl? Honey, let’s go to Chinatown to get a gigantic wok for the gigantic burner! Honey, maybe I should bring fish sauce/olive oil/shrimp paste/medicines/bulk spices/glass canisters/a meditation pillow/etc etc etc”) and it’s all sitting on the countertops and table and coffee table and floor. All this individual stuff. And there’s my suitcase and toiletry bag and backpack and purse, and he wants to bring the kaffir lime tree and some cuttings of Thai basil, and how will it all fit into his extremely messy car, anyway?
I just kind of feel like screaming. I want peace and order. Harmony and neatness. Absence of clutter. A place for everything, and everything in its place. I want jobs finished, not done to the 95% mark and then abandoned. I want my cozy bed, I miss my wonderful couch, I want my neat kitchen.
And it’s just going to be a while. It is. I have to be patient, and at a time I feel like my patience is on the v-e-r-y thin side. He and I will be in the new house together over the weekend, and he’ll come back into the city Tuesday afternoon…….and then I will be all alone in the house for three glorious days. Three days of quiet. Three days to do some settling-in. I won’t have a car, so I will be completely house-bound, but at this moment that sounds better than anything else could ever sound. Solitude. In my own house, to put things where I want to put them. To make those decisions because they make sense to me.
Then he’ll come back Friday evening, and we’ll spend the next weekend doing more unpacking — then he’ll take me to the airport on Tuesday July 11. So really, the three glorious days next week will be my shot. I can’t wait.
We leave today after he sees his final patient, so 1:15pm. It’s a holiday weekend so we imagine the drive upstate might be crazy. Everything is in the basement, so we’ll need to either move the mattresses upstairs or just unpack the inflatable mattress and get the bedding and shower curtain and towels, which I (very smartly, I might add) packed in a giant black trash bag so they would be easily spotted and grabbed, like a kit. A “here you go, your first night” kit. And my Chemex coffee pot and filters are in another bag ready to go, along with coffee and a bean grinder.
For more than 4.5 years I’ve lived betwixt and between, and like a divorced kid whatever I needed was at the other house. Half of the month I’d have whatever I could carry, and stuff I wanted was always back in Austin. I just can’t wait to be settled. To be in the position where “uprooted” means I’ve driven into the city for a few days, that’s all — and I’ll be driving, so I can take whatever I want in my car and not have to worry about airline restrictions.
Wah wah wah. Poor me. I’m tired, y’all. Just like your immune system keeps working while you’re under stress and then crashes when the stress ends, and just like I had all the energy and focus I needed for the long trip from Austin to NYC and then crashed when I got here, I think my stamina for the betwixt-and-between is crashing now that it’s almost over.
It’s almost over. It’s almost over. Tonight I will sleep in my own home. My name is on the deed, I can’t be asked to leave. I don’t have a landlord who tells me what I can and can’t do. It’s my home. Tonight. Hallelujah.
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The first time I left Texas for New York was April 2003. I had a job in Rochester, New York, with my new PhD. I’d fly back to defend my dissertation, a necessary formality, but I was finished. Graduate school was behind me, and a professional job waited for me in a place I’d never imagined. My first real professional job. I was 44 at the time, Katie was in college at the University of Texas, Marnie was at Smith College, and Will was living with his dad. I left on a really beautiful spring morning, very early, and how filled I was with hope and excitement. I had done this very hard thing, earned a doctorate, unfathomable, and everything waited for me. I’d made a CD full of songs I really loved, and as I headed up IH-35, and at the exact moment I drove past the apartment complex where my beloved Katie lived, Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” came on. I started laugh-sobbing.
I remember such intense feelings, in two irreconcilable directions, one pulling me to stop, to stay, and the other urging me forward: almost unbearable pain at driving away and leaving my Katie behind, there in her little apartment and without me in town, and almost unbearable joy. NEW YORK. Never mind that it was Rochester; little old me, from where I was from, I had a PhD and I was moving to New York.
I think I pulled my cheek muscles on that long road trip from grinning. My favorite Spice Girls song came up and I started laughing almost hysterically. I think I called one of the girls, laughing like a maniac. I remember laughing out loud again and again, just out of the audacity of my life. My car had a bumper sticker “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” which I didn’t really think about, until I crossed into Ohio and more than once was threatened by a scary guy in a pick-up with a gun rack, trying to run me off the road, and red-faced screaming as he shook his fist at me. I should’ve thought about it, since upon crossing into that state the highways were lined with flags, and they hung on every overpass. (What? I wondered. This is the north, they aren’t ignorant here!)
Flash forward 14 years, and here I am about to make almost the same trip, from Austin to Big Indian instead of Rochester. This time, I also have an apartment on the Upper West Side, the most unimaginable thing ever ever ever. This time, I’m not leaving my beloved Katie alone in a small apartment; I’m leaving her behind with her husband and two precious children in their own sweet home. She is a wonderful, solid, loving mama and wife. This time, she heads a family. This time, when I listen to “New York State of Mind,” I have intimate knowledge of the things he references — the Hudson River Line, the NYT, the Daily News, Chinatown where Marc buys good food for us and where we eat at Nha Trang II (not I, II is better), Riverside, my beloved, beloved Riverside. It’s not just a song anymore. This time, a whole new ‘everything’ waits for me, urging me forward.
And so my mind turns toward the soundtrack for my upcoming road trip. Of course Spice Girls will be on it, and Donna Summer, and Light & Day, and some John Prine and some Nina Simone, and KC & the Sunshine Band OF COURSE, and local goodies like Jerry Jeff Walker and Bob Schneider, but I think the song I’ll play as I’m pulling the truck away from the house will be an old Texas song, since I’ve been busy touching the old version of Texas I used to know, that used to exist. The old Texas dirt that my very bones are made of. The old Texas swing that pushes my blood along through my veins. I think I’ll pull out of town to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It will be after midnight, so I will indeed see the big, bright stars in the sky, deep in the heart of Texas.
That high wailed a-ha! that he does is SO FAMILIAR. It’s as familiar as the grim old hymns we sang at the Loving Highway Church of Christ. Might need some Patsy Cline too, now that I think about it. And a whole bunch of bluegrass. And some yodeling, just for fun. It’s a 27+ hour drive, after all, so I can load up as many of the songs that have played on the soundtrack of my years as my phone will hold.
Now and then I want to get a map and just draw a line of my 82 moves, and see what it looks like, a God’s eye view of me moving around on the face of the earth. Sometimes when I’m driving on a long road trip, I kind of imagine that, I imagine God watching me toodling along on the face of his earth (so funny for me to be talking this way, I don’t even really believe it but still I kind of do), knowing that I feel grateful and happy.
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Well, I’ve gone so many miles since my last post, and my flux-ing life has fluxed, so I thought I’d get a little post written to do a quick catch-up. Just as with our travel blogs, I rely on this blog so regularly as a kind of diary . . . when did this thing happen? What was going on then? Where was I?
So I’ve been to Chicago and New York, soaked up my darling grandson Ilan as much as possible, spent spare time with Marnie and Tom, took many a walk, taught him how to give kisses, and got almost enough time cuddling him. Almost. [there could never be enough.] And while I was in New York, we were hoping the title search would be completed and the closing could happen while I was there, because we assumed one of us would have to be present and we needed it to happen as fast as possible, but that didn’t happen. By the time I left on Tuesday morning, it was still just one empty promise after another — surely tomorrow, I’m promised tomorrow, they say it’ll be tomorrow, ad nauseum.
But luckily, it turns out that neither of us needs to be present, not sure why. Maybe because Marc is just paying for the house so it’s not being financed, I don’t know, but the title search was completed and the closing is scheduled for tomorrow and what’s done will soon be done. The sellers need to stay in the house up to 30 days, which sucks, but at least the deed will be ours.
So I’m back in Austin to pack the house and finish all the straggling things there are to get done, and to soak up Oliver and Lucy as much as I possibly can while it’s easy to do that. Next Thursday I pick up the truck and get it loaded, and Marc flies in at almost midnight on Friday for the long, long, long drive. I’ll drive the truck and he’ll drive my car and we’ll get that 1,800-mile trip done. This is nothing about Marc, but it sucks to be doing a caravan instead of just making the trip alone — will we stay together on the road, and constantly manage that? Will we arrange a meeting place and then just both get there? He and I have very different rhythms; he doesn’t sleep a lot at night and needs several naps throughout the day, and I don’t nap and need a good solid chunk at night, so that makes staying together a complicated thing. It’s 27 hours, no matter how we go.
Another way we travel differently is that I kind of make a treat out of it, stopping for snacks, and Marc will be bringing sandwiches and empty water bottles we can fill along the way — that’s such a tiny thing, really, and unimportant, but there’s a different attitude behind the approaches. He’d like to sleep in the back of the moving van when we need to stop but I drew the line on that one, buddy.
I’ve made this kind of trip before, and I’ve always (with one exception) driven the truck full of our belongings, so it’s familiar to me. But Marc has only ever lived in Chicago and NYC, and just hasn’t done this kind of thing. I’m not at all scared of the long, long days of driving, or of driving the truck, but I think it makes him a little anxious since it’s unfamiliar. Luckily the current owners of the house will allow us to unload all my stuff into the basement so we don’t have to get a storage unit, so that’s one less expense.
I’ve sought out circles to close wherever I can find them, even if I just have to note that I’m crossing the same spot in the river.
Leaving NYC 11/17/12
Back to Austin 6/13/17
That’s a difference of 4.5 years, and I have physically aged in between those selfies but I’ve also grown so much, changed so much, and while I absolutely do remember that shattered moment in LaGuardia, 11/17/12, when I was leaving NYC to fly to Austin to start all over, I also kind of don’t recognize myself. That’s not exactly right, of course, but I’m not the same person I was then. When I left JFK on Tuesday to fly back to Austin to leave it and return to NY, I had a light heart, a happy, strong heart. I was not leaving nothing, I was not flying toward nothing like I was in 2012 — no, I was leaving everything and flying toward everything. My time in Austin has meant so much to me, and given me so much, and I’ve grown more than I ever dreamed, but that’s a topic for a final Austin post.
SO, in my final days, there is much to do and I might not get another post written until I say farewell to Austin. I’ll spend Thursday night at Katie’s house since my house will be loaded into the truck, and I’ll probably say farewell then. It’s an emotional time. <3
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It’s very confusing to be an American, at least for me. My awakening to who we are in the world came very late; it wasn’t that I was a rah-rah American, “We are the world’s best neighbor” like some people, it was more that I was completely apathetic. I just didn’t pay attention to politics, didn’t think it mattered, had zero interest in it. In graduate school I dated a Pakistani poet who would tell me with very red eyes about the cruelty and terribleness of the World Bank, the IMF, and who railed against the existence of political borders. Through him I learned what people actually go through when they come here, when they are immigrants, and that was an eye-opener because I simply had no idea. My understanding was a blank canvas; I didn’t think it was easy or hard, I simply had no ideas at all.
And then 9/11 happened and it all hit me, at once, when I was 42. The chickens were coming home to roost, that’s all. We were reaping what we had sowed. Then I met Marc and we started traveling to SEAsia, and I had to come face to face with my country in the world in a way I never had before. Vietnam was one thing, but going to Laos, the location of our Secret War that everyone knew about but the American people, and seeing all the bombs everywhere, and people missing limbs, and we refuse to do anything to help clean up the UXO because we won’t even acknowledge we did it? Well. Gutting.
But America is beautiful. And I was a little girl who LOVED school. I was dazzled by the stories, and probably listened with wide, glistening eyes. I probably leaned forward, sat on the edge of my seat. I gobbled up books and encyclopedia entries. Henry Hudson sailing up the river in a tall ship, and all the early explorers. Pioneers. Patriots. One if by land, two if by sea. The Boston Tea Party. Wild turkeys and porcupines, and buffalo stampeding across the plains, heat steaming off them in the winter. The various tribes and nations of Native Americans, and how they lived — Cherokee, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache. As a Texan I was most intimately familiar with the tribes who lived on the Plains, and so was most fascinated by the ones who lived in the other parts of the country. The Pacific Northwest tribes and nations. The Mohawk. The Seneca. The Iroquois, who lived in longhouses…which I know and remember so well because I made a construction paper model of one for a class project, probably in second or third grade.
And of course we were taught the nice clean version of history, a museum diorama version (oh! Remember making dioramas in shoe boxes?), no complications of our slaughter of native people, etc etc etc. I’ve come to understand that story more fully, and to be pained by it, to see the ongoing consequences, to wish I could do something about it, but you know, those elementary school stories are so vivid in me, still, and perhaps it’s more that child feeling of being dazzled that’s in me, but the dazzle remains. The first time I crossed the Hudson River, driving from Rochester, NY to see Marnie at Smith College in Massachusetts, I cried. I imagined Henry Hudson sailing up the river, in the wildness, Native Americans all around and nothing beyond their civilizations yet. Wild country, wild river, wild world. Sparkling water and sparkling clear blue skies, or hard winters. Tall ships, daring expeditions.
And the country itself truly is magnificent, from east to west. Low country to truly majestic mountains. Lush forests, swamplands, wide and flat prairies. Endless beautiful rivers, from slow meandering ones shaped into oxbows, to raging whitewater rivers. (The rivers always make me cry. Crossing the Brazos River when I went to Graham last month, I cried. Something about rivers, I don’t know.) Canyons, valleys, hollers. Wildlands, badlands. New York City, with its messy, glorious story.
The song America the Beautiful has more lyrics than most of us know; we are all probably familiar with the first:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
It goes on to talk about pilgrims’ feet, and liberating strife, and patriots’ dreams, and the politics of it get too complicated to sing with a straight face – but the beauty remains undeniable. Spacious skies. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountain majesties. Fruited plains. I don’t know why I get so choked up, why that makes me cry, except maybe it’s touching my little-girl wonder. My teacher’s felt board, with the felt shapes of mountains and clouds and grain; mimeographed pages to color, make those mountains purple, kids; dazzling stories of Apaches on horseback, and Seneca; and robins, which I thought were purely fictional birds that existed in children’s books only (ditto bluebirds, which surely existed only in cartoons).
And so I prepare to live in a place that holds so much of that history and beauty and wildness, and such a huge place in my imagination. I think it probably seems silly, but I’m so excited about seeing porcupines waddling around. Wild turkeys scuttling past. Bears lumbering by. Red and gray foxes dashing here and there. Bobcats. Crows and giant owls and eagles and robins. Herons and egrets and hawks. My creeks constantly shushing at me, and the quiet of the snowfall. Those ancient old soft mountains all around me — not the sharp, stony youth of the Rockies, but the forested, softened old age of the Catskills. Stories of the native people who used to live there — after all, I will be living in Big Indian, named for a specific Native American, a Munsee man named Winneesook.
I prepare to live at the foot of the tallest mountain in the Catskills, Slide Mountain, with a 6.3-mile loop trail so near my house I’ll be able to walk (navigable January through October), and I’ll take my big camera and my lenses and search for the creatures that have lived in my imagination since elementary school.
America is beautiful. We are too easily dazzled by our songs and stories, and too many of us take our myths at face value, but the country itself is extraordinary, exceptional even, and there are ordinary American people who fulfill the promise. (Too bad none are politicians, that would be great.) (And too bad our politicians represent the very worst of us, the most craven, immature, bigly lie tellers possible, out to destroy us and everyone else.) When we travel around the world, it’s easy to spot Americans, and not just because of fanny packs and big white sneakers and inappropriate dress — it’s because there is a kind of openness in the face, a kind of almost goofy goodwill, too often borne of ignorance about what we have done in the world, but also borne of optimism that characterizes us too.
I think I am a patriot. I am a patriot because I abhor the actions of this country, and I fight with everything I have against the government and what we do in the world. And I do that because I love America. I love the beauty of the land, and what we could be, what we could do, who we could become. Even if my love for it/us was seeded in first and second grade, in colorful stories of tall ships and longhouses, of incompletely told stories of fellowship between native people and pilgrims, of paper pilgrim hats worn at Thanksgiving. And that love is battered by bomb casing decorations in Laos, and smiling Vietnamese people, and of ignoring the suffering of others unless there’s something big in it for us, like oil. And that love is nourished by porcupines and great horned owls and wild rivers and very old mountains.
I can’t wait.
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The time has come to tell some news. I am moving away from Austin on June 22.
I’ve lived here since late November, 2012 primarily because I just needed to be near my daughter and her family. They had just lost Gracie, and I had just lost everything, and I was afraid for my daughter and wanted to help her however I could — and for myself, I needed to be around family. But of course at first she had to help me. I told myself a happy little lie, then: I think it’s good for her, in the immediacy of her grief, to have to shop with me to set up a whole new life. I kind of believed it, until I would look at her shattered face and I knew what it was costing her, the life and energy she simply did not have but was mustering, for me. I made myself a solemn promise, then, that I would never again willingly put myself in a position to have to start over from scorched earth. Never again. I would not just walk away from the things of a life, sell them, throw them away, give them away, leave myself with a suitcase of clothes and nothing else, like Timid Frieda (there she goes / with her valises / held so tightly in her hand).
A few months later, Marc and I started trying to find a way to keep a version of our marriage going. We gradually found our way to the life I’ve been living ever since, the one where I live in two places, here in Austin for 18 days, there in NYC with him for 12. Big travels together three times a year. In most ways it was the best of all worlds: I still had my lovely little home (with time and space just for ME), my beloved daughter and her growing family just right there, my wonderful poetry group and various book clubs, and a host of dear friends, most especially including Nancy, who lives right next door and who has been one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. I got to be here through Katie’s pregnancy with Oliver, and then the start of his life; through her pregnancy with Lucy, and now her new life. I got to help them, hang out with them, be easy. I got to be with her and them as they found their way back to life, and as I did, too.
But it’s hard, it’s been hard. Constantly uprooting my life has taken a toll. An every-two-week reboot, for 4.5 solid years, exhausting. Neither Marc nor I seemed to want me to return to our very small apartment in New York, and I’d made that promise to myself.
My work has been so negligible and my income so unsteady, I was exploring all the possibilities since I didn’t feel like I could keep affording the place I’d rented all these years. Could I move in with Marnie and Tom? We had very sincere conversations about it, and I’ll never forget Tom’s quick, moist-eyed invitation, and the delight in Marnie’s eyes at the thought of a tiny house for me in their front yard. The beauty of getting to be Ilan’s everyday Pete, of being real help to my daughter, of making my own small contribution to her doing her work. Or could I just find a tiny little studio apartment here in Austin somewhere? Whatever happened, my life had to change, I had to move again. It would be move number 82. (I hope I don’t hit 100 before I die.)
Finally Marc proposed the most perfect idea, and it was like a clap of thunder in its clarity and obvious solution: we would buy a cabin in the Catskills and I would live there. He can come up on weekends — lots of people in the city do that — and I can go into NYC whenever I want, for however long, but my place of residence will be that house.
When I was a little girl, and then a young woman reading the Foxfire books, I’d read about making baskets, for instance, using materials collected from nature. Only they were never materials that grew in Texas: they were cattails, and reeds, and grasses…..of a kind that grow in Appalachia. And the Catskills. So the place has lived in my imagination most of my life. When I moved to NYC in 2005, Marc and I made very regular pilgrimages upstate to a wonderful little town named Phoenicia, to see the autumn foliage, to see spring starting to emerge. The first time I went to Woodstock I saw that little cabin hanging out on a rock over a stream that I mentioned a short while ago, and oh how I wanted that little cabin. I wanted it into my bone marrow. In the years since, that has been my imaginary home. I’ve never wanted a mansion, never understood that desire: my imaginary home was a cabin, a bungalow, a small place of my very own.
And so I move into the option that feels just about as perfect as can be, my own home in the Catskills, just down the highway from Phoenicia. I can fly to see my Austin family and my Chicago family as regularly as I like and still not be as disrupted as I’ve been. I can make regular pilgrimages to them, stay with them a week at a time, each, and soak up those people I love so dearly…..without disrupting their lives so profoundly. Without having to lean on them when they are at this burgeoning and financially tight stage of their lives. I can drive into NYC, or take a bus or the train, at a moment’s notice. Finally, I won’t always be in the wrong place at the wrong time! I won’t miss the PEN Festival, the New Yorker Festival, performances I want to see. I can see Marc every single week — but as he said, we will each still have our own time and space. He needs that as much as I’ve learned that I do. And we will have an investment, instead of simply setting fire to money, as we’ve done on my rent ($75K while I’ve been here!).
Nearby Woodstock has a very vibrant arts community, and a glance at the Meetup groups suggests that I’ll find people pretty easily. Poets, writers, artists, performers, my tribe lives there too. Cold, snowy winters. Red-orange autumns. Chilly, wet springs. Green firefly-lit summers.
brooks, streams, rivers
My life, how many different lives I’ve had. I never dreamed I would actually get to live in the Catskills, but here it comes. I never dreamed I could live there and in New York City — not individually, and certainly not both. My life has taught me so many things, including the fact that nothing at all is permanent (except, I think, my love for my kids). Who knows where else my life will take me before it’s all said and done, but while I am having the life I’m about to have, I look forward to eating it up. To watching closely as it changes day by day. To taking pictures, to hiking in the woods, to cozying up on snowy days or cross-country skiing off my deck and onto the trails crisscrossing the forest around our house. To Marc’s garden, that idea makes me giggle with happiness. To learning the names of birds, trees, plants, wildlife. To seeing black bears (lots of black bears apparently), bobcats, weasels, porcupines, coyotes, gray wolves, eastern coyotes, gray and red foxes, river otters, whitetail deer, ravens, crows, wild turkeys, great horned owls, screech owls, bald eagles, lots of songbirds. To the contrast between a real city and the most beautiful country, and to continuing to be dazzled in my beloved NYC. My daily life will be a great many things, including some icky aspects I don’t know about yet but I’m sure I’ll discover, and I look forward to all of them. I look forward to sharing it all here.
Though I will be 100% thrilled to leave the most hateful state of Texas, I’ll be sorry to leave my friends in Austin, and hope to see people when I come back to visit Katie and family. I’ll be sorry to leave a great many aspects of Austin, and I’m so glad I moved here in 2012. In addition to all the reasons I’ve loved being here that relate to Katie, I learned so much here. I really learned how to make a life for myself, just for me. I learned that I love living alone. I learned how to do that, even. You have a standing invitation to come visit. There are three ski mountains VERY nearby (Hunter, Belleayre, and Windham), it’s gorgeous in the fall, and I have a spare bedroom.
Move #82. It’s gonna be OK.
And very nearby our house is the trailhead for one of the best hikes in the Catskills, to Giant Ledge — five ledges, actually:
Wow. Bring it on, black bears and all.
(*This got real long, but I append a funny story about black bears, in case you’ve stuck it out to the bitter end. So there are a LOT of black bears in the Catskills. A lot. They’re not really a threat except during baby season, and then only if you get to close to babies and a mama gets scared. I was told I’d need to bring my bird feeders in every night, because the bears love them. [really???] And the realtor said that they’ll come right up on the deck; her husband opened the door one night and came face-to-face with a big black bear, and they both freaked out and ran. He said he’ll always remember two things: 1) how AWFUL it smelled, and 2) that its breathing was so loud and sounded like Darth Vader. He could still hear it breathing from a long way away. One woman frequently finds streaks of bear snot on her kitchen window, since she hangs a bird feeder there during the day. (?) So I guess if I’m ever sitting in my living room and see a pair of eyes on the deck and hear Darth Vader, I don’t need to be [too] afraid. 🙂 )
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Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.
Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?
I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.
I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)
But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.
Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.
You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.
I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.
I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.
Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?
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One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).
After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.
I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.
One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.
One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.
And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:
I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.
One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.
Live and learn, and do better.
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