Ordinarily, days are ordinary. You make the coffee and make the bed. Do your work. Interact here and there. Make meals. Relax however you do. Turn in for the night. If you’re a small-pleasures-seeking person, you seek them, you notice the moments, the clouds drifting, the shadow on the wall, the ladybug, the sound of the beans grinding and the smell of the coffee. You go through the day in a kind of emotional neutral, interrupted by small spikes of pleasure or frustration, and you’ve learned ways to manage the onslaught of daily trauma by the Republicans. (If you’re me, you’re doing that mostly by shutting out all forms of media that will put it in your face. Ostrich mode.)
My days aren’t ordinary now, and I keep thinking of how unordinary they were when I moved here. How for a month we’d gone through all the terribleness — the shock of the phone call from Katie, Gracie died, we didn’t know why; the horror of Katie’s labor and delivery; the disbelief of their homecoming without her; the numbing arrangement of a funeral; the funeral itself, and a few days later her cremation; everyone drifting home; me leaving and not knowing how I could do that; and then back in New York and the shock of divorce, and moving back to Austin within a month of Gracie’s death, and starting all over, and and and and and. Big giant days, unbearable emotions, each day a tsunami of such intense emotion it was exhausting. As someone told me during those days, you just get tired of feeling so much.
This couldn’t be more different — it isn’t tragic, it isn’t permanent loss, it isn’t unexpected upending of anything, but boy are the days big, and filled with intense emotion. Last night I thought about how one of these days, when I’m settled into my Big Indian palace, I’d return to the more boring days, the kind where small pleasures are sought against a background of ordinary. But first, I have to touch all my places, sit across tables from people I have loved so dearly.
My first protest as a Texas resident was in support of women’s right to choose; Wendy Davis had just completed her famous filibuster, and I gathered with thousands of women wearing orange, around the capitol. I am so proud that my first and last protest here was for the rights of women to self-determination. That fills me with pride and it means a lot to me that Marnie is proud of me. But oof a big day, because the handmaid protest was in the morning and then my poetry group gathered for what turned out to be a party — and I’m so gullible, and was SO not expecting it, that I believed them when they said the food was in the clubhouse for some other event. My place is in such disarray, and I sold my dining table and chairs, so George kindly hosted us in the clubhouse of his condo complex, a very beautiful setting filled with people who have enriched my life beyond belief. I just can’t even really talk about it yet.
I’m glad Rebecca is in the group selfie since she’s not in the other shots. I wasn’t sure I could say goodbye to everyone, so I just kept trying over and over. A rambly, teary farewell to the group, a hug and goodbye to each person individually, and a clinging by my heart to the wonder of what happened with us, over the last 4.5 years.
Last night was the last meeting I’ll join of a new book club I’d recently formed a few months ago, women who share my politics and who I met in Pantsuit Nation. They will continue on, but it was my last night to sit among them and talk about the book (we actually did that! We talked about the books we read!), to rail about politics, to share information and support in this political insanity, and then to talk about other books we’re reading. It was such a great group, I loved every meeting and I will miss them so much. Today I am having afternoon tea with George, who has been such a good friend to me over the years. I’m sure I will find it hard to get in my car afterwards and drive away. We will always be friends, all these people, it’s not that. But it is farewell to a moment, to an experience, to a specific kind of connection that we had and oh how much it meant to me.
Then tomorrow I get to babysit Lucy while Katie accompanies Oliver on a school field trip, how precious that will be, and Saturday I have a late lunch with Deb, another deep sister. I will be so thrilled to leave this hateful state with its cruel politics, but oh the people. As I say on the About the Queen page, I am rootless, geographically, but I’m very rooted, people-wise. I will never lose these people, and they will stay in my heart with the same strength they have today — but oh it’s hard to have these ‘lasts.’ It isn’t that I mind the hardness; I’ll take it any day, because it’s evidence of the bond. Many still to come, some I can hardly bear to think about, but I’ll cross them as they come.
<3 <3 <3
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I can never use that word ‘stuff’ without thinking of George Carlin’s brilliant monologue about stuff.
I’ve never been a huge fan of lots of stuff, if only because we moved all the time and I no sooner unpacked some stuff until it was time to pack it again (and sometimes just to flee and leave it behind). Stuff gets weeded out pretty quickly in that life. And what’s so funny to me is that when I moved here in October 2012, I did not have any stuff at all, just my suitcase with clothing, and some boxes of books that arrived later. So everything that sits in my house right now has been acquired since then. Every fork. Every knickknack. Every coaster. Every doodad, every poetry magazine, every lamp. Everything. And of course 80% of it was bought with my daughter Katie — her in the immediacy of her terrible, terrible grief — her encouraging me to get the nicer thing, not to cheap-ass-plastic myself, for once to have a nice thing. And so all of my things have her soaked into them. Her tiny little smile (how did she even muster any of that, a month after losing her beloved daughter???). Her getting out of bed and going with me, her help making lists of things I’d need, tasks to do. She is so fully a part of almost everything in my house.
I bought a way too big dining table, chairs, and bench. Too big for the space, but in my mind I was buying a very nice set that my entire family would gather around, never mind that the space was too small to extend the leaf. I was buying a very nice set that I could pass down to one of my kids. I was buying a very nice set that I imagined would be the center of wonderful times with my precious family, and when I bought it, I imagined Katie and her husband and the children they would surely go on to have sitting around it.
That didn’t happen, and it was really too big for the small space, but that doesn’t mean that the table wasn’t the center of a lot of wonderful times. It has been laden with food for poetry group parties, and book club dinners, and buffets for a cheese group I ran a few times. It held my sewing machine as I made a quilt for Oliver, and then for Ilan, and then for Lucy. It held a beautiful, large glass bowl — red, washed with vivid gold streaks — that I sometimes filled with glass balls, or a tall gold hurricane candle holder, or pine cones, or clementines (and let’s be real: sometimes it got filled with mail and assorted junk).
I’d been thinking about getting rid of the table anyway, and getting a small table that was much more suited to the space, and I would’ve felt the same things watching it go out the door for that reason as I feel today, watching it go out the door in preparation for my move.
And now it’s gone, into the brand new home of a darling young couple who want it for the same reason I did, so that at least feels very good to me. It wasn’t my family heirloom table after all, but it will be theirs. That pleases me. The space is empty and swept, and the rug rolled, and I’ll use the space to stage loaded boxes and small furniture in preparation for the move. It’s nice to have an empty space large enough to move the packed boxes out of the way.
It’s inevitable that I’m thinking about Katie with every box assembled, every inch of tape applied, every precious object wrapped carefully. I haven’t even had time, yet, to bear thinking about living so far away from her that I can’t just swing by and see her or help her, or see precious Oliver and luscious Lucy. I can’t think about all that yet, and anyway right now it’s all I can do to manage thinking about her helping me buy all these things I’m taking with me. I honor my promise to myself to take them all with me, and I made that promise in large part to honor her sacrifices made for me, when I had nothing and she had just lost her most beloved dream and didn’t even know how to keep breathing. You’d think there would be tremendous comfort in a kind of “well, I’m taking Katie with me” kind of way — and of course when I place all these things into my new home, I will again think of her as I always do when I touch each thing, or sit on my couch or in my leather chair, or when I look at my beautiful bedroom furniture, or the chair in my bedroom that she encouraged me to get just because it pleased me. I’ll still and always remember her in that way. But at the moment, as I’m preparing to leave, the comfort isn’t there yet. I just touch the ways we both felt when we shopped for them.
Stuff. It’s just stuff and it isn’t at ALL just stuff. (I mean, some is. I don’t have to feel sentimental about the organizer for my silverware.)
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Apparently I’ve written 20 posts about circles, including one post explicitly titled ‘circles.’ I love closing a circle, and I’m not the only one, of course. I really adored this thing Roger Ebert wrote in his lovely memoir, Life Itself:
“I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room and reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.”
Wheels, echoes, circles figure heavily in my experience, and I touch them regularly — especially the older I get, which is kind of an obvious thing. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin, I keep having these experiences. In many ways, moving back to Austin in November 2012 was a closing of a circle, and as I prepare to leave, I’m closing many circles that opened here. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Sunday night I will have dinner with my beautiful, beautiful friend Lynn, who I recognized in such a deep way the moment I met her when I first moved here. We didn’t get to see each other very often; she was gone, I was gone, we were busy, but it didn’t matter. She is one of those people I just knew the moment I met her, and we are good no matter what, we are connected no matter how long, how far.
When I moved here, I joined a number of Meetup groups so I could encounter people and find friends. It’s hard to find friends when you’re an adult, anyway, but when you’re 54, and you work for yourself at home, and you’re new in town, it’s SUPER hard. I had no interest in being a professional Meetup-er — plenty of people are, it’s just not my thing — so I joined very specific groups to increase the chance of meeting similar women, including a “women who travel the world” group, or whatever the specific name of it was. I never went to any meetings, but in my profile I listed the places I had traveled to, and that list included Myanmar.
Lynn contacted me through the system because she wanted to travel to Myanmar, and we arranged to meet at a restaurant called Apothecary. There was an instant connection, and our friendship just was. I never went to a single meeting of that group, and unjoined before too long. So Sunday evening, I am having dinner with Lynn at Apothecary, her deeply wonderful idea to meet at the place we first met, and that just feels so extraordinary to me, closing that circle. Our friendship will continue always, even if we only talk once in a blue moon, but we get to close this circle together.
I moved to Austin when I was 2, from Abilene, and this was my fourth separate time to live here. (I just sketched out those years — 1962 to 1972, 1977 to 1987, 1998 to 2003, and 2012 to 2017 — 10 years and 10 years and 5 years and 5 years, so interesting!) It’s been funny to me, living where I’ve lived this time in Austin, because it was a return to my oldest time here. I live 1.4 miles from where I lived when I was 6, when I became Queen of the Pillbugs. I hear the same trains at night that I heard as a girl. And every time I go to the grocery store, I drive past the apartment complex where I lived when I was 18. Something about this whole time in Austin has been a deep circle, a constant resonant hum. But last night, as I passed the apartment complex on the way to the store, a song came on that I listened to non-stop when I lived in that apartment, just at the moment I drove past the entrance. (It was 1978, don’t laugh.)
That converging of music and specific spot threw me back, and if I hadn’t been thinking I might just have pulled into the complex and walked up the stairs to my apartment, which felt so fancy then, a whole apartment of my own with rented furniture and my few precious objects that still sit here in my house — Big Daddy’s hard hat, and his cat door stop — and my old record collection which sits now in my yoga room and there was nothing else there because there was so little of me, then, and time circles in and circles around and there we are lost in it but if we’re lucky we get to notice.
It’s not about a reverence for the ‘old days,’ or a wish to go back, but more an appreciation of how long life is, how mysterious it can be, how nothing really ends but only echoes, and if you get real quiet and listen, you can hear the echoes, too.
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My trip to Graham was even better than I could have imagined, although it was so chilly and windy that my lips got terribly chapped and the drive was difficult. I didn’t want to linger outside the car too much, so I took quick snaps of things I would have otherwise taken time with. But the reason for my trip was completely fulfilled.
After waking at 4, unable to get back to sleep I went ahead and made a pot of coffee and thermosed it and hit the road. I was taking smaller highways (183 and then 281), so I was expecting the pleasures of open fields, little traffic, and big skies — and boy did I find that. That feels like my Texas. A big weather system had come through the night before, spawning some deadly tornadoes, so the sky was especially dramatic as the sun came up.
I’d planned to stop to get donuts in Lampasas at a little spot called the Donut Palace (didn’t really expect it to be much of a palace, and it wasn’t), but when I walked in, there were four old men sitting at a table — their table, I’d wager — just talking about nothing, and my heart caught in my throat. Every morning, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy for a week in the summer, Big Daddy would get up at 4 to “go to town.” He and I slept out on the screened sleeping porch, and I always wanted to go with him, so he’d wake me up and off we’d go, in the dark. We had two stops: the donut shop, and the gas station where he’d buy some milk out of a freezer case outside. When we got to the donut shop, he always told me to wait in the car. I remember sitting on the front seat, leaning forward with my elbows on the front dash and my chin in my hands, gazing at Big Daddy as he sat at a table with three old men, drinking coffee. It’s easy to imagine the view he would’ve had, if he’d looked my way: a smiling granddaughter, eager for a glance. I was too little to have a reliable sense of time — it seemed like he was in there forever — but when he’d finish his coffee, he’d buy a donut for me and then off we’d go to the gas station to finish our morning errands.
And so, I bought my donuts, smiled at the old men at the Donut Palace and off I went to finish my drive.
Driving to Graham, I was surprised to see how much is completely unchanged. The Hico Hill Inn is still in business in Hico, the sign completely unchanged even if the rest has been updated; just outside of Hico, the RV Park and Horse Motel — adjoining lots, one for RVs and the other for horse trailers (I’m not kidding); signs in Mineral Wells saying “Keep Mineral Wells Crazy” which must be their attempt to follow Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan but I don’t think it really works. The same dive bars, the same drive-in restaurants, the same of so many things it felt like I was driving backwards, somehow.
And then I crossed into Young County (Graham is the county seat). I’d noticed, as I was driving, that the accent of my thoughts was thickening; the north Texas accent is its own thing, with very flat vowels and dragging rhythms. Oil, for instance, is awl. Lisle, an old family name in Graham, is Lahl. I could feel it happening in my thoughts, and even as I write this morning, my voice is still thick with that accent.
My plan was to drive to the cemetery, then to Big Daddy’s house, which was a few blocks down the same road, then over to the park, and then to eat at K&N. I didn’t know where he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery, and when I drove in, I was thinking that I hadn’t been at his funeral so I thought I had absolutely no idea where he might be. I ruled out a couple of sections that were too new (he died in 1971), but there was still a good bit of ground to cover, and the wind was whipping so hard and fast it nearly blew me over. So I picked a section and started walking the rows, looking. It was so uncomfortable with the wind, I said, halfheartedly and unbelieving, “Come on, Big Daddy, tell me where you are.” My arms were crossed, hands tucked under my armpits and my shoulders scrunched up by my ears, resisting the wind. I thought, I think he’s over there. I glanced at the section and decided I’d better stick with my systematic walking — if I just abandoned the section and went over there, I might have to start all over.
So up and down I walked, and again I said, “Call out to me, Big Daddy, where are you?” and again I thought, I think he’s over there. Finally, I got to the end of a row, took a photo of the headstones so I wouldn’t lose my place, and I went to that other section. I walked one row, turned around to come up the next, and there he was.
Standing there, I realized that I had been to his funeral. I remember seeing the deep, dark hole in the ground and feeling such a terrible panic that my Big Daddy was going to have to be left in that hole. I had completely forgotten that.
I hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t planned to think a particular thing, or say a particular thing. My plan was simply to see where he was buried. But I stood there and felt that old pain in my chest, the one I can still touch if I think about him, the one that felt unbearable for so many years after he died. I told him a few things, what he had meant to me then, what he has meant to my life, what I’ve done that he never got the chance to do, that I loved him so dearly.
As I walked through the cemetery, it was the strangest feeling. I saw one familiar family name after another, and would say out loud, “Aw, there are the Thigpens — and there are the Lisles — aw, the Orrs, old Bobby –and there’s Hugh Ribble.” Those names, those families, like the dirt I was made from, somehow. I wondered why this place was so deeply home to me; I lived there 3 months at birth, 3 months around Big Daddy’s death when I was 12, and a couple of months in 1987. That’s all. It was never really my home. I never really knew any of the Thigpens, or the Lisles, or the Orrs.
Finally the wind blew me to my car, and I headed a few blocks down the road to Big Daddy’s house.
There wasn’t a carport when I was a kid, and there was a giant swamp cooler hanging out of the leftmost window, which is the living room. There were two tall, nasty juniper trees on either side of the mailbox, filled with writhing bagworms. The screened porch on the back has been turned into a regular part of the house, and they fenced the back yard so I couldn’t see the back very well. How I know that house. There were those little gas burners in each room, set in a stone “fireplace” kind of, and that’s what heated the house. They were always scary to me, bright blue flames at floor level, and not much to keep clothing from catching fire — and in fact, that happened in the bathroom once, so scary.
It was an old way of living — no air conditioning, doors and windows open to catch whatever breeze there might be, the swamp cooler to add a bit of cool moisture to the dry air. Very cold in the winter, with piles of old quilts, and very hot in the summer, with cold watermelon and waiting for the sound of the snowcone man. I remember all that in my bones.
Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted. Don’t forget that.
This house is next door, and they used to let me jump on their trampoline, which I would do with giddy joy, shouting, “Big Daddy! Watch me! Big Daddy, look at me!” Of course he didn’t, but I lived on the edge of that hope that maybe this time he would. A terrible thing happened to me on the day of Big Daddy’s funeral, and my dress was covered with blood — which would have infuriated my mother, that I ruined a dress — so I crawled out of Big Daddy’s house and buried the dress under the trampoline….which is very interesting, if you think about it. I could’ve buried it in Big Daddy’s yard, but I buried it underneath the trampoline. (Maybe it was as simple as not wanting my mother to see a dug-up spot in the yard.) I wonder if that dress is still there, probably not. It was a little cotton dress, peach and white, and that was 46 years ago.
I knew the street my great-grandmother had lived on — Blewett — but hadn’t planned to find her house….until I was driving down Big Daddy’s street and crossed Blewett! I always thought she lived far away, but it was just down the street. So I turned onto Blewett, and there it was.
There used to be a gorgeous, big mimosa tree in the front yard, covered in pink blossoms, but it’s gone now. I know every square inch inside that house, the smell of the rooms, the kitchen. She always saved a jar of pickled beets for me, because she knew I loved them, so I would run in the front door and go straight back to the kitchen. She had a cloth calendar of the whole year, with little sequin stars glued on for each of the family birthdays (all clumped up in November… February in Young County, Texas is cold and bleak so….well…..). I remember her bed, her chenille bedspread, the cut glass lamps, the creaky wood floor with gaps between the boards so you could see the dirt underneath. But to see it now, to see what it really is, left me feeling a depth to the understanding of where I came from.
Then it was time to see the park where Big Daddy took me fishing. He’d make me collect bait — a coffee can that I had to fill with grasshoppers and crickets. I hated touching them, but I wanted to do anything with Big Daddy so I’d gather them as fast as I could, slap on the plastic lid, and off we would go with our little fishing poles. In my memory, we sat by a muddy river with a wild bank, and I do remember a time he saw a water moccasin and jumped up and ran, hollering at me to run, too. And granted, perhaps they have fixed up the park since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t a muddy river, it was a small pond, and the wild bank was just a grassy slope.
That picture I have of him, sitting at a concrete picnic table, was taken in Firemen’s Park. I sat on the ground where we used to sit and held him in my thoughts, and remembered how excited I used to feel, scared that I might actually catch a fish and have to touch it. I don’t remember that either of us ever did — I think the point was just to get away from my grandmother, and to have something to do.
I’d been looking forward to having a hamburger and a root beer at K&N, but like almost all the restaurants and drive-ins, it was closed because it was Sunday. On Sundays, people in Graham go to church and then go home to have a big Sunday supper. Then they rest, or watch football if it’s that time of year, or read, or talk, and then they go back to church in the evening. They don’t go to K&N. I was disappointed.
As I drove around town, waves of memory passed through me, indistinct but familiar. That large house up on the side of the hill, I’ve been inside it, I remember the furniture and how the house felt — so much of my memories were of how it felt to be there — but I can’t remember whose house it was. The square, around the courthouse, looked exactly the same as when I was a kid. So many of the same stores and businesses, and a few new ones.
I remember my mother bitterly complaining one day, when we were at Boaz. She said you can’t buy new underwear in Graham without everyone knowing your business and talking about it. (Boaz was the only place to shop back then.) I think she chafed at the small town she grew up in; she had bigger dreams, she wanted a fancier place in the world, and she couldn’t really find it. She dropped out of high school and ran off with my father, also a high school dropout, and was instantly pregnant with me.
On my way out of town, I swung by the Loving Highway Church of Christ. We were there every time the doors opened — Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings, plus summer revival meetings. I was baptized there by Tommy Thompson, and there were dead scorpions floating in the cold water….not part of the deal, just too unremarkable to worry about. I remember the smell of the hymnals, the hardness of the wooden pews (no cushions, that’s not mentioned in the Bible! No stained glass, also not mentioned, nor musical instruments (which were mentioned, come on you hard people), the sign up front that listed the hymns we’d be singing. My favorites, Softly and Tenderly, This World is Not My Home, Amazing Grace, Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross.
Then it was time to leave. I’d seen everything, I found my Big Daddy, I touched all the old places and saw them with grown-up eyes, saw how small they were, how close. It was surprising, and surprisingly moving. It was an emotional trip, but only in the very best ways. I cried a lot, but only in the most personal ways — this was my home because Big Daddy lived there. That simple, quiet man, and his small, difficult life, made home for me because he loved me.
I was so lucky to get to see Dixie and Karl, there is never enough time with them no matter how much I get. We talked and talked and talked, laughed and caught up, shared our fury and disbelief over politics, ate a wonderful dinner together, drank some red wine, and then after breakfast and a walk together, I hit the road. I cherish every single second I had with them, and I’m so grateful they are in my heart. So grateful. Dixie is the sister I never really had. How lucky I am to have gotten her. (She is the cousin of my first husband, Jerry, and her precious mother Oopie was truly an angel walking on this earth — and Oopie loved me, too, for some reason that must have had to do with her more than me.)
I’d planned to drive straight home, but traffic on IH35 was a complete nightmare, so in Waco I rerouted to the east. I hadn’t even really realized that by going east I’d be going toward Taylor, where my father is buried, and in fact it wasn’t even until I passed the sign to Throckmorton that it hit me. Throckmorton! My dad grew up there….oh! So with no plan, no forethought, I thought I’d just swing by the cemetery to see his grave. Unlike Big Daddy’s, I knew where his was even though I’d only been there twice since he was buried in 1982 — once in 1999, when I planned to kill myself on his grave to “show” him, and once in 2012, with Katie, when I went to “show” him in a different way, to have my triumph over him 30 years after his death. That time, I instead ended up just kicking the headstone over and over, and grinding dirt into it, and collapsing in tears into Katie’s arms. I felt like I said goodbye to him then.
So with no more plan than to see his grave, I parked my car under the lone tree and walked toward his headstone. The headstones were covered with dead grass clippings so I had to sweep them away to see his name.
It was a strange experience, touching his headstone. It was warm from the sun, and I hadn’t been that close to it, ever. It surprised me to feel any kind of connection. So I swept it clean and knelt there, thinking about him. And then, without even thinking about it, I stood on his headstone and said, “I win, Dad. I win.” And I stepped off, walked to my car, and drove away.
I had such a strange mixture of feelings, because they were all there: anger, sorrow, acceptance, distance, empathy for him, sympathy for little me. It’s like the whole thing came to a kind of balance, and I didn’t have to leave any of them out of the story for it to be OK. It’s OK. He beat me and tried to kill me and touched me and shamed me and belittled me and said horrible and horribly inappropriate things to me and blamed me for his suicide and was in so much pain he couldn’t bear it and felt shame and just wanted to die and just wanted to hurt everyone who came close and wanted us all to hurt as much as he did. It’s all true. I understand and don’t understand, and it’s all in balance in some way.
Taylor has a great BBQ joint, Louie Mueller, so I left the cemetery and headed over for a chopped beef sandwich. They use a LOT of black pepper in the rub, so it’s right up my alley. And somehow, having BBQ after leaving my dad’s grave felt a bit like winning, too. I was OK. I wasn’t torn up, I wasn’t devastated, I just said goodbye.
It was a magnificent trip, and I’m so glad I went. I felt like I was saying goodbye to Texas, in some way — to my old Texas, the landscape I’m made of, the dirt and sky and hardship I came from, and I have a place for it all in my heart, in its proper place and size.
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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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I’m participating in a scientific experiment about happiness — you can, too, by downloading the app for your phone (click that link). A set number of times throughout the day you get a little ping and respond to a number of questions — where are you, what are you doing, are you alone, are you productive, have you exercised in the last 24 hours, have you spent money, etc — quick and simple. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because I want to provide context (I’m very unhappy because of politics!), but at the same time given my own research in graduate school, I know that context isn’t as important to a great many questions as we think it is. Track Your Happiness was created as part of Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research at Harvard University, and the project was approved by the Harvard University Committee for the Use of Human Subjects.
Of course, and especially when I’m in Austin, my days are extremely small, quiet, and routine. I’m mostly at home, with brief forays to see my daughter and grandkids, or to an occasional lunch or happy hour with a friend, or to a book club meeting. A daily walk. A daily yoga class. Meal preparation. Make the bed, pull back the bed. Clean the kitchen. Get the mail. Work, if I have work. It’s a very tiny little life in Austin, quiet and inward, and for the most part I love it. But it’s also true that participating in this study has made me even more keenly aware of this because it asks me specifically to move this slide before I say anything else:
I’m glad it’s not a 5- or 7-point scale, but when I’m walking through the house, or knitting, or drinking a cup of coffee, or making a shopping list, HOW DO I FEEL at that moment? Ordinarily, before this nightmarish election, my base state was happy; since the election my base state has not been happy at all, it has ranged from full-on despair to fear to panic, and the app doesn’t let me indicate that at all. Still, when I make that rating I try to think about what I’m doing in that moment and how it makes me feel. It has had the effect of focusing me in the present a little more, which has been good. Because while my background state might be panic, when I’m holding Lucy (and getting puked on, because those are synonymous), I’m very happy. When I watching Oliver be Oliver, I’m very happy. When I’m taking my walk, or doing yoga, I’m content and I feel good.
That’s it, that’s really what makes happiness. Making a really good cup of coffee. Knitting a pair of fuchsia socks out of the softest wool, and seeing the fabric appear before your eyes. Reading a really good book. Talking to someone you love. Being called on when someone is in need, and being able to be there — oh, that’s just the best joy, note to self to remember that when I am in need. Spending a day that comprised dozens of those unremarkable moments. The remarkable times speak for themselves, carry their own emphasis, and don’t need any help being noticed. When I’m in New York City and going to MoMA, or marching in a protest, or walking in Riverside Park, or any of the zillions of remarkable things there are to do, I note them and appreciate them and they’re the tell-worthy experiences of my life: “Guess what I did today! It was such fun!”
Even in this awful time, when we are witnessing the destruction of our country by a political party that is willing to burn everything down, knitting with soft fuschia wool is beautiful. Getting puked on by your roly-poly, happy, red-headed granddaughter is beautiful. Running errands on a sunny day and getting shit done, beautiful. Waking up in your own wonderful bed, running your feet over the soft, cool sheets, listening to the mockingbird in the backyard tree, stretching and getting up to make a pot of strong, rich coffee, that’s a whole lot of happiness right there.
Happy Saturday y’all. If you’re interested, download the app! “Track Your Happiness” for iPhone and Android, both. xoxoxo
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