On a walk this afternoon I passed a UPS guy heading up a driveway with a hand truck loaded with 6 honey-baked hams. He flashed me what I perceived to be a coy smile. By the grace of brain chemicals or my nightly prayers to Dolly Parton it occurred to me in just the nick of time that there is no tone in which “Thatsa lotta ham!” won’t seem sexual. Pickle narrowly averted.
Today I texted a friend for help and went into a shame spiral during the few minutes it took for them to respond, flagellated myself for not finishing an essay draft, didn’t do enough laundry, didn’t even put a dent in a new project I prioritized to start today, flayed myself for not finishing the revisions on a short story, have put off doing yoga even though I know it will vastly improve both my day and my life, got irritated for no actual reason at all, second (third fourth fifth)-guessed my value as a partner (friend parent person), sulked about Christmas, went into a new and improved shame spiral about feeling sorry for myself when people are dying alone from COVID and people are dying from trying to save them.
Then I did more laundry, went for a walk, was inspired by a guy with hams, listened to the Amélie soundtrack, lit the Dolly Parton candle my kid gave me, remembered this picture of the stained-glass banana a friend gave me for my birthday, thought about how long it would take me to explain why this stained-glass banana is enormously significant to me and how I’m not sure I could, thought about the time Chafe and I were walking and I was puzzling out a prospective story and I said I don’t even know how you would go about making that work and then he said You would probably have to write it to find out, thought about how fiction is a resource, remembered that action absorbs anxiety, and got back to work.
(I really hope I am not alone in this but) Why do I not know how to walk toward someone on the street after 47 years of passing people on streets? Why do I not know where to look or when to make eye contact or for how long? Why does it get harder the closer we get? It feels as though we should by now have figured out a standard operating procedure for strangers crossing paths, such as not making eye contact till the final moment then a glance and an eyebrow raise and an upward chin nod, or maybe a nod when you’re within the range of focus and then a disconnection of eye contact. This feels like something the French and the Japanese probably have figured out that Americans have too many conflicting puritanical and xenophobic tendencies to reconcile. Or probably folks who live in big cities have this down, they have their patterns of touchpoint because they pass tens of people every day, whereas I pass maybe four. It’s probably easier to keep one’s eyes to one’s self, to default to no greeting whatsoever, but that feels like setting a baseline expectation of disconnection, too cold and lonely for sustaining life.
I can’t be alone in missing whole human faces in front of me in physical space. After embracing denial for the first six or so months of isolation, missing things is sneaking back in, twinging my heart. But missing in 2020 feels more like honoring than lacking.
I didn’t play music during the month of October. A month is a long time for me to not play music and the lack had left me feeling squeezed out and empty. Prior to pandemic the band I’ve been in for many years was preparing to make a new record, honing songs and chiseling out time to escape to the wild north to record and stick our toes in Superior; and the other band I’m in had just played our first show and were getting feet under us. And then there was the Great Pause. Chafe and I have continued to write and play together, a luxury no doubt, but we’re starved for that regular raucous communion of drums and loud guitars, the alchemy of togetherness, why harmony makes us feel like we suddenly have more nerve endings. Like in the moment the back-up singers come in here at around 1:50, I’m reminded we can be better together, that together is a better state. As we begin to end this year I’m conceiving of a 2021 in which we are less virtually together and more actually together. Here’s hoping, and hoping never hurts (or when it does it only hurts a little).
is that there are still ideas to be had and things to be made and people with whom we can make things, and the only way that we will survive for whatever amount of time that we do survive is to keep having the ideas and finding the people and making the things. Deal? Deal.
When I stopped fighting the snakes with my freeze and my flight, they taught me. This isn’t a metaphor. I mean actual snakes.
When I didn’t prune the bushes, the birds came. Also not a metaphor.
Let what is coming come.
This thing of middle age, of being in the middle, is a prism that splits all thought and emotion into facets I couldn’t see until I shone light through it. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a metaphor because I was a poor student.
And I’m in the hamster bubble filled with the miasma of my buried middle school trauma and aging parents and puritanical shame and increasing hunger and I bounce up against you in the grocery store or in a virtual space (it’s virtually a space!) and you’re in your bubble and we’re both too polite to mention we’re floating around in our miasma and whatever assorted fluids we’ve accumulated over this life.
I would very much like to know who first called middle age a sandwich. Sandwiches are delightful. They’re straightforward: Put together a few things you like to eat, wrap some sort of edible container around them, experience satisfaction.
Middle age is no sandwich. Middle age is sedimentary rock cooked in the furnace of time and weather and motion. The fore generation is metamorphic, the core and foundation. The aft generation is igneous, lava newly birthed and hardening around my edges. And I can’t be certain — in part because I’m generally uncomfortable with certainty and in part because as noted before I was (am) a poor student and got this passing understanding of geology from a Science-for-Kids website — but it’s my understanding that each stratum evolves through the phases, propelled by other strata and (perhaps?) gravity (which, in the case of this metaphor if that’s what it is, might be time?). The metamorphic will become igneous and the igneous will shift to the sedimentary and that which was sedimentary will be compacted into the metamorphic and I believe that compacting begins with cleaning and sorting your parents’ belongings, sitting in a water-damaged basement deciding which of your grandmother’s typing certificates and grandfather’s letters to his postal workers’ union rep and mother’s letters home from college and father’s resumes from the ‘70s and your own flaking and musty preschool art and clear-eyed high school papers on world peace you will keep for your child to eventually weed through and which will be tossed into a landfill where they will enter another unending cycle of evolution.
Let what is coming come. Meet it when it arrives. Wave as it pulls away. And repeat.
That the mass was circumscribed was a tentative positive. That the sun was circumscribed was a looming negative. A day in the balance between cancer and wildfires.
“Tongue-tied and twisted just an Earth-bound misfit, I.”
And I’m meditating and yoging and walking all the steps and using too much plastic no matter how I try and mindlessly tearing leaves from stems as we hike the preserves. And, even in unemployment, there is not enough time to meditate and yoga and walk the steps and cook healthy food from scratch and arrange my life to be free of plastics and be mindful enough to never tear leaves from stems and keep the house clean and play the instruments and do the writing and read books and sleep and be profoundly present to every person (human or otherwise) I encounter. Or maybe there is enough time but there is a leak in the time container and it steals away in drips and trickles (and episodes of Antiques Roadshow).
That I’m feeling more divorced from reality initially alarmed me but now seems like the only reasonable path. We can’t alter a context we can’t see outside of. Anything other than the present is pain. And sometimes the present is pain. Everything passes through the present and changes, even pain. Change comes in drips and trickles and oxygen molecules and oceans, and pain doesn’t stand a chance against oceans.
Sometimes anxiety dreams come in the form of your partner of 25 years leaving you for no other articulated reason than “It’s time” as you sob “I’m not ready” while your boss from 20 years ago looks on from the hearth of a glowing fireplace in benign curiosity and sometimes anxiety dreams come in the form of you wearing a floaty ball gown (with pockets!) that does the spin lift better than any dress you’ve ever worn and has a jeweled broach in the design of a fried egg while you run all over a warehouse with your old friend so she can help you find a dozen eggs so you can be Egg Queen for the costume parade and sometimes both of those dreams come in the same night while an electrical storm is happening so you get to wake up and read about the crumbling of the empire intermittently while light bursts and crackles outside and your immobile partner snores and your dogs tremble and burrow deeper into your limbs over and over and over and over and over again.
It is the time of the goldenrod and soon will come the pokeweed. I feed the last caterpillar of our season as the rest are in chrysalides or have launched. We go to the woods to offset fear and dread, to take into our eyes and noses and ears as much life as we can before the light wanes. We have had to grow through these six months, but that was made easier by the world greening and blooming around us. Now we begin to smell the sweet rot of decay on the trails and life yellows to brown out. We will need to make our own light, increasingly, in coming months, to burn the brush.
And then these thistles in transition remind me of cotton and I’m a goner.
Because every time I think of the fact that there’s a Senator whose name is actually Cotton who is working to be sure that The 1619 Project — US history that centers the legacy of the enslaved and their descendants — is not taught in schools that leads me down the path to the fact that the POTUS is a guy whose name is actually Trump whose entire platform is winning and domination and that lends a hair too much credence to the theory that we’re truly just living in a simulation and I can’t believe a simulation this advanced couldn’t hire better writers. Cotton? Trump? Hack shit.
I have started listening to 1619. I put it off for a year because
I know. I know White supremacy is real. I know White supremacy was and remains brutal. I know it pervades every part of our society. I know individuals participate passively by claiming innocence. I know I participate both passively and actively. (Let me count the ways.) I know there are parts that are mine to fix and parts that are not mine.
I know, I know, I know.
Knowing is its own goal, the trap. When we think we know something, we feel we can set it aside. Whatever is set aside we have neither impetus nor duty to dismantle. And that’s when stopping at knowing creates an unbearable stasis of complicity.
When I try to think I know White supremacy, when I try to think I can draw its reach and its edges, when I try to define my part in it, it becomes an ever shrinking web around me. The more I struggle to understand, to learn, to grow, the more enmeshed I feel. And then on a walk I’m stopped by the radiance of the goldenrod in the golden hour and I notice the thistles are turning and I think of cotton and Cotton and thistles are brambly and the intractable grip is like being caught in the brambles and the fight to get out pulls us deeper and what does that remind me of? What analogy from my childhood perfectly describes that feeling? And it comes back to me that it’s the tar baby in the briar patch and BOOM: The hand of the programmer. We don’t know anything. We were made this way, and the only way to unmake is to not know.
I need to not know so that I will be open to learning. I need to not know so that I can build my awareness and compassion. I need to let not knowing radicalize me and break me of the hand of the programmer, break me of supremacy. I need to not know so that there is somewhere to grow.
We have lost his dad my job countless hugs from our parents and kid and friends in-person music shows some not-insignificant amount of youthful vitality in our bodies sleep hair even a fleeting adherence to the idea of permanence
We have kept on going laughing every day art on the reg unflagging support eating potatoes collaborative ethic connecting walks in woods close quarters
We have gained appreciation for birds aspiring snake companions invitation to change our brains a vegetable garden escalating gratitude
Today is 21 years wed. 22 years parenting. 26 years weird team. Go team.
I play this game with myself. I’ve been playing it since at least 1994. I call it “Words, with Friends” and it’s addictive. Here’s how it’s played:
My friends say words in compelling combinations.
I write down what they say.
Slips of paper with words from my friends accumulate on every table top, in every drawer, on every shelf, in every purse and tote and messenger bag and notebook and then they stay there for years.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. And I always win, because in this game everybody wins.
A few days ago I was out pilfering common milkweed from around the neighborhood for my rapacious caterpillar charges. As I ascended the front steps to the house, leaves in fist, Chafe was descending to water the garden, and he said, “What’s up, worm food?”
We kept on in different directions to our respective chores and I couldn’t stop smiling at the thought that he was referring to me as worm food. Of course he was talking about the leaves? Of course. It only took a few minutes before he started laughing.
“I hear it now. Two meanings. But that’s kinda your jam.”
Because he knows I’m something of a joyful bio-fatalist. Because he knows little soothes me like remembering the thing we have in common, the one thing we’re all here for, is death.
So I have taped to the wall of my study a sweet remembrance of my dearest friend warmly and good-naturedly (kinda but not really) calling me “worm food.” Because, as another kind friend said earlier this summer: