The Blue Hue of Sadness

The Blue Hue of Sadness

This morning during the course of a phone conversation with my daughter, I found myself voicing the surprising observation that maybe? Perhaps? Could it be that I’m depressed?  This proposition actually shocked me because for most of my life my mental landscape has been infused with, if not the garish balloons of happiness, then at least those pale-pink bubbles of contentment that manage to percolate and regenerate, despite oscillations of fortune and fate.  But over the past few years, ostensibly since my return from Peace Corps, those pretty pink bubbles have flattened; there are not so many of them and they tend to pop before they get off the ground.  While I’m not drowning in the somber blue hues of sadness, per se, I do notice that I lack that characteristic acceptance of the world as a good place to be. I feel sort of gray and faded and slightly bruised, as if I’ve been through the wash too many times and then tumbled in a dryer for hours.  The first impulse that grazes my mind when I awake in the morning is to shut my eyes and go back to sleep; the thought of a new day arouses no anticipation or delight.

My daughter agreed with my self-diagnosis rather too quickly for my comfort, I’ll admit.  She recalled that I’ve always been a capable, efficient problem-solver, ready to plan, develop a strategy, excited to take on any challenge that presented itself.   I concurred that I feel mysteriously helpless these days, as if I am caught in a perpetual fog without any goal posts to define success.   She and my husband have attributed this ennui to me living with three people who are in a different life stage but nonetheless corral me into an world view replete with the prosaic irritations and inconveniences of aging.  I halfheartedly agreed, thinking that this assessment might suggest a nuance of my psychological affliction but does not apprehend its essence.

But then we hung up and I clicked on to my news feed like I do randomly at least ten times a day and the stark negativity of the scrolling headlines assailed me, capturing in an instant the chronicity of what’s ailing me.  All the relentlessly horrific news, hour after hour, day after day, stretching beyond a few unfortunate months into a bleak accumulation of years: climate change, rising sea levels, monster hurricanes, water table depletion, cataclysmic drought, species extinction, opioid addiction, soaring home prices, rampant gun violence, human trafficking and exploitation, Hong Kong, China, the Middle East, Venezuela, Brexit, the resurgence of nationalism, increasing suicide rates, growing economic disparity…the list is endless and plays in a recurring loop not just on my news feed but in my subconscious mind. I once subscribed to the tired adage that knowledge is power, but I’m beginning to think that nowadays most knowledge is just overwhelming and debilitating.

And, of course, there is no one bad guy in all this (though I could certainly identify a couple.)  There is not a single cause or genesis for the burgeoning cancers plaguing our planet.  Instead, it seems like the primal forces and genetic attributes that shaped the trajectory of our evolution are being dramatized across the global stage and no one has any viable means for snatching them back behind the curtain.  Our curiosity and acquisitiveness, tribalism and egoism, technologies and innovations are accelerating and amplifying the fears, vulnerabilities and superstitions that have always lurked in the basements of our psyches.  Now that a political protester in Hong Kong can send her activist buddy in California minute by minute updates of what’s transpiring at the airport, we have effectively outmaneuvered all the filters – such as time, distance, and objectivity – that once tempered the channels and flow of information.  Seemingly every time we open our social media feeds, tune in to a podcast, attend a public gathering, or flip on the news we are assaulted by strident opinions, catastrophic events, and scary science.  One has to be diligent in assessing the information presented to uncover all the forces at work behind the scenes in order to comprehend the interplay of both historic elements and current events.  It is an exhausting endeavor to stay responsibly aware and informed, an effort that most folks have no time – or perhaps its just a dearth of available energy – for these days.

One recent podcast on the economic implications and complexities involved in culling elephant herds in Africa sent me on a three-hour long dive into National Geographic videos, World Economic Forum reports, and scientific white papers.  Conclusion: there is nothing I can do to solve the overpopulation issues of elephants versus humans in Africa.  And is the fact that I now understand them just a little bit better going to make any difference in how I operate in the world? Probably not.  It just makes me more depressed.  Then there’s my informed take on Boris Johnson: I had read numerous articles and listened to several podcasts that led me to conclude that his suspension of Parliament was a Machiavellian maneuver designed to derail his political opponents.  But then a subsequent conversation with my husband (whom I generally trust to have done more even more research than me) cast a pall over my conviction.  Could Johnson perhaps have a superlative appreciation for the least ugly option to force the Brexit debacle toward some sort of resolution?  I don’t know; it’s just too complicated for my overburdened brain to process.

I know people who just opt out, choose to not look.  They’re busy fiddling, or working, or raising children, making art or honing a skill, binge-watching Netflix, or traveling in Indonesia. One of the more magnificent aspects of modernity is that it offers us a smorgasbord of entertainment choices, lifestyle options, educational opportunities, and professional pursuits. It does not provide any attention guidelines or morality gauges to accompany them, however.  So, it can become a relief to put the blinders on, voluntarily choose ignorance, fill one’s hours and days with responsibilities and errands and distractions and amusement.  Who can blame any of us for intentionally avoiding the congestion and smog of intercontinental highways in favor of the narrower, quieter private footpaths?

To ground these esoteric speculations in my daily life and demonstrate their impact, let me describe what should have been a stress-free family gathering last Monday that I managed to twist into a fraught-filled opportunity for disaster:

My dad and I stopped by niece’s apartment complex on Labor Day to enjoy a meal and a swim.  My daughter and her fiancée were there, along with my 3-year-old twin grandsons, my 9-year-old niece, and my brother.  My niece’s husband was BBQing carnitas, the adults were enjoying some chips and cocktails, and there was a relaxed vibe of summer simmering down in the air.  Both boys had arm flotation devices on as they played by the edge of the pool, hopping on and off an inflated raft under my daughter’s watchful eye.  Yet I became unaccountably obsessed with a fear of them falling in – which would not be disastrous in any case because, as I mentioned, they were strapped into flotation devices.  I sat distracted, unable to attend to conversation, eyes glued to the boys, hands clutching the arms of my chair (ready to launch into a dive should one of them fall in, my daughter’s fiancée jokingly observed). I became such a general buzzkill for everyone that Dad and I wound up leaving early.

Now, reflecting on that experience, along with so many others where I have overreacted to a perception of the boys’ relative safety and well-being, I begin to trace the dim outlines of my current emotional geography: I am constantly, chronically, helplessly adrift in an amorphous sea of worry and anxiety.  It has been during the three years since their birth that this worry and anxiety has taken a more tangible form and found an anchor in them.  Babies are so incredibly dependent and fragile; even as they grow into toddlers and little kids, increasing their ability to navigate their environment, we appreciate how vulnerable they are to mishaps and accidents. Our natural inclination as adults (especially mothers) is to anticipate and avert those mishaps, seeking to protect and preserve their innocence and joy.  And on the macro-scale I’ve checked all the preventative boxes in my due diligence to ensure them a viable future: I dutifully vote in each election; fire off letters to my representatives; recycle, repurpose, and reuse; conserve water and energy; drive an eight-year-old, four-cylinder compact, yada, yada, yada.  It feels like fragile fingers stuck in a trembling dike when countless leaks are springing open every minute.  I seem to know in my bones that it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down and most of us are swept away.  Which happens to include two of the people most important to my world: my grandsons.  So, instead, fingers in the dike, I attempt to control the small, mundane circumstances of their existence: supervising their proximity to the street during playtime; checking on their breathing throughout the night whenever I sleep over; Googling food additives and sunstroke symptoms; obsessively monitoring their vaccinations and oral hygiene; assessing the intentions of passersby – all admittedly misdirected and ultimately futile attempts to hold back the tsunami of a global, increasingly insane reality.  The truth is the odds are stacked against them and their viable future. It all screams disaster from here.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why those who do have some influence or power to alter the course of this tsunami don’t look at their children and grandchildren in the same way.  Rather, it’s the children and grandchildren themselves compelled to call out the powers-that-be, broadcasting forcefully and relentlessly the message that “what’s at stake right now is the existence of [our] generation.”

This is the true nature of the knowledge that debilitates me, begs me to close my eyes and sleep, turn my head and stream. My joyful, innocent grandsons have much to fear over the horizon and not a lot of promise to fill their sails.   For every nugget of optimism or resiliency I run across, there are metric tons of misery, despair, and anguish outweighing it.  When I was a child during the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the world was filled with fantastic possibilities; we were voyaging into space, plumbing the ocean depths, fighting social injustice, redefining civil rights, agitating for peace, celebrating diversity, and generally expanding our horizons.  These days, it feels as if we’re cultivating the habit of shrinkage, erecting fences and borders, exploding bridges and connections, collapsing in upon ourselves in fear.

Every day, every moment, I sit on the sidelines, obsessed with the headlines, no agency to alter the course.  I must watch from the bleachers as the lambs are led to slaughter.  The world is spinning on a tilting axis of madness.

Maybe it is the blue hue of sadness after all.

*photo courtesy of Thierry Fillieul from pexels.com

 

This morning during the course of a phone conversation with my daughter, I found myself voicing the surprising observation that maybe? Perhaps? Could it be that I’m depressed?  This proposition actually shocks me because for most of my life my mental landscape has been infused with, if not the garish balloons of happiness, then at least those pale-pink bubbles of contentment that manage to percolate and regenerate, despite oscillations of fortune and fate.  But over the few years, ostensibly since my return from Peace Corps, there has been a noticeable flattening of these bubble; there are not so many of them and they tend to pop before they get off the ground.  While I’m not drowning in the somber blue hues of sadness, per se, I do notice that I lack that characteristic acceptance of the world as a good place to be. I feel sort of gray and faded and slightly bruised, as if I’ve been through the wash too many times and then tumbled in a dryer for hours.  The first impulse that grazes my mind when I awake in the morning is to shut my eyes and go back to sleep; the thought of a new day arouses no anticipation or delight.

 

My daughter agreed with my self-diagnosis rather too quickly for my comfort, I’ll admit.  She recalled that I’ve always been a capable, efficient problem-solver, ready to plan, develop a strategy, excited to take on any challenge that presented itself.   I concurred that I feel mysteriously helpless these days, as if I am caught in a perpetual fog without any goal posts to define success.   She and my husband have attributed this ennui to me living with three people who are in a different life stage but nonetheless are corralling me into an world view replete with the prosaic irritations and inconveniences of aging.  I half-heartedly agreed, thinking that this assessment might suggest a nuance of my psychological affliction but does not apprehend its essence.

 

But then we hung up and I clicked on to my newsfeed like I do randomly at least ten times a day and the stark negativity of the scrolling headlines assailed me, capturing in an instant the chronicity of what’s ailing me.  All the relentlessly horrific news, hour after hour, day after day, stretching beyond a few unfortunate months into a bleak accumulation of years: climate change, rising sea levels, monster hurricanes, water table depletion, cataclysmic drought, species extinction, opioid addiction, soaring home prices, rampant gun violence, human trafficking and exploitation, Hong Kong, China, the Middle East, Venezuela, Brexit, the resurgence of nationalism, increasing suicide rates, growing economic disparity…the list is endless and plays in a recurring loop not just on my news feed but in my subconscious mind. I once subscribed to the tired adage that knowledge is power, but I’m beginning to think that nowadays most knowledge is just overwhelming and debilitating.

 

 

And, of course, there is no one bad guy in all this (though I could certainly identify a couple.)  There is not a single cause or genesis for the burgeoning cancers plaguing our planet.  Instead, it seems like the primal forces and genetic attributes that shaped the trajectory of our evolution are being broadcast and dramatized across the global stage and no one has any viable means for snatching them back behind the curtain.  Our curiosity and acquisitiveness, tribalism and egoism, technologies and innovations are accelerating and amplifying the fears, vulnerabilities and superstitions that have always lurked in the basements of our psyches.  Now that a political protestor in Hong Kong can send her activist buddy in California minute by minute updates of what’s transpiring at the airport, we have effectively outmaneuvered all the filters – such as time, distance, and objectivity – that once tempered the channels and flow of information.  Seemingly every time we open our social media feeds, tune in to a podcast, or flip on the news we are assaulted by strident opinions, catastrophic events, and scary science.  One has to be diligent in assessing the information presented to uncover all the forces at work behind the scenes in order to comprehend the interplay of both historic elements and current events.  It is an exhausting endeavor to stay responsibly aware and informed, an effort that most folks have no time – or perhaps its just a dearth of available energy – for these days.

 

One recent podcast on the economic implications and complexities involved in culling elephant herds in Africa sent me on a three-hour long dive into National Geographic videos, World Economic Forum reports, and scientific white papers.  Conclusion: there is nothing I can do to solve the overpopulation issues of elephants versus humans in Africa.  And is the fact that I now understand them just a little bit better going to make any difference in how I operate in the world? Probably not.  It just makes me more depressed.  Then there’s my informed take on Boris Johnson: I had read numerous articles and listened to several podcasts that led me to conclude that his suspension of Parliament was a Machiavellian maneuver designed to derail his political opponents.  But then a subsequent conversation with my husband (whom I generally trust to have done more even more research than me) cast a pall over my conviction.  Could Johnson perhaps have a superlative appreciation for the least ugly option to force the Brexit debacle toward some sort of resolution?  I don’t know; it’s just too complicated for my overburdened brain to process.

 

I know people who just opt out, choose to not look.  They’re busy fiddling, or working, or raising children, making art or honing a skill, binge-watching Netflix, or traveling in Indonesia. One of the more magnificent aspects of modernity is that it offers us a smorgasbord of entertainment choices, lifestyle options, educational opportunities, and professional pursuits. It does not provide any attention guidelines or morality gauges to accompany them, however.  So, it can become a relief to put the blinders on, voluntarily choose ignorance, fill one’s hours and days with responsibilities and errands and distractions and amusement.  Who can blame any of us for intentionally avoiding the congestion and smog of intercontinental highways in favor of the narrower, quieter footpaths?

 

 

To ground these esoteric speculations in my daily life and demonstrate their impact, let me describe what should have been a stress-free family gathering last Monday that I managed to twist into a fraught-filled opportunity for disaster:

 

My dad and I stopped by niece’s apartment complex on Labor Day to enjoy a meal and a swim.  My daughter and her fiancée were there, along with my 3-year-old twin grandsons, my 9-year-old niece, and my brother.  My niece’s husband was BBQing carnitas, the adults were enjoying some chips and cocktails, and there was a relaxed vibe of summer simmering down in the air.  Both boys had arm flotation devices on as they played by the edge of the pool, hopping on and off an inflated raft under my daughter’s watchful eye.  Yet I became unaccountably obsessed with a fear of them falling in – which would not be disastrous in any case because, as I mentioned, they were strapped into flotation devices.  I sat distracted, unable to attend to conversation, eyes glued to the boys, hands clutching the arms of my chair (ready to launch into a dive should one of them fall in, my daughter’s fiancée jokingly observed). I became such a general buzzkill for everyone that Dad and I wound up leaving early.

 

Now, reflecting on that experience, along with so many others where I have overreacted to a perception of the boys’ relative safety and well-being, I begin to trace the dim outlines of my current emotional geography: I am constantly, chronically, helplessly adrift in an amorphous sea of worry and anxiety.  It has been during the three years since their birth that this worry and anxiety has taken a more tangible form and found an anchor in them.  Babies are so incredibly dependent and fragile; even as they grow into toddlers and little kids, increasing their ability to navigate their environment, we appreciate how vulnerable they are to mishaps and accidents. Our natural inclination as adults (especially mothers) is to anticipate and avert those mishaps, seeking to protect and preserve their innocence and joy.  And on the macro-scale I’ve checked all the preventative boxes in my due diligence to ensure their future: I dutifully vote in each election; fire off letters to my representatives; recycle, repurpose, reuse; conserve water and energy; drive an eight-year-old, four-cylinder compact, yada, yada, yada.  It feels like fragile fingers stuck in a trembling dike when countless leaks are springing open every minute.  I seem to know in my bones that it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down and most of us are swept away.  Which happens to include two of the people most important to my world: my grandsons.  So, instead, fingers in the dike I attempt to control the small, mundane circumstances of their existence: supervising their proximity to the street during playtime; checking on their breathing throughout the night whenever I sleep over; Googling food additives and sunstroke symptoms; obsessively monitoring their vaccinations and oral hygiene; assessing the intentions of passersby – all admittedly misdirected and ultimately futile attempts to hold back the tsunami of a global, increasingly insane reality.

 

For the life of me, I can’t understand why those who do have influence and power to alter the course of this tsunami don’t look at their children and grandchildren in the same way.  Rather, it’s the children and grandchildren themselves compelled to call out the powers-that-be, broadcasting forcefully and relentlessly the message that “what’s at stake right now is the existence of [our] generation.”

 

This is the nature of the knowledge that debilitates me, begs me to close my eyes and sleep, turn my head and stream. My joyful, innocent grandsons have much to fear over the horizon and not a lot of promise to fill their sails.   For every nugget of optimism or resiliency I run across, there are metric tons of misery, despair, and anguish outweighing it.  When I was a child during the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the world was filled with fantastic possibilities; we were voyaging into space, plumbing the ocean depths, fighting social injustice, redefining civil rights, agitating for peace, celebrating diversity, and generally expanding our horizons.  These days, it feels as if we’re in the habit of shrinking, erecting fences and borders, collapsing in upon ourselves in fear.

 

I am left with no agency to alter the course.  I must watch from the bleachers as the lambs are led to slaughter.  The world is spinning on a tilting axis of madness.

 

Maybe it is the blue hue of sadness after all.

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Elevation

I’ve been absent from this space for awhile, mostly because I’m acclimating to a new routine and living situation. Sitting high on a hill, overlooking the never-ending stream of automobiles sluicing down the 5 freeway, California sun lighting up floor-to-ceiling windows is a different experience than being nestled down in a tree-arbored apartment in southwest Ohio. The dominant color there is green; here I am steeped in golden brown and dusty blue.

SIlver_Lake_living_room

My daughter Rhiannon is coming up on 35 weeks of pregnancy with twin boys and I have been summoned in support, the first time in more than a decade that I can recall her making an unequivocal request for my help. Obviously, I am awash in emotion. This is one of those life passages so fraught with implication and meaning that one is placed in an altered state merely by their occurrence. Watching my only child soften into the contours of fecundity, I hover in suspended awareness. Time is passing; my role in my own life no longer assumes center stage. This is the future coalescing and supplanting, as it always has and will forever do.

***

Los Angeles is providing a fertile stage for this awareness; though I have lived in its proximity most of my life, I have not spent a great deal of time within its neighborhoods. My maternal grandmother lived just outside of Glendale for decades and I would spend one week a year throughout my youth with her, usually in the spring. As my daughter grew, I would drive up once a month or so from Orange County and Grandma and I would take her to Griffith Park or Descanso Gardens or the Galleria, the same places she used to take me. That was, in essence, what LA represented for me: discrete destinations, curated experiences, little containers of childhood. Now – and especially in contrast to the semi-rural context of Ohio and Moldova – LA has deepened into a complex tapestry, richly colorful, fantastically disordered, and pulsating with life. I finally begin to understand and appreciate the siren call of LA. Energy never dissipates here. There is no quiet. At 3am, the number of cars rushing through those asphalt arteries down below far exceeds those I would pass at 8am on the 275 into Cincinnati. They hypnotize me and calm me, each one a story, an intention, a full and varied life that shoots by at 75 miles per hour, anonymous and discrete,simultaneously acting out my inherent restlessness and holding it at bay.

When my daughter first moved here five years ago I bought her a book, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, that I thought might provide a different perspective on the city where no one, purportedly, walks. Little did I imagine at the time that it would become a trusty companion to my morning perambulations through the many hillside neighborhoods of eastern Los Angeles. Coming from the land of suburban housing tracts, planned communities, and gridded streets, I am delighted by the clapboard bungalows, Craftsman cottages, Neutra- and Wright-designed villas, bougainvillea-draped manors, and wooded cabins that hang off the slopes of precarious canyons fed by one-lane, buckled cement roadways that twist around and back on themselves in whimsical loops.

Climbing two or sometimes three (if I’m feeling really ambitious) staircases every morning is giving me a much more arduous but enjoyable workout than the elliptical machine at the Ohio gym. During a typical walk, I might pass by the house where Amy Semple lived, Anais Nin died, Thelma Todd was murdered, or Faulkner wrote his screenplays; circumnavigate an emptied drinking-water reservoir being reconstructed into a wetland habitat; conquer the staircases that defeated Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box or the Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake; or stroll through the wooded canyon where once the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley line ran. The staircases themselves are vestigial monuments to long-dead contractors – C.W. Shafer or M.W. McCombs – and city inspectors – W.E. Moyle or Rumble – who stamped their names into concrete almost a century ago. They are historical reminders of a time when LA was not a city of cars and freeways, but was, instead, well-served by trolleys, buses, streetcars and light-rail systems. As Secret Stairs tells it:

The staircases were clustered around steep hillside communities near these transit lines…[and were] so much a part of the landscape that developers in some areas built houses that had no other access to the outside world. These “walk-streets”… were set on hillsides without streets or garages. Everything going in or out had to employ the public staircase running, usually, across the front of the house.

Think of that! Houses without vehicle entry a scant handful of miles from downtown LA! And, by virtue of the strenuous effort needed to access them, I imagine, many of them appear not to have been altered or remodeled since they were built in the 20’s and 30’s – a unique and refreshing phenomenon in a city that reinvents itself almost every decade. There is one particular walk-street staircase of 182 steps in Rhiannon’s neighborhood affording the intrepid climber stunning vistas of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Silver Lake reservoir that I cannot imagine hauling a refrigerator up. The houses along this pedestrian alley are tiny, brightly painted, and overgrown with banana, palm, avocado, cedar, and ancient oak trees. I imagine their contents to be relatively spare and carefully curated, or else collected over decades and never changed. One would need to work hard to accumulate stuff in one of these homes: how bad do you really want that king-sized headboard, mahogany wardrobe, or JennAir range? Enough to haul it up 182 narrow, eroding concrete steps (or pay a ton of money to have someone else do it?)

The density and diversity of these neighborhoods enchants me, welcoming places where economic class and attendant privilege are not so cleanly demarcated. Perhaps one of these reasons why Angelenos remain so overwhelmingly liberal in their politics and lifestyles is that they are not able to isolate themselves in a gated bubble. So much of this city is irretrievably integrated, vagabonds setting up tarp tents in the gulches outside the Whole Foods Market, Guatemalan septuagenarians residing in crumbling adobes next to teenaged celebrities inhabiting world-renowned architectural wonders, bilingual preschools sporting late model Land Rovers parked next to rattletrap Datsuns (remember those) in their dirt lots. Los Angeles is a simmering stew of ethnic and cultural variety that fills me with appreciation, having been steeped in communities both foreign (Eastern Europe) and domestic (Orange County) that offered a limited range of predominantly pale hues. I see what the west coast – and LA, in particular – holds for people who have for years dreamed of a broader, more inclusive landscape. This place sprawls with its seemingly limitless ability to contain it all: every dream, aspiration, inspiration and realization, each nuanced individual goal and massive global concept. Energy never dissipates here. It expands, amplifies, and peoples itself.

***

When Rhiannon was around seven years old, Mike and I moved from Huntington Beach to Irvine, intent on escaping downtown sidewalks (at that time) littered with used condoms and hypodermics, where adolescent skateboarders would sooner roll over your toes than cede an inch of their trajectory and the summer tourists made guest parking a pipe dream. We retreated to the safety, cleanliness, and order of a first-class school system, landscaped medians, acres of parking lots and no less than five Targets within driving distance. We lost much in the process. I am glad to know that Rhiannon and her partner are concerned less with cocooning their two sons in cotton and convenience and more with exposing them to the wild and eclectic elements that germinate in the City of Angels. I’ve discovered that my daily changes in elevation offer me a visible contrast of perspectives, how one thing can shift and alter according to where one is standing, the landscape itself embodying the interplay and intersection of life at all levels. And all these stairs are making me strong again, increasing my endurance for the long haul, something I’m going to need as the next generation takes the stage.

When We Dance Alone

I am summoned to the front of the pocket-sized room by a woman I take to be the funeral director’s wife. She calls up Lisa, too, who introduced herself previously as the legally appointed guardian of the deceased, a man I’ve never met who now lies dead in a resplendent, satin-lined casket to our left. The hospice chaplain, the funeral director, and two unidentified attendants comprise our audience. The woman arranges herself, Lisa, and me in a tight, uncomfortable circle; I am facing a large monitor mounted above the casket upon which disparate scenes of animals, sunsets, water features and wildflowers appear then fade away. The woman reaches for the first of three battery powered candles arranged on an elevated table behind us; I recognize them as the same set I recently purchased for ten bucks from a national chain store. She flips the switch to set the wick aglow and then pulls our three hands together clumsily to cradle the candle from below. As ancient speakers only partially concealed by dusty drapes in the corners emit the first notes of This Little Light of Mine, we lift the candle above our heads, hold it aloft for three beats, then lower it between us; she then returns it to its place on the small table. We repeat this awkward ritual with the two remaining candles, singing stiffly along with the cheery verses, before retaking our seats.

I did not know the deceased, whom I’ll call JG, a 64 year-old, neatly coiffed black man with a pencil-thin mustache who received hospice services from the agency where I volunteer. As a recent transplant to Cincinnati who has attended only a handful of mostly memorial services, I have no idea what may be appropriate attire so I fall back on black. Lisa, unaccountably clad in what look to be hiking pants, Birkenstock sandals, and a light green, short-sleeve rayon blouse, has spent the previous ten minutes paging through a sparse album containing faded photos from the 1970s of a young man and woman who look to be in their twenties with a small girl who might be seven or eight, presumably JG and his family. All that is known is that once he had a wife and daughter, both of whom have been dead a long time, Lisa explains. “JG was hard to understand,” she tells me. “He had that loose tongue thing, you know, where he rolled all his vowels.” I don’t have any idea of what she means, but apparently this is why she never learned anything about JG during the time she served as his legal guardian. She visited him only a couple of times, she admits. “I have 57 clients. It’s hard to keep track of the details.”

As the chorus disappears under a blanket of staticky electronic feedback, the chaplain commences his eulogy. Oddly, it is replete with anecdotes about his own wife and daughter while containing nothing substantial about JG. He recounts a remark JG’s roommate at the nursing home made about his snoring; he speculates about a female friend who made a flirtatious reference to his broad shoulders. Claiming to have known JG for eight years, the chaplain cannot provide any concrete details regarding JG’s biography before the nursing home other than his profession as a house painter. The sadness that first cornered me upon finding no family or friends in attendance now gains a sharper edge: here lies a man who danced for sixty-four years upon the skin of this earth, skipping to moments of laughter, bending under burdens of grief, holding fast to friends, celebrating momentous events – a man who was once a babe in his mother’s arms, who attended school and went to work and watched TV and drove a car and married a woman and had a child – yet left barely a trace of evidence of those moments or things or people who impacted him or whom felt the effect of him in his wake. How can that be? How can one live that long, have the perspicacity to purchase an expensive casket and the services of a funeral home in advance, afford a nursing home, keep a photo album and proudly display a Beatles poster on the wall of his room to commemorate attendance at a long-ago concert and yet not maintain sufficient human connections to garner even a small gathering at his own funeral? What happened to you JG?

After the chaplain winds up his sermonizing with a vehement attestation that the world was created in just seven days, yessirreee, our little group files outside to stand beside the hearse. As the O’Jays serenade us with Stairway to Heaven from its speakers, the funeral director releases three blue balloons into the sky. My environmentally-aware self shudders inwardly: I wait for the balloons to catch on one of the entangled threads of telephone lines looped across the horizon but they manage to sail above and quickly disappear, blue against blue an unfortunate choice of color scheme. Stairway to Heaven fades abruptly, mid-chorus and suddenly the funeral director is gathering me into a hearty embrace. (Wait – I don’t know you!) The rest of the group shakes hands effusively, apparently either feeling saintly that we gave good effort to this thankless duty or relieved that the dismal ceremony has finally ended and we can resume our daily grind.

As the rest of the group troops back into the funeral home, I make my way across the crumbling driveway to my car. Pulling out, I note a gangly man folded like a pretzel on his front stoop, nursing a tall boy. A healthy growth of weeds fans the curbside all the way down the block. As I navigate the backstreets of downtown Cincy, I drift into a worn groove of speculation about death: how some get to know ahead of time and for some it’s a surprise; that dying in one’s sleep can be a blessing or a curse; when particulars of geography and health and work and cost preclude the attendance of people who care; why the dispensation of corpses is more important to some folks than others; how notions of reincarnation or salvation or a reintegration with an amorphous, energetic life force or a complete erasure into a featureless void will inform the process of the inevitable. What I don’t know, can only surmise, is what JG thought about death, his own death, and the circumstances that resulted in a pitiful clutch of strangers bidding him a rote and generic adieu.

 

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

– “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne


Story to Be Told

This one’s for you Maryam….

I’m one of those people who have spent a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to live, trying to ascertain what ‘happiness’ is, if it’s even something one should aspire to attain, and whether a goal-driven existence is conducive to remaining present, aware, and appreciative of what is.

For years, the conundrum presented by the role of time in shaping not just our experience of life, but how we orient ourselves toward it, has confounded me. Despite my perennial inability to grasp the mathematics that describe them, the theorems of quantum physics fascinate me, especially those that deal with time as a dimension contributing to our particular perception and subsequent construction of reality. We are, in essence, three-dimensional beings who conceptualize time as a separate force that moves us from point A to point B, even though quantum physics has shown us, time and time again (yes, pun intended,) that such is not the case and that time is merely another aspect of space. At the speed of light, the “flow” of time is arrested; one reaches the continuous, undifferentiated present. Nirvana, some might say.

All my life I have experienced moments – sometimes weeks and months – of existential panic: what am I doing, where am I headed, what is the purpose of my life? Am I applying myself diligently to becoming the best I can be? Should I be working harder, giving larger, eating better, exercising more, saving money for a rainy day, fretting about my health, perambulating the globe to see every little thing I can see? I remember, clearly, a definitive demarcation, a tipping point that shifted my internal monologue irrevocably: the moment I knew I was pregnant and heretofore responsible for another human life, my own interests and predilections were summarily shelved. Raising a child, to the best of my abilities (and that did ebb and flow throughout the years) became the plot of the narrative running through my head. I fall for this man because of his huge heart that embraces both me and my daughter; we move here because of the superior school system and safe neighborhoods; I take this job because the hours are conducive to child care; I pursue a graduate degree and further promotions to provide ballet lessons, cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, ski vacations and chauffeured birthday trips to Disneyland; we create a decades-long routine of unwavering predictability, weather marital storms and abusive bosses, watch our waistlines expand and our alcohol consumption increase; celebrate milestones and mourn the passing of our own youthful energy and exuberance – all to realize the “goal” of raising a child.

Still, there would be nights, usually after a bottle of wine and a desultory attempt to distract myself with a novel, when I would lie staring at the four walls pressing in on me and my heart would begin to flutter, my pores would emit a sheen of cold sweat, and my breath would go in but not out of my chest. That rising panic, the sense that my life was infinitesimally small, that I would live and die in such an incredibly insignificant, flat, colorless and static space, that all the flagrant wanderlust and burning curiosity of my youth had fizzled out and come to nothing – eventually, these crescendo-ing concerns could be countered and soothed by reciting the mantra of parents the world over: I’m doing all this for him/her/them.

Of course, I know now (and probably knew even then, but couldn’t acknowledge it) that this was a just a storyline, a plausible justification for having lost my impetus for adventure and becoming averse to risk, for staying in a stultifying situation that oftentimes did not excite or delight me but provided steady progress toward commonly recognized and respected aspirations. And it did work, remarkably well, actually. We raised a mentally healthy, relatively well-adjusted and emotionally secure human being. It stopped working, however, once she fledged and left me squatting in the abandoned nest, fat and featherless, confronting a wide-open sky that suddenly terrified me in its boundlessness. It is dramatically fitting, I suppose, that it was the baby bird who called it: when I floated the idea of joining Peace Corps, of making a leap of faith into the prevailing winds, she retorted “Well, of course – what in the heck is keeping you here?”

I worried, during the final months of my service, that the existential panic might find its way back to me once I landed stateside. It had been effectively silenced in Moldova by the dramatic arc of overseas service; I had left my country, my family and friends, my language and culture and geography, all that was familiar and routine, to embark on a voluntary adventure that was socially worthy and required a long-term, steadfast commitment. Peace Corps was my new plot, the next volume in the story of my life. It was exciting and challenging and provided a plausible explanation for abandoning an unrewarding job search and depressed economic forecast. I was morally “excused” from any existential fretting for the next three years. It was glorious. Even though, sometime during my second year as a volunteer, I did acknowledge – honestly and without trying to color it differently – that this path I had chosen was just another story, a way of living harmoniously with the circumstances life had thrown at me.

Coming home, I was very conscious of the need to find a new story. My husband had relocated to Ohio – close to his family but far from mine – and I had no clear job prospects, nor any burning desire to have one. I knew my own tendencies, though: I would find some hypothetical timeline or yardstick marked by cultural-, demographic and/or gender-specific goals and then begin reactively taking my measurement against it. If I found myself lagging I would feel like shit about myself for a little (or a long) while and then find the least-stressful and most convenient way to prop myself up. Meanwhile, I would be projecting into a future when I would be decades older yet still alive and healthy and the country and the economy would still look the same and the money I had diligently earned and saved would be sufficient to allow me to live a worry-free existence. Or…I could just stop worrying. Stop measuring myself. Take my eyes off the road ahead and look around me. I could write myself a different story. Volume three. (I AM a multivolume set.)

I admit, I have been waiting for an existential panic attack like one waits for the other shoe. A bad thing happened to me: I lost my job. Then another bad thing happened: my husband lost his job. We were unemployed together for a year; he experienced additional months after I escaped to Moldova. Now I am back, still unemployed and likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. What should I tell myself? That I need to climb back on the tired horse I’ve already ridden? Adopt the same plotline I had before? (But wait a minute – no child to blame it on…)

I’ve begun to realize that the story is absolutely mine to narrate. I can add in somber music and stormy clouds, a cast of indifferent characters, or a little wizard behind a curtain. I can pitch it as a comedy, a drama, or a cautionary tale. Before, I was a white, middle-class, educated, professionally employed, middle-aged parent who’d gone thick around the middle and a bit dull in the head but had attained the appropriate markers to deem myself a success. Even though I was virtually indistinguishable from so many others around me, I was comfortable that way. Until I wasn’t. Then, through a series of (what I now deem) fortunate circumstances I began to see the outline of a different narrative, another means of interpreting and integrating my circumstances. I could make up my own markers. (I think that’s one of the beautiful revelations of aging: one begins to see through the pre-ordained prescripts of society for what they are: a means of ensuring that a diverse, over-large population can live in close proximity without killing each other while stoking a centralized economy.) But as long as I continue to play by the meta-rules – don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or murder people – I am not required to mindlessly adopt the values or life trajectory that a 21st century, capitalist, technologically-oriented, Western society proscribed for me in order to measure my own worth or the satisfaction I take from my experience. I am my own narrator, the arbiter of how my story is told.

In support of my expressed wish to further practice the craft of writing, my husband once presented me with a marvelous little book called Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. In it, he tells the same innocuous tale – of a crowded bus at midday where one man accuses another of jostling him and subsequently moves to a different seat – ninety-nine different ways, employing, amongst a host of widely varying styles and interpretations, the sonnet and the alexandrine, a Cockney flair, a rhyming slang, pig Latin, an interrogative punch, and permutations by groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters. It is a fascinating display of talent and a perfect illustration of how one seemingly insignificant episode can be cast in distinct molds that change one’s perception of the material.

I used to see this with the kids in foster care: the measure of their resiliency was often demonstrated by the nature of their narrative, what they told themselves about how they ended up where they were. Mostly, there were two or three variations on a victim ideology and these were generally the kids who were depressed, furious, or numb. But there were a notable few who took preternatural hold of their own script, who refused to adopt or fall back on the patterns of behavior that being abused, neglected, emotionally flayed and love starved typically generated. For whatever reason, they were exceptions to the rule. They captained their own ships; even though they did not sail their chosen seas, they decided when to hoist the sails, batten down the hatches, heave ballast, or correct their course. One definitely had the sense that they were in a position to both combat severe weather and soak up sunny skies. I admired them greatly and took courage from their buoyancy.

Currently, I have cast myself in the role of peripatetic celebrant, finding reasons to recognize, honor, and nurture my body, family, friends, skills, and curiosity. I’m not sure of the specific soundtrack yet, but know it has a lot of bass drums, trilling violins and maybe an accordion or two. I haven’t written any bad guys into the plot: perhaps I just haven’t reached that chapter yet or maybe this particular volume won’t call for them. But if some dramatic, unanticipated plot twist should occur and I find my current circumstances profoundly altered, I trust that – having owned and honed this remarkable storytelling ability that all of us time-driven beings have been gifted – I will continue to write my own lines and guide the development of my character.

I still ponder the nature of time and how it propels us seemingly forward but actually just enlarges our circumference, allowing us to take in and incorporate even more diverse aspects of experiential space-time. In occasional flights of existential fantasy, I sometimes extrapolate this to what the other side of life might be like: time-warp velocity to reach the speed of light when the point A to point B narrative is experienced in its totality and there is no distance between the moments and life becomes the iridescent, fabulous coalition of melded pointillist interpretations, kind of like those celebrity portraits comprised of hundreds of separate photos of the same person. When the “I” that is me and the “I” that is you are realized, finally, to be stories told from kaleidoscoping points of view by an unimaginably creative and powerful pulsing of possibility, in and out, in and out.

So many stories to be told. It’s good to be a writer.

Buyer’s remorse

For a short while before I actually relocated to Ohio, Mike would field the notion of us purchasing a house here; every couple of phone calls we would return to worry the pros and cons between us, for surely this would be a reasonable next step for us now that my global peregrinations have (at least for the time being) abated. Zillow lists the median price for a home in this area at $138k, about the price we paid for our 3-bedroom condo in Irvine 21 years ago. We could easily qualify on his salary alone; he is making more now than we both made together in 1995. On the face of it, it seems like a prudent decision. He’ll want to retire in the next 10-15 years and we’ll have a home that’s ours for the rest of our lives. Yet, unaccountably, I would mentally cross my arms and dig in my heels every time he mentioned it; my tendency was to lob the decision back into his court: “Well, if that’s what you want…” thereby signaling divestiture of any responsibility on my part. Why is that? I would think. Why am I so resistant to putting my name on a deed, assuming ownership of a piece of property and taking responsibility for its maintenance?

To me, having 20 years of home-ownership and a raft of friends and family members negotiating their own purchases, remodels and/or refinance packages, a house represents so much more than just a safe harbor from the elements. Ever the bourgeoisie yearning toward nobility, we have elevated the home into a personal statement, a shrine to our domestic aspirations, our creativity and artistic abilities, our purchasing power and entertainment proclivities. One can reside in an apartment, or even a rented house for that matter, and be reasonably excused from not displaying attractive shades of paint, double-pane windows, Sub-zero appliances, or custom maple flooring. But once you own that home? Well, come on now, we all do it: crossing the threshold into a new acquaintance’s home for the first time, we begin a subtle inventory of the environment, each wall-hanging, end table, throw rug, light fixture, and counter-top a physical embodiment of that person’s aesthetic sense, an external expression of their interior life and mental landscaping. We learn much about people’s values and priorities in observing the choices they make regarding their domestic surroundings. It is glaringly apparent in Moldova, where those having the means segregate themselves from the downtrodden behind block walls and painted, wrought-iron fences enclosing fabulous gardens and multi-storied fortresses with tiled interiors, Ikea kitchens, and wedding-cake window treatments. (Walk outside that gate and encounter dust-laden roads with pot-holes wading-pool deep, stray dogs with gaping wounds licking fly-laden cartons amidst strewn trash, and men in the final throws of alcoholism face down in their own piss, but that’s not your problem. Casa ta este foarte frumos. And this is not an issue exclusive to Moldova, by any means, just one made more obvious by their juxtaposition. We here in America have learned how to segregate our poverty.)

Every day, I struggle against the impulsiveness of my own acquisitiveness. Target, CVS, Costco – they are all destinations laden with temptation for me. I am particularly prone to lotions, potions and culinary gadgetry: wave a civet-scented, buffalo-tallow-based body moisturizer, chocolate-infused balsamic reduction, or stainless-steel herb slicer in my face and it’s in the basket before I’ve even noted the price. I find my hand wavering now in the drugstore beauty section: is that Moroccan argan-oil smoothing treatment really going to improve the quality of my life? Is it worth the money I’ll spend, the clutter it will add to the narrow bathroom sink, the trash it will end up becoming when the contents of the bottle are gone?

I remember all too clearly the agonizing decisions that attended the dispersal of twenty years’ accumulated furniture, house wares, clothing, tchotchkes and mementos. Every object became that much heavier, knowing that holding on came with a cost and letting go meant forever. I want to prettify my new bedroom, yet know it will take hours and hours of scouring Goodwill, Craigslist, or the local flea markets to find those specific pieces which will accurately reflect my interior landscape, the aesthetic ethic that prioritizes reuse, recycling, and re-purposing over built-in obsolescence but is generally too lazy to see a decor from concept through to fruition. I am vulnerable to the knowledge that anything I end up choosing says something about how I wish other’s to see me and so increasingly opt not to choose anything at all. Buying a house would bring on a horde of mind-cluttering decisions that I just don’t want to entertain. Paint, molding, flooring, sinks, towel racks, faucets, window coverings – shit. I’d rather read a book, take a walk, plan dinner, and write.

I am reminded, also, of a proclivity I had in childhood. My little sister and I (me in the position of Project Manager, of course) would spend hours setting up our Barbie Dream House, Kitchen Carousel, Vanity Bedroom, and vast collection of molded plastic furniture, Barbie-sized vehicles and wardrobes. With each passing birthday and Christmas, our collection became grander until our delight in the pastime was invested almost exclusively in the planning and set-up; nine times out of ten, by the time we had finished negotiating territory, diagramming architecture, meticulously constructing, then (inevitably) rearranging our fantasy Barbie world, we had little time, imagination, or interest remaining to actually play with the dolls themselves. Such foreshadowing: life becomes so dense with acquisition and planning that either we lose impetus or leave no time for the actual experience.

***

Each moment is a choice. What aging reveals to most of us is that the routine decision-track our culture programs us to follow – college major, profession, marriage, home, babies – has huge implications for conscripting our attention, creativity, and energy for years and years and years. Intercourse takes an instant (or 30, I guess, if there’s foreplay) yet its consequences may join you for a lifetime. Purchasing a home, on average, takes a handful of months; for the subsequent 15-30 years many of your future options will be influenced, conscripted, or curtailed by the need to pay that monthly mortgage. As my lifeline shrinks with each passing year, I find myself increasingly troubled by these seemingly practical decisions that threaten to catch me up, tie me down, or force me a hand I don’t wish to play. I marvel at how the past five years continue to pulse within me, alive and rich and meaningful, whereas the bulk of time from when I was 35 to 49 resembles a foggy, impenetrable valley between the craggy peaks of youth and the paradigm-shattering day I lost my job. A few years ago I attempted a journal exercise, to string a lifeline of significant memories from my earliest to the present day through discreet decades. I scribbled madly along through the first 5-6 pages, recalling kindergarten playmates, newborn pets, neighborhood bullies, schoolyard embarrassments, and classroom crushes. Clear as day were recollections of Humboldt, nights of Ecstasy, travels through Big Sur, dynamic debates in college seminars and the brain explosions they induced, my sister’s death, my daughter’s birth, my impetuous first marriage, and the night Mike and I kissed for the first time. But then the memories abruptly dropped off, disappearing into that long low valley obscured by a hazy sameness, an undifferentiated terrain that did not change, year after year after year. For three pages, representing the years 1990 through 2010, I recorded exactly five memories: interviewing at Canyon Acres, breaking my ankle; marrying Mike, traveling to South America, and losing my job. Otherwise, my time line lay undistinguished and mute, terrifying in its utter blankness. With each moment so precious and ever dwindling, how did I let a huge swath of my life be swept under a rug?

Comparing the last five years with that monstrous erased portion of time, I find that the key lies in change. I stayed in the same house, worked for the same employer, was married to the same man, drove the same freeways, shopped at the same markets, and palled around with the same folks for one long, unbroken marathon of years. And I realize that for some people this is the epitome of happiness: routine, predictability, the sense of accomplishment and having arrived into the fullness of one’s life is the essence of success. You’ve hit all the markers and walked off with the prize. Yet how come literature and music and film are replete with those characters who, having wrested the trophy from the clutches of adversity with much personal sacrifice, find themselves intoning that age-old litany: Is that all there is?

I happened upon an excerpt from the German psychologist Marc Wittman’s recent book Felt Time: the Psychology of How We Perceive Time that explains much to me:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

I want to live, actually live, for a long more time. I am awed by the fragility of my existence, its propensity to slide towards ennui when I don’t consciously mind my moments. I wish to handle it reverently, like a newborn babe, breathing in all its potentials while remaining aware of how my choices manifest them, or not. Life is such an awesome responsibility, such a burgeoning gift that responds abundantly in rewarding our attention, yet how little of it we sometimes pay. Those five regrets of the dying volleyed through the internet a number of years ago were each the echo of decisions made, reverberations of unmindful choices that struck their last resounding knell over people’s death beds. My 73-year-old father, in one poignant sentence over the breakfast table, summed up his sudden sense of urgency upon recovering from a scary bout of viral meningitis: I feel like I’m running out of time. It is unfortunate that it often takes a brush with catastrophe to set those alarm bells ringing. Then again, such presents us with the mercurial opportunity for gratitude even in our darkest hours, like the (truly) immortal line of OneRepublic’s jubilant anthem Counting Stars: Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

I’m still undecided about the house. And I’m going to live with that for now.