Time to Change

Suddenly, my blog appellation – From Now on I Live Mad – seems even more appropriate these days than when I adopted it back in 2010 (hint: it’s a Rumi poem).  A decade ago, my husband and I had both lost our jobs within a month of each other; we were suddenly unyoked from the daily grind, ejected out into the wilderness of unframed days and blank calendars. The nation was still recovering from the 2008 recession, unemployment was hovering around 9%.  We took small comfort in the notion that our pain was semi-communal; at the time, though we did reap extended unemployment benefits, it felt like we were relatively alone in our personal and professional struggles as no one in our inner circle was similarly affected.  The world went on as usual, people dining out, attending events, going shopping, vacationing, leaving us behind in our gradually shrinking universe we could no longer afford.

Now, not so much.  Checking the headlines each morning is an exercise in fortitude and resiliency.  The news seems to get worse for everyone with each passing hour.  I haven’t checked our retirement accounts since noting a 30% loss three weeks ago (I’m sure it’s much worse now), but at least I’m living in a house without a mortgage and three months supply of food.  Things are so much worse for so many others.  People far away from family, living alone; people who are already sick, pregnant, on dialysis, stricken with cancer, suffering from any number of maladies that require consistent monitoring and treatment; folks still required to report to jobs every day – though they may be happy to have work, it must be frightening to put oneself at risk of exposure in order to eat.  I think of the health care professionals who either voluntarily leave their families every day, putting them at some risk of exposure, or those who are living apart from their families in order to best protect them from community exposure.  These are people walking into corridors of pain and need without adequate protective gear or resources to treat severely ill patients.  How traumatic it must be, day after day, with no end in sight, only the prospect of even greater pain and need with the advent of each subsequent shift.  My heart goes out to every single one of them.  (Hey folks: where are our celebrity heroes in all this, the influencers we follow on Instagram or YouTube, the multi-millionaire athletes we worship through Superbowls, NBA tournaments, and Stanly Cups; the actors whose addictions, romances, weddings, and squabbles we follow slavishly?   Cowering obediently behind closed doors along with everyone else, no different than the rest of us, useless to provide care or treatment during a global health crisis. Can we maybe reassess our priorities through this crisis and acknowledge the real heroes in our world, the ones who actually perform the lifesaving and health-sustaining activities that routinely keep the edifice of society intact?)

What I do appreciate is much less vitriol in my social media feeds.  Each day, I note more efforts being made to find the silver linings, the blessings, the unexpected gifts.  Americans have not been called as a nation to endure communal hardship and uncertainty at this level in most of our lifetimes; we can treat this as a disaster or look at it as a challenging opportunity.  We are at war with a non-living, viral entity that does not respect borders, bans, treaties, or rules of engagement.  Huge swaths of people have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs.  Businesses are closing.  Life as we have known it is gone, most likely for a long time.  We will not recover from this quickly.  How we cope will be the ultimate measure of our character as a people and provide a window on our prospects for the future, when the effects of climate change become terrifyingly pronounced in the coming decade.  I am fervently hoping that this time of respite will launch the conviction and creativity needed to address our looming woes.

What many of us do have now, abundantly, is free time.  Time to set aside the punishing schedules, the priority demands, the gridlock of deadlines, appointments, and commitments that have been crowding us into buzzing hives of relentless activity for so long.  And this surfeit of time is conferring unexpected gifts: lengthy conversations between neighbors standing on their respective lawns; nighttime play dates for the group of college-renters across the street, who come out some nights after dark to play kick ball on our cul-de-sac; free video tutorials from fitness experts, chefs, storytellers, art museums, cartoonists, and musicians; time spent with children who can remind us how to play.

At heart, I am an optimist.  I believe that we have the imagination, the will, and the fortitude to withstand this crisis.  I have faith that, once the immediate danger has passed, folks will emerge from their cocoons, blinking away darkness, into the light of a new way of looking at and being in the world.  Suddenly the balm of endless consumption will be revealed for what it truly is: a false comfort, an unsustainable strategy for authentic happiness. Many of us will have found a place of inner serenity, an appreciation for the relationships in our lives and the actual things that nurture us – a comfortable home, healthy food, access to affordable health care, grounded and knowledgeable leaders.  All the bling in the world cannot substitute for those essentials.

I’m looking forward to the time when we all enjoy them.

***

And a shout out to the excellent blogger and pen pal  at http://triciatierneyblog.com/ who inspired me to start writing again (for the 5th or 6th time…)  Thank you Tricia – you are another niche of sanity in an insane world.

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.

Photographic Evidence

Photographic Evidence

Assignment 3 in Personal Essay and Memoir course

FIRST: Choose a selfie from your phone. Examining the selfie, describe the following elements, in 400-600 words or so:

  • the specific location in which the photo was taken, and why
  • your attire in the photo, and why
  • one detail in the photo that stands out as unique or remarkable (and why you find it so)
  • at least one element about the environment that could not be deduced from evidence in the photo, for example, smells, sounds, activity in the next room, etc.
  • your mood at the time the photo was taken, and why
  • the person who was physically closest to you in the photograph (Keep in mind this may not necessarily be someone visible in the photograph.)

Writing from the level of the frame (again, you can think of this as the level of the voiceover or quasi-omniscient narrator), describe your mood, or what was likely the case, based on past habits and routine behaviors. Think about how you move between the details you do remember and those you don’t.

Then, writing from the level of the story, as if the events captured by the photo are unfolding in real time, repeat the exercise using a photograph of you taken by someone else. This photo should be completely unrelated to the selfie except, of course, that you are the subject of each.

Pioneertown

Selfie: Susan and I have come to Pioneertown, located in the high desert just out of Joshua Tree State Park, to visit her as-yet undeveloped property.  While she walks the boundaries checking for traces of flooding patterns, digging out thorny bushes and other unwanted interlopers, I sit in a folding metal chair she’s brought to accommodate me.  After several minutes tracing her dwindling figure among the lightening-amputated Joshua trees and fire-seared cacti with my phone camera, I accidentally flip it back on me.  I’m not a big one for selfies as the portraits I capture inevitably appear to be of no one I recognize.  But this time is different. This time it is ME looking at back at me, the me of decades ago – aged, for sure, but still within the general outlines of the person I recognize as my Self.

I am wearing my beloved J. Peterman hat that appears to be cowboy grade leather but is actually a cotton acrylic blend that fits my head so well it looks like it grew from it.  I can feel the gentle, sage-scented breeze that lifts my longish blonde hair, providing a cooling counterpoint to the desert sun.  Several rounds of braided black leather from which a tarnished charm and a polished bit of amber hang encircle my neck; beyond the shoulders and upper neckline of my black tee shirt, not much more of me is visible.  (This is how, along with the pinpoint focus of my gaze, I can tell it is a selfie and not a photo Susan took of me, which is how she remembers it – oh the vagaries of memory!)

Perhaps it just evidences the amount of weight I’ve lost in the last year that my real face has emerged from the black hole it dropped into during my forties.  For years, the puffy, mildly confused person staring back at me from photos appeared lost within the frame, unclear how she arrived in the tableau, unsure of the way out.  Now, in this photo, I am slightly amused, relieved to see my own eyes, a bit red from the sun and wind, staring back at me.

Or maybe the reappearance of my Self is indicative of the welcome exhilaration that an exodus from suburbia has provided – Susan just as enthused as me to put Orange County in the rear-view mirror in favor of open horizons and the bird-tatted silence of the desert. I am now counting years since I have left the United States; its intangible borders feel more and more intractable and stultifying these days.  Within the frame of the selfie, though, I am the emigrant who can see free again.

Halloween 2018

Photograph: I am sitting aslant on John and Emily’s living room couch, the only person seated in a nighttime babel of drink-holding, costume-clad, party-voiced revelers.  Fortunately, the anime-face mask I’m wearing hides the misery and exhaustion I’m feeling.  Emily, who has yet to discern my marked lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, hands me another glass of alcohol (there is an untouched Moscow Mule in a plastic cup gathering beads of sweat on the end table beside me) and squeals “Hurry Mike – over here! Let’s get you guys’ picture!”   Mike obligingly drops down heavily beside me, causing me to fall against him.  Draping his arm around my shoulders, he beams at the camera, one bushy eyebrow raised. An irrational fury adds hiss to the roiling of my stomach: three days of continuous vomiting, vertigo, and diarrhea have left me humorless and hating everyone.  I landed in Cincinnati a mere four hours ago; we immediately got on the highway to make the two-hour drive to Lexington for this party.  I so hadn’t wanted to board that plane, worried about both the uncountable ailments that had persisted despite all my efforts to appease them and how I would manage them for six hours in a cramped airline seat.  But when you live 1600 miles from your spouse you don’t cancel conjugal visits lightly.

Now, husband beside me, I can’t even manage to hold his hand for the photo.  Instead, my left hand clutches my right, white knuckles glowing, in a silent plea to make it stop, return to normal, quiet the mounting dread I have that something is really wrong. My mask is askew; the eye holes are black and bottomless, no sign of myself peering out.

Three days from now I will wake up to neon-yellow tinted eyes, sallow skin and brown urine in the toilet bowl.  Five days from now I will be informed by my horrified primary care physician that my liver enzymes are the highest she’s ever seen and within a week I’ll be discussing liver transplants with my new gastroenterologist.  But the night of the photo, I have no information, only uncountable pain and misery, irritating people surrounding me, and a plastic mask to hide behind.

Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

Old Tricks, Repackaged for a New Generation

“Yvette!  WE’RE GOING TO THE POT STORE,” my dad shouts from the driveway up to my bedroom window over the garage as if the message was in the all-caps print he favors.

“Great Dad. Now I and the rest of our neighbors know where you’ll be for the next hour or so.” Looking down, I can see my mom climbing into the passenger seat of Dad’s jumbo-jet sized, luxury SUV.

“And no one says pot anymore, by the way.  Say weed.  Or better yet, just dispensary.’”

I sound so like the snarky teen I once was that I have to do a mental check.  My dad’s awareness of marijuana had its foggy beginnings during my middle school years, when he shifted from beat cop to narcotics, grew his hair long, donned a uniform of loose peasant shirts, suede boots, and bell-bottom Levis, and played The Guess Who in our tangerine-colored family van.  He might have adopted the trappings, but he was miles from cool.  Shouting out his destination in our smartly landscaped, ethnically diverse, Tesla-littered cul-de-sac reminded me of his past indiscretions.

I surmise that properly identifying cannabis and recognizing its psychoactive effects might have posed a bit of a challenge for a small suburban police force back then, mostly because my oldest brother had the actual plants growing in our backyard that my dad routinely watered every weekend when he did yard work.  Dad could never tell when we were high, which was more often than not during those years.  I do remember him spouting the inflammatory prophecy of it being an evil “gateway drug” which would inexorably deliver its users into full blown heroin, cocaine, LSD, and/or psilocybin addiction.  (Though my siblings and I dabbled in those substances, most of us ended up in thrall to sporadic quantities of crystal meth – oh, the all-nighters studying, cleaning, organizing, writing!)

Now my parents are rabid, copious consumers of all things THC- and CBD-infused – cookies, gummy drops, oils, lotions, and patches.  Their dispensary expenditures routinely exceed $300-400 per month.  Nothing I would’ve ever predicted in 1975, but probably the most mind-altering consequence of living in a state where recreational marijuana use is legal.  (And heavily taxed, I might add.  HEAVILY.  Another example of liberals putting their money where their mouths are, I’m just saying.)

I reflect on this reality whenever I open my desk drawer and see my vape pens rolling around with the Pilot G-2s and Sharpies.  Getting high is such a mundane aspect of life these days, for many reasons preferable to imbibing alcohol, which used to be my go-to relaxant until I suffered a (very) scary bout of elevated liver enzymes a year ago.  Mostly I employ it as a soporific, taking a hit or two prior to shutting off the lights for bed.  Zonk – menopausal insomnia cured!   Occasionally, I’ll take it along for a coastline jog; nothing corrals the chattering distractions of the running brain like the hypnotic, looping effects of a little THC. But mostly I don’t think about it.  Unlike high school, I don’t have to deal with shady strangers on corners or someone’s lascivious cousin with his own apartment in Downey or the manager at the local pizzeria who charged a 200% markup over street prices but gave you a free pie as a cover.  I just drive the 2.6 miles to the local dispensary, park under the watchful gaze of the armed security guard, wait in line behind five other convivial senior citizens to present my ID to the woman at the front desk, and am buzzed through to an emporium of products presented in myriad flavors, sizes, strengths, and delivery mediums.  Capitalism has transformed the War on Drugs into a surprisingly pleasant shopping errand.

Subsequently, I don’t know if the high itself has changed or its integration into the routine of life has tamed its tantalizing qualities, but it certainly doesn’t hold, at least for me, the cachet that it once did.   When I was fourteen, my relationship with psychoactive substances sprang from the nascent desire to fathom the teleological difference, if there was any, between mind and brain. Suffused as I was with Buddhism, Beatnik writers, Schrödinger’s cat, Platonic ideals and rudimentary Catholic theology, one can imagine how effectively a marijuana high could contribute to my efforts.  Now, I just want to go to sleep.  Same feeling, different outcome.

I imagine that by fifty-seven I have followed all the less strenuous, non-academic, quasi-spiritual paths towards figuring out life’s meaning; the mental vistas currently afforded me by THC have become a bit mundane and claustrophobic. Is it maturity?  Monotony?  Resignation?  Smoking weed no longer promises the (wink-wink) mystical elevator into the absolute it once did.  By virtue of their legality, THC and CBD products are heavily regulated to be content verifiable and consistent.  Does this affect the nature of the high itself?  Certainly, smoking dope of this type is not the roulette’s wheel of my youth, when the whispered gems “Mexican Sinsemilla” or “Humboldt Indica” conveyed deluxe, transcendent properties sure to send the mental explorer catapulting into deep space but more reliably, come to think of it, fizzled out into blank stares and ill-advised snacking.  And there were a few, definitely uncomfortable occasions early on, after legalization but before I got the dosage right, when my thoughts caromed off into cramped and circular orbits that recalled the “bad trips” of my youth, anxiety-fraught treks through ricochet-laden mental environs that are even less enticing after so long abiding in the world of forethought and consequences.

Perhaps what I am really yearning for is that breath-stealing, soul-melting experience of magic mushrooms or E(cstasy) kicking in, when the boundary between mind and brain dissolves, liquefying into a non-question, any answer irrelevant to the numinous revelations pouring from within and without. But, of course, when one is fifty-seven there is a larger context underpinning the choice of what to ingest into one’s corpus: will this kill me? Weaken me? Make me healthier? Live longer, stronger, wiser?  Increasingly, the risk associated with most drugs outweighs their various temptations. I see now that death will always have the upper hand, catch me soon enough and provide all the outstanding answers to life’s Big Questions, anyway.

It does amuse me that, after all these years, I am coaching Dad on the socially appropriate way to reference his ‘gateway’ drug in the driveway of the same house where squad cars would periodically deposit my two truant younger brothers after they were caught smoking ‘pot’ in the flood control channel behind their high school.  How times have changed.  What was once the stuff of dire parental warnings and government propaganda has transformed into an AARP-touted pain-reliever and  a sleep-inducer for the Boomer generation.

Perhaps that’s what makes the high substantively different, in the end: anything your parents condone can’t be that much fun, right?

April 27, 1985-2019

Today my 36-year-old nephew marries his longtime girlfriend at his family’s ranch in Merced, California, turning a date which for 34 years has been saturated in sadness and loss into one of celebration and welcome. Quite unknowingly, he and his fiancé selected the anniversary of his paternal aunt’s – his father and my sister’s – untimely death for their nuptials. My family couldn’t be more grateful and glad. Finally, a happy ending to a dreadful commemoration.

In the last decade, I admit that the date often comes and goes without me paying heed to its significance. How long can one actively grieve, after all? I was 24-, my sister Lorraine 20-years old, when she died. Given our age difference and the fact that I left home at 17 and was largely out of contact with her until I moved back home at 22, my conscious experience of her as an individual is constrained to perhaps 15 or 16 years of episodic memories. And that becomes an increasingly smaller ratio of my life as each year passes. One of the tragedies inherent in dying young is that one’s persona is forever frozen, never accruing the experiential strata that deepen and flavor a personality and connect us to other people. So, Lorraine fades as time accrues, as she is unable to maintain meaningful bridges into the lives of those of us who remain.   No one can ever dissect, commiserate or appreciate her college years, her serious romantic relationships, her career successes and failures, her children’s unique characters and miens, her pursued interests, abandoned dreams, lost causes, or significant personal triumphs. They were all killed in that head-on collision on a dark canyon road in 1985. (I used to picture her suddenly liberated soul floating about the location, untethered, for months after the accident. Did she know that she was dead? Is there a legitimate case to be made for “knowing” you are dead? I don’t wonder about that anymore. It’s been way too long for her still to be lost, if she ever was indeed.)

My grandmother, Lorraine’s namesake, will turn 98 in less than a month. For the past couple years, because she is open regarding her readiness to die, I do not think of her eventual passing as “tragic” or heartbreaking. My memories of her are rich and robust: I distinctly remember many of her milestone birthdays – 50, 65 (she retired), 75, 90. I don’t think it improbable that she will see 100. Yet, she, too, is fading as time inexorably flows. Her ability to span the divide between herself and her family (all her friends have died) is almost completely constrained. Leaving the house solely for medical appointments, she spends all day in her pajamas and bathrobe, reading in her favorite chair. She will not attend her great-grandson’s wedding and feels no guilt nor regret for not doing more. At this point in her life, experience is passively attenuated, never actively curated. And because of this she is becoming increasingly immobile, frozen in time. The less present she is for each progressing moment, the less we will feel her absence when it becomes irrevocable.

In the end, what do we have of anyone in our lives but our memories of them? Each passing minute, most of them not continuously spent in their presence, describes a growing gulf between us and them. For some, that gulf is only days, perhaps months, wide and is easily surmounted the next time we see them. For others, the gap can lengthen into lives diverged, an unspecified point passed which, unknowingly, marked the limit of our mutual ability to recognize and commune with each other. There are people whose presence I believed essential to my daily existence once upon a time (my ex-husband springs to mind or my very best friend from high school) who could be dead now and it would not affect me in the slightest.

I often ponder how I will be a name that might surface (or not) at Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2095, an atavistic tale told by my now two-year-old grandsons to their probably bored great-grand kids under unimaginable (for me) circumstances. We are all destined to fade away and in the grand scheme of things a life of 20 or 98 years is of equal, unimportant length to those who hold no memories of us. Meanwhile, I am glad to welcome another iteration of family to the layers that lie beneath.

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.

Barefoot

barefoot
photo courtesy depositphotos

Just now

on an impulse

I slipped a foot out of shoe and

stepped on the grass.

It felt like baby fingers,

succulent green and plush.

And a breeze blew me back to

flat bellies on hot sidewalks,

sprinklers spraying diamond droplets

and ice melting in paper-cupped Koolaid.

I bet it’s been forty years since I spent

a whole summer day

outside

playing barefoot.

Fifty fitness

My thirty-year-old daughter is 5 months pregnant (with twins!) and I can’t help but relive my own pregnancy as she whines about the cumbersome tractor tire imprisoning her waistline. Outside of the wonder of creating life in the provenance of one’s belly, pregnancy engenders an urgent appreciation for the normal dimensions and mechanics of one’s body. Navigating the world with an extra 30-50 pounds of weight suddenly attached to your midsection makes you long to skip, jump, run, and dance to a degree not usually accessible when trying to build a routine exercise regime. My daughter swears that the first thing she’ll do after birthing The Guys (well, perhaps not the first thing….uncorking a bottle of champagne has been mentioned more than once) is slap on the spandex and begin moving vigorously in all directions. Shrinking back to fit within the outlines of one’s accustomed physical space almost overnight is, indeed, a giddy experience, one that can light a fire for intensive activity like nothing else.

Although I never considered myself overweight or awkward as a teenager or young adult, I was definitely not prone to running around with balls or sticks, migrating towards playing fields, joining teams, or sweating for pleasure. An athlete I was not, preferring the vistas made available through reading to the distant horizon of a finish line. But something about being dense and grounded by pregnancy propelled me into action once my daughter was born. I joined a gym (partly, I admit, because they offered free child care, a rare reprieve for a single, unemployed parent) and began the process of sculpting and toning muscles, building endurance, and inhabiting my own body in a manner I never had before. Because I was young and healthy and able to spend 2-3 hours a day working out, it did not take long to realize results. Within months I could do a strenuous aerobics class (oh the 80’s!,) lift weights for another hour, then wind up with a bout of intensive stretching before collecting the child and heading home. One Saturday morning, alone and on a whim, I ran ten miles just to see if could. (Although that was an isolated endeavor, folks; I never did have the stamina for enduring marathon-grade pain.) I felt glorious, distinctly remember appreciating the amazing capabilities of my body and promising myself never to let it slide back into lassitude and indolence again. Hah!

Me at my most fit0001

I present these two photos, taken some 25 years apart, as evidence of what happens when intention strays. That point in my life that allowed for daily hours-long workouts soon passed; I had a child to get off to school in the morning and a psychologically intense, emotionally-draining job that left me physically weary and more interested in accompanying co-workers to the bar than hitting the gym after work. Slowly, the weight crept on, not suddenly like pregnancy, but insidiously, over a long string of years, giving the lassitude and indolence firm purchase by the time I noticed the shapeless, plodding woman adjacent in the windows’ reflection was me. The accretion of pounds and loss of muscle accompanied the implacable vicissitudes of aging itself; the more weight padding my frame, the more recalcitrant my muscles, the heavier my bones, the stiffer my joints, the less likely I was to push myself through the interminable stretches of intense discomfort necessary to ameliorate the problem. Despite sporadic, albeit earnest, attempts to “get back in shape,” I was invariably defeated in the long run by my tendency to fall into books for pleasure, retreat to the kitchen for creative expression, and seek surcease of existential anxiety in the bottom of a wineglass. (For almost two decades, my husband’s and my primary recreational activity was restaurant dining.) By the time I was in my late 40’s I had all but given up. I did not have the energy or motivation needed to mount a campaign.

One of my fantasies of Peace Corps service was enforced starvation and exercise; I would return home after 27 months newly svelte from a dearth of edibles, desk chairs, and motorized vehicles. During the initial 3 months of training, forced to live with a Moldovan woman who subsisted largely on the abundance of her garden, slog up giant hills twice daily to language class, and endure the sweat bath of summer without air conditioning or fan, I did drop some 25 pounds with no forethought or planning. However, the minute I moved out on my own all hope was lost. (See above for the tendencies that perennially thwart me; surprisingly, those didn’t change with the geography.) I think I actually gained weight my last year, having befriended a group of hard-drinking, chain-smoking gourmands who introduced me to the burgeoning varieties of ethnic cuisine taking hold in Chisinau. (When $20 USD will buy you a 3 hour, five-course meal, with alcohol it’s hard to abstain.)

Now, weighing significantly more than I ever did pregnant, I find myself grounded in the Midwest, home base of the chronically obese, where there are more fast food restaurants per city block than telephone poles, gas stations, and grocery stores combined and lard is flavored twenty-nine ways and sold as a condiment. If one isn’t attentive it would be easy to collapse into the hammock of country fries and bacon grease. Alleviated from the time constraints of employment, isolated from the distractions of friends, family, and familiar territory, and suddenly attuned to the accelerating shrinkage of my lifeline, I am forcing myself to acknowledge that this is probably my final chance to recapture any vestige of the strength, flexibility and endurance that came so easily to me in my 20’s. Over the last six weeks of establishing a life here, I have pushed myself to incorporate incremental degrees of activity and allow longer stretches between alcoholic beverages and calorically-dense meals. Just today, focused on keeping the correct form while heaving barbells, I caught the faintest glimpse of the faded outlines of my long lost silhouette. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to believe it might actually still be in there, muffled by time and pounds and lethargy, but attainable if I keep myself on course.

Many of the Moldovans I know are rich in one regard: their daily lives generally incorporated a great deal of physical activity, from working in the garden to manual labor jobs to walking most everywhere they go.  Conversely, exercise is  something most Americans have to schedule into their day.  It’s one of the reasons I have been so loathe to seek employment now that I’m back: I dread sitting on my ass for eight hours every day

Realistically, any measure of success is a matter of years, not months, now and I will never have the lung power or joint support I took for granted in my 20s and 30s. But it’s starting to feel vaguely pleasant, rather than punishing, to be moving. I can climb the three floors to our apartment carrying bags of groceries without panting. I logged two miles in under 30 minutes yesterday (pathetic, I know, but more than I could do six weeks ago!)  I’m thinking when I arrive in California to help with The Guys I actually will have the stamina to do so.  Much like pregnancy, aging is a brilliant attention-getter.  It forces us to notice our bodies, to appreciate the freedom granted by mobility, the range of available activities that begin to narrow and slot one into the category of “old” if we let things slide.

I know I am nowhere near ready to be old.  Here’s to fifty fitness!

.

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.

Trading down for uptime

Now that my Peace Corps service is over and the residual effects of my father’s viral meningitis are fading and I have landed – finally – back in residence with my husband, I am faced with the prospect of What to Do Now? Over the past few months, this question has unfurled like a fiddle-head fern, sprouting its own leafy series of subheadings, such as: What defines success? Security? How much is enough? Which goals are generated by fear? Anxiety? Acquisitiveness? Envy? How often does regret, or guilt, or the regard of my peer group impel my choice of activities? Living inside of a different culture for three years has gifted me a different perspective on my own; stepping stones I took for granted for most of my adult life – undergoing education; managing my career; acquiring real estate; seeking promotions and increased responsibility (read: higher paychecks;) scheduling leisure, as well as physical, activity time; upgrading my phone, vehicle, exercise equipment, entertainment systems, appliances and wardrobe to remain abreast of current trends – all have been yanked from their purposeful pedestals and called in for interrogation.

I have just come from a weekend reunion of ten of my M27 cohorts (the 27th group of PCVs to serve in Moldova) and these suddenly suspect notions provided an unspoken backdrop to most of my conversations. All but two of us left Moldova in July of 2014, the scheduled close-of-service for our two-year stint (I stayed an extra year, one woman left a year early, in 2013.) This reunion afforded me the opportunity to see how those who had been home for 2-3 years picked up the threads of their past lives. What were their values? Dreams? Aspirations? Goals? How does one reboot after a life-altering experience? The ways I found are as varied as the people who tread them.

Our host, widowed shortly before her service, has taken a part-time job working as a counselor with the homeless in her mid-sized town. This might be viewed as a step down from the positions of managerial responsibility she held in the past; what she likes most about the work is the engagement it provides with her community and the increased free time she gains from working only 20 hours per week. Of the remaining nine attendees, the only person besides our host older than me is retired and engaged to be married to another M27; while she fund raises for the local university, he keeps busy volunteering for various civic organizations and both are actors  in their community’s theater group. One couple is employed with the federal government; looking to continue overseas assignments, they elected the standard path through DC after PC service. Both are strongly concerned with work-life balance and avoiding consumer-culture. Another is recently married with a 4-month-old son; she enjoys taking him to museums, parks, baby massage and yoga classes. One is finishing up grad school and is still undecided about next steps; another is employed in her family’s business and travels extensively throughout the USA, enjoying a weekly change of scenery that has kept her surprisingly satisfied. One of the youngest attendees flew in from India where she spent the past four months working in youth development; she spoke to me wistfully of the broadening chasm between herself and her childhood friends, who all grew up in NYC, have fast-track jobs, substantial disposable income and a preoccupation with fashion and celebrity. The last two attendees (one of whom married a Moldovan who has joined her here in the States) are working in food services and finance, respectively, with avid avocations (salsa dancing, wine-making, animal husbandry) which they’ve prioritized over careers.

Such a mixed lot,varied ethnic and socioeconomic origins, ranging in age from 27 to 65, hailing from eight states and two continents. The probability of us all meeting – much less becoming close friends – outside of Peace Corps is pretty much nil. And that, in the end, is the legacy of Peace Corps service: possibilities increase exponentially. What I found so compelling being in their company once again was finding automatic re-entry into that space of open horizons, optimistic buoyancy and a dearth of fear that defines Peace Corps Volunteers, their enthusiasm for being alive now and eagerly anticipating what comes next infectious, intoxicating, and soul-satisfying. Not one of them hates where they’re at or what they’re doing; I spent 48 hours without encountering an ounce of bitterness, weariness, frustration, resignation or regret.

Just prior to my departure for Moldova happened upon a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. It resonated so strongly with me it became the eponymous genesis of this blog:

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

At the time, my life of twenty-odd years had been upended: my husband and I had lost our jobs and we’d sold our home to avoid losing it, disposing of 95% of our material belongings in the process. We had been forced into circumstances that neither one of us would have voluntarily chosen, yet I was unaccountably thrilled by the experience. We had both been so unhappy for such a long, long time, but were too conditioned by routine and material comforts to risk making the changes that might ameliorate our misery. Peace Corps became my escape hatch, a stepping stone, a means of prudently planning a way to live mad. And, indeed, it served to destroy my professional reputation, at the very least, (one can’t take a lengthy break from HR administration and law without repercussions) and, in some ways, made me notorious, at least among my oldest friends and more conservative acquaintances who didn’t quite recognize this inexplicable compulsion to throw a perfectly respectful upper-middle class life out the window to go live in a developing country on a stipend. Why would I walk away from all I had worked so hard to accumulate, rather than buckle down and find a way to preserve it? Wasn’t I worried about the future, finding another professional position, affording a new house, purchasing another round of furniture and appliances, buying another car, increasing my retirement accounts? My husband and I were well into middle-age: this was not the time for a gap year. But those concerns were threadbare and meaningless to me – I was truly running from what was profitable and comfortable, for suddenly I recognized how such prosaic rewards had sapped my vitality and all that was fresh and astonishing from my day-to-day existence.

Now my running has returned me full circle and, this time, I have the opportunity to choose from exponential possibilities without having to extricate myself from a comfortable routine. While I was overseas, my husband made some risky changes of his own, relocating to a more affordable area of the country where he was able – after many scary months of unemployment – to secure a better paying position with a profitable company doing work that he loves. We are now living in a low-rent apartment, in a less-than-prestigious community, with the minimum of furniture, driving older-model cars. One choice? Hit the replay button: I could find another career-track job, which would enable us to purchase a new house (here, they’re about ¼ of the price of the median home in California,) upgrade to late-model cars, acquire again the latest appliances and electronic paraphernalia, eat out five times a week, expand our vacation and entertainment allowances, and put away even more money for that ambiguous someday when we’ll both retire. Indeed, we debated the pros and cons of reconstructing our old life but just can’t get around the blue elephant slumped in the room: for almost a decade, we were desperately unhappy playing that game. Once the novelty of having grown-up salaries and adult-sized furniture wore off, we discovered ourselves chest-deep in those mind-numbing, soul-sucking, energy-drains that financed our lifestyle, unable to pull ourselves out. Back then, we were waiting for retirement to legitimize our suffering. But now, having bottomed out involuntarily, why would we knowingly dive in again? At some level we understand that the choice to recreate what we’ve already done is trying to play catch-up, no longer with the Jones’s, who’ve since trounced us in the material sense, but with an ideal that was sold to us (and Americans in general, dare I say) about what it means to be successful and self-actualized.

I am hesitant to claim we have found a better alternative, but we are, at this point, willing to have less in order to experience more. Once we looked beyond the “need” to for us both to be remuneratively employed, we saw the possibility of improving our lives by investing my time, instead, in homemaking. Yep, you read that right: cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping – all that unacknowledged ‘women’s work’ that a whole generation of females has been beating back since the 60’s and 70’s and (some) are still fleeing today. Wait a minute – WHAT??? What would possess a college-educated professional capable of commanding a healthy income, especially one without small children at home, to relinquish her economic freedom and restrict herself to manual labor in a low-rent apartment in an anonymous suburb of Cincinnati? It seems antithetical to every single feminist standard I’d inhaled during my formative years. In fact, on the surface, it sort of resembles the lives of many Moldovan women I vaguely pitied while living in the village. Yet, at this moment, it seems the perfect employment of my time and energy. Living in Moldova, I found myself enjoying the morning walk to the piața or the local veggie market. I looked forward to cooking a nutritious, delicious meal for the evening. Doing wash, hanging it to dry in the sun and breeze outside, carefully folding it to press the creases in my pants and blouses – all gave me a subtle, but sweet pleasure. Sweeping the floor became a meditation, similar to raking sand in a Buddhist garden. My house was small and my needs were few – I spent a great deal of time staring out the window witnessing the seasons change. I felt peaceful and fulfilled in a way I had never managed to achieve in my American middle-class life. The prospect of returning to the pace and stressors of my stateside existence discomfited me (which contributed largely to my opting to stay a third year.) My work was minimal, yet satisfying. No one expected me to move mountains, run faster, jump further, fly higher, or prove my worth. I was heralded for showing up, participating, smiling, listening, sharing, caring. Moldova was the first time in my life beyond childhood that I felt comfortable having no driving ambition. I existed. And existence was satisfying.

Here’s the thing: my husband and I ARE middle-aged and no amount of money in the world is going to guarantee us a certain amount of breathing time to enjoy life. With his income sufficient to support the two of us and our material requirements few, I am free to attend to both homemaking and those time-consuming tasks – think standing in line at the DMV, comparing insurance policies, cashing in recycling, picking up prescriptions, waiting for repairmen, scheduling vehicle maintenance – that used to eat away at our free time or never get done. Either way, they were nagging necessities that provided little joy in accomplishment and left us both feeling constantly harried and dissatisfied. Couple that with jobs that were aggravating, deleterious, and seemingly designed to fail and it is no surprise that we turned to food and alcohol and technology as primary panaceas. Conversely, in opting for simplicity and parsimony, what we gain is more leisure time, healthier lifestyles, less stress, fewer arguments, and an increased ability to enjoy each other’s company. We are both happier and (naturally) more pleasant to be around.

I am hoping that all this new-found free time will lead to more productive creativity, that I will be present here and pushing pen across paper more than I have been in the last 6-7 months. If nothing else made apparent the difference between circumstances, the move from Moldova to the US surely stole away the hours that formulated the musings that I used to pour out here.

Luckily, an excerpt from yet another poem, this one by Mary Oliver, arrived to give me guidance for this next phase:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it
.

I spent too way many years blindfolded, bored and complaining. I look forward to having time to pay attention, finding things astonishing, and writing all about it……