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.
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.
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.
Assignment 2 in Memoir and Personal Essay Course: Write a narrative describing an activity that you do regularly which incorporates at least ten steps—something you perform preferably every day, but at least several times a week. With attention to voice, imbue the writing with a sense of character and personality. Pay attention to the way you transition from one step to the next. Connect each step in a unique way that is not merely repetitive like “first I do this, then I do that.” Instead, think about cause and effect. Explain the rationale for each step and why it follows the one before it. You are only allowed to use the words “next” or “and then” twice total.
My maternal grandmother was a larger-than-life figure in my childhood. She was one of the first women to be sworn in as a police officer in Glendale, California, and for years made the 35 mile drive each Saturday to our home in Orange County to share grand tales of her professional exploits with my young mother, housebound with five children under ten. I would generally hunker down somewhere near the couch, where I could hear what had gone on that week in the juvenile bureau and with her partner, Copie. Since my grandfather’s motorbike accident left him a paraplegic in 1943, my grandmother was the sole breadwinner and his caretaker for decades; to my inexperienced self she represented the epitome of independence and self-determination. This, of course, was before I appreciated the extent to which care-taking can infringe upon self-determination and independence.
These days, GG (the sobriquet bestowed when she became a great-grandmother more than 36 years ago) is 98 years old. Making her bed, combing her own hair, reaching anything on a higher shelf, opening pickle jars – little things that most of us accomplish thoughtlessly – are painful, almost impossible feats for her, saddled as she is with arthritic joints, frozen shoulders, compromised mobility, and vertigo. There have been numerous falls in the preceding decade, many of them resulting in trips to the ER and overnight hospital stays. Now, even some of the basics of personal hygiene have become challenging and potentially dangerous. Like many other common tasks of daily life, it has become a preventative measure to assist her with the mechanics of undressing, getting in and out of the shower, and donning her pajamas once again. Providing this type of support to her consumes about ten hours of my week, time that I give willingly and joyfully, but which does limit some of my wider-ranging activities and time away from home.
GG is a congenitally orderly person who craves routine and predictability. Hence, she’s happiest if she has a bit of notice that shower hour has arrived so can she prepare herself and the environment accordingly. Usually, I enter her en suite bathroom to find her new pajamas already laid out on the dresser, her bathmat placed in front of the shower, her towel hanging from the vertical hand bar just outside the shower door. It is only then, when all elements are in place, that the ritual may commence.
We begin in her walk-in closet. I pull down her pajama bottoms, she braces herself against the dresser and steps out of them. Her underwear follows; we carefully preserve the protective pad she has inserted against bladder accidents as disposing of one before its fully soaked is wasteful. Her pajama shirt comes off slowly, with considerable attention paid to keeping her arms below her shoulders: their arthritic pain is so excruciating she cries out if I accidentally pull her arms up too high. I remove the button hanging on a chain around her neck that allows her to send an electronic signal to other rooms in the house if she requires assistance, though most often she hits it unknowingly against a counter or her mattress, sending my mom and I flying into her room, usually in the middle of the night, expecting to find her again on the floor. Traces of Oil of Olay waft in my nostrils as I bend close to remove the gold wristwatch, an essential component of her wardrobe that she references throughout the day to track her unbending, self-imposed schedule. (Lunch is always at 10:30am, cocktails at 2:00pm, dinner 4:30pm, bedtime 7:45pm. You can set your own clock by her unflagging routine.)
Once she is undressed, we leave the closet, GG pushing her walker some ten feet across the tiled floor to the shower stall. Following closely behind her, I marvel at her upright posture. She moves rapidly, with straight-backed confidence, when holding onto the walker’s handles. From the back, one might take her to be in her 70’s or early 80’s; her skin retains a rosy vibrancy, its delicate topography a well-preserved, creamy tulle sagging ever so slightly from bones sturdy and true. People comment, still, on her beauty. It is a quality that emanates from her being, rather than her physiognomy or figure. By the time once reaches her age, character has infused form; like a light glowing warmly from behind a worn curtain, one is drawn to the illumination rather than the occluding fabric.
I deliver her bright pink shower cap and help her position it over her head (those shoulders again!) There is not much hair left these days, but her hearing aids cannot get wet. She reaches in, turns the faucet on and waits for the water to warm. After entering the stall, she lifts her bath brush from the shower knob and waits while I squeeze an inordinate amount of Oil of Olay body wash onto it – despite her depression-era thriftiness, she allows herself small, idiosyncratic extravagances. She slides the door shut and I wheel her walker over to the counter top and set the brakes; this is where I sit for the next ten minutes or so while she completes her ablutions.
This marks a measure of her independence regained, actually, because for months at the beginning of this year I was in the shower with her. She had broken her right wrist in a fall and wasn’t able to maneuver her plastic-encased cast sufficiently to wash herself. During this period, I would disrobe, also, and accompany her into the steam-filled cloister of the shower stall, neither of us talking as her hearing is so poor, she is unable to make out words over the ambient noise of the water spray. If I narrowed my eyes and imagination just enough, I flowed into the stream of consciousness into which so many women the world over daily immerse, the i soul-rinsing experience of communal bathing. Sharing a shower, pool or sauna, baring one’s skin, scars, bumps, lumps, and awkward angles among a group of females, becomes its own form of cleansing. I would slowly and carefully pass the brush over GG’s tissue-thin skin, as if it were a baby’s. This was never an activity I imagined sharing with her when I was twelve, but one that I grew to love for its warm and relaxed intimacy.
Now, since she has regained the use of her right hand, I allow her the private bathing that our culture favors. I keep an ear tuned to her movements while I work the New York Times daily crossword at the bathroom sink, turning occasionally to ascertain that the pink dot of her head is bobbing away behind the obscuring glass of the shower door. I am usually close to finished by the time she shuts off the water. Then, the long ritual of drying herself begins. Because of her compromised flexibility, it takes seven to eight minutes for her to complete the task to her own satisfaction. But, before she will exit the shower, she must thoroughly dry all the walls, fixtures, and door, too, even though we have a weekly cleaning service that ensures mold or mildew never gains a foothold. By the time I am completing the last few clues, I hear the door slide open and drop my pen to bring her the walker and stand vigilant while she places first one foot, and then the other, under the bath mat, bringing it up to wipe the surface of the opposite foot dry. This is an important element of the ritual, don’t ask me why. When this is done, like an obedient foot soldier I trail her back into the closet.
GG has uncommonly long, narrow feet; I must remind myself to be patient while she stabs the arrow of her toes at the opening of her underpants as I bend over, trying to corral the moving target. It usually takes three or four attempts. I pull the underpants up and she spends a minute or so adjusting the inserted pad. The pajama bottoms are a bit easier. Once those are donned, I hold the top open at shoulder-level as she struggles to place her arms in the armholes and we both shift the cloth up and over carefully, trying to minimize the pull on her joints. Even though the top is button-up, GG insists on being respectful and having all but the very top button fastened, so I don’t need to “waste” my time on buttoning five extra buttons. I’ve argued about this, to no avail. It’s an element of the ritual.
I then replace the alarm button around her neck and her precious watch around her left wrist. I run a comb through her sparse locks to lift them back into place. She kisses me and says, “thank you, thank you, thank you!” no less than three times. Sometimes more. She is so very grateful. As am I. For no matter how insidiously care-taking may infringe on self-determination and independence, I know that both of us benefit. Though little conversation takes place during this thrice-weekly ritual, the closeness that it has engendered goes beyond mere words.
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!
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!
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.
This is the question dogging me these days. Back in the States for just eight days after 39 months of Peace Corps service, I still haven’t settled on either a pithy or honest reply. Waiting for my body clock to reset (still falling asleep at 6:30pm and waking at 2:30am almost every day) and ticking off items on the re-entry list – medical and dental appointments, car search, unpacking, catching up with friends and family – are distracting me for the moment. There are many, varied options for the future floating on the horizon, though. More volunteering? A job? Cross country road trip? Staring out the window blankly? It’s a little like finishing with college and pondering the weighty question of what to do with the rest of one’s life. Which I never really had the opportunity to indulge, being the single mother of a three year old at the time of my graduation. I like that I’m getting to fill in the blanks in my autobiography, even though it’s on a somewhat skewed timeline. I do know that I won’t be returning to the life I left in 2012. All that is gone now – the house, the job, the car, the dogs, all the spices I had accumulated in the pantry.
Another chapter to be written in the Book of Revelation.
Every journey has its ending and – after visiting four major metropolises in three countries during seven days through two long train rides – I am ready to reclaim the hearth and be still for at least a couple of days by Saturday morning. The penultimate leg of my return trip is a mere 75 minute jaunt from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to Chișinău, departing at 7:35pm, which should have had me opening the door to my apartment around 10:00 at the latest, blessed be. In fact, I congratulate myself on the luck of living so close to so many desirable vacation destinations. Unlike my travel companion, I am not facing an 11-hour, ocean-spanning, six time zones change to make it home. Why I failed to foresee the nebulous, eastern European factor inherent in my own equation, I cannot say. Having lived here for over two years now, I should definitely be wiser.
It starts with the gate assignment: D5 flashing in bold orange neon on the overhead departure board. The Kiev airport is several times larger than I anticipated. With only an hour and some minutes between my arrival from Amsterdam and my scheduled departure, I do not want to take even the whiff of a chance of missing my flight. Peace Corps had been clear in allowing me to fly through Ukraine in the first place: Do not leave the airport under any condition. I dutifully make my way through echoing corridors and double-backed turns to an overcrowded lounge space and wedge my way into a seat, displacing the bags of the woman next to me (gee, I see it’s a Louis Vitton, but it can sit on the floor more comfortably than I can, ma’am.) The next time I glance at the clock it is 7:20 and a vague uneasiness slips into my bloodstream: shouldn’t we all be lining up? The small electronic sign above the departure kiosk has yet to display the flight info and there is no one manning the computer to ask. My feet begin to jiggle. I contemplate getting up to check the main departure board again, knowing that I’ll be gone a good five minutes during which time Ms. Vitton will be sure to erect another baggage fortress in my seat. I decide to wait. Around 7:30pm a rotation of Ukrainian, Russian, and Brit-accented English announcements inform the terminal that the flight scheduled for “Shisenow” (pronounced incorrectly, with a soft “chi” rather than the hard K) Moldova has been delayed. We are now due to depart at 8:35. (I am only slightly concerned that the designated announcer for an international airline does not know how to pronounce the capital of a neighboring country. After all, some Americans have been known to identify Australia as South Korea in man-on-the street interviews.)
As the minutes tick by I keep the kiosk in my right peripheral, waiting for the appearance of airline personnel to assure me that the flight is indeed occurring and preparations are being made for boarding. By 8:17, when the kiosk sign is still displaying an ambiguous logo of detached wings on an empty blue background and with no signs of a human attendant below, I relinquish my seat to go recheck the main departure board. Wow. Good thing. Because my flight is scheduled to depart in 13 minutes from Gate D10, 100 meters down the crowded corridor.
Trotting as best I am able swaddled in winter coat and heavy boots, I arrive at gate 10 to find my corrected flight info posted in crisp LCD above two uniformed attendants hunched over a computer screen and a 50 person queue waiting patiently to board. Okay, this is more like it. I exhale a sigh of relief, putting aside my irritation at the inexplicable omission of changed gate information in the flight delay announcement. For the final stage of this trip, I have scheduled a driver, Igor, to pick me up at the airport in Chișinău and deliver me to my apartment in Strașeni some 40 kilometers away, an unfortunate (and expensive) necessity resultant of the lack of public transportation after 9:00pm. At this point, I will be only slightly late by Moldovan standards. I’ll slip him an extra 50, mentally calculating the amount of Moldovan lei I stashed in my wallet ten days ago.
Alas, 8:30pm comes and goes and the line remains immobile. The attendants are still huddled over their computer screen and no one else seems concerned. Patience, I tell myself. During my Peace Corps service I have learned that, as a general rule, we Americans tend to be a lot more wired and anxious than other breeds. Moldovans, especially, continually amaze me with the degree of placid acceptance they evince in any situation which calls for indefinite waiting. Everyone in the immediate vicinity is either looking bored or absorbed with an electronic device; no one is twitching uncontrollably, much less storming the gate. I quell the inexorable wavelets of worry lapping at the edges of my studied calm. I can do this, I think. Even two hours late is not that bad. He’ll wait for me. And in this small lifeboat of untested hope I am forced to place my trust, having no phone service since I neglected to set my mobile to roaming before leaving Moldova. (I have all but forgotten that the seemingly ubiquitous ability to instantly communicate across borders depends on specific technological details and not my every whim.)
Finally, around 8:50, without any prefatory announcement (pity those who might be off in the lavatory,) the door to the boarding ramp swings open and the line begins to move. Okay, it is happening; I’ll be home by midnight. Yay, yay, yay! I conjure up my waiting bed, fluffy snow adrift outside the windows, the welcome prospect of a lazy Sunday ahead. Perhaps there’ll be a cup of peppermint tea before the oblivion of restorative sleep. I’ve been awake since 4:45 this morning, in transit since 9:30; I’m more than ready for this to be over. Willing the muscles in my neck to unclench, I let the human tide sweep my forward into the fuselage. I take my seat while trying to parse the staticky transmission of the attendant’s English, a mellifluous rhythm of carefully modulated cadences that are, unfortunately, infected by the sort of vaguely Frenchified accent my girlfriends and I used to affect in discotheques during the early 80’s. All announcements must be made in triplicate, with mumbled English accorded the least time and annunciation, it seems. I think I hear our unfortunate delay attributed to ‘technical difficulties,’ however, I can’t be sure. It may have been that the plane we have just boarded was late getting to the terminal. But, after all the jostling of passengers juggling overlarge suitcases into overhead bins and skirmishes over usurped seats has finally abated, the cabin lights dim and the engines thrum to life. We are actually moving, backing away from the terminal gate, when a horrid screeching noise ensues. My god, are those the brakes? Because they sound multitudinously worse than any teenager’s mechanically-neglected beater car I’ve ever had the misfortune to ride in. WTF? Our all to brief momentum abruptly ceases. Lights remain dimmed. The minutes tick by. Five, six, eight, twelve, fifteen. I try to stifle obsessive time checking by shutting off my phone. Flight attendant? Where are you with your informative, albeit largely unintelligible, update?
The growing minutes of silent stasis are abruptly punctuated by the bespectacled face of the young woman in front of me popping above her seat back. “It’s snowing,” she informs me, nodding her head sagely. I’m not quite sure what to make of this declaration. Surely, a dusting of snow doesn’t preclude a 747 from taking off? I may be from California but I know I’d remember hearing if JFK or O’Hare shut down for the winter, for god’s sake. She interprets my blank face as an invitation to initiate; we commence small talk: Elena’s a Moldovan attending school and working in New York “for a long time now.” Specific inquiries about her job and where she is attending school are deftly shunted aside. Instead, she marvels that I am living by choice in Moldova. “Don’t you miss America?” she asks. “I could never come back to Moldova.” Diaspora personified. Her English is quick and effortless, American-accented, littered with slang, her attire modish western European, lacking the obsessive attention to color-matched cosmetics and accessories that defines the typical Moldovan female. And she has a globally-enabled T-Mobile phone that she is now using to contact her dad at the Chișinău airport. She is my new best friend. I consult my useless phone’s contacts and locate Igor’s mobile number. Elena gets a hold of him after she hangs up with her dad; he’s still at the Chișinău airport and wants to know if he should wait. Umm, YES. How the hell else am I going to get home???
Meanwhile. the man sitting next to me has leafed obsessively through all the reading material in the seat back pocket, including the laminated safety precautions card he peruses ever more intently while loud hydraulic noises issue from somewhere outside. I look past him out the window to see flashing lights and men in reflective coveralls swarming the tarmac around the plane like busy worker ants attending their supine queen. My neighbor turns to me with desperate eyes. ” Ei repara avionul?” (They repair the plane?) “Eu sper așa,” I reply. (I hope so.) Elena hears me and emerges again from behind her seat back. “I think it better that we don’t fly on this the plane.” Luckily, this is in English; I’m beginning to suspect that my seatmate is not a seasoned flyer. He commences picking fretfully at the sticker admonishing passengers in four languages to keep their seat belts fastened in flight. I marvel briefly at the anomaly: I’ve never seen a Moldovan display anxiety. Passengers are now sharing foodstuffs and retrieving items from overhead bins. The aisles begin to fill. (Sit down people, I want to scream, or we may never leave!) Still no sign of any flight attendant. Perhaps all the Ukrainian Airways employees have left the plane? If this was America, angry business travelers armed with brief cases would be banging on the pilot’s door and demanding explanations and refunds. Instead, we seem to be devolving into the first stages of an impromptu masa. I check the time. 9:45. I’m now almost two hours late and at least a couple more from arrival. Igor, stay with me, please, I pray silently.
I am beginning to fantasize myself as Liz Lemon confronting Matt Damon on the 30 Rock airplane episode when the overhead speakers crackle to life. The first announcement is made is made in Ukrainian/Russian (I can’t tell the difference) and immediately people are standing, retrieving luggage and donning coats, and yelling out to family across the aisles . I follow suit, unable to hear the tacked-on, much abbreviated English version that is inaudible beneath all the noise. Elena, noting my apparent confusion, graciously informs me that we are debarking the plane. She appears to have a talent for translating the obvious, but I am grateful she thinks to include me. Apparently the plane is so broken they can’t even pull it back round to the building; we are forced to cram a planeload of passengers, complete with carry-ons, into a shuttle bus for the short ride back to what appears to be a fire escape funneling us up three rickety flights of swaying metal stairs back into the now largely vacant terminal. 10:08. If there has been any explanation for what happened to the plane or what our future might hold, it was not translated into English. I look around for Elena, whom I lost in the mad dash between plane and shuttle bus. If circumstances become desperate I may need to importune her dad to drop me at a hotel in Chișinău, ratcheting up my projected return trip expenses threefold. I spot her across the lounge, phone glued to ear. I hope it isn’t Igor, notifying me of his resignation. I realize I haven’t eaten since I left Amsterdam more than 12 hours ago; I set off in search of sustenance.
Apparently I am now several steps into the nether side of wrong as evidenced by the dearth of foodstuffs available for purchase in a space just slightly smaller than your average American mall. The lonely open counter offers cappuccino and two orphaned containers of rice pudding huddled together on an otherwise empty refrigerator shelf. I buy one, and the cappuccino I know I will regret if my head is lucky enough to hit a pillow tonight. It is my small gauntlet flung to fate: Ha! Prove that I’ll even have an opportunity to sleep before Monday! I eat the pudding while keeping a nervous eye on Elena across the way. I can’t afford to lose her at this juncture; if I end up stuck in Kiev I will need a translator for sure. The airwaves remain ominously silent. No news is good news? So far, this has not proved to be the case. I am scraping the last vestiges of pudding from the container when a sudden swirl of thronged movement arises. We are boarding! (How did everyone know? What sort of weird, telepathic ability do these people have that I am missing?) I abandon my empty pudding container and half-finished cappuccino on a nearby table, all vestiges of consumer responsibility abandoned in my desperation to join the thrust of people clustering about the departure kiosk. Notions of queuing seem antiquated at this point. Been there, done that already and what has it got me?
Some twenty minutes hence we are stuffed like brooding hens nursing bruised expectations in our respective seats. Dare we remove our coats? Buckle ourselves in? Reinvest in time schedules? In what may be a misguided attempt to thwart the fates, the attendant doesn’t even bother with the English version of the standard departure announcement while miming the required safety instructions in triple time at the front of the plane. The engines rumble and the lights dim before she finishes with the oxygen mask. She needn’t have bothered rushing. We sit for another 22 minutes (I time it) on the tarmac without moving. My seatmate starts in on the new safety sticker on the seat back in front of him, pleading “eu sunt enervat” (‘I am nervous’ – what is it with these people and the patently obvious?) when our eyes meet. I begin to sense the creepy outlines of my future life, a truncated, post-Soviet version of Groundhog Day, endlessly traversing the Kafka-esque corridors linking cramped, ambiguous waiting rooms with hopeless flights of fancy up disintegrating stairs. I feel myself sinking into a bottomless region of dank despair. The only shred I of thankfulness I can salvage is the dubious decision I made to check my 22 pound backpack. At least I won’t have to haul it back and forth with me forever. As I contemplate the prospect of borrowing Elena’s phone to notify my family that I will, in fact, never return from Peace Corps service, the wheels begin to grind in a (just) slightly less horrible fashion than they did two hours ago and our flight to Moldova commences. I don’t care if the brakes don’t work. We don’t need them for lift off anyway.
I find that I’ve gained but a brief momentum towards closure once we hit the tarmac again, however, where I soon find myself skirting the outside flanks of approximately 300 hundred other passengers from two previous flights waiting for luggage to manifest on the 50-foot long, humping strip of dental floss that comprises the baggage claim function at Chișinău airport. (This, of course, is SO typically Moldovan. In summer of 2014 a much-vaunted project to upgrade the airport was launched with the premier of a “VIP Lounge” that usurped much of the already ill-furnished common waiting area and inserted an expanded duty-free shop for all those (NOT) well-heeled tourists departing the country. Could we pay some attention to basic infrastructure, folks, and less to surface pretensions of prosperity?) The clock on the wall reads 12:14. I fish my phone out of my purse and send off an optimistic text to Igor: Be out soon – just waiting for my bag! His texted reply is unintelligible, a mishmash of clustered consonants that appear more Germanic than Romanian. Perhaps his fingers are frozen to the steering wheel? Or maybe I’ve just roused him from deep sleep at home in his bed. I put my phone away and decide not to think about it, though I do lock in on Elena’s blond head bobbing amidst the crowd, just in case. Utilizing that uncanny ability for picking up on the the obvious, she somehow senses my apprehension and pushes through the throng to stand next to me. I can’t help it, I love her. This is exactly what they mean by Moldovan hospitality. Our brief exchange over airport seats has bonded us; I am family. Glimmers of hope are sparking. Perhaps this night will not end badly and I will get to see my American family, too, again someday. By the time my bright red bag lumbers into view, I have managed, ugly American that I am, to scrape together sufficient confidence to grab it and push my way forcefully towards the exit, completely neglecting to say goodbye to my would-be translator. I silently vow to pay it forward someday to another bewildered tourist lost and confounded by LAX. Right now I am longing, with a deep and physical ache in my gut, for my bed.
One frantic phone call and I locate Igor outside the front doors of the airport building (has he been standing outside in the freezing cold for three and a half hours? Please say no.) He relieves me of my backpack and motions for me to follow. We exchange the obligatory pleasantries while wending our way briskly through a conglomeration of taxis and late-model luxury SUVs vying for precious curb space (the gaping economic chasm on parade.) At this point in its ‘restructuring’ the airport is sans parking lot, forcing Igor to park out on the frontage road some 200 yards away. I scramble to keep pace; this man does not want to be doing this, I can tell. (Maybe I am catching a little of that sixth sense….) Attempting to bypass the crowd, Igor scurries over from the asphalt roadway to the ice-slicked path alongside it. Stupidly fooled by his seemingly effortless agility I plunge after him and immediately land – hard – on right hand and knee, then hip and and elbow. I try to get up quickly, before he notices, but mummifying layers of winter clothing and quads that have atrophied from 10 hours of sitting thwart me. I call out weakly, unsure whether I merit any more tolerance from this man. Thankfully, he stops, trudges back and reaches out his free arm to help me. Two steps and I’m on my ass again. This time his sigh is audible, probably because I am quickly losing the ability to marshal my own muscles; he has to all but haul me to my feet. We return to the ranks of the madding crowd. I surreptitiously check my throbbing right hand – the only injured body part currently visible – for shredded skin but it is too damn dark to tell if the wet is from blood or snow. I soldier on, focusing on Igor’s squared shoulders and determined stride. I will get home, I will get home, I will get home, I chant under my breath to the rhythm of my plodding feet, breaking into a trot every third or fourth step to keep up.
Once ensconced in the front seat of the car, I allow myself to entertain the notion that this saga might be finally drawing to a close. There remains just one more hurdle to face: the gate in the fence that encircles the perimeter of the senior center where I live. More than once I have returned late at night (though never this late) to encounter a padlocked gate and an unattended phone that rings in the residential unit, heedless of my plight. On one unfortunate occasion I attempted to climb over the spiked wrought iron fence in question only to be caught by the crotch of my favorite pair of jeans. Luckily my husband was with me and maneuvered me (with great effort) loose, otherwise I would’ve hung there helpless until morning. I debated mentioning this possibility to Igor but after listening to protracted word-for-word reprisals of the many telephoned inquiries he fielded from his family during the past three hours regarding his estimated return home, I decided that silence might be the better part of discretion at this point. Around 11pm they had finally given up on him and eaten dinner, he reports. At midnight they shut off the lights and went to bed. He might just dump me out on Stefan Cel Mare if he surmises that what was supposed to have been an hour-long pick-up job might end up extending into Sunday breakfast.
I try my damnedest to keep up a light banter in Romanian while simultaneously filtering through a list of fall back options if said gate is, indeed, locked. I had stupidly forgotten to send an email on Friday to the staff at the day care center, reminding them to be sure to alert the residential nurse to not lock the gate. Despite having several conversations with various employees prior to my departure, I harbor little faith in their memories. Moldovans don’t do future tense. The kilometers crawled by while my anxiety waxes and wanes along with my steadily eroding coherence. I am dead on my feet – or my butt, as the case may be. Can I just refuse to vacate his car? Why have I not cultivated a friend who could offer me a bed in Strașeni? My failures as a Peace Corps Volunteer threaten to engulf me in this moment of utter and abject need. So this is what one truly achieves through successful integration: a place to lay one’s head when the final hurdle cannot be surmounted. I decide to think about this tomorrow, as I am beginning to respond unthinkingly to Igor with the scraps of guttural Dutch I picked up over the past three days. The dashboard clock reads 1:21am. There is just no more energy left for worry.
As anticlimactic a denouement though it ultimately might be, I will happily report that, some fifteen minutes later, the gate swings easily inward at Igor’s touch; I was too scared to try it and so fumbled with the car door latch until he had already had it opened. I dig in my purse and retrieve the entire amount of bani I had stashed – 500 lei – and press it into his hands. He does not even pretend to protest for form’s sake (our previously agreed upon fee had been 350.) We both know, even if we do not say it aloud, that I have leaned quite heavily upon his graciousness this evening. For the second time this night I give fervent thanks for the goodness of Moldovans as I stumble off down the driveway towards a much-anticipated bed. Lights out 2:05am, cappuccino be damned.
It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.
I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it. It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days. It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.
Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her. An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.
I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house. Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker. There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship. While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood. She made me a little nervous.
But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.
“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”
Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.
“Nope. It’s mine.” Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.
She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place. And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me. But she never ceded.
So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March. Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.
Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores. She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.
“You wanted white. I thought we could be twins.”
I think I actually made her mad with that one. But she never said a word. And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.
It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.
What does one do with dead people’s things? How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?
Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber. My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.
What to do with all of this? How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space. Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore.
It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet. I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.
Mine now. Sissy, it’s mine.
The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams. Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers. The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.
But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.
My daughter, too, comes to covet it. I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic. But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.
“Really, mom? It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”
“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”
She flings me the withering look.
“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”
It catches me. When will – if ever – I let it go? When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her? Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.
No. Not yet.
I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines. (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.) She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust. Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time. Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight. About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.
I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded. I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to? In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.
Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate. In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust. Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.
I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains. I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pileand bring it with me to Moldova.
I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list. I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.
So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart. Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in. It is gone, disappeared, leaving a black hole within my suitcase. Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure? Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms? Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday? Who knows? It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.
I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.
And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.
According to Wikipedia, the word „serendipity” is one of the hardest to translate in the English language. Perhaps this is due to the amorphous nature of the experiences it attempts to pinpoint. There are fortuitous things that happento us so unexpectedly, from such unanticipated sources or directions, that at times it is difficult to not percieve the pointing finger of a god or the shadowy trail of a red thread leading one on. And perhaps this how other cultures/languages describe it: through religion, or mythic archetypes, or the unspooling of one’s fate. We Anglo-Saxons term it “a talent for making fortunate discoveries while searching for other things.”
Some months into the period of unemployment which preceded my Peace Corps service, I stumbled upon the concept of “intentional communities” or “co-housing,” as it is known in some circles. Back in the day, we would have termed these alternate living styles “communes” but the whole concept has evolved and adapted through the decades to better fit the myriad identities, lifestyle choices, and personal philosophies of most Western Europeans and Americans. These are communities sometimes, but not always, based on particular political views, philosophical principles, or religious beliefs. Most often, they represent a desire to live in closer proximity and connection to one’s neighbors; to own in common those resources, like lawn mowers and ladders and paint brushes and socket wrenches, that we may only utilize once or twice a month; to have the opportunity to partake in a collective meal two or three times a week and forego shopping, preparing, serving, and cleaning up after a long day at work; to build small neighborhoods devoid of cars and asphalt; in short, to move out of that weird idea that living entirely in an enclosed, private space (suburban home) from which we emerge only to enter another enclosed private space (automobile) to travel alone to yet another enclosed, private space (the office or cubicle) somehow meets the needs of social animals.
Feeling cut off from the world and as thoroughly rejected as only a soon-to-be-fifty, suddenly-unemployed, worked-at-one-job-for-practically-my-whole-life person can feel, this idea of living collectively more than intrigued me – it lit a burning candle of longing that fed countless hours of research and many inopportune proposals to friends, family, and acquaintances to throw in our lots together, buy piece of land, and start some sort of eco-social living arrangement. (I think they thought I’d gone off the deep end.)
It was one of the few simmering fires left when I boarded the plane to Moldova; I consoled myself with the notion that perhaps someday in the future, upon my return from Peace Corps, I could resurrect and tend it to fruition.
Interestingly, some months later during a sidebar conversation with my then-COD Program Manager Liliana, I was intrigued by her mention of a project conceived by her (former PCV) husband David to build an ‘eco-village’ from natural, native-harvested materials in Moldova. They had both been researching different building types and designs, real estate offerings, and incorporation options with the intent of forming an NGO devoted to sustainable living that would also serve as a platform for launching their own co-housing community. I must have related my own interest in this particular brand of habitation.
Last February Liliana surprised us all by resigning from the Peace Corps to pursue this project on a full time basis. She and David spent many weeks traveling in the USA and Ukraine, visiting similarly positioned communities, networking, gathering data and comparing outcomes. They are passionate and intentioned and fully loaded with information. Now, they are ready to commence. And the biggest, most serendipitous aspect for me in all this is that they have invited me to help. Apparently, during this sidebar conversation that I barely remember having I impressed on Liliana my like-minded interest in living communally, a notion largely at odds with the impression that most Moldovans form of Americans and their typical bent for self-inflicted privacy. She remembered me.
In the way that these circumstances play out, there is a connection between the amazing long-term care center for adults where I live and David and Liliana’s project: Liliana and her mother were part of the core group which conceived and built this shelter 10 years ago. Liliana’s mom still works here and has gained permission for model structures composed of these natural materials to be built here this summer as concrete examples of what an eco-village might look like someday. I am now charged with creating and implementing a fundraiser to complement this endeavor.
Which then led to the shelter’s director asking me to assist with a eco-social tourism project connecting our center with one in Chisinau and another in Brasov, Romania, that will entail hosting (paying) vacationers to come volunteer for a 10-14 days at all three sites. It’s cutting-edge social entrepreneurism, an arena that I have been mad about entering but felt completely unqualified to entertain. And now I’ve been invited to participate in building it from the ground up!
I’ve also, quite inadvertently, become a consultant to a youth-run NGO, Cultura Noua, which is comprised of a group of talented, idealistic young people who are intent on learning English, leadership skills, and project management. When it rains, it flows…
I just re-read a posting of mine from mid-winter, when I was sunk in a vortex of confusion and lost-identity. I am so relieved that I made it to the other side. I am so busy right now that I am having to bow out of opportunities that I blindly clutched at when my days were empty but which no longer match the excitement and opportunity that are coming at me from all sides.
Serendipity does translate into Romanian, after all.
Maybe not in so many words, but definitely into the narrative of everyday experience.
On Wednesday, June 5, at 12:45pm, a group of 51 new Peace Corp Trainees landed at Chișinău airport to a great deal of noise and fanfare on the part of the M27s who were perched on the roof to greet them. I was surprised to see and feel the giddy anticipation, which quickly morphed into unbridled emotion (tears and all), this particular event evoked within us now 1-year-old volunteers. It was an electric tingling of excitement mingled with sentimental hope for the newcomers, sprinkled with a sense of awe, self-confidence and pride at how distant that moment seems last June when we landed on the exact same tarmac, google-eyed and weary. Life feels so different now. So normal. Routine. We have made it. And most of them will, too.
I stood outside the the terminal exit along with the other mentors and watched as each one of them emerged, wheeling a cart with all their baggage for their next 27 months, and witnessed the play of emotions dance across their tired faces. I experienced it all again – the fear, the exhaustion, the confusion, the gut-churning anxiety that accompanied my first glimpse of my new home. Accompanying them on the bus back to Chișinău, I noted how some of them couldn’t stop asking questions while others seemed steeped in silence, deep in a world of their own. Watching them interact with Peace Corps staff and other mentors at hub site during a quick pizza lunch, I witnessed some of them flit about the room like newly hatched butterflies, while others looked as if they’d like to crawl back into a cocoon. And I knew all of these observations were no indication of how they would develop as volunteers. You just never can tell….
The following Friday, June 7th, was our actual anniversary date and our entire Stauceni class – minus Jan and Leslie, who ET’d (Early Termination) back in October, and Quinn, who was conducting a summer camp – gathered at Robyn’s house in a village near the Romanian border to celebrate. I took a train with Georgie directly from my village to Robyn’s raion center – a 10 minute bus ride from her village – for 9 lei. (That’s less than 75 cents American, folks.) It was fantastic. We got to sit on benches at a graceful distance from our fellow riders, no armpits in our noses and with an actual open window blowing fresh air on our faces (which helped dispel some of the noxious fumes from the 6 boxes of live chickens in the back of the compartment.)
Robyn is one of the most thoroughly integrated volunteers I know. She lives in a small village where she never hears English, which has brought her Romanian to beautifully articulated fluency. She is surrounded by Moldovan neighbors, friends and work partners – there is not an American to be found within at least 50-60 kilometers. And this is just fine with her. She has a large garden, fruit and nut trees, a cat, and a four room house complete with modern bathroom all to herself. The view from her front porch is one of the most glorious I’ve come across in Moldova. This is a dream come true for her – the exact kind of experience she wanted from her Peace Corps service. She is pretty sure that she will be extending for a third year.
And, as I have said over and over again in this blog, everyone’s Peace Corps experience in unique. Last summer there were four very smart, accomplished, and vibrant M26s who ET’d, much to our newbie perplexity. We were just entering and they were bowing out – early – even though they all seemed happy and satisfied with the work they had accomplished during the previous year.
And now I believe I better understand why.
Patty, my “PC daughter” (she calls me “mama”) decided some time ago that she had reached the natural termination of her Peace Corps service. Though it did not happen to coincide with her scheduled COS (Close of Service) date, she felt that she had done everything she had set forth to do in joining the Peace Corps and the time had come for her to move on. So our one year anniversary celebration doubled as poignant farewell to a much beloved member of our little family.
Patty stayed with me for her last four days in country and we spent a number of hours together reflecting on Peace Corps, its ups and downs, rewards and challenge, and, especially, the clarity it (sometimes unwelcomingly) forces upon you in relation to your own character and vulnerabilities. As badly as a part of me wanted to equate my experience to hers, to remind her of the depression and hopelessness I had felt just a few short months before, of how many times I had contemplated ET’ing and how glad I was now that I hadn’t, I stopped myself. I am not Patty’s mother. We are Peace Corps Volunteers, together but different, each walking a very personal path.
For me, her recent departure has become an interesting exercise in self-awareness, revealing more layers of my former personae – the one that had accreted over 27 years of motherhood, flavored by elements of paternal influence that generate my propensity to take control –which I am still shedding here in Moldova. Patty is just 5 weeks younger than Rhiannon, my only child. They share many similarities – sparkling intelligence, a snarky wittiness, big dreams, and a passion for travel coupled with a firm desire not to spend their youth caged in a cubicled-world – that drive them both to keep seeking that proverbial place of contentment, somewhere over the rainbow, of which they have yet to catch a glimpse.
One of the most liberating aspects of my Peace Corps journey has been the opportunity to form peer-relationships with people of my daughter’s generation, to be treated as just another friend, a fellow traveler on this journey, equal in most every way that counts here after all the roles and titles and social contexts of America have been left behind. Patty is good at halting me in my tracks when I stray off into mother role – giving too much advice or reminding her not to forget her purse or nagging her to go to the doctor, for example. Smart-ass comebacks that might sting coming from Rhiannon I receive like a refreshing splash of water to the face from her. Perhaps not even realizing it, she has held a mirror up to me, allowing me to see with clarity many of the reflexive aspects of my personality that I know annoy my daughter to no end. (Rhiannon, if you ever get to meet Patty, know that you owe her a soul debt. I think I can be a better mother to an adult daughter because of her.)
And so the cycle spins, cleansing me of much of the gray water that I toted along from America and that threatened to engulf me through those long, empty winter months. I have come full circle, weathering the spectrum of seasons, to arrive – finally – in a mental space where I could both greet the new trainees with confidence and joy and then, days later, accompany one of my very best friends on a 4am final journey to the airport and hold back tears as I said goodbye, knowing that the last American face she saw in Moldovan should be one of confidence and joy, also.
I’ll miss you Patty. But I believe in the choice you’ve made for yourself.
We wave hello and then goodbye and hold tightly to each others’ hands along the way.
Last night, I was granted a quintessential Peace Corps experience. One every volunteer rather expects when imagining her service in strange lands, foreign abodes, and different climes, but which faded from consciousness rather quickly after I fortuitously dropped anchor in the pseudo-suburban dwellings of my training and assignment villages, with their multi-floored units, double-paned windows, and tightly meshed screens. I had let my defenses lapse; I wasn’t prepared for the WHIRRING BLACK HORNED BEETLE ENCOUNTER….
It is past 10:00pm when I finally shut down the computer, turn the fan around to cool the bedroom, and flip on the overhead lamp. Two steps into the room I register the whirring of a helicopter buzzing toward the light. (I swear I feel its rotors graze the topmost hairs of my head.) Startled, I jump back to the perimeter, sheltering in the doorway, performing a quick scan of the airway. My eyes lift and lock on a freakish black mass the size of my big toe furiously slamming into the Japanese paper lantern hanging innocently above my bed. It takes a couple of seconds to register…that’s not a helicopter, it’s a freaking BUG!!! As loud as a helicopter, almost as big as one of those toys my 40+ brothers still obsessively play with on holidays – but this is no flimsy, plastic, remote controlled whirlybird, this thing is seriously ALIVE!
With my heart slamming in my chest, I blindly grabbed for the door handle behind me, poised on the tips of my toes to bolt from the doorway if it changes direction. What to do, what to do, what to do??? No husband, no roommate, no mama gazda will respond to my bleating SOS. I don’t want to take my eyes off it, give it the opportunity to find cover, chance losing this down-sized Star Wars Rancor somewhere in my sleeping chamber.
Meanwhile, he continues to mercilessly slam the paper lantern, whirling in dervish circles, up and around, tumbling and pivoting, bam! Thud! Wham! In the crystalline second it dawns on me that he is helplessly caught in the current of air blowing forth from the fan, Rancor inexplicably plummets from view. I run pell mell for the broom.
Returning with trepidation, heart now bubbling up in my throat, broom wielded aloft, melded sword and shield, my eyes dart frantically about the room: dresser, nightstand, clothing rack, walls, bed….OMG, nasty guy is sprawled supine in the MIDDLE OF MY BED. Faking coma, I am convinced, stealthily waiting for me to approach. Oh unholy spawn of Satan – is this your beastly strategy? Slyly still, menacing behind pregnant silence, plotting my solitary demise alone in this Moldovan cell? (Why do lapsed Catholics always revert to Biblical invectives when grappling with terror?) I watch him for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds; his thorax never moves. (Can one even see insects breathing? I stupidly wonder.)
Well, this standoff has to be brought to a head somehow: make a move Brave New Woman! You’re the one gloating about living alone. Deal with the consequence, baby. Summing every vestige of courage I can mop up within me, I sally forth and swat – take THAT ye demon – each fine hair on my body stiffly alert, prepared for combative reprisal.
I succeed in knocking Rancor to the floor. Hovering, keeping a good three feet between us, I peer at his armored hide, noting his serrated claws, the horn he must have lifted from a rhino, the multitude of hairy appendages protruding from his steel-plated body. No wonder he whirred. This is not an insect, it’s a drone, a veritable military assault helicopter, designed to evince shock and awe, to inflict terror and damage on its stricken, limp-limbed victim. Stretching the broom out in front of me, I scoot him toward the kitchen but am thwarted by the door sill (why, why, why do Moldovan doors all come implanted within inch high molded frames?) Now, the beast lies between me and freedom, to all appearances comatose. But I know better. This is evil incarnate, waiting for a lapse in wariness.
Performing the highest leap I’ve managed since fifth grade field day, I clear his bristling weaponry and make another dash for the kitchen, securing the long-handled dust pan (thank god for at least one Moldovan implement with a long handle!) I hurriedly unlock my apartment door, fly across the center entryway, flip on the light, scramble to unlock to outside door and fling it wide, then race back to the bedroom doorway, where my foe remains fiendishly feigning rigor mortis on the tile before me. Giving myself no time to ponder best tactics, I boldly reach forward, wincing, and scoop the tank-like thing up – his passage is audible, metallic, like a size 10 wing nut skittering across the floor – and then utilize the broom bristles to pin him savagely to the bottom of the dustpan.
I flee with captive held out arm’s length in front of me, almost tripping over the front door sill (damn those things!) and fling the beast out into the murky darkness of the rain-spattered courtyard. I hear him thud down the steps in front of me. Hightailing back inside (if I had a tail, it would be firmly between my legs) I slam the door, locking my thwarted nemesis out in the night.
It takes a full five minutes to stuff my heart back where it belongs.
Only now does a vestige of rational thought come creeping back, the tickling awareness that I may have only dispatched a front running scout. Perhaps there is a lurking company of soldiers – lord almighty, maybe even an entire battalion – waiting in the wings, plotting my downfall, clacking their pointy jaws and waving their snipping pincers in glee! Where in the bloody hell did that monstrosity come from? How did it gain access to my bedroom?
There is no outside door to my apartment, you see; I am separated from the outdoors by ten feet of gleaming linoleum that is scoured to a lustrous sheen everyday by the sturdy, swishing mop of the industrious Katya. No bugs are making forays down this well-traveled corridor on her watch. Most of my windows are tightly screened – the two that are not I lock fast, fortifying their sills with armies of personal hygiene items to protect them from being opened by an unwitting guests (who are mostly more afraid of six- and eight legged critters than me.)
There are three vents (which I imagine to be useless, leading to nothing, since this building’s heating system is operated through wall-mounted radiators and air-conditioning is a pipe dream) but all are covered by ceramic screens with openings barely larger than the tip of my pinky – Lieutenant Rancor did not worm his way through one of those pinholes.
There comes the line of thinking that truly makes me shudder: did this intruder attach himself somehow to my clothing? Hitch a ride like some latter day Trojan inside the swirling panels of my floor length skirt? Or did he clamber like a pirate into a crevice pocket of my backpack, tricking me into slinging him over my shoulder and giving him safe harbor within my personal belongings? Or worse yet – did he claw his way out of the shower drain, poking his tentacles up from the sewer periscope-like, assessing both occupancy and opportunity in one stealthy search?
I realize I may be a bit overweening here. Having just read a nightmare account of fist sized spiders in a pitch black outhouse that far exceeds my piteous-in-comparison skirmish with a venom-less beetle, I really have little justification for parading my tiny bravado.
By I did allow myself two OTC sleeping pills to calm myself into slumber. And in the morning, when I tiptoed out to the courtyard to snap a picture of my conquered foe?
A great stretch of damp brickwork lay before me, littered with the detritus of storm, not a corpse to be found.