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.

Tree Love

Tree Love

 

I think about a tree, once a great friend to me, an essential element of my daily life, close, close, close within my hands, tactile beneath my fingers and toes, a loamy odor up my nose.  Does it still stand, straight and tall, incrementally shading the emerald grass carpet of a suburban backyard some ten miles from where I sit now, remembering?  Does a loose-limbed child yet scale its elephant-skinned truck, so finely creased and wrinkled?  Do ants draw their fine ribbons along its sturdy boughs, leaving chemical traces of their intent? What about the birds that nested annually in its crown – do they keep a home there even now, half a century later?  How many lizards, cocoons, webs, and pods litter its branches?

 

Suddenly, I remember a photograph I captured several years ago, when I took my husband on a visit my old neighborhood to see the house I grew up in.  Scrolling back through my phone’s photos, I stop at the façade of my childhood home, immediately registering the blank space in the upper right-hand corner beyond the roof – no tree. How could I have missed that when I took the picture?  Failed to register the chasm rent in my past, yawning blue and blank as the sky now nakedly revealed? MY tree, the keeper of my secrets, witness of my heartaches, companion to my tears.  Gone.  A life extinguished, a body drawn and quartered, roots wrenched from clinging soil, leaves raining down in grief.  How long ago had I lost it?  Why hadn’t its absence redounded in my soul?

 

Every child should have a tree, it seems to me, of substantial girth and deep roots, with accommodating boughs that will support the scrambling of bare feet and toes.  Mine was a beech, already thirty feet tall when we moved into the three-bedroom, yellow stucco, ranch-style house on Ranney Street in 1965. At four years old, I was initially too small to reach the long, straight branch that jutted out at like an Ent’s perfect elbow four feet above the ground. And so, I played among its roots, gnarled hardwood fingers pushing up through the dirt around its base, perfectly delineated arenas for my plastic animal figures longing for respite from shag carpeting and furniture legs.  What a cornucopia of animal feed – twigs and frass, pulled weeds, grass clippings, leaf litter, and scattered seeds.  My horses and goats and giraffes and elephants were at home there in the silty dirt and so was I, concerned not for dusty knees or hemlines.  Pill bugs and earwigs, snails and ants, caterpillars, spiders, moths, bees, wasps and butterflies – all were abundantly extant, accepted without prejudice.   My world was close and dear, familiar to me as my own skin, which was slicked and furred with its detritus.  I belonged among this organic stuff, breathing in its scented oxygen, long blond hair littered with sticks and leaves, toenails and fingernails packed with peaty earth.

 

As soon as I was tall enough, I would hook my right knee around that long straight branch and spin myself to sit upright, the branch almost the same width as my spindly thighs. For months, this was my perch, five feet above the ground, a new vantage point from which to view my animal kingdom nested placidly below, a veritable god among the leaves.  Wrapping my arms around its substantial trunk, I’d press my cheek against its cool bark and feel the green pulse of sap, invisible but present.  The tree was a body, just like I was a body, with mysterious inner fluids and resilient flesh.  A much larger, older body that could hold and contain mine, which felt insubstantial and pliable compared to it.  I felt the tree abiding through starlit autumn nights and sunbaked summer days, breezes rustling among its branches, soft summer sprinkles moistening its leaves. Without ascribing it words, I was aware of its subtle, diffuse consciousness. Amidst the profligate foliage of that suburban backyard – which seemed so wild and untamed to my childish eyes – my tree was the undisputed king, the tallest, broadest component among herbaceous borders, fanning palms, clipped lawn, and trimmed hibiscus.

 

Growing up the oldest of five children, all born within seven years, I was desperate for a space to call my own.  As soon as I could make the climb, I claimed the topmost limbs of the tree as my personal den, an aerial retreat lofting above the chaos and din of an 1100 sq. ft. bungalow mushrooming human

bodies.  Wedged in the deep vee of its split trunk, I would survey my realm, peering into the neighbors’ backyards, noting the dads’ departure to and arrival from work; marking whose bike was flung on which friend’s lawn; calling out to scratching dogs sprawled on cement patios; watching the clouds drift, swirl and separate like cotton candy against a tonal backdrop of baby blue.  Here, I would inscribe the initials of a decade-spanning crush, my best friend’s brother, four years older, inhabitant of an unfamiliar universe of baseball cards, ten-speed bicycles, driveway basketball, and Beatles’ singles on the record player.  I loved the golden blond bangs that swooped across his forehead, hiding one eye; his bronzed arms with their gilding of platinum hairs; the loping ease with which he rounded the sandbags thrown into the cul-de-sac to serve as bases. I loved his deepening voice and the confidence with which he teased his sister and me.   I loved him with the blinding, unrequited passion of prepubescence and the tree was my only confidant, lending its invisible ears to my ceaseless suffering, seiving my salty tears through its toothed leaves, soothing my heartache with its gentle green caress.  I read countless books nestled in its green halo, my limbs entwined with its, my spine supported by the iron column of its trunk.  It was a clear space where I could read words aloud and feel the timber of their inflection.

 

At night, in flying dreams, I invariably launched from my tree’s crown: first I would stand, both feet wedged in the deep vee, then I would spread my arms and fall, soaring, hands spread, body undulating, hair streaming back. Through my winding, circumscribed flights, my tree would orient me, a beacon of feathered green, shimmering in the moonlight, a silent sentinel, peaceful and approving.

I never ventured out from neighborhood, fully entranced by the dew-spattered lawns, the curtained and shuttered windows like a line of sleeping eyes along the blacktopped corridor of Ranney Street; cars slumbering curbside; sidewalks chalk white and empty; hoses curled like cobras on hooks flanking garage doors. The incongruity of darkness costuming the mundane and ordinary captivated me, misting my neighborhood with a portent that wasn’t accessible in daylight.  I was aware of conversations happening on different frequencies, invisible embroidery that laced and looped between fauna and flora, knitting the world together, infusing it with intent.  Buoyed by an intense recognition of home and well-being, I would wheel and plummet, circle and dive, assured of my absolute safety in the nightscape.

 

***

 

I miss my tree.  Even more so now that I’ve realized it’s physically, not just geographically, gone.  Within its penumbra I once embedded with nature.  Seamlessly integrated, absorbed by my environs, I played and dreamed and cried and read and didn’t hold myself within edges, outlines or borders.  Awareness percolated within me, rising like sap within my veins.  Thinking was diffused, unstructured. Undisturbed, I could focus on the voice inside, rather than those outside, my head.  The episodic drone of airplanes overhead, children’s voices punctuating birdsong, tires whirring over asphalt, dogs barking, the occasional siren – these aural layers blanketed the ambient stillness, enhancing, reinforcing my arboreal cloister.

 

It’s been a long time since my boundaries have blurred; I rarely go barefoot outside or get really dirty.  I don’t fondle pincher bugs or discover twigs woven in my hair.  My knees are never scabbed.  Play is something I do with letter tiles on a tablet screen; reading, curled up in a papasan chair with the lamp on.  Ants are, in general, to be avoided.  I haven’t had a flying dream in 50 years.  I’ve lost my physical connection to nature; though I still appreciate the palette of a brilliant sunset, the whistle of wind rushing through trees, the sharp note of fresh grass clippings, the eely feel of a slippery river stone, these days they reach me across borders and edges, corralled within outlines that delineate their separation from me.  I can no longer hear sap rising, in me or a tree.

 

I saw my childhood crush – that best friend’s brother – at my parent’s golden wedding anniversary almost ten years ago.  He was puffy in that way former military men get when they retire to the couch.  His sweeping bangs had been domesticated into a crew cut, his skin now pallid, his voice husky and phlegmy from what may have been years of smoking.  I avoided him completely, my heart beating like a drum within my chest, not wanting to taint the sanctity of my years-old passion.  Somewhere I keep his initials within the outline of a heart, carved into the uppermost branches of a beech tree that no longer exists. I no longer sense invisible networks of pheromones or lose my edges to waves of passion.  I am contained within borders, stranded within my own treeless plain of consciousness.

Sibling Revelry

As the oldest of five children, I was the fledgling occupant of what would too soon become a very cramped nest. Up until I was 18 months old, I was the lone star in my parent’s firmament. I’ve heard Mom reminisce many times about those months, about how my arrival grounded and focused the giddy thrill of their teenage love, while providing more than enough leeway for them to dote on me like a precious doll. Once the other’s started coming – Mom was just 25, Dad 26, by the time they had five children under seven years old – there was no time for doting or even undivided attention. Though any memory I hold of the period is pre-verbal and wholly inaccessible, I can’t help but feel that it set me apart from my four siblings in some small way: for a brief time in the history of our family, I was an Only Child.

For those of you who are an Only Child, the daily – nay, hourly impact – of having a brother or sister may be difficult to conjure. I know every holiday season my daughter would often fantasize about a soft-focused, Kincaid-limned tableau of a serene Christmas morning, children seated like little ducklings in a row, wholly engaged in watching each successive sibling open a present in turn, celebrating each one’s unveiled treasure, beaming a glow of happiness at the others’ bounty. A tray of cocoa sits steaming on the coffee table (which was somehow mysteriously prepared before said children awoke) and each child, universally pleased with their handful of gifts, serenely occupies themselves for hours with imaginative play and convivial banter before transitioning sedately to the breakfast table for a leisurely feast.

Sorry – doesn’t happen that way, I’d tell her. Instead, imagine Walmart opening its doors on Black Friday: around 5am, after three hours of restless sleep, when the parents give up trying to get the kids back in their respective bedrooms, there is a mad dash and chaotic dive under the tree and all those carefully wrapped presents are transformed into vast mounds of shredded paper, cast off ribbons, torn up boxes, their contents disgorged into an indistinguishable mound of plastic, fabric, metal, and wires within two and a half minutes. The parents, still dazed and sleep-befuddled, are simultaneously trying to understand how Zoe ended up with Chloe’s Barbie Doll, why Justin is having a meltdown over his new bike, and where on earth Ziggy disappeared to, all while snatching microscopic components from Ziggy’s Lego set from the baby’s fists, fending off ill-timed calls from curious grandparents, and holding back the cat from chasing flying embers into the fireplace. Within ten minutes everyone is done playing with their toys and screaming for breakfast. Merry Christmas folks.

And it wasn’t just Christmas. On one particularly memorable occasion, my mother’s first cousin (tellingly, the mother of an Only Child) thoughtlessly placed a bowl of potato chips at the center of the lunch table for us kids to share, inadvertently launching a blur of scrabbling, grabbing fingers and fists that resulted in one bloody lip, a significant clump of torn hair and a general miasma of grief and outrage. There was the time mom realized that she had left two children at school only when the carpool kids were dropped off and the noise-level in the van ratcheted down to silence. Or the countless instances when me or one of my siblings would run through every room in our 1100 square foot house bewailing our victimhood and vowing to “tell”, only to find it unaccountably empty (Mom disclosed, years later, that she would hide in the closet whenever she heard the pitch of our wails approaching from outside.) There were nights at the dinner table when the level of teasing, complaining, and arguing reached such a crescendo that Dad would slam his fists down on the table, rattling flatware, spilling milk, and roar “All of you, QUIET or I’m getting the belt!” (More on that in a future post.)

It was situations like these that led me to fantasies of solitary refinement. My daily life was so replete with chaos and noise and internecine feuds that the only respite I could imagine was to erase my siblings from the equation. When you are an Only Child, I imagined, daily life proceeds in a calm and orderly fashion. There is no jousting for the front seat, or squabbling over the last of the Trix, or straining to hear the TV, nor any need to contort into a pretzel in the back seat during vacation trips. Your bedroom is completely and wholly your own. You can leave your Halloween candy on your bedside table and it will be there when you get home from school. No one is wearing the same outfit as you on Easter. You won’t ever have to take the blame for something you didn’t do because mom is tired of hearing excuses. No one else is going to ride your bike, take your roller blades, run the battery down on your radio, “borrow” and lose your favorite jacket, steal your allowance, or fling sand in your face at the beach. There is nothing added, extraneous, or superfluous to derail one’s sense of agency and control.

I grew up fantasizing about this ideal state and, to a large degree, made the choice to have an Only Child based on what I believed to be the most enviable permutation of family life. She would always be the only star in my firmament, the rich recipient of every ounce of undivided attention I could provide. I truly thought I was conferring a lifelong advantage on my daughter by precluding her from ever having to anticipate, acknowledge, or consider the variable preferences, needs, demands, and complaints of a sibling. Even writing that last sentence causes me embarrassment now, of course. What was I thinking? Thirty-five years later, I understand that it is primarily through repeated, unavoidable encounters with the other – having to comprehend and integrate the reality of multiplicity, learn and incorporate the lessons of cooperation and empathy, forcibly shift one’s perspective from “I” to “we” – that we mature from ego-driven toddlers into caring, sharing adults. My daughter is the one who ended up revealing the truth that siblings gave me.

She was in junior college when her oldest half-brother, one of three boys her biological father subsequently had with his wife, found her on Facebook and initiated contact. Over the next couple of years, she met him and, eventually, her two other brothers in person. I still recall her telling me, unadulterated wonder suffusing her voice, of staring across the restaurant table at a male version of her own face. . Because, appearance-wise, she inherited more qualities of her father’s than mine, she never had occasion to witness her own reflection spring independently to life, or caught the shared gestures and facial expressions that genetics often bequeath to siblings. But, even more than in the physical similarities, was the relief she experienced in finding sympathetic personalities, ways of being and reacting to the world that resonated with familiarity. All of her life up until that point she had been a set of One, unique and alone. Then, she became a member of an interrelated unit and experienced the psychological stickiness between the disparate elements of a family dynamic. Perhaps books like Angela’s Ashes and The Great Santini and films like The Royal Tenenbaums are so successful because they portray the indiscretions, vulnerabilities, crimes and misdemeanors that family members perpetrate on each other without sacrificing the bonds that unite and define them.

If your dad is a work-obsessed megalomaniac, or a disconnected truck driver on the road three hundred days a year, or a high school English teacher forever correcting your grammar; if your mom is a melancholy aspirin-eater living in the rear view mirror, or a liberated authoritarian with zero tolerance for bling, or a soccer club coach singularly focused on your scholarship prospects, how – if ever – do you come to understand that you’re not a forlorn misfit in this world, that all the confusion and awkwardness, anxiety and compulsions, dread and mania you might evince is not inherent but a behavioral response to forces clashing and conspiring outside of you? By what mechanisms does the Only Child grasp interpersonal dynamics, up close and personal? How does she learn about The Other? Granted, most people gradually encounter challenges and obstacles in the wider world and can apply the lessons learned to their parental relationships, given the successful acquisition of reason and objectivity and, in some cased, a healthy dose of therapy.

But, generally speaking, children who share parents with a sibling or two or five have the advantage of witnessing the dynamics at play between them and another person who isn’t You. Parents don’t even need to be particularly twisted or deranged or socially inept to visit great insecurities or guilt on their progeny: if you’re an Only Child, with whom can you commiserate about your mom’s tone deafness or your dad’s perpetual recapitulation of the obvious? Who will be affected as deeply, show up at the hospital for selfish reasons, vigorously debate treatment options with the same degree of personal investment when dad has a stroke? Who can remind you what garish color the bathroom wallpaper was in that 1100 square foot house after mom dies? Shared memories and experiences are amplified, orchestral, drenched in coloratura. Siblings add context, explanation, justification, and a very real validation of the circumstances of our lives.

More importantly, though, they offer us the opportunity to see the world aslant, from a slightly different angle. It’s the same view, only 2-3″ or six years off. As children with siblings, we are exhorted to share, to wait our turn, to compromise and let things go, and end up, more often than not, just ceding our desires rather than fight what are usually losing battles. There is nothing that will try a seven- and five-year-old’s patience more than having to wait for a toddler to be diapered, changed and fed before departing to Disneyland. By the time they are teenagers, though, they may have gained a shared resiliency and camaraderie through weathering the familial frays that will translate into a greater tolerance for inconvenience and irritants.

Especially in a world that is increasingly globalized and interconnected, the ability to bear differences, to countenance multiplicity over monotone, to let one’s proclivities to take a back seat to presenting circumstances, are valuable survival skills. Growing up in a clamoring, raucous group of siblings all trying to meet their own needs ingrained in me the realities of diversity – we are all competing, each moment of every day, for attention and validation and sustenance – and inevitably our wants and desires will sometimes be thwarted. How we deal with those disappointments is often predicated on how, when, and where we have encountered social hierarchies and networks in the past. The family environment is usually our first training ground, the place where we test out our eventual coping skills.

So let’s hear it for siblings and the myriad challenges they bring. I’m glad to be one of five and am thankful my daughter is no longer an Only Child.

The Bathing Ritual

The Bathing Ritual

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.

Buyer’s remorse

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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.

Yet another beginning to an end

This morning I woke up to find that feeling which has been tip-toeing round the underskirts of my consciousness for some weeks now finally deciding to assert itself – IT IS TIME. Time to acknowledge the finish line resolving itself ahead, to pick up the pace and admit that there is nothing left to do but focus forward and Get Shit Done.

Wrapping up Peace Corps service entails a two-page check list of time-consuming administrative tasks. An excerpt:

  • Turn in material items issued at Pre-Service Training such as fire extinguisher, smoke alarm, water filter, safety manual and first aid kit. (Unmentioned is how to actually transport all these items to the Peace Corps office without a vehicle at my disposal.)
  • Close out housing contract, bank, phone, and internet accounts and submit certification that all debts are paid
  • Provide a detailed Site Report describing the local geography, transportation options, government and administrative bodies, safety issues and contacts made during my time living in Straseni
  • Enter requisite data into my last Volunteer Report Form
  • Undergo final medical, dental, and eye exams
  • Participate in close-of-service interviews with the Director of Management and Operations and the Country Director

These, and a host of other expectations, on top of having to figure out what to do with the accumulated dross of three years that I do not want or need or am not able to physically cram into the two suitcases I must pack and ship back to Mike. How much thought do you usually give to the bottled spices, packets of yeast, the half-filled bags of lentils and barley, cornmeal and flour, boxes of tea and stray sugar packets proliferating in your cupboard? What to do with the perfectly good pens and markers, scissors, notebooks, paper tablets, spools of ribbon and thread and packing tape scattered in drawers? It seems a sad waste to just toss the partially-used bottles of lotion, body wash, foot cream, face mask, hair treatment, and skin exfoliating scrub littering my bathroom. Which of the more than one dozen pairs of shoes I transported here during my three trips from the states do I actually wear (really, a dozen? Wtf was I thinking?) What about that beloved hoodie, sweat-stained hat, or paper thin, but-oh-so-comfy tee shirts I’ve held onto for more than a decade – is this the time to let go? These are the decisions that I have been pushing aside for some future day, that other day, the one which dawned today.

***

Most likely it is a blessing to be distracted by this mundane busy work. It keeps me from feeling compelled to digest this experience into pithy bullet points extemporizing “What I Learned in Peace Corps.” Perhaps it is just my age showing but I’ve lived through too many ‘endings’ that turn out to be just another in a series of thresholds. Life lessons continue to shift their narrative, expand in meaning, embrace their antithesis, disprove ‘truths’ and supply an inexhaustible source of wonder and surprise; the story never ends until it does and who knows even then? No one yet (that I know of) has gotten to pen that elusive denouement.

Transitioning back to life in “SUA” (pronounced sue-wah here in Moldova and that’s now how it resonates in my head) legend has it is one of the most challenging aspects of service. So much so that there is actually a section in staging, before one ever leaves American soil, devoted to the insecurities, anxieties, and feelings of displacement typically experienced by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV – my new biographical tag.) Why – in the infinitely ambiguous wisdom distilled by the churnings of bureaucracy – Peace Corps Washington believes any prospective volunteer will or can devote an iota of attention to the emotions she might experience 27 months hence while grappling with the blazing neuron rush of launching into a new life is beyond my comprehension. We were given a booklet and solemnly counseled to keep it safe; needless to say it was tossed out into the wake many moons and moves ago. One internalizes the weight of every possession when dependent on public transportation.

Hints of what home may have in store for me are coalescing. I am meeting one of my oldest and dearest friends and her wife in Athens whereupon we depart for sixteen extravagant days in the Greek isles (seven of them at last count!) During my entire three years of travel in Peace Corps (excluding the luxury cruise that was a birthday gift from my mother) the price of my nightly accommodations has exceeded $35 on exactly one occasion (New Year’s Eve in Milan with my husband and daughter.) This trip I will be leaping over that limit nightly. Thanks to the Peace Corps transition allowance – purportedly a provision for insuring an RPCV’s ability to feed and house herself while securing subsequent income but traditionally used to finance a COS trip that often extends into months – I have the means to do this. However, upon returning home again all pretenses that my economic status will fund the lifestyle I enjoyed for most of my adult life will quickly evaporate. While my friends, family members, and professional peers have continued to progress on the path toward retirement, I find myself in uncharted territory, possessed of a strong internal compass but no compelling authority dictating my next steps.

Peace Corps gifts one a diverse new network; the friends I’ve made here range in age from 24 to 62. The ones already back in the States are planning weddings, having babies, attending graduate school, embarking on second careers, working internationally or in DC, traveling with grandchildren, moving to retirement villas, or still meditating on next steps. And, if you think like most people you automatically, albeit incorrectly, distributed the age cohorts along a predictable linear spectrum of life’s major milestones. Because the couple planning their wedding are in their 7th and 8th decades, respectively. The ones having babies are in their late 30’s and early 40’s. Those in graduate school are in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. While second careers are already happening for those not yet 30. There is no guidebook to life after Peace Corps because the people that serve present such a wide array of biographies. So, in a way, I have entered into a new way of being in the world, one less defined by milestone markers achieved than by continuously curving avenues of opportunity twisting and doubling back again just around the bend.

***

As I look around the place I’ve called home for barely month, a compact 25×30′ space that contains the sum of my worldly possessions, and realize that I’ve downsized and moved it all seven times in the last four years, I begin to comprehend the gigantic sideways leap out of the known and predictable that I have made. I guess the one thing that has crystallized for me out of this experience is a truth I’ve always somewhat suspected: It’s all so temporary, isn’t it? For the last decade or so, my inability to accurately remember huge swaths of my life has proved unsettling to me. Faces of the men I’d loved – and lived with! – during my late teens and early 20’s? Forgotten. Those crucial developmental stages between my daughter’s birth and her launch into 1st grade? Gone. The sound of my sister’s voice, the color of her eyes, the slant of her teeth? All lost. How about the 22 months I was in the California Conservation Corps? Mere slivers are all that I retain. Or the feel of the tile or the shape of the faucet or the pattern of the curtain in the shower I used daily for 18 years? So much vapor. Or – moving closer in time – who was my roommate at the hotel in Philly in during staging? I have no idea. What about the trip to Morocco in 2012 – where was that mountain hike? Who was the guy who drove us? How long were we in Marrakesh? I couldn’t tell you. This morning as I was journaling it dawned on me that maybe it’s not my mind that’s faulty. Rather, perhaps, I have subconsciously redirected my energies, disinterested in expending them on warehousing old or even formulating new memories. (That’s why I keep the journal – it’s all there if ever I want to recall!)

Instead, I have become habituated to an horizon void of familiar landmarks. I am attentive to the world around me, not necessarily for record-keeping purposes but to parse the message inherent to each moment and to plot the next one’s possible trajectories. If you told me ten years ago that at 53 I would be unemployed, sans car or home, all set to blow a significant chunk of my liquidity on a luxury vacation, I’m sure I would have been horrified. The most common descriptors (some might even call them accusations) historically leveled at me by my husband (of almost 20 years) or my (nearing 30-year-old) daughter resided well within the lexicons of control, safety, insurability, strategic planning, forethought, and reliability. Far, far away from any place where I could comfortably admit having no idea where I will be living or what I might be doing next year, let alone in five. But the difference between a rut and a grave is only a matter of inches, as the saying goes. I have not a clue what “retirement” means for me anymore. Retire from what?

Here, a sampling of the dictionary definitions of “retire:”

1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion

2. to go to bed

3. to withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age

4. to fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion and according to plan, as from battle, an untenable position,  danger, etc.

5. to withdraw or remove oneself:

In truth, I feel like I spent the years between 34 and 49 in some weird, anachronistic version of retirement, “withdrawn from active life,” half abed, retreating in orderly fashion from any threat. Having amassed a bulwarked identity, I had inadvertently cordoned myself off from change.  The air in my house was stale; its brightly colored walls a pale simulacrum of life’s ever-changing proscenium.  But I was comfortable, middle-class, well-fed, educated, funding multiple retirement accounts. Who cared?

 

***

So I have changed. Not such a big deal. All of us are courageous in one way or another. Getting out of bed each day necessitates an inordinate amount of bravery for some people. As Dewey Bunnell noted in the eponymous song: Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have. The courage I will need in the next few weeks and months is the one that will keep me from looking sideways, comparing the roads that others have chosen to tread with my own. One thing I have not missed about life in SUA is the constant simmer of competition, the stealthy and insidious status markers – the model of one’s car, the size of one’s house, the brand of one’s bag now extending to vacation locations, bands followed, restaurants frequented, the ‘authenticity’ of one’s Instagram feed, for pete’s sake – reminding everyone that there is race to be won. It is tough to fall away from the pack, more so at my age. I’ve been blissfully protected from that harsh reality for the last 38 months; being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a status marker all on its own. But being a Returned Peace Corps (aka retired) Volunteer? Not so much. Unless I manage to insert this particular biographical tidbit into every conversation had in the next decade (BORING,) I will be evaluated and dismissed as one of the less successful competitors in the Game of Life by most people I meet. Because I do not foresee myself returning to the life already lived. Been there, done that, and so on.

Stay tuned  as I strive to continue living mad de acum încolo….