Forging the Second Self:
Post-Teaching, Post-Mothering, Post-Midlife: Who Will I Be Now?
Part I.: Who Am I Now?
When I see myself at the front of that classroom eight years ago, I am wearing my favorite skirt—mid-calf, with overlapping splashes of black and magenta and sea-green. A long silky blouse, bare legs and sandals. My hair at the time is thick and glossy, dark brown with red and gold highlights. I’m smiling. I throw out questions, elicit the students’ answers, cajole them when they’re reticent. I am so used to this that I come to class with only a vague idea of where we’re at and where we’re going.
Students have always liked me. I’m older than they are but look their age. And, like all young people, I’m more beautiful than I realize--which goes a long way with the boys, even the ones in the back of the room, scowling under their baseball caps. I win them over, I get them talking. In those days, I’d memorize their names on the first day—all 30 of them. I’d let my intellect sparkle, but I also knew when to play it down, to let them know I was one of them.
There was, however, one student in this particular lit class who disturbed me. He looked about 50, short and stocky with wisps of white hair. He had massive shoulders and a rolling gait that reminded me of a sailor. Most notably, he was missing his right forearm. He’d fling the stump around when he talked, oblivious to its effect. I didn’t know, at first, if I liked him--but I expected to, as sooner or later I liked, even loved, all my students.
But it turned out that he didn’t like me—or the course, or the novel I’d assigned: A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. Set in India in the 1970s, it depicts a long cascade of events that plunges a boy and his uncle deeper and deeper into poverty, always teetering on the edge of annihilation. It’s a risky selection, set in an unfamiliar place and time. Worse, it’s over 300 pages long. But the story is sprawling, full of action and dialogue—surely every student could find some version of him or herself in its pages.
But no. Charlie would interrupt: Why are we reading this? What does this have to do with me? You’re not teaching us anything. The younger boys seated around him would titter, sneaking glances at me under their eyelashes.
I’d try to appease him—I hear you; you’re not a fan. Or I’d try teasing him out of his bad mood: Oh, c’mon, Charlie, this is a great book! Yeah, it’s set in India but can’t you relate to the characters, to what they’re going through? After a while I just tried to ignore him, turn my attention quickly to another student.
His papers were wildly disorganized, a few ideas strung together with no recognizable theme. I was giving him C’s; I figured he was mad.
After 15 weeks, the class staggered to its end, as all classes do. On the last day I handed out the standard, college-supplied course evaluations. I waited outside in the hall while they filled them out. When I came back in the students were talking among themselves. I caught what must’ve been the tail end of an argument: Well, at least she smiles—some teachers don’t even do that. I felt a prickle of anxiety, but also an obsequious gratitude for the student sticking up for me, a “good student,” one of the few who understood what I was getting at.
A few weeks later I received the results of the evaluation, compiled by administrators. I pulled them out of the envelope with some trepidation, realizing this course had not been my best. But I was stunned by the comments appended to the numerical data:
This class was a waste of time
The teacher was terrible, totally disorganized.
The novel we read was boring. Way too long.
She was the worst teacher I ever had.
Later, I would know how to brace myself for the one or two students in every classroom who would inexplicably despise you and everything you did. But this was more like six students, with an additional smattering of those who were lukewarm. A few students defended me vigorously, but of course it’s the negatives that looped around in my brain, that set me reeling.
On the last day of spring semester 2012, I received a letter: We will not be renewing your appointment for the fall … . Three other recipients, all women over 40 with decades of teaching experience, filed a lawsuit. But at the last minute I couldn’t sign on to a process that I knew would drag on, possibly for years—a process in which my vulnerabilities, my failures, would be exposed and exploited. Although I felt furious and misused, I was also, deep-down, ashamed.
Looking back at that long-ago class, I see myself as naive. I thought I could get by on my love for my students, for literature, for the give and take of truth-seeking, for the precision and magic of language. But when another school hired me (for which I was very, very grateful), I became a workhorse, cranking out the same comp class over and over. I stopped over-hauling my classes every semester. I re-used the same unglamorous but serviceable textbook, the same sequence of assignments. I did it the way teachers are taught to teach—through lesson plans and “research-based pedagogy” and “scaffolding” and “classroom management software,” all the educational buzzwords of the day.
I’d be lying to say I was unsuccessful. In those six years, I loved my students fiercely. They were the opposite of entitled--humble, apologetic--coping with poverty, homelessness, mental illness, hunger, and trauma. Many thrived on structure, on predictability, on things being minutely spelled out and repeated again and again, both in class and online. I did everything I could to accommodate their needs, but the weight of their stories grew heavier every year.
In the spring of 2019, on the last day of class, two students came to me within the space of an hour. One, who’d been doing his best to fail the class while I refused to let him, told me that, in the last few weeks, he’d attempted suicide twice. Another, the girl who’d told me I’d inspired her to become a teacher herself, said she’d just had a panic attack so severe they had to call in the public safety officers: I just wanted to keep everyone away.
I’d been teaching the same courses for nearly 20 years. I was nearly sick with exhaustion. When it came time to order textbooks for the fall semester, I stared at the screen.
For the first time in 20 years, I’m facing a fall without a classroom, without the identity I’ve sheltered in for so long. There’s a hole at the center of myself, and sense of being untethered. I grieve for the person I was and the structure that held my identity in place. I begin to sniff at the air, looking for clues—what will I do next? My whole career, my whole life, has been about pushing myself, improving, achieving. Finding the one occupational identity that would redeem me, as I somehow needed to be redeemed.
In the late 70s, I spent a month in coastal Maine with my then-boyfriend. We spent half our time in his VW bus and half in an apartment with no running water: The relationship was unstable. But the image that sticks is my first glimpse of the tide pools off the Atlantic coast, in their fascinating profusion of color and form and motion: the gently-waving tentacles of anemones, marauding blue mussels, the shout of carmine and orange and fluorescent yellow lichens, the opening and closing of tiny mouths. Starfish, sea urchins, periwinkle snails, anemones, barnacles, limpets—even the names were lush and evocative. When the tide went out, this miniature world went gray and shuttered and lifeless; when the tide came in, it burst into riotous life.
I wish to be fearless and prolific, crackling with creative energy. Instead, I sit here lumpen, gray, and shuttered, stuttering from one sentence to the next.
At 14, I thought I was on the cusp of something. I took up ballet, quit eating and fell to 95 pounds. Snapped a flag in color guard, sang in the chorus, made a best friend. I was planning on medical school--loved to trace the blue, latex-filled veins, the ropy nerves of the tomcat frozen in the midst of a mortal yowl. I loved the soft swish of mesentery tearing from muscle. It was comforting to name the cranial nerves, the bones, even their holes and ridges.
My biology class traveled by bus to a marine wildlife refuge off the Jersey coast. About the refuge I have only a vague impression: reeds, heat, sand, and salt, the raw croaking of seagulls. In the paper we had to write, I made what felt like a risky confession: “The best part was lying on the boardwalk in the sun.” Mr. Matt returned the paper marked with a big red A, and a comment next to my confession: “As good a reason as any!” I felt relieved but also uneasy: Did I believe him?
Now I rest on the boardwalk like a limpet, waiting for the sun to seep through me. I’ve closed up shop on the children, the teaching, the giving to others. The barnacles of time and age are weighing on me. I’m not sure I believe in Darwin anymore, the simple mechanics of natural selection, the knowable world.
How do you build a new self from the ground up? Is the foundation intact, or is even that subject to revision?
Several years ago, in a moment of boredom, I picked up a pencil and started sketching: a single chunk of rock depicted in a kid's book. The rock was black with swirls of purple and blue and white, multiple facets reflecting gradations of light. To my own surprise, I kept on drawing. A cherry, a tree, an eye, a shoe. I taught myself from an online class. I was playing, not expecting perfection, not taking the whole adventure seriously. I found myself honing in on people’s faces, ignoring the well-known difficulty of portraiture, and have never wavered—I, who can barely decide on a couch or wallcolor.
I had taught myself how to draw as a child from a mail order art course, copied photos of people from magazines. Offhandedly sketched a face here and there. Then forgot it all. Yet here it is, returning, a pure, cold spring. A self I neither nurtured nor dreamed of becoming--a gift, wholly unearned.
The monarch butterfly is the classic symbol of transformation. But there’s more to the story than what we’ve been told. First, the caterpillar doesn’t just hang itself upside down and wait for metamorphosis to begin. It hangs, but curls its head upward, wriggles, heaves, pulsates with fierce muscular contractions. Its outer skin peels away from the newly forming shell of the chrysalis, like the spirit peeling from a dying body.
Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar literally digests itself. It dissolves into a soup of its component molecules and atoms. Then, says the old story, it miraculously rearranges those disparate atoms into a newborn, fully functioning butterfly.
The reality isn’t quite so simple. Long before the caterpillar glues itself upside down to a twig, it begins life inside an egg. It’s already equipped with the information that will guide its later restructuring, stored in clusters of cells called “imaginal discs.” I love this term. It refers to the “imago,” the final, adult form in the life cycle of certain insects. But the term also suggests “imagination,” that capacity to envision something that does not yet exist. These imaginal discs do not succumb to the soup—they persist through it and feed on it. Each disc develops into a specific organ or structure, and these link to form the new butterfly body.
Even more amazing: the new butterfly “remembers” its past. Scientists have designed experiments in which they teach a caterpillar an aversion to a specific stimulus—for example, attaching a mild electrical shock to the color red. They are able to demonstrate that the newly formed butterfly retains that aversion—that some parts of the caterpillar’s neural network appear to persist through the soup.
I like the idea of the persistence of memory. It’s reassuring, when I’m in the soup. I hope I too have tucked away imaginal discs, capable of building a self that does not yet exist, yet holds the memory of its former life.
I never saw myself as a visual artist … but drawing has been the teacher that returned me to writing. It taught me to be a beginner again, to embrace not-knowing, non-competence, risk, foolishness, play, unconcern for outcome. It also taught me to see the shapes and colors of the world with a new sensitivity to their exquisite beauty. It taught me to understand that what we think we see is only a pattern of light and shadow that we read as face or ball or box.
Maybe our other senses--like touch--trick us into experiencing a solid world that doesn’t exist. You’d think this idea would be profoundly disturbing. But when I no longer insist that the world I perceive is “real”—when I choose to simply observe the play of images and thoughts and feelings and sensations moving across the screen of my mind, my focus shifts ever deeper, into a place of perfect joy.
This is my comfort, my peace. This is the part I believe survives the soup.
Today writing feels like peering into a Magic Eight Ball: words and phrases appear and disappear. None of them stick.
The money is leaking away. I have to go back to teaching.
When I imagine myself in front of the classroom, I feel empty, wordless. How will I do it? My stepfather was a born-again Christian. But he didn’t buy the new-age platitude that one could simply wait for God to provide. No, he went to work every day for 40 years, a clerk in the US Post Office.
Did he love his job? You wouldn’t think so. He was intelligent, well-read, capable. But he had a “servant’s heart.” He did whatever God told him to, he said. And he did it with joy and humility. When they wanted to promote him to supervisor, he refused. I want to stay with the men, he answered.
Is this an answer for me? To do whatever God asks, with joy and humility? Today I simply don’t know. I only know that the thought of having to do any work that distracts from my writing and art feels like a punch to the gut.
I tell the dean I’m coming back.
Climate change. The news isn’t good. Drought, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. It’s nearly biblical, the end of days. Wars and rumors of wars …
Is it the end of days? Shocking to think of the earth as a simple planet, the sun as a star, burning itself out. Even worse to think we humans could annihilate life on earth by our own actions, and far sooner than we had hoped.
I once counted on the succession of seasons: fall winter spring summer. I could rely on their regular beginnings and endings, their temperature highs and lows, their snow totals and wind chills and heat indexes and pollen counts. Now it’s all mixed up. Summer came too soon, the heat soaring in early June instead of late August. My allergies acted up in August, not early June. We’ve had so much rain in Minnesota that our rivers took nearly a month to subside from flood stage. I feel vulnerable, shaky. I’ve relied on nature to anchor me. Now even the ground moves at my feet.
Once, as a teen, I was rooting around behind the basement staircase. I stumbled across a set of vinyl 45s in yellowed paper sleeves. I walked across the room and opened the lid of the record player, pressed the record down on the spindle and carefully dropped the needle.
It was my mother's voice, both distant and warm, as if were flowing down a long copper tube. They were torch songs from the 30s and 40s, smoky, tremulous. I felt I had stumbled on something almost illicit, a mother I had never known. But when I mentioned the recordings to her, she shrugged. I wasn’t very good, she said.
Looking backwards through that copper tube, there’s a mother I can see only dimly. When my sister and I were toddlers, she dressed us in ruffled pink dresses with tiny matching umbrellas. She staged photos of us in blue satin dresses she’d sewn herself. She baked elaborate cakes: an Easter bunny with coconut fur and a gumdrop nose. She made tiny clothes for our Barbies: a lacy wedding dress, a blue chiffon ball gown. She put wine-colored votive candles inside of cinder blocks and placed the blocks near the front window: the pink glow of the flames reflected on the snow. She played the “The Good Ship Lollipop” (we worshiped Shirley Temple) on the piano as the three of us marched around the room singing. She did what women did in those days: cooking and sewing and decorating the home, elevating the children with culture.
But at some point it all stopped. Her hair went from luxurious waves to the tight perm she would keep for the rest of her life. Her face grew angular, her body flattened. When did it begin? When my father proved both cruel and unable to keep a job? After my father left, when she had three teenage girls to raise on her own? Or even earlier, a result of the belief that she shared with the culture at large: that a mother’s duty is to sacrifice herself?
By the time I started playing the piano, singing in our high school chorus, taking ballet, sewing dresses for myself, she had let most of these activities go. She grew sheepish when I asked her to play the piano, though I knew her natural talent was far greater than mine. When she remarried, this time to a born-again Christian, she accompanied him on his visits to home-bound church members, his volunteer work at the hospice. Her new husband encouraged her to join the church’s bell choir, so she did, her contribution relegated to a single note here and there.
Now, I struggle with my desire to do both writing and art. It feels selfish, doing what pleases only myself.
Sometime in my teens, I made a pencil drawing, from a photo of our first dog Duke. He was a boxer--ears and tail cropped in the fashion of the day. The story is that, when we were little, he let us ride on his back. I don’t know what happened to him—did he die? Did we give him away?
The dog who came later was another boxer, Tork. Rambunctious, naughty. When he attacked and killed our pet squirrel, my father chained him in the back yard and left him there in the blazing sun for hours, until he died of heatstroke.
When I gave my father the picture of Duke, he laughed: I didn’t even know you could draw. I felt ashamed. How stupid of me to want praise, appreciation, gratitude. Instead he told me what I already knew: He didn’t see me. He didn’t know me.
I’ve signed up to volunteer with the Minnesota Experience Corps, helping little kids struggling to learn to read. Many come from families in poverty or families suffering some other kind of trauma. It looks like a good, solid, effective program.
A few days later I call to withdraw my application. I’m not ready to “help others.” For too long, that has meant giving away what I refuse to give to myself.
A story from my teens:
Stepping from the forest into the light was just as it had always been: a moment of disorientation, blindness, and then the sense of stepping gingerly into church. The sun was deliciously hot. My calves felt strong in my boots. I started picking my way across the white boulders, heading north, away from scattered clumps of people oohing and aahing with their noses pointed to the sky. I wasn’t really interested in the hawks.
I made my way across the rocks, sometimes skidding on loose talus, sometimes slipping close to the cool crevices between boulders. I was aware of the copperheads that might have been coiled there, armed with their poisonous bite, and took care exactly where I put down my feet.
At length I hooked up with a trail that led to another mountain. The trail led to the South Lookout, a clearing of white rocks visible from the North Lookout, but seldom visited. I was relieved to find no one there. I sat on a rock.
At the time, I was afraid for myself, my inexplicable depressions, my loneliness, the fears and worries that swirled in my head. Sometimes at night before going to sleep I listed them, as a sort of incantation, to prevent them from happening. I still believed it was possible to think my way out of despair, to solve it like a physics problem: Work=force over mass.
After a long while, I would notice something entering my body, soothing as cool water. The muscles of my back would release. My shoulders would open, my lungs fill to the top. There would be warmth and light, the soft sounds of rippling leaves, the faint cries of hawks. My skin would ripple and then fade, transparent as my yellow shirt; my legs would disappear. Everything I could see and feel seemed inter-joined by a warm filmy light. Everything pinged off of everything else perfectly, exactly as it must. I grew beyond my own skin, to contain everything: the valley, mountains, and sky: the people looking up, the rustling trees, the hawk riding the upward press of air.
Nature is the heartbeat that grounds me, when so much else tilts.
I can’t bring myself to email my dean and tell him I won’t be coming back after all. It’s embarrassing, changing my mind from one week to the next.
Then I get an email. The dean offers me two courses for spring.
A few days later I go upstairs for a good cry. I have no idea what I’m crying about. I just ask for help—from my angels, from Jesus, from Thich Nhat Hanh, from no one in particular. I feel a warm, female presence, a young woman. It’s okay, she says. It’ll be okay. Change is hard. You’re scared. You’ve been teaching, helping people all your life. It helps, a little.
I feel like a failure, like there’s something wrong with me for being unable to sustain my energy and excitement for teaching. Like someone who deserves a few crumbs from the table, deserves to be kicked out.
But here’s the truth: I choose to vacate a system that exploits adjuncts and relegates them to the “housework” of the English department—the lowest level comp classes, the 2-credit research writing classes with high labor and low financial reward—the courses the full-timers don’t want. The draining emotional labor of trying to carry students in financial, mental health, and academic crisis through to the end of the semester. I’m choosing to have control over my schedule, to feel appreciated and generously rewarded for my skills and effort, to foster my own creative ambitions and meet my own emotional needs.
Fourteen years ago, I took myself off for a solo weekend retreat a few hours from home. It was the morning of my first full day. I was on my second bowl of granola, and my third cup of coffee, rocking, as I gazed out the front window of the cottage to a stand of birch and sugar maples. I was stretching out breakfast as long as I could, with no rules for the day, no expectations--and reveling in the time alone. I was desperate for a break from mothering my hyperactive 4-year-old son, from the terse and angry exchanges between myself and my husband.
When I finally glanced up at the clock, it was close to noon. I felt a surge of energy. I got up, rinsed out the bowl and mug, and pulled on my down vest. On the way out the door I grabbed a rain poncho and a circle of bells—the note over the coat hooks reminded me to be wary of bears.
Outside, the air was cold. There were still patches of snow and the ground was muddy in spots, but the sky was sunny and blue. I walked down the driveway to a paved country road, then another quarter mile to where a snowmobile track peeled off to the right.
I’d gone in only a few miles when I came upon a small white house with several ramshackle out-buildings, a cropped lawn. A rusty set of railroad tracks had been running in parallel with the trail. I glanced further ahead; would it be more of the same? I wanted the opposite of civilization. I felt my energy flag. I sighed deeply and turned back.
Soon I settled into a rhythm. The chatter in my head finally eased. I kept my eyes on my feet, hyper-alert to what surrounded me—birds calling, leaves rustling, the fresh scent of cold air. Suddenly, I left my body in a whoosh of energy. I expanded to encompass everything I could see. I saw my body below, just one participant in the perfect world. The trees and bushes and grasses and gravel were not static but alive with a pure crackling energy; they bent toward me and flowed through me as I walked, held in the hands of a warm and benevolent consciousness.
I received a message: all was well, all would remain well as long as I kept moving.
I’m at the crux of both an ending and a beginning. Competing waves of terror and certainty crash over me, buffeting me about. I long for security and the social approval of returning to work; yet some fierce green seedling pushes up inside, bursting through whatever concrete ceiling has held it down for so long.
Here is my vision: I’m sitting calmly with a new writer, secure in my own skills, with a generous wish to help.
Okay, I tell myself, clicking off the SAD light: Get real. I know I’m depleting my meager retirement funds, taking Social Security too early, taking my leisure while Mark is still exhausted. I cut short my usual morning ritual: face, jeans, tee shirt, peanut butter toast, the Washington Post on Kindle, and the New York Times KenKen, with multiple cups of coffee.
Get your ass moving. I flick on the laptop and wait for it to crank up.
How do you spell the name of that online tutoring service? Is it Smart-thinking or Smarthinking? The latter, I recall. It makes no sense when you read it phonetically; the two words crash together, with a disturbing aberration at the middle.
It takes a while to sort through the website to locate an application form. Jesus Christ. They want a resume, cover letter, recommendations. All this for a 10-bucks-an hour tutoring job for which I am wildly overqualified. I refuse to spend an hour making major edits to the resume and cover letter I have on hand. I make one or two tweaks and paste them into the form.
Just a few hours a week, I think. I can do this in my sleep.
The “old woman” I have in my head is gray-haired and slightly plump, wearing a neat dress and maybe even pearls. Her hair is permed but soft. She speaks quietly and asks little for herself. Even in private, her demeanor is even-keeled, no longer at the mercy of emotion and desire.
I, on the other hand, swear and curse with impatience. Faded jeans are my go-to wardrobe. I’m obsessed with myself: my writing, my drawing, my inner conflict, my emotions--swinging from self-loathing to flights of transcendence. I fight with my husband, refusing to give ground, to be anything less than an equal. I am anything but settled. I can’’t stop plowing forward into my wounds, fighting for more territory in which to live.
Maybe I have borderline personality disorder. Or is this what it means to be an artist?
Today this image appears in my journal: Denali, Alaska. I’m walking along a mountain peak, filling my lungs with air that is light and cool and moist. The wet ground springs under my feet. Tiny white flowers lift their faces; inch-high tundra bushes uncoil, sparkling with dew.
I glide through that secret tunnel
lit with golden leaves.
The trees bend towards me,
I flow like a river;
like a white flower,
Once in while I’d stroke Grandma Burkey’s cheek, soft as the leather of my old deerskin purse. She was tiny at 4’10”. She’d be wearing a dress that fit snugly over her round body, perched on a chair with her hands folded in her lap.
Like most grandmas, she came with a repertoire of food: shoo-fly pie, funnel cakes, Dutch potato filling, apple dumplings, fastnachts. She was best known for her “Easter Eggs”: melted dark chocolate laced with paraffin, poured over freshly-ground coconut wrapped around peanut butter. These five-inch long delectables had to be refridgerated so the paraffin wouldn’t melt; we drooled over them for days.
One day, when she was babysitting, she glanced up at the ceiling and said, “There’s Ishkabibble.”
I squinted but couldn’t see anything. He must be very small, I reasoned. It made me think of Timmy, when he tied a string to the leg of a housefly and it buzzed circles in the air.
Grandma Burkey was nice, never wished to complain. She sat in the rocking chair that took up most of the tiny living room of her government-subsidized apartment, knitting and crocheting afghans and doilies and teapot cozies and Christmas ornaments and little dolls. Only once did I see a crack in her pleasant self-effacement—she muttered with fury as she scrubbed my little sister raw with Fels Naphtha soap. My sister was streaked with permanent purple-black India ink, along with our wooden floors.
Grandma Burkey never made it past 8th grade. She was probably relieved when her husband, a domineering alcoholic, died of a heart attack at 40—she never dated or married again. When the doctor told her an artery in her brain was poised to burst, she entered a nursing home, occupying one half of a vinyl-floored room. She hated her roommate but relished her role as the queen of the craft room and favorite of the staff. She lived in the nursing home for another 30 years. She was 92 when she died.
Isn’t this beautiful? Grandma Slack picked up an eggplant and held it up in the air. It was beautiful: its graceful curves, its deep black-brown-purple sheen. Grandma and grandpa would get up at dawn, drive the tractor out into the misty field behind the house and pick sweet corn for the market, keeping the pile of green ears moist with wet burlap sacks. Grandma did everything Grandpa did: drove the tractor, sprayed the crops, plowed the fields, baled the hay, and groomed the horses—as well as cleaning, sewing, canning, and cooking for the farm hands. She was an excellent cook: could make a casserole of whipped squash so fragrant, sweet, and buttery that even the children would ask for more. I’ve never had a better apple pie than the ones she made from the tart green apples of their own orchard—we’’d pick them straight from the tree and eat them with salt.
After my grandfather’s death, she drove a semi from Michigan to Pennsylvania to bring us a Hammond organ she thought we needed. The man at the tollbooth took a long look and drawled, “You’re the prettiest truck driver I’ve seen in a long time.”
Still, we had a tendency to recede when Grandma Slack was around. She was constantly critical, leaving my mother anxious and flustered. All she does is read, she’d tell my mother when I curled up in a chair with a book. She should be helping you with those dishes. She complained that she should have been a nurse, that she had a gift for soothing the sick. Decades after her death, I read through the journals she kept as a young woman, the few years before and after her marriage. She had clearly loved her first job—sterilizing glassware for the chemistry lab at a pharmaceutical company, enjoying the company of the other "girls.” She asked whether she could continue to work at the lab after she got married; they said no. She was 23 when she married my grandfather.
Grandma Slack did not ascribe to the notion that women must be docile and selfless. If anyone receded in their marriage, it was grandpa, who worked from dawn to dusk. He never smiled and seldom spoke. Still, against her own example, she cautioned me once: You better stop being so independent, or you’ll never get a man. Maybe she had paid a price for her refusal to be subordinate. Not long after my grandfather died, I heard her tell my mother: I don’t really know what love is.
Is humble self-effacement another word for powerlessness? Does defiance and self-assertion mean a forfeiture of love? It’s easy to say the answer is somewhere in the middle. But how does one assert the self and relinquish the self at the same time? I find it hard to sit in the not-knowing.
That’s a lie. I’m not the least bit uncertain; I know exactly who I am and what I want. I want to work on an extended memoir and complete it. I want to start a web page and blog. I want to serve other trauma survivors and artists and people struggling to own and define their creativity. I want to care for my son and marriage and family and friends and health. I want to be myself, and it makes me angry that I can’t remember a time when I felt like that was enough.
I’m haunted by an image from Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda: A platform floats silently downriver through thick, moss-green forest on its way to a tiny Australian outpost. It carries a small cathedral made entirely of glass. It’s meant to be an offering, a structure so perfect and beautiful that the two outcasts who created it will be entirely vindicated, re-admitted to the community.
Right now, this memoir is my glass cathedral. But the simple act of asking a published author for feedback brings the structure crashing down. I no longer believe in myself, trust my writing as "good." The drop of a velvet hat--the gentlest criticism--on the floor of my glass cathedral can shatter it, lacerating my heart.
I want to talk about bioluminescence, the ability of lightning bugs and foxfire and jellyfish to make their own unearthly light.
In the photos, medusae float lazily under their pulsing umbrellas, transparent, shimmering, glowing white against the dark watery sky. I wanted to comment on this ethereal beauty, speculate about why God created things---creatures, sunsets, paintings--we perceive as beautiful. Why God gave us this capacity to respond with pleasure to certain arrangements of light and color and sound. I suppose it’s adaptive, as the evolutionary biologists would say. It draws us toward things—mates, for example—that would not otherwise compel us. But why sunsets? Crater lakes? Jellyfish? A piece of music so precisely exquisite it makes me want to cry? Suddenly the world looks painfully, exquisitely sharp. Our real eyes--our soul eyes—are attuned to this level of beauty.
One scolding observer informs me that in the typical images of medusae in their white filmy garments, they’re not bioluminescing, merely reflecting the flash of the camera. In fact, Aqueforia misteriosa does not, on its own, luminesce at all. Only when the scientist pokes at it does it activate its green-light-producing organelles, and those few only at the very edges of its pulsing umbrella.
Still. I’m a sucker for beauty. As are most of the biologists I know. They too are prone to experience rapture in the natural world, to rhapsodize about intricacy and beauty in a way that points toward God, not away. To your face they will pooh-pooh the notion of “intelligent design””—they see natural selection as an impersonal mechanism. But deep down they’re enthralled by the intelligence of the natural order, its transcendent motive or organizing principle—they just call it evolution.
The Hmong believe in the power of shamans to heal their emotional and physical wounds. Some disease, they say, results from “soul loss.” The shaman must enter a trance in order to travel through the spirit world and call the soul back, through drumming and ritual.
When I returned from Christmas in Pennsylvania this year, I felt out of sorts. One morning I was struck by the sense that some young part of me had not returned at all. I realized I had to call her back: Come here! We live in Minnesota now! I enfolded her in my arms and felt whole again.
In therapy, much of the work I do is to locate parts of me that I’ve rejected or exiled and coax them back. I experience this as inviting some separate being into my own body and holding it there in love. More and more, these parts of myself come to me as images so clear and crisp and potent that they must arrive from some other “place,” not from what I normally experience as consciousness. When I interact with these images, I experience healing at a level much deeper than words alone.
A few days ago, I wailed like a child. Why had my mother cut down the old red oak tree perched at the edge of our front yard? It must have been at least a century old. A long time ago someone had stuck a strip of iron between its two trunks; the trunks merged as they grew, imprisoning the strip. We grabbed it to haul ourselves up the bank from the road. The tree shed acorns we hurled across the street, or at cars, or at the neighbors' windows at Halloween. I watched its leaves turn every yea from green to yellow to orange to red to rust, peered at their veins and burls, like the warty skin of grandmothers.
When I heard that my mother had cut it down, I was dumbfounded: why? There was no way to undo what she had done. I felt heartbroken, then furious—how could she do this to me? Didn’t she know how I felt? Why didn’t she ask?
The truth of course is that I’ve been gone from my childhood home for over 40 years. The house is no longer my home. My mother has every right to do what she wants with her yard.
But it hurts. I want to ask her, will you count the rings on the stump? Will you save a slice of it for me?
These days my 18-year-old son lives in his bedroom. I think of his room as something like mission control—banks of beeping and blinking monitors, laptop, headphones, remotes, chargers, game cube controllers. Musty-smelling. The paint on the walls is chipped and dirty white and dotted with pieces of yellowing scotch tape. The top of the bookcase is a hodgepodge of water-glasses and granola bar wrappers A giant pencil drawing dominates one wall: what looks like a wild dog standing on two legs. His teeth are bared, and he’s holding a giant pencil, pointed like a weapon.
Most of the time I knock once or twice and walk right in. He anticipates this by living under his bedspread—doing whatever he does on his smartphone. I know it’s wrong of me to barge in. I just want to reach him, have access, know what’s going on.
Today, I knock on the door. He yanks it open. Yes, what do you want? Sarcastic.
I feel sheepish. Just let me know if you want my help on those job applications.
I know, he says.
I’m not ready to give up. Why are you so cranky?
Because you’re irritating me, he says, pulling the door closed.
I stare at the door for a minute, then walk away.
As a teen, I lived in my bedroom, refused to eat the meals my mother cooked, refused to speak to her, scorned her pathetic attempts to insert herself into my life. I wanted to be free of her. I couldn't teell even myself how desperately I needed her.
My son is taking a creative writing course. He brings home an excerpt from Richard Hugo’s Triggering Towns. Max thinks this course will be easy. Now he’s on a deadline: it’s nine o’clock and the assignment has to be turned in by midnight.
He wants me to help. I can’t do it, I tell him. It’s up to you. Nevertheless, I read the excerpt, enjoy its crisp remarks on the writing of poetry.
The next morning, I’m flipping through the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. A sidebar title catches my eye: Subnivium. Here’s what comes out:
Subnivium (Latin for “under snow”—A seasonal refuge between snowpack and ground)
This is a temporary refuge
for small soft mammals, relaxed in their busy tunnels.
A keen red fox can plunge into the white powder
black feet first--emerge with a snack wriggling between its long teeth
--a vole who’s made bad choices.
Our clattering cars spew gray wool blankets,
too hot for the season; ice crystals unhitch
their clasped hands and turn to water--
The vole crouches down, naked and ridiculous,
eyes locked on the vast dark shadow cruising across the sky.
Two Bulletins from the Universe:
--We’re all rootlets blindly inching toward each other, seeking contact: an exchange of nutrients, fluids, news, or vows.
--What else could heaven be but a crisp, flowing, dizzying beauty we glide through, all made of the same rippling substance: space-time-matter-heat?
The sun is finally out, it’s warm at 44 degrees, and I feel shitty. The boys are coming over to watch the Super Bowl. Six towering teens slender as grass and restless, poised to spring into some new life.
Of course, it’s Max in particular I grieve. He got accepted at a college nearby—impossible for us to afford. Nevertheless. It speaks of other admissions, farther away. Do all mothers dread this moment? My son has been the greatest joy of my life.
An attempt at fiction peters out:
Sunny feels she’s forever stuck in her mother’s house, ironing a shirt she hasn’t worn in 30 years. A threadbare shirt she’d worn as a teen, when she didn’t want to be a girl at all. When the only brand she would buy was Wranglers—blue jeans and cut-off shorts. That skinny year, when her chest was flat, her shoes mostly sneakers and hiking boots. Who would wear the shirt now? No one.
She sighed, set down the iron. Rosie was well-launched, off to Australia to teach English literature to Maori children—some kind of exchange program. Max was … well, Max was struggling. His last year of high school, with no idea what he wanted to do next: culinary arts or chiropractic or needle felting. No idea what it took to accomplish these things. Wild notions of going off to the University of Virginia or Cornell, when his ACT scores were abysmal, the tuition impossible. There was no money for experimenting. She could not send him off to flounder and fail.
They’d moved back to Pennsylvania a year ago, after her mother’s death. They were desperate for RNs, thank God, especially in Psych. Plus, she loved those crazy teens—their certainty that they were doomed to live in their formless selves forever, their fear of making the wrong choices, growing breasts, growing up. Depressed and anxious and cutting and addicted and lonely. These are the hearts that reached out to her day after day. They clung to her, thirsty as flowers.
She knew she had to let him go. He could take care of himself—she tried to believe it. He was good--almost too good---at reaching out for help. His friends had carried him through high school, even through a few college classes. He still refused to use text-to-speech software. Instead he took classes like sculpture and American Sign Language, which required no reading and writing at all ... Forget it, I'm bored!
Here's an experiment with dogs.
The dog has not eaten for 24 hours, and the owner's been gone for the same amount of time. A door opens. At an equal distance from the dog is a bowl of food and the owner. What does the dog do?
He runs to his owner. The ecstatic greeting ritual comes first.
Right now, my cat is sitting on my open notebook and head-butting my pencil. He lives to go outside. But when we get home after a six-day trip and walk in the door, there’s a moment of hesitation. He glances outside, maybe even takes a step in that direction. But he turns back.
Then there are major head scratches and leg rubbing and crying to be picked up and mad purring and chirping. Only after about 20 minutes is he ready to leave us behind.
I want to think the connection between Max and me will survive the looming separation. But I cut off my own mother for decades.
Last night we bumped into the mother of one of Max's friends. She had just sent her son off by plane to Chicago, alone, to interview for a full-ride college scholarship. He did it all himself, she said. Researched the colleges, sent in the applications, scheduled the interviews. She looked lost for a moment. I’m dying to call him, she admitted, just to make sure he got there okay.
But then her face brightened. It’s exciting, she said. He’s ready to be out on his own.
It's not exciting at all, I thought. My heart was breaking.
As a graduate student in the summer of 1980, I spent five weeks at the Lake Itasca field biology station, where I meant to do an independent study of the alga Volvox. Under the microscope, Volvox is a beauty: a hollow, spinning sphere formed by a single layer of luminous green cells. Well, not completely hollow: parts of the outer skin fold inward and pinch off to form baby spheres, floating happily around inside the protective parent colony. A few of the babies already contain tiny spheres of their own. It’s like peering into a tiny galaxy, each green world giving birth to the next.
I was supposed to collect and analyze Volvox samples from one of the streams that fed the lake. But I was immature, easily distracted by the volleyball games and bike trips and bar outings. And by a tumultuous relationship that siphoned my attention. I let the project peter out.
I signed up for a limnology class instead. Before I cracked the textbook, I’d had no idea that a series of ecosystems existed beneath the calm surface of a lake, stratified by gradations in light penetration and temperature. Surface waters are lit and warm, supporting green algae and a host of creatures. Bottom waters are cold and dark, allowing the slow decay of dead plants and animals. But at a certain point in the spring and the fall, someone or something pushes the puree button. The lake becomes a whirling soup of chemical solutes and chlorophyll and mud and dead plants and animals, careless of their appropriate places. It’s as if God has thrown up his hands--“Do it again!”—like a delighted child.
Turning over is a natural effect of seasonal changes in a temperate climate, but to me it seemed as if the lake had simply decided, in some mysterious way, to bring light to darkness and darkness to light.
There was a darker side to that summer. I was scared I was pregnant. My boyfriend was far away, visiting his brother in Hawaii, and I did not trust his love. One night after a long, tearful argument on the phone—at midnight, from an isolated bar four or five miles out from the field station—I emerged from the booth to find that everyone else had left. I didn’t have a car. I was too embarrassed to ask for help. So I started walking.
The night was cool and misty, partially lit by a pale moon. I would just follow the road back,
I thought. But it grew blacker under the trees. A doe crashed out of the forest and leaped across the road in front of me. A paranoia surfaced. Who else might be out here, on his way to the bar? When I saw headlights approaching, I jumped into the forest and hid behind bushes. After it passed, I walked as fast as I could, breathing puffs of mist in and out, in and out. Time itself faltered, so that it seemed as if I’d be on this road forever.
I was scared I would miss the turnoff, but I didn’t, and eventually I slipped into the cabin bunk-bed, my heart thumping.
The next day, my classmates and I piled into the boat, nets and jars and secchi discs in hand. We moved out into deeper water. We had to complete our careful measurements today, before the lake did indeed turn over.
Another layer of grief. I cannot be all that I wanted to be. I wanted to be endlessly creative, a font of love and creativity and beauty and energy. But here’s the truth. It takes lots of energy just to take care of my mental and physical health. And to be with my son and my marriage. I want to expand my local community and strengthen ties to my sisters and mother and nieces and nephews.
I don’t want to volunteer or get a job. I want to write. I want to put down on paper what matters to me, what I find beautiful and true. This is what I want to give-- not only to my son and family, but to the world. This self, this bundle of timidity and failure and yearning and ecstasy.
I wish to jettison the parts of me that steal time from the creative work. But they keep me grounded in my humanity, the desperate difficulty of trying to become anything other than what my DNA and life experiences have made of me.
My friend Colleen interrupted me the other day: I know you’re very creative, but you’re also very scientific. What did she mean? That I’m not a real artist? It touched that raw nerve of doubt I already have. It hurt. Can an artist also be inquisitive, precise, and analytical? Love biology, nature, and solving complex physics problems? Whenever I return from seeing my family in Pennsylvania I’m beset by doubt, suddenly uncertain of who I am.
Every sane mother adores her child. I was no exception. In fact, I knew I was right: he really was cuter than the sum total of all other earthlings.
I recall a photo: he’s wearing a tiny baseball outfit, grinning from ear to ear. His eyes are a deep soulful brown and twinkling. He’s a bright spirit, someone remarked. I would agree. He couldn’t sit still for 10 seconds, but he was a happy kid, full of passion and drive and delight.
There was one moment: he wanted to demonstrate a new skill he’d acquired. This was at ECFE, when the parents re-joined their children at the end of the session. A worker led us to the school gym, with wooden bleachers and lacquered floors.
Okay, Max, she called over. Your mommy and daddy are here. Do you want to show them what you’ve been practicing?
He nodded. He was three years old. She told him to stand behind a painted line. Then said, Go!
He took off, skirting the walls of the gym. His head was down, as if he were pushing against cyclonic winds, and his expression was deathly serious.
My heart dropped, not in disappointment, but in love and a desire to protect him in his vulnerability. I believe he was literally running as fast as he possibly could on his little legs. He ran the entire circumference of the gym and came to halt in front of us.
Wow, Sweetie, that was amazing! I didn’t know you could run so fast!
I pulled him over for a hug, which he received with the seriousness and dignity that clearly was his due. He was demonstrating what he was made of, though we didn’t fully realize it at the time.
I loved him down to my toes, through every molecule of my body, and yes, up to the moon and back.
My son will soon leave here. I find this intolerable. I can’t imagine life without his continued daily presence. He has been the light of my life for 18 years. My only comfort is that he will be and is a part of me. The little boy I cherished will always exist as part of my memory, part of myself. And the grown man will always be part of my daily awareness, no matter how far he travels.
I used to believe that I would persist after death as an individual, recognizable soul. Now I doubt it. I think I'll persist instead as what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls the continuation body --my impact on all those I’ve touched in ways big and small.
It comforts me to believe I will persist in the memories of my son, perhaps speak to him in dreams. That he will carry me inside him, a constant reminder that he is precious, he is loved.
Where is it? my 18-year-old son wanted to know. A community college I thought he would like.
It’s up north, past the place where I used to work.
My throat closed as I heard myself say it: Used to.
The grief rolls over me in waves. Grief over the loss of my work as a teacher, the place where I worked, the people I worked with. The looming loss of my brother-in-law to cancer. The looming loss of my son. The loss of youth, of multi-potentiality, of energy, of the belief in perfectibility. The loss of hope that the past will ever be redeemed. The belief that anyone other than myself is responsible for my failure and limitations and unhappiness.
Twice a year, lakes turn upside-down. The well-defined gradations of light and temperature and living creatures break down, and everything mixes with everything else: protozoans, algae, bottom-dwelling scavengers, decomposing litter. Dissolved oxygen and minerals intermingle throughout the water column, a fertile reshuffling of matter and nutrients.
Like the monarch in its chrysalis. Another potent soup.
Just finished reading two of Richard Powers’ books, The Overstory and The Echo Maker. I feel cracked open and gutted. I yearn for the trees, for nature, for some sort of connection I’ve forgotten about. Ecology is “the study of home,” and I’ve forgotten where my home is. I knew it once, without knowing I knew it. Nature is my truest experience of God. I’ve forgotten to live according to that knowledge. I‘ve forgotten to "love this beautiful land,” the phrase Chief Seattle uttered that once brought me to tears.
My intellect inserts itself, questioning my certainty and longing. I choose to resist it for this moment, to believe what I believe at the place deepest in my gut: that we are all connected, part of one vast living thing. That the world is mythic, and the psyche operates in symbols and drives stronger than reason. To put my faith in intellect alone is a mistake. The aboriginal people of the world had it right: the sacredness of earth, the immanence of the gods. And we mocked them, called them childlike and uncivilized.
Without earth, we are going to die. It’s that simple. Without understanding that we and nature are one fabric—and we the newest members of this 4 billion years of creation—we are already dead. We are sinners, egotistical in our belief that we are special, that we are in control. Forgetting we are a single finger on the body of God.
We’re destroying our home/we’ve destroyed our home. We have to stop/we will be stopped. That’s the knife’s edge we’re teetering on, pretending not to see.
A treatise on fracking arrived in the mail. Of all the environmental injustices today, this one bothers me at a personal level. The Pennsylvannia coal fields, the exposed layers of shale and slate I could see in the old river basin near where I grew up, are ripe for it. I think of the Blue Ridge mountains, the sassafras trees, the waterfalls, Laurel Run creek and the Schuylkill River practically in my backyard. Miners blowing off the tops of mountains in the Appalachians. An injury as personal to myself as my mother cutting down the centuries-old oak tree in our front yard.
We are born of place. The place we grew up in is our psychic home, and to destroy it is to destroy our own foundation.
When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about Native Americans, how we drove them from the natural lands of their birth and culture. Imagine being lifted up and dropped in Antarctica. How bewildered you would be, how desperate to simply survive. How people—friends, family, neighbors, ourselves--would die from inexperience, the absence of cultural practices designed over centuries to keep them alive. Or if that’s too extreme, imagine a rural village in China, the Namibian desert. Alien, the opposite of home.
We’re driving ourselves into an alien environment. One for which we have no tricks or practices or beliefs to keep us alive. One in which there is no relief on or off the dusty reservation.
Artists see further ahead than the rest of us. This is the future that writers like Richard Powers (The Overstory) and William Vollmann (The Dying Grass) and Barbara Kingsolver (Unsheltered) are already imagining. We’d best pay attention.
I mentioned you twice already in my creative writing class, Max said.
I told them you were a writer. That’s why I was taking this class, to see what you had gone through.
And to see if I wanted to do it, he added.
My throat closed.
Cool, I said, casual.
I was walking home on a cold crisp February morning in Minnesota, about 16 degrees, the ground still covered in snow. As I rounded the corner a half block from home, I caught the sound of a wind chime, swinging from a tree in our neighbor’s backyard. It was blowing gently, each long tine tapping the others, speaking the deep, minor notes of an old church bell. Then the sound lifted, no longer originating from the actual chimes but now the voice of the wind itself speaking a gentle reminder: go to whatever church you know, worship what or whom you can, remember gratitude for all your beloveds (my husband, my son) and for the long privilege of living, here, on earth.
A big chunk of me has slipped back into place unexpectedly. I call it my nature girl. Suddenly I’m appalled by fracking---especially in Pennsylvania. And by the continents of discarded plastic, ghost ships cruising ominously across the ocean. By the pellets of plastic lodged in the throats of seabirds and whales. I don’t want to shout slogans or disrupt traffic or get arrested. But I do want to write letters, post in my blog, watch what plastics I consume.
This part of me went underground for the past 20 years. It was the “biological imperative” that hijacked me, the compulsion to have a child. The cultural imperative for women. But I wanted it, wanted to nurture another person into his or her genuine self: whole, authentic, happy.
Last night, Max’s face was bright with excitement over a new girl. “She’s already beautiful,” he said. “If she puts on a little makeup, I won’t be able to look at anything else.”
Yet just the day before, he’d alarmed me and my husband and his teachers with a declaration of unhappiness and depression, completely uncharacteristic of him.
I’m not sure I’m convinced. I think he wants to experience what depression is, to join the crowd of adolescents discussing their medications and therapists and hospitalizations, to garner some attention. On the other hand, I know he is feeling pressured and overwhelmed in his senior year of high school. He’s overly concerned with perfection and grades. He refuses to accept his disabilities as real and not products of personal failure.
Yet, I think if he weren’t panicked about completing graduation standards, getting an A in his college class, and getting into a four-year college--if he were free to move toward what makes him feel good and let go of what doesn’t--he would be just fine.
So, my nature girl has returned. Nature permeates her view of the world and of herself. She feels competent in biology, in learning, in repeating what she knows on tests and papers. She feels at one with others who share this foundational love: those who move about in nature and draw meaning from it and revel in its beauty.
At the same time, I have other selves, not ecstatic, not on top of things. Hurt, angry, and demanding attention. The authentic self and the wounded self have to live in balance.
I guess this applies to both Max and me.
It was 39 degrees, sunny and warm for Minnesota in early March. Max and I were meeting with the director of disability services at Augsburg University to discuss what the college could and couldn’t offer him. Katy asked Max to share his understanding of his disability and what help he thought he would need.
I had learned to hold back, having been burned once before at a high school IEP conference. I’d jumped in right away with the questions I’d listed on a sheet of paper. But Max interrupted: I’m leading this meeting, he said, glaring at me.
Now he talked about his ADHD, how he processed things more slowly than other kids, how reading was slow and hard and he did better with audio, how he used to be ashamed to ask for help but isn’t anymore, how he does better with tests if he can be in a room by himself … . Katy sat back, her eyebrows raised: You know a lot more about what you need than most of the students who come in here.
He was sitting up straight and looking her in the eye. He spoke with a low, slow, drawl I only saw in meetings: However …, he was saying, and, Therefore …. .
She asked him about services at the University of Minnesota, where he’d taken college classes last fall. To be honest, he said, they weren’t the greatest. I’d go to Hlee for help and she’d say do this and do that and then I’d leave and nothing would be different.
Wait: didn’t he say he loved Hlee? That he didn’t know what he would’ve done without her?
Avalon prepared him well to advocate for himself, I said. But they weren’t as good at requiring the kind of reading and memorizing and test-taking that you have to do in college.
That’s not true, Max insisted. It depends on what classes you choose to take. I took physics and there were lots of quizzes and readings and I did well. You’re partly right, he said looking at me, but you’re also wrong.
The word wrong kept ringing in my head, like the fading peal of a gong.
On the campus tour, I tried to cover Max’s silence. I couldn’t seem to stop myself from asking questions and making little jokes.
One of the girls pointed out a nearby shop: Girlfriends Boutique. I’ll have to check that out, I said. Maybe …
Oh no you won’t, Max hissed.
The two girls laughed. I felt my face grow hot. I was the butt of the joke, the oblivious, intrusive, infantilizing mother. I meant I’d come on my own, not when you were here ….
Max was talking over me: You have to let go some time, I did it a long time ago …
His disgust was palpable.
The next morning, after my husband had left for work and Max had left for school, I sat down on the couch and cried and cried. It’s too soon, I thought. I’m not ready. For a long time I’d been sure Max wasn’t ready, that he needed and wanted a few extra years at home. But now it was undeniable: he’s pushing me out, trying to claim more space for his burgeoning self. I have to admit it: He wants to leave. He wants to experience life beyond the home my husband and I have created. He wants to challenge himself.
This is all exactly as it should be, and I’m proud of him for resisting my impulse to grab hold and shield him. Yet I feel bereft, inconsolable as a child. Impossible to lay down the intense, all-consuming project of the last 18 years: doing everything humanly possible to ameliorate his disabilities, foster his unique strengths. Make him feel safe and loved and happy to be himself.
When I left the community college and started writing this memoir, my attention turned inward. I stayed at home most of the time, reading, writing, and lying around. I seldom exercised or saw friends. But just a week or so ago it was as if someone hit the On switch. As if I suddenly poked my head out of a hole (much like Punxatawny Phil) and looked around. I felt a need to move back into the world. Signed up for fitness classes at the Y and contemplated tutoring a kid or two.
I also started talking to God again. This long hibernation and inward search had brought me back to what I needed most—to feel reassured of something beyond the whirling turmoil of Trump, mass shootings, the climate crisis, wildfires, and now the global pandemic. I feel I must choose now at a deeper level, whether I will believe in the world that appears so cruel, so dangerous, so pointless—or one permeated with love, beauty, and meaning, offering a loving presence that can be trusted to accompany me through the severest troubles.
I choose love.
Part II. Who Am I Now? Life and Death in the Time of COVID
[Note: On March 25, Max's school closed. On March 28, the governor issued the "Stay-Home Order," and we went into lockdown.]
My 67-year-old brother-in-law has entered the Reading Hospital in Pennsylvania with stage 4 prostate cancer. He laughs when people tell him he looks like Captain Kangaroo, the star of that old kids’ show on TV: he has a little white mustache and straight white hair with bangs. You can still see the outlines of a solid, stocky body, though his skin hangs more loosely now because of medication he has to take.
--Hangs 100 lottery scratch cards from the ceiling in his heated garage, where we hang out over Christmas. Stuffs the envelopes with ones, fives, twenties, and one $50 bill. Whoever wins a round of bingo gets to pull one down. This continues until every single one of them is taken.
--Set up his own kitchen in what used to be an attached garage, complete with large warming trays, griddles, and multiple crockpots. Cooks Christmas dinner. Makes breakfast for out-of-towners like us, whatever you want: pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs. Has the coffee brewing long before we get up. We call it Joe's Cafe.
--Calmly wraps up his hand after a machine cuts off his thumb. Says, “I guess I better go to the hospital.” Does the same thing later when another machine slices off the tips of four fingers. Never blames the guys who hit the wrong buttons.
--On New Years Eve, show up at the neighbors in diapers and a sash. Period.
--Plays jokes on the doctors and nurses. Hold up his left hand, which is missing a thumb and the tips of four fingers. It’s covered in ketchup. Laughs at their alarm. Plays this trick on new hires at the machine shop as well. One of them faints.
--Goes to work every day no matter how bad the cancer makes him feel. Falls asleep at his desk. His sister is the boss and loves him too much to kick him out. The guys he supervises do too.
--Married my sister when she was 19 and weighed about 95 pounds. When they danced the jitterbug, he’d throw her up in the air and swing her down between his legs.
--When I first met him, I was the classic over-achieving, straight-A student and thought he wasn’t very smart. Now I see how incredibly smart and talented he is. He can build anything, fix anything, cook anything, out-play everyone at any game. I thank him for the fact that I’ve come to love him.
Here’s what I figured out a few days ago:
There are probably a million things that could potentially kill me: heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancer, car crash, terrorist attack, lunatic with a gun, carbon monoxide poisoning, the coronavirus, the flu, ALS, etc. etc.
Only one thing will actually kill me.
That means that 99.9999___ % of things will not kill me. (This alone is strangely comforting.)
Also, I don’t know which thing will kill me, and I can’t protect myself from everything.
Ergo, I might as well relax. I can’t control the method and timing of my death, so I might as well turn it over to God/HP/fate.
When I do turn it over to God, I feel safer. I also feel less alone. I have the sense that love will follow me anywhere, even through the passage we call death.
Yesterday I felt a squeezing in my chest. I had to get out of the house. I took off for a little patch of woods and fields tucked between suburban developments, not far from where we live. It was disappointing. The trees were bare and the trail was icy and muddy. Plus I got lost. I hung my mittens on a wooden sign while I opened Google maps, trying to figure out where I was. When I took off in a different direction, I left my mittens behind.
I realized a few things: one, I had to surround myself with the things that nourish me: nature, meditation, writing, music, family, friends. When I got back home, I put in my earphones and lost myself in the Bach Chaconne and Yo Yo Ma for a while. Then I grooved to two of my favorite pieces of pop: Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk” and Shakira’s “This Time for Africa (Waka Waka).” I ended up dancing around the house while my two guys were out chasing down a pasta machine (another story!).
I felt so much better. And the other thing I realized is that I must turn my focus from myself, ask myself what I can give to my community to help us all through this frightening time. The minute I chose to act as if we were all in this together--all part of a single, loving entity--it felt viscerally true. Even if my physical body died of this terrible virus, I felt, love itself would continue—I would simply merge with what is already at the deepest center of myself.
Today I feel so grateful for the sun outside my window, the sounds of birds, the stillness of the neighborhood. For the presence of all three of my beloveds here at home (I had thought they would drive me crazy). For this chance to stop running and striving and trying to entertain myself with distractions. For this time to remember who we really are.
What I feel today is not fear, but grief. Grief for the knowledge that this pandemic will not pass quickly. That life as I have known it is gone for who knows how long. That my son will not be able to finish his last semester of high school among his classmates, have a graduation ceremony and party, get his learners permit and license, see his girlfriend (at the tender beginnings of a relationship), take stupid risks with his beloved friends. That he is now exposed so young to the fact that the worst can happen. That living in the U.S. does not confer special exemption to tragedy.
My husband grieves by focusing on work. My son stays cheerful by believing it will all be over in a few weeks. I retreat to my lair upstairs, where I write, pouring out my feelings of loss, hoping that someone will answer back.
A corona is typically a pretty thing: a crown, a halo. Something that confers authority or holiness or innocence.
So the name coronavirus does not seem at all fitting. This virus is a rampaging predator. Its only function is to take over the cells of its host (meaning us), seize the machinery, and churn out millions of copies of itself, each of which goes on to do the same.
What is the point of this life-form, God, I ask you? Does it do a single good thing?
I'm disgusted with the lack of planning and foresight that went into the evolution of this organism. Today, God, I don't like you, not at all.
I would need to leave comfort and courage for my beloveds. I would need to leave them all of my love. I would feel terribly sad at what I would lose, but know I’d received so much more just by being here, alive on earth. That just lately I had stepped fully into myself, and it was worth it, every painful step of the way. That I’d had a good life, that I had learned so much. That I didn’t know what was coming next, but I wasn’t afraid. That I felt surrounded by love. That I would be with them whenever they cried out to me; that I would hear them, and I would answer. That love is a viscous liquid, the fabric that undergirds the universe: the trees and flowers and rocks and sky. That what we call “reality” is malleable, that it bends the same way that light and time and space bend. That one poke anywhere sets all things to trembling. That when I’m gone, love will be everywhere.
We’re sitting at the dining room table in front of Max’s laptop, waiting for a video call from the admissions counselor at a culinary school in Denver. Max is wearing shorts and a tennis shirt; I’m wearing a crumpled knit jacket over a T-shirt advertising a bluegrass festival held 10 years ago. Suddenly it occurs to me that this may be an interview—should Max be wearing a coat and tie? Too late.
- What are your contingency plans for COVID in the fall? (Are you really going to pretend this will be over by then? Please stay closed.)
- Can he defer entrance for a year? (He’s delusional! He thinks he’s going to be a famous chef and run a Michelin-star restaurant!)
- Can we get more money? (I already know the answer is no.)
- What is the primary instructional style? (Are the chefs going to be mean, like Gordon Ramsay?)
- What’s the first-year retention rate? (Do the kids have nervous breakdowns under the strain?)
- How do they evaluate the students? (Are there tests and quizzes? I hope to God not, because Max hates reading, writing, memorizing—studying in general.)
- What’s the gender ratio? (Does the poor kid have a shot at a girlfriend?)
- Is the school in downtown Denver? (Is he going to get mugged?)
Go, I want to tell him, and succeed beyond my wildest dreams.
Yesterday, walking outside alone, I breathed in the sweet scent of cedar shavings. Noticed the soft touch of sun on my cheek. The stillness of the neighborhood, the whipping call of a cardinal high in a tree, a chickadee's three-note whistle.
These are the things that will get me through this sad and desperate time. Not hopeful words, not falsely-optimistic projections, not the belief that God will protect me from tragedy and death, not imagining the things I'll do when this is over. Not even a belief that some part of me will persist after death.
Just the body reveling in nature. Just being here now.
The third thing has had maybe the most profound impact: moments of transcendence I've experienced, usually in nature: at the top of Hawk Mountain, on a walk around a busy urban lake, hiking along a railroad track or in an old-growth forest. A sense of the sacred on the side of a dusty mountain. Also, unearned gifts, like my sudden passion and skill for drawing. Moments when I felt bathed in a soft warm liquid light I can only call love. Unexpected guidance when I cried out—to Thich Nhat Hanh, angels, Jesus. Moments of utter peace and bliss in meditation. All paths for entering this state with so many names: nirvana, flow, grace, heaven.
Today I feel useless. Exhausted, empty, angry, and dull. I don't like what I'm writing. I can't summon the will to sanitize doorknobs and light-switches (preferring a potentially fatal disease to housework, apparently). I'm furious at Max for playing computer games all day in his darkened bedroom, and hurt by his refusal to join my husband and me on a bike ride or hike.
My husband says he'll talk to Max about whether the expensive culinary school Max has his heart set on is realistic. Whether any college will be open for face-to-face classes next fall. But he doesn't. He'll also agree to pick up after himself and sanitize surfaces--and won't. It all falls to me. I let it, because after all, my husband is "working," and I'm not.
Or am I? My writing is work. Parenting is a hell of a lot of emotional work. And surviving a pandemic is pretty damn labor intensive too.
I need help from my beloveds. But maybe they feel as empty as I do, just as stunned--all our power to act thwarted.
My grandparents were farmers. My grandfather grew sweetcorn, asparagus, apples, grapes, peaches, muskmelons. He seldom spoke, but they say that birds would sit on his shoulder. I think of him as a “green man,” connected intimately to the soil and the cycle of seasons. Green things flourished under his care. My grandmother took over the finances, monitored the stock market, stored up money that would help to support two more generations. But my grandfather knew how to coax crops from the earth.
Joe is in hospice. The grief has hit me hard. I want to be with my family in Pennysylvania. But covid has stolen that solace. I'm a thousand miles away, and unable to help.
Joe died Tuesday night. For two days I was crushed with grief.
Because of covid, I can’t travel to Pennsylvania. There won’t be a funeral anyway. I’m left with questions it seems too early to ask: What were the exact circumstances of his death? Was my sister by his side? Did she discover him gone in the morning? Was he conscious shortly before he died, or had he slipped into a coma hours or days before? Did he know he was going to die, or did he avoid knowing up to the end?
I want to ask my sister: how do you feel? Overwhelmed with grief? Numb? Disoriented?
I’m ashamed to admit it: I keep wondering if she feels relieved. It wasn’t an easy marriage. Yet they stayed together for over 40 years. “She depends on me,” Joe told me just this past Christmas. It was a kind of answer to a question he’d been asking himself. It seemed to satisfy him.
I keep trying to imagine that infinitesimal moment between a room filled with Joe’s presence—then empty. Where did he go? Is he still himself?
It hurts be alone with my grief, 1300 miles away. My side of the family isn’t good with virtual communication. How do I connect with them? I was gone for a decade here and there, but I want to belong. I want them to know that I, too, feel this loss profoundly.
The bathroom sink is scummy; the floors are dirty. We can’t risk bringing in the woman who’s cleaned for us every month or so for several years. I don’t know how to keep a home clean and don’t care to learn. And no one wants to help me anyway.
Also, the wall we’d been planning to add upstairs remains un-built. Our upstairs bedroom therefore doesn’t have a door. I’m used to having days at home to myself: F. at work, S. at school. Now we’re all home 24/7. At first it was sweet to have my two boys nearby; now my anger flares easily.
Yesterday, Max presented his senior project, his last task before graduating from high school. He had to do it over Zoom, to an audience of two teachers, three friends, my husband, and me. He had switched topics late, from chiropractic to cooking—and his “deliverable” was a slide show of dishes he’d made for us, plus a 14-minute video demonstration of how to make pannacotta. Zoom was glitchy. The whole thing felt haphazard, rushed, uninspiring. At some point Max started flinging his hands up over his head and leaning back out of the frame. Then he would grab his head to crack his neck. I wanted to burst out laughing, but his teachers’ faces were serious.
Max is trying on identities. He’s poured through season after season of Master Chefs from around the world, memorizing the names of the winner and their favorite cuisines, the mannerisms of Gordon Ramsey and Joe and Graham Elliott. He’s soaked up the lingo; consistency, plating, palate, flavor profile. Adores flicking the knife blade back and forth (incorrectly) across the rasp to sharpen it.
It’s all surface, an experiment. Yet he insists he want to go culinary school, become a three-Michelin-Star chef and open a restaurant—seemingly profound passions he’s never mentioned before. But he expects us to foot the bill for Johnson and Wales—tuition $33 000 per year. We had to lay down the law: we could only pay for two years. After that he’d be on his own.
I’ve been goading him to consider cheaper, and closer, options. He’s been digging in his heels. The tension came to a head a few days ago, just around the time Joe died. I found myself sobbing on the bedroom floor, exhausted. Finally, I gave up. Some tough sour husk I’d been clinging to fell away. The wish to control and protect. To continue as Max’s manager, counselor, motivator, protector, fierce advocate—the role that’s consumed my mental and emotional energy for 18 years.
In less than a year, I’ve lost my identity as a teacher. Watched my easy intimacy with Max grow strained. Lost my familiar habits to Covid. Lost a beloved family member to cancer. Lost my most fundamental and fulfilling identity: mom.
After retiring, I felt unmoored: Who would I be now? Now I feel pinned to the air, unable to touch the earth.
The lilacs are blooming. Soon I’ll cut off a few branches, bring them into the kitchen. Their sweet scent will fill the house, as if it were a spring like any other.
Nature goes on despite us and our troubles. The earth ripens, opens its deep throat. A cardinal calls outside my window; my cat watches lazily from his hiding place beneath the hostas.
He was the man we relied on to fix things, to carry us from place to place in his 10-passenger van, to ply us with chilled bottles of water and hard pretzels, to beat us at Pit and poker. To build things, take the grandkids to the Jersey shore, counsel my beautiful son, even though he was already 10 by the time I stepped back into the family after a decade of absence.
I feel guilty about that time away, though it was necessary. Now I feel excluded. I don’t know how and where Joe died and who was with him, and whether his body was buried or cremated, and did he know he was dying? There will be no funeral, my sister said, because of covid, and I’m terrified to fly right now anyway. I don’t blame them for closing rank without me. I was not there for my younger sister’s wedding, for the decades of my stepfather’s wise and ebullient presence, before he died suddenly in 2011.
People are fragile, relationships are fragile. There is not much time. The lives of those we love are as fleeting as lilacs. Their scent lingers in the air for only a few days.
At the last minute, the answer is clear: Sam has deferred his acceptance to JWU for at least a semester, and probably for a year. It is really my decision. No way in hell am I going to send him off to a school I've never seen--a school that would cost us $33,000 a year--to pursue his improbable fantasy: becoming Chef Ramsey. No way am I going to risk getting covid on the long drive to Denver, or from my own son when they send him home.
As Max puts it, "Mom put her foot down."
For me, it's a relief.
Max seems angrier lately. Because of Covid, he's lost his job at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and is likely to lose the summer jobs he was lining up there. But he has other preoocupations. Yesterday, late at night, he sat down on the couch across from me and asked me a question: “Do you think this will be over by August so I can hang out with my friends for my birthday?” For us, that involves waking up to eight giant teenage boys slumped across our living room. That is his all-time favorite thing to do.
He tends to boast, present as cheerful and fearless even when he’s worried or upset. This time he sounded small. His head was bent so he looked up at me through his eyelashes, as if he were pleading for something.
I was tired for to manufacture false optimism. I sighed. “I don’t’ know. We can hope for a vaccine, but I don’t think we’ll have one till next year.”
His eyes looked shiny, but crying is not an option for 18-year-old boys.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Too hot, I thought, even with the windows open. I finally gave up, gathered a few extra sheets, and went downstairs, grabbing another melatonin on the way to the den. I picked up Mark’s latest novel, a Kate Atkinson mystery, hoping to read until I got sleepy. But instead I found myself crying into a pillow.
It was Joe’s death, I thought, flipping back and forth between two pictures: Joe in bed, sick but alive, and Joe’s waxen body, suddenly emptied of him. But then I thought of Max’s crushing disappointment. And then the pandemic, the fact that Minnesota has not even reached its peak of cases. And then all three.
I was a quick learner. I still am. I do things at speed: focus, don’t mess around, get things done. But Max is languid and loves to chat. It takes him 10 minutes to chop a carrot. Plus, he has problems processing language. He has trouble tracking the steps of a recipe, distinguishing a teaspoon from a tablespoon. How will this work in the tense, frenetic pace of a restaurant kitchen? (I’ve waitressed. I know how it goes.)
Other parents are sending their kids off to college, off to work in summer camps, off to states halfway across the country. I’m keeping Max here, at least for the fall. I want to keep him safe, not only from Covid, but also from the possibility of disappointment and failure and humiliation.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, tells a story from her childhood. Her teacher places a small branch dangling a cocoon in a mason jar, eager for children to witness the magical transition from pupa to adult moth. This particular moth has a wingspan of up to 6 inches. When the moth emerges, it tries to flex its crumpled wet wings--but the jar is too small. The wings dry, now permanently deformed. When the teacher sets it free, it limps down the driveway, to its certain doom.
I don’t want to cripple my son. But I also don’t want him to get violently sick or—honestly—to bring Covid home to us. The bottom line is that I fear for his life, and for ours. And there’s no magic reassurance to offer, no miracle cure.
In the panicked early days of Covid, I posted an ISO (“in search of”) on the neighborhood app Nextdoor for sanitizing wipes. I got a list of suggestions for places to get them, but all the stores and pharmacies were out. There were none to be found on Amazon, or anywhere online. Finally a man named Jason offered some of his own. I was grateful. But when I picked them up from his front stoop, there was a single container, already open, only a quarter full.
Then someone posted an offer to make face masks. The masks were not cheap--$20 each—because she was donating one for each one paid for. When I got them, the elastic loops were too big for my ears. I had to pinch a segment of the elastic and staple it together to make the mask fit more snugly. The staples kept rubbing against the back of my ears.
Now, I’m engaged in a what my husband and I call a “cleaning frenzy,” a mad purging of clutter and grime. We call it a “frenzy” because the impulse is both intense and rare, and motivated by despair. This impulse flies against my life-long hatred of vacuuming and dusting. When I was 12, I informed my mother that I would not be helping her and my sister clean on Saturday mornings. In fact, when I was older, I’d be hiring a maid. I was planning to be a doctor, so I’d have plenty of money. For some reason my mother let me get away with this; I guess we both figured I’d be wealthy enough to take care of the whole family.
Anyway, for some reason my husband is deeply offended by the grocery bags I use to gather up items lying around the house, collect paper for recycling, store books I want to sell to Half-Price Books, you-name-it. So I decided to search for free cardboard boxes—but where? I posted another ISO to Nextdoor.
People gave suggestions. Finally someone named Blake said he had produce boxes I could pick up. “They might be a little damp from the rain last night,” he said. I didn’t remember any rain. “But they’re waxed so they should be fine.”
I like the produce boxes they use at our coop. They look like firm, cardboard laundry baskets, just the right size. I messaged him back: “Thanks, I’ll come and get them!”
I had a little trouble finding his place, and when I did, my heart sank. There was single box on the front lawn. I peered more closely and realized there were flattened boxes inside it. But they weren't damp: they were soaked. The bottom of the box holding all the other boxes nearly dropped out as I carried it back to the car.
“Will it always be this way?” I wondered. “People giving away the stuff they don't want?” When I got home, I opened up the flattened boxes and put them on our porch to dry out. Then I got another message, someone offering more boxes. I said, “Great!” But I wondered: Would they be too small or too big? Flimsy or moldy? Infested with spiders?
I can only hope for the best. But I do notice one thing: these offerings, ragged as they are, make me feel safer. A whole network of help is at my fingertips, people willing to care and give, despite the sometimes dubious nature of what they can offer.
I too am just human, full of contradictions: generosity and selfishness, compassion and self-righteousness. My husband and I are more irritable as time in isolation goes on. Like everyone, we are sad and angry and afraid. I ask for grace: the power to overlook faults and forgive easily, out of the humble knowledge that we're all doing our best. It doesn't come naturally. I have to work at it.
It’s Max’s birthday today. He turns 19. It shocks me. This is way past “young teen” to “on the verge of adulthood.” The next birthday is 20, no longer a teenager at all.
It hurts me to think of him leaving, but I’m more or less resigned. No, not really. I’m relieved that Covid will keep him here a little longer, at least a year, maybe two. Johnson and Wales is out of the question for fall. Denver is still a hotspot, as are we here in the Twin Cities. The culinary arts program at St. Paul Community College will have to do for now. We try to make him feel better: “You don’t have to live at home: you can live with Wesley or Henry or Jack!” But none of them have jobs. How will this work?
It hurts that he can’t celebrate his birthday the usual way, when we wake up the next morning to towering teenage boys draped all over the couches and the floor. It hurts that he doesn’t have a real graduation ceremony, that he doesn’t get to say goodbye to some of the classmates and friends who’ll be going off to Madison or Los Angeles. It hurts that we won’t get a picture of him in his cap and gown.
He refuses to participate in the virtual graduation Avalon is offering. Says he doesn’t want a car parade of friends for his birthday—it will make him feel even worse.
I wish I could comfort him as I did when he was a child, when all it took was my embrace. Now his pain and grief are deeper, and I’m not the one who can assuage them.
Here’s what we’re doing today: I’ve ordered two pieces of raspberry cream torte from Café Latte. The pieces will be massive (they better be, for $7.50 apiece). I’m off sugar so I’ll just have a bite. We’ll pick them up curbside. At dinnertime we’ll order hamburgers from the Groveland Tap. Max has kept a vegetarian diet for over a year. Somehow, graduating from high school has given him permission to quit. I think it was a status thing.
I’ll go get him Persona 5 from GameStop; as much as I loathe video games, they keep him busy and connected to friends when there are few other ways to do so.
We’ll keep working on his room. Over the weekend, he and F. scraped off the crumbling plaster of the walls, puttied the holes, and sanded the results. We put in the air conditioner only to realize it was coated with black mold. The next 30 minutes were spent cleaning out tiny crevices with Q-tips. Max and F. went to Menards to pick up blackout shades for the windows; the light bothers max in the morning. All the contents of his room are now scattered through the hallway and dining room and on the table where I often eat breakfast and do work on the computer.
Today, we’ll throw up a few patches of paint to test the colors: green and lilac. The exact colors of the actual lilac bushes just outside his window. The green is a bright lime—a bit too bold for my taste, but he’s always favored intense colors: red, yellow, orange especially. Suddenly he’s into bluish-purple, the color of an anime character whose name I can’t remember.
We’ll keep at this through the rest of this week. Then we’ll buy him a bed. The one he has is pitiful: sagging in the middle where the slats have broken, an actual hole where the spring has poked through the fabric. A shameful reminder of our parental neglect: he’s been begging for a new bed for a year. There have always been too many other things going on. Now we have time; but how do we get a bed? Are furniture stores open? Safe? Do we have to buy a mattress online, without ever lying down on it?
At least it’s something. Not his friends, but a marker, a concrete acknowledgement that he has moved from boy to teen to young man. A birth-day. A graduation of sorts.
The Washington Post reported today that 1/3 of all Americans are experiencing depression and/or anxiety. I'm right there with them. I'm weepy and tired. Too tired to do the "self-care" that is supposed to prevent plunging into despair.
- I do not have covid. My husband does not have covid. My son does not have covid. No one in my family has covid.
- Our home and property were not damaged in the recent violence.
- My husband still has his job, and has even moved into a position with more responsibility and higher pay. I'm glad this will give him a new challenge to focus on.
- We have plenty of food. We live in a single-family home.
- We have excellent neighbors, and an app that gives us an easy way to give and receive help.
- I reconnected with my family of origin in the past 8 years and now we are supporting each other.
- We have internet and zoom--multiple ways of connecting in spite of social distancing.
- My son recently discovered a passion for cooking--miraculously, something he can do at home while he's stuck here anyway.
- I have time and initiative to seek out friends I've neglected.
- I have this writing, and a purpose for doing it; I'm submitting it to the Women's History Project, an attempt to document women's voices and experience throughout this pandemic.
- We have easy access to nature: state parks, protected natural prairies and woods, bike trails, even urban lakes. Our backyard cherry trees and dogwood and wildflowers are in lush bloom, sweetly scenting the air.
I come to the garden and sit on the bench in the shade. It’s quiet here. The lawn is deeply green. The garden froths with blossoms, magenta and blue and purple. The small tree behind me is blooming, and the air smells sweet. No rabbits visit today, just the occasional call of a jay, the liquid notes of a robin.
This eye is not me. I am not caught in this eye. I am life without limit, I have never been born,
This fear is not me. I am not caught in this fear. I am life without limit, I have never been born,
I will never die.
I was scrolling through the Google feed this morning and came across a headline that made my eyes pop: “Two Johnson and Wales Campuses to Close Permanently.”
One of the two, of course, was Denver. It’s crystal clear: they waited to tally enrollments before pulling the plug. The admissions advisor had probably known all along. They offered the students automatic enrollment at the remaining two campuses--in Charlotte, N.C., and Providence, R.I.—as if it’s a piece of cake to transfer one’s hopes and dreams at the last minute to someplace a thousand miles away.
I feel manipulated, but also relieved. JWU and covid is keeping my son where I want him, safely at home. He isn’t ready for JWU, and I’m not ready to release him into a world turned upside-down.
JWU had accepted Max without reservation: no test scores needed, no prerequisites to fulfill. He was so glad to be wanted. Now another door has slammed shut.
It’s been a mad scramble to get Max enrolled in the culinary program at Saint Paul College. It’s hardly a top choice for him, but he seems relieved to have some direction. We’re all excited. The culinary program seems like a good fit–the creativity, hands-on-training, and the opportunity to give pleasure to other people—which he loves.
I just received an email from the advisor: Max cannot start the SPC culinary program until he has satisfied specific reading and writing prerequisites. I’m stunned. It’s 4 days before the start of fall semester. Max refuses to leave his room, all the lights turned off. I hear him on the phone, talking to his friends. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” he says.
I got another email from the advisor: “Oops. I gave you the wrong information. He is accepted into the program, based on his GPA.”
Holy hell. Talk about being jerked around. I tell Max, who smiles wanly, hesitant to trust in any good fortune.
I’ve been struggling mightily with depression. Someone has suggested medical marijuana, which sounds like fun.
Is it addictive? I don't know. What are the effects of long-term use? I don't know. Will it give me the munchies? Make me too sleepy to drive? I don't know. But I’m intrigued.
I feel for all those out there with PTSD, depression, and anxiety--like me. Covid has created a perfect emotional storm: I feel trapped, isolated, afraid, and powerless, with no end in sight--exactly how I felt in my childhood home.
I’ve been stable for several years on a cocktail of three anti-depressants, but I hate being on these medications. Whenever I try to get off them, though, I grow weepy and self-loathing. Still, I don’t trust them. After a few years, the positive effects peter out, and I have to switch to something new. Plus, though they keep me from plunging into the abyss, they don’t keep me from hovering directly above it.
At some point I decided that, though I had to keep taking the medications, I would not rely on them. With the external focus and structure provided by teaching, the day-time solitude I could count on for working out my emotional knots, and therapy a few times a month, that strategy worked. But the pandemic has upset that delicate balance. I am no longer teaching, my son does not need me in the same way, we’re all home all day every day, there are no cafes I can escape to when I need to get away.
Life events can pile up. The struggle can become too much for myself alone. I see now why I went on meds in the first place, and why I may have to raise the dosage yet again. It takes a certain humility to admit this. An admission of powerlessness. An openness to the intervention of a power greater than myself. A new med, a new 12-step group, a medical-grade mood-altering weed. A miracle cure, for Covid and me.
Classes have started, and Max is scrambling to catch up with the other students, who’ve already purchased their textbooks, ordered their uniforms and knife sets, taken photos for their ID cards, looked over the syllabus and online class platform. To Max, and even to me, it’s an inscrutable maze. I’ve been struggling to understand the form and pace and assignments of the classes, despite the fact that I’m intimately familiar with the community college system and know D2L inside and out. The instructions we find online don’t match the instructions the chef gives in class.
Max has no idea how to read a text and extract its salient points. The offices at the college are closed: there are no writing and math labs, no peer tutors, and no on-campus IT help. I’ve already assumed the role of assignment organizer and study partner.
Max is in love with his teacher: Chef Jones. He stopped by his office after class to touch base and ended up in an extended heart-to-heart. It turns out that Chef Jones also has—or in his words (mysteriously) “had”—a learning disability. Max declares his allegiance to becomimg a chef just like him.
We’ve been delighted with the fruits of Max’s labor in the culinary lab: somewhat lumpy profiteroles, crusty baguettes, a brilliantly fattening pate-de-choux pastry cream. But I feel a little concerned. When I press him a bit, Max admits that Chef Jones has been helping him extensively, even took over completely a few times so that Max could keep up. He’s had a hard time understanding what they’re supposed to be doing and how to do it and relies heavily on the students in the stations closest to him.
I’ve been working with Max every night and all weekend to keep up with the readings and quizzes. His eyes look a bit glazed. It’s all he can do to focus for an hour at a time. I’m getting tired, too.
Some things I’m learning during Covid:
1. How to be … nothing. Just myself. No occupational titles, no self-improvement projects, no social status, no special artsiness, no nothing. How to enjoy just being alive, spending time with the people I love in the simplest of ways.
2. It’s okay to watch three hours of The Money Heist every night. F. and I kick back. We laugh at some of the more ludicrous plot lines. We already know: no hostages are getting out of there alive.
3. Drugs are underrated. My brain needs anti-depressants. There are times when nothing else will work. This is one of them. I was weeping all the time and couldn’t pull out of it. Thank God for citalopram and buspar and methylphenidate and Strattera, for mood alterers of every [legal!] kind.
4. Suddenly, I’m letting more people in. A long-time friend of F. emailed me to trade book recommendations and I responded at length. I talked to Raelle’s husband first when I called her on the phone. A couple just a few doors away had us over for the first time and might become our camping and biking buddies. With none of my regular distractions at hand, I seem to be delving deeper, allowing new people to take their places in my heart.
There’s a way to talk to people who like Trump without hating each other. By "people" I mean my own family-of-origin. Noelle and her husband and I had a carefully-worded discussion over the phone. They of course, take the opposite side in the Trump/Biden debate. There were a few tense moments.
I finally said to Noelle: If you and I sat down together, we would agree on our goals. Let’s take healthcare. We would want everyone to have access to good, reliable care, including those unable to work, and those unable to pay hefty premiums. We would want our elders to have access to affordable care if and when they are unable to care for themselves and not go bankrupt in the process.
The question would come down to, how? But the answer won’t come from an ideological debate over big vs. small government, personal responsibility vs. the common good. It will come from pragmatism. Where are we right now? What movement is possible right now? How can we think outside our political bubble, to come up with new, creative solutions? How can we balance, not eradicate, our opposing tendencies?
It’s like a marriage, that endless tug between personal sovereignty and the good of the union. And also like parenting: when do you offer help and compassion, and when do you hold the child to high and non-negotiable expectations?
Maybe we shouldn’t talk right after the election, Raelle said. Will we still like each other?
"Yeah," I answered, "one of us is going to be ecstatic and the other is going to be deeply depressed. Probably making plans to flee the country."
At least we were laughing.
I’m sure Raelle and I can find a path forward, with love.
About a mile down, we’d find what we were looking for—a concrete structure rooted just next to the river. Its massive columns rose to a highway, which began its launch across the river—and abruptly stopped, midair. I remember it fascinated me, this strange fragment of a former time, this monument of a daring hope left unfulfilled. We named it the Bridge to Nowhere.
There was another compelling structure just down the road. A two-story, dun-colored building, crumbling at its corners. It used to be a hotel, my mother told me, and I pictured the women in bright dresses, laughing and tossing their glossy hair as they twirled under colored lights. Boisterous families pouring out of windows and doors. Now it was mostly empty, a few old men on the porch, sitting on metal chairs, smoking and staring into space.
Yet farther down, on the high bluff over-looking the river, was the house my friend Marlene had lived in. The bluff was so high it took several flights of steps to reach the top. The house itself was a massive structure of brick and stone, which puzzled me: who, besides Marlene, lived there? I don’t recall Marlene’s mother hovering nearby, nor any mention of a father. There was an older sister, Peaches, who was said to be crippled, confined to a wheelchair. But I never saw her. The lamps were always dimmed, as if someone’s eyes would be hurt by the light.
These memories make me wonder about the place I grew up in. Why had the bridge been abandoned, the hotel gone defunct, Marlene’s home gone steeped in shame and absence? Surely there had once been joy? Happy noise? Love? What had died, well before we moved to the area? Was it the dying coal mines, the shuttered steel mills, the hosiery and cough drop and pretzel factories going silent?
Children invest what they see with meaning: The Bridge to Nowhere, the old hotel, a lonely mansion. Scenes of a happy past, abruptly ended. A vacancy, where hope used to be.
The first 3-week class, a crash course in all things culinary, is drawing to an end. Max hasn’t kept up with the assignments. I’m not surprised when he finally admits: “I know I look happy but I’m not. I hate bothering everyone else with questions. I hate it when Chef has to bail me out.”
He’s been talking to friends: “The truth is I dread going to class.” They tell him he should drop out, that his mental health is more important. I’m exhausted with the pressure, and Max is too. F. and I agree: it’s okay to withdraw.
Max’s face and body have looked so much lighter these past weeks. But the reality is sinking in: there is no other plan. It’s too late to sign up for other classes. It’s too scary to apply for jobs that might expose
him to Covid, which he would then bring home to us. There is nothing to relieve the inertia, the lonely confinement. He resists any plan I propose, no longer sure he can achieve anything he dreams of.
I thought Max had given up completely, but it appears he’s been casting around for a new dream to pursue. This is what he came up with: he’ll become a professional streamer.
“A what?” I said.
“A streamer. You know, like Mr. Beast.”
He correctly read the expression on my face. “You can make a living. Mr. Beast makes millions, he gives money away, he even gives people free cars!”
I’m familiar with Mr. Beast. Mr. Beast makes his money by pulling off outrageous and often dangerous stunts. He builds his following by giving away enormous sums of money—which he promptly more than recoups with the added subscriptions.
I take a dim view of this career. “Okay, one in a million streamers will get rich,” I say. “And pretty soon followers will get bored and move on to the next guy who does something crazy.”
Max looks up at me, his big brown eyes growing moist. “Why don’t you believe in me?”
Dear God, I think, what have I done. Why did anyone let me have a child?
I have to think fast. “Well, you wouldn’t be making a lot of money right away. It takes time to build up a following. If you want to move out with your friends, you have to have a job that pays the bills … “
I’ve hooked him with the “independence” spiel. “Yeah,” he finally agrees. “That’s a good point.”
He frowns, then retreats to his room.
I’ve stopped blogging because I’m depressed. I‘ve stopped believing that sometime within the next six months covid will be over.
I’ve cherished the hope that the election, with a Biden win, would lift the dark cloud hanging over our country—the cloud that spurned covid, and violence, and chaos, and contempt. But suddenly I realized that, even with Trump out, we will be facing months or years under the threat of a deadly virus.
Worse. I can’t get Max out of his room. He’s tethered to a bank of devices. He takes no initiative to look for a job or sign up for college classes or cook something or … anything except talk to and get together with friends. It drives me crazy. I have to goad and prod and schedule to make anything happen, and for the first time in his life, I resent this role. I’m disappointed in him. I’m afraid for him. I’m angry, I’m conflicted –should I pull back entirely, force him to act or stagnate on his own? Should I create some structure for both of us? Should I just have him check in with me once a week? No shoulds, I guess. What’s working, what’s not?
I can’t do it anymore—there’s just nothing left inside--and F. is just as baffled and confused as I am. I need help and support and relief for myself. I have set up a medication adjustment for Max, I’ve inquired about a vocational counselor for him. I’d like to sign up a driving instructor. Maybe, even, get him a life coach.
But I’m overwhelmed and scared. I’m furious at Trump and those who didn’t take the virus seriously in the beginning--and have put us all in danger, as the virus surges out of control.
I’m just tired. So terribly tired.
And so it goes. Me pushing for realism and concrete action, he dreaming alone in his bedroom of personal greatness. Perhaps becoming a professional tennis player? I remind him he hasn’t played in at least a year. And that tennis pros have been playing since they were barely out of diapers.
It takes a lot of cajoling—with energy I don’t have—to get him to practice driving, sign up for courses, set up a list of colleges to apply to. I push, he drags his feet.
A neighbor spotted a bald eagle cruising through our city neighborhood. It picked off a squirrel from her front yard. We’d best look out for our cats and dogs, she admonished.
It was warm and sunny outside—70 degrees—a rare gem of a day in a Minnesota fall, so it was a double loss for my cat Skippy, that I had to bring him inside. I could see too clearly the dark weight of the plunging eagle, its talons pressing into his soft flanks, then lifting him up to the sky.
F. says it’s just nature—the eagle has to eat. But it’s my nature to intervene—nestle the baby bird in a bed of cotton, run the injured bunny to the rehab clinic.
It makes me think of the coronavirus: is it some part of the natural order? Is it culling the human population, as a pack of wolves culls a herd of deer, removing its sick and old? Maybe. But where’s God? Why doesn’t He intervene, as I would, to protect us from the worst?
I’d like a miracle please. I’d like the virus to disappear. For all the people of the world to fall to their knees in stunned gratitude, rise again with a deeper humility.
I try to slough off the virulence floating in the air—the virus, and also the lies, the conspiracy rumors, the simmering violence. Hold fast to my belief in goodness.
Suddenly I see my own smallness, a fleck bobbing on the ocean’s surface. To die is nothing--just a release into the gentle rocking of the waves.
It’s early December, and the rate of Covid transmission is soaring. We’ve gone into near- lockdown again. Some nights I’m so scared I can’t fall asleep. I end up getting up later and later in the morning: 8:00, 9:00, 10:30. The hours of daylight shrink, and suddenly it’s dark outside, at 4:30 pm. I want to stay cocooned in the only place that feels safe: this house, with these two people and a cat. I look at Max, under the covers, and understand a little bit better his need to stay there. He knows we’re vulnerable to Covid at our age and is terrified of losing us.
I’ve finally wrangled him into signing up for two classes at Saint Paul College for sporing semester: computer animation and web design. Very little reading/writing/studying, thank God. I’m sure I’ll be enlisted to figure out the new software, swearing as I sift through directions that never match the screen I see in front of me.
Minnesota now has one of the highest covid infection rates in the country. The thought of two or three or even more months in almost total isolation is overwhelming. Most of all, I‘m terrified for my son’s future--how can he launch into a world that seems to be collapsing?
All I can do is put down my head and cry.
I have to give up trying to impose a shape on Max’s life—the shape that makes sense to me. He may not go to college at all. He may just get any old job, and rent a house with his friends, those who are just as aimless. His only passion right now is to build his own PC—some kind of set-up for streaming and pro-level gaming. A thousand-dollars-worth of equipment.
This is the hardest thing, to let him make what seem to me colossal mistakes. The heartbreak he will have to endure, the threats to his self-esteem, the extra obstacles presented by ADHD and learning disabilities. I will have to trust in Max’s internal guidance system (intuition, Higher Power, Holy Spirit, whatever) and trust that the world—the craziest, scariest world I’ve seen in my lifetime--will respond kindly enough.
I can only be patient with Max and myself as we fight it out–what is his to decide, what is mine? Where I cede ground, he steps up and grows, becoming the man he is meant to be.
The first thing I leaned from UA:
Time is a warm, living substance you can shape in your hands, to serve the values you hold most dear.
Max is struggling through a couple of college courses, both online. The college has not been helpful in providing tutors, so I’ve been putting in 2-3 hours a day, growing exhausted and resentful about my lost freedom. But I finally rounded up two college girls to take over four of the seven days a week, at $20 per hour. It’s worth it. The two young women are close to his age, and patient, and Max is happy to interact with someone other than his parents and his typical circle of friends.
The drawing of Joe is finished, ready to be matted and framed. It’s not perfect, but parts of it are beautiful. He does come alive in it: his strong forearm, his hands competent despite their mangled fingers, a chihuahua winking on his T-shirt. A thoughtful concentration I never really noticed before. I said I would give the drawing to the rest of the family out east, but I’m not sure I’m ready: I need to keep him here with me a while longer.
I got my first dose of vaccine yesterday. Sitting in the vast amphitheater of the Minneapolis Convention Center, I felt a teary upwelling of gratitude, for the scientists and doctors and nurses and truckdrivers who had carried me to this moment. I was one of the lucky ones—selected at random from a pool of some 300,000 seniors--surely there were other in more precarious health? At 63, F. was still waiting.
When I got back home, I was exhausted. Not from the vaccine, I think, but from all the weeks and months of battling fear. I secluded myself upstairs, lay down on the floor with a book. My attention kept slipping off the page. Eventually I gave into the undertow of profound exhaustion, and closed my eyes.
For the first time in almost a year I have a sense of protection, an infusion of efficacy; I’m less terrified of moving about in the world. I can just glimpse a room full of light through a door cracked open.
Tim Brill, Joe’s brother, has just died of covid. This feels like a crushing defeat. I remember Tim from my teens, as young and slim, sandy-haired and blue-eyed. (This may or may not be accurate). Defined by the tantalizing news that he played minor-league baseball—and was later drafted by the Atlanta Braves. A sort of golden boy, fascinating but remote, like a beautiful planet.
I feel an implacable undertow of grief. Death is too close and out of my control. I feel like a child, helpless and trembling.
I’m trying to stay positive, focus on the two little girls I’m teaching to read, a new art project, getting Max through his two courses. Hoping for a vaccine for F. in the next weeks or months. Still in a sort of stasis, but trying to envision a realistic future. On April 15, two weeks past my second dose of vaccine, I’m going to celebrate: get together with my best friend and her partner, maybe go on a camping trip with F. Get my hair cut! Small, wondrous things.
There are days I feel the presence and consolation of God’s protection, and days I don’t. The sinister variants are still out there. But it’s unseasonably warm here in Minnesota--that season when everything is tossed up in the air: brilliant and warm one day, a snowy blizzard the next. One feels vulnerable, a little afraid, a little hesitant about leaving one’s winter’s cocoon. I am not quite sure I can meet the demands of a life more exposed. I’m poised here again, as the lake turns over, the caterpillar dissolves in its cocoon, the tide recedes. We try to trust that it will return, again and again, bringing the tidepools to raucous life.
Part III: Plot Twist: Covid Comes Back
We thought it was over. But as the Delta variant receded, Omicron took its place. By August, the new variant was on the rise in Minnesota. We had to face another winter locked in by the cold and snow, the brief hours of daylight, and a still-potentially-lethal virus. For a long time I did not have the heart to write.
Like everyone, I'm exhausted. Minnesota has one of the highest covid transmission rates in the country and has held that position for weeks. I've been afraid to do much of anything outside our home, other than the usual and necessary errands.
It's becoming apparent that this way of living is not sustainable. I feel depression creeping up. So F. and I are going out for breakfast tomorrow, early, to escape the crowds. I hate to take the risk of getting or transmitting covid, mostly because our doctors and nurses are desperate for relief. But depression can be just as dangerous as covid--it makes me push away those I love most.
I'm trying to cling to the news that is most hopeful: the omicron virus is less deadly, the Pfizer antiviral pill is 90 percent effective early in the disease. I need that hope. For the first time I see why Jesus listed it among the top three: faith, hope, and love.
As a survivor of childhood abuse, I've noticed a pattern: I feel my worst just before a memory or insight that propels intense growth. I hope the pandemic is like that. I hope it precedes a world-wide reckoning, a humbling here in the U.S., where our sense of control and entitlement has been blown to smithereens--then ushers in a new era of intense growth and innovation.