Thursday, November 5, 2015

How Do You Bridge the Distance When There's No Distance?

We talk a lot about what today's teens and young adults have: information, so easily acquired. Opportunities, so easily acquired. A global awareness and sensitivity made possible, I'd argue, by the ease of communicating with and learning from people whose bodies may be continents away but whose minds and hearts are as close at hand as one's computer.

What we spend less time discussing is the ways in which these incipient adults have been deprived of experiences we older people took for granted.


When I was the age my eldest son is now, I was busy falling in love. There's nothing terribly profound about the experience of falling in love, except of course in the minds of the lovers themselves. Attempts to make art out of what it is to fall in love do not translate very well to the larger community, nor should they. At the same time, to the person in love for the very first time, everything becomes charged. No act is ordinary, infused as it is with thoughts of the often-absent partner: Where is he or she? What is he doing now? When will I see her?

I fell in love during a windy, rainy fall in Providence, Rhode Island. The relationship was cemented one snowy December evening with a kiss on a street corner in New York City, a kiss witnessed by a waiting taxi driver who had the forbearance not to honk his horn and gesture to his running meter.

As newly minted couples do, we spent every moment together on our historic college campus until mid-May arrived, and with it the punishing surrender to the end of the semester and thereafter a summer spent in different towns, too far away from one another for even the promise of a visit.

I had not expected the physical pain one could feel in missing someone.

What he and I did -- how we managed, really -- was to write to one another. (We phoned each other, too, but phone calls were expensive, timed as they were by the minute.) Real letters, real envelopes, real stamps. Long waits between the arrival of one letter and the next. The knocking of my heart as I rifled through the day's mail. How it felt to see his handwriting. I still remember his typewriter 'a's' (an affectation, to be sure) all these many years later. I remember committing to memory the few events in my week that I deemed worthy of describing for his benefit. I remember planning how I would shape those events for his eyes. For his eyes, and for his eyes only.


Those days are long gone, as is the person who figured in them. The mail in my mailbox today consists largely of bills, credit card offers, and catalogues. Money in, money out. My own children do not write letters, except when requested by me to write a thank-you note for a gift received.

And the young lovers of today? They don't experience a break from their loved ones. They don't have to. They can Skype, IM, text, or tweet. Think about this:

They never have to experience a day, or a week, apart.

I wonder how their discourse is affected by its very frequency. Does it turn banal? Do they write like long-married couples? "Can you pick up milk while I take the cat to the vet?"

Is there time for layers of meaning to accumulate?

Do I remember my old relationships as well as I do because my brain had to imagine them and perhaps even sustain them during periods when a partner and I were forced apart?

I can't help but feel a sense of loss on behalf of these kids who seem to have everything. Their world is so wide, but how deep is it? How deep can it be?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

From There to Here, From Here to There, Tricky Thoughts Are Everywhere

It starts innocently enough. But everything starts innocently enough, doesn't it? What I want to say is this: thinking is slippery. It won't stay put. Think a thing, and before too long you are thinking something you don't want to be thinking about, and what else to do at that point but take to bed?

This boy walks into my house. One or two years older than my son. I almost laugh at the knowledge that he is here to inspect our heating system. But inspect it he does. Afterward, shy but earnest, he approaches me. "Ma'am?" he begins. For the second time in an hour I suppress laughter. I will never get used to being anyone's 'ma'am.' "A part in your heat pump has rusted through. Here: I took pictures." He starts to pass me his smartphone. I demur. "I trust you," I say. "No need to show me photos. Not sure I'd know what I was seeing even if I were to look at them." How can I not trust this child? Perhaps he'd like to play with the Legos in our basement? He looks disappointed in me. "Would you like to show me the pictures?" I ask, understanding too late. He nods. "OK," I agree. I pay attention to his explanation of the part he shows me, although I can't for the life of me see what is wrong with it. He is happy that I am listening, or seeming to.

I remember to ask about the cost. "How much?" I inquire. "$87.11," he tells me, "and a discount if you pay now, by cash or check."

I cannot pay now. It is the end of the month. Silly boy, he does not know about this yet, the end-of-the-month problem. "Can you bill me instead?" I ask.

Again he looks downcast. I am turning down a 2% discount, and life has not taught him the reason why. "I guess so," he offers, after a time. Perhaps he is hoping that I will change my mind. I won't. I cannot.


Next week I turn forty-eight years old. I had thought once, when I was the technician's age, that I would long since be out of debt by the age of forty-eight. Instead the debt has only increased, and I am not even starting to pay for anyone's college education until next year. The numbers terrify me.

Everything terrifies me these days, the fault of that damn thinking that I cannot manage to secure in place.


The cats keep throwing up. Because they are both black, and because the kitten is nearly grown, the two of them look alike, at least from a distance. And they like to throw up in private, being tidy creatures by nature, so I never know which of them is the culprit, or the victim, more charitably. Oscar announces that he is going to throw up with a frantic, tell-tale meow. Kind of him, to spare me the clean-up of the carpet and allow me to move him to a hard floor before he gets sick. Hairballs, or something more? I put it down to hairballs, because I am afraid to move to the list of what else it could be, which would require me to consider vet costs and pet mortality, neither of which I am up to considering right now.


I am trying to reassure my high school senior that the college he goes to is not so important in the long view, that he will be happy at any number of colleges, that the college toughest to get into is not necessarily the place where he will thrive. "Look at me!" I exclaim. "All the education in the world, at top universities no less, and I am working at an eleven-dollar-an-hour job. I like my work, but you just never know what your life's path will be." "That's true," he acknowledges, drawing out the second word, and then pauses. Maybe he is waiting for more from me. Is there more that I can say, something that won't take me down the rabbit hole?

I stay silent. I don't - I can't - continue. Here's something else I can't continue: to accompany my son on his college visits and wonder, as we tour campus after campus, "How would I have fared here? What could I have done differently in school, or after?" It is not about me, not now.

The list of things to think about is so much shorter than the list of things not to think about. Is this a problem peculiar to middle age?

Luckily there is no shortage of cat vomit to clean, no thinking required.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fear of Flying

The boy was only four. His heart on display for everyone to see, for anyone to rend. He thought he could fly. Like Spiderman, or Superman. And when he visited his grandmother’s ninth floor apartment in New York City, and looked out the windows in his mother’s old bedroom, he found, to his astonishment, a stage custom made for a boy who wanted nothing more than to soar. Buildings as far as he could see, cars so tiny they could be his Matchbox cars. He pressed his face into the grimy windowpane and dreamed.

His mother found him there and knelt beside him. She wanted to see what he saw. And she did, she did, though she had to squint to make it so, to bring into focus what it was to have been a child in this room. Together they admired the vastness of the city before them. When she stood she issued a mild admonition. The windows stay locked, she said. That’s Grandma’s rule, and my rule, and it’s one of those rules for keeping you safe. The boy nodded. Yes?, his mother repeated. Yes, he murmured, before turning back to where he could fly, down 74th Street and north up 3rd Avenue. He had placed his superhero figures just so, on the windowsill.

When it was time for lunch, his grandmother called him into the kitchen. What have you been doing?, she asked, anxiety lifting her voice into an unfamiliar register, reedy and high. She’d wanted her grandson to visit up to and until the moment he arrived, when she realized that he was now old enough to get into things, to cause disarray. (It may be that she preferred to study photographs of the boy, which overwhelmed every available surface in her home, than to have him, nose persistently running, hair sticking up every which way, before her. It may well be.)

Flying, he answered. Simple and true, the reply.

A mocking noise escaped his grandmother then, out her nose and mouth along with the smoke from her cigarette. Her daughter understood that this was a warning and stopped slicing her son’s banana. Waited. And soon enough:

You DO know that you can’t fly, silly boy. That Superman and Spiderman are made-up characters in comic books? People can’t fly. If you, or Spiderman, were to jump out this window — here the grandmother gestured to the small frosted kitchen window closest to her — you’d end up on the sidewalk. Dead, or nearly so.

The boy stood stock still in front of his grandmother. He’d gone pale, and his mother considered whether he might faint. In her head she was running through the symptoms of shock when her child blurred past her as he fled the kitchen. She found him in the dining room. He was sitting on a hard-backed chair, a chair so formal, so forbiddingly tall that she feared it might swallow him whole at any moment. He was looking straight ahead, not moving. Turned to stone, she thought. She hugged his body to her, and in the safety of her embrace he started to shake and shudder and finally let loose great heaving sobs. I CAN fly, Mommy, he cried. I know you can, baby, she soothed, and stroked his still baby-fine hair.


Back in the kitchen her mother sat, arms crossed, a detestably smug smile on her face. How could you?, wailed the daughter, as she swiped ineffectually at her tear-dampened shirt. Oh, come now, replied her mother. You know as well as I do that he had to find out sometime. And I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the child trying to jump out of the window. Not in my house.

He is FOUR!, shouted the daughter, but she knew she’d lost. Lost so many years ago, in fact, when she was herself a child, and her mother couldn’t bear to be around a person, even a little person, with hopes and dreams and… joy. Yes, that was it. Joy. Her mother had never known joy, and damned if she was going to let anyone else know it. Not if she could help it.


The boy took the loss of his dream with uncharacteristic stoicism. But his mother noticed that not long after they returned from their visit to New York the boy put away his superheroes and moved on, to dinosaurs. Sighing as she lifted the bin of superheroes onto a high shelf in the boy’s closet, she supposed that dinosaurs were a safer bet. They had lived, they had died, they had left evidence of themselves. Their existence indisputable, even on cross-examination.

She thought that once her mother must have believed she could fly, too. Don’t we all? Wondered what crushing blow must have been administered sometime between then and now, a blow that would cause a woman to smother her own grandson’s wonder as carelessly as she extinguished the stub of a cigarette with her shoe.

It must have been an event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs: sudden. Catastrophic. Shattering. Otherwise… Well. There could be no otherwise, could there?

The boy never again brought his superheroes down from where they lay high up in his closet —

At night did those superheroes dream of flying out of their box and around the house? When you are built to fly but find yourself unable to, what then? 

— which may have been just as well. Even a child would find it difficult to imagine a world where dinosaurs and superheroes might coexist.

written in 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Two Days After Another Shooting (Or Life Goes On, Until It Doesn't)

"Mom, why are you yelling at me?" he asks.
"I don't know. Why are you yelling at me?" I return.
"I'm not," he sulks.
"I'm not, either," I snap.

We are both lying, and we know it.


I have never missed my mother more than I do right now.


This is how it's supposed to go, they say. You and your child fight so that it's easier to separate when the time comes. I thought I would buck this particular trend.

It's dreary to be so predictable, and so often.


Meanwhile, my friends, online and off, squabble about the issues of the day. This week: Gun control. I am for it. Full stop. Those that do not participate in the squabbling are facing serious life crises - psychological, physical, what have you. The downside to my having made so many friends through blogging is that there are always some struggling, and I tend to take on others' pain, which is not a healthy characteristic, but in forty-seven years I haven't been able to change it, so let's face it: the outsized empathy, it's here to stay.


My college alumni magazine arrives, and I flip first to the obituaries. Today I asked my husband whether he knew of any people in his college class who have died, not from accidents but from middle-aged maladies like heart attack or stroke. "No," he shrugged, and then smiled. "Maybe I'll be the first?" We joke like that, he and I.


I am not supposed to write posts like this, scattered. It's out of fashion, lazy, in bad form. I ask: What if my thoughts are exactly as scattered as my form?


I am tired. I would talk a walk in the woods, but it's raining, and the rain is not supposed to let up anytime soon. Instead I eat until my stomach hurts. I can't seem to hear the satiety signal through all this noise.


Don't worry about me. If you do I will react with anger, the reaction you least expect and deserve. Worry about the people who have good reason to be hurting. Me? I am one of the lucky ones.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

In the Thick of It

Lately there is something very wrong with me. I suspect that the diagnosis is parenting a high school senior. I was foolish to anticipate myself a parent who would navigate a child's leaving for college with relative grace and equanimity.

How else but by this diagnosis can I explain the near crippling anxiety I am feeling this year? I have not even begun to consider the financial implications of sending a child to university. The numbers petrify me. A complicated family arrangement means that I have some assets in another state, but they are not liquid, and I don't know how to declare or otherwise deal with them, so I procrastinate. And I procrastinate. In this I am not unlike my senior.

Money or its lack aside, because I've pushed it away, I watch the stress worm its way across my senior's face: the winnowing down of a bigger list of schools into a smaller list of schools, the teacher recommendations, transcript requests, the score reporting, the organizational finesse (never his strong suit, organization) required to handle the logistics of all this on top of enrollment in several AP courses (his choice, not mine). I want to cry for him, and for me.

Mostly, though, I want to take my son by the hand and ask him if he wants to play with Legos. Or maybe have a mid-morning snack. Followed by a blessedly long nap. And this time around I will take my nap when he takes his.


I don't need advice. This is hard, and I understand the reasons why. Here, consider this: I am in the unenviable position of nagging my kid to complete paperwork the goal of which is to remove him as an occupant of our home. Then ask yourself: Is it any wonder that I can't quite catch my breath? Yes, the diagnosis is clear. And the treatment, well, I suppose that's clear enough, too. The treatment is time. Try as I might, I cannot view this year as anything other than a year to be endured, which layered on top of the anxiety makes me grieve, for the year that might have been, the year that was, if only in my imagination.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

For Stacy, A Promise

There was this woman whose wit balanced on the sharpest part of the razor, every time. I should have remembered that comedians are the saddest among us, but I did not. I was too busy smiling.

There was this woman who was about as beautiful as anyone can be. She was thin, and elegant, and she had high cheekbones and large doe-like eyes. I should have remembered that her hurdles were no lower than mine, that her loveliness did not spare her from psychic pain any more than my ordinary looks spare me. Instead, I assumed that her life was cushioned in ways mine is not, and, if I felt anything, I felt envy.

There was this woman who could write devilishly funny, and sad, but mostly funny, because that's where she staked her claim. I laughed, and because I laughed, and the world felt just fine while I was laughing, I decided that her world must feel just fine.

There was this woman who was alive, but now is not. And while I was a friend of hers, I was never a close friend -- so although I missed many of her distress calls, I will not take that on, because I had not communicated with her in a long time, and because God knows she would not want me to take that on.

But. I will be more careful with those I love. I will try to read between the lines they speak and read into the lines written in their faces. I will probe for sadness, check to see if its flames are licking at the bottoms of curtains. No longer will I stop at "I'm fine." I will reject the stock answer.


And my taking an extra step, or ten? Stacy, that is on you. Because if you could fall between the cracks, surely anyone can.

I can't bring you back, but maybe I can help someone else stay here a little longer. Maybe I can remember not to assume anything about anyone, especially when the content of the assumption concerns the private places and spaces where sadness takes root.

I think you'd like that.

Stacy Lyn Campbell, 6/22/77-9/16/15


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 1-800-SUICIDE

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

That Time When Anything Might Have Happened

When I was very young, young enough to be entranced by Sesame Street, I was riveted by a baker, a white-coated man in a tall, poofy baker's hat, who would descend some steps while carrying one (1!), two (2!), three (3!), four (4!), or more cakes, pies, or other sweets and end up falling in a spectacular and messy way. Every time. Still, I imagined that on the particular Tuesday or Friday when I happened to be watching Sesame Street, he might finally manage to make it all the way down the stairs, elaborate cake intact. It seemed to me likely enough that it could happen differently and work out better for the hapless baker. It's why, years later, this is the bit from Sesame Street that I have carried with me. 


Adults lose this, the capacity for magical thinking, which is the province most exclusively of the uneducated mind, the mind of the noble savage, as 18th century writers and thinkers spun it. Magical thinking is why childhood is at once so wonderful and so fraught: anything might happen. One's father might come back from the remote, untamed land of divorce. One's mother might stop yelling and start parenting. Images might leap off the pages of books and into one's bedroom, fictional characters might come to life to be arranged like one's dolls. Puff the Magic Dragon might not end up abandoned by his once young friend who outgrows childish things. The Giving Tree might get back more than it ever gave.


A friend of mine just moved to San Francisco. Living in a Victorian house with multiple apartments, one per floor, she had decided that getting used to her upstairs neighbor's heavy footfalls might be the price one paid for living in a world-class city. But the other day the neighbors seemed uncommonly loud, and she began to wonder what the hell they were doing. Dancing? Moving furniture?

Later she realized that her neighbors had been up to nothing nefarious or celebratory; instead, she had been experiencing an earthquake.I expect that she will file this experience into her new normal. She will do what an adult does, make sense of the event, when it recurs, by drawing upon her reason.


Childhood's ways of seeing are so privileged, and so distant to adults. Once that door is shut, it remains so, and only mental illness or extraordinary circumstance can pry it open.

Today is my mother's seventy-ninth birthday. (Can it still be said to be a birthday of a person who is no longer alive to celebrate it? I don't know. I do know that I would like to see her, or at least to call her, to wish her a lovely birthday, to find out what her plans are for the day, and to tell her about my summer of change and growth and perhaps even solicit her support as I face a doctor's appointment today.)

No longer a child I cannot muster the creative capacity to imagine her at seventy-nine, voice graveled with age. I cannot quite manage to play our putative conversation in my head; what's more I cannot snap my fingers and convert her into someone who would be able to offer support of another person, especially on her own birthday, which for her would be cause for sadness much more than for its opposite.

And that exotic land my father traveled to? Now I know it was only Washington, DC, just as I am certain that the Sesame Street baker will never escape the loss of his magnificent desserts, and his dignity.

But I am also certain that his treats could never have tasted as transcendent as they looked.