Thursday, April 16, 2015

After

Since my mother died it's been six years, years that feel at once like minutes and like decades. She died in April. I remember the day well, and I remember writing this on the day after.


I did everything I could think to do before opening that door. Went to the bathroom, washed my face, patted it dry, checked for stray hairs. When I ran out of trivial and time-wasting tasks I stood in the hallway and gulped air before finally turning the knob.

The room was unchanged from the day before. A picture window with a showily pretty blossoming tree filling its frame. A clock on the wall. A hospital bed. Four framed pictures on the nightstand: her three grandchildren, and one of me at thirteen with my grandmother. A TV sat on the bureau that contained no clothes. The TV had never been turned on.

She wasn't cold, but neither was she warm. And she was beautiful. I hadn't expected that, and it was a comfort. Her face, free of anger, sadness, reproach, and pain, for the first time in so long, looked not much older than my own. I took her hand in mine. Her fingers had already curled under.

And then I was crying loud and ugly bursts of tears. I sobbed for the awfulness of the last year and a half. I sobbed because I had never found a way to make it better for her, for me, for my brother. I sobbed because of all the people I have ever known, my mother was the brightest, and could have been the best.

She was all potential, unrealized potential.

I sobbed for who she might have been. For the person I found once in a long while, but only in my dreams.

My mother was the smartest, most talented person I have ever known. Had she been psychologically healthier, she might have moved mountains.

As I cried I found myself repeating, "I'm sorry." Not for anything I did or didn't do, but because there were so many obstacles in her way, because she was miserable so much of the time, because we only have the one life, I believe, and my mother, though she was seventy-two when she died yesterday, never really learned how to live hers.

And that makes me sadder than any of the rest of it.

++++++++++++++

When my tears relented, I tried to uncurl her fingers, but they wouldn't budge. I pulled the sheet up over her shoulders as I do for my children each night when I check on them just before I go to bed.

People I love? I don't want them to be cold.

I shut the door in order to grant her privacy that she is past needing. Habits that preserve and defend life are curiously strong.

And, eyes dry and aching, I drove away from her and to my brother's house, where my own life was waiting for me to grab it by the reins and show it the way.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Digest This - April 12, 2015

Be moved, inspired, laugh, get angry. I share whatever makes me sit up and take note.

Hillary Clinton has her work cut out for her as she defines herself in relation to President Obama. This New York Times article dissects candidate Clinton's looming challenge: how to position herself. Does she want to seem an Obama supporter or detractor? Can she play both sides and still come across as coherent and persuasive?

I am an unabashed fan of the television show Mad Men. In fact, I have spent too much of this weekend watching Seasons One and Two for the second time, which I recommend doing, by the way. I have caught so many nuances that I missed the first time around. I have never read a more complete analysis of Mad Men's female characters than this essay, written by Linda Lowen.

When I was in graduate school, I taught a few undergraduate courses (Statistics and Introduction to Psychology) for a pittance. Slave labor, we grad students used to mutter, only half joking. So I was saddened but unsurprised to read Carmen Maria Machado's wonderfully written "O Adjunct! My Adjunct!" about the plight of adjunct teachers at universities.

I follow astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter. He is witty and charming, and he has something to say about most everything. His advice to a first grader is spot on, and instructive for today's parents too often intent on protecting and reining in their children.

Did you find these links worthwhile? Let me know!








Monday, April 6, 2015

Victims

My mother believed herself a victim, and in a perverse way she was proud of her victim status. In certain respects she was a victim: victim of an inattentive, alcoholic mother. Victim of an absent father. Victim of an inequitable divorce settlement. But she was never the victim she wanted to be. Among the piles of books around our apartment when I was growing up could be found all kinds of victim literature: books about concentration camps, memoirs penned by camp survivors, drawings of children housed in Theresienstadt. There was another large stack of books about anorexia and its victims, books written by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in attempts to explain the disorder, and books written by sufferers themselves.

Not the happiest of libraries in my childhood home, and emaciation everywhere you looked.

My mother identified culturally as Jewish (although she was half-Jewish, on her father's side, which according to the laws of Israel doesn't even count) only so she could gain proximity to the sorrows of its people. When it was inconvenient to be Jewish, she dropped the label. Oh, we celebrated Christmas with angels and the Messiah and carols sung by little British choirboys whose high voices bounced off of ancient stone cathedral walls.

As a child who loved Christmas but who could also name every concentration camp in Germany and Poland, I found my mother's preoccupations rather peculiar. Now I find them inestimably sad.

++++++++++++++

When my mother developed a blood disorder in her late sixties, she was told that there was a tiny chance the condition might eventually morph into leukemia. So when she called me to tell me about her diagnosis, of course she stressed the leukemia aspect. So convincing was she that I ended up believing she had leukemia. What she had was not leukemia but a propensity to overproduce red blood cells. The treatment was simple and effective: to have blood drawn once a week to counter the overproliferation. The danger of foregoing treatment was not, as I'd been informed, the development of leukemia, but much more likely to be stroke.

I know my mother as well as I do myself. She had crossed out the possibility - indeed, probability - of stroke, because stroke was not a diagnosis that lent itself to victimhood the way leukemia did.

Predictably she refused to have her blood drawn once a week and ended up having a catastrophic stroke. A victim she was, but mostly a victim of needing to maintain her victim identity in face of all evidence to the contrary.

++++++++++++++

I am incredibly lucky not to have inherited my mother's psychiatric issues. I never thought myself a victim, though living in her household I often thought myself fat.

Sometimes I rail against the way it was and had to be. I think about my name, Sarah, and why my mother called me Sarah. She told me her reason, once when I was maybe twelve years old. "In 1939," she said, "Hitler decreed that all Jewish females should be known by the name 'Sarah.'"

Then she looked at me expectantly. This was, in her mind, a perfectly sufficient justification for naming a baby.

I nodded, because tragically, I already understood her well enough to find her bizarre reasoning logical in its own way, within its own system.

++++++++++++++

I have not suffered from cancer, or stroke. I have not lived with anorexia. I have not been persecuted for my religion or lack thereof. I have been given a victim's name, but I choose to recast the source of my name well back to its origin in biblical times: Sarah, lady, princess, noblewoman.

You might say that I am a victim of how I was raised, immersed as I was in victim language, history, and culture.

But I am no victim, and unlike my mother, I am proud to say so. I am Sarah, lady, princess, noblewoman. No, I am Sarah, an ordinary person living a blessedly ordinary life, capable of mourning all the victims but always aware of my place outside of their tragically large and crowded circle.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Staying the Course

They lay in bed, separated by a stack of books arranged to define the divide more than to be read. She finished a Bradbury story and mused: “What if today were the last day of our lives?”

"What?," he snapped, studying the crossword; the answer to 'effortful but futile' was crystallizing –

"I wouldn't do anything different," she pronounced, mouth pursed. “That'd be – flighty.”

“Sisyphean!,” he crowed.

“You weren't listening,” she complained, adding, "Take your pills," as she fluffed pillows. Obediently, he swallowed her medicine, she his. And but for this – deviation, if you will – their last day was altogether ordinary.


written in 2007 when i was challenged to tell a 100-word story


Monday, March 30, 2015

I Could Be Someone

The house was painted peach. This in an attempt by its elderly fedora-wearing landlord to disguise its decrepitude. Cheaper to brush on a coat or two of paint than to address cracked ceilings and sloping floors. A genial man, the landlord, as I recall, but only if you discussed the weather instead of the state of his house. Cigar smoke enveloped him and augured his infrequent appearances.

The second floor of the two-story house was my home during my senior year of college. 287 Brook Street. I remember the wide-planked floors, the dirt- and dust-filled crevices between each plank wide and deep enough to hold dimes and pennies, lint and once, a jack. The floor had once been inexpertly painted white (I may have been bored enough one evening to scrape dried drips of paint up and off it with the nail of my index finger), but so long ago that it was now more of a bluish gray. My bedroom floor tipped towards the bathroom. I slept on a futon, but I had no frame, so the futon lay right on the dusty, nasty floor. There was dust everywhere, my sporadic efforts at cleaning so unrewarding that by spring I'd long since given up trying, or caring. I didn't have much in the way of belongings, but I remember vividly a red Sony clock. The casing of the clock was a plastic cube, very eighties and so cutesy that I felt not so much that I should be embarrassed to own or display it but that the clock itself ought to feel a bit self-conscious.

Spring of 1989, it was, and a month away from my college graduation. I was making studious attempts to avoid thinking about graduation, because I had no idea what I was going to do afterward - no internship or job lined up, nothing. My college relationship was still in play, though I didn't know then that it shouldn't have been; someone really should have come along and snuffed it out. So I had some idea that I would be living with my boyfriend, but where we would live wasn't yet clear, and what I would do to sustain or entertain myself even less so.

It was one morning in April that I awoke to the DJ from the college radio station, which I'd programmed to be my alarm. It was a brilliant spring day, cloudless and already warm. The DJ announced that he was going to play a new song, which had been released in England in the fall. I was beginning to get dressed when the first notes of the song played. I froze. I looked at my silly radio clock as if I could see inside of it to the singer. Tracy Chapman was singing "Fast Car."

I remained motionless as I listened to the rest of the song, and I thought, "I will always remember hearing this for the first time." I wasn't wrong. The song seemed such a perfect anthem to accompany where I was in my life, panicked, the unknown racing towards me and I wanting nothing more than to turn and run away from it. Now I know that "Fast Car" is about so much more than, well, me, and it refers to circumstances that my twenty-one-year-old self knew nothing about. But see, the twenties are a narcissistic decade. So when I heard,

You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
Me myself I got nothing to prove

... I thought Tracy Chapman had swooped down to 287 Brook Street and spied on me until she'd figured out the essence of me, all I feared despite a laissez-faire exterior. Not only all I feared: all I wanted, too. What I feared and what I wanted were really one and the same, another truth revealed to me only much later.

And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

Twenty-five years later, I am well aware that "Fast Car" is about a drunk of a father whose daughter ends up working as a checkout girl, living in a shelter, and then later reliving her childhood by choosing a husband who drinks too much and never sees his kids. Perhaps Tracy Chapman would be offended to learn that once I personalized her song the way I did. I can't know.

But in April of 1989, I did know that Tracy Chapman sang to me through the tinny, tiny speaker of my radio clock, and suddenly I was not as alone or unmoored as I had been feeling.

++++++++++++++

I did not find a job after graduation. The first post-college year was as hard for me as I'd predicted - possibly harder. I would not know for many years to come what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, whether I know that now is debatable.

There are defining moments in a life. These do not necessarily precede times of great change or progress, at least I don't think they have to do so. If you're experiencing something and overlaid atop the experience is the running thought that this is important, this is memorable, this is more than what it seems, there is a reason. Hearing "Fast Car" for the first time - and maybe after all it was less its lyrics than it was Chapman's deep, yearning, honest voice - I was comforted by the notion that a stranger could reach my core, hidden so long that even I was hard-pressed to recognize it. I could almost believe that everything was going to work out just fine in the end, for me, at least.

And you know, it has.




Friday, March 27, 2015

Riding the School Bus

Come September, my younger son will climb three steep stairs with rubber treads and take a seat on his first school bus. He will likely look troubled, as he always does in situations unfamiliar to him. I will likely wave madly, even frantically, in a futile attempt to draw out his slow, thoughtful smile. I am still trying to make life better for him, while knowing that he's in for it, that one, he who feels everything with such intensity. He often looks stunned in photographs. This is no accident; the sensitive among us are frequently stunned.

++++++++++++++

Without fail, each September on the night before the first day of school, I could not sleep. Sometime around two in the morning, I'd creep into my mother's bedroom, and I'd will her to wake up. If my will betrayed me, I'd force the issue by shaking her. She was always surprisingly obliging at these times, and I'd slide into bed next to her. Though sleep was still elusive, I was calmed by my proximity to her body. But I was never calmed by her sleepily mumbled, though well-intentioned, questions meant to serve as therapy for the intractable problem of my insomnia: "What do you think will happen tomorrow? How bad could it be?"

It was not the fear of future unpleasantness that kept me awake; it was just plain uncertainty. I could not abide not knowing where my classroom was, who my classmates would be, what my teacher would be like. The unknown causes most people to feel nothing more than a slight and gentle sensation of pressure. For my son and me and others like us, it's not pressure but pain we feel.

++++++++++++++

For the last few months, my son has been trying to finagle his way out of riding the bus next year. His efforts at self-preservation are not lost on me. I ache with the knowledge of what he is feeling, what he is fearing. But I cannot oblige him in this. He must not learn the art of avoidance quite so young. Still, he breaks my heart.

So come September, he will struggle onto that bus. If he resists, I will have to give him a push past the baffled bus driver. And when the bus pulls away, I will be crying, not because my baby is going to kindergarten, as you might expect, but because I cannot keep him from himself.


written in 2007
republished for Jenn

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Digest This Vol. 1

Be moved, inspired, laugh, get angry. I share whatever makes me sit up and take note.

I'm not usually a fan of the graphic essay, but Ronald Wimberly's piece about skin color and ingrained bias is so clever and beautifully drawn to boot: Lighten Up.

When I was in graduate school, I studied memory and its malleability, which is especially troublesome in the context of our legal system. Douglas Starr's New Yorker essay synthesizes and extends the long concerning evidence about false memory: Remembering a Crime That You Didn't Commit.

I am in the thick of it, and Rachel Cusk illuminates the issues well in Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems. An excerpt:

Adolescence, it strikes me, shares some of the generic qualities of divorce. The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other. Until adolescence, parents by and large control the family story. The children are the subject of this story, sure enough, the generators of its interest or charm, but they remain, as it were, characters, creatures derived from life who nonetheless have their being in the author’s head.

I want to buy Johanna Basford's coloring books for adults. Such intricate drawings begging for color. Now where did I put those Caran D'Ache colored pencils that I last used in 1980?

Let me know what you think of the inaugural Digest This!