At work we were talking about the relative rates of decline in our health of late. We’ve been drinking more, eating our feelings. A lot of us were caught at one of life’s crossroads when the pandemic hit, and never made it to our intended destination. This is what happened to me last year, when I finished my nutritional therapy course and got my certification. I’d planned to become an NTP at the clinic where I’d been employed for six years, but that opportunity withered during the months of quarantine and left me without the reward I’d been working toward. I guess the disappointment hurt a little more than I would have acknowledged at the time. I let my interest in the subject fade, and I spent a lot of time writing — never a health-enhancing activity at the best of times, but especially hazardous when mixed with middle-age defeat and existential angst. Of course I gained weight. Of course I felt like shit. Everyone did, because 2020 sucked with a Trump-level suckage that made the previous three years seem like nirvana.
Enter 2021. Joe Biden. Shots in arms. Visits again, and signs of life — daffodils, hummingbirds, the occasional sliver of bright blue sky. I’m drinking mango smoothies. Eating salads and harvest bowls, and vegetable soup, and kale. I’m down nine pounds with six more to go. So far it’s been breezy, and not because of some groundbreaking new formula or product or nonsensical gimmick from late-night TV, but because I remembered that I get to choose what I eat, and that fact alone is something to be grateful for.
I’m not mad at myself. Chips happen, right? I kept my skinny jeans and my 34Ds. Soon I’ll put them back in the rotation and move past this current problem and on to the next.
It’s hard to let go. To be one among billions, and really appreciate your smallness against the mind-blowing scope of the cosmos. It’s hard to come to the point in your life when you begin to know yourself and understand that you are nothing — and at the same time everything, but only to yourself. It imposes a certain humility which doesn’t come easily to a society obsessed with fame and the unparalleled value of the individual. We want so badly to be special, to make our atom of time become relevant to someone other than ourselves. To be seen, to be heard. Not to drift alone in the vastness of space-time, but to link ourselves with others and inflate our existence beyond its natural limitations. We leave words on the path behind us. We show each other pictures, relics we’ve picked up along the way. We share our stories — each so very like the others, each convinced of its meaning and uniqueness, its sovereign right to exist.
I’ve been struggling with this myself. Humility is my superpower, my cloak, yet even for someone accustomed to smallness, there is the awful human tendency to bloat one’s self-importance and cling to the dream of mattering. Sometimes I lie in bed with my inner voice whispering, You are nothing, just let go, picturing my body as a grain of sand on an infinite beach, and reaching for the comfort in that image, the release from want. The trouble, of course, is that our grain of sand is locked in place with all the others, so the scope of the beach can scarcely be imagined. We are aware of what immediately surrounds us. By shifting ourselves, we hope to shift others, so we work all our lives to move, to rub up against the world and make it move with us.
It’s a struggle to balance these two ideas over the abyss of true sentience. The sum total of everything we are — every atom in our struggling bodies, every flicker of thought, god-given talent, and act of heroism, no matter how noble or prodigious we might be — is zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing, man. You are nothing, just let go.
I took off my mask at work today, just chatting with one of the therapists at lunchtime. She said I looked different than she thought I would — her mind had filled in the blank with a different nose and mouth for me. I felt the same. It’s like opening a gift you were sure would hold a new blouse, and finding instead a pair of slacks. Nice, but not what you expected.
We’ll have mask stories later. We’ll remember how we made the first one out of an old tee-shirt, following along with a YouTube video, because you couldn’t buy one for a million dollars anywhere, in the beginning. Later we graduated to Etsy masks, or sewed them ourselves out of whatever fabric we could find at whatever store might be open. We got our shit together, maybe, and sewed some more to give away. Over time the masks became more fashionable, ever more sophisticated: a red mask covered in rhinestones, another in velvet cheetah. Kids in masks made to look like the gaping jaws of a shark or a lion, or with Spidey webs across the mouth, or quotes from Frozen. I sported a black silk model myself back in the day, then tried the kind that looks like a duck’s bill, but I landed eventually on the genderless blue paper ones with elastic straps — because mask fatigue is real, and because at some point we collectively forsook fashion and started wearing jeans every day to work. We’ll remember masks on sidewalks, dangling from the rear-view mirror. The smell of our breath, the rasp of paper against our cheeks, the muffled voice of a masked person on the phone. How we were plagued by maskne, and fogged glasses, and slippage, and the vexing social dilemmas caused by those who refuse to mask and still want to get in your grill. How we were grateful at times for the emotional neutrality a masked face projects.
Not having to smile. Smiling anyway. Social creatures after all, no matter the number of screens or shields or plexiglass barriers between us. We still need each other. We never stopped trying to connect.
What a bad day. Funny the way you know sometimes, before unclosing an eye, that the day’s got nothing good in store for you whatsoever. Your car might fail to start, for instance. You might burn your tongue on hot coffee. The dog could run off, or the cat—or a husband, I suppose, though a catastrophe like that would seem to warrant a more vivid descriptor than the run-of-the-mill bad day like I’ve had, where you just feel sad and hurt and kind of mopey, as if the day has fallen victim to a tepid curse.
At lunchtime, I opened my journal to find my daily prompt: What’s one happy memory from the day? Which is just mockery, really, when you’re truly settled into a funk. I mean, there are still adorable kids around me at the clinic, and one of them always comes in wearing a sweater vest and button-down like an undersized 80’s dad. What’s not to love, I know. Still, when you’re enjoying the pall it seems a shame to become besotted by little girls in tutus, and neon eyeglasses, and tee-shirts adorned with sequined unicorns and cursive affirmations. And then there are the ongoing pranks between a therapist and one of the kids, the latest episode being a pair of sneakers hung by their laces high up on the wall to counter a handful of plastic dinosaurs dropped into a glass of drinking water. The Prankstinator strikes again!
What do you do with your stories? I’m not talking about novels, constructed stories, the kind we create from whole cloth and bring to life on the page. I’m thinking of the stories that serve as placeholders in our lives, the icons of memory which survive the passage of years with their outlines intact, colors still as vivid as the day they were made. The ones that stand out. Sometimes the reasons for their longevity are obvious—there could be some trauma attached, or spiritual elevation, like the time you first looked into your daughter’s eyes and really saw her looking back. Other times the resilience of a particular memory seems pointless, random, a lobster within your net of herring. Just a look, caught perhaps in reflective plane of glass, that two people exchanged behind your back. A plastic horse you used to play with as a child. The preoccupied frown on your mother’s face while she was making dinner.
I’ve never known what to do with stuff like this. My life is too ordinary to merit a full-on memoir, and I have no idiosyncratic slant to offer—also no desire to start another book-length project no matter what the topic. But journaling has given me a push in that direction. I’m starting to accumulate pages in my journals, a record of life as I’m living it, and for me these notes-to-self have a value that comes from sheer number. The pages make life tangible, trackable, imparting a meaning that can be hard to infer without the distance of time. And if there’s anything we writers crave more than finding meaning in the nothingness, I haven’t seen it.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with shorter forms of writing to try to capture some of these singular moments, lightly fictionalize them, and craft them into something that can be shared. I’m seeking not so much to document the event itself as the thing that’s underneath. The reason why the memory has stuck around. For me there’s a resonant memory-thread of attacks on my character, which some part of me seems unwilling to tolerate. The time I was accused of lying when I wasn’t. Another time when I was. Moments when my lack of education left me intellectually vulnerable, tucked into a defensive crouch. Times when someone has tried to correct my social conscience, or accused me of hypocrisy, or informed me that the thing I just laughed at was not funny, forcing me to swallow a retort instructing that person to remove the stick from her ass. You know what I’m talking about. Punctuation marks in the run-on sentence of life.
Twenty things I did today, in no particular order:
Fed my dogs, Oliver and Henry. This guy down the street saw me out with them the other day and offered me half a bag of dog food he said was leftover. Leftover. Yikes. This reminded me of Hemingway’s six-word story: For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
Zipped up my black boots.
Sucked on a lemon drop, leftover from a Secret Santa gift bag.
Took a call at work from a lady who had the wrong number. She was trying to reach her daughter, and kept asking what she should do to find her. “What number should I call?” she said. And I said, “Well, what number were you trying to call?” And she read me off a phone number, different in every way from ours. So I said, “Maybe call that number.” This confused her, and she said “Which number?” And I said, “The 2-5-3 one you just read me.” This conversation went on for some time.
Pinched my thumb in an umbrella.
Curled those couple strands of hair around my face which refuse to follow the curl pattern of the others.
Checked on some flowers I have pressed inside a thick square book about Holga photography.
Wrote an email to a friend.
Wrote a bunch of emails to non-friends.
Ate a salad with tofu while listening to All the President’s Men on my phone. The narrator does one hell of a Nixon voice.
Found a child hiding under my desk and pretended I couldn’t see her.
Unloaded the dishwasher. Nearly—nearly—dropped a glass. Slippery fucker.
Watered the ferns. I’ve become a crazy plant lady during the pandemic, and have collected, at last count, a zillion houseplants. At present they’re clustered near the windows in winter survival mode.
Added a quote to my commonplace book: “I think the universe is pure geometry—basically, a beautiful shape twisting around and dancing over space-time.” – Antony Garrett Lisi
Drank three cups of instant coffee, with soy milk and six drops of stevia.
Dropped an f-bomb. (See 5.)
Sang “Rocket Man” in the car and then again in the kitchen.
Tied loops in the straps of my mask to make it fit better. I can’t get into all this color-coordination with the masks, and always wear the blue paper ones to work. This new box must have been made for giants.
Kissed my husband, who brought me a double bouquet of white mums.
Read some pages from a book of poetry by Marie Howe. Lovely, lovely…
Yesterday I received a new cover for my travelers notebooks. The cover is handmade of golden leather, and closes with a strong elastic band on which I hung a turquoise pendant. Inside is a bundle of notebooks on dot grid paper, with covers I decoupaged using the pages of a beautiful book about plants. One of the notebooks is my journal, another is for drafts, and the third is a commonplace book for when I want to make notes on something I’m reading, or record an eavesdropped conversation or joke or profundity. I also have a junk journal covered with leather I cut from my dad’s old jacket, stuffed with cleverly patterned pages I’ve stitched together and cut to size. The new cover has pockets, a pen loop, and round edges waxed smooth as glass, and it fits in my palm with a satisfying, curvy heft.
The journals are a recent obsession. I’ve never kept a diary or maintained a journaling practice. I thought I had nothing to say. After all, taken as a template, my days look mostly the same: Wake, coffee, read, coffee, write, work, lunch, work, home, bed, read, sleep, repeat. Not much to get your teeth into, beyond a PB&J at lunchtime. The action’s all in my head. But like everyone else, I’m the star of my Groundhog’s Day, so in theory I should have enough self-regard to make my life at least interesting to me.
So maybe it’s not a lack of excitement that’s kept me from journaling. Maybe it’s something more akin to shame. Not because of anything I’ve said or done—though there is that—but because it’s so hard to look back at something you set down years before when you were in a different frame of mind. When you were a different person, with embarrassing obsessions which may not have survived the gap in years. Reading about how I used to dig photography unnerves me, makes me suspect that every new interest, like a rogue lover, is bound to desert me in time. I hate the joy I expressed while in the throes of a book I was writing, which would turn out to be nothing after all. I hate the way I hoped and strove and did my best. The optimism makes me cringe.
The tenderness here probably means that I’ve located what Chelsea Handler would call a “growth point.” (I despise terms like this, by the way. Practice self-care, affirm your life, put your own needs first. There’s been too much caring for self, in my opinion. I’m in favor of chagrin. Maybe we could try to care for others first and see how that works out.) Though I’m always reluctant to engage in campaigns of self-acceptance, it could be that I’ve gone too far the other way and let the deprecation run amok. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of my writing, even some that was pretty good. Binders, index cards, blog posts, stacks of spiral notebooks without even looking inside them. Now that I’ve written this it kind of bums me out. I should have cared about my writing more. At least enough to read it, you know? I made my own slush pile and rejected me.
So now I’m on a mission to save my pages. I’m dressing my notebooks like paper dolls in bohemian frocks, festooned with stickers and washi tape, with the hope that their prettiness will impress Future Me enough to save them from the lethal blades of LeMay Recycling. I want to give myself the chance to grow up and read them someday without judgment. I want to stop trying to revise my past, which can only be done by perpetrating edits that rob it of the truth. I want to accept my fickle passions and the fact that they’ll come and go, and consider the possibility that optimism is not the character flaw I’ve imagined. Mainly, I guess, I want to stop this ruthless shredding and let my past be whole.
Tell me, do you journal? Do you keep old drafts and such—and more to the point, do you read them?
In the late afternoon,
the beginning of darkness, finally alone
after doing some outlandish thing—
fucking an old friend, for instance,
or marching on authority with ambiguous intent,
and feeling yourself
at one with the pack, howling, hurling yourself at windows,
falling through the chimney
and into the third pig's stew—
evening shuts the door and covers the debris,
and you trudge back to your pickup truck or bus,
lower to the ground than transport ought to be,
arriving home to find the armchair slumped in the corner,
the landscape of the living room remarkably unchanged
and this morning's coffee ringed inside the cup.
Later still as the pillow flattens
under the weight of your head, the pistol,
and the polyester bedspread your ex once brought to warm you,
the only sound
is the pulse inside your muffled ear, singular, wandering
like footsteps through the snow.
The day before yesterday, I got my second COVID shot. This one hit a little harder than the first, so after struggling though a few hours at work, I drove home and put on a pair of pajamas, laid a heating pad in the bed and crawled on top. Rarely have I stalled out this way. My body seemed pressed by a heavy weight, flattened to the bed, while my mind remained in a curious state during which the act of moving seemed quaint, as if walking across the room were an activity from a bygone era. At the same time I had a sense of lightness, a cleaving. My body and mind had for the moment parted ways.
I don’t remember much of what I thought about during those hours. Usually I spend my free time plotting my next move. But with movement now a mere notion, my mind drifted into nostalgic realms. I considered the color palette of my junk journal, which is filled with old William Morris wallpaper patterns in the shades of my childhood: olive, golden ochre, peacock blue, orange—all with the patina of ten thousand cigarettes. Recently I uncovered a black and white photo of me in my crib with my sister looking over the rail. On the wall is a tiny picture floating high above us. A painted bear, perhaps. No one decorates that way anymore, but I find the naivety of the room almost glamorous. We were free then, remarkably unconcerned about the luxuries or hazards of life. No seatbelts, no 9-1-1. In another meme-ready photo, my mother is bathing me in the kitchen sink, a lamp arranged on a slender hook with its cord dangling perilously close to the water. My mom, coiffed and chic in her sleeveless blouse, is clearly in a state of blissed-out motherhood, though risk is hanging literally over our heads.
What a shift to our present state of mind, motoring through each day with this low-level state of anxiety. People think there’s something wrong if you say, I just don’t care about that, I’m not going to sweat it, I reject the call to concern. Worry has become de rigueur, and it’s a rare conversation that can arrive at its end without at least one party voicing the anxiety of the moment. I’m as guilty of this as the next Concerned Citizen. I’m nervous as hell.
But yesterday, for a few disconnected hours, I lay in bed and thought about Vegas and how it felt at twelve years old to ride a few miles on my bike, then lose myself on horseback within the dunes and gullies of the desert, totally alone and unaccounted for. No cell phone in those days, and no one thought of a helmet. I rode bareback, in cowboy boots and terrycloth shorts. I remember the gritty crunch of my horse’s hooves, wind rushing across the sand, a bright blue dome overhead crossed with the vapor trails of people moving faster than me, and at a higher altitude. It was okay then to be small. It felt good to clutch this living animal between my knees, weave its mane through my fingers, and feel the sun on my back without caring whether it burned me. I didn’t mind that a horse can’t run as fast as a plane can fly, and I didn’t mind circling the desert to wind up where I’d started. I had nowhere else to be.
This blog post is likewise circling the sand, but the topic of quitting came up recently on Betsy’s site, and it made me wonder what matters to us in writing and in life. I know what I feel about publication. But does it take more courage to demand to matter or admit that you don’t? How alone do I want to be? How long can I go without water? I’m here, so there must be some part of me still wishing for that tribal connection—and finding myself, at times, with something to say. Maybe echoes are not enough. Maybe I missed you. Or maybe I’m just a thirsty bitch after all.