It feels like some kind of torture, some kind of crazy cruelty so perfect it would have to be planned. First, for one marvelous measure of time you glide across the globe of your mind, the depths of the oceans and the peaks of the mountains all equally beautiful and rich. Then it starts, and the pain pulls you so far into yourself you can't imagine a world beyond your skin and you reel inside this wail and claw, wish you believed in prayer so you could pray for it to be over but you have no breath to pray with anyway. It ends when it ends and you gasp out of it and shake your head and count your fingers and toes and blessings and make jokes, as you do. Then it sucks you in again, you blacken every thing on your mind's horizon and take a deep breath because it will surely be your last, this one, and you fall and you fall. With the distance you can manage, you try to be scientific and measure the pain on scales, measure the blood, measure the tears, try to put words on it, try to stay silent, try anything. And then it's over. You're losing your mind probably. In the sweet breaks between, you scour the internet, take online tests, talk to friends, change your diet, put on warm sweaters and take them off again in endless cycles, suck the sweetness and softness out of what you have by questioning why it isn't like that all the time, why the bitter and sharp tear. You assign yourself stoicism, after all you were the one who sliced through and set fire, and why not continue but then when the pain is there you remember that you cried then, too. Count your blessings. Count the people who have it worse. Count the length of the pause. Count how far you have come, how much less far you have to go. Count on your strength.
There is a cabin in the woods somewhere, or maybe out in a wide empty field, maybe a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. The point is that you are isolated there, no other people, only a landscape to interact with. Can you see it? No internet, no cell phone service. No luxuries really at all, just the basics. There's food somehow, and it's comfortable enough -- not too hot or too cold for your taste. There's no particular danger, no attacking animals or whatever.
Im thinking about irritations, specifically my own irritability. I am more easily intensely irritated than most, and I am less able than I would like to blow it off, ignore it, move on. My irritation is irrational and thus does not heed logic, it is physical and pure and it hurts me and I cannot stop. I get irritated by someone more than a few times and I'm done with them, I can't move on so I move away. To a certain extent, this is logical. It's like my irritations with books: I will never have enough time to read all the books I want before I die so why would I waste five more minutes reading Pat Conroy or Philip Roth? Some books I will give a second try on the recommendation of a trusted friend but it only works out sometimes. Same with people.
And so I have built a life that treats my irritability as something like an allergy. I've chosen a job where I rarely work directly with others, thereby minimizing the likelihood of them irritating me. My social life is predominantly one-on-one meetings with people who delight me. So reading is a pleasure because I don't bother to continue with books I don't enjoy. And eating is a pleasure because I manage to avoid allergens so my primary reaction is to be nourished rather than poisoned. My life is a pleasure because I have eliminated most of the encounters with people who irritate me.
From time to time I read something horrible or eat something that causes a bad reaction. And from time to time I have to deal with people who are toxic to me. And because I have largely eliminated that from my life, it causes a pretty dramatic reaction. I have no tolerance.
I don't think I should change; I think the logic of my decisions holds up generally: Don't read books you don't like. Avoid foods that make you break out in hives. Steer clear of emotional vampires. Nevertheless from time to time I am splotchy and red-eyed, swollen and in pain in reaction to one thing or another and I can't help but wonder in such moments if there isn't a vaccine, and if so how to get it.
This is a doll and this doll wants to make a nest with you. That is why it is called a nesting doll. You have heard some other reasons maybe but here we are talking about a nesting doll that wants to get cozy with you in the most homey way. This doll rolls into your life quite round and shiny, I mean it is not edgy or rough at all, it is just rolling along with whatever you want to do. This doll is agreeable. This doll is also lovely and just having it around makes things more attractive. Every day you look at it you feel a bit happier. The surface is so shiny that it reflects you. Like a spoon, except instead of a distorted pickle of a nose you look even better than in a mirror. One day while gazing at your reflection in the doll, you notice that there's a small crack in the shiny surface and when you run your thumbnail into the groove you find that the doll breaks quite neatly and deliberately in half and inside of it there is another doll. The second doll is pretty much exactly like the first doll, it is smaller obviously since it was fitted inside of the first one but it has the same happy smile, the same shiny surface, the same easy balance. The same reflective quality, although in this one your eyes are even more thoughtful, your smile more pleasing. And the fact that it's smaller means you can almost fit her in your hand now, hold her on your open palm, show her to other people. Use words like mine. This one is also cracked and since you opened the first doll so easily and no harm came of it it's not long before you crack the second one open too. Inside is another doll, the same in most ways because this is a metaphor and metaphors involve a certain amount of consistency in order to earn your trust. But a little different, because obviously this is a metaphor founded in truth -- each time you open the doll you have, you find another one inside, and each one is smaller and it is easier to imagine fitting her into your life simply from that point of view, but also, you can't help but notice that each subsequent doll is a little harder to open, that each one is rougher, less smooth. And each one is less perfect or to put it another way more flawed. The lines less straight, the paint wavery in places. It's difficult, probably, to paint really well on something so small, though you've seen drawings on grains of rice so it's more like poor workmanship. The third doll's eyes are just slightly smaller, but it looks almost like she's been crying, and your reflection as you look at her seems not quite so attractive; it seems more like how you really look. Still, eventually you get to a doll that fits right inside your pocket, part of your daily life if you want, there whenever you reach for her. You realize that the larger, prettier dolls were always rolling away from your fingers, more than you could hold, but this one is just the right size for you and you still like looking at yourself in that shiny surface and you like that this one seems more real, not quite so flashy as the first, like a doll you almost don't feel weird about loving. What happens next is predictable I guess, since even metaphors can't go on forever. You see the crack, you open the doll, etc. until you're at the last doll, the one that isn't hiding anything more. This doll isn't even a doll, it's a mess, a paint blob and a poorly lathed imitation of the others. There is nothing to love here. You can barely work up pity. You can't throw it away so you put it back inside the previous doll and try to pretend you didn't see it. But you did, you saw it because you looked, and now you know what's inside, rattling around inside the doll that comforts your fingers when you're nervous, inside the doll that reflects your better self, inside the doll that just rolled into your life and made everything, including you, more attractive. She opened because you broke her open and now you know. So what happens now.
Last night I went out with a friend and we talked about the things we used to do to amuse ourselves and why don't we do them anymore. Mainly I feel like my time should be spent on something Useful and I now know that the raindrops don't really care if I moderate their races, no matter how intense they seem to be. I did officiate on the bus window today, for old times' sake, and yeah, I still got it.
I used to imagine that somebody might be interested in my every thought. I imagined biographers following me about, intent on capturing the very fascinating nature of me. I developed the habit of speaking aloud as I did things if I was alone, in case the biographers were there but invisible, and I still have that habit even though obviously nobody is there, no biographers and probably not even Bruno Ganz. It has been largely a relief to realize that there is not and will not be anybody with a microphone curious to know how I wash windows or why my closet is organized in a particular way or any of the other things I've caught myself narrating aloud in the last while. I think at this point it's just habit, and maybe it's also to ensure that my mind doesn't wander off mid-task, as it is wont to do without some guidance. But I don't really think anybody's interested, even if somebody were there.
In fact lately I have been thinking about attention and interest a lot. I am deeply and sometimes awkwardly interested in people. Partly it's just cause people are super interesting and partly because I believe that people enjoy and rarely get that attention so if I like someone I like to pay attention to them as a kind of gift. In the love languages TIME is my number one and so this is what I give out, time (sorry if you like presents; I just can't). I read people's facebook pages if I know I will see them so I am caught up on what they are presenting and I also will re-read emails so that they are fresh in my memory. Apparently this level of attention can be a little... intense? ... but whatever, I'm closing out my 40s and I'm not wasting time changing anything I don't actively regret.
Sometimes I feel so much that other people are interesting that I can't really say much about myself, nothing meaningful and definitely nothing meaningless. I can talk about how my day was but that's not what I mean. I mean I have all this crap in my head but how do I work it into a conversation. The closet is organized by color and then subcategorized by type of garment. In drawers, I roll socks, underwear, and pajamas; I fold jeans and sweaters. The Shack is one of the worst books I ever read but I kept a copy of it in case I ever meet somebody who wants to hate-read a book. I have not yet repaired the thresholds in this apartment because it's the last thing to do and once that's done I am afraid that I will have to move. I almost never kick the covers off no matter how hot it gets, because of, you know, monsters. Is this interesting? I'm not sure. There is a part of me, a small arrogant ugly part, that is a bit hurt when someone doesn't find it so, and covers my mouth with its greasy hand so we don't get hurt again. On the other hand, there is a better, growing, nobler part of me that has learned be pleasantly surprised if you read it and leave it at that. Hello, you, reading this. Thanks.
Next week I am going with one of my dearest and oldest friends to Corfu. I plan to eat basically a pound of feta drizzled in olive oil every day, and if I don't get relaxed enough to start writing interesting things again it won't be for lack of trying.
The dozens of possible lives I could have lived, each on their own trajectory in an alternate timeline. I imagine them like the lines in my hands, crisscrossed options and parallels and divergences. Some lives running obscenely parallel to the life I'm on, basically the same life over and over worn almost into a solid groove with tiny variations, the year where I planted mint instead of basil and every morning that summer felt fresh and awake and every night I had bourbon and sugar instead of a bowl of pasta salad. Some alternate life lines that meander too far off and end abruptly. That one there is the one where I become a cross-country truck driver and get addicted to amphetamines and dazzle the bosses with my boundless energy but I'm trying to get clean and one day I fall asleep at the wheel and that's the end of that line. Sometimes in dreams I wander into a house that feels like my house but isn't, an apartment building in a town where I don't live, a warmer place where I might have wound up if Brno hadn't caught my heart and held it in its crumbling fin de siècle hands.
Sometimes I think about all the tiny tiny steps we take for no clear reason, driven by the desire to be on a line we don't quite see, and we look back and call it coincidence or luck and discount the roles of self preservation and instinct. I used to think about the possible better lives I might have been living if I'd done something a little differently: If only I had chosen another thing, everything would have been saved. But now I think: I did not do that different thing because I did not want to save everything. Or I knew there was nothing to save. Or: I saved myself.
From time to time I am overwhelmed by a nameless grief, a certainty that I should not be here, don't deserve to be here, belong somewhere much worse. I feel the terror of being caught living the life I don't deserve, and this is nothing compared to the absolute abject sorrow that I feel at knowing I have to let it go. This feeling comes and demands my attention for periods of time and it is dead unpleasant. I have thought that perhaps it is my own way of reminding myself to be grateful and I do really try to be aware of the forces of luck and coincidence and wonder that have landed me here, in this life. And I try to acknowledge also the work I have put into getting here, to this life. But I know that hard work is not always the same as getting what you deserve. Two years ago the grief caught me on an airplane, tin can in the air, fist at my mouth, sobbing uncontrollably. Last week again, unbearable even while familiar.
I am thinking about it a lot. I think maybe it's okay that I am here in this life. Maybe what I am feeling is one of those alternate lives, one much sadder than this one, coming close to me for just a moment, and I feel the grief to be mine as real as I know the house in my dream. It isn't mine. But it could easily be. And it is important to recognize it, walk in its rooms, touch the furniture. To experience the pain of it whole. Let it happen. And then, one hopes, wake up.
When she was little, she wrote, there was a dried up creek bed on the walk home from school. The bridge no longer over the water but over the deep space that the creek left. Garbage-strewn mysterious depth. That's where the women fall, the fallen women. And I told how when I was little, the president had opened a gate and flooded Washington, the water coming out in leaks and then finally a torrent, and he had to resign in shame over the the water-soaked capital.
These are things we believed because we did not understand, and I know that sometimes this happens. And I know that sometimes one person says something and another person hears something slightly different, and their affection gets buried in misunderstanding as the argument moves further and further from the original point. So you're not arguing at all about what ought to argue about, if you should argue at all. But I think that such arguments are a reflection of some underlying other problem, the fight that takes on a life of its own already had a heartbeat somehow before your misunderstanding breathed life into it. Such misunderstandings are not the problem.
The taste of vinegar and salt. The snap of the crystal between your teeth before it melts on your tongue. The sour truth that pulls you awake.
Okay, I'm back to it. Things we believe because we misunderstood. Things we believe because we misheard. These can be eliminated with time and attention. Then there are also things we believed because we were told them directly, lies like who brings gifts and what happens to our teeth. I never told my son these things because I never understood why you should establish yourself as an unreliable narrator with your own kin. There are enough lies already in the world, and pretending they have colors is also a lie. So these beliefs can be avoided by not lying. And that applies to most belief, maybe.
I work as hard as I can to be as honest as I can, and when I can't be honest yet or anymore then I stop talking. There are lies that come from a kind of dishonesty that is a lie to the self, perpetuated on others. I have no idea what to say about these people, except that I have at times wished holes burned or bitten through their tongues. Metaphorical ones, to be clear, although this is what I do to myself, have done to myself, the taste of blood in my mouth before saying what I wasn't sure was true. Mean what you say. And if you cannot, don't feign surprise when I don't stick around to listen anymore.
I, too, felt incredible anger when things were unfair. I felt unattractive and awkward, splotchy skin and itchy red sweaters and home haircuts. I wanted to win and it mattered and when I did not win I wanted to turn the world upside down. When I remember how I felt about her, I secretly admired that she did not care what people thought of her, and I wanted to not care like that. I also wanted to live in a cool house with thousands of rooms, I wanted to discover places and people, and I wanted to be able to express my feelings with magic. At the same time, I was terrified I was like her, truly ugly on the outside and pickled bitter on the inside.
I watched an old episode and felt my preschool self come rushing in, the same connection to her as always. I feel like I have grown into her in a lot of ways. And I feel like that is okay. I don't travel by spaceship to the planet Purple, but I get to California every year and that's about the same. I can whistle pretty well. I live in an apartment that is almost as magical as the museum-go-round. And the thing I didn't see when I was little but I see clearly now: I have people who treat me with patience and kindness even when I'm quite crotchety. Even though I didn't know it, maybe that was really the attraction all along. I'm so grateful for you, toots.
There is a short film I watched a few months ago, I think it's called Ten Meter Tower. The film shows a number of people who were offered a symbolic amount of money to jump off of a high dive at a swimming pool, which they had never done before.
The film does not show the people who did not participate because they had jumped off the board before. It does not show the people who had never jumped and were not interested in jumping. It does not show the people who got to the ladder, looked all the way up, and changed their minds. The film and therefore we are only interested in what happens to the people who actually make it all the way up to the diving board. Even there, it shows very few people who just get to the top of the board, run to the edge, and jump. It does not show people after they leave the board, and so you can only wonder how they continued, elegantly or otherwise, through thirty feet of air, plunging down into another six feet or so of water that may or may not have been very cold.
The film mostly shows the people standing at the top of the board hesitating, for various reasons, to jump. There is a part of them that wants to jump – the part that said sure, went to the pool, changed clothes, looked all the way up and still felt like trying; the part that felt the cold metal of the ladder pressing hard against the arches of their feet, all those steps to the top. But there is a part of them that is afraid. An animal part that does not want to fall, does not want to be hurt. Is so afraid that climbing back down the ladder, which is after all the only other way out, seems like possibly less of a failure than whatever frightens them about jumping. And so they stand there, weighing the options, trying to articulate the fear, giving themselves pep talks or letting words close over their heads like water in which they are drowning. Some of them (30%) never jump.
I think about this film almost every day. That I probably wouldn't have agreed to do it because I am not excited about the idea of someone filming me in a bathing suit, or because I don't especially like swimming pools, the smell of chlorine, or because the part of me that is intimately familiar with falling on sidewalks would be afraid of cracking my head on the side of the board. But if I did agree to do it and got as far as the diving board, I don't think I would have a problem with jumping. It's not that I think I am brave: I'm not. So much of my life has been getting to the other side of something that terrified me – moving to new countries, anything with microphones, dating – and then realizing it was not that scary and after all lots of people do those things. So partly I would do it because I have learned over time that once I've done something it's not a big deal. And partly I would do it because I would want to eliminate the retrospective embarrassment of having dithered in front of others. And – a little – I would do it because I would want to know that I had, to have the memory of it as a time I overcame my smaller, more fearful self. But mostly I would do it because I would be so overwhelmingly curious: how would it feel to fall deliberately like that, would there even be time to feel the rush of air before the plunge into the water? Would the water be cold, or when you fly into it do you not really notice? How would it be to experience those weightless worlds in quick succession? A woman, a bird, a fish, a mermaid, a woman. I would want to know.
Why would you jump? Why don't you?