I don’t like to think of myself as someone who passes down little bits of wisdom from a preschooler, but sometimes you never know where you might wind up. Two days in a row, my son had epic tantrums after we left daycare. He’s been unpredictable ever since his nursery school let out for the holidays, but these were off the charts. In a brief moment of calm the other day, I asked him why he was getting so angry–was it something that happened at daycare?
“No,” he said, “I just didn’t want to leave.”
“But you seemed so happy to go.”
“I was happy to see you, but I didn’t want to stop playing.”
So I thought about that, after we weathered yet another tantrum that night at bedtime, and I thought about how moving from one thing to another is always the trigger for him: Leaving for school, sitting down to dinner, getting out of the bathtub. You want to see a meltdown (no, I mean a meltdown–whatever you’re thinking, double that and break something), change the plan too quickly. We do all the stuff you’re supposed to do–the ten-minute warnings, telling him the schedule ahead of time, whatever, and still, some days? Forget it, Charlie.
The other night as I was falling asleep, though, I had an idea–the kid wasn’t saying goodbye properly. How can he move to the next thing if he hasn’t let go of what came before? So I decided we were going to say goodbye to everything. Yesterday, we said good bye to the car as we headed off to daycare; when I picked him up at the end of the day–after I hugged him–I made him go back and say goodbye to the kids he was playing with, not just shout over his shoulder. He said goodbye to dinner, to the water in the tub, to the day, everything. It seems remedial, like something he should have learned at age two, but maybe he didn’t. So, we’ll teach it again; we’ll teach it until he learns it, like multiplication tables. I’ll point out that yesterday we didn’t have one single struggle. (This could be rendered useless in a few hours, but just go with it for now.)
On this last day of a year I believe I’d like to kick to the curb and never look back at again, I’m going to take my own advice. On The Night of Two Tantrums I cleaned out my closet. Yesterday morning I either deleted or moved 3,000 emails from my work inbox until it was empty. Goodbye, ugly sweaters. Goodbye, messages that say no more than “Thanks!” or “See you then!” Hello, space. Oh, hi, clarity.
There’s a mild panic inherent with that–that fear of getting rid of the wrong thing, the fear of being left with nothing. That’s a faint but serious fear, and it’s probably one I’ve chosen not to confront fully. I’m pretty sure I’m not that good at saying goodbye. If I think about it, I’m probably someone who just lurches from thing to another and tries not to examine the potentially painful and confusing subtleties of “I was happy to see you, but I didn’t want to stop playing.” Yeah, that’s probably right. There’s evidence of my not quite getting the hang of that.
Maybe my son and I could try to learn that together, the way my dad taught himself to dive by watching my swimming lessons when I was a kid. It took some major humility for a 38 year-old man to kneel at the edge of a pool with a bunch of seven year-olds, but he did it, and he learned. So will I, then. I’ll dive, too.
A lot changed in the last year. A whole lot of ugly realities forced themselves into this house, but a lot of great things happened, too. Sometimes that was a result of the same event; sometimes the two were blessedly separate. I’m looking forward to seeing 2010 go, and while I have no real plans for the year that starts tomorrow, I’m just about ready for it. I just need to make sure I take the time to say goodbye to the one I’m leaving behind.
After going almost a week without a book to read and being bombarded with list after list of the “Books of 2010″, I’ve been in a complete (internal) tizzy about books. So I took matters into my own hands the other day and marched into my library. Or rather, I should say “library” in this case.
Last winter, our local library blew up. Yes, really. Something to do with old gas lines and so forth. Luckily no one was hurt, but the foundation was damaged and the explosion blew the door off the place and it’s been closed ever since. It doesn’t help that the libraries around here are desperate for money–although not yet desperate enough to close, thankfully–but they have suggested the nifty service of transporting books from far-flung libraries within the county may have to end. Here’s where I start to panic: without that service, I’d have a real tough time getting my hands on, say, that Steve Almond essay I heard him read from last fall about realizing he’d been seducing a woman who loved to listen to Air Supply. (This may be the example that convinces you all that the service needs to be shut down immediately, but anyway…different strokes.)
Fortunately (kind of), thanks to the recession, a tiny storefront across the street has been rendered empty and they rolled some books over there. Five, maybe six carts are available to the public. Every time I walk by I think it’s probably loaded up with Stieg Larsson (who I don’t feel like reading) and diet books, or books on how to become a millionaire without working more than 30 minutes a day, and I instead stop by the library closer to where I work when I want something. I’ve been feeling kind of bad about it, frankly. I mean, it feels a bit like in high school when all of sudden you liked your friends with driver’s licenses a little more.
I should say here that I’ve never had much patience for libraries. I don’t like places where I have to be quiet. Also, I’ve always assumed that librarians don’t want to talk at all–at least to me–so I’ve always been intimidated by them. Of course, when I applied to college, all I cared about was what the library looked like, and what I might study there, and what I might look like studying in it. There were imaginary outfits involved. Hairstyles. It was aspirational more than anything else. I had no intention of studying in a place where I had to speak softly. (I wasn’t that good at studying, either.)
As I’ve grown older, I’ve finally come to see the wisdom in libraries and trying hard not to spill coffee on the book I’m reading so I can give it back. In other words, I’ve grown stingy. Apologies to writers who want the royalties, but I don’t need to keep a book anymore, and when I do buy them, I buy some really weird ones I should have borrowed and given back. Plus, every six months or so, my husband “culls the herd” on our shelves and for a few days he’s wandering around the house calling out titles to me: “Do you still want Hedda Gabler? What about Invisible Man? Surely, it’s time to give up…” It’s maddening.
Anyway, back to the other day. I was skeptical when I wandered into the little annex (when I say “little” I mean the public section of this space might be smaller than the women’s bathroom in the original library–I’m talking small, here), but I suddenly found myself with five books in my hand. This seemed silly, since I had other errands to do and had to walk the mile home. I chose three–two of which have been churning through my mind–jumped back and forth between carts one more time and then handed them to the very smiley librarian who has been forced, since being moved into this tiny space, to pretend as if he can’t see every book I pick up and put down again. I only had to take one step to move from the “stacks” to the “circulation desk” to check them out, but he still pretended that my appearance was a pleasant surprise. (For some reason, too, there were three other people working in there, but I’m not going to try to figure that out, besides acknowledging that whatever pleasantries I get from these folks probably requires tapping into some deep reserves I don’t have myself.)
As I was standing there, I noticed there were tote bags tacked to the wall. For ten bucks, I could stuff a green canvas bag with even more books and do my bit toward keeping the Air Supply essays coming from far and wide. Now, I hardly need another tote bag. For the love of all things publicly-funded, I’m a left-leaning, female writer who grew up in Boston and now works at a nature preserve–believe me, I have my share of tote bags. But I bought one anyway, because my library did exactly the thing it’s supposed to do and it did it under considerably less-than-ideal conditions, with a smile. (I also hope someday to cut back on my late fees, so I figure I should pony up some other way.)
So what did my library send me off with?
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shtyengart (Because I’ve read too much about it not to)
The Wilding, by Benjamin Percy (Because I heard Percy read from it last fall and I was completely freaked out)
What Alice Knew, by Paula Marantz Cohen (Wild card)
I’m not one to make resolutions, but when I walked away with my collection of books the other day, I loosely made a decision. Back when I was in grad school this was the week I’d start thinking about the books I’d read over the next six months. The list would change nineteen times before I had to hand in my semester plan, but by the end of the first week of January, I had fifteen or twenty books in mind (and on paper) that I thought I wanted to read by June, when I’d do the same thing all over again. The fact is, I didn’t read enough last year–not to my mind, anyway. So I have a list. I’ll probably add more of it here as I go along, and I’ll probably be bouncing in and out of three or four libraries when I need a new book, but I’ll start at that tiny storefront. I’m sorry to my library for being fickle. I realize now how much we need each other. I won’t do it again.
This may seem ironic considering my last post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about climbing trees. I read a book, you see, about this group of people who climb redwoods. Some of them are studying the forest canopy and then others just want to be able to say they found the tallest tree ever. They’re climbing more than 350 feet in the air. On the one hand, this seems insane to me, and on the other hand, well…wow.
I don’t climb trees–in fact, if I ever climbed trees it was brief and not that exciting. Maybe I did it wrong. I take my place in the animal kingdom seriously–I have no need to fly or submerge myself in the ocean. I’m not attracted to caves, cliffs, reefs, volcanoes, or Mount Everest. I don’t even ski. (I do skate, though…so something’s broken through there.) I like to keep to my habitat, in other words: low shrubs and coastlines.
That said, I’m fascinated by people who do more than this–mostly in the air. I imagine we’d have very little to talk about, earthbound as I am, once they realize I have no new insights into the world that they can’t see themselves. (Yes, I always imagine myself talking to the person I admire–sometimes it’s a bit demoralizing when they clearly do something ten million times cooler than I do.) Then I just imagine doing what they do instead–and trying to ignore the part where I scream in terror at some point of no return.
There’s a distinction to be made here, too. I’m never interested in activities that would require me to squirm my way into scuba gear or load thirty pounds of tents and whatnot on my back. After I saw Man on Wire all I wanted to do was string a tightrope across my backyard and be able to say I could sit down in the middle of it and then stand back up and keep walking. (On the rope–that’s obvious, right?) While I guess I’d like to see what the world looked like from the top of a redwood, it’s the act of getting to the top that’s had me in its grip for the last few days. It’s the physical and mental power it would take to do this stuff that fascinates me: overcoming the fear of heights–or death, I guess–waiting out the vertigo, making the right decisions about where to make that next step, and then having the control to do it at the right pace. The physical strength is a given. It’s all the more subtle stuff that goes along with it that draws me in, the whole body/mind package.
Let’s look at this from every angle: I’ve never done a handstand–I’m afraid of being upside down because I don’t get it. I try too hard to rearrange everything and make sense of it and I freak out. It’s also kind of the way I feel about poetry. But at least with poetry I’ve trained myself to accept not being able to “get it”. And I’ll never break my neck reading poetry. Thanks, too, I think, to some fierce ear infections as a kid, I get monstrously dizzy just by tipping my head, which I trot out as an excuse not to do stuff like handstands. It bugs me, and thanks to reading this book this past week, it bugs me even more.
Just before I went flying through the bowels of Penn Station I was “this close” to being able to do Crane Pose. I had been practicing it every day and one night I felt myself, for a split second, pivot forward and lift my feet off the floor. Just a couple of days ago I started practicing again, but I worry about my ankle, which is still pretty stiff, and both the stiffness and the worry throws off my balance.
I’m not ready to climb trees, in other words, or string that tightrope across my yard, but after reading that book I realized that might be what I’m working on without naming it. Of course, in my mind, the minute I name it, I name the possibility of failing at it, too. So I’m unnaming it and just doing it instead. Keep an eye on your trees.
This post represents a sharp departure from the otherwise serious, thoughtful foolishness I’ve been posting lately.
Every once in a while, like most people with a healthy sense of their own mortality, I stand at the top of a flight of stairs and become all too aware of the possibility of falling; it usually makes me a little sick to my stomach. But I am not a klutz. I’m not the person who walks into bookshelves or drops piles of plates or wipes out on every patch of ice I meet. And yet, sometimes the universe wants you to examine your definition of yourself.
Last Saturday, after a fun day in New York City with a friend, I fell face-first down a flight stairs in Penn Station. Contrary to what I just wrote, I did not stand at the top and imagine myself missing a stair. I was in that crush of people heading down toward the track, that cattle-herd moment when a couple hundred friends and neighbors squeeze themselves into a narrow stairwell and make their quietly frantic way toward the train. It seems like the best time to fall, actually–at least the volume of bodies might break your fall. Not so.
I had just filled up my travel mug with tea and was looking forward to reading my book. As I made my way down the stairs I suddenly realized my right foot had stopped moving; the heel of my boot was caught in the torn hem in the left leg of my jeans. Things weren’t right at all. As I pitched forward I threw my full, stainless steel travel mug at the guy in front of me. I had flashes of all the injuries I could incur if I didn’t stop myself and had actually somersaulted down to the track: concussion, cracked vertebrae, broken ribs/nose/ankle/arm. I saw myself clutching my front teeth in my hand. But none of that happened. What did happen is that I managed to grab the railing with one hand and plant the other on the step. I have a vivid mental picture of how wide my fingers were spread once I stopped falling. All that happened to me was that I slammed my shin on the step and the tops of both knees.
Acute pain is interesting. The first words out of my mouth were to the guy I threw my tea at. “I’m sorry,” I muttered over and over as I picked myself up. He and the woman he was with turned around and asked me if I was all right, but I was in such blinding pain I could barely answer. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, too dazed to even look at him or thank him. We stepped on the train.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. I’m okay.” I thought to myself that I should find him later and thank him, once I could see straight again. I staggered to a seat and waited for what I knew was coming. The ringing in my ears started first, then my vision went purple. Then I started yanking my jacket off as the sweating started; I considered peeling off more layers, but had a moment of clarity. I wondered which person I would alert if I thought I was going to pass out, but the panic slowly subsided. I held out my hand–still shaking. I pulled my book out of my bag–I’d been looking forward to that–but the page still looked purple, so I closed it and waited.
Eventually, everything went back to normal and I read my book while also wincing in pain. I arrived at my stop and considered taking a cab the mile and a half to my house, but everyone else got to the cabs before I did. Reader, I walked home.
The original bruises are big enough: the one on my shin is about the size of a deck of cards. The ones on my knees might be hidden by the clementines I’ve been peeling lately, but maybe not. But the real horror comes in how my leg swelled, turned green all the way around to the back and all way down to where it looks like I shoved a baseball into my ankle. My foot turned a nice shade of blue from my heel to the arch; I’d complain about that, but my arch is one of my best features and the blue is a nice touch. If I’d ever thought of it myself, I’d have painted it that way.
On Wednesday, I had a check-up. My doctor listed all the body parts I should have examined more closely now that I’m 41. We talked about the persistent ringing in my ears and how a year and a half ago the ENT shrugged after a hearing test, 2 MRIs on my head, 5 vials of blood, and an ultrasound of my carotid arteries found nothing to explain it. We laughed and moved on. At the end, he took out that rubber mallet to test my reflexes. “No way,” I said. “Not this year.” I pulled up the leg of my jeans. “Wow,” he said and backed away. “If you touch it, I’ll cry,” I said. He nodded. “If I touch it, I’ll cry too. We’re all done here.”
Yesterday, a friend suggested a sewing kit as a Christmas present to repair the worn hem; I countered with the suggestion of pressure hose. I tell the story and people squeal with that remote horror we have the luxury of rolling out when everyone’s standing up and laughing.
Having my leg throb for six days allows me to spend a lot more time watching TV and hanging around on the internet. I seem to have rediscovered Twitter; a friend reminded me yesterday about my Goodreads account. Over the last week, I suddenly feel like no one emails me anymore, probably the result of my not emailing anyone when I wandered away. And now I’m back here, telling you what could safely be called a non-story.
I’m not one to call attention to myself (a brief topic of conversation I’d been having with that friend in the hours before I fell), so succumbing to gravity so publicly was tough, but this story is kind of fun to tell. Probably because it’s not as much of story as it could have been.
Around the same time I started doing yoga every day (see the last post), I started making lists. Lots of lists. Grocery lists, wish lists, to-do lists at work (always with a black Sharpie and hung from a binder clip like laundry.). It cleared my head; I knew where my thoughts were, so I didn’t need to keep reminding myself of them. I calmed down and it was quiet up there. I get more done lately. I make the lists on paper because the act of writing it rather than typing it makes it more real. (There’s the obvious connection between trying to wind myself into a pretzel and writing the lists in ink, but I’m not quite ready to bore anyone with posts about bow pose.)
Then I started to notice how much extra stuff I say all the time, and in the last week or so, when I hear it, I stop and just say what needs to be said. The silence is unnerving at first, but I’ve started to hear myself say the same thing five different ways, so I quit. Yesterday, when my son decided to take an unguided tour of an enormous store, I darted around calling his name for a few minutes and when he finally appeared at the end of a long aisle I stood perfectly still and waited for him to come to me. Usually I would have at least said, “Come here, please,” but he knew that, and as he ran to me I had plenty of time to tell myself just to hug him and stay quiet. He took my hand and we left the store without the usual madness that accompanies trips to stores. (That’s not to say there was no madness, there was just less of it.)
Somewhere in the archives on this thing I’ve talked about my son. He’s a busy kid–a little anxious, probably, and his anxiety builds on itself until he can’t tell you what made him throw something/chase the cat/run through the house giggling like a maniac. Over the last few days I’ve wondered if I haven’t passed some of that down to him, so I’ve tried to move less when I’m with him, and when I have something to say to do it while standing still. I’ve also stopped talking so damn much. It’s hard to do, and even he’s confused, but there’s less noise, pleasant or otherwise, and I think that’s a good thing. With less noise, we make better decisions. There’s also more space to pay attention to other stuff, and there’s so much better stuff to pay attention to.
There’s also some connection for me between breathing more and talking less. I’ve started to wonder if all my chatter is a backwards attempt to catch my breath, because lately it seems like the air is easier to get at.
This is a long way of saying the lower volume on here is a direct reflection of the lower volume in my more physical life. It’s not a lack of interest in writing here, it’s a conscious decision to wait until there might be something to say. Of course, there’s no real way to know–certainly, what I’ve written here isn’t necessary–but I’m not always going to get it right. Just think of the space between posts on here as a long, slow breath.