There is still a joke between us, about how I would knock on the door of one of their bedrooms when their friends were over. Let’s say I was 11 and they were 15 and 17, give or take a year. They’d be in there, hanging out, listening to music, and just generally being older than me and cooler than me no matter what they were actually doing.
I’d want desperately to be in the room with them, not taking up any room but just breathing the same (probably smoky) air. But I knew this wasn’t going to happen, so instead I’d stand there at the threshold of that untouchable teenage space. And I’d make up some reason for having knocked. The excuse I made I remember most clearly for my embarrassing longing was: Can I borrow a pencil?
That girl still lives inside of me, the one who is shy around the older girls, the real grown ones with boobs and boyfriends and cigarettes and jokes I don’t get. That girl still lives inside me, who doesn’t belong, who isn’t invited, who goes back to her own room feeling a little bit mad and a little bit sad and a lot lonely. She puts on one of her dozen David Bowie albums and flops across the mattress on the floor, wondering when she will be cool.
it’s no wonder a big part of my work in this world is to say: Come on in. Have a seat. Let’s hang out together. Let’s write and draw and listen to music and laugh and tell stories.
I went to replace a gallon of bad milk and return a bag of mealy peaches, plus we needed potatoes. The cashier, who couldn’t have been older than 16, admired my tattoo and asked me first what the Hebrew meant and then what *that* meant to me.
I told him “Aya” means hawk and is one of my wife’s Hebrew names. He went on to tell me that he’d have to think long and hard about getting ink, and I told him that had been the case for me, too. Then I asked if he had any ideas.
“Well,” he said, “I had a brother who I never met because he was strangled by his umbilical cord, so I always thought maybe I’d do something about that.”
“Did he have a name?” I asked. “BJ,” he told me. “My parents just called him BJ.”
Then the bagger, also of high-school age, chimed in. She gestured to her back and told us about the Banksy image she imagined spreading across her left shoulder blade– the butterfly girl. “Suicide has been a big part of my life the last few years,” she said. “And I’m a writer so I love defiance and symbolism.”
When I mentioned that I was also a writer, she brightened and told me she is a published poet and takes workshops with a local group for teen writers. She looked so proud.
I left the store with milk, potatoes, and a reminder that all of us carry so many stories, whether they’re visible to the outside world or not.
I’m in bed. It’s only 8:13pm but after a full day, it felt good to slip out of my clothes and under the clean sheets. In a little bit, I’ll turn off the computer and we will read a chapter from our current book before watching a show. Then Mani will put on a short meditation from the Daily Calm app (we call it the Daily Clam, after that one time I misread it), and with any luck, we’ll both get a decent night’s sleep.
This is more or less how it goes every night. When the kids are here, I read to Pearl and say goodnight to V before locking up. I try to motivate to wash the evening dishes, since it’s so nice to wake up to an empty sink in the morning when I go to make the coffee. Some nights, I get sucked into working late or just fucking around online.
Yesterday at the end of my run, I saw the fox again, the one who makes the occasional appearance in our driveway. He crossed the street and trotted down towards the woods near Sunset Farm. My mind wandered to tattoo daydreams.
Then I was home and the sweat was pouring and I was proud of myself for moving my body. I took a cold shower and shaved my legs and drank cold water and forgot what day it was.
Self-employment is a lot of things. One of them is flexible. Other than calls with coaching clients and my upcoming Monday night in-person group (which isn’t on my website, by the way, so if you’re local and you want to write with a small group of women for six weeks in Amherst, let me know), I rarely have to be in a particular place at a specific time. There is a definite rhythm to my days and weeks, but it’s one of my own making and shaping.
Sometimes I forget this and I revert to treating my life, not to mention my writing, like something to squeeze in around the edges. I’ll find myself bringing the same tension to getting to the kitchen table to greet a writing group in the morning that I used to feel driving to work — hurried, tense, late. Then I remember that no one in said group is checking their watch. I don’t clock in or out. There’s no payday or benefits office. I am all the things. This is both amazing and challenging. I wouldn’t trade it.
Today, I watched a video by a writer I admire. She’s very funny, irreverent, and ballsy. The video had nearly 35,000 views. I do not know how that happens. I do not know if that even matters.
Just now, I looked up from the screen and there was the waxing moon on the other side of our bedroom skylight, bright in the still-blue July sky as if to say: No, it doesn’t matter how many views you get. Thanks, Moon. The moon always has the best timing.
Today, I ran again. Just me and my tiny iPod shuffle and the midday sun. I ran north to UMass and around the little pond in the middle of campus. There was a group of young adults milling around with matching blue backpacks. Many of the women wore colorful headscarves and I imagined that they were a visiting group of students here for some summer program. I thought about the Travel Ban and wondered what country they were from.
Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” has been my running soundtrack lately, along with some old-school Madonna and a smattering of other indie-pop songs that keep me moving. I didn’t run all winter, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago, I started again. Just like that.
Summer and I are old friends. We share stories that don’t need to be revisited. We both enjoy fresh-water swimming and napping in hammocks and ice cream for dinner. Everything seems a little more do-able. My daughter is quick to correct me if I say there are more hours in the day, but she knows what I mean. I am a goner for heat and light.
On my bedside table, so many books. Half-read books, unread books. Paperbacks, hardcovers. On my head, more grey hairs every day. I pluck them, not in battle but more like a new hobby. My skin is changing. My life is changing.
Our lives are always changing. If we pay attention, we might even notice. But so much of the change happens while we’re so in the days, the news, the fury, the mundane, the passion, the questions, the sweat and tears of it all, that we don’t know until later. And then later is the new now and here we are: Kids older, bodies older, love a few layers deeper, understanding wider, with just as many places to be lost and found as ever.
I find myself running again. I find myself pounding the pavement, creating the rhythm of my own days in this life, loving my people, and not worrying about the numbers. I look up to find that the moon has already moved slightly further west as it starts out its nightly journey across the small slice of sky we can see. I marvel, like a child, that it’s the same sky, the same sun, the same moon, for you.
On Thursday evening, I drove over the Notch to pick my daughter up from rehearsal a couple of towns over. For a couple of miles, the car behind me was so close on my tail I thought it was going to hit me. I could see the drive in the rear view mirror; he looked liked he might have been bopping out to some tunes.
At one point, he fell back, and I felt relieved — until I saw his crossing the yellow line. I had no way of knowing if he was drunk or high or just totally distracted. All I knew was that he then sped up and was right on my tail again, showing zero signs of slowing down.
“911. What’s your emergency?” I pushed away the thought that I was overreacting and told the operator that an extremely erratic driver was behind me and I didn’t feel safe. She asked if he was being aggressive towards me. I told her I didn’t think so. I managed to read his plate number backwards in my mirror, trying not to make it obvious that I was looking at his car as I spoke the letters and numbers into the receiver.
The operator connected me to the local police, who asked me for my name and the make and model of my vehicle. I supplied this information and about a mile later, I turned right while the car in question continued straight.
I wondering what would happen if they pulled this guy over. Was he intoxicated or high? Would he know it was me who’d made the call? I felt a rush of fear, fear I knew was unfounded. But adrenaline serves a purpose in small doses and appropriate situations, and I allowed myself a few minutes in the school parking lot to calm myself before Aviva came walking towards the car. I will admit that I Googled the license plate number, thought honestly I can’t say why I bothered or what I thought I would find. Maybe there was an impulse to know who this guy was.
I always want to know people’s stories.
This morning, I finally stopped by the Hospice Shop to donate the bags of clothes I’ve been hauling around for weeks. It was just warm enough as the sun rose higher in the sky to be to go to the free vacuums on Route 9, and believe me, the inside of our car needed a once over. At one point, my vacuum seemed clogged and I asked the guy next to me if I could use the one closer to his minivan, which he was detailing. No problem, he said. He had tunes pumping from inside the car. He didn’t look like the minivan type.
I wondered about his life. I wondered who he voted for in November.
Later, at Trader Joe’s after a short run on the bike path behind the mall, I asked the cashier how her day was going. She said she couldn’t complain, since she has a short shift tomorrow. “Oh, right — Easter! I forgot,” I told her, “since I don’t celebrate it myself.” After she finished bagging up my stuff and I paid, she wished me a good weekend, “not celebrating Easter.” Then she added, “but maybe celebrating Passover.” For a second, I wondered how she knew I was Jewish, but before I could say a word, she pointed at the Hebrew letters inked on my left arm. “Thanks — take care,” I said.
I wondered about her life. Her eyes were deep-set and sad.
We encounter each other in so many ways. Every day, encounters close and distant have the potential to change our lives. Mostly, they don’t, at least not in big, obvious, dramatic ways. But I keep thinking about that driver. The woman whose eyes met mine for a millisecond while I sat inside Starbucks yesterday and she walked down the ramp. Faster than fleeting. Unmemorable, mostly.
And yet — all the time, we are meeting eyes, gauging what feels safe, deciding where to connect and where to stay in our own sphere. So much plays into this: Prejudice of all kinds, assumptions that may be wildly false, instincts that defy cognition. Often all of this plays out so quickly and subconsciously that our actions are reflexive.
I’m not sure what my point is. Something about developing the wherewithal to see myself and choose with awareness how I interact — or don’t interact — with the world as I encounter it. Something about separateness and connection, choice and force. These play out every single day in so many minuscule ways, and also every single day in so many global, unfathomable ways.
Knowing where we are — both physically in our bodies, in the very vehicles that carry us through space, and also in terms of the beliefs and biases we bring to every single interaction — can make such a difference in what kind of energy we bring to the world. More often than not, we won’t actually stop and get to know each other’s stories. But all of this has me thinking about what would change if we did.
Two sparrows pecked away at a chunk of discarded donut in the snow outside the door to Starbucks as Luping and I dove into conversation today. The moment I walked in, she asked if I was feeling better (I had cancelled last week’s session due to being sick). I told her yes, but that I still wasn’t 100%.
The very moment those words came out of my mouth, I asked if she brought her notebook. She had. I wrote it down and explained this expression — how it means I’m feeling better but not all the way better. She nodded in understanding and told me coffee today would be her treat.
We walked over the register to order. I asked for a grande latte with one Splenda (I’ve cut it out completely at home, but still get one in my latte, go figure). She said she’d have the same, then she told me that she wants to try a different drink each week.
“You’re branching out!” I said, then immediately added that it’s like expanding, trying new things. “Oh, yes!” she said, as my little interpretive dance and definition clicked in her brain. She paid for our drinks, the cashier said something about how it’s cool to “get out of your comfort zone” and that we were “all set,” and we carried them back over to our little two-person table by the window.
“Do you know what ‘all set’ means?” I asked her. “What about ‘comfort zone’?” She didn’t know either of these. It occurred to me that in our first five minutes together, roughly half of the words spoken had been idioms she probably hadn’t learned in English textbooks or classroom lessons, nor in the lab where she is doing graduate research at UMass. So she got out her notebook and we continued the “lesson” that had begun the moment we said hello to each other.
I suggested we write down each of these expressions, as a way of “keeping track” of what she’s learning. Turns out “keeping track” is yet another one. I gave some examples. “I can’t keep track of my keys; I’m always losing them.” “I can’t keep track of my kids; I never know where they are.” (That made her laugh.) “I can’t keep track of my books; they’re all over the house.”
From there, we both saw how closely related “branching out” is to “comfort zone.” The more I described the former, the more I naturally found myself talking about the latter. I wound up drawing a little pot (labeled “pot”) with several branches growing out of it. Actually, I should say “drawing,” since drawing itself is out of my comfort zone and a good example of me branching out.
We talked about how people often prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, and how it can be scary to branch out. And how personal this is, too. For me, chatting with the barista is not a stretch. It doesn’t require any real “branching.” But for someone else, chatting with the barista, or any stranger for that matter, might be WAY out of their comfort zone.
Now I’m thinking of another one, for next week: “cookie cutter approach.” I wonder if they even have cookie cutters in China.
After this, I got a lesson from her in Chinese poetry from the Han dynasty. I learned that many Chinese parents choose baby names from these ancient stories, not unlike how in the West many people are named after characters in the Bible. Luping told me the story of Qu Yuan, which is recalled each year during the Dragon Boat Festival.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Qu Yuan’s “treason” against the Emperor (as she put it, he was honest and shared his disagreement openly), subsequent exile, and ultimate suicide with what we are facing right now under Trump, who is acting more like an emperor than a president of a democratic nation. I couldn’t help but think of the bravery of so many people, both throughout history and just in the past few days, who have spoken truth to power — even at the expense of their personal or professional security and safety.
Somehow this led to the word “tragedy” (as opposed to “comedy”). Luping mentioned the Titanic as an example, then told me that she prefers tragedies to stories with happy endings. They stay with her more, she said. I told her I knew just what she meant. I put my hand on my heart and suggested that it was because of the empathy we may experience with the characters in a tragic story. She looked up “empathy” in Chinese, then put her hand on her heart, too. (Universal sign for empathy, I think.)
And then I taught her one last word of the day: “Tearjerker.”
Luping may not have realized just how riveted I was by her Qu Yuan story, nor how relevant I found it to what we’re currently facing. As we were saying goodbye, I did mention politics. She put her hand on my arm. She could lose her visa. Our leaders are throwing nuclear threats at each other. And here we were, two women drinking grande lattes with one Splenda each, each of us branching out, learning, connecting.
I felt energized and uplifted and grateful, and also sad that more people don’t have — or don’t seek out — the opportunity to connect with someone from another culture, or even just a different background than your own. Xenophobia withers under these conditions. For many people, this means leaving comfort zones in the dust.
“It seems a bit unfair,” I said, as I buttoned my coat. She looked puzzled. I continued, “I think I’m learning more than you are!”
She said she is surely the luckier one. We left it that we could both be lucky, and agreed on our meeting for next week. As we walked out together, I saw that the sparrows had polished off that donut. I hadn’t noticed them fighting over the crumbs, flying away.