I scurried down the road to the train station that morning a few minutes late (as I always was back then) in the faint rain. Sheepish and damp, my slippery sandals wearing a welt into the side of my foot.
The train had just left as I creaked through the turnstile, so I bought a coffee and paced the platform, cursing my bad habits.
I tried to call Lenny to tell her I’d be one train behind. The phone rang and rang. I pictured it sounding in the bright-yellow little kitchen where she kept the eggs on the counter like so many English do. She didn’t pick up. She must already be in the car, on the way. Would she know to wait?
Over the loudspeaker: the train to Birmingham was delayed several hours.
A man next to me struck up a conversation, distracting me from my anxiety. He was going to Birmingham for a job interview. Neat leather portfolio in hand. He lived in Cherry Hinton with his mother. He was from Ghana. I told him I’d lately had the best meal of my life at a Ghanaian food stand in London. He wasn’t surprised. It strikes me now that he didn’t seem flustered by the lateness of the train. I don’t remember his name.
He was such a sweet man and he gave me no reason for discomfort, but as I always do I froze when he asked for my number. “I have to tell you,” I said, resorting to the truth that always sounds so cowardly, “I have a boyfriend.”
“That’s great! I just want to be your friend.”
I must have said something toying with the line between doubt and generosity. I gave him my number.
When my train arrived we said goodbye and I got on for Audley End. It was a short ride, no more than twelve minutes, and as we heaved between the hedgerows I kept looking at my phone. He never did call. This was back when I expected a call, not a text, from a new contact. I sound old saying that.
Neither did Lenny call, of course, because her only phone was plugged into the wall at her house.
Arriving, I ran off the train and down into the parking lot to find Lenny standing next to her car with her walking sticks supporting her, one in each hand, looking solid and fierce behind her glasses.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I tried to call.”
“That’s all right, dear. I knew you’d be on the next one, and if you weren’t then I’d go home and see if you’d rung.”
I don’t remember if I gave her a hug. We’d only met twice before: once when I was twelve and my grandmother brought me to visit her. She’d offered me wine, and I’d said in refusal “I’m twelve,” at which point she offered sherry instead. The next time I’d met her had been just a month before this meeting, when I’d stayed with her and my grandmother and mother in her sloping four-hundred-year-old house just down the hill from the thousand-year-old church just before I started summer school. She was nearly ninety, and I was twenty, and now we might be friends as well as distant cousins.
We got in the car and closed the doors, and she pulled out into the street. With her remarkable speed we flew by the sprawling grounds of Audley End, and through the old market town of Saffron Walden, then out into the countryside and the glistening fields of rapeseed.
She could not walk without her sticks, and yet drove with the reckless abandon of a teenaged boy to whom the thought of death had never occurred. I concealed my clutching fingers under my legs on the plush seat, and tried to reconcile myself with impending doom. I distracted myself, looking out the window at the sun gleaming off the bright yellow-green hills, by wondering about the colorful armies who must have galloped over them during the last few thousand years. Just a few miles away there was a trio of ancient burial mounds hidden casually in a copse behind a church.
The anonymity and broadness of all the bodies who have shared that space enveloped my mind.
Arriving in her tiny townlet of Hadstock, Lenny parked her car on the narrow road in front of her house. The hollyhocks swayed in the damp late summer. Inside, we drank tea at her kitchen table and talked about her trip to Bruges. A postcard of it hung above us on the wall.
Enough time remained for us to have lunch before I needed to catch the train for my afternoon classes. She took me (flying as though at warp speed down the winding lanes again) to her favorite pub. The Crown. I had a meat pie and lemonade, and for reasons I cannot remember we talked about little but death. Its strange beauty.
Later she would tell my grandmother that she never felt so close to a young person before, and the thought of that makes me happy still.
After she dropped me off at the train station, I never saw her again. She moved out of that house with its impossible stairs, and a few years later when I thought of her I looked the place up online. It had a “For Sale” sign, and the one next to it, too. The hollyhocks are gone from the front garden, and Lenny has moved on out of this life.
I was born in upper Alta California in the late 20th century.
By that time, there were some people who looked calling themselves sixth-generation, which was very impressive indeed.
I couldn’t boast that long background. Like many, I was the first of my family to be born in California, my parents and grandparents having chosen it for its Edenic qualities: its variety of stunning topography, its mild climate, its vibrant economy, its friendly culture.
They were looking for Eden, like we all do. Like those who flooded west 172 years ago ready to fill their pockets with gold.
The land wasn’t empty then. That’s why it was a garden.
We killed Lilith the gardener. We had done this many times before. We excelled at it, down to a science.
The garden began to shrivel, grow brittle. It caught fire.
Again and again and again and again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about where to go next. This damp place where I write this has always felt like a phase rather than a home. I always thought I’d go back.
Not quite ten years ago I left a dry Spanish-golden-grass place, mild and inviting, where the landscape was all crag and roll and flow and crash, for a wet lakebed place, where the tallest hill was a rise of just twenty feet or so, where it sometimes snowed in late April. From there I went to the gray-green fjordy place, and then to the crater-bottom saltwater airwater place, with the stinging winter winds and the mildewy summer heat.
All along the golden place awaited me. I never said goodbye to it, because I never meant to leave it, not forever.
But having left, I see sharply how often it’s on fire. More, longer, hotter, bigger every year. It’s not the rare one-off anymore when the sky turns brown and the sun comes through yellow and your eyes sting.
If I were already there, I would not leave. Probably not.
I am the opposite of indigenous. Not only am I a white American, which means that my ancestors all came here from Europe in relatively recent history. But also, I am that brand of privileged, educated white American who has hopped from place to place to go to school and to get various jobs irrespective of place. I made places everywhere I went; places remade themselves to suit me.
Now I want a place.
I crave being indigenous to somewhere. But where? The average location of my genes is somewhere in the center of England, probably, and that is not my home. The average of where my parents spent their childhoods is somewhere around the middle of this country, and that is not my home. I grew up in Sacramento. That could very well be home, but making it home would be nearly as free a choice as moving to Duluth would be, and that makes me sad. It’s a consumer choice, a menu item. A great and terrible freedom.
“Where do you want to be?” people ask us.
Everyone hears good things about Colorado. It’s also on fire a good deal.
The menu options all have asterisks now, with the rising water and the mega-storms and the smoke and the fire and the floods and the cost of living and the battlefields being set for the future water wars. I don’t want my children to fight in them.
California is stacked high with tinder, with malls and shell mounds, with oaks and homes.
The orange sky, we know in our bones, is an omen. We know this as every human knows an omen when the sky is the wrong color. It’s an omen of something we already know as a fact. The smell in our noses like a cozy, devouring campfire, a sickening thought.
But is it so bad? The risk of actually being evacuated is low, if one chooses the right rise for the placement of one’s house, and the risk of actual fire damage much lower still. Yes, you will deal with the smoke; you will feel grief gnawing your belly when you see the pictures of the forests taken up in red and nearby people’s houses taken down to the foundations. But it won’t take down your house, probably. It almost certainly won’t take your life. It probably won’t send you packing in the middle of the night down the snaking two-lane highway into the dark.
Can you take it?
Is it worse than a hurricane? Is it worse than tornadoes? Is it worse than the mystical fear of the volcano spewing hot-wet earth down the valley? Is it worse than the earth opening up, splitting the fence, sending the car careening off the bridge? Is it worse than flat-wet tedium?
I’m selfish. I want a little house in the trees where nothing will ever go wrong and nothing will ever hurt. It would be unjust if I got my wish.
I said it aloud during the thunderstorms. Maybe I cursed it. I said: this rain will dampen the land. But the rain was paltry. The lightning singed right through it.
When the forest burns and the air turns orange and thick with the smell of it, we’re breathing in the forest. Just like the forest breathed us all these years.
As someone ever desirous of categorizing herself, allow me to introduce another category: misophonia. Sadly this is not a telephonic hotline leading to delicious soup. Instead, it is the hatred of sound.
Do you have misophonia? Here are some signs:
Glaring at loved ones and strangers alike when they make ordinary human noises, and then they either go “what?” or smile at you like you’re just saying hi, when actually you’re hoping they’ll understand from your look that you’d like them to enter a magical cone of silence;
Wanting to scream when people call using the speaker setting in public, especially when they for some reason decide to talk louder because of it, as though the phone can’t hear them even though they’re shouting directly into it;
Feeling physically itchy when you can sort of hear the TV through the wall you share with your neighbor’s apartment, and walking down the hallway a few times before midnight to try to get up the courage to knock on the door, which seems less passive-aggressive than just knocking on the shared wall, but ultimately not doing either one and just sighing loudly to yourself;
Nausea brought on by such daily occurrences as the scrape of a fork on someone’s tooth, the clank of plates going in or out of the cupboard, the rush of a car driving past, or that bizarre rumble that probably has something to do with construction but might be some kind of haunting;
Whipping open the bedroom curtains at 6:32 every morning when the horrible neighbor BEEP-BEEPs their car unlocked and then remotely starts the ignition, then staring at the car as though it will stop it growling in idle for ten to fifteen horrible low-frequency, high-greenhouse-gas minutes until Their Majesty the neighbor sees fit to actually get out of their house and get in the damn thing, as though it’s so hard to just start the car when you’re in it like a normal person, my God;
Passive-aggressive door closing when people dare to speak out loud in the hallway of the office (RIP);
This all sounds (no pun intended) fun, right?
There’s no cure for misophonia, probably partly because it’s not even really a medically recognized “thing.” The therapeutic advice comes in two flavors: (1) alter your environment to the extent you can, such as by investing in noise-cancelling headphones and using them to play nature sounds that drown out city sounds, and/or (2) practicing mindfulness.
I’ve done a lot more of the former than of the latter, even to the point that a coworker once taped a comic to my office door poking fun at my frequent use of giant headphones in the office. Well, maybe if you didn’t yell-laugh in the hallway, Kevin, you’d be able to see my ears more often, but here we are.
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony of trying to escape sensory overstimulation by engaging my senses constantly. I have invited myself to kick this habit, and I have not yet done it. Perhaps someday. For the moment, yes, I’d rather listen to a song or podcast I chose than traffic noise I didn’t.)
Something I’m much less adept at is the mindfulness part. As anyone who’s ever struggled to meditate can attest, it’s hard. And avoiding mindfulness is, frankly, pretty fun for my ego: I suspect that part of my misophonia is the rather self-important desire to be unaffected by the world, the desire to be completely unbothered and at peace. Tough luck, says the world, you’re here with all of us, and you ain’t special.
Hm. Fair enough, I guess.
But here’s the thing: noise isn’t just something that I happen to dislike, the way I dislike Swiss chard but am totally fine with everyone else charding it up to their hearts’ content. It provokes in me an actual physical stress response, sort of like what I imagine an acrophobic person feels on top of a ladder.
And it’s not just me! No: noise pollution, like air pollution and water pollution, is an actual public-health and environmental hazard. According to a recent New Yorker article:
Studies have shown that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to many alarming problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, and all the physical, cognitive, and emotional issues that arise from being too distracted to focus on complex tasks and from never getting enough sleep. And the noise that we produce doesn’t harm only us. Scientists have begun to document the effects of human-generated sound on non-humans—effects that can be as devastating as those of more tangible forms of ecological desecration. Les Blomberg, the founder and executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, based in Montpelier, Vermont, told me, “What we’re doing to our soundscape is littering it. It’s aural litter—acoustical litter—and, if you could see what you hear, it would look like piles and piles of McDonald’s wrappers, just thrown out the window as we go driving down the road.”
As is true with all kinds of pollution, those with the most privilege are best able to avoid the nuisance. Those without privilege are forced to suffer.
If you don’t have the money to go to The Hamptons, or the Catskills, or have a car, or anything like that, then, you can’t escape it. You’re stuck with it, and a lot of research has shown, it’s the people that are stuck with it that are affected the most. Unfortunately, that makes for a lot of poor, a lot of minority neighborhoods [in New York City] that are dealing with the most noise, and they’re the ones that can’t leave.
So think of me and those like me, those of us glaring at you and putting our hands to our ears like children on the platform when the train screams to a stop—think of us as the canaries in this noisy coal mine. You’re all stressed too, on a cellular level. You’re just not aware of it. Or you weren’t before, but now you are, because I’m staring at you and hoping that you’ll consider closing your mouth while you eat that carrot, and that car manufacturers will decide to stop making cars that honk other than in danger.
Last week was a bit of a down week—I had gotten pretty close to seizing a particular brass ring when the ring, on further consideration, passed me by. Book One remains a bit too long, a bit too slow, a bit too slack.
To abuse this image for a while (while noting the irony of going on at length in the face of feedback about going on at length), for the months when I thought I had the brass ring in my clutches, I had even begun to worry about grasping the ring. Is this the right ring for me, or is the one behind it better? Is the carousel going too fast? Will I break my finger bones as I grab it going by? (This literal fear gripped me viscerally on carousels as a kid.) Where will I put the ring when I grab it, given that the outfit I wore to this carnival lacks pockets? Do I really want to grasp this ring? Back off, pushy ring.
And so on. Counting chickens, borrowing troubles.
And then when the brass ring said “never mind,” I started counting other chickens, borrowing other troubles. Does this mean there is no ring at all for me? Will the ride end before I get another shot at grabbing it? Will someone else grab the ring meant for me? Could this all have been a big convoluted yet hilarious mixup and the ring actually does want me? Should I go back and ask? Or should I slam on the emergency brake and demand to be let off the ride altogether?
It’s exhausting, unproductive, and time-consuming, riding this carousel of thoughts. Nor is it any fun. In the end, aren’t those the two general metrics we use to judge whether something is worth doing? Is it getting me somewhere I want to be in an efficient manner? Am I enjoying it? If the answer is “no” to both, perhaps best to let go.
Easier said than done, letting go of worry. I should know.
A little harder is using this reminder to shift my attitude about writing altogether. After all, if I’m doing a thing during my free time, it had better be paying some sort of dividend. My writing is far from lucrative, and may never be. So the dividend must belong to the other category: enjoyment.
Isn’t that why I started in the first place? (Sort of. It’s complicated.)
No matter. This is something that lights my soul up most of the time. I don’t ask why I sit outside when the breeze is delicious. I don’t ask why I laugh with people I love. I don’t fret about grasping those brass rings because they are the brass ring.
And if a project isn’t lighting my soul up, for an hour or a day? Put it aside until it does. After all, who wants to read something that was written at the bottom of the energy barrel, with big “this was on my to-do list so I’d better check it off before I’m allowed to go to bed” energy?
Not you, I imagine. Not me.
The brass ring is a bonus on a carousel, after all. Even if you don’t get the ring, you got to carouse.
Saturdays are plenty. I’m much more familiar with scarcity, which is evident on Friday nights and Sundays. But Saturdays are big and long, and that is somehow upsetting.
There is something languid, in a kind of nauseous way, about a Saturday. A Saturday at home is sunlight coming in hot through the window, still wearing pajamas at 11 and unable to change them because what is the next activity after all?, strange lunch (the strangest of meals no matter what, but stranger still at home on a Saturday), sitting in different positions across uncertain hours, then suddenly it’s 4:30 and a tiny whiny cloud of despair rains down. Where did all the lovely wide-open time go?
Activity-laden Saturdays are different: a kind of frenetic energy, hours that bend in strange directions, and a million possibilities of how to be a human. Couples carrying coffees around corners, women with totes full of farmer’s market goods, parking lots at the base of hills laden with hikers, restaurant patios full of people sharing appetizers, roads bearing shoppers destined to return that piece of hardware that didn’t quite work to the mega-mall, and lots of unseen people writing books or learning the clarinet or enjoying lots of Premium Content or cooking complicated meals for very interesting friends in their homes, and no matter which of these or infinite other activities one chooses, it often feels like it wasn’t quite the right one, or it was too short, or on the other hand it took far too long and now the whole lovely time is gone.
A few years ago I went through a solitary period. The phrase a great and terrible freedom bounced around my head a lot. Too many possibilities can become a cage if you let them.
Saturdays, for those (like me) with few real responsibilities, are a little microcosm of that great and terrible freedom.
I’ve heard that how you feel on a Monday is a clear view into how you feel about your life. But how you feel about a Saturday is, too. Monday shows how you feel about the yang in your life—what are you striving for? What is the weight of all your doings? How does that feel? But Saturdays show you how you feel about the yin—what does resting feel like? What does open time feel like? Who are you? What does being you feel like?
So if Saturdays often feel mildly depressing to me, one thing must be true: my relationship to yin needs help.
I’ve been thinking a lot about, for lack of a better way to put this, chilling out. This blog went quiet over the last few weeks of vacation as I tried to do less, be more. Say a gentle “no thanks” to the unspoken demand to justify my existence with proof that I do a lot, am busy, am important, am productive, am probably going to miraculously cheat death by having a lot to show for 2020. Resisting this means learning how to trust that, to paraphrase Jesus, tomorrow is tomorrow’s concern. Today’s trouble is enough for today. I don’t need to stay awake at night worrying how I’ll get all those things done that I crave doing.
After all, if I get them done but feel irritated by lovely wide-open luxurious free time that begins at the finish line, that’s…not ideal.
Here’s the irony: when I’m busy, I long for unstructured time. O, for a wide-open Saturday! My kingdom for a week without evening obligations! But then it happens and I go all lopsided. It turns out that I don’t naturally leap out of bed, exercise post-haste, then spend six uninterrupted hours writing a flawless segment of Book Three.
So here I am, on Saturday, sitting in the cool by my plants, in that wide-open time between Friday and Sunday. I didn’t Do much yet except a bit of yoga, dumping out the compost, building some flat-pack furniture, and quite possibly breaking a door.
I might Do Something after this. Perhaps better not.
It often feels like am ruled by inertia: if I’m lying down on the couch, it takes a superhuman amount of effort to change that. I’ll stay buried under the blanket until an actual emergency looms.
But once I get rolling, God help you if you try to stop me. Interruptions—stopping here or there for this or that—feel like unbearable dams in the river of everything that is happening and must happen now now now.
Okay, I admit it: I’m looking for excuses for how I let the car run out of gas.
We’ve been driving around a lot to see the scenery. The gauge got below half, below a third. “I should get gas soon,” I thought, then forgot. Eventually it was below a quarter. “Remind me to get gas,” I told him, rather unfairly. I forgot. So did he.
And neither of us realized that after we went over that hill, there would just be…no gas…at all…for miles and miles, as the gas light came on and the gauge ticked down from four bars, to three, to two.
Nine miles later, a town sparkled at the base of a hill we’d just crested, lying against the bed of the ocean. “There will be gas there,” I said.
“Hope so,” he said.
I snorted, said something rather rude about how a town is hardly a town without a single gas station.
There was no gas station.
Down to one bar.
Thirteen miles to the next town, said the road sign.
Sweat broke out on his forehead.
I tossed my shoulders back and said we could make it all the way to our destination if we wanted, no problem. “You always have fifty miles after the light goes on, everyone knows that.”
“I thought it was twenty.”
Sweat broke out on my forehead.
What may have been thirteen miles later felt like about fifty. Every little tremble and rumble and wheeze of the car felt like the last breath of an empty tank. Our phones lied about having service: we couldn’t get any information to load. All there was to do was press on forward, through breathtaking countryside where we might very well be camping out tonight with no service and an inert vehicle, hoping that eventually there would be a town and that it would be the proper kind of town with at least one gas station.
We got to that thirteen-miles-away town approximately twenty-one miles later (I have verified against Google Maps). No gas. I felt like I was going to puke. We’d been at one bar for so long.
You go to worst-case-scenario planning so fast when you’re in a bad-case scenario. And yet it was and will forever remain imaginary, because we’ll never now know whether anyone would have stopped and helped us by letting us use their magically operable phone, or by driving ahead to the next town and bringing back a fuel can of gas to get us going. It would be night not too long from now. Would we have to walk miles along the winding, dark, shoulderless road?
I wondered whether this feeling was like the one that precedes a panic attack, which is not helpful when you’re driving. He started breathing differently. I apologized, which he accepted graciously, but like they say, the best apology is changed behavior, and I could hardly start filling up promptly at this point where there were no actual gas stations, I mean, honestly.
Through it all I had this sense that we’d make it, which was not supported by evidence, but which stuck with me. Something will happen. It just has to. There will be a town, eventually, with a gas station. It doesn’t make sense that there won’t be.
And, readers, there was. Two or five or some odd miles after the town we’d been aiming for, there was a gas station. It was crowded, because I imagine everyone else, like us, was fully in scarcity mode by the time they saw it. We filled up. We began breathing better, and we had a nice long verbal processing session about the whole thing.
I wondered aloud, probably too soon, whether this would be the kind of story we could laugh about soon, the time we wound around the wild coastline on fumes, the time we almost accidentally camped overnight in the national park. I vowed to become the kind of person who fills up between a quarter and a half tank. Call it a third-quarter resolution.
Now rather than heat hanging in greenest green trees, it’s fog rushing adrift overhead. It’s yellow grasses waving east, billowing and ragged like the ends of my hair after nine months without a haircut. Other plants are bulbous and Seussy. All of them make an alien impression no matter how many times I see them.
Cold breezes through the windows. Water rushing frigid over my toes washing the sand off.
The sand shining like flecks of gold, like motes of onyx. The beach strewn with endless kelp and weeds, as though the ocean herself had a nice haircut and strewed the leavings on the shore.
Birds soaring in grouped Vs, then bending their wings into a V to soar into the greygreen surf.
These days I write a lot. There are various journals for various purposes. This is sort of one of them. I often find myself in the middle of an entry writing: “I don’t know what else. I don’t know what there is to say.” But there’s always more, eventually.
And other times, there’s just the horizon and the teacup in my hands, and sitting rather too far away from the people you love best in the world.
You may be shocked to hear that in the middle of the month that is in the middle of the summer, in a neighborhood once noted for its swampiness in a city that it is often (technically inaccurately, but spiritually correctly) noted for being built on a swamp, in the middle of a coast known for stifling summers, during an unprecedentedly hot moment in the Holocene era, it is hot.
I ought to have adjusted by now, but I haven’t. People who have lived here their entire lives assure me that adjustment is physically impossible. It makes me wonder how people have lasted here for so many centuries, and also if this explains the constant attempts at vehicular homicide to which I am witness.
Today in between near crashes, I drove down a street named for a building that sits like a mountain in its center. The building is white. Its most megalithic part is made of cast iron designed to look like the white stone that supports it. I can only imagine how hot it would be to the touch. From a mile or so away, I saw the heat dancing in front of the building, or maybe it was the thick dampness of the atmosphere, dancing like candlelight.
It is natural for any living creature to grow languid in times like this.
We just came back from a short walk, a familiar figure-eight loop through the neighborhood on streets that have the biggest trees and the most little free libraries. (A frequent appraisal of little free libraries is a great way to psychoanalyze the area.) I saw my first cicada up close. It was making enough noise for the whole city block from a body no bigger than a flash drive, disguising itself as a spot of dark on a birch tree.
Later, a woman flagged us down from her porch. She needed Ian’s help moving a package inside. “I’m 99 years old and I live alone,” she said. We wondered how long she’s been in that house. Who she knew growing up. Her place did not appear to be air-conditioned, which is perhaps why she was on the front porch. I am not strong enough to live that way. I need frequent lie-downs even in the climate control. I am worrying about her and will probably continue to. I hope she has people to look in on her, but failing that, I hope she is able to flag down walkers when she needs something.
Walking outside on days like these, sweat can fall like tears streaming down the forehead, running rivulets of sunscreen moisturizer into the eyes. It is impossible not to become thoroughly bedraggled, which is at odds with how I always expect to look during summer (easy-breezy in a sundress).
Outside on the new patio, the plants (formerly houseplants, now potted outdoor plants; some of them are protesting this change more than others) sway in the hot breeze. Their leaves are both dancing and wilting at once until the shade falls on them. They seem to breathe a little sigh of relief.
It is a minor affliction compared to others, but recently I’ve been getting heat-related migraines frequently. Much like someone with a case of the vapors, I must treat myself gingerly, not ask too much of my body, not exert myself in any heat, water myself like a finicky houseplant. To my shock, though, I have been finding that I miss real exercise, which has become basically impossible due to the heat outdoors and the treachery of the virus inside any gym. So I decided to follow along to dancing videos on YouTube, inside in the air I am grateful I can keep cool. Yesterday while doing it I couldn’t stop laughing, waving my arms like a leaf blown by a chaotic breeze.