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.