Two years and one day ago I was a bit angsty about it.
I was traveling for work, which meant dropping myself off halfway across the country between West-Coast Thanksgiving and East-Coast living. I had dinner in a strip-mall cafe with someone I hadn’t seen in years, and she said oh, I must look older too, which didn’t help assuage the anxiety I suffered obligatorily as a woman entering a new decade alone.
I was allergic to the dinner I ate so I was up half the night with punishing stomach cramps.
I woke up on my 30th birthday in the dark, puffy and trembling with exhaustion, and drove myself fifty miles to the airport as the sun slowly rose over the flattest flatness of Colorado.
But there was no angst left at all, just a joy as calm and wide as the plains, now that the day had come. It’s impossible to say it in words that aren’t cliches, so suffice it to say that you will know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever felt quite a lot like the kind of woman they write country songs about.
When I landed I took the train home and watched the late-fall swamps as they fell away. Houses hidden in suburban woodlands whipped by the windows. Houses always look so cozy from the outside, even dismal ones, at least they do to me when I’m in a home-seeking mood like that.
As I got close to my stop it was nearly five and I hadn’t heard a peep from him. Think of it: I’d heard peeps all day from people who love me and he wasn’t among them anymore. It still contorted my brain. But it was a growth pang, not a death pang. Or it was both at once.
When I was back in my little place it was dark. I unpacked and got into comfortable clothes. I ordered a pizza, the kind I like, and drank the kind of lime seltzer I like, and I watched a tragic romantic movie I alone wanted to watch, and I put myself to bed,
and a year after that my life was extremely different, and a year after that as I write this now my life is extremely different from that difference, and both of those years’ differences were ones I would not have predicted, so I guess you never know where the next year will find you if you are fated to have it.
Some of my ideas weren’t ready for prime time (or, perhaps, I am still not ready for them).
Witness some blog post ideas I wrote down for myself, ever so helpfully, at some point in the last year and a half or so:
Crickets: do they sleep?
Truly no idea where I was going with this.
Why do we care about who actors are? I’m enchanted by F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law. I google their personal lives while I watch them pretend to be other people.
This is a true fact but not a terribly interesting one. While I watch TV I tend to compulsively Google the actors and scroll down reliably to the “Personal Life” portion of their Wikipedia page. I get some bizarre kick out of knowing all about their romantic lives, their addictions. Meanwhile, I often find Ian beside me scrolling through the same person’s IMDB page to find out what he recognizes them from. Different strokes.
Thought 1: everyone is doing their best
It may not appear this way
We don’t know what their best is
Let’s therefore assume they’re doing their best, with whatever staggering limitations they may, admittedly, suffer from.
(But this is my problem: I hate villains. Not in the sense that I boo and hiss at them, but in the sense that I cannot bring myself to write or imagine one)
Now, this one is just mystifying. An incoherent list entitled only “thoughts”? The first half looks like the beginnings of a sermon about assuming the best of people, and then it turns into some reflection on how I don’t like to get in the head of villains. What? We’ll never know.
Jobs that might not exist but that I’d be good at
Traffic/parking sign editor
Gah there was another one and it was so good but I didn’t write it down last night, more fool me
Editing influencers’ content
Really obscure crossover content generator:
On that last one, I ended with a colon. I think this means I was about to include a funny list within a list, but, alas, I became distracted, and that is the death of the idea. And on point 2, I do remember cracking myself up at an example I’d thought of but, because I did not immediately write it down, it evaporated forever.
Indeed, distractions are many these days. I have just finished baking a pecan pie for tomorrow’s minuscule Thanksgiving, which will consist of far too much food for just two people. I am (as usual) sitting next to the book I’m reading, which is far too scary to read at bedtime, yet which I struggle to read before bedtime because there’s so much Internet to scroll.
I will continue to keep my little lists. One never knows when one might have its time to shine.
I am a Nine on the Enneagram. If you buy into this sort of thing, you may know that every Enneagram type is said to have a “childhood wound,” a message the person received explicitly or implicitly as a child. The whole personality type is a distorted lens through which we tend to see the world because of the wounding message that sunk so deeply in that we can barely even imagine it not being true.
For the Nine, the childhood wound is something like: You don’t matter very much. Your needs and your opinions are not as important as everyone else’s. Nines respond to that wounding message by becoming agreeable and numbing themselves to their own pesky opinions and needs, to avoid being a bother.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks as the pandemic is (as predicted) raging tragically, infuriatingly out of control in the United States. The moral thing to do is to behave as though our individual desires are less important than the health of the community. This means that my desires to see my friends and my family and to travel and to eat in a restaurant have to yield to the public health guidelines. We all have a duty to put ourselves second, to put our neighbors and strangers first, just as we hope they do for us.
It strikes me that this belief is reinforcing my childhood wound. You don’t matter. Who do you think you are, anyway? Why are you so special? But my personal “work” is supposed to be the opposite—learning how to put myself and my wants and needs and opinions first, even if others don’t like it.
It’s a puzzle! It’s a pickle!
Truly, even the most evolved, emotionally magnificent part of me believes in the truth that individuals must yield to each other in a pandemic—at least when it comes to their desire to engage in behaviors that put everyone at risk. (Of course, individuals matter a whole lot when it comes to their material needs being met, and their right to stay alive, which you really wouldn’t know from the way our leaders insist that we’re taking care of each other by buying beers in a bar that’s open only until 10, for safety, because, what, would you rather those bar employees starve? As though those are really the only two options, and if you can’t tell, I am livid about this, but anyway…)
Here’s where I’m coming down: waking up to the hell that is my own personality has involved learning to identify and express my own needs and wants and opinions, even when others might not like it. That work continues. But that in no way means it is my right to harm others. I grow to recognize that I matter as much as everyone else, but not more. And everyone else matters as much as me, but not more. We are equal in dignity and importance. We belong to each other. We must all sacrifice for each other. We must not live only to please ourselves.
Does this sound a bit like relapsing? Maybe.
But I’m still developing increasingly spicy opinions from the safety of online, so all is not lost.
Tips for making friends as an adult, volume 1: post-pandemic edition. It might not be wise to use these tactics yet, but some of them require planning so now might be the perfect time to get started.⠀ ⠀ ☝️ Go on reality television. You may need to marry a stranger or do a punishing obstacle course in the nude, but it will maybe be worth it, because you’ll meet your people.⠀ ⠀ ☝️ Apply to grad school. Hear me out: if you can’t actually leave your job and/or afford to attend grad school, apply anyway. Think of the associated fees as down payments to a lifetime of group hangs. Apply to several safety schools, attend their admitted-students gatherings, find some bosom buds, and then pretend you ended up attending the University of Guam instead, but you’d still love to join the girls’ trip next spring break! ⠀ ⠀ ☝️ Go to the dog park. No dog? Adopt one! No dogs to adopt? Borrow one with consent from its human! No humans want to lend you a dog? Haunt the dog park without a canine companion! Probably no one will ask which one is yours. You’ll blend in with all the other strangers standing awkwardly while waiting for their dogs. It’s the perfect time for some unstructured social bonding. Caution: if anyone notices you leaving alone, you may have to find a different dog park, unless you want to go through a pretend-missing-dog routine, which I can’t recommend.⠀ ⠀ ☝️ Comment heavily on some high-profile person’s social media page. Up to you whether you go high or low, but consider what kind of friend you want to make. Can you sustain the positivity? Can you sustain the negativity? After several months of harassing/haranguing, maybe you’ll connect via DM, and then in real life. It’s happened before, I hear!⠀ ⠀ I’ve done the research and these are the only options. Choose wisely. ⠀
They barricaded Five Mile Drive today. I parked at the zoo and ran in on foot.
Five Mile Drive was covered with little branches and leaves and pine needles, as though no one had disturbed it for weeks, even though I knew that all the debris probably all came down today in the high winds. The winds that, an hour before, had pulled my ajar car door out of my grip and sent it crashing into the next car over in the parking lot. It didn’t leave a dent, and the little stripe of my car’s telltale chameleon green-grey paint came off with a quick panicked scrub of my forefinger. Relief.
I pulled my hood up against the worst of the wind and staggered into it.
I let myself run slowly. I let myself just stop sometimes and look at the way the light was filtering through the trees today, at this time. Daylight is such a treat at this time of year, so I cannot squander it. The late light was firing up the tall pines bright golden. It was the kind of light I saw when I took that picture earlier this year. “Evergreen,” I’d captioned it, and it got a lot of likes, while meanwhile he and I wandered in circles in that little park on Bainbridge and argued and I couldn’t stop starting to cry. Evergreen. To me that picture is all about dead and newly born things. Nothing perpetual. I suppose those trees have watched a lot of things rise up and fall away.
Today I jogged slowly along the cliff on the western edge and thought idly, detachedly, of what it would be like to fall off it by accident. Would I slowly tumble or just drop? Would I be able to cling to a tree and heave myself up to safety? Even if I dropped, could I swim in the Narrows? But no crisis came.
At some point I removed my headphones and let the wind overpower me. It was pulling down bits of trees all around me. Leaves were swirling and flying everywhere, even in the relative calm of the deepest part of the woods. Large branches would come cracking down the trunk of a tall tree. It occurred to me I might be crushed. In places there were even whole trunks freshly broken in two.
The only person I passed was a friendly older man with the brilliant smile of a mid-century politician. Together we watched a massive branch tumble from on high. “Keep your eyes open,” he said, and smiled.
At the end I wandered out to the eastern edge where the Sound was bright with white caps and big waves threatened to inundate the promenade. The sky was buzzing with the reflected pink of the sunset. The whole place was deserted, but the ferry still approached steadily from Vashon. By the water, outside the curtain of trees, the wind whipped at me more fiercely. Partly using my muscles and partly relaxing into the great force, I raised my arms and the wind raised my arms and I cried a prayer.
It’s easy to be full of gratitude when all illusions of power are blown away.
When it happened in 2008, there were somewhere between forty and eighty of us in the house—sixtyish residents and a grab-bag of hangers-on like me, as usual. We all ran into the street and down the hill. Our flood mixed with the flood of others from all the other big houses. We clustered together down Ridge and Euclid and through North Gate and down to Telegraph. One guy with a bowl cut took all his clothes off in glee. (I recognized him. He did that a lot.) We cried that night in each other’s arms, I’ll never forget it.
When it happened in 2012, I was in the living room of my friend’s house. We were watching CNN quietly while we did schoolwork on our laptops. We yawned and then I walked home in the cold.
When it happened in 2016, I opened another bottle of wine, as though that was going to help, and there were people on FaceTime but I didn’t want to talk, and I woke up the next morning with a momentary sigh of gratitude that it was all a nasty dream. Then reality, and the hangover, reared up.
When it happened in 2020, it took a while. For the first bit I was so tense that I created a cave of comforts, ice cream and an apple candle and a hot water bottle wearing its very own tiny sweater, and I watched a costume drama while my stomach ached. But then it became a slow math problem. It became obvious what was going to happen.
And what happened? It was far less good of news than it ought to have been, by a mile. But it was not a vindication of the worst of the dread. And after the years we’ve had, after the year we’ve had, a non-vindication of the worst is cause enough for celebration.
How it happened at last is that I opened the door coming in from my run, my head pounding from the heat (all 75 degrees of it; I am very fragile) and Ian cried out to tell me the news, which made sense of all the people I’d heard whooping outside, and we sat down together and smiled and eventually I made an apple pie.
There’s much to do. But today I had pie for breakfast.
I get it. Regular self-care (taking one flight of stairs and remembering to chug four glasses of water right before bed) isn’t cutting it.
No, today, we need to bring out the big guns.
We need to emerge from bed without actually emerging. Yes, we need to stay wrapped in a blanket like a cape.
Not only that. We also need the fuzziest sweater in the world—nay—in the cosmos. We need to pair this with the big socks, the ones that take up most of the sock drawer. Yeah. Now wrap that cape back up.
Look at you. At fifty paces they’d think you’re a sheep.
Now for something hot to drink. Herbal tea, maybe? Yeah, go ahead and double-bag it. No, triple-bag it.
Ooh, bracing! Who knew you could shove so much raspberry into one cup? It’s like un-sweet hot liquid jam. That has to mean something good.
Now curl up into the big chair. It’s very important that you curl. Imagine you’re the mousy heroine at the beginning of a romantic comedy. You know, the one who reads books asexually. Yeah, now you’ve got the pose. Perfect.
Now put the hot jam mug between your hands and feel the warmth seep into your sheepy body. Isn’t that nice?
Next: meditation is a good idea. I know, I know. But don’t worry. If you’re not ready for the whole nine yards, why not simply gaze at your houseplants? Meditate on them. Seriously, stare at them. Hark how they patiently turn toward the window. Look how they never fret about whether they’ll get the water and sun they need. Do they seem stressed?
Oh, jeez, yeah, that one seems pretty stressed. Maybe you should water it more often. Or less often? Go ahead and google “dying spider plant” for a while if you need to. I’ll pause.
Not to rush you, but you have a lot of self-care to get through for the rest of today, and we’re losing daylight here. I don’t mean this as an accusation, but maybe if you hadn’t doom-scrolled for an hour before you got out of bed we’d have more time. And I couldn’t help but notice that you went pretty hard on that dying-spider-plant googling. That is, I say with love, not the vibe we’re going for.
Anyway, we’re going to need to speed up a bit. Oh jeez, you haven’t eaten anything yet, have you? It’s almost noon. Which is fine! We’re relaxing! But, you know, hop on it. I say that lovingly.
Let’s whip up a little nourishing breakfast. What do you have in the fridge? Perhaps oatmeal with fruit and nuts? Some sauteed mushrooms in an omelette or something? A breakfast salad with a poached egg and some shaved fennel?
Oh, just two Oreos and a slice of cheese? I…
Okay, whatever. Listen, you need to finish that tea and then drink a large amount of water so you’re hydrated enough for the hour of joyful outdoor movement we have planned, but I also don’t want you to get a stomach cramp, so, you know, maybe get sipping.
Nice! Looking good. You’re back from the joyful-movement hour. Endorphins feel great, right? Listen, I know we had a nice bath planned for later tonight with candles and Gregorian chants, but why don’t you go ahead and take that now without the candles or music because I don’t think we have time to shower too. Gotta double up! Lovingly!
Also, now that you’re clean, I think you should try to meditate again, because the houseplant-gazing didn’t really go as expected. It seems like it stressed you out. Not to worry—just chop-chop, hustle out of the bath maybe, and let’s try seated meditation again.
Oh, your boss called? Yeah, that’s fine, I guess today is a work day, after all. Can you tell him you’re pretty busy right now?
Oh. I see. Well, don’t hurry—we don’t do that, obviously, but—you know, don’t…not.
Hiiii, just checking in. May I lovingly observe that pretty soon it’s going to be dinner time? I did want you to fully unplug by then so you’d get two solid hours of screenless time by your early bedtime, so I’m going to gently suggest that you do the guided meditation while you also do your reflective journaling practice. Oh, and maybe you could also text your friends during that time so you are fully connected to your support network.
Three birds, one stone!
Ahhhh, that’s better, isn’t it? So many great stress-busting activities today. I’m really prou—
Looking backward is as familiar to me as breathing is, which is to say, I often fail to notice I’m doing it. (After all, my type’s orientation to time is sometimes summarized as “preserve the past,” which is the kind of impulse one needs to keep a wary eye on.)
From childhood I’ve had a near-obsession with the past. This obsession led me by the hand through a lifelong historical-novel habit, a history degree, and a tendency to ruminate. To a panicked feeling of things always going too quickly. A pang that I’m not quite done with chapters of my life which have ended without my permission.
It also means I love old buildings. Before that history degree, in my foolish youth, I loved any old-looking building indiscriminately. But education has led me out of this darkness. I now realize there are, broadly speaking, three categories of old-looking buildings: follies, ruins, and palimpsests. Let’s explore them, shall we?
A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been wiped clean to have other writing put on it—or, more broadly, any object that has been reused for some new purpose. I’m abusing this word slightly to refer to old buildings that have been long in use. You often hear, for example, that old houses in this area of the East Coast are log cabins surrounded by newer and newer rooms, built up and out. My dad’s friend had a house like that: a modern enough house, but with one room with a dirt floor that once was the entire house. It was a palimpsest: something new built right up inside and on top of something old, until the two became one.
Palimpsest buildings like this are disappointing to a past-looker like myself. They seem to cover the best bits up, hiding them in modern taste or functionality. After all, very-old buildings have to be maintained. This means new workmanship, new materials, replacement walls and doors.
Look at the amazing Taos Pueblo, which is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country, over a millennium old.
Does it look precisely as it did a thousand years ago, asks my past-loving heart? Of course not. It is a home, a city. It has had to withstand the weather, the climate, wars and famines and droughts and population changes, and dozens of generations of children clambering around it. People live in it. They maintain it as their house. They build it and go on building it.
Bummer, sighed the past-lover in me. I wanted to see literal millennium-old adobe, untouched.
Palimpsests are the realest kind of old building, but they disappoint. They are buildings—houses or churches or offices or shops whatever they want to be—rather than reverent monuments to the past.
Give me a reverent monument to the past, I cry!
Here, have a folly.
Follies are fake old buildings built as decoration. (Now we’re cooking with gas). You might be fooled by them if you aren’t on guard. You might be wandering around some estate which belonged to someone with vastly too much wealth, and, oh my God, is that a castle? Is that a ruined Roman amphitheater?
No, dear, it’s a folly, from the French folie. Crazy.
Follies are like expensive jeans: often either neat as a pin or stylishly, intentionally weathered. They’re like catnip for people like me who watch a lot of costume dramas. And then, once you figure out their fakery, they’re pretty embarrassing.
Now that we’ve learned to spot a fake, let’s move on to the really real old building. The one that isn’t bastardized by modern hands. Let’s look at some ruins.
Ruins have beauty and tragedy. They look great in the rain. They’re really romantic. You can imagine having some very strong emotions there, growing your hair long and getting a little windswept. And the fact that they’re dead makes them extremely fun for a past-looker: they’re pure in some way that a palimpsest or a folly could never be. They’re like an above-ground time capsule.
Until you realize that ruining doesn’t just happen. Not usually. It’s more natural for buildings to become palimpsests over time, if they’re any good, because people naturally want to keep using what they’ve got. Ruins, I’m finding more and more, are often on purpose.
In preparation for Book Three, I’m researching a lot of 12th-century castles and abbeys in France and England. The ones in France are often still there, or parts of them that haven’t been repurposed. But many of those in England were ruined intentionally. Henry VIII sacked the monasteries to get Anglicanism off to a proud start, and Oliver Cromwell “slighted” (cannon-balled and pulled down) many castles to deprive his enemies of a foothold.
This makes me shake my fist at them, both for being such intolerant dipshits (pardon), but also for making it hard for me to know the precise dimensions of some of these buildings. Yes, this is about me!
So I’ve come full circle: I turn my nose up at follies, now, and ruins make me a bit sad. I see them more as lost information, lost usefulness. They are buildings that didn’t get a chance to live on as palimpsests, to be useful to people.
But the irony even there is: when these armies knocked down an abbey or a castle, people (being resourceful) used the rubble. They picked up the bits of the fallen walls and used them to patch their houses, their bridges, their crumbling garden retaining walls. These old ruins are living on as palimpsests, but spread out all over the countryside.
Take it one step further: after all that slighting, the rich started to love the aesthetic of the ruined buildings everywhere, looking rather elegant and skeletal, picked clean of rubble. They built some of their own in the backyard so they could stare at it over breakfast. Isn’t that a palimpsest of a kind, the repurposing of the very idea and function of a ruined building into a piece of artwork?
And take it another step: during some famines in Ireland, the wealthy landlords didn’t necessarily want everyone to starve to death, but couldn’t abide the idea of simply giving away cash or food. Instead, they gave the suffering masses construction jobs building “Famine Follies,” which sometimes were actual follies and sometimes were simply roads to nowhere. Unnecessary manual labor, I guess, rendered people deserving of food.
Picture that: starving people put to work hauling stone around the countryside to build a pretend ruin, which is to say, a building of no practical use masquerading as a building that once had (but no longer has) a practical use.
By now the whole idea of looking backward at pretty old buildings is collapsing in on itself. The idea of gazing longingly backward at all is foolish: uninformed at best; reactionary at worst.
Much better to love the idea of the palimpsest. To love the building that many generations have adapted and molded and fitted to their needs. To love the stones that fell out of the wall and ended up filling the gap in someone’s chimney.
For All Saints’ Day, better to stop looking back with regret and desperation, trying to freeze it in place, trying to see it in clear focus. Better to know that just like seeds in winter, what is dead still has a future of its own strange kind.
In the long meantime, everything is recycled. Nothing will be stagnant. Nothing will be resurrected whole. Old buildings are resurrected in others or returned to the earth. Old chapters of our lives will not come again, but they take on new resonances with every year, like the turn of a kaleidoscope.
Such a long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.