all along I’ve been new like this

how am I not myself?

“I’m not myself,” I said to him for many weeks while I was not myself. I meant I was unhappy.

“Maybe you’ve changed,” he said. That’s when I should have known.

I had changed, because change is life, but I had also not changed. And since then I’ve changed a lot, but I’m also resolutely me. There is something gobsmacking about thinking I’ve come so far and learned so much and then finding something—a picture, a memory, a scrap of a journal—that reminds me I’ve always been this way, and I’ve always struggled with what I struggle with.

It’s liberating and hilarious, seen in the right light. It’s human.

I’ve always been insecure, prone to solo wandering and wishing things were slightly different. Uncertain of quite what I want and how to be someone with a niche, because niche-people are people who know they are themselves.

But how am I not myself?

Here’s something I found that I wrote more than seven years ago:

“I’ll be John Grisham if I have to. I’ll be the John Grisham of environmental and administrative law…Someday I’ll find what makes me tick…As I get more in touch with what I’m feeling, I notice it’s all anger. Ablaze at all times, and I feed it with my schizophrenic chats to myself as I bike down the road, scowling at those who watch me, like how dare you interrupt us, we are clearly busy.”

I would have thought the great awakening to anger didn’t happen until 2019 or so. But I guess I’ve always been angry, and I’ve always been surprised that I’m always angry, and now I’m surprised that I’m surprised.

But how am I not myself?

Dirigibles, erotica, military strategy & theory

It’s unbearably cheesy when writers say things like “My characters always surprise me!”

Or, as the constantly problematic Diana Gabaldon (author of the Outlander novels) once said: “When [the protagonist] walked into the scene, I had no idea who she was or what she’d do. All of the men in the room were staring at her, but I didn’t know why. Then she opened her mouth and started talking like a modern woman. I fought with her for several pages, trying to make her talk like an 18th century woman, but she just kept talking like a smart-alecky modern woman. It’s all [her] fault there’s time travel in ‘Outlander.'”

Stuff and nonsense, say I!

I don’t hold to this theory of character at all, ostensibly because it’s really corny but actually because it makes me jealous.

Characters mystify me. I have to plan them with a lot of help from the Enneagram and outlines and research and preparation. I spend a lot of time fighting to imagine what these non-me people might do or feel in the plot’s circumstances. I resent these authors who pretend to have a whole dramatis personae volunteering to live comfortably inside their head.

But just the other day I learned that one of my characters has the hots for another one, and I don’t know how else to say it but that. She was on stage to do one thing, and she started staring at him on a horse and having feelings about it.

I guess it’s like playing piano: there’s more going on when you write than what is conscious. And whatever small part of me is that character—well, she just wanted me to know how she felt. She felt that he looks damn good.

 

The last time

When you move a lot, like I used to, life is a slide show. Next. Next. Places were little bursts of experience, flashing by for a moment, and then I was gone. I craved stasis. Ten years ago I wrote this:

“It’s the difference between staying for years so that you notice it’s time for the echium to bloom, then for the naked ladies to bloom, then for the birds to fly through, then for the kids to put on their shouting sidewalk car washes—and just passing through to see ‘it,’ as if there ever is a single experience to be had. In July Mendocino was green and purple, and in August it was golden and pink. How could I know a place in just one moment? It cannot present itself to you in fullness at once. But I’m drawn to conquering landscapes. I pull out the map—I want to see those place-names, and know what it’s like to be there or there. I want to mark it like a cartographer and catalog it.”

And that’s what I did for many years when I had the chance. That’s how I saw places, usually. I went once, and then never again. I filed the experience away in my catalog and had another.

But as I get older, I’m growing stationary. The pandemic has helped, if taking a person firmly by the shoulders and shoving them into their seat is “helping.”

Early in the pandemic, I took long walks every day for sanity and novelty. I wrote: “I love going to the same locations, but differently. I need to see the forest changing, which requires seeing the forest every day, but I also need to take side roads to see a new row of play tents in the front yard of quiet houses.” I couldn’t see the forest if I didn’t change the route. I had to be constantly surprised to be attentive enough to be surprised.

I grew in love with change. To grow in love with change, you have to stay put.

Sometimes it’s the last time. I didn’t know that the last time I said goodbye to my parents’ little backyard oasis that it was the last time altogether. But that last time was with him. Now we’re looking for our own little stand of trees.

Rarely, it’s the last time and you know it. I high-fived the tansy out the car window on our last drive ever up that lane, when I knew it was goodbye. “Good game, chaps,” I said to them, after twenty years. “Good game.”

Bliss is a door

For me bliss is a room with a door that closes in a house where people are. The muffled noises of everyone enjoying themselves. My solitude is fully optional. I can end it at any moment. And I will: just a minute more, and I’ll go back down and join in.

But for a moment I’m upstairs at grandma’s in my teen years with the music playing from the armoire below. Fog rolling in and the foghorn tooting across the bay. Dishes clattering in the kitchen. That last gasp of childhood, when you let older people wait on you shamelessly, when the world is as fresh as a sharp knife.

Or I’m sitting on the twin bed in the low light of my star-shaped paper lamp in that co-op room in college while a party carries on without me downstairs. Slightly tipsy, with a half a peanut-butter jar pour of cheap wine on my desk. Awash in the relief at a break from being slightly overwhelmed.

Or waking up and the coffee is already brewing in the other room. The morning waiting for me to choose it.

Daytime thoughts, meet nighttime thoughts

It’s no secret: I, like almost all of you, am struggling with insomnia during this long winter of our dis-COV-tent. (So sorry). My insomnia creates a vicious circle: anxious and alert at nigh, resulting in a sluggish and exhausted day, followed reliably by a burst of energy exactly at bedtime, which makes me anxious and alert at about 2am.

It’s fun! I made diagrams about it, like DIY EKGs.

Daytime thoughts are like this:

Evening thoughts are like this:

And nighttime thoughts are:

Show of hands, who’s with me?

I gave in

After all that hot air yesterday about how I refuse to update my hair to be stylish in an attempt to keep the Youths from mocking me, I have something to admit. 

I cut my own bangs.

I made it through 11 and a half months of this pandemic without taking scissors to my own hair. But this weekend my streak ended. 

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t do it impulsively. I thought about it for a whole twenty minutes while I watched most of a YouTube video that gave me a pretty good idea of how to do it. Then I went to the bathroom, dug out the shears, and had at it. 

Halfway through the big cut, as I was holding the doomed strands in front of my nose ready to sever, I experienced that drop in the belly you may remember from childhood when you were fully locked into the terrifying roller coaster that you weren’t sure you were ready for. Then that click came in the safety vest, and you knew all the screaming in the world couldn’t get you out. The ride was chugging off to whatever kind of doom awaited you.

It was like that. There was nothing for it but to keep cutting.

I flatter myself, though: I didn’t do a terrible job. I followed the tutorial (sort of) and ended up with pretty much what I wanted. 

As for my hair, it doesn’t agree yet. My hair is, like me, millennial. It has a long memory of deep side parts. It rejects my halfhearted attempts to update it into a more middle part recently, instead flopping itself over to where it stubbornly belongs. 

In the same way, my bangs (cut to fall gracefully to either side of my eyebrows) strongly prefer to skew as a single unit to the right side, as they did in the long swoopy-bangs phase of the aughts. 

When I try to force the left half to stay in its lane by my left eyebrow, it gives me the metaphorical finger and curls itself up into the center of my forehead as though arching desperately toward where it wants to lie.

I’m embracing it. Feeling the gentle skimming of hair on my brow puts me right back in 2006-08. There were worse years. And nostalgia is the prerogative of the aging. 

Ceasefire

Minor pet peeve time: I hate generational stereotypes. 

I would like the record to show that I was not on board with “OK, Boomer.” (Before you say it: I know. “OK, Boomer.” You got me.) I was also not down with the Great Tide Pod Slander, and I hope both of these facts are reflected in my permanent file. I’m hedging my bets so that no matter who takes over, I’ll have demonstrated I’m one of the good millennials.

Unfortunately, despite my pacific stance toward my fellow humans of all ages, I’m sad to report that the kids have come for me. 

The youths. They’re dunking on us. 

“Us” being millennials. We are now embarrassing-parent age, as evidenced by our clinging to our side parts and our skinny jeans and our laughing-crying emojis (which, I agree with the kids, are cringe).

I understand that this is all meaningless and not worth getting mad about. Getting mad is the cardinal internet sin. You should never do it.

But! I’m mad!

With all generational warfare, no matter what tribe you’re in and which tribe you’re dunking on, all you’re saying is that you were born at a specific time and so were your compatriots.

That’s all! Just the bare fact of being a certain age, which is younger and/or older than people you take issue with for also not having been born roughly when you were.

That is such a poor substitute for having a personality. Astrology aside, when we were born is the least interesting thing about any of us. We had absolutely nothing to do with it!

And, whether you’re touting your own time-tribe or laughing at another one, all this does is it highlight how conformist we all are, which is pretty boring. The kids are laughing about ladies of my age still looking samey-samey wearing fashions from the aughts, while they’re all wearing the same fashions from the nows. Is either of those facts interesting? All of us could be fashionable given enough money. That’s not a personality either.

Worse, once someone has pointed out the “tells” of being millennial, I feel like I can no longer be neutral, no matter how much I want to. My awareness of this whole thing started when someone at work declared me a millennial during a video meeting because my hair was parted to the side. Now I can’t escape it, even though I didn’t consent to be a combatant. After all, wouldn’t I be a try-hard Old if I suddenly parted it to the middle?

The only option to stay truly neutral in all this is to keep the hair back at all times in the giving-up bun, refusing to reveal where it’s parted. Refusing, indeed, to part or even brush it at all. That I can do in the name of peace.

The scroll-machine giveth and the scroll-machine taketh away

Something happens to me when I’m scrolling through the scroll machine. I start to feel a sense of dread, or grief, or nausea.

Rather than concluding reasonably that scrolling is bad for my health in every way possible, I try to scroll back to what bothered me. I have a vague sense that one of the images or words I drifted past planted a seed of discomfort. If I can only find that, I can get rid of the bad feeling and keep scrolling in contentment.

I go back to try to find it. Sometimes it’s there, five slides ago—a joke that reminds me of something distasteful, or a picture that made my vicious little hindbrain remember that I’m a worthless compost heap in comparison to some perfect person on the internet.

Ultimately the scroll-machine giveth dopamine and the scroll-machine taketh dopamine away. It’s a really on-the-nose example of how affected I can be by small events. Little shards of experience can throw me into an emotional state.

Someone says one quiet word and my whole afternoon rotates around it.

It’s wild. 

Anyway, if you’ve landed here on your scroll journey, take a moment to take a breath. Consider this a digital resting point.

The light falls long across your bedroom in winter. A golden glaze. An unseasonably warm January breeze billows your curtain in the open window. 4:30pm falls through it like massive candlelight, turning everything a deep honey yellow at a steep angle. Nothing to do but lie down and watch it. A little languor before the early dark.

You cross your right leg over your left and I watch the hollow below your right inner ankle. That’s where I can see your pulse. Thump. Thump. Thump under the thin skin right next to that little freckle on the ankle-bone.

It makes me love you with a visceral intensity. 

I love the heart that beats so many times every minute for as long as you’re with me. 

SOMETHING IS COMING

Read these words:

WITH A CLICK, WITH A SHOCK

PHONE’LL JINGLE, DOOR’LL KNOCK

OPEN THE LATCH. SOMETHING’S COMING. 

I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS. 

Close your eyes. What are you picturing? The inner monologue of someone with crippling anxiety?

Open your eyes. These are, in fact, some of the lyrics to “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, in which Tony (a 50’s Romeo) sings about how excited he is that the completely unpredictable future is coming for him in an unknown way at an unknown time.

As a good thing.

I, like Tony, often think something’s coming for me, DOWN THE BLOCK ON A BEACH UNDER A TREE. But I tell you what: it’s usually not something good that I’m looking over my shoulder for.

Maybe this could be a lesson for me, as I try to be more glass-half-full despite these anxious times. Maybe I should take a page from Tony’s book and recalibrate. Maybe I should reorient myself to expect to CATCH THE MOON, and decide that SOMETHING GREAT IS COMING. 

Mindset is everything, some people say. 

But then again, I think: look what happens to Tony. It’s not great. 

Maybe Tony should take a page from my book and fret a little more.