At the last of a long string of unpaid internships, I was sent on an errand with the gallery owner. He asked repeatedly for my name, then shrugged. “No. I’m not going to remember you. Interns come and go.” He may have seen me bristle, because he added, somewhat apologetically: “Maybe if you tell me something about yourself.”
Then conversation unfolded in the most surprising fashion, until suddenly he was pulling over to the curb through three lanes of traffic to tell me, “There is no truth but the human heart; nothing greater than tenderness in the face of adversity.”
Note: Today’s post is the fourth in a series of 100-word pieces I’ve been writing in solidarity with NaNoWriMo. Couldn’t commit to the 50,000 words, but I could do a lot more than I have been…and at 100 words a day, I’ll finish on March 22, 2017.
Recently, I have been wallowing in a little pocket of crankiness that seemed bottomless. Such moods often dog me at this time of year; though I live far from the cold and snow, I’ve always chalked it up to seasonal affective disorder. I thought the only cure was longer days. Or Hawaii.
Then I found myself with two healthy kids–at thesame time–and no freelance work for the day. So, after excavating two and a half months of neglected mail, I decided to take a short walk to clear my head.
What I saw so humbled me. How many days have drifted by without proper reverence?
“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”
— Ai Weiwei
After driving carpools to schools on opposite ends of town last Thursday morning, I put a feline fecal sample on ice in the trunk–oh! my glamorous life!–and made my way through the pouring rain toward Pier 39. As a San Francisco resident, I avoid that part of town like the plague. It’s crowded, kitschy, and leaves me feeling swindled and somewhat culpable. Did you make your way from some other continent to eat substandard, overpriced clam chowder out of a sourdough bowl? I’m sorry. I am.
This time it was worth the effort and the heinous traffic, however. This time I was accompanying an art class on a field trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz.
It had felt like an indefensible luxury to take time from what I was supposed to be doing–working, tending to three sick foster kittens, preparing my presentation for the next day. What business did I have squandering four hours on art?
What I had forgotten is that art is not a luxury at all.
Art is good for the soul. Making it, viewing it, contemplating it, discussing it. It is the means for communication when mere words cannot convey what needs to be said. Art can speak truth to power, it can enlighten, it can challenge; it can soothe or amuse or complement the sofa. I’m not saying that all art is important, but rather that being able to do it and see it and think about it is vital. Where Ai Weiwei lives, his ability to make art is tenuous. He has been imprisoned and, after his release, continually harassed. His studio has been torn down by the local government in Beijing. He is forbidden to leave China.
I recall being in a snit once in art school, stressed out about some goofy project I had concocted–making portraits of George Bush by drizzling motor oil, of all things. “What am I doing noodling around in the garage while people are starving out there in the world?” I lamented to a friend. And she responded, “What sort of world would it be without any art?”
I think we both have a point.
Though unable to leave his country, Ai has somehow managed to create a provocative and politically charged show at a provocative and politically charged place. There are kites and legos and audio installations. You can sit in a cell and hear orchestral compositions written in a concentration camp or, a few cells down, hear songs by Fela Kuti, and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. You can read about the charges against 176 political prisoners and exiles from around the world, and write them letters while sitting in the prison dining hall. These are “the heroes of our time,” as Ai says. They have had the courage to speak up, and they are paying a high price.
Ai Weiwei’s vision has landed on our windowsill. Go and see it if you can. 1.4 billion people will never lay eyes on it.
I counted four meltdowns in our house today, and one of them was mine. I was sending memorial flowers from my family today when I remembered I could not put my Dad’s name on the card–I’ve been a little raw ever since. Though he died in May, I am still trying to wrap my head around the new reality. Evidently grief is neither a smooth nor predictable process.
I also spent 4 1/2 hours driving today–mostly carpool and after school activities–and was consequently unable to finish two crucial projects that are due tomorrow afternoon at the very latest. I am hosed.
Meanwhile, Miss 11 failed a math test, which she had to bring home for me to sign. She has a major project due tomorrow–still unfinished–and a test to study for. Miss 9’s after school activities kept her busy until we arrived home at 6 pm. At that point, she was too tired to approach her long division and decimals without a flood of tears and a complete cranial shutdown.
Luckily, at about 6:15, the spouse got home with a new crop of therapy fuzzballs. We’ve been fostering kittens on and off all fall, which is pretty great unless they have diarrhea or persistent confusion about the litter box. Constantly scrubbing everything with bleach and enzymatic cleaner is less gratifying than petting and snuggling and playing. This batch seems pretty well adjusted, however.
While I cooked dinner, I sentenced the girls to mandatory kitten time, and after dinner, I made myself go down there as well.
I’d write more, but I could use a little more purring.
I used to love snail mail. Despite the fact that my mailbox was mostly stuffed with adverts and bills and eye appointment reminders, getting a real live letter was so delicious that it was always worth a check.
Now I am afraid to look.
The transition happened very gradually. As the years flew by, there were fewer and fewer Victoria’s Secret catalogs, and a lot more Pottery Barn Kids. Not surprising, really. Once I’d ordered diapers online, all hell broke loose. Not that I minded looking at baby clothes now and then, but I was a little offended that the folks in the marketing department assumed I had switched to sensible undergarments.
As my kids got a bit older, my junk mail haul further devolved into catalogs of clogs and tchotchkes. I didn’t fully digest the severity of the situation until I found myself staring at a picture of a dung bunny. That’s right. An adorable rabbit statue made of manure. You leave it in your garden and as it decomposes, it adds vital nutrients to the soil. Suddenly, I realized: I am f*#!ing old. Some marketing director took one look at my profile and decided, “This lady does not exercise or travel. She no longer needs yoga pants or Bose speakers or groovy furnishings. This lady putters in her garden and makes loving decisions about mother earth. It is way more important for her ogle progressive, thoughtful novelty items than anything else the commercial world has to offer.”
Then, a couple of weeks ago, The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World arrived:
That’s right. Heifer International sent me a catalog. What demographic does that put me in? Wait. Don’t answer that. I definitely don’t want to know.
Next up was a magnetic schedule of the San Francisco 49ers with a plumber’s contact information on it.
I don’t get it. What is the connection? Let’s see, my toilet is broken, but I wonder when the game starts? And why me? Am I so old they think I can’t look up game times and phone numbers online?
Monday. The final straw. I received a postcard from a life coach.
Great. Now I can lie awake wondering where my life is going and whether my spouse loves me. You know, I didn’t need the life coach until I checked the mail. I’m not calling this one, though. If they can make me feel this horrible by sending me a postcard, why would I want to spend time and money for continued contact?
Most importantly: did they review my past purchase patterns and assume I needed some help?
Long, long ago, I lived in a great flophouse of friends. It was a shabby, mouse-infested flat, poorly heated by one tiny gas unit in the living room. To keep warm, we often huddled on our “found” couch and watched whatever non-cable subscribers were offered: Melrose Place, Models, Inc., and the like–the kind of shows that go better with an adult beverage and lots of heckling. I was deliriously happy there.
For reasons I will leave unexplored, one person brought a ceramic walrus to the equation, and a game sprouted organically around it. One person would hide it in someone’s bed…all sneaky-like. The recipient would pass it along the next night. The walrus game occasionally got out of hand, escalating until someone had, say, a couple of chairs “hidden” under their comforter. I can vividly recall the joyous surge of anticipation before yanking the covers back each night, and then, twenty-four hours later, the pregnant, gleeful pause when someone else headed to bed.
The game occasionally went awry. Once I found the plunger nestled in my clean sheets. Not appreciated. The plunger was followed shortly thereafter by a plastic egg full of m&ms which I did not find until the next morning, by which time there were quite a few chocolate skid marks to permanently remind me of the occasion. Such a plethora of brown stains is a conversation stopper at laundromats–as well as during a variety of other unfortunate moments which I will leave to your imagination.
I did so love the walrus game, however, and I recently told my two kids about it. These days, they don’t give much indication that they have heard or appreciated anything, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the following items hiding in my bed over the past 9 days:
It is a little hard to explain why this makes me feel loved. It just does. Even the fake poop. I pull back the covers and think, “they love me.”
But there was one last item, lodged firmly under my mattress pad–something we affectionately call the Norwegian Briefcase. The problem: the briefcase had mysteriously disappeared before I got to return the favor, which makes me nervous. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get tucked into my teaching bag. That could be hard to explain to the photo students of America.
When my father would visit, he had a knack for hunkering in with the MacNeil News Hour while my kids fussed and cried. I was usually busy burning something on the stove, entertaining telemarketers, arranging carpools, or hunting for very important lost items. I didn’t have a lot of time to chat. After wrestling the girls into bed, I would slump down the stairs, and Dad would glance up from his mountain of New York Times. “Say, have you read this editorial about inner city schools?”
I never had.
How I wish I had been able to stay awake then, to engage in conversation about something other than logistics and rashes. Later, when he couldn’t talk much at all, I felt such a tremendous loss. What I would have given–then, and now–to hear his thoughtful analysis, his historical anecdotes, even a little about the book he was reading. I have so many questions that remain, so many gaps which I long to fill with stories from his rich life.
But one cannot render a portrait of a man or a relationship with a macro lens, focusing on a single moment, of which there were two and a half trillion in his 84 years. Examining just one of these does neither of us justice.
Thankfully, there are other moments to cling to–moments that are easier to carry: the theologian on all fours, mooing, while my small girls shrieked and giggled. The tiny, illegible notes my father squeezed into the margins of mom’s chatty letters–notes full of the gratitude and humility with which he approached life. The time I called him on Fathers’ Day a couple of years ago. After a discussion of his day, the weather, Sunday dinner, he paused and I awaited his goodbye. He said, instead, “I wanted you to know: you are a blessing.”
I have been surprised and relieved to discover that my relationship with my father endures–grows, even–as I hear stories from friends, family, and strangers. They share glimpses I couldn’t see from my age or perspective. I am reminded that though his body has betrayed him, he has not been diminished by mortality. Instead, these stories add flesh to the bones I have known over the years.
Still, I will not pretend that I can see him in full. Who could? Yet here is what I know for sure. My father asked a single question repeatedly during his sojourn on earth: How then shall we live?
This was the question that guided his thoughts, his decisions, his direction. He believed we should take a look at what we believe to be good, right, or best, and use that as we go gently forth into the world. He forged a compass from his heart and faith, and as I try to follow in his footsteps, I find he is walking with me. He is alive in my struggles, my questions, and my actions. He is here, helping me as I choose what I think is best; helping me to set my own compass.
The moment you announce that the free ride is over, that this parasite had better get out of your uterus, a tiny tyrant emerges, and you wonder if you might possibly cram it back inside, just to secure a few more moments of sanity and solitude.
This wee, adorable creature demands all of your time, attention, energy, and soul. There is nothing and no one else that matters as much. This is why cherished friendships shrivel, marriages are raked over the coals, and newish parents become unbearable. You are suddenly up at all hours of the day and night. You cannot finish a sentence or focus on anything uttered by an adult. Worst of all, the things you smirked and said you would never do, you see and hear yourself doing without apology.
A little shame, perhaps, but no apology.
The boundaries blend. It is not possible to distinguish where you end and where the child begins. You anticipate their needs, and punish yourself when you can’t identify or remedy a discomfort. They are the center of your universe.
And they grow.
Imagine that you are beside yourself because you are stuck playing Barbies yet again. Each minute stretches into an eternity. You can feel yourself devolving, while politically astute essays you composed in a past life unwrite themselves in your head. You parade a stupid piece of malformed plastic around, babbling the required perky gibberish–all while secretly wondering, “what is the meaning of my life?”
And then, the very next time the Barbies come out from under the bed, just as you are mentally muttering obscenities, your daughter turns to you, and from her lips come the most surprising news.
“Mom.” Accompanying eyeroll. “We are playing in here. Please shut the door.”
A lump forms in your throat. You were already gearing up to feel resentful for the next 45 minutes. What are you supposed to do now?
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra
FYI: This post is not really about the book.
I read it, though. I even saw the movie. I acted all impressed, and I suppose I thought I was. Despite all the raving, however, and despite Milan Kundera’s remarkable portrait of Czech society during a Seminal Historical Period, the story I read was about one man’s shameless infidelity and his meek and accommodating wife.
What I love is the title. Whatever the author meant by it, those five words distill the magic and misery of being a grown up: the unbearable lightness of being.
Every time that phrase surfaces, I imagine shifting, amorphous shapes, rendered almost completely unintelligible due to some blinding backlighting. It’s as if I am emerging from Plato’s cave for the very first time, or–rather less grandly–as if I am staring into the setting sun through a filthy windshield. No matter how hard I try to focus or shield my eyes, I cannot make out what I am hurtling toward.
No one says it out loud, but everyone seems to believe that eventually we’ll know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what it all means. We’ll feel Grown Up, and life will feel defined. It’s a grand fallacy we buy, and oh, how alluring.
By my early twenties, I was already itching to feel grown, to know who and what I was becoming. I needed to figure it all out, because I wasn’t handling the gray area very well.
Here’s the problem: it’s all gray area. It’s all undefined, and not just when we’re 23.
When things seem to be black and white, it’s a cognitive short cut, a decision to see the world that way. While we may not determine our material circumstances, we do create our interpretations of them, and forge theories about ourselves and our lives. We need to believe things are clearly defined now and then in order to plow ahead with enthusiasm.
I once had a long talk with my sister about marriage. I wanted to know how she knew it was the right decision; how she knew that this was the right guy. She admitted that there was no such thing as 100% certainty, but once you married, you no longer had to continually ask yourself: is this the right person? You started from the idea that it was, and figured out how to handle whatever was coming your way from that vantage point.
Of course perspectives evolve and change, but if we don’t adopt one, we can’t focus in any direction. We lose traction and go nowhere at all. Contrary to how it may appear, choosing a direction isn’t limiting, it’s what makes movement possible. When I allow myself to wallow in the gray area, I limit myself. When I wonder, “Am I really a writer?” I waste a lot of time and energy on this question, instead of simply saying, “I am writing. How can I continue in this direction?”
In the interest of full disclosure, my sister got a divorce. Still, I don’t think that negates the power of what she was saying. Picking a direction only means that we are more likely to get somewhere, it doesn’t guarantee that we will.
September 11, 2001 is an extreme example. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the collective mood had adjusted accordingly. Moments later, when the sky was engulfed in a fog, when it was raining detritus, and fear swallowed the streets, people could not process what was happening. Part of the shock was having to acknowledge the gray area, the great unknown that is life. On that deceptively sunny day, people thought they could see where they were going; they believed that they were headed to work, when actually they were passing through a portal to hell.
This is not a message of doom and gloom, however. Thankfully, we are not always teetering on the brink of an abyss. We just don’t know exactly where we are going. We can’t control other people and events. To be honest, we can’t even control our own actions sometimes. The best we can do is to figure out what and who give us joy, what values and issues are important to us, and how we can contribute to make the world a better place. Then, we can surround ourselves with those people, work on those projects, and head in that direction. But we need to do this while being open to uncertainty. We need to be flexible enough to learn from our mistakes and the changing world around us.
The good news is, when the cracks become visible, when our current perspective is shattered, we can sift through the pieces to make a new place from which to stand, a new perspective that is just as true. It just takes a while to make a new map and start to trust the road.
A friend called me one night not long ago, completely agitated, to ask me, “Who are all those people, smiling and walking down the street like they know what they’re doing?”
Those people are you and I, my friend, on a day when things seem clear.