Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Near and Far

The other day I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. We used to work together at a restaurant. Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry knows that working together in that environment makes for fast friendships. Waiters, waitresses and bar tenders are a motley bunch who share all of life's dirty details after a few short shifts together. Lifers learn to be reserved at some point, but they'll still get sloshed and spill their guts on some random evening when their guard is down.

This particular girl and I had little in common. She's a single mother, a regular church goer, and from a small town in Alabama. I'm not any of those things. I remember that she would make me Jack and Diet Cokes in to-go cups at 10 am on a Tuesday when making it through a shift seemed like death. After long Sundays of waiting on the brunch crowd, our group would gather like hurricane survivors in the bar next door. I've gotten drunk with this girl. Under such circumstances you're likely to share everything with a person.

She transferred to another store owned by the same company, and I hadn't seen her since until the other day.

She walked up to the Starbucks counter inside the grocery store where I was picking up some snacks for a work thing. I was surprised to see her. I'd heard she was moving back to Alabama. She said that she's leaving in 8 weeks. We chatted a bit about her. We chatted even less about me. I tend in those situations to give the stock response of, "Same old, same old," when asked what I've been up to. As we hugged to part company, I said, "Nice knowing you."

She said, "Nice knowing you, too."

It was so oddly perfect. So rarely do people feel that comfortable acknowledging exactly what they've been with each other. Neither of us tried to draw out the conversation out of guilt over neglected friendship. We both essentially said, "I'm never going to see you again." As I walked out of the store, I felt extremely touched by the simplicity of the whole thing. It is okay that this is impermanent. It is okay to admit that very little belongs to me.

I have recently been contemplating the importance of family. I don't want to have children, but I want relationships in my life that feel somewhat permanent and secure. It's odd because I've always been such a proponent of making sure everybody knows that security is an illusion, so when I finally admitted to myself that, yes, I want commitment, I had to carefully consider what that really means. It seemed silly in light of my general attitude. The conclusion that I came to was that it all still fit together. I can still acknowledge the true transient nature of life and seek some feeling of security while I'm alive. I was raised in a family--a family that is a family no matter what. I find it comforting that I know that we've all of us hated the others at some point but we never thought about not loving each other. I can honestly say that I've hated my mother more than an other person I've ever hated. But she was always my mother, and I always loved her. That commitment means I stayed until I didn't hate her at all anymore.

There is a depth to that kind of experience that rugged individualism just cannot accomplish.

Someone once told me about a man he knew whose wife had multiple sclerosis. He said that this man was one of the happiest men he'd ever met. He said he faced all manner of extra burdens simply because of all the things his wife couldn't do. And this man helped her, gladly. The person who told me this story said he could never do that.

I watched that same man care for his aging mother in the same way, though. He was doing it, too. He just thought that because he had moments of anger and frustration about his situation, it wasn't the same. He thought that diminished his love. We are none of us saints. It probably made his love that much deeper. And the man who took care of his ailing wife probably had the same moments. Nobody said this stuff would be easy all of the time. They only said it would be good. They only said it would be better than the alternative. We want people to be there when we need them. We have to be willing to be all that we would have them be for us.

It is important to know what we mean to each other. It is important that we mean something at all.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I'm driving along on the highway when suddenly I'm struck by visions of my own toes being bent so far back that they break. I'm sitting at my desk at work, and I see myself held hostage, being tortured in any number of gruesome ways. My fingers are being cut off with pruning shears. Or I imagine that I'm in a car accident, my body bent in a position that mangles me beyond recognition.

This is how it's been lately. These scenes come on from nowhere. My body will tense up and feel cold. All I can do is wait for them to pass. It would be easier if I could convince myself that these things aren't likely to happen today, if even at all. How many people ever find themselves kidnapped, tortured, murdered? The problem is that some people do find themselves kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and who among them ever thought it would happen to them? And the idea of my getting into a car wreck is even harder to escape. I believe in improbabilities, but I've always had a problem convincing myself of impossibility. A head full of this stuff is no way for anyone to go about their life, so I try to let those thoughts go.

The other day a friend and I were discussing our funerals. She asked me to read her blog at her funeral. I asked her to prat fall into my open casket, spilling my dead body out onto the church floor. As soon as I'd asked her to do that, it dawned on me that we will not both be able to attend the other's funeral. One of us will not be there to celebrate the other one. All of these things we take for granted. Some things I wish I could take for granted, at least for a little while.

I contemplate my death because something in me wants me to. I do not wallow in these visions, but they come. I touch them and let them go, but for a moment they are very real. I have dreams, too, during which I'm faced with very difficult choices. Last night I was faced with the decision to either kill my entire family or kill someone else very close to me. Moments before I woke up I was staring at the heavy gun in my hand, weighed down by the responsibility of a single decision that couldn't be avoided. What do dreams like this and my thoughts of death have in common? They've brought me into constant contact with the idea of living in the moment, the importance of choices, the meaning (or lackthereof) of everything I do. They force me to contemplate what I think of my own importance, my lack of importance, my impermanence, and how all those things fit together.

It's been said that you are the most important person who has ever lived, and five minutes after you're dead almost nothing you ever did will matter.

What I can say is that the visions have been awful and terrifying. They have also created in me a level of comfort that I haven't known before. Certain things used to cause untold pressure within me--what I might do for a living at any given moment, what I might or might not be accomplishing, what my life looked like compared to what I thought it should look like. These worries seem almost obsolete now. I still feel motivation, but it's coming from a completely different direction. I feel inspired now to make those decisions on a moment-by-moment basis. I feel that it's best if I allow myself to live spontaneously, in tune with the new information being handed to me on an almost constant basis. It feels good to not make any big plans. I plan to take a single step--I don't hold on to where I think that step should take me six months from now. And living that way used to make me worry I was flaky or irresponsible, but I don't feel that way, either. I suppose this is freedom. I almost do not want it.

I can also say that it makes a lot of things seem weird that never seemed all that weird before. Like billboards.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Oldest

I remember the oddest things.

Small things, things hardly worth remembering.

It was picture day in elementary school, maybe 4th grade. My parents were out of town, and my grandmother was staying with us. She was a take-charge kind of woman. That's almost all I remember about her. I also remember that she made the girls take naps well past nap-taking age while the boys got to stay up and watch television with her. She was raised at a different time in the small-town south, I suppose. It always made me angry on principle, and I would spend the entire nap time coming up with elaborate schemes to escape as if it were Vietnam.

It was picture day, and my parents were out of town. My grandmother gave me the order forms and the money. I set out for school. When I arrived, I learned that it was not, in fact, picture day. We'd been confused about the dates. I freaked out. I was convinced that I would get in trouble if I returned home with the money and the order forms. I suppose I thought I would be blamed in some way. I think I thought I'd be accused of being wrong--that she would think it was, in fact, picture day and I'd simply screwed up. That was me at that age, constantly worried that I was messing everything up and would eventually be caught, even in situations where there were no mistakes to be made. I've always been what they call "hypervigilant."

I panicked and threw the money in the trash at lunch.

What I don't remember is how I got out of that. I just have this memory of me walking toward the trash can, determined yet full of self-doubt. As far as I could tell in that moment, it was my only option.

I have always, always, always believed that if I can't be perfect I will die.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Safety First

Never write a poem in pen--
you can't erase it, the shavings
of rubber rubbing away
your mistake. Like a half-done
flubbed crossword, your thoughts
will be permanently bared and
mocked by those who know
better than to even begin.
It's like dancing in the middle
of the street naked, dangerous
for others will gather
on the sidewalks and point.
"What madness!" they'll shout,
fingers coming for you from
every angle. No, don't write
naked poems in pen with
cross words while dancing.

You'll die.