The Here and Now

Thanks to the armed fugitive, I made some progress this week.

There was a (petty) armed robbery at the student apartments of our isolated, rural campus this week. When the campus police initially notified us, I noted that I’d just walked by those apartments an hour earlier. ~shrug~ When the secretary interrupted our midday faculty meeting to notify us that the university closed and we were ordered to leave, I didn’t even wait for her to finish. I got to my feet. I grabbed my bag and left the building before my colleagues even meandered back to their offices, chatting about institutional overreactions and imperatives, etc. I wasn’t scared. I felt no panic. But I didn’t know what was going on. I felt the floor fall out from under me. I followed my flight instinct, and I left.

I walked back to my car (past the site of the robbery again ~shrug~) and drove home. Except I didn’t. I found myself in front of my daughter’s school, trying to talk myself out of picking her up. I followed my gut and I knocked on the school door. The principal greeted me and didn’t even make me feel like a fool. I blabbered something like, “the university’s closed…I’m not an alarmist…I think it’s the post-traumatic stress….I need to bring my daughter home.” She didn’t laugh at me or even pause. “Let’s go get her,” she said, and she got her, and we went home.

The therapist confirmed that this is post-traumatic stress. I wasn’t afraid of a gunman. I was unsettled by the institution shutting down. (I’ve since learned that this university has not closed since the riots of the early 70s, so it was, indeed, significant that it shut down.) If the structures around me break down, I don’t know what to do.

Our world grounded to a halt last spring. I abandoned my hopes and dreams. That’s pretty standard in grieving. But I also lost my past. I look at pictures of our little family, and I don’t know what to make of it. My husband was a loving, devoted husband and father and we seemed to be such good parents, and then his illness kicked in, and I don’t know what was real and what was manufactured. He never acknowledged how ill he was. I was loyal to him, so loyal that I raised my children in a household that was unhealthy, for all of us.  My husband and I wanted to give our kids everything. Instead, we were the ones that hurt them, in this home we provided for them. Their father betrayed them, and I didn’t protect them from that. All those dangers that people fear, all those gunmen that parents wring their hands over, and the worst wound to my children came from the people that love them the most. The past means nothing to me now. It’s so unreliable. I need to do better by these children. We need to start over.

I was on a roll in my career, and that came to a grounding halt, too. My co-authors have maintained the momentum, and they keep the projects going. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for my paycheck and a job I love, but it’s not the career it was a year ago. I have the same office, the same projects, but it all feels new. I spent a few hours this week ransacking my files to decipher a mysterious note I left to myself in a footnote. I’m pretty sure I remember writing that note, but I don’t know where the original source is. I knew it a year ago. Now, I must study my files as if I’m a detective collecting evidence to solve a mystery.

I bought a new oven. So frivolous. The old one wasn’t that old. But this thing went wrong with it, that thing went wrong. I counted 4 or 5 things wrong with it. Any self-respecting Yankee would have had that oven repaired. But not me. The oven seemed unsafe. My kids use that oven. ‘Nuf said. I bought a new one. The therapist approves. This doesn’t surprise me. She is a lovely, stylish woman in a town where not many women are stylish. I expect she’s a shrewd consumer in a town where there aren’t a lot of places to shop. She would approve of the purchase of something of quality, but I wonder if the old oven was just another problem from the past. I cannot abide problems of the past.

Everything’s new–the oven, our daily habits, my work schedule, this life. We brought so little from the past except our selves and the clothes on our backs. We were like shipwreck survivors that tumbled on shore. Okay, okay there’s a job and a house and a community (although that’s a whole ‘nother blog post), but it’s like they provide the stage to carry out our days on, not a foundation. There are no deep grooves in our path. We are forging the path ourselves, and right now it’s only a faint trail of our own making.

That’s why the university shutting down was so unsettling. If I’ve lost my foundations–what I thought our family was, our past was, my job was–the only thing I do now is what I know I’m supposed to do–get the kids to school, get them to activities, complete a series of tasks at work, cook, clean, (learn how to) repair. Buy my Swiss chard from this farmer, my beets from that farmer, my apples from either of those two orchards, my cheese from the retro grocery store, etc. I don’t think, I just follow the list. I rely on existing structures to tell me what to do. If those structures break down, I’ve got nothing. I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing I want to do. I lack volition, and I lack desire. I know I am fiercely loyal to these kids, and I am afraid of failing them. I feel a duty to these children, but the only way I can follow through is by following the list. I don’t know what I’m doing, so those structures had better stay in place.

Thanks to the armed fugitive, I better understand my temporal suspension. I think I’ve talked about this before here. When you’re living in the moment because you’ve landed there, rather than arriving there out of enlightenment, it’s not happy or enlightened or liberating or Zen. It’s pretty scary.

Postscript: That all came crashing down on me today, and I woke up at 4:30 am. I figured i could hop in the shower, do some yoga, then get some stuff done, only I couldn’t bear to get in the shower, so I didn’t do any of the other things, either. I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was depressed. But of course, depression has nothing on grief. I dragged myself to a breakfast with a friend, where I learned that even normal people were jarred by the university shutdown, not just freaks like me. Then I went to the therapist. She suggested that I take a vacation. How can I, I asked, what with all the frivolous appliance purchases? She thinks I’m witty. The kids gave me some space. I eventually did some yoga, including lots of planks, because when the core feels strong, you feel like you can do anything. The New York Times let me know that Netflix released its original series, House of Cards, to comport with cultural binge-watching habits, and that seemed like just the perfect thing, so I had daughter call in a pizza order, and I commenced hours and hours of Kevin Spacey. In the midst of that, co-author sent an email telling me to stop searching for the footnote reference, because she found it. Depression is pretty manageable. The grief, on the other hand…

6 thoughts on “The Here and Now

  1. With all the scary things mentioned in the news these days that are gun related, no wonder your experience rattled you. Most people would be.

    Your Kevin Spacey marathon sounds right up my alley. He’s been in some great movies. My favorites were K-PaX and Pay it Forward.

    I really like what you wrote about living in the moment—“When you’re living in the moment because you’ve landed there, rather than arriving there out of enlightenment, it’s not happy or enlightened or liberating or Zen. It’s pretty scary.” You’re absolutely right and I’ve never thought of it quite like that.

  2. But it’s not that you *didn’t* protect the kids, but more that you *couldn’t*– which is still not a consolation, but I think the distinction matters.

    I bet the (surprisingly inexpensive) week-long yoga retreat/beach trip would be ideal. Could you find a 5 day sleepover situation for the kids? If not, maybe next year…or if they do one in the summer? Or one of the kayaking leader’s trips. I would love to go on the yoga retreat, but I have a conference that week, plus I’ve already had a week to myself recently and almost everyone’s reaction to that has indicated that a week to oneself–at least for a mom–is really self-indulgent, almost unheard of. But it should be heard of more, I think.

    • It matters, thank you.

      As for the week away, you’re absolutely right. Did someone make you feel guilty about your kayak trip? Because it was incredible, and exemplary. I would leap at the chance to join this upcoming (surprisingly affordable and meals included!) yoga retreat, but I can’t pull it off this year. It is surely something to keep in mind in the future. Or a kayak trip with Mimi. I keep calculating that once we get Harry off to college, Nora and I can slip away on empowering womyn retreats, but I will surely be open to seizing the opportunity before then. Golly knows, I could do with a healthy getaway.

  3. I am wondering, do you have the same shower-phobia that I have? When I take a shower now, my mind goes crazy. I never know where it will take me emotionally. Thus, some days I actually show up to work, not showered. Some days, being greasy is the better alternative to the “unpredictable emotional cleansing” I so often get. Yes. Hats come in handy on those days.

    • No, it’s not a phobia for me. I have cried a few times in the shower, but it’s not a distinctive place for that for me. I see how it could be a place where you can’t distract yourself and where you have to face the hard stuff. I see why you would avoid the shower!

      Some days I just wake up feeling lazy, or feeling like I just don’t want to do it all again. Showering is one of the non-essential tasks, whereas letting the dogs out–essential, and making coffee–also essential. I’ve been showering first thing on the days I go to the office so that I’m sure to do it. Other days, though, I wait and see what happens. I’m sure no one ever notices, right?

      These behind-closed-door widow revelations are so…revealing.

      • Yes, they are revealing. There are times when every little thing feels like too much, grief is so tiring. And then there are times when it actually feels freeing to realize that I simply don’t care what others think. My priorities in life were just completely re-arranged. But I am with you on some of those essentials – dog needs, and coffee. The two things that get me out of bed.

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