Thankful for a 30-year conversation

Thirty-something years ago, I started graduate school. In the first week of classes, maybe even the first day, I met a fantastically glamorous, vivacious, self-assured woman sporting bright red lipstick and an enormous amethyst ring. I wanted to be her friend, if she’d have me.

Apparently I was the intellectually intimidating powerhouse who spoke seldom but to devastating effect [= terrified, determined not to put my foot in my mouth, rushed off to the library to look up anything I didn’t know, then tried to speak intelligently about it next time, thus perpetually feeling behind the conversation, = terrified], whom she wanted for a friend, if I’d have her.

It’s funny now to think that we met so long ago, because then we were actively working on leaving our pasts behind, and creating our new, Ivy-educated grown-up selves. But we were still our old selves! We were both engaged to old boyfriends (for a little bit longer) and had not yet got involved with, or in her case even met, the Grad School Boyfriend/First Husband. We found we had the same position in our family-of-origin constellation. Our difficult mothers were both still alive. “Home” was where it had always been, the same parental house. Our adult selves were emerging, but many formative experiences were still ahead of us. Through the grad school years, we shared a lot of them in real time.

Over the months, then decades, we’ve talked repeatedly about families, jobs, men, clothes, self-presentation, therapy, etiquette, children (whether, when, how, with whom, raising and teaching thereof), parents, changing self-perception, getting older, friends, plans, roots and connections (making, keeping, breaking), writing, teaching, puzzles and games literal and psychological, cats, academia, changing careers (whether, to what, how), illness, death, divorce, new relationships, inspiration, in-laws, travel, religion, exercise, cooking, shopping, transformations. Everything important, really. We used to meet over breakfast, or for coffee and a muffin. Now we mostly communicate by e-mail, and occasionally catch up on the phone, when we restore our sense of the other’s physical voice, breathing life into the written “voice” of our messages. I don’t know where the years have gone. But the person who was once new, who knew nothing of my past and could accept me as the person I wanted to be, now knows everything important about me. She is my witness.

Thrashing

I’ve written before about thrashing, or at least referred to it. Today I am having trouble getting started on anything because there are so many things that need attention, and even writing them down (so I don’t have to keep them in active memory) isn’t helping. Even thinking about starting something (anything) prompts my brain to say “No! This other thing!” I’ve done a couple of relatively limited things with truly immediate deadlines, but now I’m starting on circuit of “must grade/write/work out/pay bills,” with a side of “Work out or swim? Grade old essays or new ones?”

And now that I’ve got this far, I remember the set of proofs that are due tomorrow, so I guess there’s another limited thing with immediate deadline that I can tackle. Unfortunately, that just sets off alarms about “long term goals, health and exercise, write first, graaaaading.”

Today also comes with the added annoyance of technical trouble with my personal e-mail. It’s past time to switch to a new provider, but I’ve been trying to put this off till after the end of the semester. Further, I know my brothers are not going to be able to remember the new one; sometime in all the uproar about my dad last year, it became clear that one of them had been trying to update me via an address that had been defunct for at least five years.

I wish my inner nag would just shut up.

The red basket

Stuff. Things. Memories. Do you keep them, why do you keep them, do you really want them or do you have a sense of obligation (= guilt) about them? Would you rather just move on and be who you are now, and forget about the path that brought you here? Do you hang onto things, or to people, for the sake of children or other people down the generational line? Or is that another reason to get rid of things and cut ties?

My mother died ten years ago. My father is in assisted living. My brothers have been clearing out my parents’ last house (not somewhere any of us ever lived). Since my parents themselves cleared out the house we grew up in (and what a job that was), and then there were two more houses, one of which burned down after they moved out but while there was still stuff in storage there, much of the Stuff in my dad’s house is things he dragged home in the last 15 years or so. It doesn’t have feelings attached. And we have all taken a lot of things we wanted already.

Nonetheless, Stuff kept turning up when we all went to the house together. Things we thought had already gone to someone: here is that set of dishes (or at least part of the set). Anyone want them? These wine glasses are worth actual money; should we try to sell them on e-Bay or just let garage-salers feel they’ve made a massive score? Here’s That Thing! Reminisce about the Thing. Do a few minutes of reminiscence suffice, or does someone want the Thing?

Since I live far away and am here only briefly, I’m shipping some Things to myself. I may yet de-accession them once I return to my Actual Real Life. But while I’m here, I can’t really tell whether I really want the Things, or just want to have seen them again.

It’s strange how many different stories there are about things. One brother assured me that a crocheted object was something our mother made for me as a baby. I told him I made it for her, a Christmas present that I worked on when I lived in Paris. I wonder how many other legends like that run through families, where people forget the origins of the pickle dish.

One of the things I think I want is a basket. A large oblong basket painted red. So many times I have looked for it when I needed something in which to take a cake or a casserole to a party, and then realized that it was never in my house, it was my mother’s basket. I don’t know why I never bought myself my own basket. Now I’m going to have the original one that I keep looking for. I hope that will be satisfying. I do wonder if I should just pitch the red basket, here, and get myself a new one at home. But this is what I mean: it’s hard to know, here, what matters, and why it matters.

RBOC summer

  • All is well, or as well as it’s going to be, w/r/t my dad. One of my brothers is learning about the difficulties of figuring out what questions to ask, and of whom. I sympathize.
  • I will be heading to Family Land in August. I accepted that I need to do this and booked the whole trip all in one go this week, instead of hemming and hawing and spending hours comparing different flights and cars.
  • I wrote 500 words today. Or typed them. I wrote a version of them on Tuesday, but today’s typing of that paragraph led to a certain amount of editing. So I’m counting both days as writing 500 words.
  • Am I done reviewing chunks of translation? Can this even be possible? There must be something else that I’ve forgotten to do there. I will be translating that massive text for the rest of my life, I’m convinced. “Done” is a hallucination, or at least a highly temporary state.
  • I’ve been putting together a list of manuscript-related vocabulary for my fall grad class.
  • We’re a week into July . . . yipes . . . I really do need to think about fall classes. The heat wave of a few days ago has broken and the weather is perfect today. I’d love to do something outside. Preferably not weeding, although of course that is always an option.
  • Weeding would arguably be better than cleaning the garage. Bleaching the litter boxes would be better than cleaning the garage.
  • Things I have been reading lately: D. E. Stevenson’s novels. Early novels of E. M. Delafield, available in an omnibus Kindle edition for a buck. Reading six of them in a row mainly convinced me that Victorian child-rearing left terrible scars on a lot of people, especially Delafield. Since her later novels (Provincial Lady!) are more comic, did she get over it? Or just move on? A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale, which I didn’t care for; it felt like a cut-rate version of Possession, which I prefer. Also, L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, a romance with a plain 29-year-old heroine who gets life-changing news and starts telling her horrible relatives what she really thinks of them. Plays with romance tropes in delightful and original ways. Rather gushy descriptions of Canadian forests (which completely omit the black flies), but I skimmed those bits.
  • Maybe I’ll do the litter boxes and half an hour of something else useful and then sit outside with sherry and potato chips.

Oh, dear

My dad is at risk of being kicked out of his assisted living facility. He has a week to turn his behavior around. What’s that saying about old dogs?

I complain about my brothers from time to time but I am so glad I’m not the only kid my father has. The brothers are going to have to deal with this.

Green stuff, Summer, Projects

Yesterday I graded All The Things and then filed All The Grades. At home I drank sherry, had a bath, and crashed.

Summer started this morning, and despite my protests about being overly married to this house, I started with housewifery. I put out the bags of yard waste from my weekend endeavors, did some more weeding and spraying of bellflower, thought about the way it and the thistles were resisting the Very Nasty Weedkiller recommended by people at the gardening group I attend sporadically, and laughed at them a little more. Clearly they think of gardening as a genteel hobby, whereas the way I do it, it’s more like habitat reclamation. Or terraforming. Some of us just can’t do things the easy way. The clematis, at least, is doing beautifully, and the little volunteer clematis is back with buds on.

I like the thistles, or at least I love the goldfinches who perch on them to eat the seeds; the yellow and purple are beautiful together. If we weren’t trying to move, I’d just let the thistles be. But I don’t think most people want to buy a yard full of thistles.

Anyway, then I did a load of laundry and some ironing, because secretly I like ironing if I don’t have many other more important things to do. My linen will wind up crumpled, of course, because that’s the nature of the beast, but at least it won’t look like it spent the winter in a ball on the bottom of my closet. There are degrees of rumpled.

After lunch I turned to scholarly endeavors for a couple of hours.

I am waiting for a blast of e-mailed temper from my Brother Less Reasonable, since the other one has found an appropriate assisted-living facility to which to move our father. Less has already stated that he is categorically opposed to such a move. But he’s outnumbered. Maybe he’ll realize that that dignified silence might be the better part of valor.

Well, I can hope.

Time for exercise and bill-paying. There will no doubt be TV later. With sherry. Such an exciting (well, satisfying, anyway) life I lead.

What is all that green stuff?

Fortunately, there is sunlight and something approaching warmth.

Unfortunately, that means the creeping bellflower is coming back.

Fortunately (at least for my back), the returning bellflower is in the graveled bit around the garage where I feel justified in using weedkiller rather than painstakingly digging it out.

Unfortunately, I haven’t even got around to that small task.

Fortunately, I do have this afternoon free, because Sir John is going out (which I had forgotten all about).

Unfortunately, I have lots of worky-work that needs to get done rather soon, and I may be doing that rather than gardening.

Fortunately, I’m still feeling very calm about work.

Unfortunately, I think I might need to feel rather more urgency about it, so that I get on with it instead of blogging and making extra cups of tea and all those other not-working activities.

Fortunately, I probably have good blog-fodder in a series of e-mails between my brothers.

Unfortunately (for any remaining readers) I can’t face going through them to pull out the good bits.

Fortunately for my brothers.

Unfortunately, I think I have run out of excuses.

Fortunately and unfortunately, I have only two more teaching days. Not much prep left, and not even a huge amount of grading, but various other deadlines and ancillary projects (like “buy new laptop”) are now looming large.

 

Calm

A couple of people have called me “calm” in the last few months. This is not a word I would ever have applied to myself, so it surprises me to have it come up in both a familial and a professional setting.

My more reasonable brother said I was a calm person, based on (I suppose) his observations of my interactions with our father and other brother. The chair of my department said I seemed very calm about the process of applying for Full.

Well. Have I, perhaps, learned what is and is not important? Is it that I have dealt with far more stressful situations in the past, and so the current ones don’t seem particularly challenging? Or do I take my cues from people around me and I am currently fortunate in that they are fairly calm, so I can be, too? Maybe some of all of these.

Family is easier than it used to be. My mother’s final years were very stressful, because she constantly solicited help and then pushed it away, always with hysterical lamentations of How Awful Everything Is and how None Of Her Children Understood (she showed many signs of Borderline Personality Disorder, though she was never formally diagnosed with it). My brothers couldn’t really cope with her at all, so a lot fell to me. In comparison, my dad is a piece of cake. At his angriest and most demented, he is more straightforward and easier to deal with than my mother was. I have developed a number of mantras to help me deal with my less reasonable brother, including “Geoffrey’s gonna Geoffrey*” and “With those armpits.”

Anything work-related pretty much falls into the category of “not that important.” I do my job to the best of my ability, of course, but it’s not a life-and-death job like medicine. I’ve seen a lot of promotion applications because of sitting on a significant personnel committee, so I have a good idea of what they should look like and what the acceptable range of variation is. My colleagues support me, or they wouldn’t have invited me to apply. I have a good reputation in the college my department belongs to. It’ll all be fine.

Really, the most stressful thing in my life last week was having a journal tell me that the images I had provided were not suitable. This meant I had to scramble to learn a few things about GIMP so I could manipulate what I had (since going to England to take new photographs is not going to happen this week!). It all worked out. I’m a little behind on grading, but I’m sure that will work out too.

Lots of people have real problems, but I’m not one of them, not now anyway. So I guess I am calm.

*Not his real name, but his modus operandi is so predictable that it should certainly be a verb.

Did you just say that out loud?

I was at the vet picking up medication. A woman speaking to one of the desk staff said of her dog, “She’s the best,” and I smiled, thinking how we all think our animal companions are the best. Then she added, “She’s my child who will never leave me, not that I’m bitter about the two who who’ve grown up and gone their way.”

I stopped smiling.

Seriously?

With an attitude like that, no wonder your kids went their own way the moment they could. Did you expect them to stay small forever?

The point of having children is that you are creating future adults, people, individuals who will in their turn form partnerships, have children of their own, live lives independent of yours. Parenting is a stage of life, one that may lead to grand-parenting, but it’s not a career. If you really want to be around children all your life, become a teacher, or maybe a pediatrician or parks director, something that will put you in contact with multiple generations of kids. This would absolutely not be my choice, but I can understand people like my father who want to surround themselves with children’s energy and interest in the world, the way I want to surround myself with books. Not that I think the woman at the vet wanted to nurture generations of children. I think she wanted control and adoration, which is what she can have from her dog. I hope she had a dog all the while her kids were growing up, so that she had some focus other than the kids.

I felt like I’d heard from my mother’s ghost.

 

Still January

It feels like January has lasted for several months. In fact, I think I had spring, skipped summer, and have come back around to winter and ought to be thinking about Christmas shopping. It has not been a bad month, in fact the reverse, but it has most definitely gone on for a very long time (like last July).

I finished the MMP and went back to translating. I planned spring classes and wrote a syllabus for each class. I cooked a lot. I had appointments with a doctor and a dentist. I spent a week visiting family, which meant a lot of application of my hard-earned people skills, mostly acquired in the classroom. I refrained from teaching a pig to sing; instead, I explained some things to people who are either more likely to take them on board or better at dissembling their refusal to listen (time will tell which). I listened to my father and said “We’ll put it on the list” a lot.

I tried to imagine a life in which Sir John and I live near my family, in a very beautiful area where a lot of people take vacations. Sir John can work anywhere he has an internet connection. I have an extensive library. I could retire from teaching, and write my books while looking out at lovely views, and we could go for walks, and visit my father . . . and socialize with my brothers and their families . . . and drive ten miles to get to a grocery store that sells a lot of the specialized items I need, and significantly farther to get to an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore, and what about the ballet and early music concerts that we love to attend where we live now? Nope nope nope. However lovely the surroundings, I do not want to live in a rural place (even one with only a ten-mile drive to a grocery store, and I know there are far more remote places). The family connection is not exactly an incentive. The cordial detente I have achieved with them is all I hope for; I do not want to have to spend my birthday and other special occasions with my family.

Visiting them is strange, because it makes me realize how odd I am, in the scheme of things. They’re not untraveled or narrow. But they travel for business, and love their homes, and are deeply woven into their communities. I live among academics who take it for granted that you will have to leave your family and move elsewhere, probably several times; thanks to my commute, I’m not well-rooted either where I live or where I work; I travel because I like to be in other places. Probably what I most have in common with my brothers is that we are live-to-work people, whose idea of retirement involves more of the parts of the job we like best and less of those parts we dislike. We also all like to finish things, in reaction to our father, who (like me) is great at generating ideas and has always been terrible at finishing things. I’m slow and a perfectionist, but I do finish, eventually, and I have learned a bit about what things can be done at 70% rather than at 95% or 110%.

I have plenty of work to do today (and another dentist appointment), but what I really want to do is just sit among my books. Not even to read. Just to sit with them, alone except for Glendower and Reina, and be quiet in the middle of a city.