Refusing fear, finding joy

I’ve already lost enough years of my life to fearing nuclear war.

In my teens, I was undoubtedly disturbed in various ways, tormented by hormones, situational depression, anxiety, blah blah, but that was one of my big fears. It was probably much less likely in the 70s than it was for my brothers, half a generation earlier, but I was greatly influenced by their accounts of what they worried about, at my age. (Please note: those “kids these days think they have it so tough” lectures can backfire terribly, since “kids” practically by definition do not have brains as mature as those lecturing and may misapply the intended lesson.) I wanted to live to grow up. I was terribly jealous of, and furious at, adults who had already lived a good chunk of life, most especially those who were engaging in the political posturing that I found so frightening. They had already done the things I was hoping to get a chance to do (go to college, travel, get married); it was my entire life they were threatening. In my view. I mean, looking back, I can see things differently, but that was my lived experience, the fear and rage. I think I even got a letter to the editor published in some local paper, when I was particularly angry about something a columnist said. That just came back to me, as I write this. I don’t remember the exact topic, but I do remember that it felt better to write about my fears, that I was amazed when the letter was published, and that the columnist was still rather patronizing in his response. But at least someone heard me.

Now, that fear keeps cropping up, strangely familiar. I do think that it’s more likely than not that we’ll somehow muddle through, avoiding the ultimate disaster, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be various smaller yet still serious disasters along the way. And I am enraged by the fear. Enough to take action, in various small ways—sending e-mails, making phone calls—but also enough to be determined to refuse it. I will not live in fear again. I have, now, had the life I wanted to have. Not enough of it; I definitely hope to live as long as my father has, in equally good health and enjoyment of life. But I have reached my 50s, achieved college and graduate school and a highly rewarding job, traveled quite a lot, married a wonderful man. It’s been good.

So my goal is to be one of Carolyn See’s “hedonists . . . too enchanted by [my own life] to get excited by Death descending,” to go on “making love, or napping, or fixing dinner,” to do the things I find meaningful and enjoyable. Teach my students, write my articles, brush my cats, tend my garden, eat raspberries and re-read my favorite books. If we muddle through, I don’t want to have lost these years (as I lost a chunk of my youth that could have been a lot more fun than it was). If we don’t, I want to enjoy the end of my life. I want to fill it with music, dance, art, beauty, pleasure, joy. I want to refuse the fear and instead appreciate every mundane moment, every bite of chocolate, every sun-shot afternoon, every meal I cook. This is my rebellion. This is the flag I will fly: love of life.

New Year’s Eve

I’m enjoying a few days in the tropics with Queen Joan. We’re in the sort of place where most visitors suck up alcoholic drinks adorned with umbrellas, flowers, or fruit; get sunburned; and acquire a bunch of tourist tat to take home.

We’re doing things a bit differently. Neither of us can drink anymore, thanks to assorted health issues. Joan doesn’t do well in the sun, though she enjoys the warmth here. I’m a bit sturdier, but as the whitest of the white girls, I coat myself in #70 sunscreen before approaching a window, let alone going out. Also due to health issues, rather than eating out, we’re doing a lot of cooking.

We we both think back to our youth, and how different things were then. We met a little over 30 years ago. We could drink, and dance, and stay up all night. She went to India. I went to France. She visited me there on her way to Burkina Faso. In Paris, we cooked on a two-burner propane stove in my chambre de bonne, and she had a mattress on the floor, and that didn’t kill her back. We wouldn’t meet either of our husbands for some years yet, and while we had career ambitions, we didn’t know if they would be achievable. I’ve come much closer to achieving mine, though I said last night that I expected I’d do either much more or much less: I might not have got into grad school, or not finished, or not got a job, or not got tenure. Neither of us is quite sure how we wound up with the lives we have. Things happened, choices were made, and even when we got what we wanted, it turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.

But we are still here! We are alive, we are friends, we still travel together. We’re a long way from the mattress on the floor in Paris, and yet the spirit of that trip is with us. She drags me out of my stick-in-the-mud tendencies; I’ve had a lot of experiences, thanks to Joan, that I would not have had on my own (good ones).

So here’s to friendship, and survival, and continuing to have adventures even if they’re more low-key than they once were. We know what we were, and what we are, and there’s still some time for what we may yet be. I feel some trepidation about the year ahead, but in the meantime, there is this gentle tropical morning with the rustle of palm fronds sounding like rain. I wish you some of its peace and energy in the year to come.

A little peace and quiet

The run-up to Christmas can get strained around here (and how does that make us different from anyone else who celebrates Christmas?). Sir John’s family has birthdays and stuff to celebrate, so there are multiple gatherings. For me, Christmas week is flanked by the anniversaries of two significant deaths, so, in the years since those happened, I tend to want to stay home and be quiet. This year I’ve been better; I even had stirrings of celebratory feelings, such that the Christmas cards we received got lined up on the mantel, and I sent a few of my own.

But just when I’m more cheerful than usual, Sir John’s family suffers a spate of weirdness and re-shuffles itself. Usually the whole clan gets together for all the events. This year, due to Stuff, I thought we were going to have separate gatherings, with the Plain Speakers on one side and the Socially Correct At All Costs on the other. Instead, the Plain Speaker With Feels seceded from all the rest of us, and since Sir John didn’t feel like losing his whole family, we spent Christmas Eve with the Socially Correct chunk of the family. It was much quieter than usual, but at least we didn’t have to talk about feelings.

It was especially quiet for a moment after my mother-in-law mentioned that she’d be spending Christmas afternoon with the one With Feels. We thought that one wanted a year without any of the rest of us, just immediate descendants . . . I’m pretty sure you could have seen the exclamation points hovering over my head and Sir John’s. But we changed the subject and moved on.

So today will at least be normal, since we always spend Christmas quietly at home with the cats, recovering from the week’s uproar. I’ll go to the gym. Sometime after Sir John wakes up, there will be presents. I’ve done stockings from Sandy Claws. I will cook. We’ll read Christmas presents or watch some TV.

I hope that by next year either things will be back to normal or we can go visit my family, who have young ones. It’s more fun wrapping for children than for teenagers, who mainly want gift cards or money. I realized when wrapping our presents that I spent years stockpiling bags for odd-shaped presents, and now I don’t really need them any more!

If you need some peace and quiet today, I hope you get it. And if you’re enjoying a whirlwind of presents and family, more power to you.

Job changes

Not mine. That is, every month it seems we’re supposed to be more excellent with less money, but that’s been going on for so long that I don’t think it qualifies as a change.

No, I recently did a little web-stalking of an ex-colleague (I’m beginning to think I should have a separate category for reporting on the results of web-stalking). This person worked with me, oh, maybe ten years ago, and, like me, commuted because of a two-body problem. In this case, there were small children in the mix, combined with the ultimate inability of a partner with a prestigious but not-so-employable Ph.D. to find a suitable permanent academic position.

My colleague quit.

Both partners spent awhile cobbling together jobs, benefits, networking opportunities. These included adjuncting and freelancing and temporary positions involving soft money. And as of a few years ago, both are employed in very responsible positions in the non-profit sector in a very cool West Coast city, the sort of place I’d be glad to live.

But would I want to work my way through five or six jobs, including a period of hustling for freelance work, in order to get there?

Oh hell no.

Possibly if I were younger and more energetic, the calculation would come out differently, but I’m lazy. I like to set it and forget it, in every area possible: marriage, job, finances. I want to live my life, not have to scramble to move up, move on, make the right connections. Long-term readers know I whine a lot about being homesick for the west coast, but I don’t hate where I am. I don’t love it, but it is a decent compromise that lets me lieben und arbeiten at a lower cost of living than in most of the places I’d like to be, which in turn means I can travel to places I like. I love the job security of tenure. Scrambling in Paradise would be a nerve-wracking situation for me.

Maybe if my Ph.D. were in economics or CS or engineering, I’d feel differently about it. However, considering that all my degrees are in areas that made many people ask “And what are you going to do with that?” while I was working on them (“cram my diploma edgewise into the mouth of the next person who asks that” was a response that frequently came to mind), I’m pretty happy to be a professor at LRU, despite the excellence without money scenario. Could the situation be better? Certainly. Could it be worse? Definitely. I’m happy for my former colleague, but glad I don’t wear those shoes.

 

Nostalgia

Travel agents. Remember travel agents? There still are a few in the world, I know that, and I’m beginning to wonder whether I would feel it was worth paying someone else a fee to book hotels and trains and so on for me. I just spent three hours arranging train travel and hotels in the UK for a trip later this summer. In theory, I could do this at some point of the day that is not prime writing time. In practice, I have found that when I do that, I wind up booking myself on a train that departs a week after I leave the country.

Seriously. I did that once.

I got lucky that time. The conductor did come round to check tickets, but just before he got to me, he encountered another woman with a wonky ticket: she was booked on a train that left at a different time, and that apparently was a huge problem. By the time he’d finished sorting her out, we were near the next station, so he only glanced at the time, not the date, on my ticket, punched it and moved on.

Probably I could leave the stewing over hotel reviews to non-prime-time, though, and just bookmark the ones that seem to have the best intersection of low-ish price, quiet rooms, and cleanliness, then make the decision later. It can be hard to tell the difference between shabby and unclean, based on some reviews. I don’t so much mind stained carpet, if it doesn’t smell and has been well vacuumed. I do mind the odor of stale cigarette smoke. I prefer the white-noise roar I get from a window that overlooks the hotel’s ventilation system to the intermittent uproar of overlooking a street in a popular area of town. Any hotel where people complain (complain! they don’t know they’re born) about the presence of a cat immediately moves to the top of my list.

Of course, if I felt like spending money on a travel agent, I could probably also afford fancier hotels, and taxis rather than public transport. It still might be worth it for the trains, just to make sure I’m really traveling on the correct date (and if not, it would be Someone Else’s Problem). Do travel agents provide cats?

The difference a story makes

More tidying/decluttering leads to more thoughts about the past and our relationship to it.

If a yellowed lace tablecloth had been on the table when the Prince Regent came to dinner incognito, or Grandmamma wrapped the silver in it when fleeing Estonia ahead of the Soviets, or Great-Aunt Lena draped herself in it as she ran out of the house to escape the fires that followed the ’06 earthquake, then there would be that story to tell, that reason to keep the tablecloth or even its fragments.

What I have is the lace without the story: pieces of hand-crocheted lace cut from a tablecloth, and a note in my mother’s hand saying that it was from my grandmother Eleanor’s family. I can guess that the pieces were crocheted by a woman, probably in the nineteenth century, probably by someone I am distantly related to, and attached to a tablecloth that probably meant something to this woman beyond simply that it was pretty and she made it. It might have been made as part of her trousseau, or for a daughter or niece. Eventually the tablecloth became stained and spotted, either by age or by food, or both. Someone, perhaps the original lace-maker, perhaps my grandmother (were they the same?) carefully cut the lace from the damaged material, probably intending to attach it to a new, replacement tablecloth. This never happened. The lace stayed in a drawer in my grandmother’s apartment, and then in a drawer or a box in my mother’s house, and then was packed up and sent to me.

I do not lead a life that involves frequent use of tablecloths, and on the rare occasions when I use one, I have my choice of half a dozen intact ones. (Deciding which of these to give away is a task for another day.) Nor am I given to sewing and handcrafts. My nephews have no memories of their great-grandmother, since she died long before they were born. We are not the sort of family that has stayed in one place for generations, stashing all the trousseau pieces in the ancestral attic. We’ve moved around and started over, frequently. The family I know about is mostly male and of a practical bent, although since my grandparents were all from large families there may be second and third female cousins whom I wouldn’t know if I passed them in the street.

So I’m giving the lace away, to a charity shop that has a selection of craft and sewing items. Maybe someone will feel like attaching it to a tablecloth for a bit of nineteenth-century charm.

If you have family things that mean something to you, write out their story, and store it with the things. Tape a card to the bottom of the china tray; pin a note to the tablecloth. It’s like labeling the people in photographs. The time will come when you, or your heirs, don’t know who they were. Even if the things get given away, it would be useful to have dates and some information. Maybe someone whose family later lost the ’06 tablecloth would like a replacement that has a similar story; or it might wind up in some local historical museum as a suitable piece of decoration for a house of the appropriate era.

I should do more of this with the things I have. I recognize my grandmother’s handwriting, and I know “L. T.” was her husband, so when I come across a note of hers referring to something that was his, I know the connection if not the story. But my nephews and their wives won’t know her writing. And there may come a time when I don’t, either. “Write the swyvere down” is good advice for more than research.

More idle web-stalking results

I recently suffered a bout of insomnia in which I was actually up for awhile in the middle of the night, after having been asleep and dreaming of a summer workshop I took a long, long time ago, when I was still a graduate student, in fact. (Who knows why these things come back to haunt my dreams?) So I did a little bit of searching for people. I only remember last names for a few of my fellow workshoppers, though many of the faces (in their youthful guises) remain with me. The faculty are still where they were then, or retired from those jobs. The grad students are harder to trace. One was a friend for a time, and then we lost touch, and as with Ambrose Booker, for a long time I could not find my erstwhile friend on the internet.

But now this person has a Linked-In account, and even an (inactive) Twitter account, and is a married lawyer in another country, looking very happy in posted pictures. There was a time when I feared the outcome might have been alcoholism and perhaps even death, so this is excellent news. Apparently the cure for the depressive episode was ditching grad school for law school. I’m glad to know this much happier end to the story.

Now that I think about it, that wasn’t the first or last time that people unhappy with grad school latched onto me when I was still a student. And I say “latched on” because they were not friends before the quarter-life-crisis (roughly speaking) happened, nor after it resolved. Since I enjoyed grad school in a fairly uncomplicated way (okay, of course I wondered if I would be good enough, would get a job, all that, but I didn’t question my purpose there), I wonder if that was important to them: were they measuring their sense of purpose against mine, or hoping some of my commitment would rub off on them, something like that?

I don’t think I ever urged anyone one way or the other. I have long been a proponent of encouraging people to do whatever they’re going to do anyway, and if they really aren’t sure, I remain as neutral as possible while encouraging them to figure out what they really want.

But all the people I’m thinking of are now doing other things.