Tuesday, May 25, 2010

the things we take away

Rose-Anne, my co-conspirator in tandem blogging, visited me here in Chicago last week. Our relationship has always been defined by food—my god, the cookies we’ve baked—and by conversation, and this visit after eight months of long-distance friendship was no different. We ate braised fennel and almond-crust pizza and oatmeal cookies sandwiching rum raisin ice cream; we petted my cats, and Rose-Anne met my two partners, and generally I think we both came away with a new dimension added to our friendship. While she was here, we also decided on our next tandem topic, and I surprised myself with my suggestion: things we take for granted. (You can read Rose-Anne's take here.)

The thing is, I spend a lot of time trying not to take things for granted. I try to pay attention to the small moments, the tiny details that would pass me by if I weren’t making an effort to see them, the stuff that can be easily overlooked. Why, then, was I compelled to suggest this? And anyway, what does it mean to take something for granted? Does it mean that we don’t see it, that we don’t think about it, that we do think about it but consider it inevitable instead of capable of change? In the end, for me it came down to this: I think that in the same way you can listen to somebody without hearing them you can also look at things without seeing them, and this is when you begin to take them for granted. They’re there, and on some level you know that, but they are so far below your degree of engagement that they might as well not be. The things we take for granted are our blind spots.

Really, if I take anything for granted, it is the big picture. The wide view, the burst of motion that moves you somewhere else, the flurry: I am, relatively speaking, mostly oblivious. I’m examining the sidewalk cracks while traffic moves around me, fascinated by a person’s facial expressions while I should be noticing that they’re flirting with me; I’m more likely to see the graffiti on a building than the building itself. When I think about my life now, I tend to think of it as a series of miniatures: a tiny movement here, a singular moment there, an isolated phrase within a larger conversation. This flower, that footstep. I hadn’t realized how insular my world was becoming; not that seeing small things closes me off—if anything, it brings me closer to the present—but that in my quest for nuance I had mostly stopped seeing larger things.

This all came to a head last weekend, when I was trying and failing miserably to find the Evanston farmer’s market. I walked around the small downtown, wheeling my bike and becoming more and more frustrated because goddamn did I ever want some rhubarb, and after all these years shouldn’t I know my way around downtown Evanston? Jeez. But in addition to being rather spatially inept, I also don’t often see buildings; I see the flowers in front of them, and the people coming out of them, but the actual structures themselves slide past my eyes without leaving much detailed evidence of their existence. And so when I was faced with finding the freaking Evanston Hyatt, which I have been to and by many times, I had to call a friend to ask for directions. Oh, the shame.

But beyond not being able to find hotels that house farmer’s market full of rhubarb and raw honey and asparagus, I wonder if my attention to detail has been giving me tunnel vision in other ways. As I’ve been struggling with my recent backslide into a less happy place than I believe I deserve to be in, I wonder if it’s partially because I’ve become mired in sidewalk cracks instead of opening myself up in order to soar and see things from a different perspective. “Intent gets blocked by noise,” Marge Piercy says, and even though I love the noise maybe sometimes I need to stretch past that to the next level. I started looking down at the ground because I wanted to see the things other people were missing, but maybe I’ve been missing out a bit myself.

I’ve pointed out more than once that in natural settings--I don't know about urban settings, although I'd be interested to see if this holds true--adults tend to see panoramas while children see smaller objects closer to themselves in scope, but I think you need a bit of both for a more balanced view. Besides, who wants to be only an adult or only a child? The minute details are not all there is; the broad strokes of my life also have the potential for beauty. I can’t pay attention to everything, but I don’t have to pre-define the scope of what I choose to see either. Mountains and grass, conversations and graffiti: I want it all.

When I was little I wanted to live life full-tilt, like Teddy Roosevelt. Now, I just I want to live life with my eyes open. I think it's better this way.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I woke from an ill-conceived daytime nap recently to discover a cat sleeping on my elbow, my handmade childhood quilt folded down over me, and a pearly grey light, the kind you get when it's midafternoon and overcast, suffusing the room. I was still wearing my black dress clothes from my morning concert, and my hair was in my face. It's gotten long while I haven't been paying attention; a few months ago I was shocked to realize that, for the first time in years, tangles had re-entered my life. People compliment me on it, and that never fails to confuse me. I moved, the cat--it was Skip, Rita could never sit still in my immediate proximity for so long--turned to look at me reproachfully, and I made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a groan as I rolled onto my back.

I’ve never been a napper. In preschool I got in trouble for refusing to take part in naptime; eventually we reached an agreement with my teacher wherein I was allowed to read quietly while the other children slept (or pretended to sleep, I was never sure), because even at the age of four I was adamantly opposed to naps as a concept. (Unfortunately, when she left the room and the lunchtime aide showed up, away my book had to go because she refused to believe that I had permission to not sleep, which I sort of understand because who wants to argue with a four-year-old? But I still remember my indignation.) As an adult, my opposition came from the fact that sleeping during the day is a nearly surefire way to stay up all night. I walk a delicate balance most of the time between being too tired to stay up and just barely tired enough that I might be able to fall asleep at night, and upsetting the scales in either direction is to be advised against. At the most I'll lay down and practice deep slow breaths for a few minutes to reenergize myself, but sleep is usually right out.

That said, lately I've been napping. Frequently, like nearly every day, and yet somehow I'm still sleeping about as well as ever at night. Apparently the key is that I'm exhausted most of the time, drained of energy to the point where sometimes I don't even want to do anything, where I'm napping almost out of sheer boredom because everything else sounds too hard. (And seriously, if that’s what sleep requires, give me insomnia.) It's true that life has felt hyperactive lately, but on a deeper level, I think part of why I'm exhausted is emotional: I feel sad. Not all the time, because some days I feel good, great, wonderful, and not for any particular reason that I can pinpoint, but enough of the time that even when I feel good I rarely feel sparkly. I feel muted. Lately I've been annoyed because everything I write sounds the same, but I think it's because I'm trying to hold onto some of my wonder and amazement as it’s getting progressively buried behind layers of grey. It scares me because I feel like it’s impairing my ability to figure out the terrain inside of my head in any sort of helpful way, and the longer that goes on the more confused I feel.

The morning of my nap I'd been playing Mozart. I haven't played Mozart in a long, long time--nowadays I mostly play things that are so contemporary that I can't even necessarily read the notes right away--and the music made me feel peaceful. When I play Mozart, I am doing all the right things at all the right times, and I can feel my musician self, often dormant now as I play less and less, listening closely to everything around me, and I enjoy that. Mozart makes me happy, because I feel like I'm absolutely where I should be. I am in synch. In a time when my head is so full of uncertainty and vague dread, the feeling of rightness filled my brain and heart and fingertips and I felt calm. I felt that way again waking up from my nap several hours later, cat hair on my black dress pants and my own hair in my mouth, the warmth of my good cat sleeping on my elbow and the pearly sunlight. It felt like the day had been bookended by that feeling, except what had been surrounded by calmness was sleep.

Maybe I'm being hyperbolic, but lately a lot of things feel pretty shitty; I've been sad before, and this feels frighteningly familiar. But now I know what happy feels like too and I refuse to give up what I'd been hoping was just getting started. The thought makes me feel fierce. I absolutely refuse. Right now it often seems like the way I want to feel is just beyond my reach, shimmering like a will-o-the-wisp on the edge of my vision, but it’s not a figment or a mirage or unreal; it’s just something I haven’t gotten to yet. I will, but first maybe I need to cry a bit and let all of my plants die and rest for a little while before I get there. And so, if I seem a little more absent right now, if I write less or call you less often or seem more reserved, it's because I'm saving up my strength for the next step, for the tumble back into being the happiest shiniest best me I have to offer.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

dust to dust

(It's tandem post time! This week Rose-Anne and I are writing about dirt. You can see her post here.)

Last week my coworker ate potting soil. He was planting seeds at home on his back deck, and there was a bowl of oatmeal next to him, and it was windy. He told me he noticed the sprinkling of sediment on top of his breakfast, but he just stirred it in and went on eating.

This is my face as a child upon discovering that

mud actually tasted nothing like chocolate frosting. Surprise!

It’s been a long haul here lately. I seem to have no energy left at all for anything beyond what’s written in my datebook. Things like buying plane tickets or making anything more complicated than a bagel for dinner—I sometimes can’t even convince myself to get out the cream cheese—or putting away the socks that have been sitting on a chair for at least a week become monumental tasks, and I can feel my muscles grow heavy, can feel the inertia of exhaustion take me, and then things go undone. The crunch will lighten next week and I’ll be back to normal, but right now all I can do is hang on and wait, take good things as they come and hope for the energy to enjoy them.

So yesterday I was pleased when my boss asked me to re-pot some plants. It’s a total cliché to talk about how good it feel to get your hands dirty, but it’s true that I’m always happy when I come home with grit under my fingernails and it felt like a good day for that to happen. When I first began planting things at work I was concerned; I don’t have the greenest thumb despite my best efforts, and I imagined the plants shuddering from our contact, rejecting the soil I patted into place around their root systems. But after a fleet of angry customers failed to come after me brandishing the blackened carcasses of their jade plants, I relaxed, and now my favorite days are the ones where I can convince people to let me plant things for them.

I like the way dirt smells. When I walk around, especially during this time of year, I try to make an effort to use my nose more often—because of lifelong allergies I tend to breathe through my mouth and so miss a lot of discernible scents—and aside from the lilac and hyacinth and spirea and freshly mown grass one of the things I sometimes pick up on is overturned dirt. Scents are notoriously hard to describe but we often recognize them instantly, and this one reminds me of good things: helping my mom and grandmother garden as a child, re-potting my own small plant collection in my living room (shoving my hands into a bag of dirt in my carpeted one-room apartment always feels oddly subversive for some reason), sitting on the grass watching things happen around me. I think it’s so easy, with our sidewalks and paved roads and manicured lawns—god forbid you should walk on them—to forget about the ground entirely.

When I was little and living in Tucson, on hot days my mom would sometimes let me run the hose into our apartment complex’s communal courtyard of packed dirt and scrawny palo verde trees and then coat my entire body in mud. It was luscious, wallowing in cool wetness when the temperature was well over a hundred degrees. Sometimes I wish I still had more space in my life for that kind of abandon. Sometimes I wish I had a garden. Especially now, when I’m exhausted and trembling at the thought of the next week, I wish I had more opportunity to be dirty and uncaring and ridiculous. I want to be passionate about not just love and music and joy, but about dirt and coffee and gorgeous prose and geeky science facts, the ground in front of me and the far-off view.

I am so sick of hearing myself talk about how important the small stuff is, but lately I can’t seem to think of anything more worthwhile to say. I don’t want fame and fortune from my life; I want to appreciate the very ordinary things that happen to me. I want to sniff lilac bushes and eat fresh vegetables and read beautiful books in sunny train cars, and to dig my hands into the soil and come home with dirty fingernails to my cats and my books and a silence of my own choosing. I want sunlight and the color green and lots of garlic. I want dirt in my oatmeal, and mud in my hair, metaphorically and perhaps literally. I’m such a ridiculous optimist, an earnest romantic despite my best efforts, but I want to do small things and enjoy them fully and just savor the feeling of being alive and happy, to have a life that is wonderful without necessarily being huge.