uprooted

unnamed

I am a terrible visitor.

I don’t mean in the hotel room trasher sense. I mean I am terrible at being a visitor. At passing through. I can’t spend two days in a place without trying to fantastize how it would feel to live there forever. Where could I work, what would the seasons feel like, would I need a car. What are the ties that would bind me there.

Maybe it sounds harmless on the surface, but it’s not a particularly bright move. Because it means I can’t go anywhere and be content with merely being a tourist. I want to belong. I want to be recognized and to stop having to introduce myself or explain what brought me to this point. I want people simply to know and to treat me accordingly. This is foolish. The world is too large, and our places in it too fluid, to want this kind of anchoring. But I want it, everywhere I go.

I read this article for example, and think: “Ah yes! my ancestors were from that part of the world! Perhaps it would feel good. Perhaps I’m related to some people in the area still.” Unlikely to discover, and impossible to ascertain, within the constraints of an outsider. But I want to. For as long as that article lingers in my memory, I want to buy a boat and head north and disappear into the wilderness — and likely drown doing it; I have no boat knowledge.

I know that this is terribly predictable. I know that this is conceivably why I prefer MMOs and vast open-world games as opposed to narrowly-scoped vignette games: they offer places you spend so long in you feel a part of them. I know how shallowly, predictably American it is to want to belong somewhere and to, in all likelihood, not belong anywhere particularly meaningful. Just as I can’t reinvent these sentiments into something unique and moving, I can’t reinvent myself into someone who belongs anywhere other than some suburb somewhere.

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I know that what we gain from uprootedness makes up, more often than not, for what we lose. No mob with pitchforks is going to come to my house for violating some social norm; there are few norms left and no one knows enough about each other to notice a violation. No community will shun me for some petty misunderstanding or personal political tiff, if I am part of no community. Uprootedness means, in a very personal, day-to-day sense, freedom. Less judgment.

But it also means less support. My parents lived the way I do, and no one gave a shit when my mom got sick and died. Their friends ebbed away. Friends were all they had — no family nearby, no domineering religious group rewarding a lifetime of penitence with assistance at the end — so they were alone at the end. I take the measures I can to try and make sure life will be easier for my husband when that time comes — a house paid off, in a location where he likes the people and the climate — but I’m not dumb enough to convince myself it will be much easier. It isn’t, ever. I know that.

And when I visit or read about far-off places; about putting down roots there, it isn’t just the quaint stone cottages or the rugged mountain vistas or wide-armed seascapes I fantasize about — it’s about people actually feeling a social responsibility to look in on those in need, and following through on that impulse. It’s community I fantasize about, even when I know perfectly well that so many communities are built upon the idea of “us” and “them,” where you only get to be part of “us” by birth. Communities define themselves as much now as they always have by exclusion. It sucks. I know that.

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So I have little patience with myself when encountering stories of place; with how much I want to be a part of whatever place is in question. I know what I gain from being a part of nowhere. But I greedily want to be part of somewhere.

It’s stupid. I don’t note it as such hoping to be told I’m wrong — I know it for what it is. But it’s stupid all the same. The sort of thing you hope you’ll discard with age, and which you realize too late you’re saddled with for eternity. It’s disappointing.

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hearts unknown

bourdain

At a quarter to five in the morning, our phones lit up. We were awake; my husband had just used my phone to turn the sound of rain on over the speakers in this place where it does not rain. But the bright glow of a text lit up the room like a beacon. I rolled over to turn it off and saw that it was my sister-in-law writing to say that Anthony Bourdain had died. Via, apparently, suicide.

“Maybe he wasn’t depressed. Maybe he was just diagnosed with a disease he didn’t want to fight.” And lose.

I spoke those words into the darkness, and wanted — still want — to believe them. We had read his books and watched his shows. All of them, as he moved from the Travel Channel to the Food Network to CNN. When we had no money to travel, in the slow-to-recover Midwest after the economic collapse, we circumvented the globe vicariously through his shows. We saved episodes about certain areas for when the weather, or our lives, or our pantries were particularly morose. We deliberately expanded the range of what we ate, and our knowledge of the places it came from, expressly through his work. Occasionally we’d cave to a Netflix related-show recommendation, or when visiting someone with cable, see what ran next on TV after his show ended — but neither of us stuck around for long. As I am sure everyone will make abundantly clear in the coming days, it wasn’t just the food or even the travel that attracted you to Bourdain’s shows, but the perspective he brought to each. That of the one-time salty chef of Kitchen Confidential, sure, but also of someone old enough to have outgrown that affected badass persona into someone more nuanced, compassionate and, in some ways, gentle.

Both of us have always, consciously or not, looked for role models in that kind of person. We are both the oldest children in our families, with no permanent older fixture — a cousin, a friend — from whom to seek advice or perspective. I more than my husband (probably due to a better track record of finding people worth believing in) actively seek out the writings and advice of people, usually men, at least ten years older than me. For good or ill, it’s easier, for me, to relate to the concerns they are willing to put into words than those being spoken by women. And then there is always the knowledge that I “could have used” an older brother. A brother old enough to be my father, frequently with a youthful history of drug abuse and/or depression, is not, I’m sure, the brother many parents would choose for their kids. Certainly mine wouldn’t have. But what I was saying the other day when reading the last of the Neapolitan novels remains true: seeing this darkness seep out of the veins of people and swallow them isn’t something it’s possible to escape. The seeing of it. But however much my melodramatic youthful self may have wished it at times, that’s not an avenue open to me. Nor, I hope obviously, am I advocating some sort of depression-tourism by soaking oneself in literature and music and other media produced by people capable of going to dark places, as some kind of vicarious sob-fest.

What I am saying, though, is that what they learn is worth knowing. Especially when life doesn’t make it easy to obtain that information any other way.

Most men of Bourdain’s vintage don’t care about marginalized populations. They aren’t able to look at some of the shit kids get up to and recognize themselves in that and leave it alone. If they travel the world they shit on what they find. Third-world this and backwards that. Or, conversely, they deify it. Hold it up as the shimmering paragon toward which everyone else should aspire (and which culture every male should mine for a wife, is typically where that conversation goes, more times than I have the remotest interest in tallying), and compare to which all other cultures pale. Nuance is not common coin among white men in their 50s or 60s. They tend to be assholes.

Bourdain wasn’t. He didn’t do those things. He was perfectly capable of being wry, sarcastic and even bitter about a place or its politics, but its people? He didn’t shit on them. Even when — as I thought darkly during some of his American city episodes, focusing on places who voted red and would continue to do so — they deserved it. He brought his experience and his, yes, fatigue of a certain way of living (be that young and underslept and drugged-up, or rich and languid and overfed — he’d seen all of it) to every place he went, every person he interviewed, and he spoke through that fatigue and found something and someone — so many someones — worth knowing on the other side of it. That is why we kept coming back to him, in whatever medium. That’s why I seek out the perspectives of people like him. It’s not that I can speak to having pondered suicide while on a bender on a cliff road in Jamaica. It’s that those who turned around, who didn’t drive that car over the edge, did it for reasons I want to make sure I find too. Because even if I’m not on that precipice now, or even have a history of teetering, not knowing what made them stay means you may be puttering along on convictions that have all the consistency of toilet paper, when you really need to call on them.

Also, his food knowledge was amazing. We cook from his cookbook all the time.

I hate that he’s dead. I want to believe it wasn’t depression. Obviously, yes, if it was, token attention will be paid to the need for greater education and open discussion about it. But then, as after school shootings, after a few weeks people will stop caring or talking about it, and things will go back to the way they were. The way they have been.

And the way they have been seemed to have been enough for him, is what bothers me. And now, suddenly, it wasn’t. If it was a disease he didn’t want to fight — Alzheimer’s, for example — that I understand. And I like to think, if I were in a closely-related position capable of forgiving or required to forgive, that I could do so. For that.

But if it wasn’t? If it was “just” depression? That sucks. Because Bourdain and his work and his travel and his work about travel, and food, was an argument for there being light at the end of the tunnel.

And it just winked out.

*record scratch*

It is the threat of miscarriage that brought me up short here but the line that preceded it, echoing most of what I studied happily and all of what I loved most in books: Wild, Malafrena, Tigana, All the Light We Cannot See.

This, though, was maybe the greatest and heaviest gift of adulthood, that I recognize here too: that having been surrounded by, having read so much and I guess written a fair amount about people who could unanchor, for whom boundaries would in fact dissolve in the most trying of circumstances, to find that I wasn’t one of them, for good or ill: that my feet would remain on the earth and if the torrent of my sorrow or fury tugged someone else along with it, it would eventually be me standing grimly in the rapids, against the current, waiting to catch them and drag them back to shore. How many moments of my despair turn into me then having to become practical, to remind whoever is there agreeing that actually, no, it isn’t the end of the fucking world, drink some water and sleep and it will be better?

It’s fantastically selfish to even for a moment lament that solidity, I know, and I’m not trying to do that here. But this is the last book in the series and my resentment of Lenu’s writerly narcissism has waxed and waned and waxed again, and right after this passage it spiked because she, too, congratulates herself on remaining stable, anchored, when the “friend” she had foolishly competed with her whole damn life turns out to be clinging to her like flotsam in a flood. It’s shitty.

But it’s also what I saw in my mother, when her friends washed up against her, adrift in their own lives, and it’s a gift to be that person for a little while. Even if it’s a gift that I know will be taken away, as hers was.

anxieties of the underslept

1.) my dnd group hates me

2.) my plants are dying? if not yet then soon

3.) I was supposed to do something I forgot to write down and now I’m too tired to remember it

4.) when I was honestly and outwardly shocked that the group didn’t know a thing they were all fine saying was really racist and fucked up, I used academic language to correct them and I think it made them listen less and not care as a result

5.) am I an over-educated boorish type?

6.) who gives a fuck they were racist and they think calling stuff out as racist is a joke so I tried to explain it

7.) I am bad at explaining things in a way that people will be willing to absorb

8.) my shit’s lost in the mail

9.) no seriously they joked about dragging in the only black person on our floor to ask her what she thought and it’s not her job to serve as some kind of fucked up racism pH test; she’s just trying to live her life

10.) the plants again

11.) this isn’t over-educated it’s common decency for godsake

12.) am I over-emphasizing my fury at this though to cover for the fact that I’m not a good player, which doesn’t bother me much but which I guess bothers them a lot?

13.) the post office didn’t even respond

14.) is someone going to tell me to stick to games that do the calculations for you like that photography prof told me to stick to phone photography, because they’re just that tired of prodding me to do things?

15.) but I don’t even want to play my character the way they want me to

16.) am I really losing sleep over frustrating a couple of casual racists

17.) they’re my only friends here

18.) my plaaaaaaants

19.) I don’t know if the guy who shrouds himself in increasingly niche pop cultural references and outrages therein is doing it to hide a resurgent depression or because he really is pulling on the blinders, and we’re not good enough friends anymore for me to find out

20.) he probably has closer friends to take care of him anyway

21.) but what if he doesn’t

22.) I should be sleeping

23.) I probably would be if I had gotten to work out but I had to skip it to finish an article

24.) that’s a dumb excuse; I should have found time elsewhere

25.) the dog sounds like she has apnea

26.) can dogs get apnea?

27.) I don’t give a damn about the mechanics and never have; I’m here for the story and I think I’m the only one

28.) who cares they’re casual racists

29.) should I really even note “casual,” is that supposed to make it better somehow

30.) I TRIED to explain it to them

31.) I failed

fayth

At Distant Worlds, they sang Hymn of the Fayth, synced to the cutscene. Less than a week before my mother’s funeral, I started crying, as I supposed I might have. I thought I could at least keep it together until Zanarkand — the song for which I attended in the first place. It’s not as though I hadn’t watched this cutscene of the Sending before, many times.

I kept thinking of Yuna as a provider of a service, though. Someone who was good at what she did. Yes, there was the morbid self-sacrificing part of it later, but first and foremost her job — what she travelled her world doing — was to give comfort. To give those people sobbing at the water’s edge, staring at the wrapped bundles of what had been their loved ones bobbing beneath the waves, the impression that there was some scrap of final goodness to be gained from all this. Because a summoner was there, and could release the souls of their loved ones to a peace they, those remaining, hadn’t been able to grant them in mortal life. A gift they couldn’t give.

The betrayal, the lie she is told, cuts the player deeply, sure, for the tax on the characters you by then love. But for Yuna as a provider of this service — someone who at great physical and emotional cost has travelled the countryside releasing the spirits of the dead to what she thought — what the people clutching at her skirts believed — was rest, to discover this falsehood is vicious. Her one job, the one thing she was good at, and had studied for years to learn to do, turned out to be a lie. Not only was she being used, but she had been, without her knowledge or consent, using others. Hundreds of them. And all those people who looked at her through tears before her service, and who probably looked at her through tears after, too, but who through their snot expressed sore, aching gratitude — to discover that rather than peace, what you had been doing that whole time had been “releasing” those souls to feed a kind of machine…how bitter. How cruelly undermining of everything you thought you had to bring to the world.

And I found myself crying, there in that theater full of shrill fangirls and too-tall guys who reeked of cheap weed, because I remembered my mother saying, for years, that she’d done what she’d done — studied what she had, lived where she did, around the world — to provide a service. A very specific, medical service to people who needed it. She was good at it. Everyone who keeps throwing her past at me, thinking their sudden ambush of memories helps me, has made this clear. She was good at what she did.

It wasn’t a lie…the wounds she healed stayed that way, and the muscles she coaxed back into functioning continued to grasp and grip and turn and manipulate objects in this world. Her speciality was hands — the most devastating thing for craftsmen to lose, yes, but even laypeople, as I learned one year, can have so much they love taken away through the loss of their hands. Even the ability to clutch at the people they love.

What she healed stayed healed, but there was no return favor. She fell apart and stayed that way. I thought of the Hymn of the Fayth as the man whose faith I did not share read words seeded throughout books and movies as words that give peace. Well, no — he didn’t read them. His finger marked a page in a closed book, but he didn’t need to read them because he’d memorized them already. This was his job. To stand here in the blazing sun for ten minute segments in front of strangers either crying or holding rigidly, desperately still in order not to. To stand there and speak words that bring people in stories peace. Close-up shots, and piano solos, and laid-down flowers and peace.

It was this that I appreciated, more than any particular affinity for the Bible passages he trotted out. The fact that this was his job. That he was a provider of this service, and went to bed at night feeling as though — one assumes; he was younger than me but not by enough to still lie to himself about his worth — the strangers he saw in streams that day had been served. In some way. He didn’t try to chum it up as small-town ministers I’d met in the past had done — he did not pretend, in speech or in manner, to have been my friend, or my mother’s. He was a stranger, doing his job. A kind of healer, rehabilitating us to grasp and grip and manipulate objects in this, the world-that-remains, even if we don’t much wish to. He’d do it for the next group gathering on the hill behind us. And the next, and the next. And then he’d go home and feel that work had been done.

And I want, very much, for him never to feel that it was all a lie, or that he’d been used or using people. The passages he kept quoting are just scraps of stories, even though they aren’t the stories that are dear to me. In the hands of others — the organized bodies who archive them and form policies based too much upon them, for example — they are weapons, and wretched. But in the gloved hands of a stranger on a sunny hill, they’re just tools used to do a job. Or to try to. I can’t resent him for that effort.

Nor could I summon shame — I checked — when, looking right or left or anywhere except at the tiny box in front of me that held what had been my mother — I kept hearing the choir singing Hymn of the Fayth three thousand miles away, and seeing shining streaks of soul-stuff visibly releasing those gathered from a loss their knees were pebbled and bruised under the weight of bearing.

the briar patch of your heart takes too long to traverse

There are people to whom you know there is more. Whether they’re just bad at hiding this fact, or you know others who know it to be true, doesn’t matter. You know it’s in there. You can see it sometimes, in a word or a gesture, running under the surface like live fish under ice. But between you and that living, tender person you might actually like to get to know, there is a brash, brazen exterior that is just…too much trouble to hack through. When you already have people to whom you are close, whose more troubled waters you’ve already waded through, doing it again, even for the coveted crown of friendship, is just…too goddamn much to ask.

I hate that this is the case. And I hate that in each of the examples that spring so easily to mind of this character type, it’s men putting up these idiotic exteriors, and it is, as far as I can tell, specifically the fact that I’m not a man that sends these exteriors up like hasty scaffolding. It’s infuriating.

Like come on man, who are you? Mike Pence? You see a book I’m reading that you recognize, and I know you know it, your eyes bounce to it and open your mouth, and then you say something dumb about being mistaken, about the book probably being lame, and snort and walk off. Who does that? In their thirties no less? I hear you talking with other men. Whether you’re my husband’s friend or chatting with your brother when you’ve thus far failed to notice me. And what Sooper Sekrit Guy Things are you discussing? Just the state of the world. Or the book you are reading. Or, you know, the things everyone else talks about, and which your whackjob code of gender conduct forbids you from discussing with me.

And I know that popular and sensible logic says to discard such people as lost causes, and move on. And I do that, it’s true. But not happily. Because it’s…it’s such a waste, you know? How many people are there out there who give a shit about the same things you do? Who read the same goddamn book series or devotedly followed the same persalities you did, since you were eleven?

Not many! The answer is not many! For the number of things we can be passionate about in this world are infinite! And to find people whose interests so closely align with our own is a thing to be treasured! But the minute your eyes light up — the minute the sharedness of this information is made clear to the both of you — poof, it’s gone. Wrapped up and stored away on a shelf out of reach. Behind a briar patch of foolishness. These are people who say “the wife,” as though she were a chair or a gas tank, and not someone they sought out and loved and continue to love. These are people who describe lives they do not live as their own — work, kid, sports team, bed — subtracting all the concern and care and quiet moments of observation that you know are in there. These are evident in the way they approach the world, and allow themselves to be seen approaching the world, when they do not know you are there.

God, I hate it. Our best man was one of these types. I know he cares about more than football. I know he has stood at the edge of the ocean with my husband when they were kids and said what they wished they could tell kids of their own. I know he defended my husband from people who bullied him about his stutter, the same as my husband defended the other boy against people who bullied him about his seizures.

And yet, I’m never going to meet that guy. Not ever.

I don’t know why. Is it that you think there’s not enough of you to go around, so you must parcel it out only to a select few? Is it that you worry if you show yourself too starkly, without enough gauzy curtains to duck behind, you won’t be able to retreat again?

How do you end up coming to a point where that is necessary? And once you’ve found someone who loves you, as he has (as they all have) — why in hell do you keep it up?

See, I ask things like that, but…I know it’s selfish to want to dig up the real people behind those damn briars. If they’re happy back there, it’s not my business. But again it’s just…frustrating, and sad. And a waste of what could have been friendship. If I were a guy I’d be their goddamn bro. But I’m not, so instead all I get are “but YOU know how catty women can be, amirite?” jokes. Which, come on. I know you don’t think your wife is some harpy, so stop acting like I’m supposed to chummily agree that why yes, we ARE all bitches, thanks for asking. Are you not allowed to be in love, in this worldview? Does everything precious to you have to be treated, outwardly, as some annoying obligation, lest anyone see you care about anything?

How is that an acceptable way to live out your life?

And yet I know even being frustrated by this withholding is something to point to and say “that’s why, moron.” The idea that I feel myself entitled to someone’s true feelings just because I carelessly fling mine around like grass seed. And if I were to stop and explain why, it would be no better. If I were to catch you in the middle of our D&D game, at the bar at a family gathering, in the middle of a song playing on the speakers in a checkout line and say yeah, this does matter; I’m not sassing my way into sarcastic dismissal here, because I don’t have…time…to pretend about this song, this story, this collapse of a public figure, a hero to some and now a sorrow to many, doesn’t matter. I’ve seen what I get to become. Everything that matters — the ability even to recognize that — gets taken away. And not within the privacy of a coffin but in the grossly public spectacle of clinics and management facilities, years spent dragging everyone I love through the shit with me.

Do you think, with this lurking in my future, this rug waiting to rip out from under me and dump me on a sea of spikes, I have time to bullshit around? To pretend everything is a joke, or that everything I hold dear is just an obligation? A weight? When, if I could, I’d clutch that weight — if weight it is — to my chest, like everyone else gets to, until it pushes me down and down into the depths of somewhere dark and peaceful, trailing only bubbles and not destruction?

I worry, sometimes, that loss has made me dour, and that this more than anything is why people withhold themselves from me.

And it would be fair.

But that’s why I’ve been careful here, on what feels like the other side of the world. No one knows how sad I am. No one knows what I write or even that I do; every sad sack paen to my dead mother, to my depressed father, to places that I love and people that are gone, they’re all hidden! I’ve been so tidy and conscientious with people! Cleaning up after every lonely mess; making sure no one steps in anything unsightly. And yet still they won’t let me in.

Only once, in a boisterous chat room of internet idiots, did one of these types unbar the door. And only because I asked about his kids. He mugged around for a bit, regaling us with tales of temper tantrums and diaper fiascos, until I finally type-growled what I’d never say in person, that he drop the bullshit and tell me, with his mom dead and his family crammed into too-expensive, too-small a space, was it worth it? And he retreated from the disinterested jeers of our sort-of friends, into a PM, and said yeah, it was, and his heart was never wrung with more joy than when watching his two girls tug each other down a path in a forest, and he never regretted it, not ever.

And that was it, bam. Back up went the drawbridge. Only carefully-plotted rejoinders from there on out. And I know it’s greedy to want more. To expect — to demand — that people lower their defenses enough to be honest with some fool on the internet. More than the once that I got. But I wasn’t a stranger. I knew him for a decade. And I wish…I wish that felt as long to everyone else as it does to me. With my limited shelf life. I wish they understood that. Wish they’d be willing to see my impatience for the lonely sort of panic that it is.

I’m not trying to run off with a part of you, you jerks. I’m trying to fill myself up to the brim with as much that matters as I possibly can, before all of it is drained from me like a marsh, unwillingly giving way to muck, until that too dries up and it’s just flat and featureless; no better than a freeway.

And I know my problems aren’t yours — it’s not my flat blank future you’re staring into — and that you won’t have to say goodbye as soon as I do. But I wish you’d say hello beforehand.

As yourself.

And if it’s vain (and it totally is) of me to think I’m the only one with some messy damning medical future ahead of me — if you’re looking at that same thing looming — doesn’t it make that much more sense not to live behind these briars? How are you ever going to take in enough to feel full, surrounded by all your thorns?