This morning I was thinking about podcasts and social media and relationships and intimacy, which is to say that I was thinking about the same stuff I think about a lot. There’s a podcast I’ve been listening to for over seven years now. Call it a bit under a fifth of my life, though, actually, it feels like longer. But seven years is a good long time, and you can’t spend that much time with the same voices in your head week after week without feeling some kind of a connection or relationship.
Obviously, I’m aware that this imagined relationship is just that: imagined. One-sided. The people to whom those voices belong don’t know me from a hole in the ground. But it’s also not wrong to say that I’ve spent time with them, perhaps more time than some people who would actually count me as a friend. It’s a strange thing, this kind of relationship—it feels both intimate and distant. You feel like you know these people, and in a way you do. At least, you know that part of them that they choose to show you. And if it is only one aspect of their lives or personalities, it’s also not nothing.
I think about this kind of thing a lot, in part because I spend so much time on social media, which means that I have to consider what intimacy and friendship mean in a context where neither of us really have access to each other’s lives, other than what we choose to write about. What can I ask of someone, and what can they ask of me? What are our responsibilities to each other? How much do I actually know any of them, and how much do they know me?
But then, I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this now, and the reason I’m choosing to write about it here, is because I find myself wondering—again—how much we can ever really know anyone.
One of my co-workers died suddenly about a month ago. I’d worked with him for over eleven years, but somehow I still thought of him as one of the “young guys” just because I interviewed him for the job when he was a new grad. Realistically, back then I was a young guy, too.
The company held a memorial lunch for him last week and we all ate and swapped stories and laughed a lot. He was that kind of guy, the kind that made you laugh. People talked about how fun and funny he was, what a good engineer he was, how he was a good guy. Eleven years, and what else can I say about him? I knew him, joked with him, stayed up working into the wee hours with him. Sometimes we argued, sometimes we pissed each other off. A lot of times we laughed.
What does it mean to know somebody? To be close? I’ve pushed not to be defined by my job, either to myself or others, and so I often think of my relationships outside of work as being more real, somehow. That the people in my home life or often even people online know me better than my coworkers. And to some extent, that’s true. But as many parts of my existence that my coworkers never see, there are also parts that only they see, whether that’s how I talk when I’m giving a technical presentation or what I look like when it’s two in the morning and I’m still in the lab. I’m different at work from how I am at home or out in the wider world, but I’m no less myself for that.
The easy question to ask here is this: are social media friendships somehow less real because of the fact that social media personas are curated? Or: what are the limitations of intimacy in these relationships, which are necessarily defined by the narrowness of their visibility? But I find I’m uninterested in those questions. Because it’s easy to talk about social media being seductive. It’s easy to talk about presuming an unearned or nonexistent intimacy in that context. What I find myself thinking about more is how “real” life is seductive and narrow. Not to say that listening to your podcast means we have a relationship or that being able to see and hear and smell you doesn’t, but rather that every relationship is both real and false, both more and less than it seems. That we are at the same time profoundly connected and utterly alone.
I think that what you do with a thought like this is a matter of temperament and choice. If you can keep both the candlestick and the faces in your mind at once—or at least remember to switch back and forth—I think there’s an opportunity, both to rejoice in closeness and to respect distance. I’m trying to see it that way, anyway.
Word for the Year
In 2017, I chose STRENGTH as my word of the year. It was two months since Trump had been elected, but still before the inauguration, before the Women's March, before I'd started a resistance group. I hadn't started working yet, but I knew there was work to do, so much work, and I felt that I needed to be strong, resolute, enduring in order to do what had to be done. I knew that over the coming year I would get tired and would at times despair—and, indeed, that did happen. The word I chose was meant to be a reminder, a mantra to repeat when exhaustion set in, a way for me to push through, to keep fighting.
Yet although I had worked hard throughout the year, often speaking to myself and others about the need to fight, to resist, the metaphor of combat never really fit for me. Anger, rage, fury—these are words that I'd see over and over from others, but they're not emotions I can sustain. And although I felt and continue to feel that it is important not to shy away from struggle, that adversity and challenge bring the opportunity for growth, and that the work still yet to do is necessary even though it is difficult, it is not enough for me to be defined simply by struggle. Maybe this works for other people. It doesn't for me.
Ultimately, what I needed was not strength or force of arms to overcome. Nor did that outlook match my principles or my approach to leadership, if “leadership” is the right word for what I did—I'm still uncomfortable with how grandiose it sounds. I set myself some ground rules from the beginning: that I would present myself as a resource, not an authority figure; that I would speak my truth and offer what information I had, but not tell anyone what to do, nor even try to persuade anyone to change their minds; that I would ask for help when I needed it, but never make demands, and I would accept it when people refused my requests; and above all that I would always aim for kindness, respect, and understanding. None of this was meant to be high-minded—or at least not mainly—nor did I always live up to what I had set out to do. I just knew that this approach would make it easier for me than feeling frustrated or despondent when people didn't do what I wanted, which of course they could and did.
In thinking about what word I would choose for 2018, I imagined a rock in the ocean, around which the tide flowed and onto which the waves crashed, but which was itself unmoved. But when I described this to others, the words they thought of—“resolute,” “stoic,” “enduring"”were closer to what I had felt I needed last year than what I wanted for this year. That isn't to say that they didn't fit the image. They did. So perhaps the image was incorrect. Or at least incomplete.
What I'm looking for in 2018 is acceptance without passivity. Calm and quietness of mind and spirit; peace, but not appeasement. To stand for what is right, but to forgive myself for my shortcomings, as I forgive others for theirs. Forgiveness without capitulation or condescension. Empathy. Kindness.
My word for 2018 is GRACE.
I took a course in electromagnetism when I was a sophomore in college—I turned out not to have much aptitude for physics but it was required. I often think about a little throwaway moment from the first day of class, in which the professor described electromagnetic force as being the one we’re most aware of interacting with. That, in fact, due to electromagnetism, we were all actually hovering a tiny distance above the atoms in our chairs. For years, that image would pop into my head unbidden: the infinitesimal but real space between our fingertips and the object our our desire, separating us, insulating us, sequestering us forever, an uncrossable gap.
I’m given to a touch of melodrama, I suppose.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about language, perhaps because I’ve been reading Sofia Samatar’s novel A Stranger in Olondria. About the profound weirdness of sitting alone in a quiet room, my mind full of sounds and images thought up and preserved by someone in a completely different place and time. But even beyond the written word, I’m thinking about how, by making noises with your mouth, you can induce a brain state in me such that we are both essentially thinking the same thing. We are, for a moment, in sync. I’m thinking that I don’t know whether there is a soul or if what I am is a series of electrical patterns running from one neuron to the next, but that either way, language allows you to literally change me. And even though none of these ideas are particularly novel, or really even any deeper than what I might have rambled about while getting high after reading Kant for the first time as an undergraduate, there’s something comforting about the idea that our minds can touch, even if the particles of our bodies might not.
I have the feeling that the preceding paragraphs are ones that my future self is going to find insufferable and embarrassing, in much the same way that reading posts from the beginning of my blog make me want to set myself on fire. But it’s been a hell of a year, demoralizing and alienating, and perhaps I might be forgiven for grasping at any little thing that helps me feel connected to the rest of humanity.
Has it really been so bad? I mean, it has insofar as I can’t remember ever being so worried about the future, but there’s been so much to be thankful for as well. So many evenings spent reading to my kids, so many afternoons spent in engaging conversation with friends new or old, so many times I held my wife’s hand, even if neither of us said anything. The most insidious thing about 2017 is how it has convinced me to forget all of that and focus on the loneliness.
There’s so much to be angry about, but I’m not great at being angry. When I was younger I could nurse rage and resentment for days, weeks maybe, but I can’t sustain it anymore. And somehow I still believe—perhaps naively—that there’s a way out of all of this, and that art and stories and empathy and connection can help get us there. I don’t mean to say that hugging my kids or reading a good book or taking time for introspection over a cup of tea is going to save our democracy or end racism or keep capitalism from crushing us all. I mean that one way or another what will carry me through, what will last, what will always matter are the ways that I’ve been close to someone else.
Is there something that has made you feel less alone recently? I’d love to hear about it, if you’re willing to share.
My son has a pet crayfish. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that I have a pet crayfish. This isn't something I was expecting to ever say. But then, my experience of parenthood can more or less be summed up by the fact that I have an actual list of "Things I Never Thought I'd Say."
Red—that is the crayfish's name, and also its color, more or less—came to live with us in May, having previously been part of my son's third-grade unit on life science. He (my son assures me that Red is male) spends most of his time lying around on his side, a disconcerting habit in an animal that lacks eyelids, making it look like he is constantly dying or already dead. When I see him doing that, I tap on the side of his aquarium, my finger making a dull, ringing thump on the plastic, and Red immediately rights himself and either brandishes his tiny pincers at me or scurries into the little flowerpot we've provided him for "privacy." These are Red's three general states of being: depressive malaise, ridiculous bravado, and hiding in darkness. Which, when I put it that way actually makes the smelly little creature kind of relatable.
When I was a kid, a few years younger than my son is now, we lived in a cabin in Bixby Canyon, maybe a mile or so in along the canyon floor from where the creek ran under the famous bridge that causes so many traffic problems now, lines of parked cars a quarter mile in each direction as the tourists jockey for a spot to take the same exact photograph as the people they're elbowing out of the way, hundreds of them every day. There weren't so many of them back then, but either way we had our own little bridge as well, though ours was just a little wooden foot bridge and not a historic concrete arch. The creek ran through our front yard, and in the shadows cast by that little foot bridge, under the rocks, there were rainbow trout and crayfish, though we called them crawdads. We would pass the time, sometimes, by tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling the bits into balls and dropping them over the side of the bridge to feed the trout and the crawdads. The first time I saw my mother's boyfriend doing that, I thought he was throwing pebbles at them. I tossed in a big rock, which made a satisfying splash before it crushed one of the crawdads. I got a spanking for that.
We lived in that cabin about a year, from one winter to the next. I learned a lot of things that year. I learned which spots in the creek the crawdads liked to lurk in, and how if I dipped a blade of long grass in front of them, they'd grab it and wouldn't let go even after I pulled them out of the water. I learned what crawdads taste like when my mother's boyfriend decided to take us to a different part of the creek and showed us how to catch a whole bucketful, how they turn bright red when you boil them, how to tear the tails off and suck the meat out. I learned that sometimes my mom's boyfriend would be interested and affectionate with us, and sometimes he would be sullen or angry, but I never quite learned what would make the difference, or how to anticipate his moods. I eventually learned that I wasn't responsible for his moods, but not that year.
I asked my son the other day if he loved Red. He thought about it for a second, then cocked his head and said "No, but I'll still be sad when he dies." It seems like this is our main interaction with Red apart from feeding him and changing his water once a week—that is, waiting for him to die. Crayfish can live several years according to what we looked up online, but what we heard from teachers and other kids' parents was that they usually only last a few weeks after the kids take them home, and, indeed, Red has already outlived the rest of his third-grade science class cohort. It seems a little strange to me, sometimes, that the boy is so attached to this creature that gives so little back, but this is what he's like. He cares. I think sometimes that he's better than I am, and that's a good feeling.
Thoughts After a Weekend Full of Art
On Sunday afternoon I wandered away from my tour group and sat by myself at a picnic table in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, and ate a wrap I’d bought from a cart and finished reading A Pale View of Hills. Most likely if I had asked some of the other people with me if I could join them, or if they’d like to join me, they’d have said yes, and I felt that perhaps I ought to have done that, but it was nice to have the time to myself.
Every year I look forward to the Medium Festival of Photography, four glorious days of art and discussion and camaraderie, my favorite event in this or really any town. Beforehand, I count down the days, and afterwards I am filled with longing for the kind of connection I’ve just had, the experience of finally being among my people. It’s wonderful and it’s exhausting.
I’m at my best, I think, when I’m able to celebrate my peers. This friend has a solo museum exhibition, that friend has an amazing new book, this one just had a great interaction with a reviewer, that one sold both of his prints within half an hour of the show opening, and I’m thrilled. My friends’ successes make me feel like a part of something bigger than myself, like things are actually right with the world, and I wonder why I can’t feel that way about my own successes, why I feel embarrassed when someone asks to see my work, why I feel the need to apologize when, afterwards, they thank me and pay me a compliment. Why do I feel the need to make myself small? Why is it hard for me to admit that I’m proud of my own work?
It’s the strangest thing in the world to exult and shrink in the same moment.
Of course it’s not about the work, it’s always just me. In truth, I’m past feeling insecure about my photographs. I know what I’m trying to do with my images and my books, and why, and I believe that I have done what I set out to do, and done it well. Honestly, I think I’m good at what I do, and I don’t much care if people don’t like the work. It’s not the rejection that hurts, it’s the acceptance.
If it sounds like the weekend has been difficult for me and not like it was a joyful, inspiring, glorious experience, it’s because I’m doing a poor job of describing it, obsessing about details instead of filling in the whole scene. I got to spend four days swimming in art, filling my lungs with it, dancing with it until I collapsed in exhaustion only to begin again the next morning. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones, I had some amazing conversations, and received so much kindness from people who don’t owe me anything. If I am unable to simply bask in such warmth, it is a shortcoming of mine, not of the place or people with whom I spent the time.
If my twenties were a process of coming to terms with and accepting a comforting sense of mediocrity, then perhaps my thirties have been the process of letting that go. My forties aren’t too far off. It’ll be interesting to see how they go.
I realized the other day that most of my favorite TinyLetters are written by people much younger than me. There’s a feeling of incipience and urgency that I enjoy reading but struggle to find in my own narrative lately.
There’s a way in which middle age—and if I’m being honest with myself, that’s where I should rightly place myself these days—seems to resemble the heat death of the universe. That is to say, one hypothetical fate of the universe is to reach an eternal steady state in which entropy is maximized and nothing happens anymore, and each moment is indistinguishable from the one just before or just after. This is how life feels sometimes once you’ve moved past your youth. Being young has a built-in sense of direction, of growth, of motion. You feel you are building toward something, even if you don’t know what that something is—at least, that is how I felt. But eventually you settle into a routine, and your life becomes what it is. From day to day, week to week, year to year, nothing much happens to distinguish the current moment from any other.
This isn’t true, of course. It just feels true, probably due to a short attention span. Mind you, this has always been true, but lately, reminders of this untruth have tended to smack me in the face.
My 20th high school reunion was a few weeks ago, and I had a surprisingly good time. For most of my life I’ve had a lot of social anxiety and the prospect of having to make small talk always makes me squirm, but the combination of having hosted an interview podcast for nearly two years, and the realization that I was legitimately interested in hearing people’s stories made the night quite enjoyable. Now, I had expected to hear a lot about what my classmates had been up to for the past two decades—and that did, indeed, happen—but what I wasn’t prepared for was hearing so many recollections about myself. Especially ones I had forgotten.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago for my blog, how people can have such different memories of an event, and how the meaning of those memories shape our lives. It’s jarring, to say the least, to realize that the story you tell about yourself is incomplete. I tend to see my adolescent self as fundamentally self-absorbed, usually well-meaning but sometimes petty or cruel—which is to say: a teenager—and generally unremarkable. That so many people not only remembered me, but remembered specific kindnesses I’d shown them or specific times I’d helped them or done right by them, it shook me. Not just because the edges around the holes in my memory have the same texture as the edges of my existence, but because it forces me to reevaluate the things I want to believe about myself now.
One of the most freeing realizations I’ve had in my life was how comfortable mediocrity is. This epiphany came after failing the first exam I took in college, which was shocking but also felt a bit like flying—to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder or longer than the day I got my score back on that test. Excellence has its comforts, too, but it comes with responsibility. Mediocrity places no demands. And if unimportance takes the shine off of my achievements, it also takes the sting out of the harm I’ve caused. You have to matter to someone in order to hurt them.
After the party I drove a friend back to his hotel room, and on the way he told me stories about how good a friend I’d been to him, back in the day. I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I was nothing special, then or now. I wanted to insist, and by insisting, to take away something from his story, something which he treasures. What would I take from anyone to keep myself comfortable, to avoid the responsibility of living up to being something? I kept my insistence to myself, and sat and listened to his stories, and gave him a hug before we parted.
This isn’t ending where it began, which I suppose is appropriate. I’m learning. At least, I’m trying.
This Is It
At about 4:30 this morning, my son wandered into my bedroom and told me that he'd had a bad dream. He said that he had been running away from Voldemort, that Voldemort had been killing everybody around him and he had to get away, and then he woke up. I let him lie down between me and my wife, and within a few seconds he was asleep again.
An hour and a half later, my alarm went off. I rolled over and picked up my phone from where it lay on my nightstand, to be greeted by a whole night's worth of push notifications from different news services. Each new message told a story worse than the last—first a warning about an active shooter, then two dead, then twenty, then fifty. I put the phone down, turned and reached down to where my son lay, still warm and unaware. I put my hand on his back and he stirred. "Time to get up, buddy," I said. He stretched and sat up. I didn't tell him what I'd just read, nor his sisters. I don't think I will. That they don't have to be burdened with such horror is a privilege, of course.
I don't believe in magic. It has nevertheless been years since the last time a nightmare sent my son seeking comfort and reassurance from me or his mother in the middle of the night. That the image which so terrified him was of crowds of people running while a dark figure indiscriminately snuffed out lives all around him is... Well, it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about coincidences.
The thing that hurts the most about a day like today, like any of these days with which we have all become so unfortunately familiar, is the certain knowledge that the world is like this because that's how people want it to be. Oh, sure, they may profess shock or grief on a day like this one, but still nothing happens, nothing changes. Not when a man stormed into an elementary school and killed twenty children. Not when an avowed racist looking to start a race war entered a church and killed nine people. Not when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old on camera.
Is it just guns? No, of course not. White supremacists march openly through the town square and the President makes excuses while well-meaning onlookers wrap themselves in the First Amendment and "tut tut" about campus protests. Houston, Florida, and now Puerto Rico—not to mention all of those other Caribbean islands—are demolished by successive hurricanes, but of course millions of Americans still believe that climate change is a hoax, including the head of the EPA. Closer to my home, a local Congressman is calling for war with North Korea. And city officials twiddled their thumbs for months while a hepatitis outbreak ballooned and claimed lives, only bothering to take action when the deaths made national news. (Meanwhile, of course, the amount of affordable, or even available, housing continues to fall in the area, jagged rocks are still under most of our overpasses, and now the city is clearing the streets without giving the homeless anywhere to go.) Nothing changes.
Let's not pretend that this isn't who we are. This is it. We have the money and the means to make life better, to protect those who need protecting, to save the planet. We know what we need to do, if not to solve our problems then at least to improve them. But we don't, because in our hearts we don't want to. Because whether it's guns or oil or property values or white supremacy, no price is too high to keep things comfortable for those who aren't already suffering. Because having to admit that solutions are available would mean admitting that we're part of the problem. The greatest source of harm in this world isn't greed, it's the inability to tolerate any amount of emotional discomfort.
After my kids left for school this morning, feeling heavy and sliding toward despair at the morning's news, I headed into the bathroom to get cleaned up for work. I noticed a small shape on the wall, about waist level to my three-year-old, a tiny red star no larger than two grains of rice stuck together. And for a brief moment, things didn't seem so bad. There is, as always, yet innocence and beauty and simple joy in the world. No joy is ever quite so pure as that of a toddler with a sticker, and how seductive that feeling is when all is wrong with the world. How I'd love to stay there in that space. Who wouldn't? But that would be giving up, just as surely as would despairing.
I don't have any answers. I never have. I don't know how to make people care. At least, not enough to make them take an honest look in the mirror and change. Do I even care enough? I don't know. I just know that I'm sad and angry and tired as hell.
I close so many letters or lists or threads by saying "I wish you peace." And I do. And I want to say that now. But the truth is that there will be no peace unless we make it, and we can't do that without struggle, without discomfort. I keep thinking that people will get there eventually. I hope we do. Me, too.
(Briefly) Empty Nest
When he was a puppy, our dog slept beside our bed, just within reach of my fingertips if I let my arm hang down from under the blankets. Then, when our son was born, the dog moved into his room and helped keep bad dreams away while the boy slept. But ever since our first daughter was born, and now, still, with three kids in the house, he sleeps in the hallway, the better to keep watch over the entire family each night.
This week the kids—all three of them—are hundreds of miles away, visiting their grandparents. The dog is still sleeping in the hallway, though. Perhaps he wonders where they are. Perhaps he feels some stress over not being able to protect them. Some day none of them will live here anymore, but, already almost eleven years old, it's unlikely that the dog will live long enough to see even the first of them go.
This is a melancholy thought, but it's not at all out of character for me.
With the kids away and me being out of the office, I've had few responsibilities for the past week. Notwithstanding the relentless march of terrible news, this should be a time for me to enjoy myself. And it has—J and I have eaten at interesting restaurants, seen some good movies, visited art exhibitions, and even spent one afternoon wine-tasting. Both of us have also spent time working on personal projects. In a lot of ways it's been glorious.
Over and over, though, I keep thinking about how hard it's going to hit me when the kids finally move out for real. How this is, in fact, the goal of parenting: to prepare your children to go out into the world and leave you behind. How brief the time is that you get to have them close. How some day they will all be too big for me to lift and hold in my arms, and how I most likely won't even notice the last time I do so.
While they've been gone, J and I dismantled our youngest's crib and took it and the rocking chair out of her room, and replaced them with a real bed. The crib went to J's sister's house, where in a few months it will belong to our newest nephew, after he's born. The rocker very nearly went to Goodwill, but at the last minute J changed her mind, realizing that she couldn't part with it yet. I'm nearly always sentimentally attached to objects, but J almost never is. There's something powerful, though, that both of us feel about the fact that we no longer have babies in the house. For nine years we've been comforting our children in that chair, reading to them, singing to them, lulling them to sleep. It's a lot to move on from. We'll get there, but not just yet.
A couple of days ago I went into my son's empty room, lay down on the bed, and just stared at the ceiling for a while. He has two Pokémon posters taped up there, and a paper Christmas tree from 2012, a few splashes of color against an otherwise plain, white background. His room still had the slightly musty, slightly sweet smell of boy, and I wondered how long it would take for it to completely fade. It struck me how strange and melodramatic and possibly creepy I was being, but it was still another minute or two before I got up.
The kids will be home tomorrow, bringing with them all the joys and aggravations that kids do. I can't wait.
About six weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I found out that an old teacher of mine was dying. It was cancer, multiple myeloma, and in the final stages.
I saw his obituary today as I was getting ready to leave the house for work. He died last week.
It feels, on some level, wrong to talk about my own feelings in this moment, a moment in which the loss must surely belong more to my late teacher’s family and close friends. And yet, though I haven’t had the chance to see or speak to this man in almost twenty years, I can’t help but think of myself, my life, my past, and how my world feels smaller today.
He was my English teacher for three years in high school. More than any other single person, he is the one who taught me how to write. By the end of my senior year, he had us writing two essays a day, all in a fifty-minute class period. He gave us a strict set of structures and rules for composition, but also told us how and when and why to break those rules. In his class, I learned not just how to string words and sentences together, but I learned to have confidence in approaching the task of writing, to believe that this was something I could do, and do well.
More than that, he was the first person outside of my immediate family who I can recall showing interest in my writing, who encouraged me to find my voice, to write things that mattered to me. When I was fifteen, he submitted one of my essays to the local newspaper—a small paper serving a town of just a few thousand, but still my first publication. I never managed to get my hands on a copy of that issue, but I still have the original, typewritten essay tucked away in a drawer.
Now that I think of it, though, I wonder about those mementos I keep, the old writing, photographs, ticket stubs, posters. I’ve kept them in folders, stashed in closets, some over twenty years now. I seldom even think about them, let alone look at them, and though I usually enjoy the feeling I experience when I do take them out and let the memories wash over me, for the most part they’re kept safely hidden away. But safe from what? Two decades on, and the pages are still holding up fairly well, but eventually the paper will begin to turn yellow and brittle, and fade like all things must.
Reading my teacher’s obituary, I noted that he was 75 years old when he died. I would have sworn when I was in his class that he must have been close to that age at the time, but in truth he was only 52 when I first met him—not much older than some of my friends and coworkers now. And, of course, by now many classes will have passed through my old school never having known him. When I look at the faculty list today, I only recognize a few names, teachers who were young when I graduated and are now looking gray, like the old-timers they are. Of course. The essays sitting in my file drawer only remain the same because they’re not alive and never were. We all get older, myself no less, and as time takes us in and out of spaces, others come to fill the vacuum left behind us. I imagine the conversations taking place in the halls between classes now, and the faces, the words, even the buildings are different, but something essential remains the same.
As I think of my teacher, I’m grateful for many things. What I learned, of course, and the times he made me laugh. Most recently, though, I’m grateful for this: finding out in the way I did, on the day I did, I had the opportunity, the time, to say goodbye. It’s not something I take lightly—I have lost a lot of people in a lot of ways, and most often it has happened suddenly. And though the grief has been no less when I’ve been prepared than when I’ve been surprised, there is a measure of peace granted by the knowledge that I didn’t miss my chance to let my teacher know how much he has meant to me, how much knowing him has mattered in my life. It would be, I think, an amazing thing to truly know the lives we’ve influenced, the ways in which the world is better for our having been in it, and though we may or may not get to see this for ourselves, it’s something we can do for others. It’s not so hard to say, simply, “Thank you, you mattered to me.” And what a world it would be if we all did it a bit more often.
Thank you, as always, for your time. For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you.
Sometimes at night, as I am waiting to fall asleep, my brain engages in a form of time travel. I suppose a more prosaic way of saying it would be to call it “memory,” but this doesn’t capture the experience. Nor does the word “hallucination,” though that gets closer. In the dark, with my eyes closed, no sound in my ears but my own breathing, I am in a different bed. One that doesn’t exist anymore.
Last night after I came to bed, I lay there for a while and looked at my wife, at the way she looked blue in the dim glow from her phone, at the softness of the light and how it matched the softness of her skin, and I smiled a little, though she didn’t see it. When I closed my eyes, the image of her face stayed in my mind for a moment, but then, as it does, my mind wandered. And after no more than a few seconds, I found that my sense of the room around me and the bed beneath me had changed.
Often when I go somewhere else, it’s back to my high-school bedroom, a room I called mine from the ninth grade through college. I haven’t seen the inside of that house in 13 years, since my mom and stepdad moved east to care for his elderly parents. But I still go there at night. The room is nine feet by ten feet and built like a ship’s cabin, with all of the furniture built onto the walls. If I were to open my eyes, I’d see that every horizontal surface apart from the bed on which I lie is covered with books, magazines, papers, and the other detritus of a teenaged introvert. My toes just hang over the edge of the mattress, and if I roll just a bit to the right, the plaster on the wall will be cold against my back. Of course, if I were actually to move or open my eyes, the spell would be broken and I’d be back to the present day.
Last night, though, I went back much further. Instead of the short twin mattress of my 14-year-old self, I found myself lying on a cot against the east wall of a small, one-room cabin. Just a few inches from my feet are several large windows that look out onto an unfinished redwood deck, past the railing of which the Bixby Creek trickled by. There are crayfish in the creek, and trout, hiding in the shadows under the little footbridge. We lived here when I was six, with my mom’s boyfriend—a man I haven’t seen in decades, who died four years ago, and whose memory will probably always haunt me.
My waking intellect, the part of me which is writing these words right now, knows that this experience is just a combination of memory and imagination. But when I am drowsy, I begin to wonder: is this mere fantasy, or does my consciousness perhaps drift back to my younger body in these moments? If I remain still enough, silent enough to hold onto this magic through the night, or if I fall asleep while I’m there, where might I be when I awake?
Most of the time when I am transported through time in this place between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a sense of longing, a melancholy born of the recognition of lost time. Yet I also feel a certain wonder, and perhaps a certain safety—which makes little sense to me now that I consider how often I felt frightened as a child and lost and lonely as an adolescent.
Finding myself back in that cabin, though, was more than I could bear. The weight of my memories, the thickness, the viscosity of my emotions—I felt like I couldn’t draw a breath. I jerked my eyes open and, needing an anchor to something present and real, I reached out and put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. She turned and looked at me, lowering her phone for a moment and asked “What’s up?”
I explained. I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but she simply asked “What do you need right now?”
“I’m doing it,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder gently. She smiled and went back to her phone. A few minutes later I was asleep. Here. And now.