It is true – the scent of the sea does follow me. Perhaps it’s a summer scent memory, but sometimes when I am sitting with my computer on my lap, I smell salt with the tiniest undercurrent of rot, that warning that further down the beach the half exposed skeleton of a fish lies on the sand, mobbed by flies. Then I remember that Nora-dog is sleeping at my feet. Oh.
The last psych class is done, six weeks of intensity that briefly overlapped four and a half weeks of a different sort of intensity. Everything has been in a rush lately, the rush to toss out the accumulated crap, the rush to do a season’s worth of gardening in a few weeks, the rush to prepare for the boy’s upcoming birthday and party and the upcoming visits of various grandparents over the next month. Wherever I’ve been, it’s been good and busy and engaged, even if food continues to disinterest me and has become more fuel than anything else.
I still maintain fantasies of being taken care of, of the mind reader that does not exist but should, of sinking into a relaxed state knowing that I don’t have to keep vigil over everything. I think that is the problem with food right now – I want to be fed, I want to be hungry and then satiated with care and attention, but instead my eating pattern consists of annoying appetite followed by its extinction, the little pangs ignored and then silenced with whatever foodstuff is handy.
There is nothing to be done about it. Still, if I want to get through graduate school in a healthy fashion, I need to start taking better care of myself. For most of my adult life, part of my self-definition has been about healthy eating and cooking, about taking care of others through food, of enjoying good food and its preparation. It’s disconcerting and confusing to feel so unattached to what I eat, to play a game with the edge of hunger, and to feel like I am the only one who notices. And who would I let take care of me anyway? It’s a trap, a fallacy of what it means to be taken care of that I’ve let myself fall into. It’s time to woman up and let go of the being parented fantasy. Or time to figure out the appetite behind the lack of appetite, to fill myself up in other ways.
As for the opening paragraphs to this post? I’ve spent the last several weeks writing, writing, writing. Sometimes I can fit interesting passages into what could be dry text. For example, I am particularly proud of the following passage from my developmental psych final: Berkeley High School (BHS) is a huge place, with about 3300 students. At lunchtime, the students stream out to invade the takeouts of downtown. They are overwhelming in their mass and in their blind, broad, and loud joie de vivre. If you’ve been in downtown Berkeley on a weekday during the school year, you know exactly what I mean. Academic writing with a little art thrown in is good for me. It shows that I can write well, clearly, and quickly on topics other than myself. I find it enjoyable and stimulating to interlock words and concepts. But it doesn't take me down lyrical paths or transport me into a world where I am seven years old with a late-July tan, my legs marked with mosquito bites. In that long-ago place, I'm still figuring out that a wave can pull me under and spit me back onto the sand. I still think that the grownups are always right and that a little bit of salt water will cure what ails me. I am innocent and trusting and small and someone else always cooks me dinner.
It's a strange space to crave, one of dependence and innocence, a compelling fantasy that forgets the complications of childhood and the way you sometimes have to become a fortress to protect yourself against what you need, against the ache of not getting.
Image of me in Ocean City, MD, summer of 1976.
The final chapter of the textbook for our human development psych class isn’t a chapter. It’s an epilogue, a conclusion, a summing up. We all know how life ends. And it’s over. The textbook-reading portion of the class, anyway. Much writing remains and that’s what I should be doing now, that or sorting through the clutter, but instead I want to think about the solidity of self, what is real and why it is real, and what happens to it after our bodies give out.
I’ve spent the last five weeks taking furious notes and multiple choice quizzes (17 of them!). I’ve watched two Frontline videos on topics of interest to the human development crowd. I’ve written up three very long homework assignments and put out several stilted, overly researched contributions to our class discussion board. Sadly, I am a rule follower, at least when it comes to things like schoolwork. And this class has been all about the rules, with various instructions and admonitions, the kind of stuff that makes me doubt my ability to write in an academic style. (Do I need to write in an academic style? Isn’t it time for some real style in academic writing?) I am also congenitally curious and value data that come from sound sources. If I have a question about, for example, the prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder among men and women as compared to in soldiers returning from combat,* I locate a reputable source, fit it into my work and cite it dutifully. The end result is that I feel like a goody-two shoes who unnecessarily creates mini-research papers for very little reason except my compulsive need to do things the right way.
I’ve done a lot of complaining about this class, but the fact is that I am grateful for it. Change comes slowly to a person -- for example, people dependent on nicotine and heroin relapse an average of six times before getting clean for good (something I have in my abnormal psych notes, but haven't been able to verify from another source) -- even when change feels like a watershed. It is so much better for me to have externally motivated goals and lots of food for my mind. My mind has been starving and so I fill it again and again with facts and knowledge and still it demands more. At the moment, I’m also missing more regular human interaction, something that is intermittently important as I work, rest, work, rest. And, just as I knew that the coursework would come along to challenge me eventually (because I planned it that way), more social interaction awaits. At the moment, swimming alone in a sea of facts on adolescents, small children, and emerging adults, I feel a familiar yearning. It reminds me that having too time much time alone in my mind is dangerous and not particularly useful. It is not wise to create and occupy that airless space. It leads to desolation and deprivation.
You have to recognize the initial sink, the way the floor sudden gives, that which seemed solid and real just yesterday revealing itself to be a cloth stretched thin, a cracking length of plastic, a brittle sheet of wallboard. Then you attempt sniff out a reason. Maybe it's a lack of sleep (early morning followed by late night followed by early morning, waking up after Neil Young pushed you on a swing on the roof deck of some dive bar in a city you once knew and the woman you had drinks with, a blonde gone sour, the mother of his baby, and the night air was cool on your bare arms). Maybe it's that you don't have a good reason to get out of the house, so you don't get out of the house. Suddenly taking a shower overwhelms, food is merely fuel, brushing teeth a reward for answering another question on the final. More sleep, you promise yourself, and tomorrow getting out is built into your day, and the shower is a given. A few days of darkness may be only that.
*According to the National Comorbidity Survey, women of all ages and both women and men between the ages of 45-59 are the most likely to receive a diagnosis of PTSD over the course of a lifetime ("National comorbidity survey," 2005). But the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is 39% among male combat veterans (National Comorbidity Survey,as cited by Hamblen, 2009).
Hamblen, J. (Instructor). (2009). PTSD 101: what is PTSD. [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/ptsd101/course-modules/what-is-ptsd.asp
National comorbidity survey. (2005). Retrieved from http://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php
Image from Management of Heart Disease and Depression as Comorbidity.
I wanted to turn this into a rant post. I have a number of rantable topics: the rheumatologist who mixed up PFAPA medications (or mixed up their effects; no harm came of it, it was just a big mistake that undermined my confidence in her). The dust and fur and crap adorning every surface of this house, probably even the walls, and the way my sweater is coated with cat hair because I'm sitting on a couch that needed cleaning a month ago. I could complain about the half-eaten state of the front yard, about the shaggy pile of dirt and trio of empty pots by the steps, waiting to be tripped over. But these are happy reminders of a truly fine morning with the boy (more on that later), and at the moment the yard is lightly blanketed in streetlight darkness, invisible until the gleam or gloom of tomorrow. My psych class is always good for a rant, too, but the topic and my whining weary me.
I’ve been carrying around an unexpressed anger today, a suppressed fit ready to smoke up the room with the insanity and inanity of it all. It’s fun to write about it, to go with the run-on sentences and the stream of consciousness. I need to write. I need to attack the baseboards with a damp cloth and a bucket of hot, soapy water. I need to make vet appointments and brush the dog and coat the backyard in a fine mist of water and weed killer. I need to fill the cracks in the dirt with fresh cut daisies and fake ivy , with metallic pinwheels placed evenly along the meandering path.
But I’m done. I’m done. There’s good stuff to balance out the small irritations. Like Thursday morning with the boy. We pulled our little red (plastic) wagon to the local gardening store, filled it up with succulents, a kumquat tree, and starter sets of lettuce. We even got two six-packs of corn seedlings. Corn! He planted them in the long high planter out front, where the sugar snap peas thrived earlier this year. The corn may thrive; it may not. It’s a fun experiment and, as the boy said, no matter what, the plants will be beautiful. Our own little bit of the Eastern Shore in our Berkeley concrete front yard.
Last weekend was good, too. In a 48-hour period from Saturday night to Monday afternoon, I was a textbook reading, quiz taking, homework and discussion board question writing machine. It was beautiful. The only interruptions were the dog and my need to eat, with a couple of welcome visits from my husband and the boy. It was enough human contact to keep me sane, but not enough to make me feel like I was responsible for the well-being of anyone else but Nora-dog. Perhaps it spoiled me for the real world.
In about 20 minutes, I’ll head upstairs for the bedtime routine. After the usual ablutions, I’ll sit in bed with a cat on my lap and write down the things I am grateful for. I’ll open The Virgin Suicides, read a few pages, and close my eyes. Asleep, I'll fall into the land of the dead, where I explain to them the basics of the coffee press and the latest from the New York Times, just as if they were there with me, ready to sit in companionable silence over an old-fashioned Sunday newspaper.
Image by Ed Yourdon.
It’s nine o’clock on Saturday night and I’m sitting in the semi-darkness of a rental condo on a golf course in the Sierras, drinking a glass of Riesling that has just the right hint of sweetness, listening to the Rain Birds distributing water over the well-trimmed green. Nora-dog is across the room, resting her head on her front paws in quiet sleep. The pine trees on the other side of the course are only silhouettes now, shaggy creatures looming at a distance from a darkening backdrop .
Outside of the dog and the crickets and the hum of the icemaker, I am alone. Tonight the boy and his dad are at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, about twenty miles from where I currently type. Our house/dog sitter fell through at the last minute. School deadlines loomed. This is our compromise, a way for me to be with them some of the time, while being connected to the ether and my books the rest of the time in order to get my work done, in addition to keeping Nora company.
It’s a little strange. Right now the boy is sleeping under the rush of pine needles, or maybe he’s still awake, staring at pinpoints of stars. My husband is having a glass of wine with friends by lantern light. And I’m here on the scratchy couch with my feet resting against tan carpet, my mind attached to my computer. Yes, I like sleeping in a real bed and I prefer my bathroom down the hall, not down the path. And I am grateful to be this close, to be a part of things in a way. So how can I really complain? I am thinking of this as if it were a retreat, a time of studying and quiet with family activities mixed in.
It’s 9:20 on Sunday night and I’ve stuffed my head enough for the day. I am slowing down and whatever else I would read tonight will take me half as long to digest tomorrow morning. One quiz down, one discussion question drafted, referenced, and posted. Last night I was feeling all lyrical and one with the golf course landscape, but tonight I am in a different place. The boy and his dad came over in the afternoon. We ate bad food at a place that smelled like stale disinfectant. Before that, the boy ate all my baby carrots. We got some groceries (a woman cannot live off of macaroni and cheese, cherries, and rugelach alone).
The boy told tales of sneaking out of camp activities and creating potions, of seeing fish swimming in the river and having fun and laughs with his friend S. I’m missing it and I’m not missing it. If I were at home (one of my options), I don’t think I would have gotten as much work done. It would have been lonely in a different way. I wouldn’t have been able to hold the boy close and listen to his stories. And I would have taken time to clean. The house desperately needs cleaning. But this place is not my cleaning responsibility.
Instead, I’ve plowed through some school work. I’ve had a few deer sightings. I have listened to crickets and admired the big dipper, heavy and low in the mountain sky, as tangible as childhood. And I’ve let Nora sleep both on the couch and on the bed. Even though she’s a little confused by the situation, she’s enjoying the little luxuries.
All in all, I’m feeling pretty fucking lucky.
Image of Nora resting her head on the couch pillow, tonight, by me.