My apologies, Round Robin partner, for my distractedness this week. For the first time since I was 22-sih, I find myself crunched, trapped, stressed by finals, though I think I never had to also hand in a ten-page paper during finals week back in the CUA days. If I think too much about it, I’ll become paralyzed. If I don’t let off steam, I will explode.
I don’t understand why a graduate program has finals, to be honest. Library school didn’t, or if it did, I probably did those finals hung over, with one hand tied behind my back. I also know that the people who taught me back in my undergraduate philosophy program and my graduate library science program were professionals. Nobody changed the rules at the last minute. When there were finals, the questions were all essays, which were pretty easy, relatively speaking. If you could think and remembered the general bent of a philosopher (my favorite remains David Hume – he was so sensible), if you could tell your Dewey from your LC, then you were fine. I was fine.
I’m not saying that my instructors aren’t professionals in most senses of the word.
Blah blah blah. This will all be a fading memory by Thursday afternoon. By the time my ass hits a BART seat, all I’ll be thinking about is the celebratory champagne, though because my son’s school has an open house that night, the celebration will be put off by a day. Which brings me to another stressor: family. Last time I did this, I was unfettered by responsibility. I had jobs, yes, and I had an on-again-off-again relationship, one where the person felt just fine showing up at my apartment unannounced and intoxicated the night the Redskins won the Super Bowl, but without the emotional investment of a full-time dating gig. That had its own problems and I was a total mess emotionally, but the dark side of me, so heavy and full, was always tossed aside for the challenge of thinking and writing.
I’m less of a mess now, or maybe I’m more controlled, and I have to divide my time between me and them. So I hide out in the office cave. I decide to take the RR despite my schedule because I need something else (and then I spend all my time writing about my life). I get up with the cats, early and groggy, to do very little but warm up my brain and fingers. And I am now out of time.
Thanks for your feedback so far, btw. It isn’t like W’s last week, but who else but W can be as detailed, specific and generous? I felt blessed. Things like that can’t last forever.
p.s. -- Twelve minutes isn’t enough, is it? The energy in the air tonight disturbed me, the tinny, lonely sound of a radio playing through someone’s propped open door, the woman’s screams that may or may not have been for real. It felt like the 70s all over again, me small, a neighbor crying, while underneath it all, Donna Summer sang her heart out.
From the prompt “the dark side.”
Written in 10-12 minutes, edited for your eyes in about 8, added to after the dog walk. I’ve got a draft of my paper done, have put together my portion of a couple of study guides, and await tomorrow to do more because my brain is now officially mush.
Image from Cool Things, Pictures, & Videos. It’s a bit of a non sequitur, but it amuses me.
I didn’t have much of a life then, though I was busy with work and school and preparing for comps that last year at Catholic. Once I got to Illinois, where the library science classes felt basic, the coursework easy, and my time ample, I had even less of a life, and so I started to crumble before I regrouped and tiptoed out into the world.
Last night, after the elementary school open house, when my husband came home from a different, work-related meeting, we each deconstructed our night to the other. My role at home is changing, life is expanding, and his new job offers him so much more, and in the middle is this beautiful, growing boy opening up to the world as I return to it.
Wednesday night, my head spinning with thoughts on racism, prejudice, and privilege, on Bay Area women of color in the fetish lifestyle (the openness, the potential for emotional healing, the tricky power differentials, the sheer variety of identity and preference) on bilingual elementary school education and the perils of standardized testing, I got home and could not stop talking about my day. Wednesdays are long for me. I leave the house at 7:30 and get home about 13 hours later after a commute that includes being packed into the humid heat of a San Francisco city bus with the young men saying hella this, hella that, their dragon boat paddles tucked into backpacks, and elderly Buddhist nuns electing to stand when offered a seat, and little girls who are separated from their mothers but keep calm even when the crowd between mother and daughter is five deep. Last Wednesday night, the sunset over Oakland was incredible, this expanse of pink-tinged clouds spread above the cargo cranes of the harbor like a beautiful explosion, the pastel remains of an airborne toxic event. Like the sunset, my day was intense. I had to unpack it when I got home.
Life is rich and complicated. I crack myself open on a daily basis, feeling things that I’ve kept hidden for a long time. Even after the dreadful awkwardness of parental chitchat under the fluorescent lights of the boy's elementary school classroom at night, a time and place when I am often at my worst (classrooms seem to do it for me – it’s still hard for me to feel comfortable in my own classes), I was able to see the whole situation, the social set-up, as a way to stretch myself, to allow myself to be uncomfortable knowing that some day I would be comfortable again, or close enough.
Within this life, this complicated life, I have so much now, so much more than I did 20 years ago. Part of it is luck in being partnered with someone who totally supports me, part of it is the result of hard, emotional work. I am so very grateful for this life, for my husband and son, who are a huge part of the reason that I have a chance to try things over, to bring the dormant and suppressed back to the surface, joy, sadness, fear and all.
Image by chrissam42 taken in 2006 from BART in West Oakland, just about the spot from which I was watching the sky on Wednesday night. The sunset I saw was similar but more spectacular.
I'm going to try updating the blog about once a week during the semester. My apologies for not answering emails or visiting blogs. Even writing this feels like an unauthorized use of time, but so necessary.
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.
Because I miss you. I miss the ease of friendship that comes at 18, I miss the shared sob fests and the drunken nights. I miss talking to someone who was there and knows the stories. We are so different now. We were then, too, but we had dysfunction to bind us, and a love of alcohol. I wonder if whoever put us together as roommates knew how well we would get along. Maybe they just guessed that two poor girls from single-mother homes being schooled in a nest of monied Wasps would immediately have something in common. Something to unite against.
I have a friend from elementary school – that’s another story, one of a connection that was dormant for 30 years, but never really died – who also came from a single-parent home. When we were out together one night, two girls from Delaware now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she mentioned that all of her childhood friends also came from divorced families. I realized that, apart from her, you were my only friend who grew up with a single mother. You and I had major mother problems and heavy father problems. It was enough to keep us going for several years.
When I met you, I had no shell. I was open and defenseless. I was a mess. Over the years, I’ve built up experiences, have heeded the warnings of closeness. Martha, I think of those days as being ones of shame, the shame I carried with me from childhood. There was no way out, the shame piled on and on and so I drank. I pursued people I shouldn’t have. I gathered up my shame and strapped it to my back. It moved with me to DC. It followed me to Illinois, and then Ohio, and back again, and all the time it compressed upon itself, it hardened like rock and it got smaller and heavier and I developed ways of working around it, but it was always there.
I’ve been excavating. I excavate. I scrape away at the shame, uncover my sense of self. I make small forays out of the shell. It isn't easy. And I wonder about you. You’ve always been tougher than me, at least on the outside, with a sullen bluster you can pull out when threatened. You don’t take any bullshit. I imagine that façade has gotten harder and shinier with time.
Your dad is gone now, and your mother, too. You live on the other side of the country in a sunny place near the ocean, have a husband and a boy of your own. If we got together, there would be long pauses, and while I remember the days when we were roommates and best friends with affection, I also associate that time with the heaviness of shame and its accumulation. How do you remember them? Sometimes it feels like we created our friendship on a foundation of anger and pain. Once those things dissipated, once they were suppressed or became less vital, there was nothing left to talk about.
Still: you were the one I learned to cook with, the one I danced with to the blues. You supported us both financially when I had nothing. You drove me and my stuff from Washington, DC to Champaign, IL in an ancient UHaul with a manual transmission. You took me to see Prince. In between was the intensity of drunken confessions, the perfidy of ex-boyfriends, the breaks in friendship and the makeups. I miss the flow of conversation. I miss the ability to just pick up again.
Perhaps I associate you with my shame, the continuation of my crimes against myself and others, my mistreatment of you. This is the kind of stuff that I have to push away from my mind, wall off in a safe place, the doubts and memories that blind me to the present and keep me from seeing people as they are. I often want to make love an illusion, especially after it is gone. We were very close once; we got each other through. You were an important part of my life and nothing will ever change that.
So. Miss you. Give me a cell.* Or I’ll give you one. We can always find something to talk about.
*Not a typo. An inside joke.
Image of me taken by Martha in the summer of '88. Peter of the pesto incident leant me the book. I have many photos of Martha, but don't feel comfortable posting them here.
One stall, of course, with a toilet that was constantly clogged, that you hovered over while letting loose, closing your eyes in relief. If you were lucky, your friend came up with you and could guard the door, which never latched properly, or perhaps you would make friends with someone behind you in line who would be your sentry or maybe you were so drunk that it didn’t matter anymore. You were so drunk you might sit on that stained toilet seat.
Yes, (dc) space was the place. You ran into Peter there once, from Chestertown to Silver Spring to Washington, DC, a bike messenger in the city (now a cross country ski pro in a faraway place). You met the bassist from the Thangs there, leaned on him after their set and danced to the twanging sounds of the band that played after them. That relationship is truly blurry. You don't remember how it ended, you were drinking so much and everything was so dark and maybe you were depressed even then, or dealing with delayed grief and self-hatred. Maybe that was just how it had to be with you, isolated, wanting, covering everything over with alcohol and ill-advised sex.
One of salient questions in that first visit with the new therapist two weeks ago: has this pattern of isolation been in place for a long time? You thought, remembered cold empty rooms and the strangely barren college years (yes, you had friends, close ones, but they didn't know everything; you didn't reach out), the oddness of graduate school, the times in the early years when you almost broke down from grief and loneliness, from the feeling of having no footing, nothing within you or without to hold onto. Even in the busiest years in DC, you so stable and professional, with the job and the occasional dinners out with friends: yes. This has been you since fifteen, keeping close, holding yourself safe.
Yes. dc space, where your roommates left you one night, you drunk and belligerent and insisting you were fine. On the prowl, in search of something, someone. The boys, the men, the lying down and standing up, the going along. The desperate searching. The turning away from that life, an act of will and of choice, to something flattened and grey but safe. The way you've kept it grey, as if that were the only option.
You are learning that it doesn't have to be that way. You are not destined for this aloneness. You have a shining core.You are true and real, damaged as we all are, but not cruel. You deserve to be in the world.
So you write about it to understand it, you capture the past and see the rambling narrative, to let it go, let it loose. Of course these feelings are not all of you. But you will not deny them, for denial gives them strength. You write and you feel it and give yourself footing before you turn to something else.
Image of a toilet at dc space by Dot and Charles Steck.
From a photo prompt that has nothing to do with this. For some reason, the stairs and bathroom of dc space came to mind last night, that long-gone world. Today dc space is a Starbucks, all light-filled and caffeinated.
I remember you, how you fit into my small world, expanded it briefly before disappearing, how you coaxed me into feeling comfortable before kicking me in the shins. You didn’t understand what you were doing. How could you? You were barely 21 years old and knew nothing of the rest of my life.
We talked, it was endless talking, you speaking, me listening, interested, supportive, engaged. It wasn’t until I reread your letter that I remembered we met in a Shakespeare class, though I can bring the class to mind, the prof with lank chestnut hair and metal-rimmed glasses. I loved that class, especially the paper writing, the way I could take a topic and mold it, how it was all about language. We were all about language too, discussions of plans, what we were working on, your school paper movie reviews, your thoughts on lacrosse, on philosophy, on writing.
Mid-October 1991: We stood at the base of the concrete steps by the campus convenience store. I clutched the iron handrail. I wasn’t wearing gloves and my hands were cold, my cheeks flushed. The ATM in the tiny bank on the hill still gave out one dollar bills and I was still in love with DC and all it meant, the power, the machine. The sun was low, the sky glowing pink. You made me laugh. Soon I would take the Metro back to my claustrophobic studio apartment where I'd eat mashed potatoes with plain yogurt for dinner again. But before that, I swam in the words, bobbed along your stream of consciousness. It was entertaining. Like me, you are a thinker. You’ve upped the vocabulary, have years of scholarship holding up every linguistic diversion, but essentially your approach, the free flow of ideas, is the same.
We talked before class. After class. About class. Did we talk on the phone? No matter, it was talking, always talking. I don't remember how it got romantic, but once it did, the air around us deadened and stilled. We walked in silence.
Another memory: a nighttime drive in a beat-up car to Gravelly Point to watch airplanes land at National Airport. The tall trees of campus swayed and blurred as I stared out the passenger seat window. At the Point, the planes lit up the water, blew our hair around, filled the air with fumes and noise. It was one of those moments that I was a part of and apart from, pulled into the drama of the landing gear, the inevitable worries about how close the planes were to the ground, and the anticipation of what was happening between us.
I wish I had kept a journal then, had some primary source to pinpoint our brief romantic turn. I remember the pain of it ending, but can scarcely concoct the joy of it beginning. Was the night at Gravelly Point before or during? The after has lasted years. Our brief romance? Weeks.
Autumn pressed on. It grew cold and dark. We spent an awkward evening at a Capitol Hill bar (you told me that Magic Johnson had AIDS, a shocking revelation at the time), we shared an awkward dinner at my place -- do I have the order of events right? -- and then you put an end to it.
The ending was painful, a deep heavy pressure on my heart, out of proportion to the amount of time that we knew each other.
As usual, I drank. I listened to James Brown (and Friends, Live: The Soul Sessions), to Robert Palmer. I turned the music up loud and danced. Cold Sweat, Out of Sight, Sneaking Sally Through the Alley, I'll Go Crazy: In the weeks after you dumped me, I gyrated in a funk frenzy around my studio apartment, jostled the roaches out of their hiding places, made the parquet floor shimmy. I danced until I was gasping for air, until my mind was empty and my heart numb.
I didn't know then that the future stretched before me, beckoned with promises that things would get better. At least I had a brain and some semblance of good looks. They would make up for my pathos. I still had time to create a life. Which I did. Two years later, I found someone (reasonably) normal and supportive who wanted to spend his life with me. With his help, I built that life up. I dug deeper than I needed for a foundation, the walls were two feet thick, and every window triple-paned. In the end, I left it and him behind. I knew I was capable of stability, that I didn’t need a fortress around me. But that was later. When I met you, I was struggling to figure out how to live like a normal person. I identified more with the homeless people scattered across my block, interrupting me on my way home from the Metro station, than I did with our classmates. I didn't let many people in. You were one of the very few I trusted.
Over the rest of that school year, I slowly shut down my college life. I studied for comps, wandered around the Capitol Building almost every night, reveling in the view, the beauty of the spotlit dome, the Washington Monument piercing the sky, my Walkman on Nirvana and James Brown and Ministry. I worked and read, drank and cried. J, my on-again, off-again boyfriend (did you even know about him?) visited sometimes, as did Martha, my old roommate. Some weekends I traveled to see them on the Eastern Shore. I loved them both. We each had pain between us, had gotten comfortable with the ambiguity, with our carapaces, our walls.
My last memory of you is from graduation, a crowd of twenty-somethings muted by robes, the campus swarming with parents, siblings, relatives. I looked up and there you were, focusing a video camera. Perhaps we smiled. I turned and walked away.
Later that weekend, after hours at Andy's bar in Chestertown, I danced slow to Frank Sinatra songs with Mark, a regular who was a decade my senior. He was a kind man, easy to talk to, no pressure. We slipped into a kiss against the wall in the back. I freed my heart without giving it away, knowing that J would be there again for me, or maybe you, that Martha was waiting behind the bar, that time would flow in and out and back again. Someone would find me, would recognize that I was worth more than I believed. I was getting away from this place soon. The rest of life was waiting.
"You've got to live for yourself, for yourself and nobody else . . . "
For a different take on this same time and the time immediately after, read Hello . . . Columbus?
Erica’s question—it was one of those brilliant moments. Kevin and Ciara looked at each other. They smiled. There were no coal fires in the house and neither of them had ever smoked. The cooker was electric. Nothing was ever burned. There was no real religion, at home or in school, so Erica had never noticed the gray thumbprints on Ash Wednesday, on the foreheads of the old and the Polish. A child like Erica could get this far without knowing what ash was, until she saw it spewing from a mountain. -- Roddy Doyle, "Ash," New Yorker, 24 May 2010.
I am not a religious person, though I received a bachelor's degree from the Catholic-to-the-core School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. My closet friend there was a seminarian, a kind-hearted young men who accepted me, though he prayed for me to feel god's love, to take on the golden cloak of the believer. But it was philosophy that led me to atheism, to the idea that if you couldn't prove something, why cling to it? The proofs of god's existence seemed so medieval and naive, so pointless. I let go of my belief in an afternoon of paper writing, was not bereft at the loss of the First Cause. What protection had It offered me?
Belief in god was a given in my childhood, even without church, even without being baptized (my mother didn't believe that a newborn had any sins that needed washing away). I occasionally attended the Methodist church where a friend's father was minister and I also sometimes went to temple with a Jewish friend and her family. God was in the air. When I was eight, I read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. After that, I talked to god in the shower at my grandparent's house, stared at my distorted reflection in the taps as I sat on the bumpy stool and let the water go cold. I gave him my confessions and hopes. Perhaps it was a form of self-mortification, the bracing water, the red round marks the stool left on my flesh. But I think it was the idea of having someone listen to me, someone who took a personal interest in my well-being that made these conversations so long.
My father-in-law eventually discarded religion and my husband has as well. My mother, who was briefly Catholic, now leans more Buddhist than Christian. My father has never been a churchgoer. I know I will never be religious, can never talk about god in any concrete way. I can't suspend my disbelief in the face of religious lore. If there was a first cause, it doesn't care about me or my problems. I don't see a divine need to suffer, only human beings and animals that live and struggle and feel joy and sadness before disappearing into the ether.
Still, I'm not a Christopher Hitchens, religion-hating type. I can distinguish between entities like the Catholic Church (which I have a lot of problems with) and individual Catholics, though I admit that any sort of fundamentalism gives me the willies. I know many religious people who are intelligent and thoughtful. Some are more conservative than others, but they are generally compassionate, kind-hearted folks who have taken it on faith.* They believe in god because he feels real, because they have an experiential knowledge that defies proof or rational surety. And I no longer describe myself as an atheist, even though I don't have any concrete belief. I can't say that there is no unifying force in the universe, that we are just soulless bodies waiting to rot (though we may be just that and I'm not betting on discovering the truth, if there is one). Life is a mystery.
The world my son is growing up in is devoutly secular, but it is also one in which we still need to talk about belief and religion, about god. I'm not sure how to do it without removing all of the mystery, without making it sound like I know something for sure. How do we leave the door open for him to make up his own mind? I want him to know about ash, about belief and how we think about death. He has questions. He worries about ghosts, buries skeletons in the planters, has seen enough to ask about the crucifix. My explanations of why we celebrate Easter and Christmas are painful: "There was a man named Christ who some people believe was the son of God . . . . " These are Christian holidays, even though you can celebrate them without a word about Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. To tell the kid that god is a story does both the kid and belief a disservice. But still I struggle, with the questions, with dogma, with how to frame the question of the god I don't quite believe in respectfully.
*And sometimes people are blinded by faith, use religion to dictate how other people should live. In this piece, I am not talking about homophobia or the anti-abortion movement, or about people killing in the name of god.
Images: Top: The kid burying Big Skully, the Skeleton King, in our former sugar snap pea patch. Middle: Newspaper clipping from the family prayer book.
I remember preparing a meal for him in the decay of autumn, after the leaves had dropped from the trees and lay rotting in the gutter and the breeze was turning cold and harsh. I was just 21 years old and could focus on the kitchen, had the time to think about cooking, and it was all still new, too, love and cookery. There was a recipe in Gourmet for roasted fall vegetables. I skinned and hacked a heavy butternut squash, added knobby shallots, garlic, and chunks of red potato, then tossed the vegetables with olive oil and roasted them in the oven. Near the end of cooking, I added slivered sage leaves, the bitter scent of coming winter.
Sage takes well to butter and olive oil, get crisp and intense, medicinal over gnocchi, tucked among thick slices of potato. My husband and I grow sage in our front yard. The plant sits between the flat-leafed parsley and the lemon verbena, its silver green leaves upright, purple flowers still drawing honeybees. I’ll have to trim it soon, deadhead the flowers and clean off the spider webs in preparation for the feasts and sadness of fall.
Here is the original recipe, from Epicurious. Add 2 tablespoons slivered sage in the last ten minutes of cooking to recreate my more winter-scented dish.
Roasted Autumn Vegetables
1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
1 pound shallots (about 24), peeled and trimmed
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
fresh thyme sprigs for garnish, if desired
In a bowl, toss together the potatoes, quartered, the shallots, 4 tablespoons of
the oil, the bay leaf, the dried thyme, the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread the vegetables in an oiled large roasting pan and roast them in the middle of a preheated 375°F. oven, shaking the pan every 5 to 10 minutes, for 25 minutes. In a bowl toss the squash with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and salt and pepper to taste and add it to the pan. Roast the vegetables, shaking the pan occasionally, for 10 to 20 minutes more, or until they are tender. Discard the bay leaf and garnish the vegetables with the thyme sprigs.
Image: Attractive sage bush, much nicer than ours, from eHow.
Peter was only after the blender.
I was working in the college bookstore, propped up on a stool behind the register, when he came in to buy something small, a pack of gum, a used book, a cassette tape, I don’t remember. As I passed his change over the counter, brushed my fingertips across this stranger's calloused palm, Peter said “I know you from the newspaper. You told it like it was.”
A month earlier I was one of five or six people chosen to answer a question for The Elm: what did we think about the proposed student fee increase? Below my photograph was the statement “I know nothing about it. I have no opinion.” Ignorance and flat honesty prevailed. It was my statement, my stand on nothing in particular that got me the boy.
Or maybe it really was the blender. After asking my name and relationship status, Peter went straight to appliance ownership: if I had the blender, he had the basil. He knew where to score pine nuts and a fine wedge of pecorino romano. Peter wanted to come back to my place, make a little pesto.
The blender sat on the stained linoleum kitchen counter in the small college apartment I shared with my roommate Martha, right beside the coffee percolator that she filled with Folgers each morning. Martha bought it with plans for soup-making, warm vichyssoise in winter, refreshing gazpacho during the humid summer months, but in reality we used it make frozen drinks. After the Piña Colada incident the appliance went fallow, gathered cooking grease and flour dust.
Peter's basil source was a garden across the Chester River, a plot of rich soil courtesy of his employer, Anthony's Landscaping. We rode there one sticky June night, pedaled his tandem through a landscape defined by moonlight and shadow, moved our legs in time to the percussion of crickets. The basil had formed a moat around a pair of tumbledown beefsteak tomatoes. Rabbits and groundhogs had ravished the rest. As I smoothed my fingers over the soft leaves, pale in the semidarkness, the basil sighed, let out a breath of spice and earth and warm sun, a promise of pasta sauce and anise-tinged kisses.
When you are 18, most of the world is still a mystery, or it should be. I already had a boyfriend, and Peter knew it, but something about his earnestness – his habit of tossing rocks at my window for midnight bike rides, the fact that he was as aimless at 24 as I felt at 18 – made him irresistible. He was an English major whose literary mind had been muddled by deconstructionism, an Estonian-American who later taught me the best places to go in Washington, DC for Ethiopian food and the blues. Peter liked to pass things on. It was insider information: the slightly off-kilter notes of Thelonius Monk; the tuneless pounding and punk bands of d.c. space; the Biograph movie theater; linguini with pesto sauce.
His pesto obsession was endearing. And it was an obsession. In circa 1988 Chestertown, Maryland, pine nuts were an exotic foodstuff. Without a car, Peter had to finagle his way 75 miles and back to DC to procure one expensive cupful. He arrived at our place on the appointed night, clutching two bouquets of basil, a greasy paper bag half-filled with pine nuts, and a crumbling hunk of cheese. Martha and I had already peeled the garlic, purchased a good-enough olive oil. We had wiped down the blender. In the kitchen, I started grating cheese while Martha opened beers. Peter began tossing pine nuts and knobs of garlic into the machine.
The blender turned out to be an inferior pesto-making tool, or perhaps it was all in the technique. Crammed in the bottom, the garlic and pine nuts slowly turned to paste, while the basil calmly refused to be pulled into the fray. Peter finally grabbed a wooden spoon. The high-pitched whine of the blender was interrupted by a thunk as the bottom of the spoon splintered against metal blades. Too late to go back now. He picked out the shards.
Twenty minutes later, Peter offered a fingerful of the final product. Eyebrows raised in anticipation, I kept a cheerful expression, gazed past the green film coating his glasses to look directly into his eyes. The pesto tasted of garlic and more garlic interrupted by a heady nip of basil and the punch of sharp cheese. Raw pine nuts, resinous and rich, just barely kept the other ingredients in tune. As olive oil ran down my chin, I carefully deflected a splinter with my tongue, a little kick from Peter's secret ingredient.
(First image: Me, Chestertown, MD, Summer 1988, taken by "Martha." Companion picture of Martha not included. Second image: Basil plants, from Vultus Christi.)
Capitol Plaza Apartments
The studio at Capitol Plaza Apartments was cheap and within easy walking distance to Union Station. On the first floor of an eight-story building, it had a large window overlooking the basement roof and a hemmed-in view of surrounding structures. Small and dark, with parquet floors and “apartment-sized” appliances in the not-even-galley kitchen, it was a cozy cave, the right place to hide out for my final year of college. I moved in August 1991.
To pay the bills, I took out more student loans, got a better paying part-time job working in a library at a high-profile law firm. That’s where I met Chas.
Chas had recently divorced and was trying to figure out his newly single life at 39, the house gone, his routine changed. I was a loner 21, a strange combination of vulnerable and shuttered, talking more to the homeless men who bivouacked on my street than to my fellow college students. We were both in love with DC, with its high crime rate and crack wars and the insane mayor-for-life Marion Barry. The brick rowhouses, the policy wonks, the strange political celebrity, the feel of it all: It was home.
Chas had left Columbus, Ohio in the early 1970s and headed straight for the District. He would tell me stories of growing up the city, where his large family lived in a massive brick Victorian. It sounded exotic in its blandness, the spread-out burg with the solid architecture. “They just don’t make houses here like they do in Columbus,” he would chuckle, and I'd smile as if I knew what he was talking about. Chas got his own apartment at 16, a few years before he moved to DC. Since I’d been emancipated from parental supervision from the age of 14 or so, he felt like a kindred spirit, another concealed soul, self-protective and insular.
Most of our conversations took place on my early evening library shifts where there was no one else in the office to interrupt us. He would discuss the pursuit of church ladies (they were a tough bunch), explain his theories on electromagnetic radiation, how the destructive energy fields from power lines were spreading cancer and causing miscarriages. We would stare out the window at the office building across the street, watch the after hours workers work or not work, watch them watching us. There was one man who was always talking on the phone, standing with his back to the full-length window glass, earpiece pinned between head and shoulder. It was a performance just for us, the man’s hands swooping and slicing the air as though the person on the other end would be persuaded by gesture. On the street below, commuters dallied or rushed, flagged down taxis, spilled out of the Metro station on the corner.
A lone wolf on the streets of Dupont Circle.
I told Chas all about my former roommate Martha, my escapes to visit her in Chestertown, where our evenings at Andy’s were blurred through multiple glasses of Dark and Stormies, a potent mixture of Goslings Rum and ginger beer; he’d get the details of the Bass Ale-soaked nights we had at the Irish Times or the Dubliner. Sometimes I would give him sanitized versions of barhops with Abe, an old friend from Delaware. Abe and I usually mixed our liquor, beer, wining and cocktailing it to the final rounds of Long Island Ice Teas. These evenings generally ended in an argument over something petty. We screamed across disco lights and crowded dance floors, tossed barbs in the back alleys of Georgetown, only to do it over again a month later.
In none of these conversations did I tell Chas about my drunken flirtations, about the Marines Martha and I dragged back from the bar one night, about the make-out sessions with Eastern Shore acquaintances, the booze-fueled pursuit of contact. Alcohol always uncovered the chasm, brought the need for other people to the surface.
In between the pickups and the throw-ups and the work and the studying, I’d occasionally see my faraway half-boyfriend. But most weekends were quiet. “Friday night drinking night?" the corner liquor store owner asked me during one regular visit, to which I gave a weak nod and smile. I’d drink, study, write papers, maybe catch the PBS Saturday night movie on my crappy box of a television. The Capitol Building was close to my apartment and I would walk around its lit-up beauty at night in all kinds of weather, braving bracing November winds, floating through the incredible sweetness of spring, when the cherry trees and azaleas were in bloom. (“I am alive, I am alive” I would think as I walked a path of fallen pink petals, feeling the joy rise up in me).
The week before Martha drove me out to Illinois in a battered U-Haul truck, Chas and I went out for one last round of beers, a temporary goodbye. I had every intention of returning to DC immediately after graduating from library school. But then I met a guy who got a job and we moved to a new town together: Columbus, Ohio. We started to build a life, adopted some animals, and finally bought a house. It was a four-bedroom brick Queen Anne in the Old Towne East neighborhood, a steal at $125,000. When I gave Chas the address, he was quiet for a moment.
“That’s the same block I grew up on,” he finally told me. Almost exactly across the street from our new house was an empty lot, the location of Chas’s childhood home.
Franklin Avenue house and neighbor (we never had a flag up and the neighbor will have to be a story for another day). Photo from Old Towne East Neighborhood Association.
It was a strange coincidence. What were the odds?
There was no other conclusion. I couldn't believe in God. This wasn’t a question of whether or not he existed, but was a question of my own belief. No proof was sufficient and I had no faith, no religious background, no desire to hide behind the wimpy safety of Pascal's wager.
Shortly after I reached this conclusion, a product of a paper I wrote on God’s existence in a Philosophy 101 class, I dropped out of college. It was the middle of the second semester, sophomore year and for a while I kept it quiet, kept on accepting my father and step-mother’s checks, which were enough to cover my half of the rent. My roommate, in shaky recovery from an eating disorder, was working as a waitress. As the money dried up, she got me a job waiting tables.
It fell apart. We drank and drank, put ourselves in dangerous situations. I was moving to DC, she didn’t want to come. She slept with my longtime boyfriend, I abandoned her for an Eastern Shore boy who lived with his brother in a place called the Sugar Shack. That fall, my mother drove me and the cat to a small rowhouse in NE DC where I was renting a room. I was starting a new life as a sophomore at Catholic University.
This was the atheist’s choice? Catholic University? I was thinking of majoring in education and Catholic had a good program. The school was located in Washington, a city I wanted to live in. My decision was sealed during the interview, when my interlocuter -- Miss DC 1988! -- told me I was in. But on that first day of school, I jettisoned education for philosophy. It was the most interesting thing going.
Amy, my housemate, was 30 years old to my 20, a Peace Corps survivor. Amy counted her potatoes and onions, and even recorded the shape her peanut butter was in -- the knife slashes, the peaks and valleys and indentations -- before she put the lid on the jar. I found her tallies of produce, her vivid peanut butter descriptions, recorded in tiny script on a piece of paper hidden in the pantry. When I moved in, she had envisioned late night bull sessions with her new gal pal. What she got was an unhappy, underage semi-alcoholic, quiet and removed. She coped by counting her vegetables, a safeguard against (non-existent) theft.
I found salvation on the second day of classes, while taking notes for the History of Ancient Philosophy. N., a Basselin scholar, started up a conversation with me and his fellow Basselins joined in. They were men my age, in the seminary and on the road to priesthood, in addition to being philosophy majors on steroids. If it weren’t for N., who pulled me in, supported me, got me a job when I was desperate, and on occasion gave me food "donated" from the seminary kitchen, I’m not sure I would have survived. He was -- and is -- a good friend.
N. is happily married now, to a kind-hearted, amazing woman. They have five kids. He and his wife have accepting of me, of my quiet atheism. They approach me without judgement.
But am I still an atheist?
I don’t have faith, but I am not as slavishly devoted to proofs. For those who believe, God is real. As for me, I’ll have to be content with not knowing.