Mental Musings from
...because sometimes I just need to share my thoughts.
It’s an almost-universal sentiment this New Year’s Eve: Fuck 2020. This year has been an unrelenting series of monstrous events, one after another. Each atrocity has been heralded as worse than the last and as we finally approach the end of the year, it’s hard to dispute the undeniable conclusion that this year has thoroughly sucked ass. In fact, this year has been so awful, many have been completely crushed by the horror and unable to function. This is compounded by an inability to cope in the usual ways. It is a common need for people to commune with others to process their feelings, but this year, socializing has become an activity that risks death.
Then, there are people like me, who don’t suffer so much from the lack of socialization that others crave, but instead have found this year so demoralizing that it has resulted in the inability to process the feelings into lucid thoughts. To suddenly find yourself unable to construct sentences to convey your emotions, when that has been your main coping strategy throughout life, is something that can make you feel, in addition to overwhelmed by feelings you are unable to define, utterly useless as a voice to reflect the pain that others are feeling. Because, let’s face it, when we write about feelings, there’s always a sense that there are others out there who get it, who feel the same way. Maybe in some way, we’re hoping to help other people.
Unfortunately, this tongue-tied affliction of mine has not been limited to psychological pursuits. No, it has affected my general productivity in all aspects of my life. I have been helpless to write an intelligible paragraph to save my life, so saddened by the inequities I see around me. Just…so…utterly…. Trounced. Pummeled. Destroyed. Thank God for thesauruses.
Though not alone in my disability, there have always been others whose brains work a little differently, and dare I say, these people found inspiration in this year. These are the people who gave voice to my muddled musings. Unable to communicate my own thoughts this year, I found myself particularly touched when I read something that someone else had written that touched on something I’d wanted to say, but had been unable to verbalize.
Still, though there were others able to describe the day-to-day events, to assimilate these events into a deeper understanding, and sometimes, even suggest actions, there were few who tackled the emotions we all felt. There was something dangerous about addressing the pain directly, so we tiptoed around it, hoping that if we just ignored the losses, they would go away. Like the assumed-dead villain in the horror movie, 2020 just kept coming back to attack one more time, to draw a little more blood.
Force-fed a daily diet of negativity and fear, it’s easy to succumb to despair. We’ve all heard how necessary it is to take a break, to focus on self-care and allow others to carry the torch from time to time. We’re told, turn off the news; do something for yourself. Those who immerse themselves in the daily strife that has become our reality are invariably jaded and resigned. Like me,there are those who can muster the occasional sardonic observation before creeping back into obscurity to sit with our pain. Ultimately, it all comes down to a sadness so great, there are few of us who are equipped to bear it.
The last thing I wrote that expressed my own emotions with any clarity was back in February when my dog died. Still reeling from the emotional destruction of that, we moved right into Covid-19 and lock-down, and although I am not personally affected in any tangible way (thankfully), it hurts to see so much suffering all around. People dying needlessly, people struggling to pay rent and buy food, people being blindly led to blame the wrong people for their misfortunes... All of it weighs so heavily on me that I cannot find the words to explain it. My strongest writing is expository, specifically persuasion, and I feel unable to persuade anyone of anything. I fear that if I start vomiting words onto paper, a technique that has usually worked for me, it will just be incomprehensible, useless vomit.
And yet, that is essentially what I have decided to do. Because I realized something today. The solution, at least for some of us, has been sitting in front of us all along. In fact, I’ve been using it, more than ever, without recognizing the healing benefits it bestowed upon me. Amongst all of the possible escapes available to those experiencing daily, long-term stress, there’s one that I think has been vastly underutilized.
Fiction is the balm for that which ails us. It creates imaginary worlds, allowing us to escape from the reality that tortures us. Even more importantly, though, it is that thing which taps into our emotional turmoil and makes it okay for us to express it. It’s safe. In a time when reality surpasses any apocalyptic visions of what we thought the future could hold, it’s easy to think that reading fiction is escapism. In a way, that’s true, but there’s so much more to it. Fiction is what gives us the strength and the will to live in this reality. It’s what makes it possible for us to survive.
This is my long-winded way of saying: fiction matters. Although it may seem far-removed from contemporary life, fiction provides an outlet for the emotions that so many of us find overwhelming and unintelligible. It gives us the necessary vent to shed the tears that are always just below the surface, fueling emotions that we cannot identify, but which can lead to health problems or societal conflict.
Now, I understand why I was having so much trouble writing. I was directing my thoughts in the wrong direction. I'm not good at negativity. It doesn’t inspire me. Hope is more my style. If I want to be able to write, I need to be passionate about something. Personally, I cannot be passionate about misery; I can only be passionate about hopeful and joyous things. This epiphany came to me today as I was trying to explain why I have spent so much of my time lately reading (200+ books this year, mostly fiction), and very little time writing. And as I extolled the value of reading fiction, all at once, the passion I’d been missing returned.
I want to dedicate this, my farewell to 2020, to the many, many fiction-writing authors who have accompanied me through this year, have made this year bearable, have allowed me to express the emotions I’d have otherwise kept bottled inside of me, by writing about pain and suffering and love and joy and redemption and being a human being in a complicated world. Fiction is important and what you do matters. The next time you feel like your words are meaningless or don’t matter, remember that there are those of us who rely on you to express the things we wish we could ourselves. Fiction allows us to feel. It teaches us to feel. Feeling leads to compassion, and compassion leads to healing. Your words hold the power to heal the world.
December 31, 2020
He visited me in my dream last night. I’ll admit I was missing him, went to bed thinking about him.
We had a time portal in our kitchen. It was hidden behind a tile in the drop ceiling. We don’t even have a drop ceiling.
I had the brilliant idea that if we sent him to the future, there might be a cure for what ailed him. I tried to explain it to him.
I said, “Charlie, I’m not sure exactly how this time portal works, whether it goes back in time or into the future...but I was thinking. Maybe we could send you into the future, where they can heal you...and then you can come back to us.”
He liked the idea but he wanted to take a closer look. I showed him where to jump onto the counter and he jumped up, all 90 pounds of him, like a pup. He wanted to know exactly where the portal was, so I pushed the tile out of the way so he could take a peak.
He stuck his head into the portal and before I could stop him, he’d climbed up inside.
“Wait,” I cried, trying to call him back. I looked inside and he was gone.
I was overcome by panic. We hadn’t figured out a plan. I hadn’t even told my family what I was thinking.
Now, he was gone and they’d never forgive me. We hadn’t even said “good-bye.” Or “good luck.”
I stood there trying to figure out what to do, but nothing came to mind. I wanted to cry.
Then I remembered, Charlie knew the plan.
Surely, he would find the necessary help and the cancer would be removed, once and for all. He would live a long and happy life. I just hoped he would be able to find the portal to return to us.
May 22, 2020
My sweet Charlie died on February 19 and I still have dreams of him. This one gave me a small measure of solace that maybe he is in a better place. And maybe he’s trying to get back to us. I submitted it to www.theprose.com for a writing challenge in June and won first prize.
For someone who has been cold for much of her life, and that may be due, in part, to growing up in the northeast, it’s a strange sensation to find myself suddenly hot so much of the time, and I can assure you it’s not due to relocating to California. I get it. It’s a function of the hormonal shifts that occur as we age, and all other things aside, I have to say that I rather like it.
No more emotional outbursts or depression, although if I’m being totally honest, COVID-19 is pushing me toward the edge. No more worries about what other people think of me. No more trying to please everyone else. Truly, aging has some great selling points. I highly recommend it, particularly since the alternative is not terribly appealing.
So, I get hot now. Objectively, it’s not a big deal. I have to carry a hair clip and a fan with me wherever I go. I carry a sweater, as I’ve always done, having been trained well by an Italian mother (who also taught me to use the bathroom, no matter what, every time, prior to leaving the house), even though I seldom get to use said sweater anymore. I keep thinking one of these days my body temperature will return to its normal state, and sometimes I feel it slowly inching down. I don’t really want that though. Given the choice between being hot and being cold, I find it easier to deal with the heat. It’s generally easier to cool off than it is to warm up.
I still vividly recall winter afternoons spent in my bedroom after school, trying to write a paper or working out equations for math class while wearing gloves. I’ll never forget frigid mornings spent huddled under the covers, attempting to heat my clothing while also getting dressed, all the while striving desperately to avoid exposing my body to the icy air. I have no desire to go back to those times. I imagine if I lived there now, I might still experience the cold, but at times, I’m not so sure. This interior furnace leads me to believe I could conquer a Connecticut winter with nothing more than a light jacket...perhaps a scarf to keep my neck warm when the wind blows. I’m afraid gloves might make my hands sweat. Compared to the shivering I remember so well, sweat is a welcome relief.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, given the choice, I’ll take the current internal temperature fluctuations. Remind me of that the next time I’m overcome by my own personal heatwave.
It was summertime on Long Island. The days were long and excitement was high. One morning, my brother and I awoke to Grandma in the kitchen (at some point during the night, my parents had called her to come stay with us) and the news that my parents had finally gone to the hospital. The baby was on its way. We were so excited.
We went running to a friend’s house to share the good news, and one of us had the brilliant idea to create a “welcome home” banner. Unfortunately, we didn't have the necessary supplies so we opted to create individual cards instead. We spent the day working on it, singing songs from The Carpenters and The Monkees. As my brother recalls, for reasons that are now unclear, we had an old metal drink cart that was missing the glass shelving that we thought would make a great display. We hung the cards over the edges of the cart and left the cart in a prominent location on the front porch. We were “On Top of the World.”
When at last my parents returned home, the little bundle of blankets clutched tightly in my mother’s arms, we couldn’t wait to see the newest addition to our family. Together, we’d chosen her name: Alison Carin. She was a tiny little thing, and it seemed crazy that she was wrapped in blankets on such a warm day in late June. Also, she was sleeping.
The following days were dominated by whispers and reminders to be quiet. The baby was sleeping. Thank goodness we could go outside to play, though there was to be no screaming in the backyard, a favorite pastime of ours. We crept around the house, terrified of waking the wailing terror. We could watch her sleeping as long as we didn’t make a peep while gazing at her. It was amazing how peaceful and angelic she looked when her eyes were closed.
The truth is, my brother and I were disappointed. We had wanted a new sibling because we wanted a new playmate We hadn’t understood that we wouldn’t be able to play with a baby. At nine and seven years old, we had imagined a new friend joining our group.
As it turned out, that nine-year difference between us meant that I was more often a caretaker than a playmate. By the time she reached the age where she might want to play with us, I was far too old to want to play with a little kid like her. She became the annoying younger sister that I’d never envisioned she could be. As a teenager, most of my time was spent trying to avoid detection by the family tattle-tale tag-along. I swore I would never have children myself and kindly blamed her for my decision. The most commonly yelled refrain in our home was, “Because of you, I’m never having children!”
When I was eighteen years old, my best friend and I traveled from Connecticut to California as our self-financed reward for graduation. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Disneyland, where I purchased a Mickey Mouse shirt for my sister. As it turned out, it matched the one I had purchased for myself. I didn’t think anything of it until I presented her with her gift and the fact that it matched mine was its best feature, in her mind anyway. One day, I was standing outside talking to a friend, wearing my Disney sweatshirt. My sister came outside to see what I was doing because, of course, she did. As soon as she got close enough to see what I was wearing, she went racing back into the house to don her own. She came running back outside moments later, a radiant smile on her face, boasting, “Now we match.” I was so embarrassed as I realized my mistake. Never buy matching clothes with your sister.
Luckily, I eventually reached the age where I changed my mind about having children. My sister and I have gotten close, becoming friends and sometimes playmates, as age has stripped away the differences that were so immense when we were younger. But age has not changed one thing. She has continued to make it her life’s mission to annoy me. In fact, several years ago, completely by coincidence, we purchased the same dress and happened to wear it to the same event. She thought it was hysterical. On a subsequent occasion, I mentioned that I would be wearing that dress so she could avoid wearing it at the same time. Naturally, that is exactly what she wore that day. Once an annoying little sister, always an annoying little sister.
My brother is two years younger than me. As children, we shared the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. My bed was on the exterior wall; a window stood between his bed and mine. We often drifted to sleep to the sound of my father whistling while he emptied the dishwasher in the next room.
One night, I was woken by the sound of the window next to me being opened. I opened my eyes to find the devil attempting to steal my brother. That was not something I would allow. I jumped from my bed and grabbed my brother’s arm. The devil was insistent. He began to climb from the window, holding onto my brother’s other arm. I could hear my father in the kitchen and began to yell for help, but he couldn’t hear me.
The devil and I, we battled for possession of my brother, until finally, he gave up and left empty-handed. We went back to sleep. Oddly, the following morning, my brother had no recollection of the event which very nearly changed his life. My father claimed he had not heard me call out for help. The important thing is, I saved my brother without any help, and as a result, his soul belongs to me.
As many of our fellow students planned their spring break trips to Florida, specifically Fort Lauderdale, we joked about driving down there ourselves. After a while, It became apparent that a few of us realized that we weren't exactly joking, though we all agreed that Fort Lauderdale didn't exactly appeal to us. But a break from the cold certainly did. So our discussions turned more and more toward the mechanics of how we could make this trip a reality, with the very real time constraints of a mere week to drive from Connecticut to Florida and back.
I had family living in Atlanta so we determined that would be our first overnight stop. Once we had arrived there, we were directed toward Panama City with its white sand beaches and its relative proximity to home. It was a great choice, but that's not really what this story is about.
We decided that once class let out for the week, we would each drive to our respective homes to pack the necessary equipment, tents, swimsuits, cash, and so forth. The following morning, everyone met at my house to take my car.
My birthday often fell over spring break and this year was no exception. We celebrated the night before leaving. My brother gave me a paperback collection of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series. I was so excited to read it upon my return!
My friends arrived the following morning and I showed off some of my gifts. One of them grabbed the set of books and suggested we bring it on the trip. I argued, "I haven't even read them yet!" She insisted she'd been wanting to read this series too. We could both read them on the trip! I insisted I didn't want to take my new books on the trip because they might be damaged. She assured me she would be careful with my new books, and put them in the car despite my vehement protests because, of course, I was being ridiculous.
Full disclosure: I have been accused of having an anal retentive personality and when I was younger, I was a bit of a control freak. But imagine OCD dialed up to eleven when it comes to books. First and foremost, I'm a bibliophile. I love words, I love the way words are strung together to form sentences, and I love the way sentences are woven together to create works of art. But beyond my love of words that make up the content of books, is also a love for the physical object of the book. Never has there been a more perfect creation. While other kids dreamed of owning a big house, a fancy car, expensive clothing, traveling the world, and all that kind of stuff, I dreamed of owning a house with an extra room that could be turned into a library, complete with a rolling ladder affixed to shelves towering over my head.
In elementary school, our librarian explained the Dewey decimal system along with rules for caring for books. Books were precious, and as such, it was absolutely unacceptable to write in them, fold or tear out pages, or in any way alter them. I'll be honest. College was a rude awakening when I learned that, not only was it okay to highlight text, but also it was expected because that was what good students did.
As we drove south, I watched in horror as my soon-to-be-ex-friend methodically read each of my books, bending the bindings backward and out of shape, folding down the corners of pages to mark her spot at each stopping point, and leaving them lying around the back seat of the car for anything to happen. I begged her to take better care of my gift. She scoffed at me for being OCD, but this went way beyond a need for perfection. It was more about my desire to not have my books abused. Eventually, I gave up, averting my eyes every time she picked up one of my books, hoping beyond reason that they would miraculously survive the trip.
When we returned, she handed me the set, saying something like "great series." Did she say thanks? I honestly cannot remember. Numbly, I nodded. Gingerly, I picked up the set, which now looked like it had been passed through a lending library for illiterates. I handled it like it had been infected by the Ebola virus. Eventually, I worked up the courage to read it, and it was an amazing series, but once I had, I brought it home and left it there so I could forget about how it looked. And yes, I forgave my friend, because even though she had done something thoughtless and selfish, she wasn't actually a bad person.
A few years ago, while perusing my sister's bookshelf, I saw my collection there. I pointed it out and she asked if I wanted it back.
"Oh, no," I assured her, "but maybe I'd like to read it again." I did, and it's still an incredible series, but shortly thereafter, I returned it to her saying, "You keep it."
Thirty years later, I still can't imagine allowing a less-than-perfect set of books to join my collection. I'm not sure what that says about me, but at least I can proudly say that I don't hold people to the same standards as I do books.
October 29, 2019
Remember when ads for toys made you believe in magic? Remember when the play you watched in an ad seemed like something tangible, something that could exist in your own home if only you could have that toy? For a short time it was the Easy Bake oven that filled me with a sense of possibility. That hope was quickly quashed when my Mom announced that it was likely a fire hazard and we could just use the actual oven in our very own kitchen, with supervision, of course. Now, I realize she must have been appalled by the thought of something so banal coming into our home. Her Italian instincts would not allow for anything less than authentic homemade food in our house.
So I set my sights on something else and it became my most fervent wish, of which I frequently reminded my parents. On some level, I knew it was probably too expensive, but I bargained that it was the only thing I wanted. So when Christmas morning arrived and the large box sat under the tree, I could barely contain my excitement. My brother, too, was anxious to open his similarly large gift, but that was immaterial to me. Like the perfect angels we were, on this morning at least, we waited for permission before tearing into the wrapping.
I'm sure I had tears in my eyes when I uncovered the covered Barbie's Friendship Airplane. I was overjoyed and couldn't wait to play with it. Meanwhile, my brother opened his gift--Big Jim and his Sports Camper. Who was Big Jim anyway? He certainly wasn't Ken, but what did I care? We had our own individual toys that could be used together.
And something funny happened. I discovered that Barbie's airplane wasn't actually magic after all. The snack cart was not self-propelled. The clothes hanging in the wardrobe were flat images printed on vinyl. There were two seats and a table and Barbie couldn't even sit comfortably.
Meanwhile, Big Jim's camper was exciting, with lots of accessories, and best of all, we'd had no preconceived notions, no shattered expectations. Secretly, I liked my brothers gift better than my own, but I would never tell my parents. They'd gotten me the one gift I'd requested. I appreciated it. But I watched commercials with a much more skeptical eye after that, determined I'd not be fooled again. Barbie's Friendship Airplane was an expensive lesson, but I believe it is one that has served me well.
The first home I remember was a little Cape Cod located in the suburbs of New York, out on Long Island. It was a quiet street of little houses that lined both sides of the thoroughfare. Friends lived close enough to walk alone to seek playmates. It was safe.
It seems our house was the popular place to be. I'm sure my parents installed the jungle gym in the backyard to assuage my mom's overprotective instincts. After all, what better way to assure lots of friends while also ensuring your children remain close to home? We spent many hours on that jungle gym, swinging and singing and engaging in contests of who could scream the loudest, and I'm sure my mother was absolutely delighted.
Though the backyard was fun, the front yard contained an attraction the backyard never could. A sprawling crab apple tree stood in the center of the yard, with branches low enough to entice even the most reluctant climber. We'd challenge one another to climb, never too high, and enjoyed hours sitting in that tree.
The tree was thick with green foliage in the summertime, but autumn brought the changes expected from any deciduous tree. Wintertime meant just bare branches. But it was the pink blossoms of springtime that were absolutely breathtaking. Ours was known as the house with the crab apple in the front yard. No other descriptor was necessary.
Springtime also brought the appearance of little white blossoms to the lawn. No matter that my father mowed the lawn every weekend, pushing the reel mower laboriously over the terrain, those flowers were persistent and reappeared almost immediately. And they continued throughout the summer.
Summertime would find us sitting in the shade of this majestic tree, weaving these tiny buds into flower chains. At first, we made rings, bracelets, and necklaces, but there were so many, we quickly moved on to garlands which we used to adorn the tree. We were so proud.
I don't recall ever seeing dried flower chains on our tree. Somehow, whenever we sat down to make more, the tree was bare. I always assumed they blew away. It didn't occur to me until many years later, my dad probably removed the unsightly dead flowers every week before mowing the lawn. It seems we, like most children, effortlessly created extra work for our parents without ever being aware of it.
There was a part of me that knew it was coming, but I was wholly unprepared. And in retrospect, I'm sure my mom was not looking forward to what was coming and how she would explain it. It's never easy to explain death to a child. And so it may have come as a bit of a relief when I said, "Please don't tell me if he dies. I'll ask if I want to know."
After my little brother, Blacky was my best friend. Not a very original or creative name, I know, but I was only four when I chose him and he was black from head to tail so it made sense. And naturally, he was the runt of the litter. Even then, I was attracted to the underdog, or in this case, undercat.
Blacky was an indoor/outdoor cat. On Long Island, the worst predator for a cat was a car, and there wasn't a lot of traffic on our street. His litter box was in the basement and he was not allowed in the bedrooms. That didn't stop him, of course. I shared a room with my brother. After being put to bed, I'd whisper his name and then I'd hear his kitty paws patter up the stairs. He'd wait for me to pat the bed, then crawl under the covers to cuddle. On more than one occasion, I'd hear my dad calling Blacky, but we'd pretend to be asleep. It was our secret.
Blacky was no angel. A Tom cat, I imagine he'd prowl the neighborhood every night looking for a fight. And all too often, he found a willing participant. One morning, he returned to the house with a gaping wound on his back haunch, evidence of a vicious foe. At the time, I didn't understand how little extra money my parents had. Nevertheless, they took him to the vet, who stitched him up, covered the wound, and admonished them to keep him indoors until it had fully healed. My parents explained that they would not be taking him back for further treatment so he had best behave himself.
Unfortunately, Blacky didn't believe them. Within a few days, he'd escaped the confines of his prison. When he limped home the following morning, his side once again oozing, my heart sank. My father took him back to the vet. I wanted desperately to believe that he would stay there until he'd recovered. The days passed and turned into weeks. Slowly, I came to terms with what I suspected just be true. One day, I approached my mom. "Blacky's not coming home, is he?"
My mother has always prized honesty above all else. She stopped what she was doing and lowered herself to my level. She looked me in the eyes and said, "No, he's not. He's in Heaven now." I nodded in understanding and said, "Okay."
It wasn't until much later I asked her for details. It was years before I learned just how hard it had been for my father, a funeral director, no less, to hold Blacky as he took his last breaths. In his typical manner, he joked about it, but there was this underlying sadness that was hard to miss. He had held Blacky in his arms as he'd closed his eyes for the last time.
I was no stranger to death, but it had never seemed quite real to me. My father's family owned a funeral home and he worked there part time as a mortician. His parents lived upstairs and when we used to visit, we would take the side door into the building because the front door was all the way on the other side of the building. That door led to the storage area, where rows upon rows of caskets sat silently, expectantly in the darkened room. My brother and I would race to the door on the far wall to enter the public area, and safety. We'd threaten to lock one another in the haunted room, but neither of us actually had the heart to do it.
One day, while wandering through the hallways and viewing rooms,I happened upon a girl younger than me. She looked so peaceful lying there, her dark brown hair framing her angelic face. I gazed at her in confusion, no doubt scrunching my brow, as I attempted to square my vision with what I knew to be true. Only old people die. I couldn't understand, and my younger brother was no help in this endeavor. So we sought my mother's help.
I imagine this was a conversation that, even if anticipated, was certainly not relished. And somehow, like so many other times, she had the right answer. Sometimes God takes children because he needs more angels, but not to worry, he doesn't do it often and he chooses judiciously. He only takes those who are so good that He cannot bear to be separated from them any longer. I think my brother and I both breathed a sigh of relief, confident in the knowledge God wouldn't be taking either of us any time soon.