“When taking great leaps forward,
life often turns to shit before it turns to Shinola.”
The two euro umbrella mentioned in Days In Naples, a series, blew apart twisting back on itself leaving me unprotected and wet —-and against custom, custom being not appearing in public lest one be perceived a floozy, I threw it into the dumpster and pushed face first into the ruthless winds, fierce, wet and alive.
Spring of 2016 it began as an itch, awake at night, fitful.
Restless legs, wanderlust, someplace warmer, a change of scene, venue.
I had lived in the city of Chicago almost twenty-five years, enduring winter after winter, year after year, long months of short, cold, grey days. Terminally broke, I was lonely and at a molecular level universally discontented.
Without deviation from the norm,
Progress is not possible.
They say life conspires in your favor.
House cats were a part of my life twenty-five years, then my sweet Luella, a lavender-grey cat died of kidney disease.. After her, attempting to replicate the comfort, the anchor, I fostered several cats as something in me pleaded, "don’t do it." Yes, cats are independent but they don’t travel well.
She had to die, naturally of course. One step to freedom.
And my old mama had begun to decline, her mind an angry twist, frustrated suspicion, a petulant two year old, in-comprehensive and resistant. Our conversations morphed from long discourses on yeasted doughs, gelato flavors, flowers and plantings, to open awkwardness, the sensation being the foreigner unable to comprehend words coming at you; you smile and nod in exasperated discomfort. She argued, accused, hung up mid-call, no longer able to offer comfort, never her forte, my mother was disappearing. Mama, Peg, the work horse, stable, independent, transformed, a change unremarkedly begun ten years prior moved as a python crush, from a woman of steely will to starry-eyed frailty. She would never be an old geranium, referring to the "old people" she volunteered for, their visitations, bible readings, and inevitably another funeral to attend. She would escape agonizing deterioration via rapture, her Lord Jesus-Fabio-style swooping in on a flaming chariot, she and other insurgent faithful would rise up, gloriously unscathed, whole.
I don't need to tell you that didn't happen.
What did happen was an informal Alzheimer diagnosis. She was found hundreds of feet away from the assisted living facility, wearing sweater layers, on a mission, ironically, “going to Italy.” After, she had to wear an ankle bracelet meant to stop her break outs. Just months after entering assisted living due to her disruptive conduct, she was moved to the Alzheimer focused-building, where she and twenty-plus others, stoned and sleepy played games, watched bad TV and ate together. Under the influence of drugs, her behavior veered from dozy sweetness to crazed outrage, hitting herself, smearing lipstick, destroying her room, masturbating in public. To keep her place, she had to be neutralized, a common practice with the elderly. And so it went, a two year crucible as she weakened, unable to walk without falling, to a walker, from walker to wheelchair, from wheelchair to death. Two steps to freedom.
In a madness of my own, more likely desperation, tired of working three, four, five jobs to barely make rent every month, I chose to move to Tennessee where my mother resided, then in assisted living. I was to live in her house for a few months while I looked for work and transitioned into southern living, coupled with awkward attempts at sisterly relations to brothers I hardly knew anymore. It took two days to entirely organize, sort and dispose of my mother's belongings when reality sunk in. WTF had I done? I had left my work, my connections to work, my friends behind, believing my presence in my mother's life would make some difference. It might have. But I will never know, with no preamble I left Tennessee and returned to Chicago merely weeks later.
I will try to explain.
Such a simple sentence for a lifetime fraught with depression, bad religion, falling the tree of misjudgment, hitting every branch on the way down.
I did not come easily onto this earth, born weighing in at nine pounds, four ounces, heavier and taller than my three brothers. One photo of my infant self, my face is blotched red, my hair wet black; I am wailing, a writhing, colic demon. Crying for days on end, my mother’s only relief, my father, horizontal, holding me on his warm beating heart. Rhythm, repetition, counting, rocking, calming devices that still soothe me to this day.
We’ve all familiar with stories of recovery from drink, drugs, sex, abuse, gangs, white collar crime, the mob, eating, praying and loving. I once attended an “Arts Anonymous” meeting, premise being people laboring in the arts, afraid, failing, stuck. When I sheepishly introduced myself followed by, ”I’m not an alcoholic or addicted to substances”, well, you know, that’s hardly believable to a group of addicts. What was I, a if not addict, doing at an anonymous meeting? Good question.
I’ve spent most of my life believing I was cut from the wrong cloth, off-grain, Abbie-normal. If math were the formula, I would be the wrong answer every time. I’m extra tall, athletically built, articulate, a high school drop-out, I failed gym and English. I skipped over forty days of grade 10, starting sleeping with boys when I was fourteen, and didn’t think I’d live to see sixteen. I’ve quit more jobs, ran away from home, suffer from extreme anxiety, ADD, OC-almost D, spent two months in a psychiatric hospital, aborted a pregnancy, married a fool, suffered a long and painful miscarriage, have been broke most of my adult life, did not have a regular bank account until thirty-eight , the same year I first had health insurance. I’ve been raped, molested, followed and threatened.
My father was a racist hot-head, ignorant and sexist. My mother was naive, gullible and negligent. My brothers and I attended shitty church schools where I spent more hours outside the classroom, keeping the hallway warm, being the class clown/disrupter. I have taken more extracurricular classes than god, acting, voice overs, improv, fashion design, interior design, drawing, poetry, ceramics, book making, bass guitar, Neapolitan pizza, country harmony, country duets, jazz voice. I’ve sang in public, acted in a play, “sold” vinyl siding and solar systems. (No one ever bought a thing from me except the lady I sold candles to for a school project but was too shy to deliver them.)
I stole a purse at church and ate communion wafers with my brothers; we also stole money from the little plastic church that held change. And I was the culprit who ate the chocolate eggs in the Easter display at St. John’s Lutheran School, same school where I fell out of my desk and shat myself after the flu, same school I wet my pants in front of the class, my teacher ignoring my desperate pleas. Same school, different teacher, slapped me in front of the class and spanked me with a red wood paddle for not understanding zero times zero is always zero. I slapped my best friend for being dumb, hit an old lady in the head with a green bagel on St. Patricks day, an accident, and adopted then released a cat that was terrorizing my cats. ( It was found; I deeply apologize.)
I was kicked out of Girl Scouts the first day, wore homemade bandana halters and rode my bike in front of teenage boys tempting them; I poured Johnny Walker Red in beautiful Italian leather shoes my scrooge grandfather owned and stole mirrors and embossed combs from his funeral home. Wine drunk at a party I threw most of the host’s wine glasses out her French windows. I covered for a pregnant schoolmate, exchanging my larger jeans for her shrinking jeans, slept with her boyfriend and a few other friends boyfriends. I yelled “eat me” at a pep rally then denied it, tormented a friend who hated Doritos, leaving a trail from her car into her bedroom while she was away-her mother let me do it! I was terrorized by a much larger girl at the first public school I attended. She followed me home, pushing me the whole way, stepped on my heels and humiliated me in front of my friend Shelly. I terrorized a fellow fifth grader, a quirky and awkward beauty by stepping on her heels, embarrassing and generally made her existence miserable. (I’m truly sorry.)
This is not a pity party and why it’s taken so long to write:
To move out of pity into compassion first for myself and then for others. - Me
I’m fifty now. (Give or take math whizs’.)
What changed from 2016 to now is me. If you read the first in a series, Days in Naples, you’ll know I spent months traveling the western and southwestern states. It is true traveling will change you, as will being lost and alone. Learning to trust people, trust time and predominately trust myself-changed me.
When I set out I imagined I would find a new situation in California, learn to surf and maybe marry a surfer-genius-comedian. And build a business.
But that’s not where spirit wanted me and I know because the sensation of “this is not it” persisted. A series of loops, re-do’s and repeats has led me here. Because while it sucked to be sleeping on a couch for six months, only a year ago, that’s part of the ongoing miracle of now, life-giving to share, particularly for others on oddly different paths but leading to an unprecedented freedom.
And it starts with restlessness. It starts with having no explanation for those who wish a reasoned and ordered rendering. And frankly, in all fairness, I had no idea where I was going except everyplace I arrived I knew, again, “this isn’t it”.
What I want
You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
The darkness of each endless fall,
The shimmering light of each ascent. -Rainier Maria Rilke, the book of Hours I,14
Scanning the U.S., I felt in my bones, “not here, it’s not here.”
There’s a hardness to American Life, not the difficulty-per-se, although that exists, but as we’ve societally moved away from family life, from intergenerational homes, grandparents, siblings, we have lost ….something.
A noticeable difference in southern and mediterranean Europe: Sundays stores are closed, families eat communally and evenings stroll together. I notice fewer neurotic and homeless people. They may be hidden somewhere but I don’t see the numbers on the street as in the states. Or maybe it is our plastic, disposable, non-stop lifestyles. I appreciate that in Naples, while it is a learned inconvenience, the pharmacy being closed for lunch becomes the norm and you learn to live with what exists. I slow down, breathe and reprioritize. After all, the dissociation could be me, my broken alienation from family, my ability to be alone for days on end, entirely content to speak to strangers and dogs.
I began to heal the day I drove away from safety, security, the known, when I loaded the car, the dog, heading out alone, cross-country. Meditating on what this last year of moving was about…the crushing shame and pain, the churning…utter darkness…days without end…walking a dog at night…picking up poop. After I dropped off the dog in Boise--boom--all that shoved down anxiety came up from the basement, electric and alive. I attached myself to strangers, (Airbnb hosts), and their dogs, their lives.
More important, I’ve also learned that if you’re got a dream
You have to try it:
You must get it out of your system.
You will never get another chance.
If you WANT to change your life, do it. -Jim Rogers, Investment Biker
Coming off the highway into Albuqurque. I descended into white flat heat, succumbing to a hammock, allowing myself to be swaddled one leg grounded the other aloft, a dogs warm muzzle in my hand..swinging my self into a sweet joy…craddled again, rocking.
I took long walks with my hosts, their lamas and alpacas, chased chickens, fed geese. A dogs face in mine..I ate sun warmed blackberries right off the bush..testings god’s mettle, …sunned deeply, swam, slept, drank wine at six p.m.…stretching long days into quiet night.
In a murderous time,
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.-Stanley Kunitz
You don’t know grief until the the bloodiest parts are over, the dry-sobbing,
the actual deadness, the pale body, her contorted face, her marble-cold forehead I kissed, her old skin pulled taut. Mama. Standing in the funeral home hallway alone choking sorrow, not just for this complicated person but for myself, I am crying for myself, my lonely motherless self. And the machinations surrounding the death, the funeral or lack thereof, the anger, the resignation to an uncelebrated life, her beauty, her vanity, her naiveté, her willful negligence, her competition for attention, all the ways she betrayed me, her full-throated laugh, her coffee-crazy, her chocolate ice cream binges, her knocked knee stance, her itty bitty bladder, her blasphemous snoring, her Bible verse hearse, the long car of sinful cause and hellish effect. All the ways she could make you ache when you wished not. I imagine saying all the things I wished someone would have said at her funeral: she was a terrible card player, she loved to sing and would break into song apropos of nothing, but if I didn’t want to be crucified by my brothers again, I kept my mouth shut. A sin.
Haunting her grave several times, I called out, heralding her, as she had wished, singing “We’ll Meet Again” and Come Thou Fount.”
Driving miles in the the offensive quiet, a thick stillness, I played our favorite songs, only I cried, not her for whom the music was called. She sat silent in the passenger seat letting me drive, for a change. Her utter quiet, her eyes on the road, she ignored me like the animal that knows you’re there but refuses to meet your eye. I sang, I wept, I confessed and forgave. Forgave and confessed. Driving will do you good.
(To be continued.)
P. S. I also met my father at the cemetery. Call it whoo whoo. I had gotten back in my car to leave my mother when I felt a weighty sadness, a need not only to say hello, but a good-bye. I sat with him long minutes, letting that sorrow circle a silence, a draw, a compromise and letting go of all the ways we had wounded each other. I told him I needed him, something he never heard. He told me he always loved me, words difficult to form while breathing.