- Ego depletion: your brain really does get tired, and you really do have finite reserves of will-power. Let’s say your to-do list has 20 completely disparate things on it (each item representing at least 5 emails, 3 scheduled meetings, and 6 attempts to reschedule them once the people involved in the first 5 emails fail to hold up their end of things in a timely fashion), and every time you try do item #3, someone drops by your office (the door of which you can’t bear to close because you feel trapped like a mistreated Targaryen dragon sealed and chained in the darkness of a Meereenese crypt) to talk about items #6-11, or, even better! items #21 and 22. The mental effort you will expend to stay focused, “productive,” polite, and non-violent (or at least minimally-sarcastic) will so exhaust your stores of self-control and self-discipline, that you’ll be good for nothing else but lying on the couch in a stupor, binging on Outlander and a bucket of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookies.
- Consequently, plagued by guilt, haunted by every impending beach trip between now and your retirement, and brainwashed by misogynistic capitalism into thinking that your worth as a woman depends completely on how you look in a bikini, the little will-power you have left is just enough to get you to the gym.
- And/or: profoundly and irrationally irritated by a) your to-do list; b) everything that gets between you and your to-do list; c) your own procrastinatory self—you take the inbound train rather than the outbound one after work, and go to the gym to lift, hit, dance, and sweat until you feel better. Whether it’s (2) or (3) that gets you there, you’re at the gym for 2 hours. Then you go home to the couch, Outlander, and cookie bucket. (Yes, you’re aware that there’s a vicious circle element at work here, thanks).
- You do a ton of writing—tons and tons of careful research arranged into a deceptively-baroque, devastatingly-insightful, analysis of some urgent cultural issue, which you bring in on time, only to be told by your editor that, while it is, indeed, delightful, it’s not what she wants at all (because she refused to tell you what she did want at any earlier part of the process), and could you please re-write this tiny passage here? and here? and here? Just a few trivial revisions, affecting only, oh—piff, nothing at all!—7000 words, which will be read by 5 people in the world if you’re lucky, not counting your parents.
- Repeat (3).
- While watching Outlander, you spend all the slow boring bits (i.e., where the earnest 20th century husband is clothed) reconciling gym, dance, work, and social schedules to find time when you can write what you really want to write. You go to the award-winning cafe to eat pastry and Create. The smell of organic bacon smoked over free-range apple wood in a smoker built lovingly by hand by a weedy hipster youth proves intensely distracting. The harsh, file-on-metal tones of confident, loud, over-paid, under-thinking people on their break from all of those jobs which pay better than what you get—are even more distracting. So, instead, you waste most of the carefully-plotted writing time taking online quizzes about which Game of Thrones character you should date (I get Jaqen H’ghar, which makes complete sense as I would crush on the guy who’s emotionally unavailable because he’s a sociopathic religious fanatic and assassin).
- Repeat (3).
- You try it again. This time, no messing around. You go to the library, that temple of quiet study and exalted intellectual pursuit. You can’t settle anywhere. There’s a noxious smell. Two kids have never learned (how? HOW??) that you don’t talk at normal volume in libraries. Two other well-raised kids are whispering politely—and you learn that you have the neurological thing opposite to the thing that makes you feel soothed by whispering. Judging by the steady whistling sound, someone near you has a deviated septum and Just. Doesn’t. Care. This guy over here takes first one, then two, then—as your horror steadily mounts—three pieces of gum and steadily stuffs one after the other into his mouth and proceeds to chew. That guy is playing Grand Theft Auto, without earbuds. That guy is clipping his nails. The security guards don’t do a single damned thing about any of it. No-one cares but you. Determined to stay and work—to Create, remember—you take refuge in the stacks. Sitting on the floor, in blissful auditory and olfactory peace, you’ve just opened your laptop, and have your fingers poised, tingling with pent-up brilliance, over the keys…and a security guard is standing over you, come to discipline you—you!!—for sitting on the floor. You flee, feeling both persecuted, and angry with yourself for caring about being persecuted. You console yourself by applying grand literary references to your non-grand situation: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”
- Repeat (3).
- You’ve done tons and tons more writing. It’s good stuff, but also honestly, searingly, wrenchingly true, and, after a winter of isolation, rejection, suffering, insult, and near-assault—you have to concede that it’s just a teeny bit (just the littlest smidge) dark. A couple of people have mentioned that your writing makes them sad. You’re not sure you want a reputation as one of those brooding, self-obsessed, lyrical-but-oh-so-intense female memoirists. And, since you have nothing else in the pipeline, the world must languish, insensibly depriving itself of the exquisite tristesse and poignancy of your touching history.
- So you decide that you’ll start a new piece of comic brilliance instead. But then you have to look up that quote by Tolstoy about how all happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and then you see an update on Facebook, and then you realize that your neighbors have finally stopped doing their- and-their-friends-and-relations’ laundry, so you can finally wash your sports bras, and then you remember that you haven’t swept the floors in two days…and then it’s just too late, and you have to finish season two of the Americans.
- You get asked out on a date and have a good time. The second date goes well, and the third…except for that one thing he said in passing that could mean 10 different things. You wander around the apartment absent-mindedly cleaning things, trying to telepathically decipher the black box that is another human being. You then have to go for drinks with your girlfriends to forensically re-construct the events and meaning of every minute of each date, and to deconstruct, with relentless incisiveness, every emoji used in every text the man has sent you (“is that really a crying face, or an Android-iOs translation problem…??) Your psyche taunts you in an incongruously-Mancunian accent, “You know nothing…”—because you really do know nothing. Until you go on another perfectly-enjoyable date and all that stuff you were worried about turns out be truly nothing. All of this is extremely time-consuming, and since bad things continue to not happen, you find you have nothing to say publicly about any of it.
- Mad Max comes out. You call your parents. You go to a weekend-long fitness camp. A friend is in from out of town. The snow is melted, you’ve got a new battery in your car, and you can finally go to Ikea for that thing you were sure only Ikea could provide. It doesn’t fit. You have to go back to Ikea. You get invited to a poetry reading. You need to spend 4 hours going through every possible combination of airline fares and schedules in order to plan the perfect itinerary to visit your parents. You check Facebook again. And again. The season finale of Game of Thrones demands protracted analysis and conversation with everyone you know. You realize your 10-class card for ballet is about to expire. You have two unused salsa classes. You go to dance classes. You start composing an indignant letter to Amazon about how the concept of “MommyPrime” is offensively patriarchal and discriminatory, until you realize that they have no way of knowing that “Pierre” is not a real over-indulged, Montessori-coddled child (birthday April 3), but is, in fact, your stuffed panda. You (and the panda) get a free trial month. You can’t help yourself and you buy season three of the Americans. Your hair, which yesterday was fine—completely fine—is suddenly impossible and it has to be colored and cut immediately. You need a filling replaced. You start a really good murder mystery. You go to the office and become enraged by everything that either is on your computer when you wish it weren’t, or should be on your computer but has been inexplicably taken away by IT on the capricious whim of their tyrannical sysadmin. You feel very busy, but thwarted. You write about not writing as a way to get some writing done.
- Repeat (3).
- You go on another date.
Other than a pathological faith in jinxes and charms—fingers crossed, wood knocked—I’m mostly quite a rational, skeptical person. If there really were ghosts, why do they only appear at night, and only in closets, attics, basements, hallways, and bathroom mirrors—but never during daylight, on the bus, or at a department meeting or yoga studio? If angels could really guide us—wouldn’t they, of all supernatural beings, be ethically obligated to guide us all the time? If they have information that could help us, but hold out until we pay someone ($30 for one reading, special combo price of $45 for two)—wouldn’t that make them…demons? And raise troubling implications about free will? (questions that have kept philosophers employed for centuries). And if crystals and stones resonate with power, surely I’d have noticed by now and been transported to other places and times, preferably one where I’d have to marry the best looking, best educated, yet most sensitive warrior in order to save the whole rebel cause …oops—now I’m getting mixed up with the plot of Outlander. The point is, if tea leaves, or runes, or chicken bones, or gas venting from a fissure in the earth’s crust could really inform our behavior, surely we’d all be a lot better off than we are…?
I’d be delighted if there were really were magic in this world—the literal kind. How cool would that be! But instead, we’re all just Muggles, stuck with the figurative varieties of magic instead—the intersection of imagination, inspiration, insight, and instinct which allows us to make, and perceive patterns of meaning, in everything from painting to science to poetry.
Disappointed in my sorcerous and alchemical ambitions, as we all must be, I’ve come instead to deal with patterns (or the lack of them) for a living. I analyze words and the patterns we make out of them, I teach other people how to do the same, and I help them when the patterns fail. In this kind of work, we sometimes invoke the image of the palimpsest, or Henry James’ figure in the carpet, the pattern beneath the pattern, discernible, but only to the trained eye. As Poe’s detective Dupin and Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes know, you can be looking right at all the information you need, the vital clue can be hidden in plain sight—all you need to do is stop looking, and start seeing.
But as I said, sometimes the pattern fails, or something clouds your vision, and we sometimes need a little bit of help to clear the fog away. As these posts make abundantly clear (to me, at least), I experience a great deal of stress and frustration in my personal life because I’m often staring right at something important and am nevertheless unable to see it, usually because I’m hoping to see something else.
Which is why I’ve been curious about tarot cards for awhile. Of all the so-called divinatory practices, tarot is the least supernatural-seeming, the least occult. Many practitioners believe that their readings emerge not just from the cards as material objects, or as a set of symbols, but from the energies of both the reader and the one being read. The cards don’t make patterns, they reveal patterns unfolding in the universe on a metaphysical, perhaps mystical scale. I’m not sure how far my own belief—or suspension of disbelief—can go in that direction. But I’m attracted to the idea that the cards provide a symbolic framework within which we can create, or discern, patterns less cosmic, more personally relevant. This doesn’t have to be a scientifically-valid process, so much as an artistic one. This makes sense to me.
So I tried it out.
New Orleans is one of those cities that, partly by accident, partly through self-conscious cultivation, has become a thoroughly gothic space. Buildings which are crumbling and decrepit and blank by day provide the environs for all manner of decadence and mystery (or the promise of it) by night. Part of the city’s allure comes from its long association with magic and ritual, voodoo most notoriously, but encompassing all things mystical. There are dozens of self-styled mystics, diviners, and psychics in the city, setting up shop to read your leaves, and runes, and cards, everywhere from the precincts of the cathedral on a Wednesday afternoon, to smack dab in the midst of the drunken brawl known as Bourbon Street. One recent Friday night, I noticed a young woman sitting at her card table while music blared from every storefront, frat boys staggered past sipping 200-proof slushies, and, alarmingly, a group of very inebriated women tottered along in high heels, balancing themselves on their toddlers’ strollers while the poor little creatures within clung, bewildered, to their sippy-cups. Perhaps the tarot reader could operate in that setting—the only one, seemingly, who could—but I figured the cards would wait until I could find something on the quieter side streets, and in the more reassuringly-sedate light of day.
My first attempt was in the most banal of settings—the brightly-lit convention floor of a large hotel, the kind where you can easily forget which city you’re in, the decor, unflattering lighting, and feel all designed to be completely, offensively-inoffensively generic. At a conference on pop culture, some of the academic experts on tarot (because if anything’s interesting, it’s worth studying academically) were doing one-card readings. Before directing me to pick my card, the reader asked me to envision my ideal day. This seemed a reassuringly non-mystical, therapeutic practice: knock off the fretting and planning and just remember what matters. I thought about being with loved ones. Immersing myself in nature—sunshine, warm water, breezes, birds singing. Dancing. I took a deep breath, and drew my card. And she said, “This card is about the pleasures of childhood, of simple, joyful playfulness.” As she spoke, I remembered standing in puddles, watching the water wash over my rain boots; then of letting my toes squish around in the muddy shore of the creek. I felt instantly happy—then promptly felt tears starting in my eyes, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which was that I was overwhelmed with how uncanny it was to have those images and that card. Was she reading the card, or me? Was I somehow radiating some meaning that was inaccessible until the reading unlocked it? Were those images, and the merry contentment they evoked, with me all along? If so, why did I need a graduate student in a dress to shuffle some cards before I could see it?
I had to try more.
New Orleans is the kind of place where the hotel concierge can recommend everything from the best beignet, to where you can get a seance. Sure enough, she had a recommendation for me, and a coupon. I followed the directions on the slip of hotel note-paper to a shop in the French Quarter selling crystals, and offering a menu of mystical services. I declined the combo discount (tarot plus past-lives, palms, tea leaves, those suspiciously-mercenary angels, or runes), and was shown into a curtained area where a young woman (almost certainly another graduate student) in a floral dress was ready with her deck. We started with a general “spread,” then focused on relationships; she didn’t ask me anything about myself—work, personal life, ambitions, worries. My cards revealed…wait: is it bad luck to be too public with one’s readings? Or, does doing so create a kind of tarot placebo, of self-fulfilling prophecies…? I’ll tell you this much: the cards suggested that I was emotionally and psychically burned out in some areas of my life, consumed by negative energy—not my own, so much as that of other people, thanks very much. But she also saw lots of good things, lots of potential.
Then we did a spread for romance. She said, “These cards show a person who is charming, and fun to be with, but who is also demanding, who gets his way, who takes more than he gives.” She looked up with some concern. “Is this someone you’re currently seeing? Or someone you saw recently?” I said, “No, though you’re describing several of the people I’ve dated in the last four years.” She replied, “Perhaps that’s what we’re looking at, though the cards suggest something more current. If this isn’t a person in your recent past, it might describe someone you’re going to meet…?” I felt a bit of a chill: “I have a date two days from now,” I said. “Draw another card,” she prompted. She paused, then said, “This is the card for heartbreak.” I inhaled. “Is that meant to be a prediction?” “No,” she replied, “More of a warning: Your other cards show that your path is a good one, for some time to come; you’re content with your choices, with who you are; you’re content being alone if you need to be. Sometimes the universe just places an obstacle in our way as we’re on our journey—but if this person is an obstacle, he doesn’t need to be anything more than that.” I said, as much to myself as to her, “So. I must be vigilant….”
After the session, I drifted around the streets for awhile, absent-mindedly looking in shop windows, trying to make sense of what the reader had told me. I had been startled by how relevant everything had sounded. The cynical analysis would be that, like a good astrologer, she provides information generic enough to apply to anyone. But I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, I think many, if not most, of the people who engage in these mystical practices believe, to one degree or another, in what they’re doing. There might not be much magic, but I don’t think there’s much deliberate deception either. We’re all drawn to divination for the same reasons—we want to believe our lives have structure and sense, and that the events which befall are us are something more than arbitrary.
More importantly, what I felt, as I drew my cards, was that I wasn’t being read, as either a mark, or as a passive text. Instead, I had felt engaged in a creative process that allowed for both of us to be simultaneously reader and writer. The cards provide the materials—the units of meaning—from which the tarot reader knows how to assemble a text, like a poem or a painting; then I bring my own experiences, interests, needs to bear in my response, creating an interpretation that adds to my sense of where I am at the given moment. In this particular experiment, at this moment, the process of collaboratively analyzing symbols felt very familiar; and, very interestingly, it prompted me to think through a few things in a new way. I felt I’d been nudged along in my perception, like someone had gently held me at my shoulders to turn me in the right direction, from looking right at the pattern to actually seeing it: not there, here. Ah-hah! I said out loud, in the middle of the French Quarter (occasioning no interest whatsoever): I’ve been looking everywhere for things that have been hidden in plain sight, right in front of me all along.
That night, a friend and I tried a fashionable restaurant in the French Quarter. By fashionable, I mean that we struggled to get a reservation, then as soon as we were seated, we were promptly ignored for 15 minutes until I accosted some other section’s waiter to fetch ours. More moments passed, when, on the brink of our overcoming all kinds of social conditioning and hunger to simply walk out, our man appeared. “Allrightallrightallright!” he announced, with Magic-Mike authenticity. “Sorry for that delay! I was in the back.”
He was welcoming, and eager to get us set up with drinks and food; he bustled off with our orders, headed to The Back, content that all was going as it ought. My friend was somewhat mollified by his hospitableness, but I wasn’t having it. I was suspicious of what had kept him in The Back for so long (Is The Back part of the restaurant? if so, what goes on there that held him up? Is The Back some kind of indeterminate existential state, as in, “sorry for the delay in getting my act together, but I was in The Back”…?). I felt like I’d met his type before. “In my experience, you need to be wary of men our age, who are friendly, wait tables for a living, and are obviously missing several teeth. None of the first three criteria are absolute, but any one of them in combination with the last: damning.” We found the obviousness of this pronouncement hilarious and unsettling. Magic Mike proved me right, and failed to earn much of a tip.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting.
Two days later, back in Boston, I had the date I’d mentioned at the tarot reading. I went with some trepidation. On the one hand, the man is educated, knows how to make pastry, and is French. On the other hand, online, he’d been cagey about what he does for a living, except to say that he was embarking on a huge adventure, personally and professionally. In his messages he said that he hoped he wouldn’t scare me too much, and was confident that, if nothing else, I’d find his story interesting. After the tarot reading, I thought perhaps I just shouldn’t bother; but then, because of the reading, I had to, just to see.
And what do you know?: the French guy’s work visa (waiting tables) was about to run out, but that’s ok, because he’s confident that once he goes back to France (next week??) he’ll be able to get an entrepreneur visa which will allow him to come back to the US to start his pastry business, that he’s funding with his savings! It’s all fine! He has kids, and he sees them all the time, and is teaching them how to cook, but his ex-wife has sole custody because she’s in her 40s and she has figured out how to have a job with benefits and a green card! Everything is fine! It’s all so exciting!
“Have I scared you yet??” he asked, expectant.
What scares me, I thought, but didn’t say, was that for the second time in as many days, I’m having a perfectly good dinner thrown off by a man my age, who’s very friendly, waits tables for a living…and is obviously missing several teeth.
I thought of the tarot cards, and what the reader had suggested about obstacles. I thought about patterns, some more obvious than others—for example, my own pattern of trying to talk myself into liking every stray man who crosses my path for fear that I’ll never come across another, and consequently having my emotional energy drained and my time wasted. I thought of Sherlock Holmes: stop looking, P2, and see.
The Frenchman, proud of himself for ransoming his children’s college fund for an appallingly-harebrained scheme, was still talking. Then he said again, “Well, that’s my scary story. What about you, P2?”
I looked; I saw.
I thought a bit, and said, “You know what? there’s nothing scary about me at all…and I think that’s just fine.”
Meanwhile—as the search for the One continues, in a romantic landscape that is bleak, unaccommodating, sometimes downright hostile—the Discarded keep turning up like bad pennies. I’ve learned not to erase their contact information from my phone, to avoid being unpleasantly surprised when I check messages from unknown numbers only to hear voices I thought were long- and definitively-banished.
The Discarded comprise only a handful, and, for the sake of my ethical sensibility and dignity, I’m grateful that there are fewer of them than of those who have cast me aside as unfit for their own idiosyncratic reasons. But while their numbers are hardly legion, they have all taken on a demonic character nevertheless (well, let’s not give them more credit than they deserve: perhaps “malicious spirit” or “poltergeist” would be more accurate than “demon”).
These are not the truly good ones, those men with wonderful qualities, who seemed to like me but whom I couldn’t like as well in return. No, these are the ones who—as A, always the less equivocal one, would put it—are on the KUD list (that would be Kick Until Dead). I don’t wish any of them actual harm, but their distasteful presence in memory and imagination provokes the kind of deep, abiding, unforgiving resentment that could take on corporeal form to haunt the depths of Middle-Earthly mines and catacombs.
For each of the Discarded, there was some combination of factors which made dating them, at minimum, lost time. In the worst cases, I ended up hurt and offended in the moment, then ashamed and angry at myself for not being more savvy and more outspoken sooner, and, finally, unable to enjoy any memory of time spent with them afterward. I don’t believe in regret, in general, particularly when I know I was trying to act in good faith throughout. So what’s the right name for experiences, the memory of which induces first a flicker of amalgamated hurt, offense, indignation, irritation, self-recrimination—and then demands to be forcibly shoved aside and deliberately repressed?
First, there was the guy from Davis Square. He has a lot of good qualities, really! He also has fantastically poor executive function—no judgment, no impulse control. Faced with a decision between two options–“beneficial” versus “absurdly self-destructive” –he launches himself at the latter with enthusiastic, delusional, righteousness. In my defense, I had grave reservations about him from the beginning, but couldn’t resist the attention he paid me. Luckily for me, my relationship with him was effectively, necessarily, ended when, while I was out of town, he slept with another woman, got evicted from his apartment, and then, in the ensuing brawl with his roommate/ex-girlfriend, allegedly tried to strangle her, and was jailed for several months for attempted homicide.
While he was in jail (which was several months, as he couldn’t, suspiciously, make bail), he wrote me long, rambling letters (with, as one friend marveled, lovely penmanship and no cross-outs!) where he alternated between excusing his behavior, denying it, accusing me for deserting him, and asking me to send him books. I was aghast: my parents didn’t raise their daughter to receive mail post-marked “Suffolk County Jail.” I found it hard to believe this man criminally violent; I found it very easy to believe that his life could spin so wildly out of control. I was relieved to be clear of him.
But then, several months later, when he was finally released, he called and texted a couple of times: “Hey, I know I was a jerk, but maybe we could get together and talk things through?” Not knowing how to use my phone as one, I tried to block his number. To my horror, I rang him by accident; fumbling to stop it, time slowed down, and I watched as the phone tumbled in slow motion in the air for long seconds before I could grasp it and shut if off. Too late. Immediately, creepily, the text showed up: “you rang…?”
Then there was the one from New Hampshire, who cooked steak for me and brought me a very nice pearl bracelet from a business trip to Japan. In his mind, he was very good at taking care of me. He was also paranoid, misogynistic, homophobic, jealous, and controlling. I had to wait for him to gallantly open the car door for me. And if I absent-mindedly let myself out, he would tsk-tsk me, and have me sit back down until he came around to hand me out. We could have (cheap) wine with dinner together, but if he phoned me, he would ask “are you having wine right now? that’s bad for you, you know. Very high in calories.” He gave me “helpful” advice about abdominal exercises. I asked him what problems led to his divorce. “My wife was unhappy because she wasn’t aging as well as I am. She looks her age (late 50s), and I look after myself so well I look like I’m in my 30s. I tried to help her, but she didn’t appreciate it.” I’ll bet she didn’t appreciate it, I thought. Finally, he saw a photo of me from a few years ago and said, “you’ve gained weight—you look much smaller there.”
(And one of the many things which make me angry at myself is that I went out with several men who never said an admiring or kind thing about my appearance, and I never realized it until this moment of extremity. Never again).
So that was the end of him. But he called me a few months later, to see how I was doing, doubtless motivated by a concern for all the weight I was gaining without him around to direct my behavior. I didn’t answer. Then, I was out just recently, enjoying myself, dancing, when he materialized in front of me like someone had said his name three times quickly. I wished desperately for a box of salt, to draw a circle of protection around myself. No such luck; the fiend must be confronted. He asked if we could talk; I looked meaningfully back at my friends, imploring them telepathically to get in the way. They thought I was being hit upon and were waving and making encouraging faces at me behind the guy’s back. He asked me why I hadn’t returned his phone call of months earlier. Invoking Jane Eyre, I thought to myself, “Speak I must…” and defiantly said, “because I figured you were calling to check on how many calories I’d taken in that day.” He was shocked, wounded I would think such a thing—not because he cared about my feelings, but because he didn’t want me doubting his manly nobility. I went on, “You called me fat. I wasn’t interested in hearing that again.” I extricated myself, returned to my friends on the dance floor, never so grateful for Taylor Swift as I was in that moment, needing badly to Shake. It. Off.
Then there was the sociopath from Lowell, who actually attempted to gaslight me (that is, he would say/do things, then deny that he did, then suggest I might be crazy for misconstruing his behavior as such). He negged me. He went on a long recitation about why tattoos are inauthentic and pretentious. “I’m not criticizing yours in particular, I just don’t know why anyone would defile their body in that way, and imperialistically appropriate the ritual practices of other cultures. But yours are quite tasteful.” He frequently started diatribes with “You women all do/think X…” (note to self: the next time any man says “all of you women…” get up and leave at once).
In our last phone conversation, he said he was having trouble getting to know me because I was inauthentic and robotic. Perhaps I was demonstrating a certain amount of watchful reserve and self-protective diffidence—which is completely reasonable when confronted with his manipulative and offensive behavior. I’m proud of myself that I had the sense to recognize what he was doing, and got out while the getting was good. But I was pretty badly bruised by that one, and felt as though I’d brushed up against something truly noxious.
That was a couple of years ago. But then I got a message from him just the other day:
Hi [P2], how are you doing? OKC keeps showing me your picture, so I took it as a sign 🙂
Lot’s has happened and a lot has changed with me. I’m practically your neighbor now, I’m living in Brookline Village. I was just wondering if you would like to get a drink together sometime. In any case, hope you are well.
—[Horrible Sociopath from Lowell]
I could have just let it go—lots of reasons to do that. On the other hand, I was furious with him, and with myself for putting up with it as long I did. Horrible people get that way because others let them. When we don’t call them out for their behavior—from the clumsy to the truly harmful, even malicious—we teach them it’s ok to keep doing it. This was my line in the sand. Invoking Jean-Luc Picard this time (in turn invoking, who—Melville?), I thought: “this far and no farther!”
It’s a sign of something all right….mainly that OKC is purgatory and my memory is better than yours.
In the handful of dates we had, you didn’t treat me with any kindness, or even interest beyond the use of my body, and the use of my car to help you move. The last time we spoke on the phone you called me robotic and inauthentic. I hope that lots (no apostrophe) has truly changed for you indeed.
Now that I’m thinking of it, I should have added—you’re a horrible sociopath, and while I don’t wish you any actual harm, I wouldn’t be sorry if you spent a terrible weekend fearing for your life after a doctor’s office called with the STI results and just left an enigmatic message: “your results are in. We should really talk about them in person. Give us a call Monday. Have a great weekend—byeee!”
Then most recently there was poor old Mr. Collins. He wasn’t coping well with the breakup and wanted me back. He also really, really wanted to put me in my place.
If you have already found your perfect guy then disregard my offer [to get back together]. But if not, then I invite you to consider what is arguably the most important contribution of social psychology — namely the “fundamental attribution error.” I presume that you are already familiar with it. But in case you are not, the FAE refers to the tendency to assume that the behavior of others is best explained by their traits rather than their situation. I feel like you came to a decision about our relationship without a full understanding of my situation. I wish that I had been more forthcoming about that. There are many things you still don’t know. I wish that you had tried more conversation about what was on your mind before coming to a unilateral decision about our relationship. You didn’t really give me sufficient time to try to explain or respond. I don’t think that was really fair or an ideal way to handle things.
Ah well, probably water under the proverbial bridge but I do think of you as an extremely rare find and thus worth making a little extra effort to let you know that I don’t consider you disposable. Old fashioned I know, but true.
One friend, after reading that exchange, exclaimed, “He really likes you!” Which made me feel kind of badly about hurting his feelings. Except that 1) my feelings wouldn’t be improved by going out with someone I couldn’t really get excited about and 2) my feelings were being hurt by this childish, passive-aggressive lashing out (and I’m glad I saw him at his worst, because it makes me feel like my gut instinct, that this was not the right path for me, was right):
You cite the FAE. Thank you for the tutorial…My decision was based partly on instinct, but also based on experience, insight, sound critical thinking, and the counsel of my good friends. Most importantly, it was my decision to make. Nevertheless, in just one paragraph in your email, you make a bid to win me back, while simultaneously admonishing and condescending to me, and suggesting that I’m somehow lacking the mental, ethical, and/or intellectual capacity to make good relationship decisions. Which begs the question: why do you want to be with someone whose character and intellect you think is flawed? And since my character and intellect are just fine, thanks, why would I want to be with someone who thinks they’re not?
On the bright side, all of these experiences have taught me a lot, including the very vital lesson that I have good instincts which won’t steer me wrong. I’ve grown tremendously….blah blah blah. Sure, there’s a bright side—no, you know what? There hasn’t been. These experiences have been, to varying degrees, horrible.
I’m not supposed to care, none of us is. Because, haven’t you heard? Dating is just a big ol’ game, we’re all just in it to have fun. If we don’t end up with Prince Charming, then at least we can dine out on our witty anecdotes about all of our crazy-but-true misadventures. And if our feelings get hurt, that’s our own fault for not being tough enough, for taking things too seriously. “Can’t you take a joke? Don’t be so sensitive!” Nonsense. To quote Lady Mary, “That’s the bully’s defense,” used to justify every kind of insult, every instance where a grown-up has, not just the choice, but the obligation to be kind, respectful of both self and others—and instead acts with childish selfishness and pettiness.
I’d say I’m completely fed up—because there are moments when I, and all my single friends, male and female, sure feel that way—but then, what can one do, give up and sink into spinsterly decrepitude amongst the clutter of the Discarded? What a grim fate that would be. So one must keep making the effort. And yet, that effort seems terribly, noxiously inefficient, and I can’t abide inefficiency.
And of course, as I write this, I’m on my way out for yet another first date. Ever the optimist, me! But I also just had my Tarot cards read, which revealed the presence in either my present or my future of romantic obstacles. There may be more Discards along the way. At least fore-warned is fore-armed: I’ll keep my wits sharp…and I might just surreptitiously draw a circle of salt around my bar stool…
I was working on a long piece yesterday, in the dating vein, once again expressing exasperation with the behavior of everyone involved—men for disappointing and hurting me, myself for not being savvy and tough enough to know better. Anger, bitterness, loneliness—you know, the usual fuel for my scintillatingly-witty observations. I was almost ready to post, but stopped: it was just too much, too negative, if not for you all, then for me, at least for today. But then I thought, what else can I write about that’s more fun, and upbeat and uplifting?
I realized: I got nothin’. The well is dry. Tapped out. Or, more accurately, the sap is just all frozen and still, and won’t be running properly again for weeks. It’s not writer’s block, exactly, so much as it’s just the absolute lowest point of the year for me, and I have little to say about it.
Well, fine—who are we kidding?—I can say quite a bit.
We’re enduring one of the worst winters in modern history in the Northeast. Record-breaking cold, record-breaking snow falls, and record-breaking incompetence on the part of civic infrastructure and negligent landlords. Buildings are collapsing; snow, ice, and wind are relentlessly tearing houses apart; we scurry past massive, vicious, ice stalactites; we use government-issued technology (the city’s reporting app) to turn in our neighbors for not shoveling their sidewalks; we find ourselves almost-kind-of-hoping that we’ll slip and fall so that we can sue the bastards and teach them a lesson, and fund a permanent relocation to the south of France. Stuffing ourselves into the scrum to get onto a rare train, we end up suffocating under the physical, auditory, and olfactory onslaught of backpacks, fast food, sniffling noses, unbrushed teeth, overly loud music, and general rudeness. We think violent, antisocial thoughts about our fellow commuters, who lack our superior, Sesame-Street grasp of the basic principles of cooperation.
We’re all tired—of stumbling over snow and ice for miles rather than waiting for buses and trains that never come; of being stuck indoors, with no human company, for days at a time; of having one event or another cancelled because of blizzards; of scrambling, frantically to make up for lost time at work, at the gym, in our social lives.
Everything hurts at this time of year. Taking stock the other day, I realized that I had 8 things actively wrong with my body—chronic tendinitis here, compressed nerves there, mysteriously-enduring stomach upset, a cold, a sore back from shoveling snow. Sleeping with a special (super-sexy) splint helps the nerves, but it’s otherwise quite uncomfortable, unless I use extra pillows, which then make my neck and shoulders—already stiff from being hunched against the cold—stiffer still. People exhort me to take plenty of hot baths—except I’ve picked up a stubborn case of athlete’s foot from the gym and the thought of sitting in the same hot water as my spores (really, how good can my mood get?: I have SPORES) only makes me more nauseated.
Trapped in my neighborhood by a lack of public transit, and unable to get to the gym, I figured I’d get my workouts by shoveling out my car. More pain and stiffness, for little gain. The plight of my poor car has unfortunate parallels with tales of failed arctic expeditions in the 19th century. At a certain point, I was able to get the car to start, but it was hopelessly frozen in the icy, unpaved ground on which it’s parked. Then the battery failed altogether. Like Shackleton, I find myself weighing the option of staying with the doomed vessel, or striking off for safety, hoping to reach civilization again before supplies run out, and we all turn on one another like animals.
Years ago, when life and graduate school took me to the Canadian prairies, I discovered that I suffer from just a smidge, just a soupçon, of Seasonal Affective Disorder. But SAD isn’t quite the best name for my mood. The cold and—in particular—the darkness doesn’t exactly lower my spirits so much as inflame them: exacerbated by the weather, my usual levels of anxiety and melancholy intensify, stripping my nerves raw, ultimately manifesting in an impatient, unforgiving, pervasive fury. Getting stuck in a narrow, icy track behind college kids shuffling along in Ugg-induced decrepitude; enduring adults snuffling and re-snuffling the same couple of tablespoons of mucus; needing some peace and quiet, and being accosted by loud, flat, banal conversation, or people chewing or breathing…it takes next to nothing to leave me feeling indignant, exhausted rage.
(And dimly, I’m aware that my crankiness is in turn making someone else’s day less pleasant. Have I mentioned that Niagara Falls has frozen over? Ever read Wharton’s Ethan Frome? Winter in the Northeast is serious, and it takes a severe toll).
We are all complaining of having gained weight. It’s a ritual here to prepare carefully to survive blizzards—by stocking up on chips, wine, and desserts. And we’ve had a lot of blizzards. Confined to quarters, we cook and bake, and since no-one can get to anyone else’s house, we eat it all ourselves. Trying to be the Strong Independent Woman takes a lot of work under the best of circumstances—putting out fires at work, warming the enthusiasm of colleagues and students, attempting to look hot everywhere we go just in case we meet The One when he crests a giant snow bank to manfully ask for a jump (even though, in reality, I’m the one who needs it more—I’m talking about car batteries, obviously, and even though our lingerie has been nothing racier than thermal underwear for weeks). Add to that the additional physical and mental energy it takes to get anywhere, to do anything—and we’re all suffering badly from ego depletion. Like our poor car batteries, our will power has been frozen into a sluggish unresponsiveness, which calls out for additional fuel—in the form of leftover Christmas, then Valentine’s, candy, followed closely by early Easter candy.
Struggling into a skirt—it should be tight, but not that tight!—it occurs to me that perhaps, rather than eating my feelings, as the saying goes, I should practice mindfulness, instead. I mustn’t avoid or deny; I must allow myself to really feel my feelings, observing them with compassionate non-attachment.
I stare into the roiling maelstrom that rages through the otherwise void expanse of my soul, and promptly burst, explosively, into a fit of tears. Which I must immediately shut down because I’m on a public street, and, more crucially, it’s so cold that if my mascara gets wet, it will freeze, then melt in grotesque fashion as soon as I step indoors. (A lesson learned during Canadian winters that I thought I’d no longer need).
It occurs to me that humans have adapted to repress their feelings, blunting and anaesthetizing them through various means, for very good reason.
You can’t stop the earth from tilting away from the sun, into cold and darkness, for several months of the year, any more than you can control a large majority of the people and events which cross your path. You can, however, soothe yourself any way that works, any way that resources will allow. You must do so, in fact, if you’re to endure.
Desperate times and all that.
I buy myself expensive, wonderfully warm boots. I fill my freezer with homemade cookies, and lentil soup. I give up on Dry February, but also invest in a trainer at the gym. I cajole some friends into booking a group expedition to Cancun. I remind myself that it’s all just weather, and, sooner than later now, the earth must tilt back into light and warmth.
I blot my damp mascara, blow my runny nose, stuff the already-frozen tissue in a pocket, and stop in to a cafe to buy a restorative cake pop.
Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?”
Still indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. …”
(Jane Eyre, Ch.27)
You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does
The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now”
So this is how it’s been:
It’s February, the world keeps turning, I keep aging, the snow keeps falling, I continue to have a challenging career and wonderful people in my life—and I’m quite sure I will never have another romantic relationship as long as I live.
Oh, P2, don’t become bitter and defeated, you say. Me? Bitter?? Defeated?? I don’t know the meaning of the words (in fact, if you know me in real life, you know that I’m often stubbornly, perversely, dogged). I do, however, know how to think critically and weigh evidence, and this is what I’m working with:
- In the realm of online dating (see: oxymoron), I’ve been viewed by hundreds, over 1600 by last count!! –and contacted by almost none. I’ve noticed a new trend, that men really, really don’t want to risk rejection, so they order us to message them first—before we’ve even established a relationship, they’re trying to have everything their own way. My inclination (perverse stubbornness, remember?) is to dig in my heels–I will not be manipulated or controlled! It occurs to me that this is the basis of Dr. Seuss’s story about the Northgoing and Southgoing Zax. Reminding myself that’s it’s the 21st century (as though that’s some indicator of progress in gender relations…?), and that you can’t win if you don’t play, I email a few likely-looking fellows. By “likely,” I mean men who have photos taken by other humans, rather than the creepy selfies taken from dash-cams; admit to liking books and music; can use punctuation at least as well as a first-year college student; aren’t asserting their need to avoid “drama” (always a red flag: it takes two, sunshine); and have the attainments and interests of a cultured, reasonably normal person. None reply. I see one guy who looks appealingly like Vigo Mortensen. He claims to read—actual books and everything. But in his profile, he says “I like the theater, but I promise I’m not gay!” Recklessly, he goes on, “I even like opera, but again, I promise I’m not gay!” Huh?? Or the one whose opening line is, “I see you live in West Roxbury and yet you say your white! LOL.” Again: ?? Do I really have to have a warning in my profile, “don’t bother if you’re racist, homophobic, otherwise offensive and/or neither know nor care about the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’”? I get matched with another promising type; but OKC warns me that there might be some incompatibility (where were you with the warnings, OKC, with Homophobic Theatrophile?) I check the data. Sure enough, all of his “sexual compatibility” questions indicate that he’s looking for someone to keep in a dungeon and occasionally flog. No judgement, of course. Just: Nope.
- And—what’s more nothing than nothing? Because, if the results nline are nil, the ones Offline, IRL, out in the world are absolutely null (in french, “nul” means not just “nothing” but “stupid, useless, boring nothing” as in, “les resultats sont nuls. Comme ce bordel d’OKC me gêne!”). I’ve concluded that I’m one of the few straight, single, childfree, women in my entire hip-but-gentrified neighborhood. No straight man who is 1) unmarried and 2) not sporting some ambitiously “expressive” facial hair dares to say anything to me in any social or cultural context. One of most meaningful exchanges I’ve had lately was with the guy handing out cider samples at the bar 2 months ago. I suppose a bolder, less-backward P2 might have made some kind of move. Being timid and exceedingly backward, not to mention somewhat perplexed by his—much younger—age (what am I allowed?), I thanked him for the cider and crept back to my bar stool.
Recently A. and I went to one of the museums’ First Fridays. These are billed as a classy way to view the art, have cocktails, and–surely?–meet a better class of person than at a regular bar. In fact, these events have become a bizarre, frantic, singles’ scene, with two bars doing a raging business as everyone clamors for the social lubrication necessary to keep them circulating through the room, somewhat like a cross between an eighth-grade dance and the giant fish tank at the aquarium. There’s even a DJ—and respect to the older men in their 60s who haven’t danced in decades who are gamely giving it a try to perform fitness and virility for their younger quarry.
On this last, demoralizing attempt, I got to watch the Guy Who Infamously Stood Me Up chatting up his next project. I had my eye on another man—he was wearing Chuck Taylors and corduroy pants, surely signs of relative interestingness and compatibility. Turns out he was actually in disguise, a real estate developer playing hipster dress-up to appeal to women like me who might be more wary in the presence of a suit. His opening line: “so what kind of music do you like?” Idle chit chat ensues. The DJ plays a salsa number. It emerges that we both do social dance, so we venture out for a safely sedate attempt. Afterwards, he offers to refresh my wine. He seems to be gone a long time—I see that he’s out on the dance floor with someone else. He eventually materializes at my side with the wine, but pretty much drops it off and leaves. Meanwhile, A has been cornered by Single Santa Claus. Sadly misreading the situation, he starts mansplaining some geopolitical conflict, in the very mistaken belief that 1) this is a charming opening gambit for anyone and 2) A is NOT an actual world-renowned expert on geopolitical conflict. She responds with a devastatingly-incisive remark that sets him straight, and leaves him sputtering in confusion.
That’s as good as it gets. We surrender the field and withdraw.
- It’s important to note that I’ve actually had a couple of dates with very nice, interesting, seemingly-well-adjusted men—with whom I just didn’t feel comfortable, no chemistry at all. Maybe if we had a chance to meet in some very different context, some social situation that brought us together regularly over a period of time it would be different, but meeting cold? Can’t do it. This is where we get accused with being too fussy.
- I’ve also had the date where the man comes into the restaurant, looks at me helplessly, and then stares desperately down at his plate. I recognize this look from class very well—not prepared, has no idea where to start, won’t say a word until teacher calls on him and asks him open-ended questions to draw him out. I don’t get paid enough to endure this at work; there’s not a braised pork shank in the world that can convince me this is fun on my off hours. Looking heavenward for support (a move that looks like rolling one’s eyes; doesn’t matter–man’s still staring at his plate, so he doesn’t see it anyway)–I go into super-professor/Barbara Walters mode, and he feels like a brilliant conversationalist. He asks me pretty much nothing about myself in return. I’m bored. He’s keen to see me again. I’m puzzled; he can’t be interested in me, because he didn’t actually learn much about me. I theorize that he’s mistaking his gratification at my theatrical performance of “interest” in him, for interest in me. Again, nope.
- Meanwhile, A is declaring a moratorium on online dating, after going out on one-too- many dates with men who a) won’t stop talking; b) won’t talk without extensive help; c) are way too intense, too soon; d) remind her of Hobbits.
- Another friend went out on one excruciating date, which culminated in the man patting her on the head. She posted this on Facebook, and I had to corner her at a meeting to demand that she act this out for me: “Was he trying to, for instance, tenderly stroke your cheek and just missed??” “No, he actually stood there, awkwardly, and reached out, and patted me right on the head. Like a dog.”
Really, we can’t say this emphatically enough: Nope. Nein. Nyet. Non, non, et non.
So we did what we were supposed to do. We have put ourselves Out There—and have ended up annoyed and put upon for our trouble. This is really just too much work.
I was looking for a pithy, witty title for this piece, but all I could come up with was “on being fed up.” I had to resort to the thesaurus; turns out “fed up, as in dissatisfied” has a LOT of really useful synonyms, including bothered, disaffected, vexed (that’s a good one), displeased, fretting, offended, ennuied (ennui, also very good), and unappeased. Indeed, while the world disappoints, words never do.
First, the assault on senses blunted and diminished by a New England winter: unfamiliar bird calls, feral chickens, fresh fish, fruit, and honey, fresh coconut milk drunk through a hole hacked open by a guy with a machete at a farmer’s market stall. The light, and the colors of the land—intense green against the red soil. The moisture in the air, the scent of plumeria, pikake, and gardenia. The viscous, treacherous mud (why are we wearing hiking boots? why not squish into the red mud in bare feet?). The turquoise water and white spray against the black lava on the coast. The three-part sound of surf, heightened by recent storms: the building swell of the water, the breaking of the waves, and everywhere a deep, rushing, roar of the whole ocean heaving and racing.
You can tell when someone has just arrived on the island. You see them with their pallid skin and brand-new beach clothes, fumbling to put on sunglasses unused since August, pulled toward the beach, eagerly tossing aside their shoes, gingerly stepping into the waves, onto the lava shelf rough against feet softened and sock-muffled for as long as they can remember. You see them around the hotel, taking pictures of themselves in the hot tub, drinking pineapple expresses at the bar, standing on the beach, taking selfies with the whole pacific ocean as their backdrops, posing with arms spread wide, marveling, amazed: I can’t believe we’re HERE!
We do everything—swimming, sunning, snorkeling, hiking, stopping at every overlook and viewpoint to look at taro ponds, canyons, waterfalls, fields of pineapple, geese. Very ordinary poultry becomes exotic scenery because, like us, they’re completely out of their domestic context, roaming the island loose. We have moments of slight frantic-ness, torn between the determination to find the secret waterfall described in the insiders’ guide book that every single one of us has–and the atavistic need to lie still on the beach, any beach, baking in the heat and sunlight. Made ragingly thirsty by swallowing too much sea water, we seek out shave ice, and fish tacos, and coconut water; we hunch over a mango, shamelessly and indelicately slurping up every shred of fruit.
And as we go everywhere, so go the souvenirs—all of us shopping and shopping, needing every t-shirt, bar of soap, candle, bag of salt, jar of honey, every turtle figurine, every sarong (where will I actually wear this in my ordinary, cold, dark non-island life??)—needing it all to preserve these moments of exotic warmth, vibrant color, lushness, and, above all, this freedom from the mundane everyday.
That last evening, we stop at the beach, and walk as far from the hotel lights as we can, to take one last look at the night sky, dense with stars. How can this be the same sky as in Boston or Vancouver? The same hemisphere? Days (only days!) later, back on my own urban street, walking home on a frosty January night, I will notice that poor Orion is at a different angle, missing much of his stellar company, a shadow of himself in the blanker, never-quite-dark of the city. And the crescent of the half moon is not reclining, as it looks from Kauai, but propped back upright with staid Bostonian propriety.
On the plane back: a wet bathing suit in my luggage and salt in my hair and on my skin, after my last chance to snorkel and swim in warm water; sand in my shoes from a little trek up on the lithified cliffs to catch the last sunset; my muscles and nerves and inner ear still swaying to the push and pull of the surf of the Pacific. I’m listening to the sound of waves on my noise-canceling app, so that I can drown out the chatter of my fellow passengers—not ready for the noise and material concerns—still immersed in island life, island time. Looking out the airplane window to a landscape shimmering in a coating of snow and frost—not ready to be cold again.
And then it’s done, gone from experience to memory. We try to hang on to the smell and feel of it. Made peevish by nuisances at work, and the aches and pains and viruses of January, and neglected sidewalks crusted over with treacherous ice and slush, we try hard to pretend that, as far as we travelled, it wasn’t far at all, that it’s near in both time and distance. We have to try very hard indeed.
I look for coconut-scented lotion, and wear my t-shirts and rings everywhere. I cherish a pair of glass earrings, sparkly and orange, the color of sunsets and nighttime torches, bright relief to my winter mourning of black and gray wool and jersey. I can’t bring myself to put away a flowered silk top, too gauzy to contemplate wearing in the face of an impending nor-easter and sub-zero temperatures; I’m fearful that it will get forgotten if I put it in a drawer—fearful that I’ll forget where it came from, where I was. My tan starts to fade; I’m perversely gratified that a nasty scrape, earned while snorkeling over coral in shallow water, is leaving a scar, still red on my increasingly white skin.
I’m the least botanically-inclined person I know; nevertheless, I buy a tropical plant that I think has a Hawaiian look about it. I set it on a dresser in the sunniest spot in my little apartment, and fuss over it. I converse with it daily: I apologize for the cold and darkness it has to endure.
We continue to talk about it. We do that thing that people do: “Can you believe that it was just a few days ago that we were on the lithified cliffs at Shipwreck beach??” We marvel: “Can you believe that it was just last week that we were hiking in the canyon?” We hang on: “Can you believe that it was just two weeks ago that we were in that wonderful, fantastical, exotic sunlight and warmth that is so different from where we are right now??” But then a few days become a couple of weeks, a month, and it all starts to become a little too far, fading around the edges, dreamlike.
We look longingly at our photos, our calendars, at tv shows and golf tournaments–hating golf, mesmerized by the tropical splendor that overwhelms men in ridiculous pants. We prepare for violent, extravagant, historic snow and cold. We get a little box, embossed with the pictogram of a sea turtle, and start putting some money in it every week, with a piece of paper marked “Hawaii.”
Thanksgiving always poses a challenge: as an expat Canadian, I’ve pretty much had to abandon the Thanksgiving of my own people (which falls on American Columbus Day), in favor of fretting over what I’ll do with an ill-timed and oddly-lengthy void in the calendar in the weeks leading up to Christmas. When I suggest I visit my parents at that time, they just ask, “Why??” Most of Canada isn’t really at its best in late November, and American Thanksgiving isn’t—surprise—a thing outside of the US; they’ll see me in just a couple more weeks at Christmas, clearly the more important, travel-worthy holiday.
I’ve tried toughing out both Thanksgiving and Christmas on my own. Quiet holidays offering plenty of alone-time. Solo. Toute seule.
I can’t recommend it.
If you work hard, and feel frequently put-upon by the demands of regular life, the chance to spend a couple of days in your pyjamas, watching movies in bed, sounds like an ideal form of introvert’s retreat—or that’s what we say to jolly ourselves along when we have nowhere in particular to go and everyone else is enjoying some convivial Rockwellian gathering of friends and family around a warm hearth and laden table. You know perfectly well from television and overhead locker-room conversations that every other human within a 2000-mile radius is with their loved ones. And, since Christmas is now the new Valentine’s Day, you know that boyfriends and husbands everywhere are proving the depth of their love by foisting proposals, giant diamond rings, and new cars on deserving women everywhere. It takes precisely three hours of such solitude to feel completely, miserably, cabin-feverishly, alone. I’ve resolved never to get stuck at home ever again, for either holiday.
In recent years, this has translated to throwing myself on the mercy of my friends for Thanksgiving, and making the long trek from one side of the continent to the other for Christmas. This year was different. As a consequence of good/bad/uncharacteristically-ambitious planning I ended up at Stonehenge, solo, on Thanksgiving Day and at a beach on Kauai with my parents for Christmas—that’s over 16,000 miles in one 30-day span (which sounds super-impressive to me, and yet I still don’t have enough points saved up with any one airline to get an upgrade to first class. I try so hard to live an entitled life and just can’t quite make the grade…).
I figured that I wouldn’t mind spending the Thanksgiving holiday alone as long as I was in a place I love. London fit the bill very well, though it couldn’t protect me completely from nostalgia and melancholy (in fact, you only know that you’re having the full London experience precisely when you feel the nostalgia, as a mixture compounded from history, personal experience, and fiction, creeping around your heart like the city’s legendary Victorian fog).
And no sooner than I thought of London as a Thanksgiving escape, than I thought: I can spend Pagan Ex-Pat Thanksgiving at STONEHENGE!! I’ve always put Stonehenge off—too much of a hassle, or too much of an expense to pay someone else to deal with the hassle. But this time, I vowed: I would spend the holiday at Stonehenge, using the location for my own private giving-of-thanks. Plus I’ve just always thought it really, really cool. Lots of people go to the monument, hit all the spots on the audio tour, buy their souvenir mug, and say… “It was all right.Those stones are really big.” I’ve wanted to see Stonehenge since I first learned of it, probably from the tv show In Search Of… back in the 70s when we all wanted to believe that human culture had been seeded by extraterrestrials, and that the pyramids of the Egyptians and the Maya, the Nazca lines, and Stonehenge were all built with alien technology. Or the allure had something to do with the druids and King Arthur and Narnia. Or all of it: for a nerdy girl of my generation, Stonehenge was always a mecca, representing a dizzyingly-perfect confluence of archeology, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology.
When our English Heritage-approved trolley came up from a well-placed hollow, and the ancient standing stones emerged over the horizon—I’ll admit it, I got a little misty-eyed. True enough, when you’re kept well back from the center stones by a path, rope, and guards, and while the A303 motorway rushes prosaically by, it’s not the most mystical of settings. And my mere presence didn’t open any rifts in the space-time continuum or any gates to Faerie; nor did my aura suddenly start shooting sparks. If I was hoping for Stonehenge to reveal my true nature as Merlin’s heiress…well, maybe next time. I still found it a profoundly, nerdily, satisfying visit though. And I had good weather, which, considering it was Salisbury Plain in late November, was a pretty magical circumstance in and of itself.
Then back to London: I love the jumble of neighborhoods, cultures, historical periods, architectural styles, cultural touchstones, and (seriously) food. On this recent trip (fine, on every trip), I went to all the free museums—the Tate to see Turner (over-rated and jaundiced) and Constable (pretty, green, and ever-so English), the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the British Library. I saw a LOT of art, a lot of artifacts and manuscripts, bones, coins, furniture, jewels, plate—even a collection of ancient erotic paraphernalia, as the Wellcome Collection just happened to have an exhibit encompassing Roman phallic tintinabula through to Masters and Johnson’s original research notes and film footage. Of course, I only stumbled upon that by accident in my quest for cake at the Wellcome’s cafe…
I rambled the streets and markets, keeping an eye out for the landmarks of favorite stories, and spots familiar from previous trips. Like pencil marks on a door frame, London’s bridges and train stations (and the occasional ill-fated WC) comprise a yardstick, measuring off where I was at 17, 25, 29, 37… At one point, I found myself in Waterloo Station for the first time since 1998, and was overcome with a wave of vertigo as I contemplated what had come and gone since the last time I’d stood on the concourse, looking up at the giant schedule board.
So I kept moving—through Regent’s Park and Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park, Green Park, along the Serpentine, over the Thames, past the consulting rooms on Harley Street, through the throngs of shoppers filling Covent Garden for Black Friday… “Black Friday??” Hang on! I thought one advantage to being in England over Thanksgiving would be that I’d avoid the American frenzy of consumerism—but apparently no-place is safe. The England of my imagination, an amalgam of 19th century novels and mid-20th century children’s stories, is a place full of delightful, material comforts—toast, tuck boxes, biscuits, tea, puddings, cheerful fires in the hearth, warm counterpanes (basically Sarah Crewe’s enchanted garret from A Little Princess)—which nevertheless ought somehow to be immune to the forces of vulgar capitalism. Not a bit of it. The British love shopping—obviously, because they love class and status, no matter how much of it they might be able to lay claim to without going into debt. Just like their colonial descendants in North America, the British are no better than they should be. When I first heard of Carnaby Street and Camden Locks, in the 80s, they were meant to be pilgrimage sites for all aspiring New Wave goths—now they were thronged with the indefatigable, Ugg-shod Basic girls, and Asian kids on the hunt for Black Friday deals at SuperDry. The twee and the edgy, all appropriated and assimilated into one giant shopping extravaganza. I fled the area at the first opportunity (which was immediately after tracking down and consuming some REALLY good dan dan noodles in Soho).
And still I rambled; Dickens, that great, epic walker would be proud. I roamed through Kensington, Islington, Marylebone, Camden Town, Westminster. At Harrods and Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, I elbowed children out of the way to press my nose up against the shop windows, done up fancifully for Christmas, overflowing with snow-frosted train sets, costumed-teddy bears, and glitter-frosted puddings. And, because a vital travel experiences is to explore the offerings of foreign grocery stores, I cruised the aisles of Waitrose, tempted by every jar of marmalade, every fruit cake, every bag of exotically-flavored crisp. I stopped for virtuous lentils; then I stopped for cake—chocolate Guinness, orange chiffon, chocolate with orange buttercream frosting; I stopped for Yorkshire pudding; I nearly caused a traffic accident stopping and lunging for mince tarts (remember: Look Right). And one day, on the hunt for confectionery, I ducked into St. Martin-In-the-Fields—and was drawn into the church proper, where the choir was rehearsing its Christmas program. There’s something about the acoustics of that place, or maybe there was something about my mood at that moment, but I was arrested, compelled to just slow down, and sit, and listen as beautiful music filled the chapel.
London’s a great city for people-watching–clothes, manners, sounds. I have a weakness for the accents of the UK—Midlands, Welsh, Posh, Cockney, Irish, Scots, and every variant, enriched by the cosmopolitanism of a city of immigrants. I love just listening, on the Tube, in a pub, in front of some work of art, walking along the street—hearing English spoken in every possible fashion imaginable. I’ll pick up words and phrases in this or that accent and roll them over in my mind, maybe practicing them quietly to myself while I study my maps in the Underground stations.
And while I don’t really envy the conservative business clothes that are so ubiquitously part of the professional culture in the UK’s big cities, I still gaze wistfully at slim men in sharply tailored pin-stripes and polished shoes and pocket squares—so different from the less dashing, less elegant, more nondescript layers necessitated by the fleshier bodies of their American counterparts. I sighed inwardly at every man with a scarf draped rakishly around his neck, or the choice of a royal purple shirt…And all the clean-shaven faces! the mania for lumbersexual facial hair has just not taken hold in London the way it has in Boston. I’d consider braving the damp, and high cost of living, and occasional outburst of English chauvinism in exchange for whole Tube cars full of slim, clean-shaven, nattily-scarved English men. Alas, that’s not to be anytime soon. Fine, no matter, they all smoke anyway.
And because it was the end of November, and London was still crawling with tourists (somehow, of course, I’m never one of them), but the weather was consistently, surprisingly, fine, I spent a lot of my time in the city’s least urban, least-crowded, most green spaces. I ambled along the Serpentine, letting my coffee get cold as I held out for one perfectly-lit shot of the red and gold tree leaves glinting like treasure in the sunlight and wind. I walked along the Wey in Godalming, an impossibly-pretty little town outside of London often used as “Impossibly Pretty Little Town” in films like the Holiday—and more notable to me because it’s where one of my oldest friends lives with her awesome family.
One day, in Camden Market, after attempting to find one ideal prize that would somehow bridge the gap from goth youth to goth adult, and failing because the market is overrun by hucksters and tourists and kids committed to selling and buying stall after stall of identical bric-a-brac—I gave up and headed for Regent’s Canal. If I ever have any say, and get to live in London on my own terms, without fear of global warming, the Canal would be it—a way to have a view of the water, and peace and quiet at the same time. I can walk for miles on the Canal, hardly paying attention to where I am, just enjoying the distance of London’s roar of traffic, and the dappled sound and look of the water. Sure enough, I got completely turned around on this venture, and though I meant to head east to Islington, I somehow ended up 5 blocks away from 221B Baker Street, so I just had to stop in there to pay my respects (I say, Holmes, do be a chum and let us use your loo? I’ve been walking for ages! And while you’re at it, see if Mrs. Hudson can do us some tea and those lovely bickies of hers…)
I’ll be honest, I often found myself feeling a little lonely in London. I wish I’d had someone there with me to share it. But what makes London a safe, special bet for me when I’m travelling alone, is that there, I’m really not: I’ve got the company of a couple dozen literary and historical characters in my imagination, clamoring with one another to draw my attention to this legendary spot here, or that scene from narrative there; inviting me to reminisce and play with their stories in my mind as I wander and roam. I immerse myself in London so exhaustively that by the time I’m ready to leave, I feel that the city is done. But as Samuel Johnson observed, when a person is tired of London, she’s tired of life–and I can never truly tire of either. After a few weeks, and a novel or two or three, go by, I start plotting about how I can get back there again.