It’s been a long weekend. I spent it with my sister in the Hamptons for her 30th birthday. I haven’t had a running three day hangover in years, and the feeling is familiar, but with added effect. I used to feel that I could be mentally productive when I was hungover. There was belief that not being able to move physically forced me into a sharper state. But now, in the time that follows, my brains feel scrambled, and the best I can do is innocuous emails. Instead of creativity, on the flight back to Denver, I can only watch movies and jot down notes for writings that I hope I can expand into something meaningful later.
I’m obsessed and terrified with dying. When I was young, like most young people, I never thought I would live long enough to become old. The difference is that the feeling has not left as I’ve slowly moved towards middle age. It’s not that growing older has been harder than I expected, because in many ways it’s been softer, it’s just that this low decibel hum of foreboding that has always lived with me hasn’t disappeared. When I was twenty-seven my daughter was born. That same year, I remember thinking that I would die when I was thirty-seven. I told a few people that, and it was greeted with an understandable level of patronization and smiles. And so I don’t think about it often. But when I do, it seems as real and present as the first time it barreled towards me.
I thought about it today. The terrifying part wasn’t that I could still feel it there. The terrifying part is that I’m much closer to that point, but still far from where I want to be.
I’ve made the trip to Germany so many times, that the whole process has become akin to muscle memory. I board in the late afternoon in Denver, and fly to either Frankfurt or Munich (depending on the day). I work for the first couple hours and watch a movie when the meal is served. If I can sleep for a couple of hours in the short fly-through night, that’s a victory. I spend the last hour staring listlessly at the seat in front of me or the other confused passengers, as breakfast is served, and morning bursts through the raised windows. There are no thoughts, and I focus on not becoming impatient and claustrophobic.
I land in the late morning, German time. The layover’s short, and the time is consumed with passport control, putting credit on my German SIM card, and using a second wind to write a little. For the final leg, I take a puddle jumper to Munster. I pass out end-to-end on the 45-minute flight. Waking when the plane hits the tarmac. I rent a car, and drive to my hotel, where I take a post-international travel shower, which is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.
By this time it’s nearly 4 pm, roughly 8 am Denver time, and if I’m lucky I’ve had a few hours of sleep. I’m puffy eyed, and running on coffee fumes. I get back into my car and drive into the North Rhine-Westphalia countryside, and to my daughter’s secluded home. But it’s easy, as soon as she’s with me. She runs to me and wraps her arms around my legs. It feels like nothing is lost.
It’s only after I drop her off that my body starts to collapse. By the time I drive back to the hotel, it’s nearly 8 pm. I eat a heavy German dinner, take a Xanax, and if I’m lucky, sleep the longest sleep in two months. It’s startling to sleep for more than eight hours, when you normally get five. And in the morning I feel what I almost never feel in my day-to-day life, groggy. It translates to opaque thoughts and stunted motor skills: I wander around my room looking for nothing, bump into door frames, and trip on invisible steps. How much of this is the Xanax, and how much of this is the displacement, I have no idea. It’s surreal, and would be frustrating if I lived in it for too long. But it’s welcome, because it’s a novelty and a distraction.
Even writing this is a creation of that half-lucid state. And as I drink coffee, it slowly brings me back. That’s the best use of coffee that I’ve ever found: an easy return to reality. Maybe that’s why most people drink coffee in the morning, to clear away the cobwebs. Considering I wake most days in a panic, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to feel the fog slowly lift.
I woke up staring at the ceiling. There were stains in the panels. Not terribly noticeable, but small light pools where water had gathered at one point. Another part of the ceiling sagged noticeably. They were all things that I should have noticed before, and yet they had attracted my attention for the first time. And in that I felt sadness, because I was only noticing these things now, after so many years here, and when I was so close to leaving.
I’ve never struggled to say goodbye to a home before. I’m usually ready to move on by then. But thats not the case this time. I know it’s time, but it’s a struggle, and as I dressed after getting out of bed, I felt tears well up in my eyes. Outside, it was sunny, with light clouds, and a view of the Rocky Mountains. When I was younger I was repelled by Boulder. Coming here in college left me feeling like being on the outside looking in, as if there was something everyone was a part of, that I couldn’t understand.
Now being here in Boulder brings me some degree of peace. I spent more of my adult life in this house than in any other place. It saw more versions of me than any other home. And if they weren’t the formative years, they were the most important years. I raised my daughter here, and lived alone here after she was gone.
I’ll miss my friend and roommate, who moved in, after my family moved to Germany. He cooks dinner, watches weird shows with me, and keeps me up to date about the Denver Nuggets. He made it feel like a home again after it had become a museum.
I’ll miss the small work room in the basement. Where it was quiet, simple, and always had enough light. I’ll miss the bedroom that was always cooler than the rest of the house and that helped me sleep. I’ll miss my coffee shop, the cafes, and the late breakfasts on weekend mornings. I’ll miss how close it is to the Flatirons and NCAR. I’ll miss the bike path that traces the creek, and leads through the simple and beautiful Boulder neighborhoods.
But more than anything, I’ll miss it because I’m saying goodbye to the little girl that would play in the backyard, and run into my bedroom in the morning. I’ll miss our Saturday morning ritual where we would walk to the small branch library to play and read books, and then the grocery store for bagels and chocolate milk, and then finish at Martin’s Park to play on the playground and throw rocks in the creek. This home is inextricably linked with her childhood for me. And her childhood will leave. I don’t have a choice in that. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less. And so I don’t want to leave, but I have to.
One of the crueler aspects about getting older is that a decade becomes a very real concept. A decade ago I was in my early twenties. I’ve changed since then, but I don’t feel all that different. I’m a more and less recognizable version of the same self. And yet, when I was twenty-two, a decade earlier would have made me twelve. There was nothing to connect those parts of my life.
We used to talk in months and years. But now I tell people about things, and it’s a decade apart. I talk about Japan, and Prague, and Chicago. And I’m right there with myself in those moments. But it’s a decade. And that’s the time frame we speak in now.
I’m at Sundance again this year. The annual tradition that is as close to a college reunion as I’ve ever had in my life. I could write pages on the effect that the gathering has on my psyche: the calming, medicative jealousy of a life not lived.
The problem is that the movies I’ve chosen this time have brought me a costly type of introspection. Whether fictional or biopic, I’ve found myself resonating with the most depressing characters. So many drunk reclusive writers! It’s like a genre unto itself. Seeing everyone’s mental turmoil makes mine seem much more manageable, maybe even normal. But does everyone have to be so defective? So unable to deal with the world as it is?
In reality, I have very little in common with J.D. Salinger. I’m no Holden Caulfield. Our frustrations with the world come from dramatically different places. But the slow degradation is real, everyone cracks-up in their our own ways. The commonality being that the world, regardless of the age, becomes harder and harder to reconcile. And then there’s the longer-term fear that the wish of being alone, that you said you wanted for so long, will actually come true.
The trick seems to be to not let the world become alien. When you get past the tech, things don’t really change. You change. And so I look on the bright side: I have a pen full of ink, a notebook with clean paper, and I’ve learned what will make me feel “ok”.
I’ve started digging out my old ALA posts from years ago. I had started to republish them earlier, and then became distracted in completing line edits for a novel. The years through 2010 should be easy, they were already on the old site.
What surprised me in reading this small stretch of time between leaving Prague and getting settled in Chicago (approx June 2008 through August 2008) is how restrained the posts are. I was clearly going through a quarter life crisis and frantically grabbing at anything that could keep me afloat, and yet in the writing I come off as (somewhat) under control. Specifically, the part about the cruise through the Baltic is almost coy. Yes, I did threaten to give someone who worked on the ship rabies, but that was a fragment of those weeks.
It was a rich geriatric cruise and I did my best to relieve the boredom by terrorizing the ship: falling asleep wasted in various beautiful rooms filled with expensive books and artifacts, saying insane scripted shit for a reality tv show the Travel Channel was filming while the director screamed “The camera loves you!”, disappearing with people into secluded bathrooms, and finally on the last night bribing Polish workers for champagne at 4 am in the morning and drinking on the deck with the only young girl that didn’t hate me by that point. These are the actions of someone on the verge. It was a dire to establish some sort of adult life after Prague, and having no idea how to go about it. That feeling continued for a year.
I think only time, and begrudging acceptance (and hopefully eventual appreciation) will be the way that I can accept my relationship with memory. Even now, the anxiety I felt over my lack of control of my own memory has started to subside. It’s obvious to me now that you can’t call on it when you need it. It will return to me of a volition that is out of my control, and the context that it returns under will be fragmented, at best: scattered memories, without a before or after, just moments existing outside of time.
In some ways that’s beautiful. It is still maddeningly frustrating. But I’m beginning to understand why it has to be this way. Forgetfulness was a cost and a gift that needed to be accepted. You can’t live the way I’ve lived, running so hard from your past that you think your lungs are going to collapse, and still expect to remember things. Not looking back was one of the most necessary decisions I never actually made. I knew appreciation for forgetfulness, before I knew nostalgia, what’s to say that appreciation isn’t a cycle?
I’m in my hometown again to visit my grandmother. She continues to have slipped further away every time that I return. Her pride has remained though; she fought and raged against this world harder than anyone I have ever met, and that continues even now. I admire, empathize, and am repelled by the way she approached this life. Ninety-six years, however you get there, is an accomplishment.
Most of this last year with her has been in the rest home. Even here her pride refuses to let her eat with the other residents, and yet she remains cheerful and funny with the nurses. She swings wildly between an uncompromised attitude toward life, and a resigned attitude towards death. For someone who has told me for so long that she wants to die, has expected to die, she is on a fundamental level a survivor. This however is coming to an end. Even I can see it and feel it. Someday soon her prediction will be proven right, but she will have been wrong for so many years, that she’ll remain the most fucked up role model I will ever know in my life. And I will love her forever as a kindred spirit.