I didn't get up till 7:30 on Wednesday, October 12, 2016. I am chemically addicted to election 2016's constantly breaking news. I stay up late sharing outrage at the Defeating Trumpismo Facebook Group I started.
I did my daily exercises, showered, and graded some student papers. Student papers make me worry about the future of America. My students could leap over the Eiffel Tower if I asked them to. I worry because expectations are so low, and Politically Correct indoctrination, in lieu of education, is so great.
I don't like seeing students cry. I don't like receiving emails from my boss telling me that my requirement that students attend class has traumatized a student.
Administrators are fearful of confrontation, political show trials, and personal injury attorneys. What happens once coddled students collide with the wider world? What happens to the wider world?
I think about the expectations nuns placed on us baby boomers back in St Francis School. Fifty-three kids in a class. No air conditioning no sports or musical equipment. Just one nun, a blackboard, and various implements of torture. We met their demands. There was no other option.
After grading papers, I took on the torturous discipline of sending out queries on my manuscript, God through Binoculars.
This past summer, God through Binoculars was under consideration at four top publishers. Editors called it "captivating," "fascinating," and "spiritually profound."
I put on plays when I was in kindergarten. I performed my works in front of other students in second grade. I've received thousands of rejections on works I'll never publish. In decades of writing, I had never been this close to real publication.
"We liked it but the marketing committee … Not what we usually publish … outside of genre boundaries … hard to market." I have been unable to pray since.
So, on Wednesday, October 12, after grading papers, I sent out queries for God through Binoculars. Around one pm I realized I just couldn't take any more.
I become alert to my approaching birthday whenever the hair on my arms registers the first crisp breeze, when I note the first lone leaf strip from green to scarlet.
Birthdays and holidays are hard for people who are alone. I am not alone by choice – in a sense. I never was offered a menu; I never selected to inhabit the planet where no one would like me. But I have made little choices.
There was once a Jewish lawyer. I dumped him. He had a bumper sticker that said, "I break for unicorns," and he was plumpish in a way that suggested a complete lack of movement other than between a desk and a refrigerator. I've never been thin, but I've always moved – my calves are like railroad ties and I do have biceps.
I love having control over what gets played on the car radio, what I eat for dinner, and how long I soak in the tub. Other times being alone almost kills me and I wonder why I am here, and why I don't just leave.
I had a good birthday once. It was so long ago and so far away it feels like another world.
No. Not "it feels like." It *was* another world.
I was living in the Himalayas. Machapuchare, the most beautiful mountain on earth, so sacred it is never to be summited, was so close, and the air was so pristine, I felt could throw a rock and hit it. I was sleeping on a red clay floor and teaching English to Gurungs, future Gurkha soldiers. No radio, no telephone, no electricity, no running water.
I received a message from a runner: report to such and such a town. I didn't want to go. I'd have to descend a couple of thousand feet (and then ascend on the way back) and walk through a freezing cold, very rapid river with a rock-covered bottom that would punish my bare feet as I traversed the stone's slick surfaces. The current would batter and tug at my mighty calves and I'd have to struggle with all my might against teetering into the rushing, freezing water shooting down from Machapuchare.
I had to go. DH, my boss, had summoned me.
DH was a dictator. Demanded strict obedience. Ironic. In the US he had been a rich hippie. In Nepal, an absolute monarchy, he adhered to Asian totalitarian models of authority.
I arrived. Our rendezvous point was a ramshackle tea shop of nailed together wooden planks plunked on river gravel. Inside the shop, I could not escape the roar of the rushing water just outside the door. I associate that roar with low altitudes in Nepal. It used to lull me to sleep when I was passing through valley towns; the softening and then disappearing rush was one way to calculate altitude as I climbed up and away from river valleys.
The tea shop owner gestured for me to ascend a banged-together ladder to a loft above the smoky shop. I did. Someone grabbed me from behind and covered my eyes. "Happy birthday to you," a gathered group of Peace Corps Volunteers sang. I looked through my tears across the dark room, lit only by lanterns built out of inkwells, and saw DH, my boss. God, I loved that man. And I thought he loved me. Gestures like this inspired me: an old fashioned, all-American birthday cake, slick with icing and illuminated by candles. How in Shiva's name they got that cake over the trail and across the river, I will never know.
We were cross legged on the floor; the floor was the ceiling of the tea shop below us, which we could see through knotholes in the wood. Little dishes of stewed goat meat sat in front of us. Marie could eat goat meat with such gusto. Marie was what, five foot ten? Long hair heavy as a mattress. Sharp tongue. Blue teeth – her mother had taken tetracycline when pregnant with Marie. She was smoking, as ever. Marie is now gone. Cancer. Marie was watching me like a hawk. She watched everything like a hawk. Maybe now she is one.
"I asked myself, do you love him and does he hate you?" she, direct, blunt, and wasting no time said to me when we were alone together. "Or do you hate him and does he love you? Or do you both love each other or hate each other? I was watching you two that night. The toasts, going back and forth." Marie, I don't know how to answer your question, even now.
DH was eating goat and drinking raksi. He was devout. He never ate meat or drank moonshine. I teased him. "DH, are you abandoning your dharma?"
"It's you," he said to me. "You make me drink. You make me eat meat."
Me? What was it about me, anyway? I still don't know.
DH raised his glass. "As everyone can see, Danusha is posted on a very high hill. I didn't want to come here. It's such a tough uphill. But something drew me here. Danusha's spirit. A toast, to Danusha's spirit."
Later, when I returned, alone, to the Gurung village, I struggled to remain in touch with reality. But another runner arrived with another missive from DH. This time it was a hand-written poem, not on conventional paper, but on lokta, handmade, artisanal, Nepali paper, bumpy with fibers from the laurel bush, soft as a baby's skin. I still have that poem. If I had any self-respect, I would have used it as toilet paper years ago.
Just googled DH. He appears, finally, to be happily married. He came back to the US and wrote his dissertation, as he put it, on how "Rich white people screw over poor brown people in public schools." Aha. And he's never taught in a US public school. Aaaaaha. He is employed doing good deeds and enlightening the world. Not at all ironic. Feh.
He now looks like one of those apple dolls. Oh, the shame, of crying so many tears over a man who'd end up looking like an apple doll. Not even a male apple doll. A female apple doll. I wonder if his spouse has two X chromosomes.
Another birthday. The black telephone ringing outside my room – was it three in the morning? Daddy entering around six. "You don't have a brother Phil anymore." Daddy leaving the room. I remember consciously going numb, because I knew it was more than I could take.
Once day broke, crossing the street to Alice's house. She wasn't there. She'd tell me later that when she heard the news she left town because she knew I'd turn to her and she knew she couldn't handle my pain. The moral of this fable is not complicated. You have friends until things go south.
Alice is now a nun. I recognize her in the group photo of grey-haired nuns – the only kind there are these days – by her posture. She always stood like just like that, the turn of her neck, the position of her hands, the angle of her elbow. Her distinct posture wrings love from my heart; my love races across the miles, the years, and the disguise of her in her billowy, larger, looser, body. Oh, Al. All these photos on your convent's web page of you spreading Christian love and mercy. Why wasn't I included?
One more birthday. 2014. I am visiting my sister in the third facility I will visit her in in 2014. She has a moment when she realizes that it is my birthday. She says, "Happy Birthday. Too bad your brother is dead."
I gasp. After the lifetime we have shared, her weird, random cruelty still takes me by surprise. I look at her. Her face is composed and cold. She is now staring at the TV. Was it her brain tumor, or she herself, demonstrating that she could still knock me on my ass?
I am alone. I have failed at so many things it would be easiest to list the things at which I have not failed: cooking and cleaning. Why not just leave? Because, so far, on the days that I think about it the most, something happens that brings me up short.
Laundromats are prime locations for suicidal thoughts. "Laundromat suicide" would be a terrific band name, or the title of a modern ballad.
You do something intensely personal in laundromats. You wash your intimate clothing. You do it publicly, in machines that invariably smell like cigarette smoke. You don't smoke. If all of this is not depressing, what is?
A few days before my birthday, I was in a laundromat. I was inside my own fortress, resistant to siege. My awareness of external stimuli was like a bug's awareness. You note the folded up newspaper heading for your compound eyes, but little else. All your human stuff is deep, deep, deep inside, and focused on the exit.
There was a man in the laundromat. He is tall and big, probably strong like bull. He dresses like an extra in a Soviet Stakhanovite propaganda flic, like he should be chanting the Volga boatman song.
Back in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit this neighborhood, two weeks without electricity forced us all together. I had said, back then, to this very man, "Are you Russian? Polish?" I had noted his accent. Also I noted that he lives in a majority-minority, high crime city. Usually if you are not black or Hispanic here, you are Slavic. The other white meat. The poor one.
He had responded with rage. "You tink I accent? You accent. I American."
There he was, in the laundromat, as I contemplated my birthday and my aloneness and failure. And he was fumbling. Badly. He couldn't get the washing machine to work.
I walked over to him. Shook the damn machine loose from its moorings. Took his money. Put it in the machine. Got it to work. Went back to my own clothes and my own thoughts.
Scary Slavic Man smiled at me with shy and boyish glee. "Tank you! Tank you lady! You know how to do!"
Another moment that brought me up short, on that very day. I was walking, and thinking about leaving, and I looked up and saw a face I have not seen since St Francis School. And the poetic thing, the rhyming thing, the thing that makes you think about patterns, that makes you think that maybe there is some underlying meaning: I immediately knew who it was. There are some disguises, some lines, some changes in hair color, but those are minor. This is a face I last saw sitting two rows over.
"Chris?" I said her name. She said mine. We approached across the distance, made contact, chatted as if no time had intervened, none. And after some amazement, we promised to connect via Facebook, and went on our way.
So … I'm not totally invisible.
Something bad, and medical, happened a few weeks back, on September 21st. So-called "doctors" made a so-called "mistake." Just mentioning it, just mentioning it right now, my entire body became hot and tears filled my eyes and my shoulders turned to lead. Pain radiated down my arms. My body is saying to the writer inside me, "Please don't type those words. I can't take it anymore. Not after these four years of cancer and cancer and chronic illness and broken bones and scary lumps and death and funerals and Ted and failure please just shut up. Eat some more chocolate, destroy yourself, but don't put into words any more all this bad stuff that just keeps happening."
And since it happened, or since the surgery this summer, or since all the rejections, or even my sister's death, not a single person has hugged me.
I have no money so my only choice for salvaging what the "mistake" left of my body is to be treated by the same "doctors" who hurt me. It's like going to your rapist for therapy. I had to phone the quote doctors unquote and I thought eff it, it's my birthday. So I didn't.
I got into the car and drove north.
Color is arriving in the trees a month late, after the hottest summer in history. The Wanaque Reservoir looks like a moonscape. A lone heron patrols the shore. I pray for it. The state says we are officially in drought "watch" conditions. Pumpkins are small this year.
I saw activity on what used to be Mount Saint Francis, a convent. The Catholic Church had to sell it. I saw sticks topped with fluorescent orange flags poking out of the vast lawn and a "construction entrance" sign. I imagine the new buyers will turn those magnificent grounds into a strip mall. Breaks my heart.
The proud eagles guarding Skylands' entrance greeted me with their usual regal reserve. The annual garden is winding down for the year, but still productive of colorful petals.
I occupied a bench and took out my Victorian Fairy Tarot Deck. The other day on Facebook my cousin Phil belittled me because I read tarot cards. Phil posts memes saying that anyone who hasn't accepted Jesus is going to hell. He is also pro Trump. In response to his criticism, I told him that he does not demonstrate Christian qualities of kindness. I should not have spoken. But I did. Famous last words. He's probably unfriended me by now.
Were it not for my tarot deck and the ravens, I would have spoken to no one on my birthday.
I asked about Antoinette. I drew the three of coins, the "genius" card. Well, she was, and she was proud of it, too.
I asked about God through Binoculars and drew the queen of coins. Okay.
I asked if the deck wanted to convey any special birthday message. I drew the page of wands, what I call the "hippie" card. The deck was mistaking me for a younger version of myself. Joan Bunning, my favorite tarot interpreter, says that the message of this card is "Be creative. Be enthusiastic. Be confident. Be courageous." I'll get right on that. And I'll get smashed in the face. Pass.
I asked about Ted; I drew The Star, a card of hope. I hope he croaks. I hope I never forget what a bastard he is. I hope I win the lottery so I can afford a boy toy.
I said, I have been so alone in my life. Have I had any companion, even a spiritual one, a guide, a ghost, a guardian angel?
I drew the nine of coins. She is one of two distinctly solitary women in tarot. The other, the queen of swords, is known as the widow. I have never been married so I cannot be she. The nine of coins is elegant; she makes her own way in the world, keeps her own counsel, and is accompanied only by the ornament on her wrist: a falcon.
I liked it that I have some ephemeral guide who is herself an independent woman who likes birds.
I walk the same route every time: the annual garden, the perennial garden, the rhododendron garden, the wetlands garden – not so wet now. The pond, the hill, Mount Defiance, the orchard, the lilacs, the sundial, the azaleas, the magnolias, the manor house, the weeping cherry, and then back. Following the same route every time, I don't have to think, "Where is my body going?" I can follow my mind.
When I am at Skylands, the story I tell myself is a World War II story. It involves huge ethical questions as played out in England and Germany in the occupation and the post-occupation eras.
On Mount Defiance, I heard a raven. "Croak, croak, croak."
I responded. My raven is pretty good. "Croak, croak, croak."
The raven responded. "Croak, croak, croak." Maybe a little closer.
This went on for a while. I think even the raven got bored.
I thought about children in Syria. They were born. They were beautiful and worthy. They heard an explosion. Their former home pulverized to toxic dust; they breathed it in as they died, under rubble. They never got to fall in love, bake cookies, take a hot bath, watch birds. God creates people who live stunted lives and die alone. Why?
I cut some Sulphur shelf bracket fungus off of an oak tree. It really does taste just like chicken.
During the drive home NPR broadcast an interview with Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Dickey said that there are predictable archetypes in American ghost stories: tragic slaves, tragic Indians, and tragic spinsters. Women who never marry make scary evil ghosts.
As I drove, I debated with myself. "Buy take-out food? Go head. Give yourself a treat."
I go through this every year. I am poor and I am cheap. I can't bring myself to spend any money.
No take-out food.
I went to bed realizing the day had not been horrendous, because I'm resigned to it. I didn't expect. No one is going to realize it's my birthday and do something special. I am not that person; I was not issued that life.