While certain life experiences are more or less universal – falling in or out of love, winning or losing a job, saying goodbye to one’s parents at the end of their lives – there are times when our individual realities are so idiosyncratic it’s hard for anyone else to relate, times when things can look calm and ordered on the outside, but underneath roils a breeding ground of anxiety. The sort of uncertainty that washes over one in a business meeting for instance, when a casual downward glance might reveal that one’s jacket is missbuttoned, which inspires a swift hand clutch to the bosom, which in turn reveals a cuff button visibly hanging by a thread. And although everyone knows that buttons on even well-made suits are virtually spit stuck in place, this knowledge provides no consolation whatsoever to the afflicted in this case, nor does it offer the slightest barrier against the oblique stares of judgmental colleagues, each of whom begins to free associate various reasons for their missbuttoned colleague’s public dishelvelment.
Panic kicks in, which leads to an instant replay of the morning’s toilette. Do my shoes match? Did I forget to put my skirt on? Do I have eyeliner on only one eye? Do I have last month’s steamed spinach between my two front teeth? Since it is hard in such a situation to be sure that all is in fact in order, save for the unfortunate lapel misalignment and errant button, a sudden flourish of nervous perspiration at the nape of the neck makes it impossible to concentrate on the business at hand.
An official silent reconnaisance begins. Skirt on? Check. Price tag removed? Check. Nail polish on all fingers and thumbs? Check. Two earrings? Check. Still, failing an appropriate opportunity to visit the nearest lady’s room, calm will not return until a full body assessment has been made in front of a proper mirror, which could conceivably be so far into the future that what had been merely a mildly fragrant perspiration now has ample time to transmogrify into a flood of virtually athletic sweat for all around the conference table to see.
Anyone who has experienced public panic over something as innocuous as a loosened button knows that such anxiety would have no chance of getting a toehold were everything actually in order in their life. Some people will go a great distance to give others the impression that every single button on every single shirt, skirt and suit jacket they own is vigorously stitched in place. I know, for I am one of those unfortunate people and it is one of the great curses of my life. To a person less glued together by a semblance of perfection, a pair of mismatched socks or unzipped trousers might be laughed off as symtoms of absent-minded professordom.
But to those of us charged with spinning multiples plates like that madman once upon a time on the Ed Sullivan Show, such mishaps are a sign that more stresses abound than are visible to the naked eye. And it’s no secret that it’s far easier to keep multiple plates spinning properly in one’s own life than it is in someone else’s life, particularly if we have an emotional relationship with that person. In fact, I assert that the more we love someone the more difficult it is to figure out the right thing to do when they are suddenly faced with a testy personal tribulation. While it’s easy to say that one’s own travails are best met head on with a clear plan of action, telling a loved one or friend how to handle misfortune temporarily visited upon them by the Gods takes skill, grace, patience, empathy and wisdom, qualities that are usually in rather short supply when we watch someone we care about wade across a river crawling with alligators.
Should we be empathetic or enraged on their behalf, or perhaps a bit of both? Should we actively suggest next steps, or passively wait for them to print out their plan of action for our kind approval? Should we go along with every decision they make, or calmly (or not so calmly) disagree with every solution they debate? Should we completely sublimate our expectations and give ourselves over instead to soothing their crisis, or assert our opinion their feelings be damned? Should we pass them a slip of paper with the name and telephone number of a life coach or therapist, or let them figure it out in their own time? Should we moor their boat to ours, or cast them adrift alone, possibly steering them somewhat intentionally straight for the Bermuda Triangle? Should we treat them gently, or treat them like an elite athletic coach more likely would?
Most human beings, even the messy ones, don’t like a mess. Human beings tend to need a certain amount of stability and predictability. We need our buttons to be sewn on securely and this need is heightened when things start to fall apart around us – when we lose a job, become ill, go through a major transition, or something catastrophic happens to the place in which we lay down our heads at night, as it did to me smack in the middle of this summer, when I had planned to spend my weekends writing instead of organizing the restoration of our house to which there had been major water damage, which gave rise to a flurry of mold, to which I am hyperallergic.
Whether we like admitting it or not, we all go through life alone, meaning, even if we are married and surrounded by friends, we are always alone with our response to any particular event. We are always alone with our reaction to our circumstances, and in the end we have to figure out a way to navigate our emotions all by ourselves. There is no way of getting around the fact that we come into the world alone and we exit the same way. Love, friendship and family aside, we must each deal with ourselves sooner or later.
Still, the journey is so much nicer when, in the middle of alligator-infused waters, a kind and supportive voice floats across the cosmos with words of encouragement. Frankly, oddly, I felt guilty, embarrassed and ashamed of how rocked I was by the damage to our house. I felt I should simply be grateful I still had one, and a job, given the numbers of people out of work and without homes to live in at all. And then I felt angry about having those feelings.
It took receiving an out of the blue email from Meg Tufano, a Google+ friend, who – what are the odds of this happening? – had been a dormmate in our Freshman year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico three decades ago, to let me know that my sense of dishevelment, disarray and panic were shared by at least one other human being on Planet Earth. I will forever be grateful to her for her words, for her spiritual “diagnosis.” My anxiety disappeared the instant I read it, and I was able to look forward to finding the silver lining she promised was there somewhere.
Meg Tufano and I have still not yet met “in real life.” But it does not matter. Friends are friends. And sometimes their words come at exactly the right time, and are delivered in exactly the right way.
Below Meg’s email is an article I wrote for Media Tapper Magazine, which describes my attachment to my house and my foray into social media a year ago via Google+, which is where I “re-met” Meg. Life does indeed work in mysterious ways.
You sound saner than I would be at this point in “re-house-ology.” ;’)
As you no doubt know, the house is the symbol of the self in Jung’s theory of the psyche. I was thinking as I was literally in a bus going by your neck of the country that you have three Self symbols right now. One is the sophisticated New York self (I can hear your high heels snapping by on the pavement, that sound IS the sound of sophistication to me); one is a place you wish you could avoid but cannot because a human being you love lives and works there (I can feel your passion is overcoming, yes, even Kentucky); one of your self symbols is currently “on the blink” (and may have actually been harming you without you knowing it because it was NOT painted with the new anti-mold paint).
My “diagnosis” is that this was a blessing in disguise (blessings seem to only come in disguise, isn’t that odd?) You needed SOMETHING to shake up your three Selves and make peace with them all so you could be “whole.” If there is anything that helps a person (usually a woman) build back up her sense of wholeness and overcome life’s contradictions spiritually, it is building a house (if she is left alone to do with it what she pleases), which is essentially what you are going to be doing (I assume). My prediction is that the experience of “rehab” will pull together all your “selves” and you will feel a whole lot better about all the things you cannot change. Literally, you will be rebuilding your self, throwing away all that is “unclean,” and will come out of it into some new you so that you might FEEL a lot more like dancing! That is my hope for you.
My assumption is that your husband is smart enough to let you make decisions about your house. My husband heard all the stories of the 27 houses (and I started a novel called 27 Houses, still unfinished) and my husband told me to go to town, stay under budget and never call him at the office about anything. Smart guy or what? ;’) (I DID have to call him at the office three or four times because I was working with a TN crew (I arrived at 5:30 a.m. with everyone else and carried every fucking board of wood up to wherever it needed to be: totally making all the guys stay in shock (I was a lot thinner 18 years ago and looked really fragile: I got in SHAPE! ;’)) But they would not take instructions from a woman, period. If it was something I really needed done, I had to call my husband to come from work for him to tell them. Slightly nerve-wracking but, hey, it’s Tennessee! ;’) Remind you of . . . Kentucky? ;’)
May all your selves come together in harmony. May all your workers be kind. May there be only good winds blowing your way. May all manner of things be well for you.
I would love to visit you anywhere. Yes, even Kentucky. ;’) Let me see if there’s a Megabus. ;’) (There IS one to NYC from here!)
(Originally published online in Media Tapper, June 27, 2012)
2011 was a difficult year. So was 2010. To be honest, so was 2009. In the last five years years my husband and I have lived in three different states, brought about by profound changes in the world of healthcare and his quest to find work as an orthopedic surgeon in a place where he felt useful and needed, a place where he could practice medicine as he had planned to do forty years ago when he went to medical school, and as he was inspired to do by his parents, both of whom were also doctors. But such a city, such a hospital, such a private practice is no longer an easy thing to come by in a field that is now as dominated by profit and loss as Wall Street.
Our personal moveable life is a familiar story. Scores of people were deeply affected by the financial crisis of September 2008, when so many jobs were lost, lives uprooted, homes abandoned, business plans cratered…when so many students’ dreams of higher education were placed on hold or shelved forever.
In the summer of 2008 my husband accepted a position in a charming community in Virginia, where we planned to set down roots for the long term. We broke ground on a small sun-drenched private idyll, and I nurtured visions of a vegetable garden and flowerbeds and evening reveries on the patio watching the sun go down. Its perfect location promised a welcome respite from the glass, concrete and steel grid that is the Island of Manhattan, my personal home for over three decades, and to which I could easily commute for work. As a writer, I relished the idea of finally being able to work in the early morning hours, late at night and on weekends without having to put on headphones to drown out the noise made by my upstairs neighbors. I was euphoric at the possibility of wandering around the simple little house we were building talking out loud to myself, as is my wont when I am writing, without wondering if the neighbors could hear me. It would be the first time since leaving my childhood home when I would have a bit of privacy, quiet and nature all at the same time. And I was positively giddy at the thought of having a refrigerator bigger than a shoebox, a stove bigger than a hatbox, a kitchen sink bigger than a tea strainer, and windows along more than just one wall of my abode. I had aced apartment living, and no longer had anything to prove to anyone about my ability to live close to the bone.
But I had grown up with Winston Churchill’s famous words, “We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us,” and even though my architect father had died when I was very young, I absorbed enough of that philosophy to develop attachments to the physical spaces I lived in, including my New York apartment. I turned a hovel into a palace, compelled to arrange my living space in the intent manner of a jeweler setting gems in a ring, or a potter glazing a vase, or a chef layering sheets of lasagna…or a writer setting down words on a blank sheet of paper.
So my connection to the house my husband and I built was fairly visceral, encapsulating a fully fleshed out movie of our life that I directed in my head – mornings stirred by sun’s rise, a kitchen in which to cook dinner for my husband at the end of the day, hardwood floors that I hand-painted myself, a room of my own in which to write that would make Virginia Woolf envious, a garden in which to grow green, red, orange, purple and yellow things to eat, a patio on which to watch the birds return to their bird homes come twilight, and a man I loved with whom to share it. All within a five-hour drive of my beloved New York City, my job in the art world and a paycheck.
No matter the simple beauty of our shelter, a vegetable garden that indeed graced our salad bowls with lettuces of distinctly different flavors, and gloriously star-filled nights that reminded me that there is life outside of the Big Apple, the move was tough for me. For the first time in three decades I was separated from my closest friends, people who had become my surrogate family over time, and separated from the city that had essentially given birth to my creative self. While my husband’s days were spent in the company of other doctors, I was home all day alone, writing and working and connecting electronically to my office in New York, and though I have always been a disciplined person, the utter lack of intelligent conversation day after day after day left me lonely in a way I had never before experienced, an aloneness I filled with writing, of course, and gardening and cooking and ballroom dancing and walking our dog. But we had the makings of a good, healthy, peaceful, creative and productive life, and slowly I began to remap my way of being in the world.
Let’s go with the theory, for the moment, that happiness is better experienced in small doses lest one become addicted to it. Let’s go with the further theory that a little bit of happiness is better than none at all. Actually, let’s not, because I have never lived my life by either of those theories. Instead, let’s go with reality, which is that by May 2010 the bloodstream of the medical organization in which my husband worked had been so thoroughly infected by the September 2008 financial virus that he was laid off for the first time in his 30+-year career. I was in New York when he called to tell me the news. I sat in my chair, my hand gripping the phone so tightly I felt I would spin off into the atmosphere if I let go. Anyone who knows anything about men knows that an out of work husband is not a happy husband, and wherever there is an unhappy husband, not far away is an unhappy wife.
Over the next few days, my Type A orthopedic surgeon husband did what he always does in times of crisis. He rolled up his sleeves and looked for another job, finding one that would make him a civilian Amy surgeon at a base in Kentucky working with our country’s soldiers. He relished the opportunity. He needed that job. We needed that job. He would be spending his days in conversation with other doctors and surgeons, and I would be, well, spending my days alone, working out of a rented apartment that didn’t feel like home, and I would be, well, even further away from my friends and coworkers, with a much longer commute to New York. I went kicking and screaming.
Moving again? To Kentucky? Are you kidding me? What am I going to do in Kentucky? I know not a soul! What is this? Am I in a movie? I must be in a movie. But this isn’t my movie, the one I directed in my head with the happy ending. This cannot possibly be my life. This is someone else’s life. Get me out of here!
But it was my life. And I wanted to be with my husband and he needed to be in Kentucky, and so I rolled up my sleeves and found us a place to live, and packed up things that would make our apartment feel like a home, and at the end of January 2011 I loaded his car and drove, with Gatsby, our black Labrador, over the Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky mountains to join my husband in the Horse Capital of the World!
Let’s go with the theory, for the moment, that the Universe never gives us more than we can handle. Let’s go with the further theory that Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Actually, let’s not, because I have never lived my life by those theories either. Instead, let’s go with reality again, which is that exactly one year ago, at 5:30 pm on June 22, 2011, my husband met me at Metropolitan Animal Hospital and I laid down on the grass next to our gorgeous and sweet dog and stroked his head as a kind and gentle veterinarian put him to sleep because he had become ill with lymphoma.
Every morning Gatsby and I had stood together on the front steps of our townhouse and I would raise one of his giant paws to waive goodbye as my husband left for the base, then my four-legged friend and I would face the foreign land called Kentucky together until my husband returned at night. But the morning after we said goodbye to Gatsby, I stood on the steps and waived goodbye to my husband by myself. He stopped, got out of his car to hug me, and once he had finally disappeared down the street, it felt like an eternity before I was able to turn and go back up those steps into that empty house decorated with Gatsby’s three empty beds, and his toys, and his porcelain food bowl with the enameled knife and fork, and his porcelain water bowl with the enameled water spout (I’m also a designer, What do you want from me? ‘Plastic’ bowls for my dog?). And for the next two weeks when my husband got home I asked the same question: “What are we doing here in this place that killed my dog?”
Two weeks later a small but powerful miracle arrived. A group of people with whom I’d attended a social media course at Columbia School of Journalism offered members of the course invitations to join Google+, and I leapt at the chance. As though I had fallen overboard and been treading water in the middle of the ocean for days without food or fresh water, I grabbed what felt like a life raft and it changed everything.
I had never been a social media buff. I was too busy working, writing and designing. Sure, I had an FB account, which I attended as much as I felt I had to in order for it to be viable. I had a LinkedIn account, but since I loved my job it, too, was not something that occupied my creative energy. And while I understood the Haiku possibilities inherent in Twitter, in reality I was bored by the seemingly endless string of hash tag littered missives.
I’m a former actor and theatre director and I’m a writer, and I need, and love, and crave real conversation. I had no idea what Google+ would or could be, but in true art world tradition, I treated it like a blank canvas. I didn’t know anyone on the platform and so in the oddest way I felt right at home, since I didn’t know anyone in Kentucky either. I had nothing to lose by sticking my neck out and trying to make it what I wanted it to be. At the beginning I truly felt invisible, rather like joining the cast of a virtual play, except that the Google+ dramatis personae was huge – people of every nationality and background and profession from all over the world sending their radio signals out into the atmosphere, standing in the key light on center stage for a few minutes until they were kicked off by someone else grabbing the mike. To me it was site specific theatre, Mothing, a pop up museum, a pot luck supper and cocktail party all at once. But mostly it felt like being on a piazza in Italy, and I felt right at home.
Suddenly people started saying hello. And then they’d show up again, and write something witty, or interesting or thoughtful and intelligent. And they were respectful and energetic, and I thought, What is this? Am I in a movie? I must be in a movie. And slowly I began to remap my way of being in my life, my way of being away from the home I had fantasized about living in with my husband in the future, my way of being in the Horse Capital of the World, of being away from my friends and at such a geographical distance from New York.
I was meeting people, lots of people, all kinds of people, and I liked them, and some were becoming friends, and I began to look forward to seeing that little red box with a number of notifications inside, and couldn’t believe it when people started commenting as though they knew me for real – not just virtually – and seemed to feel comfortable on my threads. I loved it, and I knew that just like in Italy, no matter what time of day it was, there would be Plussers chatting on the piazza and I could participate or just sit on the steps and watch if I wanted.
I have to tell the truth, though. It is still difficult to live at such a distance from New York and friends I care so much about, and the house I have such a passion for in Virginia. But I know, in Benjamin Button fashion, that if the original movie I imagined in my head had played out the way I envisioned it, I never would have grabbed onto that Google+ raft had it come floating by. But I’ll never know, because I cannot rewrite history and the only theories that I really do subscribe to in life are the ones that claim nothing ventured, nothing gained, and big risk, big payoff. Oh, and that there are no accidents and no coincidences.
I’m as affected by Churchill’s words, We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us, as I ever was. I still love architecture, and it matters to me very much where I live geographically. And I still want a vegetable garden and flowerbeds and a quiet outdoor space to watch the sun go down. But if I don’t have those things, and if we should have to move again I know I will never feel alone in the way I felt in the days between saying goodbye to Gatsby and hello to Google+. Since then my definition of home and family has expanded to include an international community of people who travel with me between New York, Virginia and Kentucky. They keep me company and make me laugh. They inspire and challenge me, and make me dig down deep. One day the conversation will be about politics, the next about religion, the next about women and children and careers, the next about fatherhood or sports, and the next about theatre, music and movies. I have not had that depth and diversity of conversation with so many people at one time since my days at the seminar table at St. John’s College.
This past year on Google+ has been very much an architectural effort – laying the foundation, putting up the walls, raising the roof and installing enough windows to have a 360-degree view. It’s hard to imagine what an unfinished edifice will look like when you’re in the middle of building it. Just as it’s hard to imagine what’s going to end up on the blank page, and hard to imagine what it will be like to live in a city you’ve never visited.
At some point though, you just have to roll up your sleeves, trust in yourself…and go.