My So-Called Loves

I blame Jordan Catalano.

Not Jared Leto, per se. Although, all things considered, it’s probably best I never met the man.

1994 marked my junior year of high school, an auspicious microcosm in cultural history peppered with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco flight from the law, and the ABC network debut of My So-Called Life. While only circulating the airwaves for one illustrious season, the nineteen episodes of this weekly TV drama captured teen angst to the nth degree. More importantly, it gave the world Jordan Catalano, the flannel-wearing, alarmingly attractive, mysterious bad boy, who wasn’t really bad deep down, but hey, that’s what made him all the more elusively desirable, right? Besides, no one has ever leaned against a locker in a more resplendently tortured “come hither and save me from my existential pain” way than Jordan Catalano.

As a captive youth in an affluent New York City suburb, I was part of a pathologically competitive, hyper-realistic class which held an aura equal parts self-effacing Seattle grunge and kill-or-be-killed East Coast elitism. Our survivalist philosophy was: Keep your friends close, but partner with your academic nemesis on all group projects lest either party gain competitive advantage in class rank. What did, however, bring our ruthless selves together wasn’t an AP cram session nor SAT prep course. Rather, it was a deconstructive analysis of Angela Chase, portrayed by a young and emotive Claire Danes, who perfectly embodied the sheer torment it required to stare longingly at Jordan Catalano as he sauntered down the hall, lingered in a car, rocked out on his guitar, or uttered phrases to keep Angela’s mind spinning all night, such as:

“I did an undefendable thing. I created my own prison and I have to exist in it. Maybe I had a wish, or whatever, to punish you. An unconscious wish. You’ve heard of them, right?”

Yes, Jordan Catalano. I have heard of them. I’ve created my own prisons as well. And I’ve locked myself inside those bars with your fictional and nonfictional counterparts for most of my life.

Now at the age of 41, far more Carrie Bradshaw than Angela Chase, I recently conducted a brutal experiment in self-awareness. Cycling through my favorite erstwhile teen dramadies, I asked myself, “At the time of viewing each series, which male love interest did I choose? Not for the leading lady, but for me?”

A not-so-surprising pattern emerged.

As a Beverly Hills 90210 beach babe, no doubt I stood cabana-side to the reckless and perpetually breathless Dylan McKay. He was damaged and wrong in all the right ways. And no one else on the planet could rock those sideburns. Coiffed hair and leather jacket aside, this James Dean incarnate was aloof enough to spark a perpetual fear of abandonment in any woman who fell for his charms. With absentee daddy issues and a Holden Caulfield complex, Dylan had the capacity to unmask his sensitive heart (and rocking body) to a bewildered beloved for a magical night, then hop on his motorcycle before dawn to go somewhere… to return someday… that is, if the surf called him back in moonlit whispers. Now that’s the stuff of tear-stained bed linens and sentimental return-to-sender post-marked letters. The sublime pain and suffering of romantic love and inexplicable loss. The hot and unknowable rebel with (or without) a cause. Of course, Dylan, I choose you.

I’m fairly certain that my 18-year-old Felicity self would have followed the brooding Ben Covington from Palo Alto, California to the West Village in New York City, simply because he wrote an emotive paragraph in my yearbook, despite completely ignoring my existence during our formative years. Fortunately, no guy measured up to Scott Speedman’s angst-ridden ethos straight out of Pelham Memorial High School. So, I wisely chose my university based solely on academic standing, not an unfulfilled crush.

This, however, does not render my fascination toward Ben’s emotionally erratic, non-committal, screw-up persona any less significant. Particularly when the handsome, emotionally available, “had-all-of-his-shit-together” Noel adored Felicity in a strikingly mature way for five years. But what’s life without the lingering potential to retrieve your boyfriend from jail or rehab? Once you do, he’ll spend all night lying in your lap, finally connecting to truth, to pain … to you…for one fleeting moment that will vanish with the sun. Your solitary reflections will include amazingly insightful voice-overs, but will you ever unite your impulses and intuition? Ben, you get the final rose.

Enter Jess Mariano, the moody, nonconformist, and intellectual hipster from Gilmore Girls. This one hit me hard, and admittedly still does. As someone who grew up as the brainiac only child and best friend of a fun-loving, single mom in a small town that resembled Stars Hollow in all its whimsical eccentricities, one could easily argue that Amy Sherman-Palladino based Rory Gilmore off yours truly. The creators must have pulled some dreamlike wizardry to access my soul when writing Jess into existence.

It might have been his poetic tenor, or his innate brilliance, wit and sarcasm. A punk rock historian, an indie-culturalist, a voracious reader, a fiction writer to Rory’s journalistic self. A hardened loner with a harsh upbringing and a runaway birth father. Despondent, in desperate need of love, a life without compassion, unwilling to accept it, but so clearly seeking it. My kingdom for a man who carries a faded copy of Howl in his back pocket, makes an ice cream study break feel dangerous, and says things like:

“I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I don’t like anyone else.”

Yes, Jess. I’m the only one who gets you. You’re the only one who gets me. Occupy and envelope me. Let’s live together, reclusive and hidden from the world.

“I just wanted to put some notes in the margins for you.”

No one is allowed to touch my books, let alone borrow them. But you… you I will allow to take pen to my paperbacks, to scribble your musings into my margins. I shouldn’t trust you with my heart. But I trust you with my books, and that means the same thing. You will, of course, violate that trust repeatedly. You will run away from me. You will come back to me. You will run away again. I will lose several precious books in the process, but that’s ok. I grant them to you, to the universe. Every time you leave, I will love you more; the chasms in my otherwise complete bookshelf an aching reminder of your absence.

 “It is what it is. You, me.”

The summation of fated loves across the millennia. Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina. Yes, Jess. We exist, outside of space and time. So when you’re gone, you’re still with me. I’m yours. You’re mine. Forevermore. The end.

This brings us to Gossip Girl’s manipulative and seductive Chuck Bass. In a six-year series filled with hot prep school guys and sexy father figures, the devious young heir to the Bass fortune had me from Season One, Episode One. His voice was entrancing. His gaze, hypnotic. His language, cunning. A singular phrase, “I’m Chuck Bass,” powerfully opened doors… to any VIP room or woman’s soul. He was a teen, play-acting a man, defined by libidinous orgies, debilitating addictions, and emotionless stoicism. The devil makes it easy to feel safe in the arms of a psychopath.

What engenders my romanticized attraction to Chuck Bass worse than all others was my age while succumbing to the lurid temptations of this fractured Upper East Side Machiavellian egoist. By the time these Manhattan adolescents created a new zeitgeist of privilege, I was well into my 30’s, renting my own studio apartment, and working at a financial newspaper that was far more AMC’s Mad Men than CW teen dream network. Naturally, the wise, healthy, and mature choice for someone of my personal and professional stature was an unscrupulous, serpentine gigolo with commitment issues. Sure, Chuck, I’ll hop in the back of your limo. XOXO.

The inevitable problem, of course, was that my sustained attraction to the dark and mysterious wounded archetype did not remain confined to the television screen nor my hot pink copies of Seventeen Magazine.

Recognizing this self-divined pattern, I reluctantly threw myself into years of cognitive behavioral therapy to unmask the schemas ruling my subconscious object choices. Fear of abandonment (so sure, choose an emotionally unavailable guy who will undoubtedly run away just so I can prove to myself that I am unlovable); Fear of vulnerability (yes, a man who hides from himself and from reality is a surefire way to avoid intimacy); Fear of defectiveness (of course, if the gentleman is equally wounded, then he won’t judge the broken version of me). It was not a quantum leap to determine why my injured soul would be attracted to (and likewise attract) equally disastrous men.

In my therapist’s tiny Manhattan office, and years later by distance phone consult, we worked through a series of my so-called loves.

My college years introduced me to a Midwestern golden boy with a storied past. Over mid-day lattes, evening study sessions and late-night phone calls, he revealed snippets of a life less ordinary… the anguish of growing up too fast, the shocking loss of innocence, the melancholy of unresolved grief. He was always running late, but sent me orchids and enchanting tokens to lure me back to his time zone. He had a knack for spilling coffee over his crisp white sheets, which I found endearing instead of careless. No other men could exist for me, while I held myself captive to this mythical idol. That is, until he decided to love a man instead.

As I entered my thirties, so entered a man who embodied an enthralling paradox of boundless contradictions: equal parts soulful and empty; calming and maddening; rational and unbalanced; anxious and peaceful. Needing me, then avoiding me. Omnipresent, then radio silent. Stable, then disorienting. For six years, he was my Manhattan, that is, only when he wanted to be. Until one day he took a much longer walk away from my apartment and into silent oblivion.

The magnetic European playboy captured my attention at a friend’s elegant party one winter’s night. His seductive energy was so overpowering, it knocked me over at the entryway door. Literally. His tales told of a lonely jetsetter’s life; a deficit of substance and connection, a surfeit of materialism and play. But he was a fleeting fringe fantasy. A spellbinding distraction. He was another flawed hero to my tragic heroine, but in a dashingly expensive suit and a posh jet off to Dubai. And like all journeys through the desert, he eventually faded like the mirage that he was.

Since it wasn’t sufficient to mourn televised heartbreaks while weeping over my own in the living flesh, I was eventually granted a man who was an amalgamation of every character (both real and fictional) who had come before him. Onlookers described us as enmeshed mirrors of each other. The three years we’d attempted to manage our transcendent connection served as a treatise on how to move and manipulate energy; how to delineate and blur identity. The dominance of transient power. The ease of accepting submission. Everything a Milan Kundera character must viscerally experience.

We had a precarious dynamic – one of mutual solace in our intersecting tragedies. His abuse was at first subtle – admonishing me for wearing a hat, scolding me for drinking coffee, repeatedly spelling my first name incorrectly with two L’s instead of one. The escalation was insidious … manipulating me into believing that I was the manipulative partner; disparaging me for failing to worship his version of God; weaponizing silence, then shunning me for trying to break it.

Unworthy of such a gift, I nonetheless bestowed upon him an unlimited “Get out of jail free card.” We were etheric partners, our worlds in flames, embers burning regrets of phantoms past. I believed my intuitive compassion could heal us, individually and collectively. Instead, he leveled me, mentally, emotionally, and finally physically. It took a lot more than ice cream and Netflix to emerge a phoenix out of that destruction.

Upon awakening, I realized that I could not hold these men accountable for their own metaphysical and spiritual journeys toward darkness or enlightenment. But I could hold myself accountable for continually choosing them. So I made a firm decision to step away from romantic illusions until I could sit comfortably and confidently with the reality of myself.

Ten months into my subsequently self-imposed exile from such entanglements, I nonetheless found myself cautiously trusting a man I met by happenstance while out of town for a day on business. Mere weeks into his dynamic chat app courtship, he quoted lyrics from the pop song “Broken,” by lovelytheband:

 “I like that you’re broken, broken like me. Maybe that makes me a fool. I like that you’re lonely, lonely like me. I could be lonely with you.”

Great. Thank you, universe.

With my mental checklist, I conducted a comparative analysis between this new guy and my teen dramedy boyfriends. With no overt allusions to Chuck, I figured my chances of performing a drunken, spell-bound strip tease for him in a burlesque club were fairly slim. Hints of Dylan and Ben indicated a slight cause for concern. But, despite sporting a vastly different hair style, in every possible other respect, here was Jess manifest in the flesh. He swore that he’s never once watched Gilmore Girls. I asked. Twice.

At the very least, he surpassed his real life predecessor’s track record: he spelled my name correctly. But taking a self-respecting cue from the esteemed Angela Chase, I decided what to do should that change. After being twisted and turned by Jordan Catalano, his lyrical sadness, the mournful silence in his eyes, their clandestine kisses, his conflicted hand-written notes, she vowed to reclaim her own being; to be whole without his broken self.

Confidently walking away from him, she bellowed in his direction:

“And by the way, I spell my name with one L.”

Yes, Angela. So do I.


Doe, a deer

“It takes two to make an accident.” 
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen.” 
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are


A few nights ago, I hit a deer with my car.

No. Wait.

That sentence should be revised for grammatical correctness and narrative accuracy:

A few nights ago, a deer hit my car.

In an act that objectively appeared to be an Anna Karenina-inspired deer suicide, a middle-aged, pale-skinned doe was hiding from plain sight, amid the bushes and birch trees of a nearby farm, perhaps contemplating her troubled existence. Maybe it was all too much for her…. a disastrous marriage to a stoic yet solid mate, a kingdom in turmoil, a recent affair with a dashing buck. And as the sun descended past the horizon, at the purple glow of twilight, while my lone car was steering downhill at (a legal) 45-50 mph, the elegant and refined lady decided to let go of this world forevermore. From my perspective, it would have been better if she chose to stick to Tolstoy’s actual plot and hurl herself in front of a train instead.

Clearly taking literary license with her demise, with a speed and grace worthy of a sugar plum fairy ballerina, she leapt directly in front of my careening vehicle. And in a split second…  crash. I can still hear the booming, metal-on-bone sound of impact. I can still feel the instantaneous collision which resembled slamming into a steel wall versus striking a singular animal. I can also still hear myself repeat the same sentence that countless others have voiced to me in their country life war stories:

“The deer came out of nowhere. There was no time to react.”

It’s true.

The deer really does come out of fucking nowhere.

There really is no time to react.

I’ve been driving for 25 years. I’ve had my fair share of engine breakdowns, spark plug mishaps, and tire blow-outs in extremely unfortunate locations at painfully inappropriate times. I’ve been stranded on highways and back roads, in various states of our union, close to home, far from home, eternally grateful for my AAA membership road side assistance. I’ve been towed back to my home, to hotels, to gas stations, and to auto repair shops. I’ve swiped my debit card more times than I can count to get my ass back into my repaired automobile as soon as possible, back onto the road and into my daily existence. But I’ve never once been in an actual accident in my entire life, either as a driver or passenger.

I didn’t even realize this was an “accident” until the kind folks who stopped to help me used that word to describe the smoking, leaking wreck of a car in front of me, and my shaken body and mind, as I attempted to make sense of what just happened at 8:05pm on a Tuesday night.

Accident? What? Call 911, why? I need to fill out a police report? Because of a deer? Why yes. The insurance company will want the report. The insurance company? Oh, right. I guess we’ll see if I’m really in good hands with Allstate. Where is my home? Oh just down the road. Where are my valuables? Oh, in the car… I should get my laptop and wallet out of the car. Is the car going to blow up? It’s still smoking. Can you put the car in neutral and drive it off the road? What? Get back in the car? No. Honey, maybe you can help her. She’s really shaken. Ok. Can I take you home? Does anyone have cell reception? No, there’s no reception on this road. Let’s call 911 from your house. Can you tell me your address? What is my address? I just moved a few months ago, I don’t remember my address. I can see the house from here. Let me look up my address in my phone. Yes, someone should be home when we get there. Yes, I have cell reception at home. No, I don’t want to go to the hospital.

When the police officer arrived a half hour later, she told me, “Don’t worry. Totally not your fault. Happens all the time. In fact, I almost hit a deer coming here. I thought, how embarrassing… if I had to tell my superior that I hit a deer, going to the deer call.”

While somewhat comforting, I found myself strangely envious of the officer who managed to avoid her own up-close-and-personal antler entanglement.

Other semi-comforting things friends have said to me in the last few days:

“Thank god you’re alive.”

“It could have been so much worse.”

“You’re so lucky.”

“I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Yes…. Ok. That’s all technically true. And I agree with the sentiments above, not in any way intending to denigrate my existence and safety. However, with my twenty-year-old car wrecked beyond rational value of fixing it, and a pre-existing neurological disorder that makes whiplash one helluva bitch to treat, it’s a bit difficult to jump on the “brighter side” bandwagon. At least, not right now.

A handful of friends have also expressed concern that I may also be suffering guilt from killing a living, breathing creature of this world. “Alison, it’s ok… the deer probably went into a nearby field to die peacefully.” Or, “Maybe the deer ran away. Sometimes they just run away.” No, the deer did not prance into a nearby field to silently pass on, or recover, surrounded by purple wildflowers and the friendly buzz of bumble bees. No, this deer combusted in mid-air, directly in my line of sight, due to the power of impact, releasing magical puffs of white smoke, a decapitated head, severed limbs, no blood splatter on the road nor my windshield, no remaining evidence of life. Just… gone. Poof. Incinerated bone and flesh. The truth can be gruesome. There is no sugar coating this one.

Many years ago, I burst into tears in my car, convinced my tire got the best of a fluffy tailed grey squirrel whose only fatal error was trying to grab an acorn in the street. As this was a quiet suburban street in my hometown, I got out of my car to search the area for its remains. Ultimately finding no flattened squirrel crime scene, I concluded he must have dashed off to safety. Squirrels clearly value their lives more than the entire suicidal deer population… or perhaps Squirrel Traffic School requires an advanced course in “How To Cross The Road Without Dying, Destroying Cars or Injuring Humans.” I suggest this class be expanded as an interdisciplinary seminar offered to the entire animal kingdom for the benefit of humanity.

On a more recent occasion, I found myself morally aghast at a guy in my life who hit a bird with his car while he was driving us to an event. We heard a smacking sound, then saw feathers fly up in front of us, as he continued down the mountainous road. He laughed. A lot. With a bit of a maniacal tone. He also didn’t like dogs. Cruelty to animals = relationship red flags (but that’s a whole other story…)

But a deer? I have little remorse for this particular animal who, in less than five seconds, derailed my life, my deadlines, my health, and wrecked my car in the process. Besides, you really can’t have chronic Lyme disease for two decades without thinking, “Good riddance… one less tick-infested Lyme carrying deer in this world.” Maybe I’ve saved some unsuspecting nine-year-old from a life of mysterious symptoms and medical disbelief.

Amid the insurance claims, calls to osteopaths, trips to Whole Foods for herbal anti-inflammatories, and the hours spent lying down alternating heat and ice packs, the following thought-pattern has emerged and will not leave the recesses of my mind:

In recent years, I’ve become acutely aware that energy moves me… from one home to the next, from one relationship to the next, from one job opportunity to the next. When I fight it, or try to control it, things end disastrously… emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically. When I surrender myself to it, then things flow… naturally… even if it’s to a person, place or thing that I could not, nor would not, have otherwise imagined I needed or wanted.

In light of this energetic paradigm, as Ms. Carrie Bradshaw would pen, “I couldn’t help but wonder…” is the life lesson here:

  1. Alison, you are going too fast, down the wrong road, and you’re not seeing the hazards leaping in front of you. Stop. You’re going to get seriously hurt.


  1. Shit happens. No matter what you do or where you go.

I’ve since polled some of my close friends with this question. Thus far, most have strongly voted for Option 2 (likely to prevent me from spiraling into a total existential freak out… as I’ve been known to do).

Two friends interrupted my Jungian ramblings about how car = self; and accident = energy to interject, “It was just a deer, Alison. Just. A. Deer.”

One friend astutely suggested an alternative to my multiple-choice exam: “Find another answer.”

The day after my fateful collision, a nearby friend ditched all her plans for the day to be my personal Uber (and therapist). From sitting next to me while I called around to auto body shops for sticker shock estimates, to helping me rent a car, to driving me into town for a medical appointment… she confirmed that indeed, “This shit happens, all the time, particularly in the country.” She pointed out that I’m so used to New York City life, I’m reading waaaay too much into this. Everyone has a deer story in the country. Everyone. I’ve just been indoctrinated.

Is it like Girl Scouts? Do I get a badge? Do I have to sell cookies? I refuse to wear a weird green uniform.

But yes, She’s right about one thing for sure: I am quite accustomed to city life. I know what to do with a cockroach infestation; how to handle an irate landlord screaming at me in Albanian; how to approach the unhinged elderly neighbor wandering the hall in her bathrobe searching for Mavis, her lost dog (FWIW: there was never an actual dog…); and how to get from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side without even glancing at the subway map. But…. Bambi’s mom hurling itself at my car? Yeah. The urban jungle does not prepare a person for such wild things.

In a twist of fate, about two weeks ago, I randomly asked a friend if he’d ever hit a deer with his car. His answer? “Nope.” I replied, “Me either. Which is impressive. All things considered.”

Well, isn’t that ironic, Ms. Morissette?

I don’t regularly query comrades about their deer-vehicular events. Nor have I ever proclaimed my own prowess at avoiding such a catastrophe. Maybe I should have knocked on the wooden table in front of me? Or carried a rabbit foot with me? Or maybe it’s like summoning Beetlejuice. Say: “I’ve never hit a deer with my car,” out loud, with extreme emphasis, and one will magically appear!

(Come to think of it, if that’s the case, maybe my friend should take extra precaution on the road for the next few months… Just sayin’…).

I’m deciding to stick with the wise “Find another answer” perspective on this one.

Because maybe it was time to finally let go of my car; the car that’s been breaking down every other month, including a frightfully dangerous situation on Route 66 outside DC a month ago… the car I never would have given up without brute force. And maybe I needed to calm the hell down when driving behind slow-pokes on back country roads. Doesn’t matter what the speed limit says. They know something this city gal doesn’t. There are deer lurking in those woods. And tragic heroine doe or not, all it takes is one leap… and your entire universe can shift.

Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.

Phone home

“The love we do not show here on Earth is the only thing that hurts us in the after-life.” ― Steven Spielberg

“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.” ― Elliott from ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’

I was four years old when my parents took me to my first horror movie.

It was 1982. Laura Branigan was belting out Gloria, unsuspecting Chicagoans were dying of cyanide-laced Tylenol, Ronald and Nancy were getting cozy in the White House, and every velour sweatshirt-wearing youth was infatuated with Stephen Spielberg’s new flick.

Naturally, my mother and father assumed I was just like every other fun-loving kid in our quaint New York City suburb. Following this logic, they wholeheartedly believed their daughter would adore the nationally-heralded blockbuster hit: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

They were wrong.

As witnessed through my hyper-vigilant, existentially-aware young eyes, E.T. was the very opposite of adorable. He was no cuddly, cute alien visitor; no magical galaxy wanderer, nor innocent foreign friend. E.T. was, at core, terrifying. And he was sent, from outer space, to kidnap me.

I emitted no wails nor screams in the movie theater; I gushed no buckets of tears down my face. Sheer panic, however, pulsated through my entire body. Seated between my mother and grandmother, their empathetic heartbeats soothing mine, I quietly burrowed myself in their arms for protection. And I continued to watch in utter terror as E.T. revived a dead chrysanthemum, faltered in health, symbiotically sickened Elliott, suffered scientific experimentation, and peddled across the moon. Given my resultant PTSD, it’s a wonder I ever ate Reese’s Pieces candy again.

The realm of fantasy play was reserved for the shimmering rocks and hallowed trees in my best friend’s backyard. Make-believe was for my grandmother’s closet, with her strings of pearls and polka-dot scarves. But that wrinkled, emaciated creature on the screen… that thing had to be real. And there was nothing that anyone could do, or say, to convince me otherwise. E.T. wanted to take me away from my family and rocket me into space. Never again would I return to this planet, let alone to my mother’s arms or my home.

I did not consciously decide to torment my parents for their epic miscalculation. I admit to no pre-meditated indictment for being cinematically-traumatized at the Pelham Picture House. My unrelenting night terrors held no pointed manipulation; nor did my utter lack of sleep, or my constant disquiet when left unattended.

As penance for her innocent transgression, my mother vigilantly adhered to my stalwart regimen of “The Nighttime E.T. Checklist,” which confirmed the following:

E.T. was not under my bed.
E.T. was not in my closet.
E.T. was not biking outside my window.
E.T. was not downstairs.
E.T. was not outside my door.
E.T. was not in the chair, hiding between my stuffed animals.

It was imperative that she repeat this checklist a minimum of seven times before shutting the light, kissing my forehead, whispering “goodnight sweetie,” and closing my door into oblivion.

The advanced portion of the evening ritual consisted of five silent beats, followed by ten minutes of holy terror, as I bellowed, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” until she ran exhausted, frustrated, and angry (mostly at herself for buying the movie tickets…) back into my room, to once again verify that E.T. was not: under my bed, in my closet, outside my window, etc.

She never once found E.T. lurking in the shadows. But I knew the truth. As soon as my mother abandoned her post at my side, E.T. would emerge. And if granted enough time, he would abscond with me in his spaceship. With that creepy oblong alien head, he was diabolically awaiting the absolute right moment to remove me from my existence, to imprison me, to take me away.

I wished my parents could understand I was not being unreasonable or irrational. Couldn’t they see … their daughter was not safe. A powerful, unknown force wanted me gone from this world. We had to be vigilant to ensure my survival. Otherwise, absolutely everything and everyone I loved would be lost to me, forever.

Child psychologists vary in their interpretation of bedtime strategies for troubled sleepers and anxious toddlers. A popular approach is to “let the child cry until she stops.” Too heartbreaking for some parents, that methodology nonetheless statistically meets with successful results, whereupon the child eventually calms herself, stops crying, and goes to sleep, enabling a lifetime of self-soothing faculties.

I have always been one to defy statistics.

Also a talented innovator since birth, I launched an inspired sleeping arrangement in our household, whereupon my mother took up nightly residence on my bedroom floor, occupying a 3’x10’ space between my twin bed and the wall. Like a teenage slumber party, my mom layered multiple comforters, blankets and pillows, and smushed herself next to my shelf of Care Bears. And there, she remained, for the night. Many nights. An entire season of nights. My father’s snoring resounded from the adjacent room, confirming his restful repose in their king-size bed. Despite my mother’s physical discomfort on the floor, I felt comforted knowing we had collectively thwarted E.T.’s plans. He would not dare enter my room to vanish me from my existence with my mom mere inches away.

As I attempted to barricade my home from E.T.’s calculated invasion, my best friend Christina graciously invited the little devil inside her world. Betrayed at the age of four, by the pink-leotard-wearing girl around the block. Universal Pictures’ marketing department hit the motherload with Christina, as her parents filled their home with E.T. posters, stickers, t-shirts, pillows, bed linens, games, mugs, and the worst offender – a life-size E.T. plush toy. I still give her mom tremendous kudos for trying to circumvent a Pre-K societal breakdown. For every “Alison + Christina” playdate that occupied their house, the kind-hearted woman spent a good hour prepping their home for my arrival. This required hiding all E.T. paraphernalia from plain sight, covering up the wall art, and sternly reminding Christina’s older wise-cracking siblings not to point an index finger in Alison’s direction – or else. To add insult to injury, Christina demanded an E.T.-themed party in honor of her 5th birthday. To honor social graces, I attended the festivities, but sequestered myself upstairs in their kitchen, while two dozen toddlers ate an E.T.-designed cake off E.T.-imprinted plates, and received E.T.-themed goody bags.

I can’t recall when exactly I started sleeping on my own again. Or when I was brave enough to perform the nighttime checklist by myself (but I did continue to check…for a lot longer than I care to admit). The haunting threat of ET lingered for years, concurrent with my belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps the turning point was the shocking revelation that my mother often crept into her own room in the middle of the night to continue her nightly repose in her grown-up bed. My developing mind had to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that I was objectively left unattended most of the night, and yet nonetheless, awoke safe and sound in my bed, on the planet Earth, the next morning. Despite the diatribe my mom received when I discovered her underhanded tactics, that may have been the proof I needed to risk the nights alone.

Two decades later, as a college graduate spending quality time alone with my mother over a game of Trivial Pursuit, I landed on a pie-piece for Arts & Entertainment. Drawing a card from the overused deck, my mother first read the question silently to herself, shook her head, sighed, and then resigned herself to read my match-point query out-loud.

Mom: “What popular movie was banned in Sweden for children under the age of 11, because of its threatening and frightening content?”

Me: “What? I have no idea. I never get a good question when it matters.”

Mom: “Think about it. You know the answer.”

Me: “No I don’t! Sweden? What the hell. Why would I know that?”


Me: “I have no idea. Star Wars?”

(No. It wasn’t Star Wars.)

My taunting cries of “I TOLD YOU!” could be heard several blocks away for hours, after she reluctantly revealed the answer:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

“Sweden knows!” I exclaimed. “Sweden understands me!”

Subsequent research unearthed quite the fun fact: Sweden wasn’t the only country to issue this decree. Most of Scandinavia seemed overtly concerned that this “family friendly” film would traumatize an entire generation of their blond-haired, blue-eyed citizens. If only this level of artistic censorship had existed in the United States, I would have been spared years of anguish (and maybe my mother would have gotten to sleep before 1983).

It’s now 2019, almost four decades since my E.T.-induced night terrors. The irony here is: my agonizing fear has actually come true, just in a context and role reversal twist that was astronomically wilder than even my untamed childhood imagination.

For the last four years, I’ve been a stranger in my own strange land. Tossed and turned and spinning, I was thrown out of my former life, city, and home by an energetic force much greater than myself; a force I cannot seem to control despite my intellect and resourcefulness; a power that is omnipresent and yet invisible. And I’m not the only one. I’ve been poked and prodded by medical science; and I’ve been experimented upon by strangers and friends, without my knowledge nor consent. I’ve sought asylum from kind-hearted, compassionate souls along the way.

Turns out, I am not so different from E.T. Maybe my youthful intuition knew what was in store. Despite Sweden’s solidarity, maybe a prescient mind was the reason for my unrest.

The modern world around me now looks and feels different, wrong, foreign. It’s a place I no longer comprehend, and where survival takes precedence over living. And what is mind-numbingly baffling is: this is, in fact, still my planet. I did not crash elsewhere in the galaxy, after traveling light-years on a spaceship. I have been here, in place, this whole time. And yet the world shifted around me. The energy changed. Literally. With environmental hazards, toxins, and artificial electromagnetic fields that do not mesh with everyone’s body, but which very much make me sick and dysfunctional.

The paradox is: I am here, but no longer able to be here. Despite my birth on this planet, I am now one of many positioned as “foreign.” As “alien.” And the problem is, I can’t get back home. Because, my home, and my world, has forever vanished under a cloud of electrosmog. (But hurrah! Everyone gets to have free Wi-Fi and live without cords! Yes, that’s totally worth the cost of individual life and liberty…)

E.T. wasn’t human, but he had every right to his existence. In whatever way we can understand “life” beyond the concept of Earth, E.T. was after all, a living being, made from matter and propelled by laws of physics.

The radiant heart inside his tiny skeletal chest beat with that collective, undefinable ethos:


The glowing touch of his finger illuminated what binds the universe together as one:


E.T.’s right to live, to be happy, to be safe, and to be home, is the right we all share. It is unjust to have all of that taken away, without due process, without recourse, and without ample and affordable opportunity for sanctuary. But, that’s where we are. Whether people want to admit that or not.

For me, the three most chilling lines of Spielberg’s movie were as follows:

“E.T. phone home.”

Haunted by E.T.’s freakish mechanical tonality, and his melancholy eyes, I could hear that phrase echo in my childhood nightmares for months. Now at the age of forty, that line is only unnerving because it is so personally heartbreaking. I may not use a rigged up Speak & Spell, but I’ve got my own concoction of wires, cords and electronic devices that connect me through the digital lines to my erstwhile home, the great metropolis of New York City, an unsafe terrain pulsating with radiofrequencies and electromagnetics that would have shocked even Tesla.

Since I can no longer actually be home, I am left with one recourse:

Phone home.

And that’s what I do.

So, I call…

My mom.

There are no more nighttime checklists, but I need to hear her voice again at night. I ask for reassurance: “Will everything be ok? Will I wake up in the morning?”

She says yes, but I don’t always believe her.

I’m old enough now to know the difference between a movie screen and the real world.

That the life we are living was not fabricated in a Hollywood studio.

That our technologies and gadgets aren’t merely special effects and fake animations.

That in reality, it’s quite possible E.T. never returns home, no matter how many times he calls, or how hard he tries. Because “home” no longer exists.

Now that is truly terrifying.


“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out;
and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.” 
― Virginia Woolf

“He tries to find the exit from himself but there is no door.” 
― Dejan Stojanovic

There is little in this world more anxiety-provoking than someone telling me:

“I’ve left you the key. Feel free to let yourself in.”

I’m not good with doors.

Or keys.

Or locks.

I’d make a terribly ineffective robber of bank vaults.

Similar to my childhood fear of entering a grocery store to buy a carton of milk, I’ve always accepted this charismatic quirk as part of my hyper-vigilant persona (What if people are watching me as I attempt to do this mundane task?). Or perhaps one of the many intolerable eccentricities that emerge through an apprehensive countenance (What if I can’t open the door because the key won’t turn, it gets stuck in the lock and breaks in half?).

But if a cigar isn’t just a cigar, then a door isn’t just a door.

Twenty years ago, much to my relief, I met a college friend with the same logistical-psycho-social stumbling block. Tara and I were both extremely creative, intellectual, worldly individuals who could be taken down by a singular access point. The absolute terror of visiting each other’s dorms for the first time – there was way too much to navigate: the building’s exterior door (unlocked until midnight on weekdays; 2am on weekends), the interior gated doors (always locked; passage granted via scanned card to dorm residents only), the vestibule access code, the phone-intercom system, the RA on duty at her post checking IDs, the elevator hidden around the corner at the end of the hall, and at long last, the dorm room door (knock… that was the easy part).

It was objectively amusing when we attempted to travel Europe together. Medieval castles are not known for their easy passages: up the coffin-width spiral staircase, through the cobblestone alley, over the old moat, around the shrubbery maze, through the wrought iron, fifty-ton gate, then look for the costumed guard on the opposite side. Italian cafes with their dollhouse-sized washroom closets that never seemed to lock for privacy. London double-decker buses with their lack of doors (Wait, what? Hop on/off the bus through an open-air egress, while the vehicle is still sorta kinda moving? And where exactly do we pay for this amusement park ride?). British university libraries with their dusty stacks of books to infinity that precipitated disorientation and their creaky revolving wooden doors (FYI: a multi-partitioned door that continually spins in a circle is a particular kind of hell…). Even domestic hotels became inordinately stressful once the hospitality industry adopted magnetized key cards. Slide card in + slide card out + taunting red light = panic. At least Chicago’s Hotel Monaco added some whimsy to the experience by leaving a swimming goldfish in a bowl outside the neighbor’s room (at his request).


Years later as a resident of New York City and a successful international business consultant, Tara was emerging from her posh downtown apartment building and walked smack into the double-glass doors leading to the outside world. Like one of those birds who doesn’t realize the window isn’t the sky, she was knocked down, stunned, bruised, and bleeding. The ER doctor questioned her marital relationship, but I believed her truth. Doors can be very tricky, particularly when they’re often left open for you or deceivingly crystal clear. Ever since Tara’s cautionary tale, I’ve been extremely wary when approaching anything that resembles air.

When I finally had a sufficient salary to afford my own Manhattan residence (aka rationalize spending 70% of income on a 350-square foot studio apartment and still be able to feed and clothe self… well, sometimes…), it should come as no surprise that my top requirement to my realtor was “doorman building.” It seemed safer to have someone in a proper suit, hat and nametag guarding the doors 24/7, even if that “someone” was a stranger from a strange land who could barely pronounce my non-Slavic name, and thereby only referred to me by unit number (“14K, you have a dry-cleaning delivery”).

Single and alone in New York City was challenging enough. Between dragging heavy grocery bags home down long city blocks in the heat, rain, snow; awaiting bulky furniture deliveries (“Lady, if the couch don’t fit in the service elevator, just tip the guy to walk it up the 14 flights of stairs, yeah, no problem”) and Time Warner Cable service calls (“We’ll be there on Wednesday sometime between 7am and 9pm… if our guy can get out of Queens”), it was relieving to know for certain that at the very least, a skilled aperture professional would be able to hold open the door, and maybe even smile and say hello (in Albanian).

I’ve questioned if my apprehension negotiating doors (particularly of the unfamiliar variety) equates to agoraphobia. But neither my super-social nature nor my therapist have ever concurred with that theory. I’m both comfortable being in, and interacting with, the world at large. Bring me to a networking event or professional conference, and I’m in my element. Invite me to a party, and I’m at ease (dare I say, even joyful?) making new friends and connections. In fact, the thought of remaining inside my residence all day fills me with depressive dread. My morning motivations out of bed include visions of bustling coffee shops and the world beyond my abode.

It appears, however, that I am perceptibly anxious, uncertain, and fearful of the transition itself. The openings and the closings. The movement from one side to the other. The hellos and the goodbyes. The “here” versus “there” of it all. From Shakespeare’s perspective, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” But it’s their “exits and entrances” that unbalance my equilibrium, and leave me with a pounding heart at every twist of a knob; stunned and dizzy at every click of a lock.

One of my favorite films is the 1998 movie Sliding Doors. A convincingly British Gwyneth Paltrow character lives out two alternate versions of her reality – one in which she misses her train; and one in which she just barely makes it. We follow her two vastly disparate iterations of the same year – romantically, professionally, and personally – and the various incarnations of what’s good and bad in each.


We are left to ponder the expansive consequences of our minuscule everyday decisions and movements; how dramatically different life can be if we hail a cab versus walk, run back to grab our forgotten cardigan, stop to clean up our spilled coffee, or sit in one train car versus another.

The film’s ultimate plot twist extrapolates the concept of fate. If something’s meant to be, then no matter what door we walk through, will we eventually meet our destiny in some shape or form? Or will we forever be off-track from the people, places, and things that are authentically fulfilling? And can we possibly ever know with conviction which door to open, when to open it, if to walk through it, when to close it, and how long to keep it locked up?

A few months ago, I experienced my own Sliding Doors moment. A small, but important professional gathering was happening in a city two hours from my residence. Given the distance, I was on the fence about attending, though nonetheless drawn for various career-related reasons. Having driven the route countless times before, I knew my departure from home could be no later than 4pm should I wish to arrive with enough breathing room for a 7pm event. And yet, as the clock struck 4:00, I still had not decided if I wanted to make the effort.

A friend nudged me that I’d probably enjoy the solitary road trip on the sunny and warm autumn day, and the shift in scenery would be uplifting. That wisdom sent me dashing upstairs to change attire and make myself otherwise presentable. And I threw myself into my car at 4:10pm, already ten minutes behind schedule.

Much to my chagrin, Google Maps informed me there was a crash along my route, only 10 miles from my endpoint, recalculating my journey to almost three hours on the road. I logically presumed that accident should clear before I reached the disastrous intersection. But, with each passing minute, the traffic did not break. After two hours on the highway, close in mileage to my destination, but stuck in grid-locked traffic, my GPS advised I take a local route off the highway to save 20 minutes. Heeding the digital navigation oracle, I weaved my way through local byroads and side streets, fretfully hitting red lights, slow drivers, and other road blocks, and challenging the speed limit whenever I had open road.

Arriving in the city center at 6:50pm, I swiftly pulled into a parking garage, only to be informed by the attendant that they would close in ten minutes. He redirected me out of the lot, down the street, and around the block, to a garage with a bandwidth until 10pm. I secured my car in a space, leapt out, locked the doors, walked five long strides before realizing I left an important notebook in the car. Dashing back to my car, I unlocked the door in a frenzy, grabbing my neglected item, and with three minutes to spare, I rushed up the street, around the corner, through the glass doors of the lobby, to spy the elevator doors just starting to close. Using my native New Yorker skills, I skidded on the linoleum floor to the elevator in a split second, stuck my hand in the door to prop it open, jumped into the elevator disheveled and harried, and standing right there inside was:

My friend.

Or, my ex-friend, to be exact.

(I had no idea he was going to the event.)

“Right. Of course you’re here,” were the first words out of my mouth.


We had quarreled to an epic relationship collapse a mere six days prior. After telling me goodbye, I had watched him walk away and shut the door in finality and anger. I did not imagine sliding through yet another gateway, in a different city, to find him yet again on the opposite side.

He and I had opened and closed many doors on each other – and for each other – over the three tumultuous years in which we attempted to manage our transcendent connection. Those same doors which usually unfastened methodically and effortlessly, often slammed shut carelessly and indignantly. A dizzying spiral of conversations, connections, breakdowns and apologies… a carousel of restaurants, homes, and vehicles… each with a door firmly demarcating our entrances and exits; but with no stage directions to inform us where to stand in relation to the other, nor any indication of who held the master key. And when a passageway was blocked or a precarious wall came crashing down, it was always easier to blame the other one for crossing boundaries and unlocking the door without permission.

Two months after that elevator encounter, I awaited his scheduled entrance at a restaurant, in an ethereal town that has served to move us both, individually and together, as though mythical gliding staircases and shifting corridors were predestined for a cosmic metamorphosis. Through that rustic restaurant door, he once humbly asked for my friendship back, which I granted. Less than two years later, through that same door, we agreed to barricade all windows, lock up for good, and throw away the keys. As he motioned to leave, I remained in my seat, claiming my space inside, and watched him exit stage left, end of Act III, curtain closed, let’s all take a bow for such captivating and passionate performances.

It’s been said to close a door if it leads no where. But I’m not sure I agree with that last part. Yes, of course we close doors on people, places, and things that cause us pain and suffering, situations and relationships that end in disaster, circumstances that belittle and demean our nature. But, despite the heartbreak, an open door never leads to oblivion.

It’s what happens after the threshold is crossed… the transition from one room to another, from one stage player to the next. Each step, each space… it always leads somewhere. Even if it’s to another door with an equally confounding lock. Or to another place where we don’t want to be.

The trepidation is not what we’ll discover beyond the entryway, or if we are strong enough to survive. The anxiety is based in this: We have the power to open all doors. We have to decide if we want to turn the key.


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” 
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The story can begin like this:

A young woman in a hospital hooked up to an IV at 2am. Descriptive language to evoke vivid experiences of nauseating hospital scents and the harshness of florescent light. The thinness of gowns. Bruised veins from too many needle pricks. The paradox of Manhattan just outside the sliver of a window. Flashes of what is “other” than her immediate temporal reality – the ferry to Ikea with a friend on a frozen winter day; the downtown drunkenness of summertime happy hours; the gold sequined shoes she bought for her friend’s wedding. Circle back to present. Her mother sitting next to her, tired, worn, exhausted. Her daughter is sick, and has been sick, for many years. And she can’t make it go away. Diagnosis no longer matters. A name no longer matters. The attending physician has disappeared. She’s stuck. She can’t leave. Repeat scene. Repeat scene. Repeat scene.

Or like this:

A 40-year-old woman sitting alone in a coffee shop. Uncomfortably content in her discomforting solitude. Pale skin and dry hair, but otherwise she appears deceivingly healthy. Her eyes glance over the pages of a book that she is not reading. She’s distracted by two decades of physical symptoms that hide in plain sight. The pins and needles tingling in her feet. The pulsating tremor of her body’s vibrational field. The zapping of pain. The lack of hunger. The lack of desire. She listens to the wealthy investment banker or lawyer sitting adjacent to her, talking about a deal, a plan, a meeting. She watches a preppy soccer mom order her Under Armor-clad son a hot cocoa at the bar. She glances at the glowing collegiate couple holding hands over the table. She sips her coffee… grateful for her coffee. Only $9.00 in her bank account, and she orders a $4.41 latte because that’s the only solace she can find. She doesn’t mind crying in public. What she minds is that no one ever asks why.


That same woman in a psychotherapist’s office. Wait. No. Make that a Reiki practitioner’s office. Strike that. She’s at an ashram. Or in a priest’s chambers. Or cross-legged in a shaman’s circle. She’s seeking. Through prayer, mantra, nutrition, art, song, movement… she hears concepts spoken to her about transformation; about mind-body-spirit; about healing. “Alison, do you believe you can heal?” Yes. No. Maybe. Does the answer matter? Of course, the answer matters. Everything is energy. Thoughts are energy. Faith is energy. Now she’s blaming her spiritual deficit for being sick. Wait. Stop. Not supposed to use the word “sick.” The proper term is “healing crisis.” Fine, now she’s blaming herself for her “healing crisis.” Blame, guilt, shame, anger, depression, repression, grief, abandonment, abuse. Unloved, unworthy, untouchable. The therapist wants to know if she was ever physically assaulted or abused as a child (no). The shaman tells her that she had exceptionally traumatic past lives (quelle surprise) which she energetically brought into this life. The naturopath asks if she believes in God (tears flowing as an answer). Insert words about a hero’s journey. Epic quests. The dark night of the soul mysticism. Archetypal heroes and heroines. She is not a victim, and she knows it. She’s reading fairy tales, she’s watching Wonder Woman, but she’s wondering where’s her own set of magical bracelets to protect her energy, or her own powerful wand to battle Voldemort.

Or maybe this:

The hot guy she meets at the party wants to share a singular cab ride back to her place. “Sorry,” she explains, “I can’t do that.” “Can’t or won’t?” He asks. “Can’t” she replies. People think she’s making self-protective excuses. That she has too many barriers, too many walls. Friends question, “Why don’t you just release and have some fun?” But, it’s not a release. There’s a pain to illness in places people do not see, in places people do not talk about outside of white coated physicians’ offices. There’s more shame in talking about it than the shame of a one night hook-up. Or so she gleans through conversations with friends. So, the hot guy goes his own way home. And she wonders what she’s missing.

Love. Seeking love. Hiding from love. Fearing love. Debilitated by lack of love. There is no illness without exploring the breakdown of love. She wants to know why men either only want her body, or only want her mind, but never want all of her, together, as one. She posts quotations and songs about heartbreak on social media. Great, now Facebook knows she’s melancholy. What will their algorithm do with that data point?

Everyone feels sad for her, that her father died when she was 11. They say it must have been difficult, growing up without a father. But growing up with a father was difficult too. That’s the part she never talks about. The overflowing garbage cans of empty vodka bottles and empty scotch bottles that took up too much space in the house. The erratic seesaw of closeness and distance, of whispers and bellows, of security and instability. The mounds of pastel Care Bears and wide-eyed Pound Puppies he brought home for her to hug, and how much she loved them. The nights he came home late, confused, “not himself” and forgot to hug her. The hyper-vigilance of waiting for an imperceptible shift in tone or tenor, so she could shift herself to maintain a collective balance, to keep peace, to keep everything and everyone together. The perpetuation of love, hurt, and abandonment as a cluster. Illness is embedded in those patterns. Trauma gets stuck in those overused nerve cells and neural networks. No wonder she accepts a repetitive cycle of romanticized heartbreak. No wonder her body resonates with the erratic dance of emotional abuse from the men who enter and exit her energy field.

“Write about your experience with chronic illness,” she has been told. “Write a book, write an article, write a memoir. You’re such a good writer, share your story.” But it doesn’t matter where the story begins. It doesn’t even matter where it ends. It just “is.” Past, present, future. There, everywhere, nowhere, and here. Most especially here. All the time. Here.

Where exactly is here?

Here is a place of silence without stillness. Connection without affection. Sleep without rest. Expression without release. Closeness without intimacy. And words. So many beautiful, painful, awful, wonderful words … words too weak in composition to transcribe meaning, words too muddled to attain resolution. Words that people hear and translate for themselves, to instill a reversal of context that the author may (or may not) have intended. Clinging to words, manipulating words, grasping for words, to believe that maybe words matter. Playing with words in a continual attempt to express identity…. to reclaim self…. to announce presence…. to thwart absence. Words to validate the “here-ness” of her existence, and the mirrored reflection of everything real that otherwise seems to be an illusion.

Here is where Wonderland crashes into Oz and then morphs into Neverland.

Who is here?

I am here. A lot of other people are here too. But, like an episode of Black Mirror (or the Twilight Zone for those yet to upgrade to a modern surrealism), “here” is both the same and yet simultaneously different for everyone. It’s a subjective experience of a constructed reality. And no diagnosis nor shared symptom profile nor parallel trauma history will ever make “here” a singular place that is understood by all.

For me, “here” sometimes looks like a solitary table in a cafe, where I sit with my laptop, fueled by caffeine, smiling at strangers, wondering why the woman next to me is allowed to bring her cat inside, let alone prop him up on the table …. or standing in the supplements section of the local organic shop, looking for discounted deals on the purest forms of magnesium and astragalus … or starting text messages and emails and letters that I never send because I’m just too tired to say anything worthwhile… or letting the guy walk (or run) out my door in debilitating heartbreak without expecting him to return… or feeling stuck, inside barricades that I never raised, inside borders that I never intended, and crying, and coughing, and not breathing, not eating, not sleeping, because I’m disappointed in myself for not finding my way out of Narnia.


A friend of mine once told me to end such sentences with the word “yet.”

She was right. It seems to help. A bit.

While “being here” has never made sense to me, I’ve stopped asking “how did I get here?” I know better than to expect others to “get me out of here.” And wisdom tells me there is a “reason for being here” (which also leads me to believe I could have written a much better finale to Lost).

So, here I stay… and wander… for now… cautiously approaching any bottles with a label “drink me” and quite suspicious of anxiously tardy rabbits.





“The whole answer is there on the canvas.” – Edward Hopper

“The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.” ― Norman Rockwell

During my second semester in a post-grad program at Parsons School of Design in New York City, I enrolled in a Color Theory class. A prerequisite for any Graphic Design student, I was forewarned that it would be nothing less than torture.

My mentor sadistically could not wait to watch me pull all-nighters just to perfect an accurate color wheel (using only a packet of 400 rectangular paper swatches in various hues of the entire spectrum), or to paste together a complete grayscale poster (using only reclaimed newsprint to represent percentages of white and black between 0 and 100).

It’s worth noting that while I attended school in the heyday of Apple’s digitized design reign, the university itself would not permit any student to touch a computer until first mastering the foundational basics. I recall a lecture I attended at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Up at the podium, speaking of his life’s work, the great design icon Milton Glaser warned, “The computer is an instrument of the devil. You should be very suspicious of its intentions.” (Naturally, I promptly tweeted that quote from the audience). This was the educational paradigm upon which I embarked to learn the theory of color.

My professor had a particularly challenging, hands-on, semester-long assignment for us. On the very first day of class, before he even knew our names, he pronounced that we were each to choose a fine artist – any painter or illustrator (living or dead) who worked in a static, two-dimensional medium. He would not reveal to us why, nor what we were to do with our visionary masters. But, of the eighteen students in class, we each had to make a unique choice; we could not overlap nor share. He allowed us to take a few silent minutes, jot down a couple of artists, and then he haphazardly circled the room to emblazon our decisions into his notebook.

When the game finally rounded to my drafting table, our professor gestured toward me with the fateful words, “And you, my dear?”

“Edward Hopper,” I answered decisively, glancing at the top of my scribbled list. No one else had uttered his name, even though I was toward the end of the classroom go-round.

“Hopper! Oh, THIS is going to be fun! Are you sure?” he asked, with a subtle smirk.

The class twittered and chuckled. The professor had not editorialized nor questioned anyone else’s choice. Why was Hopper more significant than Rothko (adopted by the J. Crew looking dude next to me), or Matisse (selected by the punk rock chick across from me), or Picasso (chosen by the mid-life careering changing mom who worked in marketing at Sesame Street)?

“Um. Yes. I’m sure. Should I be frightened?” I replied hesitantly.

“We’ll see. In my ten years of teaching this class, no one else has ever chosen Hopper.”

That didn’t surprise me. Whether my high school European History paper on Slavophilism or my college Economics thesis on the American gun industry as a cartel, I unwittingly tended to choose subjects outside the norm… subjects that enthralled my educators, but which nonetheless sent me down an unforged rabbit hole.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks1942

Turns out, the point of this assignment was a tedious exercise in how to understand and manipulate color harmonies, to the nth degree. We were asked to choose one work by our artist, and redo it… in complementary colors. Where there was red, we would paint green. Where yellow, purple. And so on, ad infinitum, to the precise opposite shades and tints of each shadow, highlight, and brushstroke. As if repainting Hopper’s classic Nighthawks wouldn’t be challenging enough, to take his mastery of perspective and illumination, and reproduce it in direct reverse, was worthy of a doctorate degree.

Mid-semester, after an excruciating classroom critique of draft #7, my professor asked me, “I’m curious. What made you choose Hopper?”

I answered, “Because I’ve always felt like a character in his paintings.”

Having grown up around the grandest museums in New York City, I spent elementary school field trips ensconced in the greatest art from Egyptian coins to Warhol’s psychedelic Marilyn. On family vacations from DC to Boston to Chicago, I’d hop from Kandinsky to Rodin to van Gogh, in each city’s renowned art institute. Traveling through Europe during college, I looked up to the celestial blue of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, I looked down into the ruins of Pompeii, and I looked over tourists’ bobbing heads to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I saw beauty and style, harmony and discord in it all.

But, Hopper was different. Hopper understood me…. the solitude of self; the quiet resonance of an empty chair in an empty room; the stoic, fatalistic isolation of a transitory moment. I would have been his ideal subject… sitting alone in a Manhattan café as the sky turned to dusk, my pale skin looking paler under a red fedora, the streetlights illuminating my book askew on the table, as my eyes gazed down at a place setting just for one. Had our decades on this earth collided, I could have been Hopper’s muse for his acclaimed Automat.

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

It’s how he captures the disconnect between the self and the world; the suggested tensions of unoccupied rooms and uneasy encounters. What Hopper evokes is a cinematic vulnerable melancholy, a poetic and voyeuristic vision into a segment of life: a window, a room, a house on a hill. And from rural footpaths to urban centers, this is how I’ve moved through my life; a resignation to the self-contained pain of thinking, being… existing.

I was 11-years-old when my father died. And I was a teenager when my extended relatives decided they’d keep to themselves in Long Island for the holidays, while some of them retired down South. That left me and my mom, in our suburban New York house, wondering what to do over yuletide carols.

My mom’s good friend “L” lived a few blocks away in a beautiful, stately home, with a spiral staircase, a grand piano, a gourmet kitchen, and a receiving room for guests. Visiting her house was like walking into the Neiman Marcus catalog. She was the epitome of style and grace. There was richness without pretension; warmth without affectation. Golden partridges perched on a pear tree in her foyer. Miniature velvet-robed Santas graced every corner with a magical wink and smile. Whimsical elegance abounded in her checkered MacKenzie Childs china; it was like dining with the Royal Cheshire Family of Wonderland.

On any given year, our families merged together to deck the halls under their auspicious boughs of holly. As homage to our shared Italian heritage, their Christmas Eve tables were laden with platters of seven fishes, accompanied by mounds of pasta and white clam sauce in ceramic bowls hand-painted with adorable woodland creatures. The Christmas Day dining room overflowed with crown roast pork, sautéed broccoli rabe, mashed potatoes, steamed string beans, roasted fennel bulbs in Spanish olive oil, rice with peas and onions, honeyed carrots and fresh parsley, and other steaming gourmet concoctions, all in over-sized serving bowls with large sterling silver spoons to pass around in comfort and joy.

An adjacent room doubled as a fine Patisserie, presenting tiered trays of truffles and anisette cookies, chocolate mousse cakes, lemon meringue and coconut cream pies, plates of Italian biscotti from the best bakery in the Bronx, and pyramids of struffoli and Italian wedding cookies. The rooms were adorned with exquisite tablecloths and napkins, spun of silk in the richest red and gold threads; centerpieces of velvet garland and ripened fruit; the yellow glow of candlelight; the clinking of wine glasses; the rumpling of wrapping paper; a brown and white shih-tzu puppy romping under foot; nonstop conversation, movement and laughter; and classic holiday tunes spinning on the CD player, with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole completing the ambiance of a perfect holiday gathering.

One Christmas night, with open boxes strewn about, emptied wine bottles lining the counter, and powdered sugar marks on the tablecloth, “L” sat at the head of the table and sunk into an unusual silence. As her hands fidgeted with a stray red satin ribbon, she started reminiscing about her childhood growing up in the Bronx… tales of a strained family dynamic, friendships long gone, and a youth that was once without all this splendor, a life before she had this house and home.

“I’ve always loved Norman Rockwell paintings,” she mused. “Happy families gathered together, singing Christmas carols around a tree…. the husband lovingly holding his wife’s hand under the mistletoe…. Joyful kids with their rosy cheeks sledding in the snow.” As she despondently looked around her home, which visually replicated any number of Rockwell’s Christmas illustrations, she said, “I’ve done all of this. I’ve tried so hard. But, I still can’t make my life a Norman Rockwell painting. And that’s all I ever wanted.”

Norman Rockwell, Jolly Postman, 1949

Rockwell’s iconographic small-town life represented an idealized vision that I never personally identified with … enviable snapshots into the virtues of family, friendship, community, and society… the gosh-golly-gee moments with a cherry on top. His subjects were rarely alone, often playing, running, and frolicking. But whether at a soda shop or in a doctor’s office, they all shared one defining characteristic: his subjects were all coexisting in a sense of sublime togetherness. His paintings were inviting and familiar; nostalgic, in a good way. The perfect moments of an otherwise imperfect existence.

But there is a darker context to Rockwell’s narrative. And it’s the one Hopper so viscerally represented — the nostalgia of loss; the regret of disconnection. It’s what happens after Rockwell’s postman leaves the parcels, after the runaway kid finishes his ice cream sundae, after the husband goes to bed and leaves his wife alone in the kitchen.

I’ve often wondered, is it better to see the world through Hopper’s lens? Or through Rockwell’s? Ultimately, who is more disappointed by life? The one who palpably experiences unfulfilled isolation in every window and shop display, or the one who envisions and expects something so much more comforting than that?

My college roommate and I used to jump into posters. Jenny was a fantasist to my realist, a Disney aficionado to my Camus’ existentialist. And she took me on imaginative journeys with her. Like a magical Mary Poppins adventure, we pretended to beam ourselves into other realms through the pictures we hung on our drab concrete dorm room walls. We’d remove ourselves from the banality of the present moment, and adopt an alternate reality… as secret agents in the London underground… as supermodels at the base of the glimmering Eiffel Tower… as wealthy Russian heiresses in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

Our method of jumping into these worlds was simple – we need only throw one of our hundred Beanie Babies (it was the late 90’s…) at the chosen poster, and as soon as the miniature toy went “thwack” into the wall … voila! We’d be instantly transported for hours away from our Midwestern dorm drudgery. (Upon hearing of these expeditions, my Russian Literature professor expressed concern that her assignments on Gogol’s absurdist canon may have permanently ungrounded my cognitive awareness …).

But it was easier to roam the glamorous streets of Paris at night than to write a ten-page paper on the Philosophy of Religion or hit up the Dining Hall for fro-yo and Lucky Charms. And it was far more enlivening to dance with Degas’ ballerinas than to face my grandfather’s decline into dementia, my own faltering health, my grandmother’s recent passing, and all those who had gone before her.

But there was always that option to create a different vision than the world immediately around us. The problem was, invariably we’d be forced back into our reality of Pop-Tarts and deadlines, family phone calls and noisy neighbors. You can’t stay locked in a chalk drawing forever. And no matter how many times you say “Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious,” you cannot actually make a happy painting come to life, even one by the great Norman Rockwell.

A month ago, I drove two hours northwest of my current residence to meet a friend. After dinner, I drove myself two hours back, embarking on my return trip at 9pm. Already enervated from a long day in an unfamiliar location, I contemplated risking the 106 mile ride back without repleting my tank. But a prophetic image of my broken down car on the side of the road propelled me to make a pit stop.

Midway on my journey across dark and desolate rural highways, I pulled into a small country gas station. I was the only customer on site, and judging from the lack of headlights and taillights on the road, I was the only car for miles.

gas station
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940

I glanced up to a glowing sign of the unknown petrol company. It’s a symbol of geographical limbo when there is neither Exxon nor Shell as an option. I got out of the car, and without much cash in my wallet, I was relieved to discover the old-school pumps accepted modern credit cards. A friend who writes true crime fiction is often worried I consciously place myself in circumstances that inspire her characters’ perilous plot points. But, that was not the type of predatory disquiet I sensed, standing outside my car, alone and unnerved in the penetrating mid-November night’s atmosphere.

Without external incident, I screwed the gas cap back on tight, and with a full tank, I restarted my engine, and found a circuitous way back onto the highway to continue the residual sixty miles.

With neither lampposts nor stoplights to illuminate the way, I felt an isolating sense of loss that even Google Maps could not resolve. Mere hours prior, I had been talking to my friend in a Rockwellian restaurant … there were bustling tables of families sharing meals and mirth; comrades at the bar toasting cheers over bubbling pale ale brews; waiters with crisp white shirts and straight black pants scurrying to and fro; the entire scene surrounded by pre-Christmas twinkle lights from the window panes to the sidewalks. This formed a stark contrast to the bleakness of a remote gas station, the quietude of a solitary car ride, the dark abyss of an empty road as I drove back restless and alone.

It’s in such moments of withdrawal that internal dialogues emerge out of debilitating discomfort: the house you left that’s no longer your home; the city you once occupied that’s no longer your zip code; the spaces you moved through and quickly abandoned; the places you must get to but still can’t find the way; the ethereal stranger who once halted your tears on a park bench; the people who once mattered now long forgotten; the multitude of times you failed to say “I love you;” and the time you argued and slammed the door instead.

Hopper had a way of capturing these private reflections and intimate longings in his shadows and highlights; in a face turned downward, in a body positioned away; and most particularly in his colors… in his mustard yellows, burnt oranges and subterranean greens, his royal blues and earthy browns. The haunting memories that do not fade. The persistent search for connection in disconnection. The bruised anonymity of illusive comforts. It’s all there. Whether painted in its original or in a complementary palette.

(And yes, I did get an “A” in Color Theory).


“Time is the longest distance between two places.” – Tennessee Williams

“It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance. Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.” – Back to the Future, Part II

“Where do you belong, Alison?” asked my friend in Green Bank via Facebook messenger.

I had been keeping it together until he posed that question. I had been strong and stoic, driving through the mountains by myself searching for a more permanent residence. Semi-dazed but alert enough to hit the breaks in the presence of street-crossing wild turkeys and Lyme-infected deer. For the most part, I’d been somewhat peacefully moving through solitude and transience.

My current dwelling is an upstate New York hippie town. I’m on the side of the Hudson River I never thought I’d cross. I’m two hours north of the city where I erstwhile imagined I’d spend my life… the city where I projected to eventually age into the gray-haired, wrinkled version of myself, strolling down Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, pushing my grocery cart, with a Irish-accented doorman who’d greet me “good evening, ma’am” as I briefly returned home in advance of an evening at the Philharmonic.

Essentially, I’m two hours above and west from where I always felt I belonged.

So, I spend a few hours each day, alone in a café, reading a book, or writing notes in a red moleskin journal that outwardly projects me as some form of pseudo-hipster intellectual creative type. My thoughts invariably are interrupted by curiously conversant strangers who may (or may not) still be high on mushrooms from 1969. The waitresses have started to learn my name, where I like to sit (away from the lights and the Wi-Fi router), when to urgently bring me caffeine, and on occasion they generously refuse my payment for the latte.

When I’m home, bored with my Facebook feed, or too distracted to research the physiological implications of 5G millimeter waves on human skin, or too tired to work out the biochemical relevance of voltage gated calcium channels, I comb through online real estate ads instead. I schizophrenically wade through Airbnb’s temporary monthly escapes from my altered reality, or Zillow’s unrealistic one-year commitments away from my current existence.

My search terms vary widely from “Hudson Valley” to “Shenandoah Valley” to “Boulder, Colorado,” to the extent that I’ve wondered if John Denver has a song for everywhere I’m meant to roam. But at least he knew those country roads could take him home to the place where he belonged.

The vacation rental website taglines elicit in me varying degrees of hope and hopelessness. “Get HomeAway From It All” inspires a glimmer of optimism. Airbnb’s “Where Do You Want To Go?” triggers existential anxiety.

Do I take it as a sign that I’m in the middle of the Catskills, and yet I drive by at least three cars per day with Virginia license plates? Or that six people from the greater Boulder/Denver area have recently entered my life. With one mountain time zone friend exclaiming, “You’re such a Boulder girl!” and somehow, I suspect he’s right, despite my anemic lack of fortitude at high elevation.

My days have a mysterious aura about them, an inexplicable blend of The Twilight Zone and a Hallmark holiday movie…. The Hollywood executives from LA who asked me to be an extra in their black-and-white ghost story film, because the director “loves my look.” (Does one wish to have a look that befits a rural horror movie?). The ethereally cool woman I met at the tea shop who is magically interconnected to everyone I know and have ever known. The type of character who winds up being your Christmas angel… The farmhouse rental I went to view with my realtor, thirty minutes out in the countryside, on an isolated windswept canvas. The rooms were wallpapered with pale yellow-and-orange flowers. An ancient radio was broadcasting a station emitting scratchy old French tunes. An old rotary phone sat mounted on the wall, still with a dial tone. I checked. My realtor had no idea who turned any of this on. It was the type of house only Hitchcock could have conjured. Maybe I should have sent the Hollywood folks in that direction.

As a child, I was sick a lot. This carried its own frustrating form of stagnation, a stark contrast to my current existence of energetically-imposed hyper-mobility. A string of bacterial infections and viruses kept me home from school, lying flat on my couch, feverish and hugging my pound puppies who thankfully never caught my wicked germs. Fifth grade saw me with both pneumonia and mono. I missed so many subsequent months of elementary school, such that my teacher Mr. Stein tutored me at home, so I could still graduate with my class.

A sick kid in the late-1980’s pretty much had two options: watch cartoons or watch movies on VHS tapes. I was home so frequently, I nearly wore out our VCR. My “sick movies” of choice were Back to the Future: Part One and Part Two. I thought the creators went off the rails a bit with their Wild West journey in Part Three, so I rarely flipped that tape in.

What I found fascinating about Part Two was the “Alternate 1985” concept. Future Biff takes a ride back to the past, and in doing so, creates a hellish version of the present. When Marty and Doc find themselves in a transformed 1985 Hill Valley, Doc realizes, something broke in the space-time continuum. Somewhere in the past, a tangent was made, and it skewed everything off course. Doc and Marty wind up in a temporal present, but it’s a dystopian version of the reality they once knew. And they spend the rest of the movie trying to fix this disastrous rip in the laws of quantum physics. Conveniently for them, they have a time machine to accomplish this goal. I, however, do not.

A continuum is defined as “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct.” Yep. That sounds about right. As an exercise, let’s consider the following: We take the downtown Manhattan luxury doorman apartment where I last stood wearing my $700 suede over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots, black leather skirt and silk tank top that elicited a “honey, you look hot” from even the gay salesmen at Bergdorf’s…  and you juxtapose that scene with the faded jeans and hoodies I now wear daily, my hair in a pony tail, my glasses on because why bother with my contacts, as I sit in an upstate cottage overlooking a stone tower that my neighbors built just for their goats (yes, there is a goat tower), and sure… those extremes sound quite distinct.

But, when you move in slow and steady sequence, minute by minute, from those posh Tribeca cafes where I always felt “less than” for not being a fashion model, to the Midtown Manhattan lawyer’s office where I sat stunned breaking my lease because of my health collapse and a wireless smart meter system, to the series of families who granted me shelter in their affluent suburban homes, to my travels through serene Virginia valleys and raw West Virginia forests, to seeking peace, love, and drum circles in this tiny upstate town … then surprisingly this drastic change seems almost imperceptible.

And yet, my friend asks me, “Where do you belong, Alison?” and I burst into tears before 9am. I told him his question made me cry. He answered, “Good.” I guess he knows I need to cry, even though I was unaware that any tears remained.

I’ve considered the following quagmire: Even if I could go back in time and “fix” a moment which skewed me down an alternate course, where exactly would I go? Would I accept NYU instead of Notre Dame for my college years? Would I take the PR job in Chicago instead of the publishing job in New York? Would I date the compassionate med student who lived in my city instead of unrequitedly idolizing the emotionally-unavailable law student who lived in the Windy City? Would I buy a different couch instead of the one that electrified my apartment?

Or would I look to the iconic symbol from the greatest Michael J. Fox movie ever, and return myself to the very last time I stood in a town square next to my misplaced friend in front of a courthouse clock tower…

If I could get back to any of these snippets in time, would a different choice or would different words move me to someplace better? Or would it all just move me to someplace different? By making any minor change in the past, my present reality would be altered, but I’d be none the wiser for it, simply following the continuum sequentially laid out in front of me, from each moment in time to the next.

So, if I were to accurately address my friend’s question, my answer would be, “I belong here. Wherever here is now.”

But just in case, I should probably never speed up to 88 miles per hour.



In memoriam

“What grief does is it puts us squarely in the middle of a fire, and it burns away everything that is not essential to our lives.” – Alana Sheeran

To my friends from back then… We should never have so accurately known where to find the bathrooms in the funeral parlor.

 None of this is ok. But it happened like this.

“Alison, daddy died today,” spoke my mom. She had positioned me on a wicker-backed bar stool in the center of my kitchen, my aunts and uncles and cousins at the round wooden table, wide-eyed staring at their beloved 11-year-old, waiting for the tears, the screaming, the wailing, the shaking. But I never granted them that. Not even close.

I heard myself say, “I have a science test tomorrow. I have to study.” It was very important to study for that science test. It was all that could matter at that moment. So, I hopped off the bar stool, grabbed my backpack, and went into the family room.

I remember a blue couch (or was it a blue carpet?). The objects are hazy but the colors are vibrant. My significantly older half-sister, who never came to visit, followed me into the room. She sat next to me. She asked me questions (“Are you sad? Do you know it’s ok to cry?”). She wanted to talk, wanted to explain that death meant daddy was in heaven (… I bet she didn’t believe that herself). I handed her my textbook instead.

We flipped through the illustrated pages, she quizzed me on the nature of frogs and butterflies. I heard voices in the kitchen. I wouldn’t go back into the kitchen. Everyone wanted to hug me. I didn’t want them to touch me. I wanted it to be a normal day. I wanted everyone to stop crying. I wanted an A on my science test. I got an A on that science test. And on every test that followed. I studied. While my mom organized a funeral.

That should be sufficient… to damage a psyche, to start a spiral of abandonment and vulnerability… to enable sickness, weakness, immune dysfunction… to thwart intimacy… to confuse attachment and detachment… to breathe shallowly through existence, anticipating absence from presence. But, that wasn’t all.

I arrived at college seven years later, at a rah-rah football university, in the middle of the Indiana corn fields. I encountered happy, carefree freshmen all around me. I never knew teenagers could live without a shadow of a specter. My roommate in particular was a walking ray of sunshine and rainbows. She idolized all things Disney, loved the twirling Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance films, and she gave cartoon voices to beanie babies. She bounced around campus with an enviable lightness and a joy that confounded me. She called me “al EEE son” – an extreme perky emphasis on my name’s middle syllable that implied a glittery exclamation mark at the end. She was ecstatic and cheerful. I was somber and fearful.

We couldn’t agree on a shared music vibe for our room. Her tunes were all in major chords. Mine played in minor. She studied biology and chemistry toward a pre-med major. I studied 19th century Russian and Victorian literature and persistently hounded her pseudo-doctor brain, begging if my unrelenting cough meant I had consumption. Thereafter, she hid her Microbiology textbook under a plaid fleece blanket, lest I discover another tragically historic disease.

She wore turquoise blue and hot pink sweatshirts with Minnie Mouse hearts. I wore head-to-toe black and gray. As a native Midwesterner, she wanted to know, “Is this wardrobe choice the New Yorker in you?” No, it wasn’t. I explained, “I went to 18 funerals before I turned 18. It became easier to wear black all the time… just in case someone else died.”

Someone else always died.

I can’t hear Stairway to Heaven without being transported back to high school stage band rehearsals. I’m at the keyboard and we’re practicing for a concert in honor of “A”. She was a shining star in my high school, her younger sister “J” had been my classmate since kindergarten. Four years ahead of us, “A” bounded off to college with promises of greatness. She was a brilliant pianist, and I was honored to take over her musical footsteps in our high school.

You know when a bus driver tells you stand back from the white line near the door? Always listen to that driver. Always stand back from that line. Now I do. Because “A” didn’t. She was on her campus bus, it was too crowded, and she was over the line. The bus turned, swerved, she fell out the door, got caught underneath, and that was how her life ended, so horrendous the casket had to remain closed.

At the funeral parlor, there was a winding trail of mourners – out the door, around the block, and down the main street. I waited almost two hours to hug her sister “J”, my friend, the entire time I could hear her cries getting louder, as I moved from the street, to the foyer, to the hallway, to the room. The sick smell of lilies and carnations (please, courtly gentlemen reading this, never bring me lilies and carnations…). We were thirteen years old. We should have been painting our nails with glitter and sharing the latest Sweet Valley High book. But instead, I just hugged her, and from that hug of empathy, she sobbed harder.

Not a tissue left in town, but I remained dry-eyed through it all. I experienced panic instead of sadness. I stood separate from it all; disconnected from tears. But, so blindingly, shockingly aware that everything could really end that quickly, that unceremoniously, that permanently. That someone could vanish from my orbit instantaneously, without finishing that book on the nightstand, or taking out the trash, or folding the laundry, or fixing the bed… and without saying goodbye.  

I knew “M” from kindergarten. His mother once brought cupcakes baked into ice-cream cones for his birthday. Those were the most fun cupcakes. He made shadow puppets with his hands during 4th grade films. He made me laugh. He was a nice boy. He became a nice teenager, with a bit of a swagger. He got sick during high school. The doctors said cancer… I was told he could survive. He didn’t survive. His best friends dedicated our senior talent show to him. They took the stage and pointed up to the heavens of the auditorium as tribute. They mourned him. They honored him. They spoke words in remembrance of him.

“B” was my close friend’s mother. She was warm and inviting, smart and cultured. Her home was bright and sunny. It was the first time I’d heard of a woman getting breast cancer. I remember lots of blankets in their living room. She must have been cold a lot. I remember my friend being stoic and brave; scared and emotional. There was a funeral. Everyone came. My body was freezing in the pew. But, I had no tears to offer. Maybe those were frozen too. My tremendously talented friend, in her expressive grief, sang R.E.M.’s I Will Try Not to Breathe during a talent show, with a repetitive verse “I want you to remember.” I do remember. It was haunting then. It’s still haunting now.

“E” was another close friend’s mother. She was beautiful and elegant, wise and graceful. I always felt welcomed in her home. It was the second time I’d heard of a woman getting breast cancer. I sat in gym class when they said “E” would survive. I was dubious but hopeful. A few weeks later, I sat in Latin class, translating sentences like “the horses and the chariots ran around the Circus Maximus to victory.” Somewhere in the middle of conjugating “vocat” and “vocamus,” my friend “T” burst into class, her face flushed, hands shaking, begging the teacher, “Can Alison come out of class?” I was taken out of class. I didn’t want to leave class. It was very important to get 100 on the Latin Regents Exam. But “E” had died. Even though they said she’d survive. I was 16 years old. I never believed what “they” said anymore.

I’m stopping here. But there were others… friends and classmates who passed away at their own hands, from bottles of pills or a rope tied into a noose, or those who left this world through freak accidents, like the one involving a booze cruise, man overboard, a boat’s rudders and some sharks. There were school-wide counseling sessions; after-school special movies, auditorium convocations with students staring blankly, and teachers at a loss for helpful words. There were tables filled with baked goods, pasta salads, and deli platters in beautiful suburban homes. There were nights spent sitting vigil with friends, families, and out-of-town strangers. There were evenings dressed in black, trying to get comfortable in hard-backed wooden chairs in the paisley wallpapered rooms of the funeral parlor.

There were more parents too, those with “just a lump” that turned terminal, those who walked out their front doors one morning never to return home again that night – some weird accident or lone gun shot. And there some grandparents. I was always relieved when it was a grandparent who died. Except when it was my own. I was locked emotionless in March of my high school senior year when my grandmother who lived with me passed away from cancer. I didn’t cry. I selfishly implored my mother to stop crying. And then I took a Russian History test in school the next day. It was very important I get a top mark on the European History AP exam. Which I did later that semester.

Less than a month after my grandmother’s death, with rejection letters from Harvard and Princeton and Amherst and Williams in my hands, I couldn’t stop crying and screaming for weeks. The loss hurt too much. It would have been easier to hide in those Ivy-covered hallowed halls. So one afternoon, I walked out my front door, and I sat down in the middle of the street, in the rain. My mother came out of the house beckoning me, “What are you doing? Get out of the street.” I said, “I don’t care if a car hits me.” My mother had to physically drag me back inside.

All my misdirected tears… all that misdirected hysteria. I didn’t properly direct any of that until many years later, after college, sitting in a Manhattan therapist’s office, when my body had already collapsed neurologically, and my spirit along with it too. I cried in her office for my father and my grandmother. I cried in her office for my friends and classmates, for their parents and grandparents. I cried for the loss of what was really lost. And for the memory of those I missed.

In my junior year Honor’s English class, our teacher assigned a creative writing assignment. The theme was simply “Innocence,” and how we approached that topic was open to our interpretation. There were approximately twenty students in that class with me. Twenty brilliant, talented, literary minds who shared in every step of this grief-stricken adolescence. We all took pen to paper, focused on our GPA’s, but also connected to our poetic souls. One week later, assignments turned in and graded, our English teacher stood at the head of the class with a tearful glimmer in his eyes. He held our stack of papers in his hand, carefully marked with grammar and style notations. But, before turning them back to us, he paused in a moment of reflection. He remarked that in all the years of his teaching this class and giving this assignment, he’d never once had every single student write on the “loss” of innocence, versus “innocence” itself.  Until our class, that is.

He remarked that everything we wrote and expressed was seen and felt in his heart. He was concerned about us, I could tell. He asked us to pair off, two-by-two, with someone we trusted, find a corner of the classroom, or a corner of the school building, someplace comfortable and safe, and read our papers out-loud to our chosen partner. It was meant to be cathartic. I paired off with my friend, “B’s” daughter. She wrote of hating casseroles and brownies, the sickening scents and incarnations of all those lives passing and gone, everything that we’d collectively moved through, everything she’d experienced from her own vantage point as well. I wrote about longing for a childhood of dancing under purple skies and lying down in fields of bright blue colored grass – a childhood where one would be free to imagine anything that’s magical and wonderful is possible. A childhood I never had.

None of this is ok.

But I can’t spend my life crucifying myself for some twisted form of survivor’s syndrome that keeps me locked in physical illness, questioning if I’m “allowed” to heal… if I “deserve” to be well. Or if I’m just “supposed” to be sick and leave, like those who went before me.

None of this is ok.

But it’s why I get my college alumni magazine and immediately turn to the “Deaths” page instead of the marriage announcements. It’s why I stopped eating lasagna twenty years ago – that omnipresent dish on everyone’s table after wakes.  Even the word “lasagna” itself is nauseating.

None of this is ok.

But it’s why my extremities turn ice-cold when I pass the skeleton of the World Trade Center… I hear echoes of my high school classmate who died there on the top floors with the rest of Cantor Fitzgerald.  We used to play on the swing set together. Now her name reverberates on the morning news broadcast every September 11th.

None of this is ok.

But it’s why I seem to live more in my inquisitive mind than in my physical body. And it’s why I’m not at all surprised that my mitochondria broke down, my cell structure crashed, and now all these years later, I’m electro-hypersensitive – from decades of toxic burdens, physically and emotionally, entwined in a spirit that never professed nor released grief.

None of this is ok. But it’s what happened. So I write this in memoriam, for those who are gone, and for those who remain. For the epic quest internal to us all, is the one between holding on and letting go. There are no more science tests and history tests for me to ace. There are no more report cards to shine with perfection. But, now I actually cry at funerals and wakes. And now I’ve looked up to vibrating purple skies at the top of a West Virginia mountain, and I’ve smiled in sacred valleys illuminated with blue colored grass. And through all of that, I will remember.



“Nothing you can see that isn’t shown. No where you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” – The Beatles

I woke up this morning to grey skies and pelting rain on this suburban New York Christmas Eve. The dreary weather seemed appropriate to my mood – unable to sleep for days while feeling restless, unable to grasp the concept of joy while feeling existentially lonely, unable to concentrate while feeling overwhelmed, unable to express truth while feeling overpowered.

I floated into a mid-afternoon coffee with my mom, at a quaint French café where they precognitively know my almond milk latte order. I sat at the bistro table, tears welling in my eyes, taciturn, immobile, incapable of forming words from such extreme emotion. I swore I’d stop crying in public. Why am I still crying in public? I return back home, make-up washed away, self-defeated. Not aggravated at the world, but disappointed with myself.

There’s a gathering of friends in the house where I’m living. I hear laughter. I hear voices. I hear cooking…pots and pans clanging in the kitchen. I hear kids running and shooting Nerf guns (they still sell Nerf guns?). I hear the din of many people talking at once, with the TV on NFL football. Those are good sounds. Positive sounds. I allow them in. I join in. I stop crying.

It’s Christmas Eve night, and I’m upstairs in my room. It’s quiet, save for some parental elves finishing up Santa’s work for their little ones fast asleep, drugged on cookies and milk. I turn on my computer. It’s necessary to write. It’s necessary to reflect. I take stock of my year… the three different places I’ve lived, the work I’ve done, the motion, the change, the disorientation and the orientation. But most of all – the people. Those I didn’t know one year ago today, those I’ve known since I was five. Those who have been present, those who have been absent, and those who entered and abruptly exited.

A couple years ago, while I was still able to browse books at The Strand, I picked up a modern dystopian novel recommended by the staff. It was a quick, semi-entertaining read. But, one line from the novel’s ending has remained with me since – drifting in and out of my conscious recognition – as I move through my days and hours. The protagonist proclaims, “Everything ends, and everything matters.” Yes, it all certainly does. So here’s the end of another year. And here are my words in epistles, brought forth from my heart, to all of you. Because all of it… every part of it… it matters.

To my mother: There’s never been another person in my realm who cares as much about me. I always had problems saying I love you. Scared if I uttered those words, it meant you would disappear. You never had problems saying those words. In my illness and in my breakdowns, when all is dark, I glimpse your light to get me through. In my elation and my successes, when all is well, I first share that ease and brightness with you. When I feel I have nothing left to give, you remind me that my existence is gift enough. There is no greater gift a mother can give than that… my life, and her love. And for that, I love you.

To my new family: Charlie in his erstwhile 9-year-old wisdom said it best, “The only things I do not find are the things I lose.” There are no words commensurate to express who you are to me. For what you’ve given me is not just a safe home and a new family, but you’ve granted me a way back to find myself, and an understanding of how to love. You’ve given me the clarity to believe that even when I lose what I thought I’d found, it doesn’t mean all is lost. Your home, your family, your shelter, your hope, your courage, your care, your laughter, your spirit – it’s more than my heart could ever have imagined someone sharing with me. When I question “Where is love in my life?”… I know it is present through you, every day.

To my friends: Whether we once made pencils dance on our desks, dreaded the sadistic chaos of March, accidentally scattered M&Ms all over Hesburgh Library during finals week, drunkenly wandered into oncoming traffic on Bleecker and (um… where were we?) to hail a cab at 2am, downed venti lattes while setting up live events for New York’s media elite, quoted Wes Anderson lines over design deadlines, swapped Paleo cookie recipes, shared battle scars from chronic illnesses, or called each other from everywhere and anywhere to support, listen, congratulate, and reassure… you are all what makes my life colorful when it’s so easy to live in gray.

To my EHS comrades: I’m continually moved by your spirit and your strength; by your empathy and your bravery. From England to California, from Mexico to Maine, I’ve received messages of hope, support, and care, as well as sorrow, pain, and grief – from those equally suffering with Electro-Hypersensitivity and those fighting for environmental health. Within all of those heartfelt and heartbreaking emails, letters, posts, and phone calls, what I sense is a universal intuition between us. An innate understanding. A connection within disconnection. And a will to keep going, no matter what. There is no greater energy than that.

To him: One day, we shall both grant each other forgiveness. Until then, I borrow these words from a poet to send to a prophet…

“I remember the way we parted.
The day and the way we met.
You hoped we were both broken-hearted.
And knew we should both forget.”
– Algernon Charles Swinburne

And to all a good night: It’s nearing midnight. Santa’s on his way (or so says Google’s Santa Tracker). Tomorrow, I will wake up early, to the sounds of my friends’ two kids dragging their parents out of bed, rushing them down to the Christmas tree. I had forgotten that tingly feeling… the anticipation of each ribbon-tied box, the wonder of each new toy, glitter stuck to my pajamas, the warmth of a post-present breakfast. I forgot that sensation existed until now. I forgot that way of looking. I forgot that way of being.

I tell myself a lot of stories. And I write a lot of them too. Stories about my life, my grief, my trauma, my loss, my pain, and my endings. Stories about my patterns and my cycles, my regrets and my shame. But, there’s space in between these stories. There’s light in the confusion of loss, there’s movement in the distortion of transience, and there’s beauty even in the midst of sadness. Tonight, I spied a 12-year-old crawling under the Christmas tree, flipping over gift tags to find his name, beaming when he did, far too excited about tomorrow’s unveiling to get a decent night’s sleep. Maybe that’s exactly what I needed to be shown, in order to see.




“There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic… Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.” – Audrey Niffenegger

Jack Kerouac didn’t have it this hard. He just got on the road.

For me, travel is not that simple. And I don’t mean your typical first-world problems, like: you get bumped from first class for coach; the waiter is rude at Gordon Ramsey’s new hot spot; Amtrak takes 4.5 hours instead of 4.25 hours; the posh urban boutique hotel doesn’t stream Netflix; you queue up over an hour for a cronut; the Uber driver is 15 minutes late, your Marriot Rewards points only secure two free nights in Turks and Caicos; you can’t get a Wi-Fi signal in the remote Tuscan villa. Especially that. Don’t complain to me about that. I would do anything for that.

Because this is what it’s like to travel when you’re Electro-Hypersensitive. These are the mountains I move, the walls I scale, the friends and the strangers I lean on, the concessions I make, and the existential questions I face, all to venture out beyond my hometown front yard.

To start, I beg everyone I know for a car ride to my destination. I can’t take a plane or a train or a bus. Each of those transport icons reduce down to this: a large metal box with electromagnetic fields bouncing off the interior walls. It’s like sitting in an electrified microwave tin can for 5 hours. Nor can I drive myself. I get heart palpitations and zapping pains when I take the wheel. I need to be the passenger. So, I offer money I barely have, to people I barely know – to housekeepers, college kids, high school students, husbands of friends, colleagues. “I’ll pay you $300 to drive me to Virginia,” I offer. I can’t afford more, but I doubt that matters. People turn me down, and it’s not about the money. “I’m sorry, I’m busy that weekend.” Or vaguely, “I’m sorry. I can’t, but I’ll ask around!” (I bet they never ask around). People have their lives, their friends, their families. They don’t want to spend 8 hours in a car driving up and down the East Coast, when they could be home binge-watching House of Cards all day. I don’t blame them. I would likely do the same.

So I feel heavy-hearted as I beg my mother to drive me. My mother who is exhausted at the age of 70, still working a full time job. My mother who has done everything and anything for me, since I was a newborn. I should be the one driving her to a spa getaway. But, I have no way to reach my destination, and no one else to help me. So I ask for her chauffeur services. She consents. And I feel terrible. I feel pathetic. I feel like I’m using her, even though I know I’m not. Even though there is no one else I’d rather take a road trip with, because it’s fun time alone with my mother, time I want to share with her before I move away. But, I also want her to sleep soundly. And I want her to be safe, not driving an antiquated car back to New York on the 95 corridor alone at night. And I want to get to where I need to go by myself. Because I used to hop flights to Chicago on a moment’s notice. I used to book an Acela to Boston to chill with my friends. I used to be an excellent driver (well, except for the parallel parking thing…). I used to be in control.

There’s an inspiring woman with EHS who moved to Green Bank, West Virginia last year, in order to save her own life. I met her mere months ago. Her equally inspiring husband still lives in New York. He tirelessly drives back and forth every few weekends to visit her. So, I may have a ride to Virginia. But, I don’t have a ride back. I call this woman’s husband, and I inquire if he’s perhaps going in my direction back to New York in mid-December. And if so, could I hitch a return ride from the Shenandoah Valley? I’m en route in his journey. I’m happy to pay for gas and tolls. Our schedules actually mesh. Is this a pre-Christmas miracle? Or just the overlapping coincidence of two women with the same functional impairment, and a compassionate man who graciously understands our shared predicament?

It’s a bitch to get from Point A to Point B, and then back to Point A again. But it’s an exercise in zen mastery to find a place to stay. I comb through Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, looking for a space that I can rent for a week. I need to disable Wi-Fi routers, power down circuits, unplug electronics, shut the lights, sometimes even shut the heat. I can’t stay in a hotel or a motel or an actual B&B. Every coveted hotel homepage boasts super-speed complimentary wireless internet. Every quaint country B&B now promotes “Free Wi-Fi” instead of “Free Breakfast.” Drive past a shady rundown motel. The dilapidated “No V ca cy” placard hangs by a hinge. But in bright pink neon letters, a new sign flashes to lure late-night bleary-eyed drivers: “Come in. We Have Wi-Fi.”

The first time I visited this friendly Virginia city, it took me weeks to vet my accommodations. After tremendous strategy and a leap of faith, I secured an Airbnb one-bedroom apartment in a large building downtown. Upon my arrival, I unplugged the Wi-Fi and found the lowest EMF spot in the flat to sleep. I gave up the king size bed for a hard Swedish futon, moved it to the far side of the room, several feet away from the wall’s electric sockets, with the patio door open to air out anything off-gassing from their recent renovation. And there I slept for 7 nights. That was how I survived.

The host did not know about my environmental sensitivities. I never look sick to the average eye. And I do my best to play along with the charade. Because I can resume the role. I remember what it’s like to flit about town dressed in my preppy-bohemian best, with an almond milk latte in one hand, and a moleskin notebook in the other (she takes notes… she must be important). But the host did not know I unplugged everything in her apartment for the duration of my stay, that I never used the AC, that I kept the lights off, and that I resided in a self-contained corner save for bathroom trips. Upon leaving her place, everything plugged back in, clean and tidy, she said I was a lovely respectful perfect guest (which I am), and she’d be happy to have me back anytime.

When returning to this city for another week in December, I asked to book her space. She immediately accepted. I knew I’d be sleeping on a hard sofa again, likely with the heat off, because I can’t tolerate an HVAC. But at least I could be safe and self-sufficient. At least I’d sleep and have stamina for my days.

So when this Airbnb host canceled on me, a mere 5 days before my arrival, I stared at her sincerely apologetic email on my screen in sheer panic. She broke up with her boyfriend, so she needed her apartment rental back. This I understand. This type of breakup is traumatizing… The end of a relationship. The splitting of stuff. The division of assets. The return to your singledom. Stepping foot back into your one-bedroom loft after sharing a house – a home – with a man you loved. I feel this pain, this loss. But, I also feel my own survival at risk. There’s no where else for me to stay. So, I offer things no respectable human would suggest to another human… to a virtual stranger nonetheless. Out of fear, out of desperation, out of concern for my safety, I ask if I could pay for her own hotel stay, while I reside in her apartment for the week. She kindly declines – she has a dog, and can’t take him with her. I ask if I could pay for her apartment rental, while she crashes with friends. Again she declines – the dog cannot get along with her friends’ two cats. A feline-canine war is at stake. Last ditch effort, I ask if I could pay to sleep on her couch, and for the inconvenience of turning her WiFi off at night. As I awaken out of panic, resolving to reclaim my self-respect, I shoot a second email 20 minutes later to take back my suggestion. “No worries,” I say, “I’ll figure something out.” Shelter is not something for which a person should ever beg.

I text a friend of a friend who lives in my destination. She’s a kind-hearted Christian woman I met once. I ask if she knows anyone who might want a house-sitter for the week. I try to hide the grandiosity of my illness, yet express that I have extenuating health conditions, making it difficult for me to stay “just anywhere.” And “I’m happy to explain further.” What must she think of me? Such a strange message from an acquaintance… does my illness not have a name? But if I voice what’s actually wrong, if I say the words “electro-hypersensitive,” she’ll think I’m crazy, and no one wants to help a crazy person.

She mentions a friend who is traveling away that same week. Would I dog sit in exchange for free accommodations? I could make that work. But I soon discover the homeowner will be home for the two weekends book-ending my trip. I cannot be a burden to a stranger in her own home. People have every right to their own comforts and technology. But it’s those pleasantries and toys that will hurt me if I can’t shut them all down. And I can’t possibly ask a stranger to sacrifice all of that, just for me.

So I return to Airbnb in a harried flurry. I see a downtown loft available in a converted warehouse. If I can disable the WiFi in the unit, maybe I can find a small corner to sleep, even if that corner is the bathroom. So, I book the week. It’s the only non-shared space left in the city. I drop the address into Google. I need to learn more about the residential building. I find the rental website. And I scan with dread the words “Free Wi-Fi.” Ever the journalist, I call the leasing office, pretending to be a prospective new tenant. I ask curiously about their amenities. I inquire about the Free Wi-Fi. I sound excited about it. I want to know more. “That’s awesome. What does that mean? Free Wi-Fi!” It means Comcast set up a building-wide WiMax for all tenants to share. The leasing agent tells me, “It’s not that strong, so if you want to stream movies, or work from home, then you call Comcast and get you own high-speed internet, phone and cable package in your apartment.” Is this what apartments are doing these days? Hooking up everyone to Wi-Fi with their lease signature?  In twenty years, our public policy textbooks will cite this as a violation of human rights.

I’ve barely moved my body for days, captive to problem-solving the unsolvable. I’m left with these two confounding options. And I reach despair. I don’t know what’s safe. I don’t know what’s sane. I call my mother for the twentieth time in 36 hours. It’s night. I’m crying. I’m exhausted. I’m defeated. I can’t do this anymore. She can’t fix this for me. Do I cancel the trip? Do I give up? This is too hard. This is inhumane.

She tells me to call my friend, the one who lives in my destination city. “Call him. Now. He’ll understand.” I’m silent. I say not a word. She’s dumbfounded, “Alison, why haven’t you called the one person who can help you? The one person who actually knows how to protect you?”


Because I wanted to figure this out on my own. Because I don’t want to burden him with all my problems. Because he can’t make this decision for me. Because I don’t want to appear weak and needy. Because I want to be strong and self-reliant. Because I don’t want him to know this brought me to tears. Because it’s not his job to save me. Because I’m supposed to protect myself. Because I don’t want him to see that I’m lost…

My mother is quiet. We hang up, silently. I sense her concern, her exasperation. I remain frozen, immobile for 10 minutes, half crying, half numb. Both overly-emotional and devoid of all emotion. My father was a management consultant. A brilliant man, he could step back from any situation and make an impartial assessment, a projection, a plan, and then implement it methodically toward success. Part of this talent was passed down to me, genetically. It’s the part of my brain that thrived in Lit Crit theory analysis… it’s the same part that breaks down ad campaign strategy and graphic design conundrums. But, it’s easy to write a term paper on the sententious culpability of King Lear, or expound on where Coca-Cola fell off-brand. How do you emotionally distance your identity from your own survival?

I make a mental pro-con list. I grasp for the objective facts. I feel my body shaking, and my vocal chords blocked. The movement of my hand to the phone takes 5 minutes. And then I call my friend. I use words like “help” and “need” and “advice” and “confused.” And I feel humble and vulnerable, shell-shocked and stumbling. Because sometimes you still can’t let go, but you trust anyway. You trust because you know you can, while you’re left wondering where you lost the narrative thread to a seemingly simple journey.

I leave tomorrow morning, for the 7 hour drive to Virginia. “Where” I decided to stay is not important to this conclusion.”Why” I am traveling does not matter either. What does matter is: I need to work. Which means, I need to write. But I can’t write, if I can’t think. And I can’t think, if I can’t sleep. And I can’t sleep, if I’m under attack. And I can’t move forward, if I can’t move at all. So I’m moving myself however I can. I surrender to the disorientation. I give myself over to being lost, because who knows what I may find.