Here

“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.

Or…

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.

(yet).

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.

 

 

 

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Hopper

“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.

nighthawks
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.

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.”

christmas1
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).

Continuum

“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.

 

12.24.16

“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.

 

 

Reservations

“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?”

Why?

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.

Shall We Dance?

“One rarely falls in love without being as much attracted to what is interestingly wrong with someone as what is objectively healthy.” – Alain de Botton 

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi

There’s a sadistic ritual for the affluent youth growing up in my hometown. It is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the 1930’s. Formally, it is called “The Barclay Classes,” nicknamed “Barclays” by those darlings lucky enough to take part. Young ladies and gentlemen of Pelham New York, yes indeed, you can waltz, fox trot, and cha cha your way into adolescence — on your parents’ sparkling dime — while you also learn how to nibble on a tea sandwich, cultivate the “ease of small talk,” and acquire the art of a proper handshake. Miss Manners would be so very proud.

Let’s see what the Barclays website has to say about all this:

“Confidence, poise and good manners learned early in life stay with us forever and will distinguish your child in any social, business or academic situation. We use ballroom dancing as our teaching vehicle. …Being confident and relaxed with dancing will prove to make all future social events for your child fun and enjoyable.”

My dear parents, never the ones to be swayed by high-society whims, nonetheless firmly believed Barclays would be an advantageous opportunity for their well-mannered, frightfully innocent, impossibly shy, anxiety-ridden daughter. And so, from 6th grade through 8th grade, I spent many a torturous afternoon held captive in the elitist Pelham Country Club, wearing puffy satin dresses, tight patent leather shoes, and delicate white gloves… being forced against my will to endure the absolute, without a doubt, worst possible thing in the world: To. Dance. With. A. Boy.

Ick. Disgusting. Gross. Touching. Thank god those pretentious pearl-wristed gloves were a solid barrier between my unadulterated hands and those little man polyester suit jackets. Like Catholic school nuns, the fine and dandy Barclays teachers asked we “leave room for the holy ghost” on the dance floor. If it were up to me, I would have gratefully left enough room for all 12 apostles. To add insult to injury, we had to maintain eye contact with our dance partners, as it would be impolite not to.  It was one thing to count beats to the box step. It was a whole other ordeal to adoringly gaze into the eyes of my male classmates – boys who cheated off me in Earth Science (he’s now a VP at Viacom), ignored my existence in the hall (he now manages a hedge fund), or slammed me with a dodge ball in gym class because I’d be “an easy out” (he’s actually still my friend).

But, dance we all did. Nervously. Awkwardly. Self-consciously. Our teachers made certain we knew every fashionable rule imposed on a societal ball worthy of a Jane Austin novel. That included “cutting in” – carefully tapping a frocked belle on her shoulder, to take over the dance with your chosen gentleman. Yep, that’s right. Teach a 12-year-old lass that it’s perfectly acceptable to steal another girl’s man, as long as you interrupt nicely. Try that trick later in life, and you’ll meet with catastrophic results. We were also taught to sit daintily and quietly, ankles crossed, hands folded in lap, impeccable posture, while the distinguished Ralph Lauren-clad boys furtively crossed the room to ask us ladies-in-waiting for a whirl around the floor. Another brilliant lesson: Yes, girls, sit there silently, looking pretty and demure, don’t worry, a boy will eventually come along to claim you.

Now some 25 years later, I’d advise my lovely mother to seek her money back from Sir Barclay. Because, while I am the epitome of poise, grace and delicacy in my daily interactions, professional dealings, and dining manners… my proverbial male “dance partners” in life have been nothing short of messy, confused beats off tempo, movements out of rhythm, melodically disconnected from my real self.

We all carry with us a story of our past relationships. Those romantic and non-romantic partners who shifted us, enlightened us, hurt us, and matured us. I have searched for years to find a celestial blueprint connecting all these partners, wishing to unearth some sort of pattern to these men, simply so I could understand how to break it. For a while I thought “No more Midwestern boys from states beginning with the letter M.” Yet after leaving my Midwestern college, and moving back to NYC, that rule ceased to be demographically relevant. Then I thought “Avoid all boys with monosyllabic Biblically-derived names.” But, first of all, that encompasses practically all Americanized names popularized in the 1970’s (i.e. Matt, Mark, Luke, John, etc). And secondly, throw in two guys with slightly more exotic names, and that rule went out the window.

I ultimately came to the realization: there was no externally divined pattern of names or origins. The pattern is, in fact, all mine.

So, I curtsy. And you bow. And now we dance. Names have been obscured to protect the innocent.

I never had a boyfriend in high school. But, I had a lot of boys who were my friends. These guys were all smart, talented, competitive, driven, dependable, preppy, funny, cute, well-read, and well-groomed. We sat at the same lunch table. We studied for APs en masse. We ruled student activities as a group of leaders. We shared fries and milk shakes at the Thruway Diner after hours. We sent each other postcards from summer vacations. And we carpooled to parties and town events. These were boys that any girl would be proud to take home to mom and dad. But I didn’t date any of them. And moreover, I didn’t want to. My guy friends were endearing, connective comrades of the male persuasion. Boys I enjoyed having close (but not too close…) to me; boys who never dared to breach the line of demarcation I subliminally drew on the dance floor.

But there was one high school boy whom I found captivating. “S” was a year older than me, and was the consummate skater boy. So dark, so mysterious. He wore head-to-toe black, including a ski cap, his chin-length dark hair tucked underneath, and he skipped classes to hit the pavement alone with his skateboard. He played electric guitar in a band with a witty name, and he smoked cigarettes outside the school. He was placed in my Pre-Calculus class my Junior year, seated in the desk directly behind me, alphabetically our last names being a few fated letters apart. The sheer anxiety of passing back handouts to him… Xanax would have been helpful. And the best part is – this boy had no idea who I was. I bet he didn’t know my name—just that I was the brainiac girl in math class who could solve for any value of x. But he was fascinating to me…. only from afar. He projected a sense of resplendent torment; he seemed to be a wounded soul. And for that, I was unwittingly drawn to him, curious, unnerved, wanting to get closer, but never capable of uttering hello. So, from afar he remained. And I quickly and distractedly returned to my books after he graduated.

“S” is significant only in that he’s the first incarnation of the men who have orbited my life…Men whose enigmatic countenance hinted an air of unresolved trauma. Men whose piercing eyes betrayed a haunted and hidden anguish. Men whose vocal tones evoked a longing for a life happier than which they’ve suffered. I am talking about profoundly damaged, metaphysically predestined, astrologically-explosive connections. Simplified to: You’re tragic. So am I. And now we can be tragic together. Oh, how devastatingly exquisite. How very 19th Century Romantic. But all those epic Victorian and Russian novels end with the unrequited heroine throwing herself in front of a train; or composing a tear-stained farewell letter to her beloved as he marries her sister; or lying heartbroken over unfulfilled kisses on her consumptive death bed. It was my therapist who, 16 years ago, (semi-jokingly) diagnosed me with “Tragic Heroine Syndrome” — likely not in the DSM, so she threw in “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” for my insurance company.

And there was always a distance between “me and him” — whoever the “him” may have been at the time. A disconnection within the connection. Forget about Biblical names and M-states, these men were all sublimely unavailable (emotionally, geographically, romantically; sometimes all three at once) and intriguingly unattainable (a maze of ever-shifting boundaries, entryways, and walls). There was closeness without intimacy. And intimacy without closeness. These relationships play-acted the ultimate dance: come closer, turn away. Step forward, step backward. Hold me tight, let me go. Spin me around. Back to the beginning. Now repeat. And within these un-choreographed sequences, I positioned myself the untouchable and unlovable belle of the ball… a Cinderella without her glass slipper; a Rapunzel without her long hair; a fairy tale where the prince and the princess are fated to destroy each other, rather than live happily ever after.

So, who were these men who kept my dance card spinning?

I met “E” in college. He was charming, intelligent, charismatic, independent, and sardonic. But also cunning, reckless, cold, and unstable. A Jude Law doppelganger. A Midwestern golden boy who found me uniquely intriguing. And I bowed to revere him for almost a decade. I was moved by his magic and subtle manipulations. I was drugged by his tender masks and cruel calculations. In his tango of laser-sharp attention and brutal disengagements, I felt concurrently majestic and insignificant; loved and unworthy; unique and ordinary. I confined myself to our passive-aggressive games, with E in Chicago; me in New York. Forget about the kind, nourishing men who tried to win my affections. My heart was held captive by a mythical idol 1,000 miles away who ultimately chose to love a man instead of me.

I met “L” while studying in London. An eccentric tree-hugger type with a coy and evasive personality. He never gave a direct answer to any question. In his presence, I was distant. In our distance, I tried to regain presence. In the rain at Piccadilly, he told me my green eyes were beautiful. I looked away. In Waterstone’s bookstore, he requested I travel with him to Berlin. I declined. In his flat, he tried to hold me close. I disentangled myself. His life went one way; mine another. We reconnected years later. L was in Atlanta. I was in New York. He called me a temptress. And he kept me tempted with only one email per week. Still a master at misdirection, his quirky emails gave me everything and nothing. Flirtation without substance. Attention without intention. That lured me to him more, until the day he married the woman he had been covertly hiding from me.

I met “V” at a party. A magnetic and seductive European playboy who could have been a Dolce & Gabbana model, had he not also possessed a strategic brain for business. His tales told of a jetsetter’s life. He drank to excess. He swept into VIP rooms. Forgetting my Barclays lessons, he taught me to waltz in a Tribeca bar at 2am. He emailed me from Arabian airports, and challenged me to a contest of virtual wit. But he was a fleeting fringe fantasy. A spellbinding distraction. The pinnacle of an escapist mentality I employed to thwart the very concept of love. He was the flawed hero to my tragic heroine, but in a dashingly expensive suit and a posh jet off to Dubai. And when I wouldn’t casually limbo into his bed, he swiftly faded like the mirage that he was…

I met “J” in Manhattan. In his trance, in his energy field, I was locked. For five years, I was the perfect Echo to his even more perfect Narcissus. He was broken, scarred, damaged and hurt – an enthralling paradox of boundless contradictions: soulful and empty; calming and maddening; rational and unbalanced; anxious and peaceful. A pendulum perpetually in motion. Needing me, then avoiding me. Omnipresent, then radio silent. Stable, then disorienting. And I allowed myself to swing with that. I could not disengage. He prayed to God. He prayed for me. And he prayed for himself. He wanted to be saved. I wanted to save him. He wanted me to save myself. We couldn’t save each other. So, he tiptoed away. Without a sound. And he sent his friend to return my key.

There’s a school of thought, psychologically speaking, that what we’re really seeking in love is not happiness, but rather familiarity. To quote one reference: “We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.”

If this is true, then my instinct is toward disaster. My attraction is toward abandonment. I question if I need a cyclical dynamic of fluctuating compassion and callousness to feel comfortable with love. And if this is my childhood past projected present, then I feel like a psychotherapy cliché – the result of an emotionally impassive, confusingly erratic, confidently powerful, yet passionately loyal father who challenged me (but supported me), rarely hugged me (yet cared about me), tried to control me, and then unceremoniously left me (without warning nor a farewell) on the day he suffered a heart attack. Is it really all that simple? How I came to equate love and companionship with cruelty and distance. And if so, does the origin of this pattern even matter?

If we identify our partners through semi- or sub-conscious attractions, then maybe our “object-choice” can indeed emerge as a self-destructive unhealthy pattern… a pattern we obsessively and repetitively engage in… not to intentionally create barriers to love, but to connect us to a defining love we remember, or lost, or want to make right, or dysfunctionally feel we deserve. Unfortunately, there is little sustenance nor sustainability in this pattern. Can I blame these men for being tricky and tragically unavailable, any more than I can blame myself for being mournfully available to them? No. I can’t, and I don’t. There is no “fault” here. There is only consciousness, forgiveness, and change.  I chose these men because I was hurt, wounded, traumatized, and the safest thing was to love someone equally in pain, someone too abstractly tormented to love me back.

Entwined in two decades of love-hate relationships, I am tired of this dance. I’m enervated, dizzy and nauseous from twirling. And I do not wish to be the lone ballerina in a solo show. So now, almost 30 years later, maybe I’m finally ready to take that class at Barclays.