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Category Archives: Relationships

Thank You, I’m Alive!


Today is the one-year anniversary of my brain hemorrhage. It was not my day to die last November 14. Like Old Lodge Skins, I ended up getting up and going home. Unlike Old Lodge Skins, however, I had not set out that day to die, and, in fact, one of the things I realized after my unexpected brain hemorrhage was that I did not consider it a good day to die.

It may seem obvious that we don’t usually consider any given day a good day to die. But, as I was trundled on the gurney out to the helicopter for the flight from Altamonte to Florida Hospital South, I thought about that line from Little Big Man. It is a line that indicates a life that could be let go, even immediately, with satisfaction in having lived well. As great as much of my life was and is, I didn’t feel that way about it. I’ve spent the last year contemplating how my life (external and internal) might change so that if I do drop dead the next time, I will be sorry to go but not regretful.

One of the things that I know I would want to do is to thank the people who have helped me so much in the past year. In spite of the fact that I escaped relatively unscathed, their support has been crucial as I’ve sorted out the meaning of this event in my life and struggled to get my full strength and vitality back.

First comes Bruce, who was with me the whole way. The pain of this hemorrhage was so bad that I did reach a certain readiness for death—not out of acceptance but out of desperation. At the moment when I thought, “I can’t stand this another second,” the fear in Bruce’s eyes let me know how much he loved me. I’m glad his fear didn’t last more than a few hours, but I’m also glad it let me know that I had good reasons to withstand the pain.

I also want to thank my beautiful family of origin. We have many flaws, but they all pitched in when needed and made a huge difference in the crisis. My mother was here from Virginia in less than 24 hours, and stayed the entire ten days I was in the hospital, helping a shell-shocked Bruce and laying in the meals that we would eat for weeks after, as well as sitting with me in neuro intensive care. My father and brother put their heads together when they heard that Bruce might cancel his trip to Africa (the culmination of a year’s worth of work), and they volunteered to come and stay with me for alternating weeks after I got out of the hospital so he could go and complete this major project. My dad’s wife, Jane, was considerate enough to send along with my dad a new pair of comfy pajamas for me to wear during my weeks on the sofa.

I want to thank my friend and colleague Terry, who stepped right in and took over my most onerous class and who arranged for others to fill in for my other classes. I appreciate all who helped with my abandoned teaching duties and grading for the end of term, but especially Terry, who made all the arrangements, ran materials back and forth, and added a boatload of work to her already heavy responsibilities. Terry and her husband, Don, came to the hospital and told the nurses they were relatives so they could check on me. I thank them for their genuine involvement and caring.

I thank all those who sent well wishes and little gifts in the days I was in the hospital, the students who sent me a box of chocolate, and all those who called to get the story. I thank my many friends and other relatives from all over the country and beyond who have checked in from time to time and asked after me.

Most especially I thank my dear friends Susan, Gigi, Holly, Ivonne, and Anna (and Terry), who have been in touch even more frequently than usual to talk over the shifting meanings of our lives. They say that in a crisis you find out who your friends really are, and you do. These are people who understand the reasonable and the unreasonable in both me and the universe. These are people who overcome the fear in themselves evoked by all serious illness in others and who don’t discredit you for it. As Adrienne Rich notes, “we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” but the generosity of these friends has been plenty for me. They have all been through “things” themselves, and they have been great companions on my journey back.

I am blessed by the presence of all these people in my life, my life that goes joyfully on. I may not think that even today is a good day to die, but I would die with much less regret today than a year ago.

All Along the Watchtower

I’ve been keeping this blog for about six months now—at least two posts a week for six weeks. On Thursday I hope to reflect more generally on this journey, but today I want to mention the heat that’s involved in any kind of public discourse, no matter how modest.

Why is it worth trying to tell the truth as I see it? It certainly doesn’t make me universally popular. Fortunately, I get more in the way of agreement and support privately from those who say they don’t want to venture more publically (though they often do just that in a necessary context). I’ve been having all kinds of discussions off the blog with people about my willingness to deal with the more public criticism and about my willingness to speak my mind.

And let me note that I’m not perfect, and my blog is a personal rather than a journalistic one. I don’t say unfounded things with no reason, but what I write about is always open to interpretation. I don’t claim to be an economic expert or a psychology expert or a music expert or an expert on the formation of new departments at my university. I have a moderate level of knowledge about any subject I approach, though I remain open and correctable. It’s my hope that there is some shred left of a desire for discussion where people say, “Here are my reasons,” in response to my saying, “Here are my reasons.” That’s what I believe we are called upon to do as supposedly thinking people, especially those pursuing an academic life. Instead, I often find myself in a position where I have outraged someone by speaking (or writing) at all.

I have been fulfilling this position for much of my life. I don’t know how or why it became so important for me to speak my mind and to report what it is I see before me. I do know that it was a role I played in my own family of origin, and I remember reading a book about family dynamics years ago in which I recognized that I was the one who always said the things no one else would say even though they were all thinking the same thing. I was the one who expressed much of the dismay or frustration that everyone else felt.

Even this weekend, I had an exchange with my mother (sorry, Mom!) about an email she’d sent about trying to plan for the holidays. There are certain extended family members who resist communication and who make it all very complicated for my mother and her husband. In their branch of the family, the holidays have long been a power struggle. I told my mother that this year Bruce and I are going to plan for ourselves and extend a few invitations, but that I am not going to undergo eight weeks of hostile negotiations. Period. Eventually, my mother said that she was so sorry she had sent the email and upset me. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was the one who was most upset by this situation, not me. I was expressing her distress. I was naming the problem with the extended family, even though my mother knew full-well what it was.

I don’t know why I am this way. Maybe it has to do with the sub-conscious training in my family to fulfill a certain need others had. Maybe I was just struck in elementary school by The Emperor’s New Clothes, a brilliant children’s book if ever there was one. Maybe it has to do with developing an early chronic illness that the doctors always accused me of lying about (“I know you ate candy.” “I know you didn’t have a low blood sugar.” “I know you skipped your injection.”). Maybe it had to do with my unusual proximity to death and a desire not to waste my time with bullsh*t.

My friend H reminded me this weekend that Virginia Woolf always considered herself an outsider and that she evoked devotion in some and hatred in others. I’m not a “great thinker,” but I do hold up for myself a few fellow truth-tellers that I admire and who have always inspired me: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Adrienne Rich, Claribel Alegría, Tillie Olsen, Susan Brownmiller. These are people who understand the dangers of silence, and I am in good company if I poke some people in the eye.

Today, I present to you Bob Dylan’s song as sung by Jimi Hendrix, and this lovely interpretation of its meaning, the importance of truth to artists, and the importance of outsiders to society. “Let us not talk falsely now, / The hour is getting late.”

Trying to Be Accurate

I’m coming to you from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writing Conference, and I’m posting something that I think is a little bit of a corrective. A little bit back, I posted about sweets and my grandmothers. Perhaps that post was a little bit–ahem–saccharine. One of the themes that has emerged so far this week has been about the accuracy of one’s writing as an antidote to sentimentality and melodrama. So in that spirit, I’m posting a somewhat different view of my Grandmother Roney here.

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My grandmother starts pulling the peanuts out of her pocket and munching them before we even order our food at one of the most expensive restaurants in Boston. My brother, just graduated from college, looks around the room as though to see whether any of his fancy classmates might also be here.

“Mother, what are you doing?” my father asks her. It comes out like a hiss, like air escaping a blown tire.

“Nothing,” she says, and folds her hands in her lap. She looks down at them there in her crotch, utterly still.

My father shakes his head and goes back to the menu. My mother pats my grandmother’s hand. For once, I side with my dad. Grandmother kept me up all night snoring in the hotel room. Next she will be explaining to the waiter all the foods that would make her break out in hives. She will even bat her eyelashes at him, as though she could make up for my grandfather’s leaving her with my six-year-old father all those years ago. She will be sneaking those peanuts from her polyester pant suit pocket all through the meal, as though we can’t see her.

***

Two years later, Grandmother and I stand in line to the India pavilion, panting under the excoriating sun of July. Five-foot-one to my nearly five-eight (I never called it five-seven-and-a-half), she’s struggled to keep up with me as I escort her around the World’s Fair. She’s been talking about other World’s Fairs she attended in years past. Seattle. Montreal. Whatever.

“It sure is hot,” my grandmother says to the couple standing in front of us.

“You can say that again,” the man says. He says it doesn’t get this humid in Dubuque.

“I could sure use another of those lemonades,” she says, still looking at the man.

The line isn’t moving, so I run to get another lemonade for her. When I get back, they might be done small-talking. But, no.

“You should meet my grandson,” she is saying. “He’s such a good-looking young fella, and he went to Harvard.”

The man has started to mop his forehead with a handkerchief and look away, but she goes on about my brother’s bright future—never mentioning that I have even more recently graduated from a fine school myself. I hold her lemonade.

***

At last, twenty-seven years later, I will forgive all the men—every last one of them—for being so perfect in her long-dead eyes, and get married. I will tell all my single women friends that I will love them as much as always. I will raise a toast to my grandmother, the woman I couldn’t see and who couldn’t see me.

Sugar Love and Sugar-Free Love

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Apple Stack Cake from http://www.thebittenword.com

When I was eleven, going on twelve, I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. In the hospital for a week, I cried a number of times over this diagnosis—usually when my family members had gone home and I was alone in the sterile room. I didn’t cry over what probably should have given me pause—that diabetes is a life-threatening illness with frequent gruesome complications like blindness, gangrene and subsequent amputation, heart disease, and kidney failure. All of that had not sunk in yet.

I cried for two reasons—I was going to have to take shots every day, and the doctors and nurses had told me that I’d never be able to eat sweets again. That this last was not really true never occurred to me. The medical staff said it, so I believed it.

If you’re not part of the Southern culture, it may be hard to understand how embedded sweets are in expressions of love in that culture, particularly familial love. Both of my grandmothers, and later my step-grandmother, as well, were famous cooks. Sweets were an ineluctable part of every holiday celebration. Giving up sweets in this culture was as hard as an alcoholic giving up booze.

Ironically, I had only just reached an age where two of the main products of my grandmothers’ cooking appealed to me. As a younger child, I’d been averse to the tickly, chewy texture of coconut and so I had not loved the high white coconut cake with divinity icing made by my Grandmother Meek every year or the more unusual jam spice cake with nut-, raisin-, and coconut-studded yellow frosting (known as amalgamation cake) that Grandmother Roney made.

These two cakes were as finicky as I was, and every year there was breath-holding over whether or not they would turn out “just right.” The divinity icing had to be made under just the right climactic conditions, and my grandmother beat it by hand with a wire whip on an oval, white platter for what seemed like hours on end. She would not use an electric mixer because it wouldn’t give her just the right feel for the texture. The cake layers themselves would grow dry if not moistened with just the right amount of coconut juice. The amalgamation cake was every bit as complicated. The thick, jam-imbued layers would fall if any sudden vibration hit the oven at the wrong time, and the icing had to be boiled to just the right consistency. No one but my Grandmother Roney knew all of the secret ingredients. Only years and many failed attempts on my father’s part later, did she confess to him that he should include some oil of cinnamon and oil of clove in the batter.

I myself preferred what seemed like the simpler offerings: dried apple stack cake and prune cake with caramel icing. (Later retitled “caramel plum cake,” the latter became much more popular.) These were also family recipes, but my mother had taken on the baking of them. The prune cake batter made a simple Bundt-style cake, and usually the hand-made caramel icing was the only difficulty. I would watch my mother melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet, add the corn syrup and buttermilk, and stir the foam constantly until it browned. It was hard to get the texture just right, so that it would pour, but not pour right off the sides of the cake. I will still swear that that homemade caramel icing is one of the best things in the world, hands down.

Dried apple stack cake was an East Tennessee tradition, from my Grandmother Meek’s background. But she and my grandfather had established their adult lives in West Tennessee, where dried apples of the right variety were hard to get. So my mother would go to the downtown Knoxville farmer’s market in the fall to get the right kind of apples. These had to be dried outside—by the sun—not in some dehydrator. This was the only thing that would give them the deep maroon color and deep flavor best for the cake. Usually they were sold by little, old country ladies as wizened as the apples themselves, ladies who said, “You’uns’ll like them apples,” and who would count out change with their gnarled brown fingers. On our way home from the farmer’s market, my mother always had that air of deep satisfaction, as though she had everything she needed. My mother had also perfected the recipe by making the tea cake layers thinner and thinner, until instead of five or six layers her cake had twelve. It had become a torte. It would melt in your mouth.

Because the stack cake was already made from a naturally sweet fruit that I was “allowed” to have in modest quantities, and because the tea cakes weren’t very sweet to begin with, it was the easiest one to be adapted for my new diabetic needs. My mother took to cutting back the sugar in the tea cakes even further and stirring artificial sweetener instead of sugar into the apples as they simmered in the big pot on the stove. The result was almost as good as the real thing, and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream made it a real treat.

And this is what can bring tears to my eyes now—thinking about how all of these women, inculcated and habituated as they were in sugar-as-love, took to adapting things for me and making me special treats for the holidays that I was “allowed” to have.

My Grandmother Roney, a complete sugar addict herself, felt most sorry for me. On top of my mother altering the stack cake recipe, Grandmother Roney adapted cookie recipes and made me Chex mix every year (back before it was available in bags at the grocery store). She took to making spiced pecans, too. My Grandmother Meek took to brewing a pitcher of her famous iced tea “unsweet.” Even my step-grandmother, Billie, took to making me sugar-free boiled custard every holiday we visited . It was made with gelatin and rather lumpy, but its artificially sweet creamy flavor made me feel included when everyone was sipping cups of the real thing.

This, too, was also a Southern characteristic: determination to adapt to circumstances. My grandmothers had it in spades, and my mother and step-grandmother still do. And they gave some of that to me, too, along with all their sugar love and their all-important sugar-free love.

The photo of the apple stack cake is compliments of www.TheBittenWord.com, a food blog that’s also listed in my links. And I’ve also linked to some authentic recipes that approximate the ones I’m talking about. But I’m not giving out the secret family ones! That would be heresy.

Landmark Forum

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Not long after I arrived in Central Florida, a young woman I’d met in YMCA indoor cycling classes attempted to recruit me into Landmark Forum. Not everyone who partakes of positive psychology would give much credence to Landmark Forum, but to me it became a symbol of what positive psychology could do when taken to extremes.

Kathy and her husband, Angel, were very friendly. They always chatted me up before class, and they acted familiar with a lot of other people in the room. They seemed genuinely interested—always asking me about myself and sharing cheerful tid-bits from their marriage. They talked about a wide range of friends, and they seemed always to have a busy social schedule. I thought they were great, and I thought that maybe making friends in Orlando was going to be easier than I’d thought.

I was new in the area, had no family or friends nearby to speak of, was a single woman past the age of forty, had a rather serious chronic illness, had poured most of my energy into my career, and was discovering that in spite of moving several hundred miles for my new job it wasn’t going to be an ideal employment situation. I suppose that I looked like easy pickings to Kathy. I would disappoint her terribly.

One day in spin class, Kathy asked if I’d like to go to a movie one evening with her and Angel and a friend of theirs. “A guy friend,” Kathy said, wiggling her eyebrows. “What kind of man do you like?” she asked.

Ever skeptical of the fix-up, especially by someone who only knew the outline of my life, I tried to wriggle out of it. But she mentioned it again a few days later, and again after that. “He’s a really great guy,” she told me. “Very smart and together.”

So I went. From the first moment that I met them at the theater, the mis-match became apparent. I’d worn some very comfortable semi-hippie skirt with lots of bangles; he was wearing a starched shirt with cufflinks and the most preppie pair of loafers I’d ever seen. I had never had a friend, much less a lover, who wore cufflinks on a casual movie outing. It should have been a sign to me that Kathy was trying too hard, but I laughed it off as a mere mistake.

Some days later, Kathy invited me to come to a “meeting.” She said she belonged to an organization that had really helped her achieve her life goals and that she wanted to share this opportunity with me. My first creepy feeling arose, but I had never heard of anything like Landmark Forum, and she wouldn’t tell me at first the name of her organization. She said that it was an “educational” organization that sponsored workshops to help people quit sabotaging themselves.

Over the weeks, Kathy told me more of her own personal story—how she had been in a dead-end relationship, living with her boyfriend but never committing to marriage, and how through this group she had managed to give up the old guy and marry Angel. “Angel was in the group?” I asked. Yes, she told me. She had met him there, and they had married within a few weeks of meeting. She had broken out of a “no good” relationship of seven years’ length in order to do so. She looked at me. Her stare implied that I could do this, too, and mentioned that the movie fellow was an avid seminar leader. “Marriage was part of my goal,” she said with a shrug. She and Angel had also been encouraged to quit their “dead-end” jobs and start their own business, though it was unclear exactly what that business would be. Later, Kathy would ask me to recommend students go to her “journaling” class, and she had a website as a “personal consultant.”

I began to watch Kathy and Angel more closely. Though they came to spin classes together, they didn’t usually sit on adjoining bikes—instead, Kathy always sat next to me, and Angel seemed to be working on a fellow across the room. Sometimes, he would sit on a bike on the other side of me, and he would chime in on how right Kathy was. I had to admit that Angel seemed less into the proselytizing, and, though Kathy would always tease him it sometimes had an edge. I could see that she already didn’t think he was as good as she was at whatever it was they were doing.

The invitations continued, and I continued to decline. Kathy spread her invitations more widely to others in the class, and finally one day she handed out small slips of paper that included directions to the next introductory meeting—proudly labeled as “Free!”—that also included in small print the name of the organization.

I went home straight away and looked it up on the internet. What I found shocked me: personal accounts of brainwashing and verbal abuse at meetings of more than a hundred people at a time, and even stories of lives destroyed. Participants were required to recruit, and many spent long hours doing so; if they weren’t successful, they were reprimanded, but if they brought new members into the fold they were rewarded financially with discounts on further seminars. The seminars were often held in isolated office parks and lasted long hours with little chance to eat, drink, or use the restroom. “Homework” kept participants up late and deprived them of sleep. One woman recounted how her brother had cut off all contact with family and former friends, quit his job, and become destitute because he had invested so heavily in the expensive series of seminars that teach that you are the master of your own fate.

Some of these accounts have been taken down, perhaps because Landmark Forum has a habit of suing anyone who maligns them, especially those who refer to them as a cult, and I’ve been surprised by the only tentatively critical nature of most journalistic accounts now on the internet, though there are still many anonymous negative postings on blogs and the like. LF has also built an enormous web presence, so that its own sites fill the first pages of any search.

Even the Landmark Forum’s own website, however, would have been by itself enough to give me pause. Any organization that claims that “what we think of as reality, which includes an objective world that exists independent of us” is a “myth” is going to send me running. Especially when it notes that part of the seminar’s purpose is to upend those “myths” and teach us “that we no longer need to be confined to living within this limited range.” That’s post-structuralism without any sense of the regulative discourses in which we all function and that are probably as inescapable as any old-fashioned reality. In other words, it’s delusional.

It was after I read these things that Kathy got very aggressive with me. The next time she asked me to go to a meeting, I told her that I’d looked up the organization and that it didn’t sound right for me. I told her I respected the fact that it might help her, but that I knew myself well, and public humiliation would not bring around a breakthrough for me. When she pushed further, I asked her what the qualifications of those conducting these seminars were and whether they had psychology Ph.D.s. I explained that I’m a person who believes that credentials matter. She said simply that they were internally trained. I told her that with my Type 1 diabetes, it would be dangerous for me to go to an event where access to food was limited and where I’d be discouraged from taking breaks to check my blood sugar. She scoffed.

“I’m just not that kind of person,” I reiterated, getting tired. “I’m stubborn and I’m not willing to go through that kind of program.”

“And how’s that working for you?” she said, squinting into my face. She repeated herself two or three times.

It was then I realized that she and Angel had seen me, not as a potential friend, but as a failure with a desperate longing for change. That was a prerequisite to being a real candidate for Landmark Forum, and something—my single status, my illness, whatever—had marked me as that failure to them. I suppose they saw no particular shame in this, since they had been this way too, before. But I felt my spine stiffen.

“You have me all wrong,” I told her.

After that, Kathy and Angel would still say hello, but they never chose the cycles next to mine, and they never asked me how I was. I had certainly been manipulated and used in romantic relationships before, but I had never had someone pretend to be my friend in such a calculated and false way. Adjusting to life in Orlando wouldn’t be easier than anticipated after all. If you were me, actual friendships would have to grow, not spring fully formed from nothing. If you were me, it would just be real life, without the fantasy and self-delusion. I’m happy with that.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

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When I was young—and I mean pre-teen—my friends and I worshipped Simon & Garfunkel. We called their songbook our “bible,” and listened to them all the time. Why we were such moody children I’ve no idea, but I still love S&G like nothing else, and I miss the straightforward friendships of childhood.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” isn’t my favorite S&G song—it would have to compete with “The Boxer” and “Homeward Bound,” both of which I really love more. But “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reminds me of that particular set of friends that I met in 5th grade and who I thought would always be my closest friends. I couldn’t imagine life without them. They and their horses and dogs and cats and the many, many allegorical stories we wrote together certainly contributed to the person I am today.

I first made friends with Mouse and Barndoor, who are sisters. We were also friends with a girl named Bee, and after I moved across the state another girl named Maggot joined the crew. My nickname was Sa, but my little icon was a drawing of a smiling saw. We each had a cutesy icon that always accompanied our signatures in our many letters. Today I suppose we would have avatars. But back then, we sent letters with wax seals and elaborate news. We all saw each other for weeks in the summer, and our parents trundled us back and forth across the state of Tennessee for these visits. I rode the Greyhound bus by myself.

I haven’t seen any of these women in years. I heard a rumor once that Bee is dead, and I haven’t been able to find her anywhere on the internet. I might be able to get in touch with her brother, now a Hollywood producer, and ask him: Death or marriage? How did she disappear so completely? But I don’t want to ask him painful questions, and he might not even remember me.

Maggot has become a physician like her father and lives near my mother in a completely different state than where we grew up. Maybe some time when I’m visiting, I will look her up.

It’s Mouse and Barndoor who haunt me, though. I loved them so much. From what I understand Barndoor has fared the better of the two, though her older sister dominated their childhood and was always more popular. Barndoor and I had in common that younger-sibling thing. I tried to stay in touch, but Barndoor was standoffish. I think she couldn’t wait to get away from her childhood. The facts I know are that Barndoor went through a short phase of evangelical Christianity, married and divorced very young, became a nurse, and at latest news was married to a “little person.”

Mouse, on the other hand, took all her potential and moved to New York City where she was a paralegal and then married a wealthy heir and became addicted to drugs. For years, I had no clue what was going on. She entered a master’s program in anthropology but didn’t finish it. She quit working. She volunteered at a senior center but then didn’t any more. I would plan to be in New York and see her and her husband, but she would call and cancel at the last minute. Sometimes this would be dramatic: they’d be in a cab on the way to meet me, and she would call and say she was terribly ill and had to go home. It was always her stomach, and her mother had died of a sudden stomach illness when we were teenagers, so I thought she just associated me with that painful memory.

When I was back home in Knoxville, I’d go to see their dad. Max (I had given up his nickname—Muck—as I got older) lived eccentrically—for a while on a houseboat, always with numerous cats and dogs and their barely contained (or not contained) mess. I would perch on the cleanest corner of a kitchen chair, and we would talk over the latest photos of Mouse and Barndoor on his refrigerator. After he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, we talked about blood sugars, and I tried to encourage him to get better medical care, as his clearly wasn’t good. Finally, he told me that Mouse had been in rehab after rehab, but that her wealthy husband had given up on her and moved out. I saw him one last time in a nursing home, after his leg had been amputated.

With Mouse, I followed with calls and cards, with brochures about programs to help women re-enter the work force, with one or two visits that actually happened. We talked about her dog and my cats. We talked about my work and her dreams. I thought I might be able to be her bridge over troubled water. But eventually, Max died and Mouse became unreachable. Nothing ever got better for long, and I got tired. I gave up, though I still mail an occasional birthday card and hope against hope that she has found her way.

I also still have a tiny cross-stitch pillow that hangs on a doorknob, which she sent me after one of my flurries of support. It says, “Old friends are the best friends.”

Laughing ’til You Cry

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In the general run of my life, I no longer have a lot to cry about. I know now what and who are important to me, and I take care of those things and people at least fairly well. There is always plenty of room for improvement, and there is always plenty of stress, but I’m not in a mess as I often was in my twenties and thirties. I have mellowed, and life is good, as they say.

A couple of weeks ago, Bruce came home after a long day and week at the office. The usual Florida summer weather pattern was setting in, and the dark sky threatened. Bruce often arrives home exhausted by problems at work, and he stretched out on the bed to unwind for a few minutes. I propped myself on a pillow beside him.

Our conversation was desultory. It started with nothing much and ended back around in the same place. We kept wondering what to do with our Friday evening, one of the few we usually take off, but one for which we had no plans. We had both done a lot of running around that week, and, though we kept feeling as though we should do something, neither of us really wanted to. Before we could even begin to rally, the thunder and lightning began. The fat raindrops pelted the skylights and windows. We floated on the bed in a pool of cozy yellow light surrounded by violent wind and blackness.

“What should we do?” Bruce asked. “I can always just go out and get something and bring it back.” I knew he would make the valiant effort, but he sounded tired.

I got up to feed the kitties. He let me rattle in the kitchen, not noticing that I had conceived a plan. While the cats ate, I sliced up a nectarine and an apple, then some cheddar, Gouda, and rosemary goat cheese, and piled it all up on a plate. I brought it back to bed, and said, “Let’s just stay right here. We don’t have to do anything.”

Immediately, I could see the burden of entertainment and provisioning lift from Bruce’s face. We settled in for the evening, just reading, doing a crossword puzzle, playing Angry Birds on the iPad, and talking. The storm rumbled on and the rain pattered down. And we talked, as too often we don’t really have time to do. The room relaxed, and all evening the coziness of being there together with the world held at bay by the weather allowed all our usual irritations to give way to the sensation of closeness.

At one point, one of us mentioned the unsightly three bags of mulch that had sat at the end of our driveway for a year and a half. We were finally getting around to planting the gardenia that we’d been given for our wedding and that had languished for two years in its pot in spite of our best intentions, and we were glad the ugly bags would soon be gone. “No telling what’s underneath those bags by now,” I said.

“Probably your passport,” Bruce answered, referring to the fact that three days before we were supposed to leave for our honeymoon in the U.K., I had realized my passport was missing. There’d been a bit of an ordeal in getting a new one and joining Bruce in Scotland a day late for the start of our honeymoon. The fate of the lost passport remains a mystery.

We’ve had a lot on our plates the past three years–lost passports, brain hemorrhages, and other things–and all of that came pouring out in those moments of relaxation and silliness. I chuckled in response to the idea that the passport could be in one place we certainly hadn’t looked for it. … And then Bruce laughed, and then I started in, and then we couldn’t stop. My cheeks began to ache, and we kept on laughing. We laughed til both of us had to wipe away the tears.

As so often when you laugh til you cry, it was set off by something trivial and absurd, but it tapped into the fact that after the last few crazy years, we were having a lovely, cozy, quiet moment. The oxygen of laughter flooded us, and our bodies had this near-sexual release of laughing and crying at once. It was a great moment, even beautiful, though we won’t put it down in the annals as important.

I haven’t made a study of the phenomenon of laughing til you cry, and experts don’t know much about it. Most times it happens over something trivial and so people don’t remember the details. The specifics of its instances don’t stay with us the way traumas do. But I do think that it often involves the sense of intimacy and closeness that Bruce and I had the other day. It seems to involve a sense of protection from a world outside, the creation of a safe zone for silliness.

I remember only two other specific times laughing until I cried, though I know I have done it many other times, too. One was at a potluck Thanksgiving dinner held one year by my friend Umeeta. It was a gray and unwelcoming November day in Pennsylvania—the kind of weather that makes you want to stay under the covers. And it was a holiday weekend in an abandoned college town. I hardly knew any of the other people there—only Umeeta and, slightly, her girlfriend, Kim. Now I don’t even remember who the other people were. What I remember was that there were six or seven of us, all with the end-of-term hanging over our heads, and that we had a fabulous meal, with not only the traditional American fare, but a wonderful vegetable curry and dal that Umeeta had made. After dinner, we sat around the living room—mostly on the floor because they didn’t have a lot of furniture—and told funny Thanksgiving stories. Then Umeeta put on a Bollywood movie, a tale of frustrated love that rose to quite melodramatic heights. Umeeta has an infectious laugh, and she got us going. And we laughed and laughed until we were all hiccupping and the tears were streaming down our faces. Total strangers, but we had been brought close in that warm living room.

Not long after, when I was still in grad school, I remember laughing with my then-boyfriend, Tad. Tad and I liked each other a lot, but we probably already knew that we weren’t compatible long-term. We spent a lot of time at the house he shared with two roommates and many parties filled with people I mostly didn’t like. In that group, most everything was public, and they shared partners as well as too much information. Tad’s roommate had an ex-girlfriend, still “friend,” who called him every day as she sat naked in her bath and told him all about it. This group of people also probably knew Tad and I weren’t compatible, and they watched us as though we were a TV show, as though they owned Tad (a main character), and I was an interloper (a guest star). But when we would spend a weekend at my townhouse, away from prying eyes, Tad and I really enjoyed each other. Tad was smart and funny and accepting of human foibles, my own included.

One spring weekend, we found ourselves undressed in my second floor bedroom, though it was late in the morning. I loved that bedroom because there was a birch tree right outside the window and when the sun flowed through the leaves as they danced in the breeze, it lit up the bedroom like a flickering river. Tad and I sat on the rug on the floor, examining each other’s bodies, just playing. But when he got to my toes, he exclaimed over how funny my toenails are—little moon-like crescents, he said. My toes have always embarrassed me—they are short and stubby and not at all elegant. But Tad made that all okay—he enjoyed my funny little toes and their even funnier toenails. He sat running his fingers over them and laughing. How could I not laugh, too? We laughed until we gasped and sobbed. Finally, I slapped him on the behind and we went downstairs for some lunch, and I would send him on his way, back to his friends, my enemies.

So maybe there is something also about a sense of a break in the battle, so to speak, about finding a moment of peace and pleasure amid challenges and strife. In the laughter that makes us cry, there is some tension relief. For even now, as mellowed and generally happy as I am, I know that the devil will eventually come through the door again. Bruce and I laughed because he said something amusing, but we laughed til we cried because that humor came up in contrast to a life in which we are often too harried to share some fun. The salty can certainly intensify the sweet.

Here’s “Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die” from the 1976 album Flow Motion by the German band Can.

Gone for Good

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Morphine’s “Gone for Good” is the saddest little break-up song I think I’ve ever heard. The finality of it is so total.

I have to admit that the song doesn’t affect me quite as much now that I’m a happily married person. There’s a sting that is taken out of previous losses in the promise made between two people to stay together through thick and thin. Yet I think it wise to remember that kind of devastation and sorrow, even when we are happily married. None of us, even married people, are truly safe from potential loss of love.

Today is my second wedding anniversary. I waited a long time to get married at the age of 49. I went through numerous relationships that “Gone for Good” could be describing. In celebrating my marriage to my husband, I will remember them, at least for a moment, for a couple of reasons. First, to help me appreciate what I have now and to keep in mind the luck and perseverance it took to get here. And also to guard against the lack of attention that can allow even deep love to disappear. My happiness today is built on the understanding that I forged through all of those other people, now gone for good.