When I started writing this blog in January, 2018, I had three primary goals. One was to write the story of how Michael and I navigated his diagnosis of, treatments for and ultimately, his death from an orphan cancer. I was hoping sharing our experience would help some other hapless people who found their world upended by one single phone call. I suppose I was also looking for a way to cope with the PTSD I was contending with following the years of ups and downs, the hopes raised and crushed, the savoring of the peak moments squeezed between troughs of an existential agony which became part of my most essential self. I’ve fulfilled that first goal. Next I wanted to tell the stories Michael had left behind which he so wanted to share in an autobiography. His desire morphed into a third goal, telling both our stories, creating a vibrant record of each of our lives, as separate individuals and through our forty-five years together. Sometimes I just have a random memory that needs to be expressed as a stand-alone tale. Generally speaking, though, I created some structure by weaving our tales by geographical location, starting from our first homes apart to the first apartment we shared and moving forward. I’ve gotten through our early childhoods and am now in the mid-1970’s. I’m having a hard time finding an approach that feels right for that critical time when it became clear we were transitioning from our initial passionate romance into a committed adult life together. I’m using my memories, photos and my journals to help evoke what I want my family to have as our legacy. The problem is those journals. Metaphorically, they are like an elevator ride in a high-rise. In my case, I’m on the top floor headed down, down, all the way to the sub-basement where I am utterly alone. The daily recording of every thought or feeling, caught in a flash of time from back then, is proving to be a distraction. I can look at a photo from a specific date, then head to my journal, to that same day and find a powerful dissonance between what is reflected as an image versus what I was contemplating in the privacy of my deepest thoughts. Initially, I found these conflicts disturbing. After having placed them in the context of the multiple layers of what it means to be me, I’m feeling more comfortable and able to integrate these disparate, jarring incidents. The truth is, I’ve always operated internally on different levels. I think everyone does. I just happen to have documentary evidence about mine. At least for the levels I can access consciously. Because there’s so much going on inside of us that’s unconscious, subconscious, part of our autonomic nervous system that’s always humming away, taking care of the business of running us on a constant basis. I like poking around, trying to understand that stuff. I like peeling myself and everyone else, like the proverbial onion. I like excavating artifacts like those old bottles in the photos above, that I found in the bowels of my basement built in 1893.
Today is Earth Day. Thinking about the layers of what’s below our feet feels appropriate. Tectonic plates are shifting, causing earthquakes. Recently lava has spewed up across the globe, from Iceland, where the boiling red-black fire has attracted people who stand nearby admiring the view, whereas in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, so much volcanic ash covered everything that idle cruise ships were sent to evacuate thousands of people. Permafrost is melting, creating the potential for ancient microbes to revive and exist in real time, eons after they were encased in ice. Our little beings are in keeping with our complicated churning planet. All kinds of layers inside us come poking up at unexpected times, bringing unexpected action from the depths of who we are. How utterly fascinating.
I remember taking this photo in The Badlands. I learned that each different colorful layer in this mountain represented an entire epoch. Squished into those striations are oceans and forests, rivers and mountains, countless species of animal life, mineral deposits and who knows what else. I stared at that place for a long time. The symbolism of its time mysteries was not lost on me, in my relative minuteness, in my tiny existence. A little mote in the overall scope of this world.
For years I’ve collected shells and striated rocks. I like to look at the shells and imagine the lives of the animals who once occupied them. Did they live close to where I found them, washed up on the shore? Or did the currents carry them over miles of ocean until at last, for whatever reason, all that was left of them was the hard cover that for a time housed them and protected their fragile existence? And those rocks. Why are they multi-colored or striped? Are there fossilized little creatures in their centers? How many people touched them and threw them into water to smooth their rough edges? I collect them, feeling a silent connection from these offerings of the earth, split away from their natural environs by unknown acts, organic or otherwise. Aren’t I just like them, except with a higher level of consciousness acquired by me, because of the species to which I belong?
When I was growing up in Chicago, I frequently visited the Museum of Science and Industry. Sometimes I went on a field trip from school. Other times it was a family event and later, I went with friends, and ultimately Michael and our children. I didn’t know when I was young that the building was originally the Palace of Fine Arts, a structure left from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 which 40 years later became what I knew it to be. I loved watching the chicks struggle from their eggs in the hatchery, to descend into the coal mine, to wander through centuries in Old Town and wend my way through the real U505 submarine. Like the natural world with its complexity and mystery, that museum kindled my inherent urges to know and know and know. For as long as I can remember I could be engaged in whatever was happening around me and seemingly, be totally present, but inside, my mind was constantly whirring along, analyzing, pondering and operating on a wholly different plane than where I appeared to be.
My kids, not to mention Michael, have consistently told me over the years that they would appreciate my attempts to stop trying to bore into their heads to see what was happening in there. Michael used to say that after spending a lifetime together I was going to be very disappointed to find out that there really wasn’t anything going on inside his when I was busy probing around. When I ask what someone is thinking and they reply, “nothing,” I am always astonished. How can that be? I’m generally running several channels simultaneously and often feeling as though a few traffic signals in my brain might provide significant benefits. When I was younger I simply assumed that everyone was just like me. Over time I’ve figured out that my complicated thought processes aren’t everyone’s modus operandi. I try to think of what I looked like when I got that pushback from my family. These photos are how I imagine myself when I turn on the laser beams, mostly unknowingly, sometimes with intent.
Who knows? I’m not looking at myself, at least externally. But I’m tracking myself in real time and have since I was a kid. I don’t think I had a detachment disorder. I was always present in my moments. However, a part of me was observing my behavior, for no other reason than the intrinsic value I place on self-awareness. The journal writing was a way of analyzing myself, criticizing myself, trying to figure out ways to improve the parts of me that I didn’t like. Often I felt like I had a little reporter in my head, taking notes on my daily life. Here’s a classic example.
This photograph was taken on August 1st, 1980, my sister’s wedding day and my dad’s birthday. Michael and I look pretty happy. Parts of us were. But I remember being jealous and irritated because one of the wait staff members at the reception, who was actually dating one of our mutual friends, was being excessively flirtatious with Michael who when I mentioned it, was totally oblivious and dismissive to me. We’d been together over eight years back then but still had our difficult moments. When I recently read my journal entry from that day, I was expressing lots of frustration and discontent and sounding more than a little miserable. You’d never have guessed any of that from our observable behavior or any of the day’s pictures. But I was analyzing away, dissecting myself, Michael, and life in general. A moment in time, but a moment nonetheless. Life’s layers, contradictions and surprises. For me, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. I’m not sure I’m thrilled with all of the artifacts I yank out of myself but I have to acknowledge their existence. I do better digging around than papering things over. I’m not sure how I wound up this way but it’s how I roll. Not to everyone’s taste, to be sure, but best for me. I want to get back to my chronology of our lives but those complex memories, photos and my running journal commentary had to be brought out of me before I could go forward.
I guess I could say that looks are deceiving or that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But that’s a simplistic approach. We really were most often, the beaming couple in this photo, from the same day as the picture above. Not for every second, though and not without my poking, peeling and excavating. Michael would say that everything would be perfect if I’d just stop talking about all life’s nuances all the time. Maybe I should’ve been an archaeologist because of all my digging instincts. That ship has sailed. The good part of having the extra intellectual analysis layer is that it keeps me pretty even-keeled during crises and emotional situations. That’s been helpful as much as it’s been challenging. So, now, I’ve addressed what’s been giving me a bout of writer’s block. On to the next event.