I don’t know what happened to the morning person who was me for the greater part of my life. The girl who was always the first one awake, who needed no alarms to spring me from under the covers. Of all the changes the years have wrought, this turning time upside down is for me the most elemental. I was first as a child, a partner and a mother, who rose early and stared at the sleeping face beside me before silently slipping away. I dressed and walked the dog through empty streets and parks, creating special routes which passed my favorite trees, the ones with delicate feathery leaves. The stop by the house with the deep pink rosebushes with the sweetest rich scents. I was already ready for school as kid and finished with morning chores in time to breakfast with my husband and kids before we went our separate ways for the day.
Now I am awake long after most people have retired for the night. I think of all the people I love, sleeping away as I sit and think in the silence. Aside from an occasional rustle or a random bark outside, I hear nothing but the hum of ideas in my head. A part of each night is spent in nostalgia. The true meaning of nostalgia is “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Sometimes my plaintive thoughts are about the innocent days before I understood that there were any significant functional problems in my family of origin. Sometimes they’re as simple as wishing that no one in my family had died. Unrealistic, to be sure, given my age. Still, I guess despite any family issues, I was worried less about the vulnerable world back in those days. I yearn to lay down the load of constant awareness. The world is exhausting.
For example, tonight I read about fossil fuel protestors who threw cans of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting. I’m trying really hard to understand that action. I support the elimination of dependence on fossil fuels. I believe in developing alternative sources of energy. I’m furious at the profit-mongering oil companies. But what is this weird symbolic gesture supposed to accomplish? A painting is a thing. A thing is not as important as saving the planet. Okay. But aside from getting some temporary media attention, what’s the endgame? I sit here, baffled. Back in the day, I felt the same way about throwing rocks. I couldn’t do it. I felt stupid and ineffectual.
Last night I was stewing about the way the television press was portraying revelations about operatives within the FBI having been avid supporters of the January 6th, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Their presentation’s emphasis was fundamentally shock that this bastion of federal law enforcement contained subversive elements which seemed bent on supporting an illegal effort to undermine a legitimate election. Why? The history of the FBI is fraught with conservative efforts to obstruct and vilify all kinds of U.S. citizens who appeared to threaten the status quo of the power elite in this country. Numerous exposes, going back to the agency’s inception with J. Edgar Hoover at its helm, have shown collusion with Joe McCarthy and his red scare tactics, to smearing the reputation of Martin Luther King and numerous civil rights activists of the 1950’s and 1960’s, to its spying on anti-war activists during the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is not a shining example of unprejudiced law enforcement. The nature of news delivery in this country, mostly truncated sound bites, doesn’t do much to educate the public. There’s no context for anything. When did history become so irrelevant to so many?
Sometimes in my soundless living room, I think about how even though I became a terrible student after my freshman year of high school, my appetite for learning has remained undiminished throughout my life. School and I were a bad fit. After doing everything right for the first nine years, I didn’t like the structure of my education. A classic underachiever from 10th grade forward, I managed to attain honors and scholarship awards through an unfair system of weighted classes based on potential. I thought that was wrong although I chose not to kick the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. In college, I did well in classes I liked and poorly in the others. I was busy trying to change the world. But I never stopped being interested in exploring new topics. I figure that maybe I was born with the need to feed my brain, even if I didn’t do it in a traditional way. In recent years with more time on my hands, I’ve been taking lots of classes about lots of topics. I’m grateful for Zoom and in fact, although personal camaraderie is something I need, the ease of learning while in my recliner dressed in old rags is pretty nice.
Hopper and Hitchcock: Spectatorship and Voyeurism in Art and Film – Smithsonian Institute class
In the past couple of years I’ve taken multiple thought-provoking online classes offered by the Smithsonian Institute. The instructors for these classes are experts in their fields, often teaching from different countries where they live and conduct their research. The one I reference above stimulated me to re-watch a number of Hitchcock films I hadn’t seen in years, as well as watching some I’d never gotten around to viewing. Additionally, after seeing the suggestions given by the guide for this class, I got deeper into learning about Edward Hopper which in turn stimulated more interest in other artists. This self-direction prompted by a lecture of my own choice is clearly a better way for me to learn than the rote styles of my school days. Obviously to be an expert at anything, I need to go much deeper. And sometimes that’s exactly what I’m doing, even as I dabble in more and more subjects. In the past couple of weeks I’ve taken classes on the evolution of animal behavior, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and indigenous cultures of the southwest. My most recent ones were on the Russian revolution and the civil war, The Iliad and the Odyssey, and one called Wild Wood : The True Tales of Trees. The first two of these last three are still reverberating in my mind in the wee hours, as their relevance to current events was skillfully woven into the lecture by their presenters. The tree class, taught by a naturalist, was a fascinating exploration into the seemingly sentient behavior of tree roots, interacting with fungi and other organisms in soil, to form communities which sustain each other by sharing resources. Conservation is a critical issue to me and I’m keenly aware that we all need to be more mindful of the living world so often taken for granted.
Of course in these solitary hours, I think about more than my intellectual edification. I think about how, even after over 5 years, I still have more “firsts” to go through without Michael. The most recent one was this past March when our son got married in our home, the same one in which he was conceived, the one he came to after his birth and the one where he grew up. In our endlessly mobile world, that’s getting to be a rare thing. I was happy to host that lovely wedding in this house, the first and only one we bought, not knowing we’d stay forever, the home where Michael died with our family clustered around him.
My son asked me to speak at the beginning of his wedding and I made it through, crying through each word, which is unusual in that I’m not much of a crier. Michael was here and was not, as he is every day, in the walls, in the air, in our garden. Next up is that other first, the birth of our first granddaughter, our precious boy’s child. Again, I’ll feel that mix of joy and longing, so sad that Michael can’t share this moment with us, as he was able to do with our two grandsons, now twelve and eight. The first birth we were all together, from start to finish. The second one happened while Michael was in the midst of chemo, but he was alive and actually got to the hospital toward the end of that day. I will be missing him mightily when this new little person, with bits of us both, arrives in November.
In the quiet hours, I can be completely unguarded, utterly myself. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, if they think I’m strange or a bit off my rocker. A truly luxurious feeling, to be completely uninterested in anyone’s opinion but my own. I’m quite good at this, having worked my whole life to learn how to live from the inside out rather than the outside in. With practice, you can accomplish almost anything. So I look over at my couch and think about how even as Michael’s brain was altered by his cancer, at the end of each day, we’d lie there, spooned together, so comfortable and homey. I remember thinking I shouldn’t do that, as living without that contact was going to be so hard for me after all our years together. But then I would remember the importance of savoring every possible second we could get and I slid into my spot and was grateful. Michael managed to climb all seventeen of our stairs so we could share our bed, which often scared me to death as I feared his confusion might cause him to fall or get hurt. I was restless during those weeks but figured that later, I’d have time to get used to the emptiness. I opted to stay with him until a scant week before he died, when finally the danger finally made me choose separation, him in a hospital bed downstairs, me in a recliner right beside him. To the end. In the quiet hours, I marvel at how much vitality I still have in the outside world, when deep inside me, I am always with Michael. When I finally go upstairs, once again in the crazy single digit hours when most people who aren’t working are sound asleep, I am going to our bed, still sleeping on my side, holding the body pillows I bought for comfort before Michael was gone. In the quiet hours, before I sleep, I break the silence and speak his name, once, every night. Now and always.