Did you ever have an intense stretch of time during which there was so much input into your brain, that you felt like you’d perhaps left your known world for awhile? Periodically that happens to me. If I was a baby someone might say I’d been overstimulated. My body would probably devolve into the “startle reflex, “ that jumpy thing where it shakes, as if in a sudden chill. Maybe I’d wail for a bit. However, I’ve had lots of practice at navigating intermittent jolts to my reality. My most frequent response is to get caught up in a flood of vivid memories that are stirred by my efforts to stay present, while navigating the jarring data from many people who’ve entered my normally quiet space.
Today is my brother’s birthday. He died in April, 2015, so this is my eighth year of acknowledging his arrival since he’s been gone. Earlier this year my older sister died. Although I’ve adapted to the disappearances of many loved ones, the sibling deaths are particularly challenging. I started my life not only with my parents, but with these two housemates who were part of my daily life until they grew up and moved on. A special type of intimacy exists within that context that differs from that which is acquired by choice. When my brother joined the Air Force at age nineteen, I wasn’t even in my teens. After basic training, he came home from Biloxi, Mississippi for a visit, but ultimately he was shipped out to the Philippines where he served in an intelligence unit, eyes on the early years of Vietnam. When he wrote me letters, he always noted how many “wake-ups” were left before he came back home. I wrote him kid-like information. I remember telling him that when our parents went grocery shopping on Friday nights, buying a six-pack of fudgsicles for a family treat, I woke early on Saturday morning to eat his as well as mine. Innocent times.
My brother’s birthday punctuates the end of a people-packed holiday gathering. After the couple of Covid-limited holiday seasons, family and friends, vaccinated and optimistic, were all willing to travel, wanting to resume traditions that were sidelined by an abundance of caution in 2020 and 2021. Actually, in our organization, a lot of caution was still being exercised as my three week old baby granddaughter, the most vulnerable in the family, didn’t attend any events. Instead, with a hat-tip to the triple virus threat rampaging through the pediatric population, she stayed home with her mom and/or dad, accepting visitors in small masked numbers for her protection. She was the exception, however. Having given up my hosting duties in 2017, my daughter and son-in-law now welcome a diverse group of family members along with friends of theirs and friends of my son’s. At this point, mostly everyone knows everyone else, at least to some degree. Except for one cousin of mine who’s several months older than me, I’ve become the elder in my family. Everyone ahead of me is gone. When I was a little kid, I wanted to know how a person got to be first in line on the highway. Every time our car was seemingly at the head of the group, another would appear in front of us. That’s not how things work with the aging-out process. Now I’m the matriarch and that will be true until I’m not around any more, in one way or another.
Our amorphous family group now includes my sister, my cousins and their kids, along with my kids and their children, plus their friends, some of whom have families and some who are single. My daughter and one of her best friends formed a Covid bubble with our nuclear family during the first years of the pandemic. Over the course of last Wednesday through Sunday, the number of people with whom I interacted, at least to some degree, ranged from 6 to 33 individuals. Although there is always laughter, singing and an inordinate amount of physical affection, a key element in our get-togethers, the more serious side of our diverse lives also emerge during our interactions. I’m always open to listening and conversing about what’s happening in people’s lives. And of course, there’s always something. Ironically, though, despite my firm belief in exploring substance rather than dealing with superficiality, I’ve always struggled with the undercurrents of multiple emotional dynamics I can sense when I feel them in large groups. I feel like the best description of me is extroverted introvert. I can manage putting myself out there in a group setting, getting to the deep parts of life, while a part of me longs for a retreat into silence. I definitely have a hermit side tugging away in the midst of all the action.
While all the eating, socializing and intimacy was unfolding, a part of me was off on interior journeys. I had my 32nd mammogram scheduled for last Friday afternoon. I have six women relatives, including my mother and my older sister, who had breast cancer. Since I turned forty, I’ve been getting checked, with a somewhat fatalistic view about when, rather than if my turn would come to contend with this disease. I still await the outcome of that scan. In addition, on that same Friday afternoon, I received the boxes containing my beloved friend Fern’s journals. In the most amazing circuitous way, they’ve finally made it into my hands. After her death in 1988, I made a futile attempt to obtain them from people who didn’t really know me. After my persuasion failed, I thought I’d never see what we’d so often shared during our years of writing together. Now they’re in my house, still unopened. I had a houseguest along with being immersed in “the crowd” for days on end. I’ve been waiting to recover from all the activity before tackling this momentous private dive into my history with Fern after all these decades.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I also picked up newly digitized VHS transfers from the person who’s handling that process for me. These videos date back to the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, with their quality significantly more degraded than the ones from the ‘80’s forward that I got last month. Still, despite the blur, I’ve been slowly making my way through each frame, moments from memory frozen in time. I remember this particular visit to Michael’s parents’ Florida home in September, 1979. Between hurricanes David and Frederick, the Gulf of Mexico was wavy and wild. I was pummeled by a breaker as I made my way down the steps to the beach while wearing the swimsuit I had on in the photo above. The wave ripped the suit right off my body as I struggled to hold on, mortified as Michael and his dad laughed at my discomfiture from their immersed vantage point in the water. I can still feel the whole scene.
So, while squarely in the center of “the now” with all these people last week, a part of me went off to “elsewhere.” That space was the combination of pondering my future health and longevity, along with some dives into the past, stimulated by the journals in front of me and the recovered videos. But I also temporarily existed in another surprising dimension, elicited from my brain after taking my cousin’s son on a campus tour during their visit here. A high school junior, he’s exploring his options for college. He’s interested in science and was hoping for a tour from either my son, the biologist or my son-in-law, the chemistry professor, both of whom have keys to their buildings. During Thanksgiving break, though, the university is quiet, most public areas void of activity except for those of foreign students who stay at school instead of leaving to celebrate this national holiday.
I never thought I’d become a resident of the community in which my college campus was located. But that’s precisely what happened in my life. In 1968 when I began my university career, I was a 17 year old city dweller. I had every reason to believe that after a 4 year stint in school, I’d at the very least, return to Chicago, if not a different city, to start my adult life. Instead, I made it home for two summers before settling in to this slower-paced town which has been my anchor for decades. The most formative experiences of my life happened right here, many of them on campus. Even after I was done with school, I still visited the campus area because Michael’s business was located in Campustown. My kids went to school a few blocks from the main quad and played their sports in a campus gym and on campus soccer fields. Music recitals and performances were also in university buildings. But over time, as our lives shifted, I rarely was in that world. I’d drive through, noting all the changes that have occurred over time, re-routed streets, high-rises and changing storefronts. Except for a brief stop at the Student Union with old friends a few years ago, I can’t remember the last time I walked around the quad, the center of my academic and social life, more than half a century ago. Although the larger university area is now sprawling and visually altered, the quad looks the same as it did when I was young. As I walked and talked with my family, a part of me was visualizing and feeling moments, big and small, that have stayed with me all these years. There wasn’t enough time to process all that was coursing through me during that quick tour. Today I went back to the campus to give myself an opportunity to think about those memories.
I remember everything about the day I felt my first spark of interest in Al as he strummed his guitar on the steps of the Union. I’d met him the first week of my freshman year in 1968 at some student dance he attended with old friends of mine. I wasn’t interested until this moment a year later, little knowing that for almost three years, he and I would exist in a tumultuous and ultimately unhealthy relationship which took a long time to die out.
After we’d broken apart and reconciled more times than I can count, we bumped into each other on campus in August, 1972, shortly before his departure to California for graduate school. We sat and talked in the summer heat on this concrete bench before one final emotional parting at his apartment.
A few years after Al moved to California, he came back here to see me, more mature and convinced that we could start over. That was a hard time for me. I was already in a committed relationship with Michael. Still, I hadn’t stopped caring about Al, one of those loves that was about bad timing more than anything else, but too damaging for me to ever try again. We went for a walk on campus, winding up passing through this building where in an elevator, he did his best to persuade me to give him another chance. I kissed him goodbye and never saw him again.
Meanwhile, back in 1975 on a cold March 1st night, Michael and I were huddled together in a crowd on the steps of the Auditorium, waiting for the doors to open. We were supposed to see the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a group with an interesting song portfolio, who were scheduled to perform that night. I was holding my ticket in my freezing hand when a gust of wind blew it out of my grasp. We couldn’t find it. I told Michael to see the show without me. I walked a few blocks to see the great Koko Taylor play a blues set although I’m not sure if her show was at either Panama Red’s or Ruby Gulch. The campus had music clubs galore, the two I just mentioned along with Mabel’s and the Red Lion, where local groups sprouted, got famous. They performed alongside the big name stars like B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and Bruce Springsteen, among countless others, who performed at the larger venues like the Assembly Hall and the Auditorium.
I walked past the English building where I took so many of my most favorite classes, including a seminar on James Joyce’s Ulysses, up in some attic where a mini-Dublin sat on the floor so we could follow Bloom’s movements through the city.
I had multiple history classes in beautiful Lincoln Hall which was alternately used for movie showings on weekend nights in its stadium-style lecture hall. One night back in 1971, in my psychedelic drug experimental stage, I watched part of “Viva Zapata” starring Marlon Brando in that theater. The action in the film felt so slow that I thought I could see bullets moving in slow-motion before entering bodies, so frightening that I jumped up, fled the building and ran a long time before anyone caught me. That memory is still vivid. As my title says, I am writing dispatches from elsewhere, dispatches that emerge unbidden from my memory, just because I’m strolling through this place.
During my campus excursion this morning, I stopped at a few more buildings to take photos and to spend time in the flood of visual images and powerful feelings evoked by these old buildings which just stood still while I accumulated my life history. I could write more, and even more from this “elsewhere” that I feel fortunate to recall. I can feel myself there, almost as vibrantly as I feel myself here right now. But after the tumult of the past week or so, I’m going to regroup to open those boxes I’ve been eyeing since last Friday. On to the next event.