Sometimes you sit in a room with someone who is doing something hard. You sit with them and let them do the hard thing. You sit with them not doing the hard thing for them. You sit there not answering the questions facing them unless the questions are some version of, “Can I do this?” The only answer you say out loud is, “You’ve done hard things before. Of course you can do this.” You offer them sips of water. You keep the glass filled.
In the story we tell of our family, the Fall 2019 chapter will be entitled “Haunted by Tragedy.” Three people close to us died unexpectedly in the span of four weeks. The past few months have been consumed with sorting belongings, planning memorials, and dealing with the aftermath of loss.
This weekend, we held a joyous and moving celebration for my friend Eric Dixon at one of the pubs where he played many winning games of trivia. This marks the last of the tangible tasks left to the living. The heart carries on with the intangibles. Here is what I shared at Eric’s service.
It is the music that finally does it. Sylvan Esso, “Funeral Singers.” It’s not the song’s particular connection that splits me open. It’s the fact of the music. That I can hear so much better, that I have learned to taste, appreciate and eventually love music that would have never existed for me if not for Eric. I’m guessing this is true for many of us here. How many of us can say — show of hands — that it’s because of Eric that we know King Crimson? I bet we all have lists of things we call our own now because Eric’s enthusiasm infected us. For me? It’s Galactic. Janelle Monáe. The author Katherine Dunn. The mathematician Martin Gardner… and that’s just the start of my list.
In 2017, my workplace started offering us bereavement leave. Two days per year. I’ve barely noticed it in my benefit package, let alone taken it. With an active tween and a couple of fit and overscheduled parents, it didn’t cross my mind that I would need to use those two days.
Or that those two days wouldn’t come close to covering the need.
Here comes the babysitter. You’re pumped. His appearance promises a night of board games, TV, living room dance parties. He’ll make mac & cheese for dinner and skip the broccoli entirely. Turn up the volume on bands you’ve never heard of. Dress up like a Sith Lord and let you annihilate him after a protracted battle that covers every floor of the house.
You may pass several hours draped in sequins and spiked on sugar. Playing, yes. But for show, not for keeps. Playing for this night only. Playing with the door closed.
The babysitter has one job: keeping you safe until your parents get home.
On the eve of an unwelcome anniversary and bracing for another night fighting off the devils that eat sleep, here I am in bed now, singing and dancing — yes, dancing alone in bed! — with the warmest thrill from smile to toes.
Now this word from Ernie & Bert:
Thank you for the most buoyant lullaby a girl could hope for, DMF. (And thank you, lambies.)
It’s worth fighting through the inertia.
True as that may be, my self-pity disagrees. In its defense of digging a deeper rabbit hole, it would rather filibuster than concede. Its zealotry twists the mere suggestion of celebration into an offense against reason.
Birthday? Bah. What would you be celebrating anyway? Your troubled finances? The end of your relationship? The last dozen fights with Bug, an anemic field of job prospects, your dearest friends in crisis?
The silk-throated devil reminds me that I’m stretched too thin as it is. “Tired” is no longer an adequate descriptor for the perpetual state in which I exist. Wouldn’t you rather just rest, read, heal? Wouldn’t your time be better spent re-tooling your resume?
Once you’ve had 40-something of them, birthdays just become days. Throwing yourself a party at this stage is both tacky and desperate.
No parties. No people. No no no.
But also yes. Because every reason to skip out on pleasure is a dolled-up version of submission. In fact, the more convincing the justification for staying low, the more I should suspect — and upend — its dominance. A toxic mood relishes its alpha dog position, growing in power unless I subvert it.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a simple and ingenious approach to this. Just choose the opposite.
To break this feedback loop, we need to engage in a behavior inconsistent to the emotion we’re trying to manage. This is a technique called opposite-to-emotion behavior. To do this, identify the emotion (sadness), identify the mood-dependent behavior (inaction/isolation), then do the opposite of that.
Opposite to Emotion Behavior from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
A snap, right? Take the stairs. Don the cape. Put a friggin foot on the gas and go. Even when it seems like the most useless act in the world. Especially then.
So, snarling and irate and certain the endeavor will fail, I hurl a few names at Evite.
Fixing a time and place leads to tidying, menus, asking for help. I cobble together activities. I send personal invitations to a new neighbor and to old family friends going through a tough time. My mother gets on board — bless that lady — and then I am dashing around, slapping on lipstick and jamming in earrings as the first guests knock on the door.
As with so many actions, motion generates momentum. It’s almost irrelevant the direction of travel. Any push will do.
The friends arrive. More follow. They hug and meet and hoot and gossip. They bring wine, sweets, kids, dogs. A few play along with my contrived icebreaker activity, milling around five zones of the house where markers and paper on the wall invite joyful thinking about our community and our time together here.
As with so many choices, intention determines outcome. It’s almost irrelevant the details of the text. Any welcome will do.
Earlier in the day, Tee whisked Bug off to a college basketball game. Halfway through the party, he’s dropping the kiddo off. When half-ass planning this whole shindig, I’d been wearing armor of thorns and stink. My invite list failed to catch half the people I love. I’d also been too tight-hearted to ask Tee if he’d like to come. If I have to throw this stupid party, I don’t want my ex husband here. My birthday. My party.
Mine mine mine.
Then my son walks through the door and the room erupts in a cheer. Bug’s face lights up and he skips into the Studio 54 buzz and music and sparkle. Tee is already backing out, saying good night. “Come in,” I say. “Eat. Have a beer.”
“I’ve got a lot of school work still to do. . .”
I gesture wide. “There’s hot cider, Moroccan veggie stew.”
“Okay, just for a minute.” He steps inside and stays for an hour.
Tee is still there when my loved ones gather in a circle around the room. Everyone speaks out loud their wishes for the year ahead as well as their thanks for the right-here-and-now. My mom. The junior-high pals. The Zumba instructors who’ve become sisters. The new neighbor, the writing group fellow, all these the people who just happen to be my people. Even Tee shares how happy he is that we are parenting together as friends and that our son is thriving. Words upon words brushed with almost-tears and lots of chuckles weave their light web around the room.
Bug and the neighbor’s son, chasing down dogs who are chasing down crumbs, dart through the throng decked out in sunglasses and bandit masks, mercifully demolishing our grownup drift towards solemnity.
It’s an extraordinary and dizzying experience to stand inside the metaphor of a circle of love manifesting in real life.
That incessant need to be on, to get things right and be just so, has slunk off into some forgotten corner. In my home with these dear ones, I feel at ease. It is as if I really am — for the moment — okay as me. Clumsy, gushing, nerdy, cutting, tempestuous, so-very-lucky me. . . just a gal entering her 43rd year in the happy company of her tribe.
(And, as I remind several perplexed friends and my son: Yes, a 42nd birthday is the beginning of a 43rd year, because math, people).
As the music starts up again, the circle dissolves and takes on new shapes. Small pockets of conversation dot the room. People who just met giggle like old friends, a baby is passed to a new set of arms, men talk coaching and gals talk travel. Folks who haven’t seen each other in years cover lost ground. The first roots take hold under nascent relationships.
Orientation determines truth. I tilt my head and the whole thing resolves into sharp-edged clarity. Throwing oneself a party is also giving a party. A birthday is just another day, yes. It is also a gift, a perfect excuse to open a door and invite a fledgling community to weave itself into being. This circle is so much more than mine. It holds my son, parents, neighbors, and all the friends who show up with attention, voice, and story.
My girlfriend says that each year is “a free vacation around the sun.” Even so, it can also feel like an extended solo trip. It can take a few revolutions (or a few dozen) before it becomes clear that we have always been in this together.
This time I can see how many are at the helm, how strong the crew, how wide open the skies.
For more than one of the eleven around the table, the year left bruises. For more than one, tears choke the blessing. Words that begin as thanks are threaded with veins of dense and nameless matter.
Loss is a removal that adds weight.
Chuckles accompany each small confession. We are older now. Pleasure hits the tongue in the bitter spots too. Years distill gratitude to its sharpest potency.
We round the corner and my turn is seventh. I say that I most often describe myself as a single mother. I say this is inaccurate because a tribe holds my son and me. We are not doing this on our own, we never have been alone. I say that family is like a story. It ends up looking entirely different than what we expect and somehow ends up looking exactly as it should.
Image credit: Otto Günther, Am Tagelöhnertisch (1875)
We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.
Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer
A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays. Continue reading “A Gift of Need”
The vet’s best guess is that our rescue dog was born sometime in the fall of 2013. Over scrambled eggs and waffles this morning Bug says, “Let’s make her birthday October 12 .”
October 12, as it happens, is a school holiday in the states. Indigenous People’s Day is what the more enlightened of my fellow American’s have begun calling it. I’ve taken off work so Bug and I can hang together, but the neighborhood kids have been asking for him all weekend. I know I’ll be sharing him and that’s just fine — it will provide some needed post-window-replacement cleanup time. Every piece of furniture in every room of the condo is still sitting three feet from where it belongs.
Now it looks like my tidying plans will have to make room for Noodle. “What do we do for a dog birthday party?” I ask. Continue reading “This Happening”
I am the only one who brings her kid to this year’s spring celebration. At least half my doctoral students are parents, but they all let their children sit this one out. Bug has the great (mis)fortune to be an only child of divorced parents. No matter where the ride is headed, he’s along for it. Some say this will teach him to be adaptable. It certainly forces him to make his own entertainment.
Someone has boiled a bucket of crayfish. Bug lets me crack one open for him to try. His eyes open wide and he begs for more. He and a student spar with a couple of disembodied claws. My boy pours himself lemonade, slices a piece of rum cake, pulls up a chair, and regales the crowd with stories of 2nd-grade troublemakers.
On the long drive across town to get home, I tell Bug he should be proud of himself for being a part of the gathering. Fading, he stares out the window into the deepening dusk. He doesn’t answer. We haul ourselves up the stairs to our condo. Music and voices tumble along the corridor under a current of cigarette smoke, perfume, charred meat. Kids scramble through bushes edging the stairwell.
“Someone’s having a party,” I say.
In our house, I leash the frantic Noodle. “Come on,” I tell Bug. “Let’s go see what’s going on.”
He hesitates. The couch is compelling, yet the noise outside wins. He follows me over. I knock on the door across from ours. A stranger answers, two more peek out, faces bright and buzzing. Someone hollers for my neighbor. She comes to the door with a big hello. “It’s my birthday!” she says. “Come in!”
“We hear children,” I tell her. She grins, puts her arm around Bug, and leads him right into the house. The pack of nieces, nephews, grandchildren opens up to absorb him. He disappears into it and the door closes.
I walk Noodle around the block then come back to check on my boy. My neighbor’s husband comes to the door and ushers me in. A dozen Brazilian, European, and Iranian kin are whooping it up in the living room, on the patio. One-by-one, I shake hands and learn everyone’s place on the family tree. Someone flips open a laptop to show photos. We sing the English happy birthday song and clap with the sped-up Portugese version. We eat cake and mango, pork and clams. Bug runs over to our house and comes back with markers, paper, scissors. He and the kids sequester themselves in a bedroom. We hear squeals, then the door opens and they pound through the living room and out to the small back yard.
It is two hours past bedtime when we finally collapse on the blankets. I tell my boy he should be proud of himself for playing with kids he’d never met before. I tell him he’s practicing being courageous and creative. I tell him he’s becoming a good friend.
He asks me to read Inkspell. As Fenoglio and Meggie and Dustfinger fight their way into the Adderhead’s darkest dreams, my boy chooses yellow from the tin of colored pencils and draws himself quiet.
He’s an only child of divorced parents.
He’s also just one cool kid.