Either That or Somethin’ Else
Sometime last fall I began to think hopefully about a return to “normal.” We went to the theater for the first time in over a year and were jubilant to get out in public (still masked), greet friends, gather in celebration of art. We had people over for Thanksgiving dinner; my sister and her husband visited in early December; it began to feel like the old days when America was, as we all know, great. I began to think that scheduling a long-delayed trip to New York City might be possible. A life I recognized — normal life — was finally being restored.
And then — omicron.
Years ago, when I was living in New York I thought every artist (writer, painter, filmmaker, etc.) would benefit from psychoanalysis. So I located an analyst-in-training who charged on a sliding scale, and every morning, four days a week, I trekked uptown from the Lower East Side to see this man who sat in nearly complete silence as I lay on his uncomfortable couch and babbled about my life. The experience never yielded the great revelations I’d hoped for — I was too youthful and too impatient for “results” — but he made one comment that has remained with me over the years. “You have trouble with endings,” he said, breaking a silence that had lasted for days. How mundane, I thought. Who doesn’t have trouble with endings? But how right he turned out to be.
And how right I was too. I think many of us have trouble letting go. Trump has built an entire movement based on trying to turn the clock back. Even when we want to move on, it is hard not to long for the city we moved away from, the lover we lost, the hairdresser or auto mechanic we loved who has closed down the shop, old ways of doing things.
For close to a decade, my husband and I have been spending several weeks during the summer at an exquisite seaside cottage with a private beach on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands. We fall asleep to the swish of waves on the beach, the calls of eagles, distant barking sea lions. We leave our kayaks on the lawn adjacent to the beach so it’s easy to slip them into the water whenever the urge for a paddle hits. The owners of this cottage are two wonderful women who live in another house on the property. Over the years we have become good friends. We cook together, kayak together, laugh together. We help them bring in their crab pots. We also know when to leave each other alone. When we got married their gift to us was unlimited time in the cottage for a honeymoon, so we spent three weeks there last April. We were heartbroken to learn, just a week or so ago, that they are selling the property. It requires a lot of maintenance which they want to be free of. We understand that, even as we mourn the loss of so much. Trouble with endings indeed.
When I was a kid — first, second, third grade — our mother, a minister’s daughter who believed in helping the world — arranged for a twenty-something woman from the Walter Fernald State School, to live with us. Pauline was “retarded” which was what was said back then. She helped Mom with domestic chores including looking after us kids. While she was a help, I’m sure, I think Mom employed her in part to expose her children to people who were “different.” (We later had a Turkish girl, a New York City “Fresh Air” girl, an African-American girl from inner city Boston staying with us in later years.) I remember sitting at the kitchen table, trying to suppress my irritation, while Pauline braided my hair in too-tight French braids. We knew we were supposed to be kind to Pauline because she was not “normal,” and we never would have mocked her publicly, but behind her back we sometimes made fun of her. She had a favorite expression: Either that or somethin’ else. We took that expression into our lexicon. “I don’t know,” we’d say in answer to a question, “Either that or something’ else,” and then we would collapse in laughter. Normal. Not normal.
When my voice began mysteriously changing two years ago, I knew immediately that something was wrong. For a year I went from doctor to doctor, test to test, hoping someone or something could restore my voice to normalcy, the nimble voice I’d taken for granted. I did not understand back then that I was on my way to losing my voice entirely. As covid rampaged, my voice vanished, and no doctor was able to bring it back. Now being voiceless is my “new normal.” I dream of covid disappearing and my voice returning. A normalcy that is unattainable.
I begin my days writing A morning ritual has developed over the years. My husband awakens me with coffee and, after administering my drugs (a recent addition to the ritual) he leaves the room and I spread my materials on the bed — pad of paper, pens, notebook, computer — then I settle in to write, occasionally glancing out at the sun rising over the redwoods in our front yard. The reliability of this ritual makes the work almost Pavlovian, a signal to body and brain that it’s time to write. But I think the ritual serves another purpose too. It grounds me in a chaotic world. It gives me a modicum of control and predictability when so much is beyond control. Maybe I cannot eradicate the virus, or bring my voice back, but I can organize a soothing sanctuary in which to create.
From this sanctuary I try to work on my “trouble with endings,” with the need to freeze the world as it is, with the need to ascribe terms of “normal” and “not normal” (“abnormal”) which always becomes an act of exclusion, of placing something or someone outside the realm of acceptability. If I can do that, I can dispense with those terms — ”normal,” “abnormal,” “new normal” — and I can begin to embrace Pauline and myself as worthy despite our differences, and I can also begin to accept the reality that the human experience is always defined by movement and change.
I am struck anew by the profundity of Pauline’s favorite expression. What happens — covid, elections, disease, etc. — is unpredictable, impossible to know in advance, despite what the pundits might say. The deeper truth is exactly as Pauline said: “It’s either that or somethin’ else.”
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