Day 217: the 405 is closed

405 is closed

Recently a series of memories have become threaded together in my mind, like worry beads on a string that I find myself turning over and over.

The first memory is from thirty years ago. Our family was on a summer holiday somewhere in the Mediterranean. We were staying in an apartment. I remember lying on the thin twin bed in the bedroom I was sharing with my brother and sobbing.

All I could say over and over was, “I don’t have any friends.”

This wasn’t really true. I was maybe fourteen—the age my son is now—and had some lovely friends; but I also felt immensely guarded in front of them—in front of everybody—as if the real me was shielded by a carapace and that the jig would be up if I ever let it down. I imagine this to be a fairly universal experience of adolescence.

My Mum had tried comforting me, “You DO have friends!” to no avail.

Then my Dad came in, and he took a different tack. I cried and he sat on the bed next to me. I tried to explain. “I just don’t feel like anybody really knows me. I feel so lonely.”

“You and I are very similar,” he observed, and he caught my attention. I suppressed my sobs to try to listen to what he was saying.

“Do you think I have a lot of friends?” he asked.

Yes …” I said hesitantly.

It was certainly the case that my Dad appeared to me to be enmeshed in a large and close-knit social network. If I picture my Dad in his element, I imagine him sitting at the center of a crowded dinner table, his chin leaning on his hands interlocked together, a wry smile playing on his lips. My parents were friends with lots of couples and I remember observing that, with many of them, it seemed that the initial connection was through my Dad; they were people he knew from his psychotherapy training, or other people he knew through his work.

As a result, what he said next startled me.

“No,” he said, “I don’t.” “And I never have,” he added. “Because I don’t need them.”

I frowned, feeling that this talk was not headed in the direction I had anticipated.

“And I think you’re the same,” he said. “People like you and me, we don’t need other people, we’re loners.”

I frowned again, trying to take in what he was saying.

“I mean, I have Mum,” he added, “but I don’t really have any close friends.”

I reflected to myself then and also later that I didn’t quite understand where he was positioning my mother in this equation.

“But,” I hesitated, “but that’s not what I want. I want friends.”

He nodded, as if he understood, “yes, but people like you and me, we’re special, we’re thinkers, and people are never going to understand us, so we’ll never really have any friends.”

I’ve reflected long and hard and talked many times in therapy about whether my Dad meant what he was saying here and what effect he meant it to have.

I did not react positively. “If that’s true,” I yelled, “then I don’t want to be like you. That’s not what I want.”

He kind of shrugged as if to say you get what you get and you don’t get upset. I started sobbing harder than ever and he left the room.

***

I was reminded of this exchange by a recent conversation with a friend. I was expressing some version of this same feeling, a kind of cosmic loneliness. Now it manifested as a yearning not for friends, per se, but for some deep sense of connection, a sense of seeing someone and feeling seen in return, a kind of connection that, my Dad’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding, I had always thought was a kind of intimacy I wanted and was capable of but that increasingly seemed to recede from view the more I tried to reach for it.

I confessed to my friend that I felt this gnawing envy of people—like him—who seemed to feel in their bones a kind of sureness about the person they had chosen to make a life with. He agreed that he was very fortunate in this respect—though, of course, it’s not only good fortune, it’s also inhabiting an attitude that I’ve always struggled to muster.

I started talking then, about the many other sources of joy and fulfillment in my life—most of all, the unfolding, intricate relationships I have with my children, these creatures whom I know both more and less intimately every day as their worlds become ever wider. I was talking about those rewards and more, but also how the whole was pervaded by a sense of something missing.

Then my friend observed, quite cheerfully, “Well, maybe this is just your lot in life.”

“My lot in life?” I repeated, a little taken aback.

“Yeah, I mean, maybe you’re just not a person who is ever going find happiness in a conventional monogamous relationship and you have to look elsewhere in your life for other sources of joy and fulfillment,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Hmmm.” I thought about this. “I mean, that makes sense but ….”

I paused and laughed. “There’s just something about that phrase, ‘your lot in life.’ It makes me think, I dunno … governessspinsternun

***

For the next few days, I would murmur to myself, “it’s just my lot in life,” and crack up. It so vividly summoned a very particular style—both behaviorally and sartorially—of renunciation. I would probably need a plain, high-necked black or possibly dark grey worsted dress, I thought to myself. Possibly a twill. Something that wouldn’t show the dirt. And my hair scraped back in a severe bun. I pictured Miss Hardbroom from The Worst Witch television series (based on the books by Jill Murphy), which I’ve been watching with the younger. I could fancy myself as a strict witchy headmistress resigned to my lot in life of keeping all the young witches in line.

A movie I watched by myself with great pleasure the other week, “The Little Hours,” slyly draws out what I started to think of as the comedy of closure … that is, the comedy of being closed in, closed down, and making do with your “lot in life.”

The movie’s plot is based loosely on the first and second stories from day three of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The main characters are three nuns—Sisters Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda. While Ginevra and Fernanda are relatively content with their vocation, Alessandra, who has joined the convent at the insistence of her wealthy father, pines for a worldly life. In one scene, Alessandra’s father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), comes to visit Alessandra (Alison Brie) at the convent and tries to comfort her.

ILARIO: I know how eager you are to be married, my baby. I know, but maybe it’s … maybe that’s not your calling. How’s your embroidery going? You still doing that?

ALESSANDRA: Mmm-hmm.

ILARIO: Good, ‘cause you’re so good, and maybe that’s your calling, you know. Some people, it’s marriage and family and the warmth of a home, and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. You know, keep … please. Keep your chin up.

and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. Dads, eh? They always know just how to comfort a daughter.

There’s a passage in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette (1853)—a novel that I read when I was about the same age I had that conversation with my Dad—that perfectly captures the soul-crushing effort of striving to be satisfied with your lot in life in a world that feels like it is closing in. Here is Lucy Snowe, Villette’s narrator:

Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse—some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication—there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more.

Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones—that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.

The hermit—if he be a sensible hermit—will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life’s wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season.

Let him say, “It is quite right: it ought to be so, since so it is.” And, perhaps, one day his snow-sepulchre will open, spring’s softness will return, the sun and south-wind will reach him; the budding of hedges, and carolling of birds, and singing of liberated streams, will call him to kindly resurrection. Perhaps this may be the case, perhaps not: the frost may get into his heart and never thaw more; when spring comes, a crow or a pie may pick out of the wall only his dormouse-bones. Well, even in that case, all will be right: it is to be supposed he knew from the first he was mortal, and must one day go the way of all flesh, “As well soon as syne.”

Following that eventful evening at the theatre, came for me seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper: no word was written on one of them; not a visit, not a token.

About the middle of that time I entertained fancies that something had happened to my friends at La Terrasse. The mid-blank is always a beclouded point for the solitary: his nerves ache with the strain of long expectancy; the doubts hitherto repelled gather now to a mass and—strong in accumulation—roll back upon him with a force which savours of vindictiveness. Night, too, becomes an unkindly time, and sleep and his nature cannot agree: strange starts and struggles harass his couch: the sinister band of bad dreams, with horror of calamity, and sick dread of entire desertion at their head, join the league against him. Poor wretch! He does his best to bear up, but he is a poor, pallid, wasting wretch, despite that best.

Towards the last of these long seven weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had jealously excluded—the conviction that these blanks were inevitable: the result of circumstances, the fiat of fate, a part of my life’s lot and—above all—a matter about whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose painful sequence no murmur ever uttered. Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days.

I tried different expedients to sustain and fill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work, I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine to quench thirst.

***

My therapist’s office is on the fifth floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. You get a good view of the smoke curling up from the fires up there. The other day I barely made it on time because of the fires’ impact on traffic.

When the Lyft driver had picked me up in Burbank, I’d asked how the traffic was.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” he said.

“Right, because the 405’s closed because of the fire?” I said.

“Oh no, it’s not closed,” he said.

“It’s not?” I was surprised, having been following traffic updates all morning.

“No,” he said.

“Oh, it must have just re-opened then, at least that’s good!” I said, assuming he must have more up-to-date information than I did.

So we took the 5 to the 405 until we had to get off at the 101 interchange, because the twenty-five mile section of the 405 between the 101 and Sunset Boulevard was closed because of the fires.

“Huh, you were right!” he exclaimed. “But it was open last night!” he protested. “What was that you said about a fire?”

“The fire started early this morning,” I explained wearily. “The freeway’s been closed for the last couple of hours.” I didn’t bother stifling a sigh.

For the next hour and a half we crawled along in a line of cars that snaked its way through every inch, it seemed, of Bel Air, the roads so winding you could see nothing ahead, the air growing thicker as we neared the site of the fire.

I was irritated with the Lyft driver for dismissing my information but, more than that, I was angry with myself. I knew the 405 was closed. But I wanted to believe he knew better. So I suspended disbelief and assented to the possibility that my information was wrong. Deep down, though, I think I knew I was right. I knew the 405 would be closed but I didn’t want to argue with him about it, so I just let it play out. As we sat at a standstill in the middle of Bel Air and he cursed under his breath, I wished that I had tried harder to make him understand that things would turn out this way, that I had seen it coming. Maybe we still would have been sitting here stuck, unable to see the road ahead; but our nerves wouldn’t have ached with the strain of long expectancy. I took out my knitting and tried to keep my chin up.

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Day 94: so matters fell out

“But so matters fell out, and so I must relate them; and if any reader is shocked at their appearing unnatural, I cannot help it. I must remind such persons that I am not writing a system, but a history, and I am not obliged to reconcile every matter to the received notions concerning truth and nature.”

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)

When I was eighteen, about a month after my father died, I started working as a “mother’s help” for a family who lived in Muswell Hill. It was the beginning of my “gap” year between secondary school and university. I was supposedly earning money to go “traveling” in some vague way, later in the year. But, although I’m not sure I admitted this to anyone at the time because I felt ashamed of it, I had not the least inclination to travel. Instead I wanted to curl up in a ball at the bottom of my bed and go to sleep forever.

Looking back, I can say now with some confidence that, as a mother’s help, I was probably not especially helpful.

My duties were not terribly onerous. They included picking up my employers’ two-year old son from preschool, giving him lunch and putting him down for a nap, ironing and doing some light housework, taking him to the park in the afternoon, and playing with both children once his five-year old sister returned home from school.

I met the two-year old boy when his mother interviewed me for the position, and was instantly smitten with him. Sucking his thumb, he shot me shy smiles through messy brown curls. His favorite things in the world were cubumbers [sic], pirates, and the chimney sweep song, “Step in Time,” from Mary Poppins, which we watched almost every day (just the scene with that song, and no other. That was possibly the worst part of the entire job).

I didn’t meet his sister until I started the job and I fell for her just as hard and fast. She had dark, sparkly eyes and copper-colored curls. She was startlingly intelligent and forthright.

I remember vividly one exchange in which she said to me very seriously and fiercely, “you know that God IS real, don’t you?”

I replied with something wishy-washy about some people believe this and some people believe that and blah blah blah, and she was having none of it. I’ve had similar exchanges with my daughter, who reminds me now very much of my five year-old charge as she was back in 1990.

Every day I would come home full of stories about the silly or amazing or funny things that the two children had done or said. I’m sure my Mum and brother got quite sick of hearing about them both.

I was devoted to the children and also quite conscientious about my ironing duties, which I performed while the two-year old was napping. However, it will surprise no-one who knows me well to learn that I was fairly derelict when it came to the “light housework” part of the job. I was always forgetting to take out the rubbish or to leave enough time after coming home from the park to tidy up the kids’ bedrooms before I left for the day.

Apart from my congenital laxness when it comes to tidiness, I’ll admit that I didn’t take the tidying part of the job very seriously because the family employed a cleaning lady who came three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It was the cleanest house I had ever seen.

I initially committed to working for the family for six months, with the idea that I would travel for the second half of the year before starting university. But as the end of the six month period drew closer, and all my old friends from school gradually embarked on great adventures around the globe, I felt more and more overwhelmed by the idea of going anywhere, ever. I just wanted to be with the children and do the ironing. To my Mum and brother’s bafflement, I even started ironing everyone’s clothes at home, including items, like T-shirts, that really didn’t require ironing. I spent a lot of time ironing. It felt soothing, predictable, and deeply comforting.

I remember now going to see a film at the Holloway Odeon with an old friend from school; she was now working in Boots the chemist and was thinking about training as a pharmacist. She picked me up from our house on Dalmeny road in her car. I hadn’t seen her for months and babbled excitedly about my job and how much I loved the kids.

At some point I remember her asking curiously, “but I would have thought you would have gone to uni? You had the grades, and everything.”

I explained a little sheepishly, that, yes, I was going to uni, I had just deferred my place for a year.

But I understand now why she was confused. Just as I didn’t feel excited about traveling, I didn’t feel excited about going away to university. It was not something I talked about. The prospect filled me with dread.

While I was working for the family, the mother would ask me periodically how my travel plans were shaping up. I would always sort of brush off the question. I was still thinking about it, I’d explain. As the months passed she asked me more frequently. One day, maybe five months into the job, I told her that I had changed my mind about traveling and decided to keep working so I could save up more money. I explained that I’d be happy to stay on working for them, maybe even right up until I left for university.

I remember when I told her realizing all at once that I had completely misread the situation; I had thought that she would be thrilled to hear I could stay on. But instead, I realized, mortified, that she had been counting on my leaving then. She explained, haltingly and not unkindly that she thought it was better if we just stuck to the initial six-month plan. I remember asking, my voice breaking, if I had done something wrong. And she said no, no, not at all, I was great with the children, but she just wanted someone a bit older, someone who could drive, who was more used to taking care of a house.

I remember, in tears, telling Lynne, the cleaning lady, that I would be leaving and her being gratifyingly indignant on my behalf. You’re bloody fantastic with those children, she said emphatically. And why does she need you to do more tidying, she’s got me three times a week, she added, shaking her head.

It’s funny though, that now, looking back, as a mother myself, I have much more sympathy with my former employer. I’m sure for her it felt like, great, just what I need, not only do I have a toddler and a five-year-old, now I also have a messy teenager moping around the house, and I’m PAYING her, what the fuck?

Not to mention that I feel all the more aware, retrospectively, of how incompetent I was as a mother’s help when I compare myself to the immensely capable and good-humored women whom I have hired in recent years to help me in the same role.

But at the time, good grief, it was wrenching. I wept on the bus home that day. And after I left, I missed the children dreadfully. I would still babysit them once in a while, but eventually, of course, I moved on; I did go traveling; I did go to university; and eventually I fell out of touch with the family altogether.

I thought about the children quite often in the years that followed, and after the advent of the internet I Googled their names and searched for them on facebook, realizing they would now be teenagers. Their names were fairly common, however, and although I found some likely candidates, I couldn’t think of what exactly I would have to say to them even if I turned up the right people. Perhaps it would seem creepy, I worried, to contact them after so many years.

Although, as I just said, I’ve thought about them intermittently in the twenty-five years since I last saw them, I’m writing this post now not because of a passing bout of nostalgia but rather precipitated by a certain odd series of recent events.

After I separated, I suddenly became aware, in that way you do when some life event attunes you to different murmurings in the world around you, that the word spinster, possibly the most unlikely word ever to be making a comeback, was in fact making a comeback. Friends kept forwarding me articles about spinsters. A grad student approached me about writing a dissertation on the category of the spinster in the late eighteenth century. To my surprise, the grad student in question was unaware of the recent spate of publications on spinsterism, and so with the idea of giving her a sense of the term’s currency in print and web media, I went online to gather up a few links to send her.

I was sitting at my desk in my office on campus. One link took me to a New Yorker article I hadn’t read previously. I gasped out loud when I saw the name of the author: it was the same name as that of the little girl I had looked after when I was eighteen.

I quickly ascertained that it was in fact, the same person. I was able to figure this out by finding a picture of the article’s author; I recognized her instantly; when I reported this fact to her when I wrote to her later, she replied, to my amusement, “I’m a little disturbed that I seem not to have changed much in appearance!” (Of course she shouldn’t have been disturbed; all it means is that she’s still a beauty.) Yet more bizarrely, I discovered with just a bit more searching that she was in the midst of completing a PhD in English at my grad school institution.

O, la!

Roll your eyes all you like, dear readers, but it was impossible for someone like me, who has spent years writing about the likelihood of extraordinary coincidences occurring, of the possibility of the “marvellous in life,” in Burke’s phrase, not to get extremely over-excited about this turn of affairs.

Happily, my former charge was equally excited. “What an extraordinary coincidence, or set of coincidences!” she wrote back in her reply to me.

Because I’m a super-nerd, the subject line of my email to her was “so matters fell out.”

And because she is obviously a super-nerd too, one of whom I am very very proud, not that I can claim one iota of credit for her brilliance, she didn’t mind one bit.

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