Year’s End

I hate that I’ve sort of fallen into the habit of reflecting on my year at the end of the calendar. The December to January hand-off has never felt profound to me, nor do I sense anything of new beginnings in the dead of winter. That’s stupid, and bleak. I like the autumnal equinox for that sort of thing, but the past couple of years I’ve been waist-deep in school around that time and I don’t have the mental capacity to reflect on a year’s worth of experience. So here I am, on December 28th, going, “Gee, I wonder how 2017 has stacked up?”

Ugh. To be honest, it’s been sort of a bleh year. Which is fitting actually. I had no idea at the close of 2014 that it would come to represent the start of my personal hellscape. At the time, I thought it was just a particularly rough year. How was I to know that it was ushering in a whole new paradigm of betrayal, loss, depression and self-doubt? But when all those things (and more! so exciting) happened in increasingly large doses throughout 2015 and 2016, I think my perception of “awful” changed. I mean, really. Things can only be “off the charts” for so long before you get a new fucking chart.

And so 2017 – the first year of the Trump presidency, the year of the Las Vegas shooting, some terminally pregnant giraffe, superstorms that nearly wiped out the entire Caribbean, a solar eclipse and #MeToo – just doesn’t feel like it really rates at the bottom of my new chart. My chart is impressive as fuck and 2017 just didn’t bring it’s A-game. Not that it didn’t try – getting turned down for my school was cutting and accepting a decidedly less attractive goal was bitter as hell, but some good things happened, too. Moved to our new place with the furry family intact, made good grades in school, made new friends. Got my car busted up in an accident, but walked away unscathed. Relearned what it feels like to be broke, but also got hired at an interview which was a first for me. 2017 was too evenly balanced, too much like “normal life” to deserve an adjective like “bad”.

Still, it was notable. It’s the year my divorce was final. The marriage was over long before, but for the rest of my life, the date of my divorce will be a legal requirement for me to remember. That sounds fun. It was the year I let go of a toxic yoke that’s been defining me for most of my life. Self-determination is heady enough to make 2017 memorable. It’s the year I stopped apologizing to myself for who I am. I also really started coming to terms with the fact that I need to be alone for the foreseeable future.

I recently told a young friend the story of how women who turn 40 get the superpower of becoming invisible. Men stop leering, media becomes silent, cashiers and cops alike stare over your head like they’re not really engaging with you so much as shuffling you along. Women who turn 40 become invisible, except, maybe, to each other. But it’s this marvelous shield that protects us from judgement or even observation. It’s liberating and fascinating and a little scary, and really not conducive to dating. I’m okay with that. I miss sex (like I’d miss a limb, goddamnit), but I’m not willing to engage in any of the compromises which attracted men to me in the past.

2017 was the year I decided to stop doing other people’s emotional labor. I know that sounds like a trendy, pop-psychology term, but it’s a real thing. If you’re not familiar with it, look it up. It’s exhausting. Dropping that habit is, for me, the equivalent of getting two extra hours of sleep every night. I’ll probably make a few missteps while I find my equilibrium in this new normal, but if 2017 has one major thing going for it, it’s the realization that I am not required to manage any one’s emotions but my own. The unpacking of that particular piece of baggage deserves its own post, but for now, my relief borne of this knowledge is enough.

So. This week will be gray and drab and boring and frozen as the calendar inserts an arbitrary start date for a new year. The clock will start on a new set of lessons and trials and maybe triumphs all gathered under the same numerical heading. My dearest wish for 2018 is that I’ll be too busy this time next year to sit down and reflect on it.

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Break

There’s an empty parking lot not far from my house that runs the width of a city block. It’s a common dog-walking route for me because I can let the dogs out on a long leash and just sort of meander without worrying about traffic or distractions. Today, I took Heidi out by herself (that is, without Scout, whom I walked earlier) and gave her the “break” command.

It’s an old school word from our Germany days when off-leash walks were common and she had to know the difference between “heel” and “freedom”. Today, I first held up the leash and said her name to get her attention. Then I dropped the leash and said, “Break!” I swear she grinned from ear to ear before taking off at a run. Well, a trot. Her stiff hips and arthritic knees hobbled her and her body resembled a see-saw as she made the best of what mobility she has.

But her ears and her eyes were joyous. She never gets off leash freedom with me anymore, and while I’ll never know if her mind remembers the vast fallow German fields, with their poppy edges in summer and mounds of sugar beets in the fall and deep snow in winter, I can’t help but feel her muscle memory is sound. Her body remembers, and her exuberance is real.

She had all the happiness this afternoon. That’s the benefit to being a dog, I guess. I was overcome with the grief of knowing how brief her life is, how unfair it is that she’s fettered by both living arrangements and biology. I grieved for the life we both had five years ago, the happiness that I’ll never know again but that her body remembers. There’s a popular sentiment that we should strive to live moment to moment like our dogs do – finding joy in the present and exploiting it fully. I’ve never been able to do that, nor believed that we should. Heidi and I have always shared the full range of emotions – she gets the joy and I take the burden of sadness. It’s just the deal I made with her: I will make you happy, and you will breathe with me when I’m sad. And between the two of us, we live fully.

Not doomed to repeat it – doomed to never escape it.

I had occasion today to reflect that we may well be into the most turbulent and divisive times this country has seen since the 60s. And I think I meant the 1960s, but it’s possible it will get worse before it gets better and I might end up meaning the 1860s. That’s not hyperbole, that’s me paying attention.

First, I have only to pay close attention to my own situation: the most precarious I’ve ever been in, including my stint as a single mother working for just over minimum wage in the 1990s. At the time, I lived in California and there was both a state sponsored social safety net and my nearby family to help me out. (I availed myself of both at different times.) Now I have neither of those things. I am middle aged, uninsured and suffering from untreated health conditions, in the midst of retraining for a relevant career that at best will garner me lower-middle class wages for the rest of my life (at a student loan rate that, thanks to last night’s Senate vote, I’ll be unable to claim tax shelter from), and scraping together the money to pay my bills each month by virtue of a limited divorce settlement, selling my plasma and relying on my adult daughter to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, I and many of my peers wait for access to unfettered internet to expire and watch our government pass laws to both keep us in poverty and destroy the environment around us.

And I have it pretty good. I eat regularly, I can get out of bed unassisted, all five senses are in working order, I just got a part time job and enrolled in classes for spring semester. I have friends, heat, a working vehicle, and a computer. There are people I care about who can’t claim any of those things.

Those are just the personal stories. Every day I watch the government and my neighbors tear each other apart over disagreements about human dignity and as much as I see it happening in real time I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. The aging population – the ones who stuck daisies in gun barrels and marched for civil rights and sent men to the moon and brought them back from war and created art and literature that changed the world – have become scared of their own shadow. They, and in some instances their children, when faced with video evidence of police brutality and an avalanche of numbers about corporate greed, lash out at victims and claim that evidence is “fake news”. They rewrote history books to call the transatlantic slave trade “immigration” and they put spikes on benches to keep the homeless on the ground – or in it. They stand in pulpits and preach hate, then hide behind their god and cry persecution when contradicted. They steal future and resources from their grandchildren and blame iPhones.

We tend to look back and history and see what progress was made. That’s called survivor’s bias. Some people didn’t survive the 60s. And I don’t mean the graves that we keep sacrosanct or the bank holidays we use to sleep in. I mean plain, simple, everyday people didn’t survive. They starved to death. They died from abscessed teeth. They asphyxiated in garages. They slid off roads with no guard rails. They drank until their liver gave up. They got cancer from lead paint. And before they died, they suffered. Their families suffered. Some daughter, somewhere, watched her daddy get a toothache, be unable to afford or access a dentist, watched his face get puffier and puffier, until one day he got a fever, fell asleep and never woke up.

Once, we considered that kind of suffering beneath human dignity – both his, and our own. I guess we don’t feel that way any more. I wonder if I’m destined for an end as undignified. If any of my friends are. I fear it’s quite possible.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. In some cases, the argument isn’t that there is a large segment of our population that doesn’t care, but that they aren’t even willing to admit that their actions effect other people.  They are so concerned with protecting themselves – from injury, insult, or intelligence – that they will pull out an endless chain of excuses as to why “others” deserve what they get, but “I” is a protected class. They are so isolated by their fear of change, their fear of losing their privilege, that they have developed an entire system of blindness to the indignity of their fellow humans. And then they elected people who capitalize on it.

I used to be interested in history. I used to wonder about the mindset of people who went to public executions. I don’t wonder anymore, and I realize that this is history – right now.