Being a Person is Hard

It’s rare to be given a book, these days.  My world is populated by Library books that are sometimes so overdue that the Library sends me ominous missives from collections agencies and then I have to pay for replacing those books at the Library the next time I’m there.  My personal expense spreadsheet has a stand-alone category for Library book fees.  Some people feel compelled to get right with God.  I routinely find myself compelled to do my very best to get right with the Library.  I’m not proud.  

But to be given a book is a precious thing, a true gift.  Recently, my dear, dear cousin gave me a book.  I don’t know what strand of connection between us compelled her to do this, but it is one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in a very long time.  

Here’s a snippet from the first chapter:

“Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights where we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings.”

It’s one of those books that reaches in and grabs you by the shirt-collar and says, ‘Hey!  I see you.  And I know you.  And I know it’s fucking hard.  And you’re OK, even if your shit sucks, even if you inhabit emotional fall-out shelters that protect you and hide you away at the same time.  You’re a person and that’s a goddamn amazing thing to be.’   

I have many things to be grateful for, I know I do.  I wake up every morning free of pain, having slept more or less the whole night.  I have strange, but not unpleasant dreams.  I live in a place that, while it suffers from gross ideology sometimes, isn’t wracked by war or scarcity.  I have good work, with good people.  I have a wonderful cat, marvelous friends, a beautiful house, a lovely family, and most especially, I have incredible children.  I am lucky.  I know I am lucky.  

But this book acknowledges the also true thing – that being a person is hard.  

There’s no way around it, loving other people is hard.  In this chapter of my life there are twin poles of lost love swirling and swirling and swirling.  These two people cover most of my life.  In fact, the last two years without them are the first time in my life that at least one of them isn’t present.  They are my father, and the mother of my children.

My father is still with us, but has entered the last waiting of hospice.  The mother of my children is so remarkably estranged from me that she will not sit two seats away from me at a school meeting for one of the kids.

I remember summer nights when it stayed light enough to play outside with my dad after dinner.  He’d throw grounders or pop flies in the side yard.  The sideways light played havoc with those grounders.  I got hit in the nose and knocked out by one at shortstop in a game when I was very little – Pee-Wee minors.  So I was always a little scared of the grounders.  I remember the sweaty, leathery feel of the old glove that was handed down to me.  I remember throwing the ball back to him as hard as I could, knowing it never phased him.  He would have been about my current age.  I wonder if the seeds of the disease he’s dying from now were present, even then.

I remember the yellow streetlight of languorous evenings, drunk from multiple pitchers of Michelob, riding bicycles side by side home from the bars.  The air, softened by evening, but still heavy with mid-western humidity flowing around and through us like we were made of the same stuff as the wind and the night.  

The loss is an ocean.  It is dark and long and deathly quiet.  

These two wounds circle in a tight orbit around my heart.  One is piercing, white hot with blue and green aches woven throughout.  It is a pain drenched in buckets of sadness, wrapped in the sweetness of nostalgia:  pure, tellable, and re-tellable memories of A&W root beer and step-start waterskiing.  The other is hard red and the deep black of empty space.  It is an inexplicable loss that only invites one internal recapitulation after another without hope of resolution or even peace.  Shame hangs like coal dust suspended around all the sides of it.  One is spoken of often with loud voices of sympathy and condolences.  The other is spoken of never.  

I have so many regrets around both.  I regret not spending more time getting to know the man my dad was.  By the time I really got around to it, he was already struggling just to stay present.  We’d ride together to the green boxes with both my trash and his and I would wonder why we couldn’t have deeper, more vulnerable conversation.  We could talk about classic rock.  We could talk about road repair or the vigorousness of windbreak hedges.  Now I know he was just trying to stay in the present moment, just trying not to let the gaps overtake him. 

I regret not being able to stop the long slow descent from joy to estrangement with my ex-wife.  I regret the ways I am broken that hurt her.  I regret not advocating for myself better when the ways she is broken hurt me.

Love and grief are mirrors of each other.  A dear friend says, of his parents, that grief for their loss, present every day, though now many years passed, is a tribute to their memory and the importance of their role in his life.  I find this immensely beautiful.  I loved my dad.  I loved my ex-wife, too.  Those loves played important roles in my life.  Losing them hurts.  I know I should honor that somehow, but I’m a fucking person, and it’s hard to be a person.  

And so, beginning with chapter one, the pages get all wrinkly.  The thin, clay-heavy, paperback paper of the beautiful book my beautiful cousin gave me isn’t up to absorbing even one tear, and there are many, many tears.  ‘It’s OK,’ the book says.

“It’s idiotically difficult, being a human. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye.”

Wet, cold, and spiky.

When I sat down to write this essay I tried very hard to describe what it feels like to have a ten-year-old Lodgepole pine covered with melted snow slap you in the face with one of its branches.  It’s like, well, it’s hard to describe.  It’s wet, for sure.  And cold.  And by the way, you’re standing in a snow pile up to your thigh and there’s a half inch of melt water that has been in each of your boots for long enough that it’s getting warm.  The slaps are also a little spiky.  It doesn’t hurt, but you notice the spikiness. Are there two ‘i’s’ in ‘spikiness’?  I’m not getting a red spell-check line, so it must be right.  It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s a little spiky, and it only happens because you’re walking through a part of the forest that burned a decade ago, and the new Lodgepoles are just so dense that in order to get through the landscape, you have to push one branch after another aside as you post-hole hike over and around ankle-breaking downed trees that are, yes, hidden under the snow.  There are so many branches to push aside that inevitably some of them flip back and slap you in the face.  

It’s a good time for reflection.

See, the morning started easy.  We set out from the car along an improbably long and well-maintained logging road.  We were basically already at the top of the ridge.  The road was clear, hiking was level and easy, feet and gloves and, well all of us, were dry.  How did we end up in this demented Three Stooges of the Wilderness episode trading blows with trees?  

Upon reflection we decided that we’d gotten there by virtue of a kind of path that happens sometimes in life.  We made one decision after another based on good information with the best of intentions.  Each decision was the right call.  Yet each decision slid us farther and farther away from that easy, level, dry road.  There was a little snow, then we were post-holing to our calves occasionally, then we were up to our crotches from time to time, then we were in slush-drenched Lodgepole pine-saturated bush-whacking hell.  It just kind of happened.

We’re all familiar with this kind of slide into disaster, or fiasco.  There’s a great episode of This American Life about it.  What made this hike such a clear example was that at each decision point, our decision wasn’t a branch in the road.  There weren’t forks.  There was only one decision that we kept making – forward? Or back the way we came.  There wasn’t the possibility of doing this or that or this other thing.  It was:  Do the possible benefits of going forward outweigh the certainty of going back the way we came?  The farther we went, the longer it would be to back-track.  The sunk costs built to a point of no return.

Many things are like this.  Does the possibility of the movie getting better outweigh the possibility that whatever might be going on in life otherwise is better?  On that note, Mom, if you take your five-year-old to the Muppet movie Labyrinth in the theater, you might expect to spend some time in the lobby with a scared toddler.  (Ok, I just looked that up, Labyrinth came out in 1986, which means I was eight . . . a very tender and sensitive eight apparently . . .) 

Books, movies, concerts, rides at the Fair, weddings, any event with small children or the very elderly, road trips, college courses, nineteenth century Arctic expeditions, political rallies, relationships, open-water swims, jobs, cooking adventures, and on and on – we face this decision routinely.  I don’t know about the world at large, but I can say that more often than not, I choose to continue.  Setting a movie or a book aside unfinished is, to me, like a superhero move.  Forward!

The consequences are often, well, consequential.  Last summer I took my beautiful, innocent, and it turns out, extremely resilient children on a road trip to the Puget Sound to visit some relatives for their annual clamming event.  That was the week my oldest was finishing up a mission trip to Portland.  Ah, I thought, I’ll make this work.  I drove my other two kids down to the Columbia River Gorge where we spent the night in the grossest hotel in Oregon.  It was last June.  Remember the June where temperatures were in the triple digits all along the West Coast?  That June.  

No problem.  We cross the desert of eastern Washington.  We pick up Bayliss, then we cross the desert of eastern Washington again to visit relatives.  My car doesn’t have air conditioning.  When we get to Seattle, it’s clear that every human with a car is trying to escape the city.  After hours in the desert, hours in traffic, we make it to Anacortes island where a very good time is had by all.  Unfortunately I realize that I’ve left my very expensive, very hard to replace fancy anti-snoring retainer in the hotel along the Columbia River. 

I call the hotel.  Improbably, the cleaning staff has found it and they’ve got it.  Send us a stamped, addressed envelope and we’ll mail it to you, they say.  Sure thing.  No problem.  Monday morning, we’ll do that.  We’re scheduled to spend that Monday in Seattle, but it’s 110° and everything is shut down.  We decide to bolt for home.  Making great time, the first open post office we come to is in Ellensburg.  It’s 9 am and only 85 degrees out.  The post office doesn’t have a great option, and it is in the Dollar store as I’m looking at bubble mailers that the idea comes to me.  We could just detour there, and pick it up in person.  A quick Google search says this will add only six hours to our trip.  

I try to explain it to the kids.  It’s six hours versus, like, a grand for the retainer.  Even with the best of intentions, there’s no way the hotel will successfully mail it back to me.  This is a now or never situation.  Ellensburg happens to be right at the junction where we could head south and make the pick-up.  I buy spray bottles.  There will be soda at every stop, I say.  We have the seventh Harry Potter book on tape to listen to.  

I probably should have turned back and just gone home.  I probably should have.  But I didn’t.  We drove back to The Dalles, and then back to Kalispell.  It turned out to be waaay longer than six extra hours.  Those electronic signs outside banks recorded that it was 115° from 10 AM until 8PM that night.  We left Anacortes at 6 AM and got to the Flathead at 12:30 at night.  I was pulled over for speeding around Paradise and the officer didn’t even look at my registration before he let me off with a pity warning.  Needless to say, this is one of those road trips that will be emblazoned in my children’s memories for ever and ever.

And, selfishly, I’m kind of glad.  I remember long, brutal car trips across the southwest where we hung T-shirts in the windows to try to stay cool, and I kind of feel like it’s a gift to my children to occasionally endure such things.  (In case you’re wondering, the seventh Harry Potter book takes longer to finish listening to on tape than it takes to cross the desert of eastern Washington three times.)  

Which is exactly how I felt when we finally got through the bushwhacking portion of our little morning outdoor adventure in the trees.  The landscape on that side of the ridge was gorgeous.  Our feet turn out to be waterproof.  There was a danger of twisting or breaking an ankle, but none were.  Optimism is so hard to muster in these times and pushing forward is a kind of optimism.  It’s not always the right call (re: Labyrinth), but if the payoff is a beautiful memory, and as long as it’s not a 19th century mission to find the Northwest Passage, I’ll probably keep choosing to push on.