Mary Quite Contrary

sideways meI am in an existentialist funk. I almost modified that to “a bit of an existentialist funk” but you’re either in an existentialist funk or you’re not. I am in one.

Part of this stems from an overarching, extremely icky feeling that more things are ending than beginning. In fact, that’s all of it, though that feeling has many, many subsets. One of those subsets concerns this very blog. I try not to get too meta here, and in general am a big believer that if you can’t say anything nice, keeping mum is best. But lately that’s meant that I’m always keeping mum so I’m going to write through my ennui if only as a (wan) way to wave hello. Perhaps as a plus I’ll iron something out.

Start with this, then: I’ve considered myself a writer my whole life, though I first got paid as one in my twenties, more than a decade after I first got paid as a television presence. A classic extroverted introvert, I’ve always found it easier to address an unidentified large audience than make small talk with a group I see every day. (I’m not exactly a family man.) I’m well aware that the dawning of the Internet made it possible for me to be a professional writer since my voice didn’t lend itself to the breathless magazine tone that prevailed in the 1990s. Yet I didn’t become a regularly published writer until I landed a gig and then many more through a gentleman I met at an otherwise-forgettable East Village party. That real-life click is something I miss now that in-person reality has been written off as an acronym (IRL).

That’s the thing. I’m missing too much and not envisioning enough. I know it, I know it. But when you’re in that loop of not-real life, even May sunshine seems like it’s hiding something dire. These words can easily be dismissed as depression but I think of them more as a disconnect from the divine. Which, actually, is what I consider most depression. Certainly all narcissism.

I may finally have landed in my mid-life crisis. And, vain and prosaic as this may be, it was launched by the shearing of my mermaid hair. I think of friends in the throes of much harder times—financial, domestic, emotional, and physical instability, even death—and try to feel ashamed that I’m so sad about my hair. I think of friends who’ve lost their locks to chemo and try to feel glad that I can grow some more. None of it works right now. Your problems are your problems, I tell my clients. Now I’m telling that to myself.

Like so many people my age, I hid behind my hair. As long as I had long, blond tresses I felt I could hide the growing imperfections of the Not Young–the crow’s feet, the wrinkles on my neck (h/t Nora Ephron), the lumps and bumps that don’t disappear no matter how many times you exercise a day (and walking has been the extent of my workout regimen for more than a year). I hadn’t intended to cut off so much, which is why I’m calling it the retrograde do. My hairdresser and I just miscommunicated, and our attempt to fix the disaster exacerbated the disaster. I’m aware the universe exposed me this way to open me the fuck up. I just don’t like it.

It’s not inaccurate to say I look like a plucked baby chicken, one with two long plumes in front and a lot of short feathers sticking out everywhere else. It’s not inaccurate to say I feel unpretty inside and out.

When my back went out last weekend—and o lord did it ever—-I felt it buckling under the weight of my disappointment. In addition to looking like yesterday’s lunch, in addition to all the deaths in my personal and public sphere, in addition to my crabby-apple disenchantment with our Big Apple, in addition to the political apocalypse on the horizon, I’ve been so unhappy about where and how to write. There’s work I want to do—a YA novelette and essays are grumbling in my stomach as I type—but the WTFery of it all has been grumbling far louder. When you’re in a Negative Nora mode that’s just how it is, which is why I normally tune out anyone singing such a dirge. But lately I am so annoyed by the hegemony of the Prissy Personal Essay that I can’t figure out where to pitch my own work, which direly needs a home besides here for financial, professional, and spiritual reasons.

The thing is: No matter how cataclysmic the crisis or petty the peeve, there’s a compulsion to tuck it into a 1,000-word barrage of first-person bleached prose. Frankly, I miss columns—the cozy, charismatic meting out of revelations small and large—which are largely a casualty of the new millennium. This is why I like blogs though they’re also going the way of all flesh. Of all IRL. Reducing life experiences to personal essay patter feels much the same as shopping for your lover online: the checklists eclipse the ellipses, even though the interstices are where the greatest pleasures preside.

My back went out last weekend while pushing my wet clothes into a dryer above my head. It’s no wonder, really. Nothing makes me feel more Sisyphean than having to use a laundromat at my age, and I was already feeling so burdened by ugly endings. Back home my sink was piled high with dirty dishes, the kitchen trash and Grace’s litter were waiting to be taken out, and a small neglected peony bud had been thrown in a glass next to my bed.

kitty and peonyI heard the crack before I felt it, and knew instantly that I’d be relegated to my floor until I regained the gratitude that has always been my best guide. I was right. The first two days I lay in a cosmic snit, cross that my rug was so resolutely unvaccuumed, that Grace’s used litter was so resolutely detectable, that the peony bud were so resolutely closed—especially since I knew it was the last one of the season, the year—the, oh my! The globalization of despair is such an audible foot stamp, is it not?

Anyway, I grabbed my phone and began to research how to coax peonies into bloom. There were suggestions involving hot-water immersions, hairdryers, sugar cubes, verbal reinforcement. Having been burnt by crap deli flowers many times before, I felt zero confidence that anything would work but went ahead and trimmed the first layer of leaves and pedals around the bud while murmuring sweet nothings. Then I lay back down and texted an endless stream of complaints to a pal while ignoring the fact that the pain was emanating from the overexerted right side of my spine–the side that’s associated with proactivity rather than receptivity, yin rather than yang. Will rather than willingness.

Really, I’ve been such a treat lately.

You know how this story goes, right? On hour 3 the flower began to unfurl, and on hour 5 a small, gorgeously fuscia bloom emerged. By the next day, My Peony was the finest of the season—so wide and heady in its fragrance that I swear she gave me the strength to drag myself over to those dirty dishes that had been weighing on my back since I’d injured it. One friend had even offered to send over a Taskrabbit to clean them, but I couldn’t stand anyone—loved one or stranger—to see my mess though I was aware this resistance not only perpetuated my malaise but was probably its source.

Finally, after a lot of teeth-gnashing, my house was clean except for the trash, which I could not carry out myself.

I texted a local companion to take it down, and didn’t realize til he left that his had been the first friendly face I’d seen in days. pink notebookAll I’d registered during his visit was shame about my baby bird hair, the purple and gold caftan that I normally only let Gracie see. “I like your dress,” he’d said calmly, and left with the odor of my cat’s shit wafting behind him.

I long for the the unruly, the unpenned—the unzipped. I really do. But you can’t exactly plan for that, and I’m terrible at what I can’t plan, let alone control. So I’m praying for the temerity to tolerate the intolerable, and sticking to the simplest of pleasures while laying in wait: sunrise, sunset, coffee with cream, avocado with toast. A pretty cocktail, a prettier permakitten, the last peony, the first rose, ferry rides galore. And always, always: the promise of a new notebook. Now that I’m vertical again, I’ll do what I can while my hair grows out. Practice the faith that opened that bud. Eat the food I need, not want. Drink the water I loathe when not in the flow. Show up at the classes that usher me back into my body and at the blank pages that usher in Mother Mary. Dot. Dot. Dot.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy