I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for a couple of months now. I have chronic neck and back pain, which was aggravated by my 18 months of a frozen shoulder and my implant. My chiropractor is a gregarious guy, full of stories. I know about his family, about funny things that happen at the medical office building. He and his wife just moved into a new townhome and he’s super happy not to have to shovel the snow this winter. He always laughs at my jokes, so of course, I trust him.
I’ve been getting better, slowly. Today though, I felt so much worse.
The chiropractor asked me questions about what might have triggered the pain. I didn’t work in the yard or carry anything heavy. I wasn’t out dancing. After he put the electrodes in place, I asked him if he thought emotions could cause pain. He said “While I’m doing the ultrasound, I’ll tell you a story.” The ultrasound is my favorite part. I love the combination of the warm wand and the coolness of the gel. I love the way I can feel the coolness long after I leave. He told me a story about a former patient, a young, healthy woman with a great job. Like me, she had lower back pain. He couldn’t figure out what was going on. Finally, she revealed that her husband had schizophrenia and she was trying to decide what to do. She went on for months in pain, and shortly after they divorced, her back pain stopped.
This led to a story about his 35-year-old stepson who was schizophrenic and died by suicide a year and a half ago. His birthday is next week and his wife is beside herself. He has told me before about his other stepson and the way his wife takes care of their grandchildren, and how he thinks it’s all too much for her. Today it all made sense. I told him about my cousin who had schizophrenia and died when I was a young teenager. I told him that today was the anniversary of my friend’s death, and that a woman I loved died last week. He told me about a former patient who came at the same time every year for three weeks. She didn’t have pain any other time of year. It only came at the anniversary of her husband’s death.
We sat there with each other for a little while after my appointment was over. Thinking about or own pain, and the pain of others.
He suggested I have a glass of red wine and a warm bath with soft music. I suggested he run a bath for his wife. He squeezed my shoulder and told me to feel better.
When I had cancer a religious friend of mine told me to tell people. He told me that you never know who you’re helping by “testifying” telling them your own story. I think he may be right. Grief is a universal language. Sometimes you have to say it out loud.
On the second to last day of our trip we woke up, as we often do, in a Springhill Suites. This one was near the Buffalo airport. My husband is obsessed with his Mariott points and so, although we both had childhoods where a Holiday Inn Holidome (with a pool!) was the height of extravagance, and trips in our twenties where Motel 6 was a splurge, on our family trips, the bland comfort of a Springhill Suites, is as low as we go.
This particular Springhill Suites was nestled in between two large, teal-trimmed hotels that seemed to have been left behind by the 1980s. As we pulled into the hotel the night before we noticed a small park with some sort of memorial next to the Tim Horton’s. We vowed to check out both on our way out in the morning.
The trip had been long, filled with highs and lows. There was beautiful scenery and surprising food finds. But there were also teenagers who still fight over whether or not having your hand near the other person counts as “touching.” The trip was almost evenly split between the past and the future. Personal historic sites, like the house my father grew up in and my grandparents’ graves, were paired with national historic sites like Fort Ticonderoga and Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace. On the other side was the future, college tours for our rising senior. There was tension between our daughter, longing for freedom, and the rest of us, holding tight to keep things the same. For years, what I liked about family road trips was the way they united the kids against us. Kids who rarely agreed on anything at home, both agreed that their father and I were boring. Kids who no longer played together at home, with nothing else to do, suddenly make up complicated pool games.
The forced unity did not happen this trip. My daughter wanted to be home, where she is in charge of when and what she eats and where she sleeps, and who she sees. Where, when her brother’s banjo playing and his opinions on presidents and baseball become too much, she can leave the room. My son, anxious about an upcoming sophomore year, that is more like a freshman year and sensing his sister’s insistence on pulling away, wanted to keep going.
My husband and I, both punch drunk with joy at finally traveling again, both with new jobs waiting for us when we got home, both equally excited and nervous about our oldest leaving in a year, vacillated between the two poles of our children. Thanks to iphones and headphones, there are no longer squabbles over music or audiobooks, and so we were free to scan the radio stations and watch the road, and this phase of our lives, move by.
The closer we got to home, the more tension we all felt. Our daughter often begging not just for the Springhill Suites ingenious divided room featuring a pull-out couch, but her own room. Our son entering every hotel room as though he owned it, turning on the TV, throwing his clothes in multiple places, taking out his banjo to tune while watching TV.
It was in this state of tension, anxiety and general grumpiness that we stopped at Russell J. Salvatore’s Patriots & Heroes Park. We were not prepared. We were not prepared for the music that started blaring once we began looking around. We were not prepared for Mr. Salvatore.
According to the free brochure, which you can pick up at Russell J. Salvatore’s Patriots & Heroes Park, the idea for it came to Mr. Salvatore in a dream. Every inch of the park is pure ego and excess. There are monuments to the Battle of the Bulge, 9/11, a horse, the archangel Michael and the victims of Flight 3407. But really, everything in the park is about Russell J. Salvatore. For example, according to the free, 4-color brochure we picked up “In November 2008, the then seventy-five year old, Russell Salvatore, a world famous iconic entrepreneur opened his latest hospitality and culinary masterpiece, Russell Salvatore’s Grand Hotel … Three months later on Thursday February 12, 2009, a Colgan Air commuter airplane (Flight 3407) crashed into the home … this disaster, happened scant nine-minute drive from this edifice. At that moment, Russell Salvatore, basking in the warmth of his newly fund success and surrounded by scores of jubilant friends and customers was shocked to hear of this event.”
The centerpiece of the park is the mausoleum in which Russell J. Salvatore will one day be buried. For the rest of the day we talked of little other than Russell J. Salvatore. Our son googled reviews of the restaurants and hotels. The two hotels surrounding our poor, pedestrian Springhill Suites were owned by Russell and a relative. Everyone loved the restaurant and the hotel, as long as Russell stayed away. Review after review told of a great meal or special event, ruined by Russell J. Salvatore himself. We found news of a lawsuit from a long-time employee fired when he brought up Covid safety violations. We read and analyzed the brochure, cackling for hours over lines like “Two days later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, to the chagrin of Russell Salvatore …”
I made up a voice for Russell, and then we googled his commercials to see if I was right (kind of). We played them repeatedly and made up a backstory for Mr. Salvatore. My daughter vowed to include Russell J. Salvatore in a D&D campaign. We had spent two weeks moving back and forth between the future and the past, looking for a center, we did not expect to find it where we did.
There is so much about the past that makes us sad. In Troy, New York we visited with my husband’s last surviving grade school friend. I stared at the outside of my great-grandparents’ house, featured in many of my father’s stories, long since bought by a fraternity. My great-grandparents came to this country and built something for themselves, and almost all remnants of what they built are gone.
There is so much that makes us anxious about the future. We do not know how this year will go. We do not know if we will like our new work situations, if school will stay in-person, where our daughter will go to college. It seems unlike that we will ever have another family road trip, at least in this incarnation of our family.
But we know we had this trip. We know we found something ridiculously sublime. We found something we could all cling to in our own ways. We found the source of inside jokes for years to come. The point of a road trip isn’t where you go, it’s what you find along the way, and what we found was Russell J. Salvatore.
A popular narrative of both sickness and getting older is that you reach a point where you start to understand what’s important. You lose patience for the unimportant, and start to pay more attention to what you want. That you “run out of F***s to give.”
I have long awaited this change. But here I stand, 52 years old, a cancer survivor, pushed into menopause by cancer medication. Even with all of those changes, I still have plenty of F***s to give. So many that I’m not even writing out the word F***s. I still care about what people think. I still obsess over unimportant interactions online and in real life. I still have trouble expressing what I want.
A childhood of being told that everything I wanted, from ketchup to Barbie dolls to any potential job I mentioned, was wrong or bad, has left me unable to name almost anything I want. Once, in my 20s, I was driving back from something or other with a couple of co-workers. When we passed a Baskin Robbins I suggested we stop for ice cream. I said I thought I’d get a milkshake. My co-worker, innocently said “Really, that’s what you want?” It was enough to paralyze me, to make me wonder if there was something wrong with the milkshake I chose. We stopped and I wound up not getting anything, telling my co-workers I’d changed my mind.
A year ago, as part of a 360 review at work a career coach asked me what I wanted in my career and I burst into tears. I am not in the habit of thinking about what I want. Since having children I have moved from job to job, freelance to part-time, waiting for someone to offer me a job as opposed to applying for a job. I call it my “deis ex machina” theory of job searching, and in my defense it has worked really well. I was recently offered, and accepted, a full-time job I love. To avoid the indecision that comes with thinking about what I want, I make decisions quickly. At restaurants, I scan menus for the first thing I can eat and might like, and then order that. I bought my wedding dress in two hours. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I refused to get a second opinion on my options because I knew doing so would make me unable to choose an option.
I do not know what I want, and so I simply choose something. I tell my children regularly, “you have three meals a day, they don’t all have to be your favorite.” I live by this idea, but have lately started to wonder whether that means you never get your favorite?
But today, I got a quick view of what having no “F***s to give” might feel like. I signed up for a free yoga class in the park. The class was billed as “yoga sculpt.” I was told it would be yoga, then weight training, then cooling down with yoga. I had my suspicions as soon as the instructor announced that the “intention she was setting” was “to power through, because I’m like really sore from my run yesterday, but we just gotta do it.” I lasted through ten minutes of sit ups and toe taps and planks and fitness trainer type yelling of “come on” and “you can do it.” The thought came very clearly to me, “I can do it, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be here.”
So I rolled up my yoga mat and left. I walked over to the Indian coffee shop and got a latte with cardamon. I ran an errand I had to run, I came home.
I didn’t finish my yoga class and I honestly don’t give a fuck.
When I was a little girl, we lived in Tanzania. I was only four when we went to Tanzania and so the house in Tanzania and the house in Louisville that we lived in before merge together in my memories. Both houses had two bathrooms, but in Tanzania I avoided one of them because it frequently had lizards on the wall. In both houses, I shared a room with my older sister. In the house in Tanzania our room included a small table under the window. On the table I displayed and played with my various small animal figures. Some carved, some plastic, some stuffed. Elephants (or tembos in Swahili) were the majority and many of them became the start of a collection I still have. I also have an aluminum and Formica table from my childhood in my basement. I know it is not the same table as the one in Tanzania, but in my memory it is.
My sister went to school, but I was too young. I went to a pre-school/daycare situation, where I had one friend, a boy named John who gave me my first kiss. But for the most part, I had my animals and my books. In Tanzania, I learned how to read. According to my parents, one day they came into the room I shared with my sister and found me reading, maybe to the animals, maybe to myself. I also learned to swim in Tanzania, in what I think was an indoor pool connected to the university, but maybe not.
One day, we were on our way to swim and I did not want to go. I don’t know why, maybe I was tired, maybe I had something else I wanted to do. Maybe the heat made even going to the pool unattractive. My mother closed the door to the house and realized that she had locked the keys inside the house. We stood outside in the heat while mother debated what to do. Eventually it was decided that I, as the smallest, should climb through the window in my bedroom and on to my animal table. Then, go open the door. I was promised a new book for my efforts.
I remember standing on my table of animals, careful to avoid stepping on any of my friends. I remember wondering what it would be like not to open the door, to just stay there in my kingdom alone, forever. My mother banged on the window and I jumped down and went to open the door. I was soaked in sweat and my mother asked if I was sure I didn’t want to go swimming. I did, but I could not figure out a way to go back on my previous insistence that I did not want to go swimming, and so I said no. The hero of the day, I sat miserably by the pool while the rest of my family swam.
The next day we went to the bookstore. The children’s books they had were imported from England and were color coded for reading level. Supply was spotty and when we went, there were no books in my level. So, I chose this book a level up and from then on, that was the level I read.
I thought of the story of me climbing through the window because yesterday in a parking lot a man was stuck outside his car. The car next to it was parked too close and he couldn’t fit in and was too large to climb over the passenger seat. So, I climbed over the passenger seat and backed his car out for him. It took some doing. The car was so large I had trouble getting in. I was reminded of a boy I knew in high school who drove a red pickup truck and how I would try to gracefully climb into his truck in my late-80s miniskirt. Thankfully yesterday I was wearing leggings.
But I was also reminded of me at five, climbing through a window in a different world. So much is different, so much is the same. I am small, and I can go places others can’t. My pride still gets in my way and often makes me miserable. I have a tendency to want to retreat into fantasy worlds of my own and others’ designs.
All the memories pile up on each other because in the end, we are all just people in the stories we tell.
Lately, I have been thinking about the dead. Not my own personal dead, the people I carry with me, and write about, but all the dead. I have been wondering if the dead are too much with us, or not enough with us.
I recently read an article about the dead buried in London. Under almost every house or mall or parking garage in London is a graveyard. In London, they walk on centuries of dead people. Rich people, poor people, people buried in ways we cannot comprehend. They found a the skeleton of a dog, buried in her own grave with her collar but without her head; an iron ring welded in place around an arm. This dog was important to someone, but why? The burial of a dog is as mysterious to us as Easter Island or Stonehenge.
I had at least 10 conversations about what to eat for dinner this week. One day, perhaps while building the 26th century version of a parking garage, someone may find a bone fragment of me and wonder what 21st century people ate for dinner. All those conversations, and in 600 years, no one will know what we ate for dinner. Not just what I ate for dinner, but what we, as a people, ate for dinner.
There was a man who died while hiking the Appalachian Trail. No one knew his name or where he came from. When he died, he was 83 lbs. He was found with cash and food. For months, people tried to unravel the mystery and created their own stories about him. When the truth came out, he was none of the things people thought. He was just a person. A little more screwed up and worse than a lot of people, but still, just a person who is now dead. Whatever we’ve learned, we still don’t really know why.
I have been reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am struck by the fact that her family was poor, heart-breakingly poor in a way we can’t truly comprehend. They were poor for generations. Then, Laura wrote Little House and was quite wealthy when she died. Her daughter Rose, was an only child, and she died without children. Today, her estate is worth over $100,000,000 and will be inherited by the daughter of Rose’s lawyer/manager, Roger MacBride. MacBride was not a son of poverty. He went to Princeton and Harvard. What did all the Ingalls’ striving mean? All that work, for generations, for someone else to inherit the benefit.
It is tempting to equate a lack of knowing and a lack of permanence with a lack of importance.
Does it matter what I eat for dinner? Does it matter why a dog was buried without a head? Does it matter why a young man walked into the woods and never came out? Does what you do, what you want, what you work for matter if it won’t last for more than a generation?
Maybe it’s all important. Because the dead are with us. Or maybe none of it is important, because the dead are with us.
I was on my way to Costco when I got news of the revolution. I started the day with the news that in response to some local politics, someone tried to throw a brick with the N word on it into the window of a local Black-owned coffee shop. It seemed like a big deal. Here in Oak Park, the most common response to the brick was that it must have come from somewhere else, that there simply aren’t people in Oak Park, the suburb so liberal even the expressway exits are on the left, who might throw a brick with the N word through a window.
The debates about where the brick came from started online. A rally and vigil were planned for the next day. It was big news. But then, in the afternoon, people tried to storm the Capitol.
The hot takes on what happened in DC and why came fast and furious, and continue to arrive now, three days later. My guess is we’ll be reading think pieces on what caused this breakdown and insurrection for a couple of weeks, and then again, four years from now when there’s a new transition of power. Maybe also any time something similar happens in another country. Our news cycle, our attention spans, our addiction to outrage and surprise won’t allow us to keep talking about it for long.
So, allow me to get my think piece in now, while it’s still relevant. The two most common explanations I’ve heard are “Trump incited it” and “There’s a lack of education and critical thinking skills.” Both of these are certainly true, but I think there’s a deeper reason. I think this Coup Clutz Clan is born out of a commitment to a kind of solipsism.
In philosophy, solipsism is the theory that the only thing we know for sure that exists is our own brain, our own thoughts. But we’re all familiar with it on a less theoretical level. Even if you haven’t read Piaget, you probably know that kids go through a self-centered stage, a stage where they really can’t think about anyone else’s needs. For the most part, they come out of it around 8 or 9. But, it doesn’t disappear. Anyone with teenagers or even those in their 20s will recognize some trouble in getting their child to notice what’s going on around them.
We also know it about ourselves. The times when what our spouse or partner needs or wants just doesn’t make sense. The times when we just can’t believe that someone who throws a brick at a window, or uses the N word, or commits some other crime, lives in our neighborhood.
Although we have probably only talked about it when stoned, many of us spent at least a little time in our lives wondering if it’s possible that we are the only person who exists. If it’s possible that everyone else is a robot. Most of us can remember a childish or mushroom-induced moment when we wondered if others ceased to exist when we left the room.
For the most part, we move past these thoughts and stages. Most of us know that we are not alone in this world, that we aren’t the center of the world, but do we truly believe it?
Before the election my 14-year-old would often inform me that Biden would probably lose because “No one is interested in him. He’s boring.” I kept informing him that, in fact, many, many people were very interested in having a very boring president. When pressed to name who he meant by “no one” was, my son would say, his friends and “political tik tok.” When pressed to name what I meant by “many, many people,” I said “my friends and other middle age people.” Many of you are smiling and agreeing as you read this, but look what I did. I put “political tik tok” in quotes, as though it weren’t a real thing, as though it wasn’t comprised of real people, real people who by virtue of age and who knows what else have different beliefs and wants than I do. Back at the beginning, did you giggle at “Coup Clutz Clan” as though these weren’t real people with thoughts and feelings who attempted what they believed was a righteous rebellion, but rather characters in a Hee Haw skit?
In news story after news story at polling places before and after the election you heard people on both sides being confident that their candidate would win because (gestures widely) look around. The people who believe Trump won the election can’t fathom that their corner of the world, of the Internet, isn’t the only corner of the world and the Internet. That there are other, real people in the world who believe, think, and vote differently than they do.
Those of us against Trump are no better. How surprised were you when Trump was elected in 2016? Not the next day, when you had time to think about it and realize that “Yeah, that tracks,” but when watching the votes come in. Did you truly believe that there were that many people who could be so devoted to being anti-abortion, or pro-gun, or just wanting something different, that they would vote for a racist, sexist, molester? Or did you assume that most people think like you do. That most people wouldn’t vote for a man so clearly unqualified in experience and temperament?
Many people talk about the need for greater empathy, greater understanding, greater caring for each other. Our politicians, especially President-elect Biden, talk about the need to unify to realize that “more unites us than divides us.” I am not asking for that. I am not asking for unity or understanding.
I think we need to get more basic. Before we can understand others, before we can look at what we have in common, we need to first admit that other people exist.
I do not remember what, if anything, we did for New Year’s Eve 2019. I know what my expectations were. I thought the year would be about my son and his turning 13 and his bar mitzvah.
For a while, it was. My daughter was halfway through her freshman year in high school and doing great. I had given notice at a job that was stressing me out. The focus was all on the bar mitzvah. Then, there was a polar freeze of February. It was so cold that my hand momentarily stuck to the inside handle of our screen door. The polar freeze caused the pipes to burst at the restaurant that was supposed to cater my son’s bar mitzvah. The owner, a young woman, lost her business. I lost a caterer and a little bit of my mind. A year later I saw her, undoubtedly still struggling with the loss of her business, but pregnant and happy, it was not something she expected.
With the help of my friends, my son’s bar mitzvah happened. He did a great job, we had food, it was all great. While under-employed I decided to catch up on medical appointments. Then, the year became not about my son’s bar mitzvah but about my having cancer. My having a mastectomy, my having complications and surgeries and a frozen shoulder and depression. Towards the end of the year, my husband left for France on Sabbatical and the year became about surviving.
We spent New Year’s Eve 2020 in Paris. Thanks to my husband’s Parisian cousins, we spent New Year’s Eve drinking pink Champagne at the Eiffel Tower. When I shared the photo on social media I said that I was so excited to put 2019 behind me I had flown around the world to get to 2020 sooner. Insert wry, knowing chuckle here.
New Year’s Eve 2020 was undoubtedly a more glamorous and exciting event than the undocumented New Year’s Eve 2019, or 2021. Last night, for New Years, we ate a lot of food, made donuts and watched a movie. At midnight, we turned on the always-sad Chicago countdown, our beloved city following an hour behind the big ball drop. Somehow, it was a little less sad this year. We were too lazy to open our bottle of Costco Prosecco. At 2:30 am on January 1, 2021 we were woken up by horrible noises from our radiators. We turned off the radiators and went back to sleep. The dogs woke up at 7:00 am, as usual, and we turned the radiators back on, and all is temporarily well. After cleaning the kitchen from last night, we’ll call the heating company and hope they can get to us before the noise starts again.
When I look at the picture from 2020, I don’t see hope or glamour. I see how sick and in pain I am. I see how bloated my face is, how exhausted I am. I will not pretend that 2020 has been some great year. It has been painful and exhausting. But, I am undoubtedly healthier. I still have pain, but it is not constant. I can move, I can walk, I can last a day without a nap. I’m still not crazy about the way I look, but I look better.
A certain kind of person is fond of saying that New Year’s Eve is an artificial separation. It’s the same type person who does not buy a loved one flowers or a card on Valentine’s Day, because that too is artificial. But I think there is something magical that happens at midnight. It is not the first kiss of rom-coms, or the erasure of the year before. It is the chance to look to the future. For a little while, the next year is both perfect and horrible. It is the loss of a business, the loss of a spouse, a cancer diagnosis, a global pandemic. But it is also a new job a new baby, a recovery, a new love. It is the mundane problems of owning a home and the mundane joys of loving your children, snuggling your dogs, and eating good food. The new year brings everything and nothing.
One day we will no longer live in pandemic-world and I will be able to start a blog post with a phrase other than “The other day on Facebook.” But, we don’t live in that world yet. So …
The other day on Facebook some parents were concerned about finals at the high school. They were concerned about the stress, drama and pressure students are facing while trying to go to remote high school. Predictably, some people agreed and some people did not. Along with various versions of “yes,” there were several comments along the lines of “How will they learn to study for finals in college if they don’t do it now” and “But that’s not the way the real world works.”
Ahh, the real world. Last night on Facebook I got into a little bit of a tiff with a woman I don’t know because she wrote a review of the Hallmark Hanukkah movie and called it a “shanda” (Yiddish for shameful) and then shared that review in a group we’re both in. I spent last night lying on the couch watching the Hallmark Hanukkah movie, primarily because it seemed like a good way to get everyone in my family to leave me alone for two hours. The alone time was excellent, the movie was not. But, one of this woman’s complaints about the movie was that the Jewish family had a wreath with blue ornaments on their door. She declared that impossible.
Believe me when I tell you, the wreath was not the least plausible thing about this movie. For example, it does not occur to a mom who gave a girl up for adoption years ago that the mystery DNA match might be her daughter, until said daughter reveals her birthdate. Also, everyone in the movie runs a restaurant and no one is the least bit worried about being closed for an extended period of time. Finally, the least realistic element, there’s a guy who makes a really nice living as a freelance restaurant critic. Wreath on a Jewish door? Meh, it’s plausible.
Now, obviously, wreaths aren’t very Jewish, but I certainly know families that have them. In our conversation, it came out that the critic’s Jewish experience is entirely with Chabad, an ultra-orthodox group. At that point, I had to bow out of the conversation. Because despite both having lived in Louisville and Chicago, her “real world” of Jews was entirely different than my “real world” of Jews.
A few years ago when there were dress code debates at the high school a parent complained that “in the real world” women could not wear leggings to work, so they shouldn’t be allowed to do so in high school. In my over 25 years of professional work, I’ve worked exactly two places with any sort of dress code. I’ve seen people doing highly paid work in leggings, pajama pants, short shorts, flip flops and halter tops. The truth is, there is no dress code in the real world.
Or I should say, there’s no dress code in my real world. I’m sure that just like the movie critic lives in a world where American Jews and Christians don’t share a culture, other people live in a world where everyone wears suits and dresses to work. Still other people live in worlds where everyone wears coveralls, scrubs, or waitress uniforms.
If nothing else, I would think that a Trump presidency and Covid-19 has taught us that what we think is the “real world,” just doesn’t exist.
Education has always been about preparing kids for what the adults around them feel the “real world” has in store. Many people forget that the Montessori method, today generally only affordable to wealthier families, was started in 1906 to train poor kids to become better factory workers. Similarly, the even more exclusive Reggio Emilia method was developed to help post-WW II children in Reggio Emilia, a town in Italy. It’s natural that we expect a high school grading policy or dress code to be relevant to the real world we think our kids will inhabit. But we shouldn’t tie their entire educational experience to that vision.
So many of the things that inhabit our “real world” today, from the Internet to Covid to cell phones, did not exist when I was in high school. As late as graduate school, I was learning to do research involving microfiche machines, because when I did research “in the real world,” it would be important.
I don’t know about you, but no part of my post-school life has involved a card catalog, let alone a microfiche machine. I’ve also never been asked to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy, or the periodic table of the elements. I am a professional writer, and I cannot diagram a sentence.
In short, I’ve learned to live in a world totally different than the one my teachers and parents prepared me for. I have to trust that come what may, finals, or dress codes, or wreaths on the door, our children will as well.
Yesterday on the radio I heard that this coming Tuesday, December 8th, is “Bodhi Day,” the day that Buddhists believe Siddhartha became the Buddha. I’ve been interested in Buddhism lately. I’ve been interested in its beliefs and in the idea that the founding myth of Buddhism is that a wealthy prince retreats from his riches and sits alone under the Bodhi tree and reaches enlightenment.
It’s fascinating to me that where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam start with the idea of relatively middle-class prophets (carpenter, shepherd, son of a servant and the aforementioned shepherd, respectively), Buddhism starts with a wealthy guy. I feel like a lot of the “popular” Buddhists and meditation coaches today follow this same path, but don’t acknowledge it. When you listen to their apps or podcasts, or read the books, they all have a story about being a stressed out executive who then took time out to (metaphorically) sit under the Bodhi tree. Now they give, or sell, their enlightenment to those of us who are not under the tree.
These modern-day gurus follow other American myths about this idea of retreat and enlightenment. For years, I have been drawn to the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family always moving west to find more quiet, of Huck Finn “Lighting out for the territory” to get away from civilization, of Jack Kerouac getting stoned and driving to Mexico. Even knowing the truth about Henry David Thoreau moving to the edge of his mother’s property so he could better boink his buddy’s wife in solitude, and then writing a treatise about his independence, he still speaks to me.
Every weekend I make a “to do list” of chores and tasks. I put on the top of every list “Write, Read, Journal,” to remind myself to take time out of the weekend to read something, write in my journal, and try and create something. Even before Covid meant that my family was home with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I had trouble finding enough mental space to think or create for myself. It is not that I am sooo busy. I have a comparatively relaxed and reasonable work schedule, and of course, no one currently has any activities. But two kids, two dogs, a husband, a house, work a previously cancerous breast, a global pandemic, it all takes up a lot of mental space. There are constant interruptions, and when there are not interruptions, there is still half of my brain listening and waiting for the interruptions.
I love the bustle of a house with dogs and kids and at the same time, I long for the solitude of the Bodhi tree, the three chairs of Walden, a joint and a road trip.
When I was reading about the Buddha and Bodhi Day I can across this line describing the difficulty Buddha had at transitioning away from the tree, “It is difficult for a liberated being who is free from desires and motivation to return to the world and become involved with people and their ways.” You can say that again sister. It’s also hard to get to the tree in the first place.
I love small businesses. I have spent a large part of my career supporting them. I’m happy to spend a little more and order a book from my local independent bookstore instead of Amazon. I’m happy to get a Turmeric Latte from the Ethiopian coffee shop or a Kashmiri Latte from the Indian one instead of going to Starbucks.
I have often dreamed of owning a small store. In my late 20s I began researching the possibility of my own bookstore. In my 30s it was a boutique with essential oils and massage services. My retirement dream is to own a hotel or Bed & Breakfast. I love living in a place with an assortment of small businesses. My favorite thing to do on vacation is wander in and out of cute stores and antique stores. See, proof that I really love small businesses
But also, I’m getting really annoyed at all the calls to “shop small.” It’s not that I don’t want to shop small, but I see four problems with this mantra:
Shopping is not a virtue. Buying things you do not need may help one business, but isn’t so good for the world.
Going on FB and asking where you can get your Organic Himalayan Sea Salt Candle “but local, because I want to support local businesses” is an act of both extreme virtue signaling and privilege, also it’s super-annoying.
Most communities actually need businesses of all sizes.
Shopping small isn’t actually going to save these businesses.
I’m not an economist (or even good at math) but I’m pretty sure that convincing people that in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis spending their own dwindling cash reserves at a local business will somehow save that business is like telling 20-somethings that they could afford to buy a house if they gave up their daily latte. The lattes aren’t the problem. The high cost of college, interest on student loans, the lack of job security and the lack of affordable healthcare are the problem.
Likewise, we are not going to shop our way out of this financial crisis. What we need, instead of FB groups asking people to commit to spending $25 on local takeout a week (invited to one this week, also, please, I’d love to get my weekly takeout budget down to $25/week) is FB groups asking people to commit to demanding a financial relief package. Small stores, restaurants, and bars are all being forced to remain open because our government refuses to send financial relief. These places being open contributes to the rate of Corona, and the inability for schools to be open, both of which further hamper the economy.
I hope the local businesses where I live survive. I plan to continue shopping at them. But I reserve the right to be grumpy whenever someone tells me to do so.