I haven’t been able to write, because this summer has been too unexpectedly raw. Too much for words.
When I fled Alaska and the reality of shattered things, I expected, I fantasized about travel, independence, an image. Me with my bag on my shoulders, stoic and silent and much like a stone. I fantasized about jumping off bridges, too, or in front of cars. Not stone so much as dust. I turned to ash in my own mouth. I was over.
I sought the solace of friendship, although I couldn’t bear it at all. I couldn’t bear touch or kinship. Talk or acceptance. For years before this, I had never been able to cry *except* in the company of others. Before this, when I cried by myself, part of my brain– the cruel part– laughed at me and mocked me, and made me stop. Now, though, with this unexpected pain, I couldn’t cry in front of others at all. After giving so much vulnerability to one person for so long, and so thoroughly, only to have that broken, I didn’t want to– couldn’t– give vulnerability to anyone. Why would I ever try that again? How many times does it take to understand the definition of insanity?
Then, having fled Alaska, when I was in Seattle, with my best friends, who I couldn’t talk to, I cried by myself. I broke down and sobbed. Over and over. It was almost always in the shower. I, never the cleanest person, took more showers then. Because it was the only place I could cry at all. Ablution. Self hatred. The deep seated certainty that I had fucked this up, that this was so much me and all of the baggage I include, and couldn’t fix.
My time in Seattle felt– itchy. I wanted to get going. I wanted to journey on. To move. To get out of my own uncomfortable skin. I wanted to start achieving that image of myself as a traveler, as independant, as free.
I couldn’t sleep at night without NyQuil or being a little drunk. If I didn’t have either of those things, my brain turned over and over the last three years, the choices I’d made for a relationship that was gone so fast. Choices about my entire life. My identity. I longed for silence. Mostly silence from my own brain. Seattle was too quiet to drown me out.
I got on a train. Any other moment, this would have been ideal. Time to write, read, think. Right?
Off-shooting from the blow of things was the strange side effect that I actaully couldn’t read, couldn’t listen to music, couldn’t watch shows or movies. If I tried, my brain would slide away to everything wrong. I’d fall down the vortex of my own unhappiness. And- those things felt like normal parts of my past life. Now they seemed inaccessible to me. Not available. Not mine.
So I sat on the train, trapped in my own head for 37 uncomfortable hours. I didn’t cry. I didn’t do anything.
Near the end of that unbearably long stretch, I found two things that I latched onto. One was Hamilton. The musical. This was new and utterly unrelated to my relationship, to my past three years in any way. It was glorious, genius. I needed it. And I found Fun Home, the graphic novel by Allison Bechdel. These two things got me to the end of that torturous train ride, where I arrived, miraculously, in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis had been haunting my dreams for the last three years that I was away. Most of all, the color of sun on bricks. Random coffee shops. All of the food. The green. The ins and outs of roads and ways. The skyline, which I follow with my eyes like it is the curve of a woman’s waist. The people.
The train came in from the west. We passed the skyline a way that was only slightly known to me, and it was gorgeous. Things familiar came to be. We landed in St. Paul, at Union station, which was so comfortable, so known.
I intended to stay in Minneapolis first a week, then a month– and I have been here for three months now. My iconic backpack was accidentally destroyed. My plans, as ever, foiled. But all in the best and most unexpected of ways.
Here is what happened. I’ll try to tell it in its order. I think this all happened in three parts… Or maybe they are acts.
The first act is an act of God, or some benevolent spirit. It was a difficult act, the worst one in some ways. It involved the strength of my legs and the resolution of my heart against the battering of reality. It involved being saved by an eight year old.
Here is what happened.
When I was in college and going through a difficult time, one of my English professors became an instrumental force for good in my life. She was an advocate and advisor for me, and helped me deal. At the very end of my four years, she and her partner had a baby boy. It was right around Christmas time. I remember how scared and how excited my professor seemed- full of hope.
The baby- we’ll call him V- made his first appearance to me at my friends’ wedding that summer. I’m told I was asked to hold him maybe? I’m sure I didn’t know what to do.
For a few years I continued to hear about the baby through my same friends who had been married, because one of them nannied for V.
When V was five, my friend had to leave. She and her husband were moving to Seattle- they are the same friends I visited there just now. My friend recommended to my former professor that I take over nannying duties for Mr. V. He was five then. I became his nanny for a year, and so began life lessons in story-telling, repetitive play, and being really sad to say goodbye to someone. After that year, I moved back to Alaska. V and I had become buddies. I loved his crazy smart five-year-old brain, and his curly hair, and his good heart. Children are not really an element in my life. He was a good one.
I stayed in touch with V and his family. Two years after I’d moved to Alaska, they came to visit. They met my partner and my dogs and saw my house. They got to see what was home to me, what I had chosen and trusted as home. We ate at my favorite restaurant and hiked my favorite trails. Even though we only got to see each other for a few hours, really, it was a good visit. V was seven, and could joke around in a whole new way. He and my dad bonded about birds and history. We chatted and were mischievous and went on an after-hours Where’s Waldo hunt.
When my breakup happened, V’s family reached out and extended an offer of a place to stay.
I wanted to see V and my professor and her partner. Going against all instincts not to impose, I said yes. After all, I was only going to be in Minneapolis for a week.
We– my professor, her partner and I– coordinated a little to surprise V with my arrival. He knew I was coming but didn’t know when. We went to pick him up as he finished a nature day-camp. I looked pretty different since he last saw me- I had lost about 40 pounds since the summer before, and I’d shaved my head. When he saw me standing with his mom, he looked at me, dismissed me, and then suddenly looked again, and a huge smile came over his face.
“Hey,” I said. Something I realized when I nannied for V is that I’m “good” with kids in the sense that I can relate to them, play with them– be a kid with them. I’m not a great disciplinarian. And I don’t like the theory of talking down to them. So I just hang out with them, and hopefully there are Legos. I’m not sure this makes me a good nanny. But I think it makes me a pretty decent friend for kids.
“Hey,” said V back. I mean, that’s what friends are like. When you don’t see them for a few years, you just say “hey,” and everything is cool.
We went back to the car and V told me a little about the raptors at the nature center. He likes birds, and because he’s a smart cookie with a naturalist’s mind, he collects data about them. He shared a bit about the five birds being cared for here. Then we all got ice cream.
I don’t know if V knew what was going on with my breakup. He frequently asked about the dogs– particularly about my ex’s dog as though it were my dog. He also asked about my ex sometimes, and about my house in Alaska. I wasn’t sure what to tell him about all of this. I didn’t want to drag him into my sadness.
His mothers were a force. I’d never experienced such maternal energy in surround sound. There were many suggestions about what I should do, where I should go, how to proceed. I told these mothers I had no plan, much to the agitation especially of my professor, who folded her lips and tried to refrain from too much advice.
I desperately wanted to talk to them about what was happening with me. I still couldn’t open up to anyone. I still found myself choked off from my own words. I took showers and cried and shaved my head anew each week. I liked the ritual of cleaning myself this way. Re-smoothing the lines of fuzz. Controlling this part of things.
I was incredibly depressed. I was seeing a therapist on a weekly basis, but it sometimes wasn’t enough to battle the tide of sadness I felt. It was especially terrible at night. Still I couldn’t read, watch, listen, to anything other than Hamilton. Hamilton is long, involved, and complicated. It got me through in a lot of ways.
I ran a lot. I found trails that worked for me. I ran 26 miles on my own– just a training run, but I was proud of it. I biked a lot as well. Although the family offered me one of their bikes, I needed to not be so dependent on things that belonged to others. I needed some level of autonomy in the midst of so much change and since I had to ask for help with so much already. I bought a bike off Craigslist for $50. I rode that bike until it literally broke beneathe my feet.
The family fed me. I grated against the imposition, I felt I was already taking so much from them. But my professor was direct and fed up with my hesitation, and her partner gently offered what they had. They let me sit with them too. Just to be in company. I played my guitar sometimes, which may not have been a blessing upon them. I did dishes. I took out trash. Very small chores that I hoped helped a little. I watched over V. He and I went swimming and played Birdopoly and chess and Magic. We read and talked and at the pool we dove for quarters.
I kept staying. They were generous, too much. They said, stay! Stay until this time, a total of two months, so much.
Because I couldn’t sleep, I arranged many late night adventures. It was better to exhaust myself than try to talk myself into sleeping any other way. They gave me a key to the side door, and I came and went at odd hours, and they forgave me for that. The dogs got used to the sound of me coming in at night.
There were times when things got very bad. At those times, I looked at the Lake Street Bridge, which was very close to where they lived, and I thought a lot about what it would be like to jump. Sometimes I’d let small objects fall and feel all the seconds till it hit.
One night, late in, while I was still clinging to some hope for my broken relationship, I found out some news that made the breakup finally real. It was long past the witching hour. I was alone, walking the quiet streets where the family lived. I knew there was no way I could sleep, so I walked fifteen blocks to a Walgreens to try for NyQuil, but it was closed. I walked back and I walked to the bridge and I looked. I was crying. And what I thought, and what I’d thought the other times, is that there was no earthly way I could do this to V.
So I walked to what I called home now- because it was- and in the morning, I finally cried in front of them. I knew when I saw them I’d cry, and I was terrified. But I chose to do that, to be vulnerable, to be honest with them. I knew the other option was… Either shutting myself down completely, or finally taking the bridge.
So I told them my news, and they hugged me, and it was okay. I didn’t implode or explode. The world was okay. My professor gave me perspective, which she was always good at, and her partner gave me support. V sat quiet and a little uncomfortable in the face of so much emotion, and then we played Birdopoly. It was all I wanted to do.
Strawberry dumplings and my professor’s dad’s spaghetti, and my grandma’s lasagna that I made them, and the new Star Trek Movie, and countless days sitting on the back patio, and card games and board games and talking important points about online strategy games.
The time came that I was going to visit Milwaukee– though it wasn’t yet time for me to leave the Cities for good– and this also marked the time that V and my professor were going overseas to see family for a week, and after that madness for all. I had to take up other offers of places to stay- it was time.
That day came and I was exhausted and so sad and I felt like throwing up, saying goodbye to V. This was my ersatz family. This group of people welcomed me in without question, with open arms. They saved me. No question.
I tried to thank them, I tried to say it was too much. My professor told me that when she had gone through a bad breakup, a professor of hers had taken her in for the summer, where she’d gardened and healed, and I think this meant she was paying this forward to me.
V was just V. Just an eight year old kid figuring out the world. Being– him and alive and real. And some days that was all I wanted, was to sit down with this kid and also be myself and alive and real, and play a game, or talk deep talks about… well usually about games. Diving for quarters in the public pool. Asking occasional deep questions. Talking about the world. That kid kept me going. That kid kept me alive.
I don’t know if I deserved what this family gave me. They sheltered me. I had to learn, also, to accept what they gave me. I did. And, I’m so grateful for it that I can’t speak about it well. They enfolded me and held me in their group, their world, their family. There aren’t really words for that.
That is how the beginning of the summer was. It wasn’t what I expected. It saved my life.
Every night now I lay down and I pray, I don’t know to whom, but I pray a prayer of gratitude. This is my prayer, and it might even be to them, this family, and the people in the next acts who saved me too. To you. The people who enfolded me not just in Minneapolis, but all over. People, who I couldn’t offer my vulnerability but wrapped me up in love anyway.
Here’s the prayer I say to you.
I am blessed
For the ground beneath my feet
For a couch this night to sleep
And thank you
I am blessed, and grateful