Reality Never Left

The summer is almost over. School starts again. We’ve returned from vacation and I’ve returned to writing. And to paraphrase Sergeant Schultz, I’ve learned nothing. I really thought I’d learn something; that I’d be awash in epiphanies and personal revelation. I thought I’d be more fit, more well read and in the end, happier than my current moroseness belies. The first title I chose for this post was “I’m Still Me. Damn It.”

I celebrated my 49th birthday in Monterey earlier this week. 31 years ago, I was 18, fresh out of basic training, attending the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey to learn Russian. As I ate dinner with my husband and daughter, overlooking Monterey Bay, I felt old. Everything was at the same time alien and familiar. The bark of the sea lions, that fishy smell so common on wharves – those things were familiar.

canstockphoto30275996Cannery Row was unrecognizable. The little bar where my underage drinking buddies and I could score KB Lagers was a sandwich shop. We’d go to Kalisa’s to drink and listen to singers, standup comics, to watch belly dancers and then stagger loudly and drunkenly up a long hill to our barracks. The next morning, PT and hours of language classes. Rinse and repeat.

I was blessedly young and stupid. I still thought I might be a spy or a roving journalist or a novelist. I still believed my value was in what I’d do, not who I was or who I’d become to someone else. I thought I’d be sophisticated and witty. I wore skirts and heels and looked at myself in the mirror a lot. I thought sex was a precursor to love and that male attention was to be coveted.

Some bad things happened that year, too. Things that made me stop drinking as much. Things that made me more solemn. I was lonely much of the time, even in groups of friends. I realized that I was not a good sidekick, team player or party girl. I was adept at being a chameleon. I could read the room, but that skill didn’t ameliorate the intense sense of isolation. I hadn’t yet had therapy or confronted my family history or learned that loyalty, my loyalty, should be earned.

I smoked a lot, sitting on benches on the shore. I wandered through bookstores and libraries. These were only slivers of time between classes and military obligations and barracks living. They are the few slivers that I remember with clarity.

canstockphoto1856187A German linguist, training for reserve duty, befriended me. We listened to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings while driving along Big Sur. It was one of my happiest moments that year. I talked to her last month. She laughs big and is kind. I still wonder at and feel gratitude for our friendship.

I met my father while I was in Monterey. I hadn’t seen him or spoken with him since I was 5 years old. I knew he lived in San Francisco, so I opened a phone book, found his name and called him. In person, he was small and hesitant. Not the smiling tall 19 year-old I’d seen in photos, with me on his shoulders. He brought his second wife with him. His second wife was all Californian – bleached and tanned and bedecked with bracelets and earrings that distracted me every time she moved.

I was polite but rigid. I resented his polite conversation, seething inside. He abandoned me to a stepfather who hated me. I thought of how poor we’d been and how my mother struggled to support us. I looked at my father and his spangly wife and decided one meeting was enough. When he called to meet again, I told him I hadn’t had a father for 13 years and I didn’t need one now. How unforgiving we can be when we’re young.

Four months later, he sat in the car in his garage, hose from pipe to window and killed himself. Unbeknownst to me, his wife was leaving him and he’d sustained a back injury that made him unemployable. But I had been cruel and dismissive and that is my indelible shame. I learned much that year – the shame of wanting love and pushing it away. The shame of believing in people too soon or too late. Lessons all.

I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia. Perhaps it is because I feel the lessons and memories of my youth so acutely. I always think that the best time of my life is right now. For some people, this might be called optimism, but being who I am, I realize it is more an acceptance that this is it. If I want it to be better, I have to do something. Sometimes inertia is okay, but at other times it seems intolerable.

Still, there’s groceries to get and a lawn to mow. I write my to-do list and prepare for a day of chores. A gull from one of the lakes flies overhead squawking and I am reminded of the gulls along the Pacific shore. I am reminded that I took a vacation, that I took a summer off from writing. It feels as if I were never away.

38 Comments on “Reality Never Left

  1. It’s good you have your writing to make a thread through time.

    It’s tough for you, about your father. You don’t have to feel shame – you can let that go. It is not cruel to let it go. It is you being reasonable to yourself.

    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, David. I think there are just things that leave their mark – even when a result of our own behavior. Fortunately, they are offset by many more redeemable moments and I think that’s the best to hope for.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It is SO bizarre. I swear I thought of you just yesterday, wondered how your summer has been and if and when you’d be back. And here you are! Happy to “read” you again.

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    • Hi Fransi. I did have a good summer and certainly didn’t intend to get back into blogging with such a grim chapter. But that’s the nature of blogging for me – wherever I’m at is what I’m writing about. Glad to be back, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder how much visiting Monterey and talking to the German linguist friend brought back details from your time there, which you’ve shared so nicely here. And your relationship with nostalgia is interesting, as the post reads as a version of nostalgia, but not the sentimental kind, if such a thing is possible. (How can one go back and reflect and not sound nostalgic, I wonder? Thoughts I noodle on myself.) Your voice sounds really good, for what it’s worth. Go away and come back, rinse and repeat.

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    • Hey Bill. Yeah, it knocked me back a bit – to be in such a lovely place with my family and have this dark undercurrent running through my brain. The writing is rusty and I’m feeling a tad morose, but I think there’s always a readjustment period that one has to barrel through. Look forward to catching up with you!

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  4. For me your writing is always pretty raw and emotional, like a Joni Mitchell song, which is pretty damn good I’d say. Writing is the oddest occupation. It can be so draining and yet so cathartic. Your inner life bleeds into yours and gives us a glimpse of another writer’s reality, which is enough for us. I hope it’s enough for you. Glad you are back. I’m sorry about your father. I’m sure you were one sad thing in a life full of sad choices he made, not one single one that inspired his suicide. I hate suicide. Those left behind, the victims, are like holocaust victims grappling with survivor’s guilt, and what if’s? and if only’s…incredibly sad. My husbands life has been touched by it twice, so I’ve seen the struggle. My best thoughts and well wishes are with you Michelle.

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    • You’re right, Ilona, about writing being a funny business. Nothing settles me down more than writing – the organization of all my chaotic thoughts guided by rule and form. Most days, it is enough.

      As for my father’s life, I found out that later he was troubled early on (he’d attempted suicide in his late teens), so I think it was always at the edges of his tenuous life. Still, I will always wish that I had been less angry and more kind. And the lesson is valuable.

      Thanks for your well wishes!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I had a lot of work to attend to but then I started reading your post and couldn’t stop. I have never seen a more honest work. So direct and yet so touching…! I am sure you would be a very honest person in real life.. I am sorry about your father but there are things we have no control on… Destiny and karma! They are powerful. I guess the past will haunt but moving on is the best option for ourselves and our loved ones. Once again, the voice in your works are so strong and powerful that it captures the reader absolutely!

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    • Thanks for your kind words. You’ve made me think about the nature of honesty. I think I’ve arrived at a point in my life where it makes no sense to obfuscate. It takes so much more energy to be anything than what we are – human, flawed, complicated. Even our own truths/perspectives shift from moment to moment.
      I believe the best and only thing we can do with hard lessons, is to make different choices, better choices. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment here!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. And so it goes. Michelle you are an existential expression master! Like the previous commenter, I am sitting in the parking lot for a dental appointment and saw you come in so I had to peek and couldn’t stop. Yes – something changed. Your character micro-deepened. Perhaps imperceptible in the moment, or season, but assuredly so. And so it goes.
    Hugs to you, sister-writer! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for that compliment! Change does feel imperceptible at the moment. It’s amazing how quickly I went from vacation/summer mode into the rut of daily chores. I suppose the trick is to see and appreciate the value of routine and the nature of home. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  7. Glad you’re back. I lived in Monterey about 25 years ago. I knew it instantly from your picture. It holds a mixed bag of emotions for me too, but for different reasons. I lived a couple blocks up from the aquarium, and sometimes I long for the foggy mornings and hearing the seals in the harbor. Definitely a place that stirs emotion. Happy birthday, by the way.

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    • Thank you, Lisa. I think it hit me how much happened the year I was there. The sea lions barking all night long is definitely a sensory trigger. It’s a beautiful place to be, albeit ridiculously expensive. The fog/sunshine factor is perfect for a writer, though – weather for all moods. Thanks for the birthday wish – I had a good one!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It seems to me that it is we, your readers, who get to learn something. It is us who are rewarded with epiphanies from your experience. You are fit as ever, maybe more, and this writing, this post, it is as real as it gets. You said it well, all of it. Welcome back. It’s been a long, dry summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Honie, for the kind words. It’s been a long summer that now seems to have passed quickly. My writing feels very awkward, but perhaps that is why I wrote such a doggedly introspective piece – at least I know the subject at hand! Glad to be back and look forward to catching up!

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  9. Oh, hello, my friend!
    I am SO glad to have you back. Your posts always feed a deep need for truth that doesn’t get sated often enough. So, thank you for coming back (sans epiphanies ).

    I get nostalgia that bites–that confusing mix of pleasure and pain embedded in a place. Therapy has been devoted to that particular tangle.

    It’s odd what time can do. While you may have been short of “Ah-Ha” moments this summer, you shared so many that have come to you with hindsight. Somehow, that feels right. We keep setting down one word after another, ticking off one menial chore from the list, changing from summer to winter clothes, and the mundane becomes poignant over time.

    Here’s to another season of small acts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sandy. I am glad to be back, glad to be writing and glad to feel fall blowing in. My moroseness has lifted a tad since I started writing again – why oh why do I forget that’s how I work? I love that phrase “season of small acts”. It sounds perfect.

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  10. Your story drew me in. Like others have said – I started reading and couldn’t stop. There’s such a beautiful eloquence to the way you express things, tell the story. Maybe it does feel as if you were never away, but something has shifted. At least I feel it has.
    Welcome back.
    Alison

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  11. I am so sorry to hear about your father, Michelle. You are right that sometimes you can’t go home again because things are going to feel weird and out of place. Maybe in some fashion, this blog can be therapeutic for you. I look forward to taking the journey with you.

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  12. What a powerful, candid reflection. The force of your father’s suicide, and the sharp clarity of your observations thereafter, are especially moving. I am glad to have you back, and glad that you have not changed in any way that might have made reading you less worthwhile.

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    • Hi Cate. I missed this comment, so apologies for the late response. Thanks for the kind words. It’s been a bit of rough re-entry, but glad to be here and “talking” with everyone again.

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  13. I agree with living in the here and now. How sad for those who seem to live in the past for some heyday. I’m more into planning to make tomorrow a little better while appreciating today!

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  14. I wonder at that last line, ‘It feels as if I were never away.’ I can’t help but feel it isn’t as positive sounding as it seems on the surface.

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  15. Hi Michelle!
    Welcome back! I am so excited to catch up on your posts, yaaay!!
    Thank you especially for this one. I see in your writing that your experiences have taught you to hold the space to simply experience them, and not necessarily judge them, as we are all so prone to do.
    This piece also reminds me of Brene Brown’s book, _Rising Strong_. She writes similarly that nostalgia does not serve us, and mindfulness, focusing our attention on the present can free us from the self-inflicted arrows of judgment, shame, and anxiety. I can’t remember if you and I have shared about her before. She is one of my literary and social science heroes.
    Wishing you a productive and peaceful fall, and looking forward to connecting more! 🙂 ❤

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    • I like the idea of holding space. Our lives become so cluttered by our own thoughts and perspectives, that space to observe and experience seems like a rare commodity.
      I hadn’t heard of Brene Brown, so I listened to her TED talk regarding vulnerability. It was a nice way to ameliorate the cloud of morning news. I’ll have to look her up at the library – thanks for mentioning her.
      Thanks, too, for the wishes of productivity, they echo what I wish for myself. I hope you are enjoying the fall and I’m glad to be back in conversation!

      Liked by 1 person

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