We are not contained between our hats and boots
The happy, sad, tired, beautiful business of L-I-V-I-N.
“We’re not separated from the world by our own edges.”
Charlie set down his beer glass, empty now, and rubbed his hand up and down his arm as an example of one of his edges.
“We’re part of the sky and the rocks in your mother’s garden and that old man who sleeps by the train station. We’re all interconnected and when you see that, you see how beautiful life is. Your mother and sisters don’t have that awareness. Not yet, anyway. They believe they’re contained in their bodies and the biographical facts of their lives.”
Sylvie felt like her father had shown her a part of herself she hadn’t known existed. When Sylvie looked back on that moment, now, from the funeral pew and later over the course of her life, it would always be one of her great joys that her father had said this to her and that she was able to delight him by paraphrasing one of his favorite poems. “We are not contained between our hats and boots…” - Hello Beautiful, Ann Napolitano
At 5 am on weekday mornings, my iPhone politely plays “droplets” to gently encourage me to rise and shine. Ironic, because I 86ed the “rise & shine” option for an aggressiveness not unlike an enthusiastic hotel maid knocking and shouting “housekeeping” at your Vegas hotel room door after an unlucky night of drinking-induced blackjack.
Since motherhood kicked off in my early thirties, I haven’t experienced the kind of careless, deep sleep I took for granted in my twenties so I don’t need or want alarm aggression. I awake at a whisper, a meow, a cough, a fart. I can hear a loud swallow indicating a kid’s oncoming sickness from two rooms away. My body is an intensified receptor attuned to the wellness of all beings in my home. Subtle indications of illness scrape at my hearing as intensely as those trendy ASMR videos It’s a blessing and a curse.
I’m in the habit of wearing a robe and slippers in the morning and I wonder if, like waking up early, this is some kind of middle-aged rite of passage. I’m an early-rising, slippers and robe lady now. Next thing you know, I’ll be playing competitive bingo at the Lions Club down the street and using my winnings to purchase daily Scratch-Offs at the gas station.
Because I set it before I go to bed, the coffee maker is always softly burping as I pass through the kitchen, slippers shooshing across vinyl, to let the dogs into the backyard to pee.
We moved recently. From our sweet cabin in the woods to a little mid-century, red brick rambler in State College - a confusing name for a town, I know. The older two kids attend a charter school for 5th - 8th graders here in the city and with my firstborn starting high school in the fall, we needed to be within the district boundaries to be allowed to register for high school here and not the awful 7th - 12th-grade rural school we first tried when Violet started middle school last year.
Violet likes to be called Blake now. Which is ridiculously cool; both the name and the bold notion of renaming yourself what you feel most comfortable being called. I obviously love the name Violet, but I think I like Blake even more because it’s what they named themself. So, it’s a request I’m more than happy to oblige.
I’ve never liked my own name and spent a mid-eighties summer hanging around my dad’s shitty apartment building in Gallup, New Mexico telling anyone within earshot that my name was Tammy. This meant I was explaining myself to a motley assortment of down-on-their-luck adults and the few children who populate cheap apartments in rundown towns in the middle of nowhere. The kind of living arrangement that screams temporary: a way station for folks coming off bitter divorces, bad break-ups, rehab stints, or job loss. A place to lick wounds, get shit together, and hopefully get on with the business of living - preferably somewhere else.
Tammy. Jesus. Talk about zero imagination or vision. Out of all the names possible: fucking Tammy? No offense to the Tammys out there, it’s just that if you’re working from Monica, Tammy feels like a lateral move, at best.
Still, I told my dad and brothers they must call me Tammy, and then, after feeling tummy tingles every time I saw Daisy Duke saunter across the screen of Dad’s floor console TV - at 200 pounds, more furniture than TV - decided I was more Daisy than Tammy. Wishful thinking, probably. Either way, nobody gave two shits about my Tammy/Daisy dreams and they quickly tumbleweeded into the New Mexico desert along with the hopes and dreams of just about everyone else in that dusty town.
I still wanna change my name. Late in the name game, I realized there are several fairly acceptable nicknames to be had within the framework of Monica (Nica Danielle, anyone?!) but a name change at 46 feels like deciding to quit smoking at 96. What’s the fuckin’ point?
Maybe that’s why I’m happy to honor any name change requests. People should be called what they want to be called and the sooner in life, the better. At 14, Blake knows themself better than I know myself at 46 so - Blake it is. I feel proud to be raising a bold, fearless badass who knows what she wants or doesn’t want and isn’t afraid to say so.
I sit in my robe and slippers, holding my morning coffee, and check my iPhone calendar. When viewed as a whole, all the things I have to do - make the kid’s lunches for school, then breakfasts, drive them to school, at least three daily work meetings but usually more, the Zoom interview with the scientist about tornadoes, write a story about tornado survival, the regular doctor appointment with one kid in a town 45 minutes away, coordinating pickup of other kids with Cory, approve reporter scripts before their stories air on the network, more meetings, make dinner - it all seems overwhelming, impossible, even! That’s just the shit that has to be done. Not the stuff I really need to get done. At some point, I need to get groceries. I need to get my oil changed. I need to get this gorilla off my chest, man, because I can’t fucking breathe.
All of this assaults me as I sip my coffee, delete dozens of work emails, and listen to newscasters perform outrage over the latest mass shooting. My heart beats faster, my body feels heavy and my chest tightens with the familiar dread. It’s too much, there is too much, this isn’t how life is supposed to be, how is life supposed to be? I don’t know but not THIS.
Lately, though, I am fighting the dread. Well, maybe not fighting it so much as talking back like an impertinent teenager.
Fuck you, dread. You just make things worse. Useless piece of shit emotion.
The day is going to happen regardless of how I feel about it. The only thing I can control is how I feel about it. I can come at it all stressed, anxious, rushing from one thing to the next, never living in the moment, and always worrying about the next thing. Or I can just let it happen and go with the flow.
Don’t view it like that, I remind myself. Don’t see it as this massive black cloud of requirements, all the things that need to get done. Just think about right now, your coffee, the NY Times mini crossword, Wordle. This is all totally doable. You’re just going to wander through today, from one thing to the next and when you get to the other side of the day it will all be done. Don’t worry about anything but what is right in front of you. There’s no reason to overthink it, no reason to think about it at all! Just get on the innertube and float down the river of life today. It will be an adventure.
It’s working, sometimes.
Matthew McConaughey has always struck me as someone who knows how to have a good time. Maybe he’s nothing like him, but I conflate him with his David Wooderson character in the nineties movie Dazed and Confused. It helps that he was once arrested for playing the bongos at three in the morning while stoned and naked.
There’s this line his character says at the end of the movie that has stuck with me since my first of a dozen viewings. It’s a small moment, but also the point of the movie. After a night of graduation partying the somewhat sobering teenagers are all sitting in the middle of their high school’s football field waiting for the sun to rise. Wooderson is a few years older than the seniors gathered and tells another kid stressing about a decision he has to make, “Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they're gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin, man. L-I-V-I-N.”
Something about the way he says L-I-V-I-N and strolls almost out of frame does it for me. The tone, the vibe. Yes! Exactly, sweet Matthew Wooderson McConaughey. Let’s get stoned, naked, and bang on some bongos until the neighbors call the police and we won’t go nicely, goddammit! We will sack-of-potato those badge-wearing sons-of-bitches so they’re forced to haul our naked middle-aged bodies to a cruiser flashing reds and blues around the neighborhood as sleepy-eyed neighbors gather, shocked and pointing fingers at the aging titties falling into my armpits.
Maybe it’s dumb, but when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the To Do list, the bills, or co-parenting with the kid’s dad, I just spell the one word to myself with as much McConaughey swagger as I can muster and I always feel better:
L I - V - I - N.
It’s really all you can do.
On Saturday mornings the iPhone droplets wake me up an hour later than on weekdays. I take out my earrings, braid my hair, put on a hat, and drive the three minutes to the little restaurant where I work. I’m looking forward to warmer weather when I can ride the bike Cory got me for my birthday to work.
I spend the day in a whirlwind of buttering toast, making waffles, slicing fruits and veggies, and bantering with some of the coolest people I’ve met in a long time. Our ages feel irrelevant. Like my dad’s New Mexico apartment complex, restaurants are way stations for all kinds of people; kids who’ve scored their first jobs as hosts and bussers; twenty-somethings on their way to something else; adults cobbling together several part-time jobs into a living, and others, like me, who need extra cash.
While work at a big company often swallows my soul, this new, part-time weekend gig for $15 an hour is lighting me the fuck up. Surrounded by a bunch of characters of all ages, sweaty, achy, busy every single second, no screens, no internet, watching the hungover college kid sneak sips of beer from a coffee mug while he flips the tastiest pancakes into existence and tells the grill cook to go fuck himself, I realize how good it feels to just be me. Real me. Not corporate Monica. Dirty joke-tellin’, foul-mouthed Monica whose favorite thing is to make people laugh.
Working my ass off to get people the food they ordered as quickly as possible is a massive relief from the psychologically exhausting, tightrope walk necessary for a successful existence within a large company. Corporate life is a constant performance under intense scrutiny. Multitasking and incessant communication from all technology angles at a frenetic pace in a place I’ll never feel at ease and don’t want to feel at ease because that would almost certainly indicate the death of my soul.
Often, weirdly, I wonder about what aliens would think of humans if they came to our planet to observe human lifestyles. I figure they would probably think our energy is derived from screens. “They spend large chunks of time recharging with their screens,” they’d tell the aliens back home. “It’s sad. And their batteries don’t last very long!” they’d continue. “They need recharging throughout the day so they carry tiny screens in their pockets that they look at to recharge on the go.”
Except the screens are the opposite of recharging.
Kitchen work feels honest and direct. Buttering toast, plating food, slicing fruit, and washing dishes expands me and feels good to me after Zoom meetings, emails, and office jargon that steal parts of me in ways I find difficult to articulate, even in therapy. That said, it is hard physical work and I only do it one day a week. I can’t fathom those in the service industry working those brutal, exhausting shifts five and six days a week.
Being a part of a team united in the very specific goal of making delicious food and serving it to an endless stream of hungry people is a rush. Mastering the small kitchen choreography required to do the job in an efficient manner jacks my adrenaline and sends dopamine rocketing around my system. I come home tired but pumped. Unlike my regular job where I come home totally depleted. In a kitchen, when you mess up you don’t have time to overanalyze like you would when seated behind a computer screen in a cubicle. You just move on. You gotta keep livin’, man. No time to look back just focus on the task at hand. Right now is all that matters.
It’s funny, a job I thought I would resent because I felt forced to get it after the child support order is actually sparking long dormant parts of my mind. I feel younger. Revived. Refreshed, as if I’ve jumped into an icy cold lake. I feel more capable, somehow. You’d think a decades-long career as a writer and live news producer at various TV stations across the country would do that and it does, sometimes. Equally often I feel stagnant. Wilted. Like an unwatered plant on a dark window sill.
Last week Cory brought all the kids down to eat at the restaurant while I was working. A breakfast that cost more than I would make after my nine-hour shift that day. But it was worth it, I reasoned when I texted him to come. Kids who have only experienced a mom who stares at a computer screen for a living watched me carry trays of cups from the dishwasher, and hand plates of food to servers to deliver to tables, including theirs. I wanted them to see me work. To know that when unexpected money issues arose, I took action and was able to handle it. All jobs are important. All work is valuable. This is how you do it, guys. When life pitches a curveball you just keep on keeping on.
I took a small break to come out and say hello, sat down at their table, introduced them to a few co-workers who passed the table, and asked if they liked the food. They seemed a little shy about experiencing me in an unfamiliar context, but largely unimpressed. Oh well, I thought. Still good for them to see me working hard, even if it didn’t seem to register in the way I hoped.
Later that night Cory and I pulled in front of their dad’s house to drop them off. As we were about to drive away, Henry, my 12-year-old, paused on the sidewalk and looked back at me while hitching the white Strat guitar Cory bought him for his birthday over his shoulder.
“Proud of you, Mom,” he said, making a point of looking me directly in the eyes.
Before I could metabolize the miraculousness of the moment he had thundered up the porch steps and the front door into his unknown life at his dad’s house was slamming behind him.
Cory and I walk slowly to a park a few minutes from our new place, missing our cabin in the woods but straight up delighted to be able to order food for delivery, ride bikes on paved roads, stroll actual sidewalks and within minutes be in a large, beautiful park with other humans emerging from their winter bunkers like hibernating bears. A light breeze swishes the blossomed branches of a weeping cherry tree like the bustling skirt of a busy mother and the happy yellow of forsythia explodes all around us.
Everywhere, people visibly relax as the surprisingly warm April sun slowly descends to the horizon. Phones in pockets or left at home, heads tilt back instead of down, shoulders lower, and eyes close against the buttery evening sunlight.
All of us experiencing variations of the same anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams, the same happy sad tired beautiful business of L-I-V-I-N. But for now, at this moment, all is well, and right now is all that matters.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
A portion of ‘Song of Myself’ by Walt Whitman
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