My next door neighbor died suddenly a few weeks ago and the abrupt end to the limited portal through which I knew his life — living at an intimate enough distance to know the times of his comings and goings, his obsessive dedication to leaf blowing, his visitors — has haunted me. It’s a strange haunting, really, because I didn’t know him in any real way. And I don’t presume to lay claim on a grief like anyone who knew and loved him and has suffered his loss. We never really had a conversation, even. The day we moved in, I was upstairs unpacking when he came to the door and introduced himself to my husband, welcoming us to the neighborhood. And yet, for whatever reason, the relationship never developed past a wave. As a childless, single man approaching middle age who liked to throw fabulous cocktail parties, I don’t know that we held much interest with our backyard volcanic with rowdy loud children laughing and fighting on the trampoline and playset.
All I knew, really, was the roughest outline his life made by its movements and size and shape when viewed 16 feet to the east. But it was enough to afford the maybe illusory sense of an intimacy, a known world. As I worked from my perch at the dining room table, or the living room couch – both overlooking his house – I watched his day unfold with mine, the only thing marring our silent coexistence was the occasional tension (which he never knew existed) between the timing of his leaf blowing and my conference calls. He was just a decade older than me and I fancied us similar in our progressive politics from little hints I gathered, a shared love of supporting local artists, a strong community of friends laughing – his from a lanai with twinkle lights, mine from a toy-strewn kitchen. Sure, we hadn’t yet moved beyond the wave, but I imagined we eventually would — how could we not, as like-minded friendly cultural creatives, living and working and making a life in this sleepy southern neighborhood. There would be time.
And then he died suddenly, 51 years old. And it only took 2 days for his lawn to be covered in leaves and, as added insult, 4 days for the weeds to sprout among the cedar mulch he worried over so. I am so sad, of course, for his tragedy. I am sad we never really connected. But beneath both I am feeling a broader sadness at the speed and fragility of it all.
I’ve had this sense lately that I have been on slo-mo unloading the dishwasher for the past five years as people have been born, learned to walk and talk, scribbled their names and started school. It’s like I’m working on finishing a sentence — losing, then finding, then losing again my train of thought and trying to be heard about the children’s din, just trying to get out to the end of this one sentence — in the same space of time as new businesses have been hatched on the backs of napkins, developed, funded, failed, reimagined and relaunched and IPO-ed. Friends have moved and moved again; countries have renegotiated trade agreements; marriages have been born, then dissolved; books have gone from being an idea to publication, all at warp speed around me, like those time elapsed photos of traffic at night. Meanwhile I’m still thinking the same thought about what to do with my “career” while watching the insolent leaves ride the gentle back and forth of a breeze and come to land lightly on my neighbor’s side yard.
The frenetic chaos of my domestic life with 3 children in the foreground, combined with the pace of the world in the background has me sandwiched, stuck like an insect on a pin. ( Or maybe a butterfly. I’d rather that.)
I wonder how much of this is this time in my life, mid-stride in both parenting and career building, and whether others feel the same way?
Steven and I have this little schtick about how much our lives feel like a Japanese game show, where the object of the game is to try to have a conversation about replacing the AC unit, while draining the boiling pasta, helping 4th graders with math homework and dodging a preschooler who is pretending to be a human pinball, precisely at crotch level. There are also flashing strobe lights, a loud siren on a techno beat, flying Ginsu knives – and a timer.
Or it could be that this anxiety at being tethered in the middle, this feeling of beating my wings against the pin and the plexiglass holding me in place has more to do with being just a couple years away from the age my mother was when she died? I think there is part of me that identifies with the warp speed because that’s how I’ve lived, leaning forward, racing to what feels like security, accomplishment, trying to get my children to be independent and resilient – because in an unconscious way I can’t imagine being older than 44. I know that’s nuts, of course, and yet I can’t escape a sense of urgency pressing me forward. Urging me to be present for my children every day, every interaction; to be productive with each working moment, each creative moment. There is a sense I can’t “waste” a day or a week, and that if I do pause – then even the pause must be worth something, like quality rest or producing a great epiphany. I know!! That’s exhausting. I am exhausting.
I lived in parallel with my neighbor, feeling as though we weren’t that different in where we were with our lives, and so his abrupt death struck that old, deep chord of fear that drives me to hurry, hurry. But you know, if I listen carefully, it struck more that. The deeper fear is that in my hurry, in my straining against this little hemmed in place I find myself in right now, I won’t do what I really need to in time. (Especially if what I really need to do doesn’t look anything like obvious forward motion and whizzing action lines.)
Many years back, when I was traveling in Vietnam, I stood frozen in Hanoi on the side of the busiest intersection I’d ever seen, unable to cross. There were no lanes, no signs, no stoplights to offer order to the swarming motorcycles, mopeds and minibuses piled high with people and chicken and briefcases. After what felt like hours of weighing whether I was willing to risk playing Frogger with my own life, I felt a small hand slip into mine. The hand belonged to a proportionally small elderly woman, who was wearing a wooden yoke across the back of her neck from which swung two buckets. She wordlessly gave me a tug and, without looking right or left, stepped into oncoming traffic. Amazingly, the chaotic, honking motorcycles parted and streamed around us as we crossed the street.
For the longest I had this story filed mentally under, “Crazy-Ass Intersections;” “Near Death Experiences;” “Kindness of Strangers when Traveling,” but now it strikes me as needing a cross reference to consider how I might should stop trying to match the speed of traffic around me and find more ease and acceptance in my own flow.
There is a reason why all I ever write about is letting go – and still have no idea how to do it. Not when it’s about my releasing my children to their own destinies, letting go my expectations of family and friends, letting go the old stories I’ve drafted for myself. But this particular letting go — letting go of this deep internal pressing urgency, is maybe the most essential (and hardest) to get. And right now, I’m being given the fallow time I didn’t particularly want to learn it.
I wrote to a mentor and friend recently, telling her I felt like I was slowly unloading the dishwasher while the everything was happening around me, and she said, “Yes, we always think it should be more grand than it is.”
“What is?” I asked.
“The opportunity and opening to Be more fully alive in our own lives.”
Dammit, I hate truths like that.