The daffodils on Broadway were glowing under the streetlamps, and the buds auditioned for their roles on the trees of Riverside Park. In spring in New York City, the fauna bloom along with the flora. People, in as much variety as their vegetable counterparts, burst out of their hovels onto the sidewalks and promenades to recharge with solar vitamin D. They roller blade like fast ants, or saunter down the avenues with glances into bodegas (where the lotto is up to $2 million). They carry their boom boxes on their shoulders like theyre showing off a young child.
Spring is usually my favorite time of yearit is the playground of seasons. But this spring, I was sitting on a mood swing that was no longer swinging.
I was stuck, and even though I was twenty-something, Id forgotten how to pump.
During the three years Id been living in New York since college, Id accepted a low-grade emotional burn as a normal part of getting through the day. On this blooming night in spring, however, the word normal no longer seemed to apply. Normal, in fact, had gone out on a long walk without saying when shed be back. I was not out at the movies or enjoying late-night ice cream. I was lying flat on my back in bed, holding onto my thin cotton sheets, trying to make sense of a filmy gray presence that was hovering near the ceiling above me.
At the time, I believed in presences no more than I believed in an honest politician. But belief has a way of morphing when a blob hovers over you like an unbidden marketing call from the beyond. The thing was undulating and would not go away, no matter how I turned my head or blinked my eyes, or told myself I was making this up. The thing had no form except that it rolled like ocean water and was just big enough (I noticed) for me to disappear into it, if that had been its choice.
I was so drenched with fear I didnt think to wake my husband, who was deep in sleep beside me. The reference points we had for this kind of phenomenon were unacceptable: (1) demon possession; or (2) madness. I closed my eyes and pressed myself against Jonathan, hopingthe way I did as a child climbing in next to my mother in bedthat this would somehow save me from annihilation.
When I woke in the morning, the sun was up, the pigeons on the fire escape were squabbling, and the apparition was gone. I didnt tell anyone what had happened, planning to keep my sanity intact by force of will.
But morose things began to happen in great abundance that springtime, causing me to question my own power over my sanity. I started seeing sinister facesunwelcome faeriesin squished gum or smeared dirt on the floor of subway trains. I saw images of my dismembered body flashing in front of me on the platform while I awaited the train to go to work. I dreaded sleep, because it was a gateway into a field of gruesome nightmares. And like many people who are depressed, I did everything I could to avoid being alone.
I told myself I was no Anna KareninaId never throw myself in front of a train. But I wasnt sure that my rational self would have the last say on that. I tried distraction. I went to work, had coffee with friends, went out dancing, stayed up late. But it is hard to feel normal when it seems like your own mind is out to get you, and its only a matter of time until it succeeds. It is even harder to be a good partner to someone else.
If, like me, you were married, or had a lover, you might begin to suspect that because he is deeply connected to you, and you are very ill, he might have your same disease. Or worse, that he is the one who gave it to you in the first place. I didnt stick around long enough to find out whether either was true. In late spring, I told Jonathan that I didnt know if I loved him anymore. We broke glasses and plates in a last ditch effort to impress each other with emotion, but after two weeks I packed up my clothes and walked out on my marriage of two brief years. I was going to live with my friend Eleanor downtown.
Sense can hardly ever be made out of relationships ending. Whether it happens slowly, over the course of a lifetime, or all of a sudden, like a thunderstorm in the month of May, there remains on your mental curb a scuffed suitcase full of disbelief. First there was love and a bonfire of hormones. Then there was something elsenot apathy, not lack of feelingjust an absence of love, or the absence of love the way you expected it to behave. An empty stage, when you were expecting a play.
Eleanor is a poet and movie reviewer whom Id met at a writing workshop at Columbia University. Shes tall with a sturdy stature and irreverent humor that steadied me while I vomited up my marriage. She lived in Little Italy near Chinatown, and so when I got back to the place where I was eating more than smoking, I filled up on Chinese cabbage and tofu and put fat back on my bones with Italian cheesecake.
After a couple of weeks, though, it became evident that my illness had moved all of its belongings downtown with me, so I began to think out loud with Eleanor and my mother about what I could do to make myself happy again.
One, I could stay with Eleanor and laugh myself back to health, except that I had neglected to fulfill the necessary coursework to renew my elementary school teaching certificate, and so had no job lined up for fall. Two, I could leave the city and start over again. One night on the phone with my mother, I revisited a very impractical idea that Id had the year before. I could head home and collect stories from my Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite family.
"That sounds workable," Mom said, always the optimist, bouncy as her brown bob. The fact that I had just derailed myself from my career track didnt seem to phase her.
"I imagine one of the aunts and uncles might be willing to rent out a roomfor a fair rate," she said. I could see the wheel in her blue sky turning. I talked about staying with her parents, who lived on a farm north of Philadelphia. I had spent loads of time on the farm as a child, and envisioned lying in a haystack, writing out my stories, the cows grumbling in the barn below. But my grandmother was suffering her own depression, and my mother and I agreed it would be too confusing.
When Mom called back later and said shed found an arrangement for living near my dads parents, I felt that perhaps a god was looking out for me after all: her name was Mom. I would stay with my dads twin, Roy, and his wife Sandi, who lived next door to my grandparents, Henry and Betts Yoder, on Kulp Hill. My aunt and uncle had a basement apartment that was empty, and they were willing to accommodate me.
I realize hanging out with ones family can actually tip a wobbling sanity in the wrong direction. But I felt drawn to what I suspected was a simpler life than the one Id been living in New York. Henry and Betts, now in their early eighties, came from generations of Mennonites who saw themselves as separate from the world and so took their changes slowly. I, on the other hand, had stripped off my childhood culture in quick teenage gestures. I was all new, not given to looking back at old ways and old times. Perhaps thats why my grandparents lives intrigued me so much. Their lives were based on roots, while my life was based on change. The heritage I had abandoned was as solid as the Hill my family had come to so many years ago, their belongings strapped to a horse-drawn wagon.
So I went, click-click, like Dorothy in her ruby slippers. Jonathan and I broke down our Upper West Side apartment, sold our random furnishings to neighboring Columbia University students, and boxed up the rest for storage. He went to live with friends. I set up shop in Bally, Pennsylvania, to tether myself to the fat root of my family and to the black soil of Kulp Hill.
Of course, as the saying goes, you cant truly go home again. Home is simply a memory, a place that no longer exists in the real world after youve been away for a long time. To truly go home would be to return to what you were before you left, to relinquish everything youve become. But you can try to return. Just as you can try anything. You can return with a little of you, just that teeny part that agrees to go. Maybe I would learn something Id forgotten, or a thing not learned well enough the first time around. I told my friends it was just for a summer, so that I could write poetry. But I was more desperate than that.
At first, I felt very awkward, a withered specimen from New York, wearing too much black and smoking in stolen moments, late at night, on the driveway. I kept a pint of Wild Turkey Id brought from New York in my desk drawer, which I sipped late at night after everyone else was in bed. When a week passed, and the bottle was empty, I drove to the local pizza joint and tossed it into the dumpster. I didnt plan on replacing it. I was going to do what one of my friends called "52-card pick-up with your life." I was going to change my life all over again.
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© 2003 by Cascadia Publishing House
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