“I’m sick of everybody’s problems when I cannot do a single thing to solve them.” I said this sentence to my mother the other day and I was met with a beat of absolute silence, though I swear I could also hear the rhythmic throb of a horrified subtext in the blankness that followed.
“You can’t say that,” she finally responded, an extra breath or two of surprise folded into the disappointment that coated her words like butter turned sour.
“I most certainly can say that,” I said immediately – and the forcefulness of my words quieted us both.
This isn’t who I was, but this might just be who I am now.
I’m someone who likes solutions. I’m someone who relies on a plan. I am not a person comfortable with ambiguity stretching out in front of me, coloring the upcoming weeks and months with a dull grey haze.
I don’t think I’m very good at being an adult, I thought to myself a few days ago while I jumped on my trampoline so I could get some exercise. It was raining heavily outside and I could hear the thump of the water hitting the large window that I could see every time the reverberation of my bounce sent me up high. My dog watched me, perplexed. After a minute or two, she began to run around the trampoline in circles, her gait growing faster around the turns. I didn’t try to stop her. I realized that she was getting in some exercise, too – and she didn’t bark once. She never barks unless someone is at the door and the sound is still so unfamiliar that it startles me every single time.
I thought about all of the issues facing the people in my life as I lifted my knees up high. I wasn’t sure what part of my body was being worked by this knee thing, but I could feel a sting begin to form in the back of my thighs and I figured that just meant that whatever I was doing was effective. I felt better immediately and I know it’s because I interpreted my actions as a solution and I could almost measure the semblance of relief flooding through my mind as my thighs continued to burn.
I’ve been inside of hospitals and rehabilitation centers. I’ve made small talk with nurses and I’ve smiled at other patients. I have spoken on the phone with my mother so I could tell her that it’s okay, that she’s allowed to go home sometimes. I have listened to stories about hirings and firings and I had my first – well, second – experience with writing in a business style. I performed the ceremony to marry one family member and listened to another one discuss divorce. I had seven people approach me after the wedding ceremony to ask me if I was a writer and I said yes, but I also made sure to add that I’m a teacher, too. Then I sat in a room with a lot of teachers just a few days later and words flooded into my head that, when arranged sequentially, formed the sentence, “I have to get the fuck out of here.”
I have started to pray each and every night. If I forget to think those hopeful words that are lined with the kind of desperation that is written in a bubble style, I wake up in the middle of the night and make myself do it then. My mind is fuzzy in those dark hours, my thoughts anything but fluid. It takes me longer to create linear thoughts, but I force myself because I long for a calm to settle in the minds and the hearts of the people I love the most. The prayers make me feel optimistic, at least in the moment. The pessimism only sets in when the words stop and I can hear the buzz of my own jumbled silence again.
I have tried to set limits of what I am willing to talk about and what I am not. This practice is not new for me, but the boundaries are no longer followed in the way they used to be. The limits have been blurred and I find myself reiterating my refusals and reapplying a layer of invisible duct tape that I use as a demarcation that I think will prohibit people from crossing the line. Since they cannot see that duct tape, it doesn’t usually work. I react sometimes by getting angry, my tone of voice short with bitterness that my requests are not being respected. I feel guilty about my reaction every single time, but I can’t help wondering if the other person feels a bit guilty too and I become ashamed when I hope that the guilt is shared.
I attempt to offer assistance where I can, but much of this is beyond my reach. Besides, some people just do not listen to logic and I realize that I often hang up a phone blaming others for their own problems. I wish I knew more – about the dissolution of a marriage, about the ways to grow a business, about the mental fortitude inherent in building hope – but all I have realized is that there is so much I do not know. The one time I thought I could offer a family member a potential solution, it didn’t pan out. The lack of the solution saddened me far more than it surprised me.
I used to have a checklist in my mind that was written in bright pink, the letters as jagged and scrawled as my own handwriting. One of the things on that list was “Maybe try to marry an orphan.” It wasn’t the very first goal, of course, but I’ve long understood that family dynamics complicate personal development and then spread far into adulthood and I always just thought it might be easier to not have to deal with a phantom and unfamiliar family in the long run. Still, the orphan goal was below “Allows the dog sleep with us” and “Doesn’t feel the need to eat healthy every single day.” I have priorities, after all, and even these recent months have not altered them. But the orphan-thing is no longer written on that list. I erased it and I can hardly see the faint leftover pink, even though I know it remains. Now I think it might be lovely to be with someone who has a huge family so I can sit around a table with them and try to remember new names, pretending all of them are nothing but normal until I finally figure out the truth that nobody is completely sane.
The summer is almost here and I can feel the tingle of freedom pulsating in my palms. I refuse to fully compromise that freedom but yes, I feel horrible about myself every time I make that commitment in my mind because the words are colored with a selfishness I am unaccustomed to, one I fear might be the healthy way to live.
This is not who I was.
But this is who I am right now.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.