failure to rise

More reading than writing these days, and not much of either. Speedboat. The Year of Magical Thinking. For a second time, as preparation for Blue Nights. Which – M. says over coffee this morning – I should never, ever read.

“Really?” I ask. “Why not?” He has just finished it.

“Well, no – I guess I do want you to read it. I just don’t want to be anywhere near you when you do.”

Fair enough, I think. It’s not as though I’m good at keeping my struggles to myself.

In the other room, our son is crying loudly over some sudden disappointment that is too crushing for his five-year-old heart to bear.

Winter is difficult. Even the unusually mild temperatures do nothing to address the darkness that falls so early.

I wake with aches, the origins of which I cannot determine.

Daily, it seems, I am at work creating new sources of anxiety: How will we bear the sadness of aging? What will we do if something terrible happens to our children? What if I leave the oven on all night, and then forget, and then try to light a match?

My friends come over and we cheer each other, hold each other up. We enumerate accomplishments. We shake our heads in agreement. It is not as though the things we say are untrue. It as not as though I don’t take sustenance in them. But the exercise calls to mind the presenting of trophies for participation to the soccer team of four-year-olds. For you, for showing up! As if you ever really had the choice not to.

I was eight years old, in day camp, and we ran around the track at the YMCA in the mornings while the counselor pretended to time us, blew his whistle. I was terrible, slow.

At the end of the two-week session, he handed me a gold-bordered certificate with my name on it. “Most Improved Runner,” he had written across the top. Which even then seemed just a thinly-veiled, “Gosh, I never thought you’d make it.”

At the meeting of delegates in the hotel ballroom, at which there is both a Parliamentarian and a gavel involved, my friends and I sit in the back row, holding our heads. We stayed out too late the night before, and one among us has not made it down from his room. When his name is called, there is silence. After a long pause, the presiding official intones: “Let the record show that L___ T___ has failed to rise.” The whole row of us, consummate professionals that we are, giggle like schoolchildren until the gavel comes down hard – once, twice, and a third and final time.

My preoccupations with turning forty now behind me, I have turned my attention to more shapeless, ill-defined anxieties. A constant sense that I am not prepared for what is to come. That there will be challenges for which I will be required to act, decisions that I will be asked to make, and that I will be unable or unwilling to do so appropriately. The list of possible outcomes runs through my head – a continuous loop of clichés:

Will bet on the wrong horse
Will not rise to the occasion
Will not know when to fold

Will put my eggs – every last one of them – in the wrong basket.
Will count all my chickens before they are hatched.

All around me – the coupling and uncoupling. I have friends who are looking for love. And all the divorcing friends. All the seeking for a life different from the life that is being lived. I think on this, as my car idles at the stop light in front of the fire station and suddenly, the thought strikes me so hard it brings tears:

It is not that I want a different life – it’s that I want a different past.

The light changes, and I move on slowly, past the fire house, past the grocery store, past the office supply store plaza. Down the hill to the stop sign where the drivers around me try to inch forward, try to outrun the light a few blocks down that lets out into this intersection. Try to dart out just before the cars bear down on them, the drivers waving their arms around and leaning on their horns.

In front of the bathroom mirror, standing on tiptoe, I consider the lines on my face. I squint and frown so close to the glass that my breath fogs it. I pluck at the few gray hairs that pop up like the weeds that go untended in last weeks of summer.

There is a dusting of snow that covers a thin layer of ice on the lawn, the driveway, and the car this morning. My hands are bare. I take the brush from inside the car and scrape away at the ice while the motor runs. The man across the street – the waving, bus-waiting man – looks away while I move around the perimeter of the car, each window in turn, then take a cloth to the side view mirrors. Inside the car, my son grins and waves at me each time I pass his window.

We are a few minutes later than usual, and the traffic is heavier on the street. It takes several moments before I am clear to back out, pull up to parallel to the sidewalk where the man waits. There is a car coming in the opposite direction, so I have to move quickly. I wave in the direction of the man, but he is facing the other way. I move forward, wave again, but I can’t quite see out that particular part of window in which he is framed; there is still a little frost obscuring my view. I check my rear view mirror as I pull away down the street. He is watching me, but does not wave. I wonder what I have done to offend him. Have I not been cheerful enough, enthusiastic enough in my waving? I vow to be more so tomorrow.