So my husband, Matthew Derby (longtime readers might better recognize him as “M”) has been working on this collaborative writing project called The Silent History for the last year or so, and we are excited that it finally about to “launch.” It’s a little hard to describe succinctly, but there are attempts to at Wired and at Buzzfeed, and most recently in The Providence Phoenix.
Last night, he read from it at this feminist art collective called Dirt Palace in Olneyville, an area of the city which has a complicated past as related to arts and artists. It is a nondescript storefront building and you enter through the side door and climb the stairs to the top floor. It’s a kind of organized chaos - collections of jars and beads and trinkets on the shelves. An organ. A sea of mismatched chairs. A scattering of throw rugs. Strings of beads are threaded through the oversized chandeliers that cast a dim light in the space.
I am always a bit intimidated being there, among the artists who have carved out these spaces for themselves, staked a claim on the way they would organize their lives. Traded certain conveniences and comforts for space to pursue creative, counter-culture lives. Or at least, this is my fantasy of it.
Matt asked me to read one of the testimonials, and our friend Max read from a couple “field reports” he had written. It was a great night. Despite the sweltering heat, there was a fine, electric energy in the room. We had some friends there, and it was energizing to see them. My anxieties about feeling out of place quieted somewhat over the course of the evening. I was almost comfortable in my own skin.
Which made it kind of funny when someone came up to us after and asked: “Where did you guys come from?” I looked at her blankly, and she so she said, “Are you local?” I said yes, that we were. The subtext was, of course, why haven’t I seen you before? and where have you been? And I thought about that for a bit, as I was waiting for Matt to gather his things and for our friends to decide where we should go for a quick drink before our babysitting time ran out.
Where have we been? In the late 90s, when Matt and I met, we were out all the time. He was in a band that played pretty regularly at venues that no longer exist or no longer draw the bands they did then. I often joke that back then, we couldn’t go anywhere without dozens of people stopping us to talk to Matt. Not to me - I had always been a bit of a recluse - but to him. We had a party at our house once and late - almost after everyone had gone - the doorbell rang and two of his fans stood out on our tiny front porch in their tank tops and low-slung corduroy cut-offs and played their guitars and serenaded him with a song they had written for him. I stood just inside and peered out through the half-opened door, considerably less charmed by this than he was.
But I digress. Where have we been? There are the kids, of course. My daughter, who just turned sixteen and our son, who will be six in just a few days (Zoo party!) The parent-teacher conferences and the chorus performances and the back-to-school evenings where we perch awkwardly in child-sized chairs and flip through stacks of our children’s drawings and math problems and sip lemonade from paper cups. In the gymnasium, we nod to the other parents and sometimes we talk about the weather. The field hockey practices. The swim lessons. The music lessons (granted, that did not last very long); the birthday parties. And of course, the actual parenting. The heartwrenching tug and tumble of days watching these tiny people navigate the brutal beauty of living.
Our jobs. Over the last several years, we both have taken on jobs with increasing responsibility. We are fortunate to both love our work, to be in situations that are stimulating intellectually and creatively, but it is draining. And it is often difficult to draw boundaries around it.
And there is the house and the yard and our cars; the stuff of our lives - the objects that need to be cared for and cleaned and trimmed, the things that need stacking and sorting and folding. Our extended families and the minor dramas of in-laws and friends and their romances.
Our own romance. The unexpected plot twists of a long-term love affair. I’ve traded in my pigtails and platform shoes for a sensible cut and a few highlights to hide the gray and now I have ballerina flats in three colors. He’s given up the chain wallet and no longer wraps duct tape around his shoes. More often, I expect to walk in on him drying dishes or folding laundry than I do to find him playing guitar, softly humming the new songs he is writing.
There is so little time.
The woman who approached me was young, curious. Perhaps she was expecting me to say, we’re in town from Philadelphia or New York. Setting up readings in intimate venues where our hosts offer homemade cookies and jug wine in coffee mugs and jelly jars. But the truth is that we’ve been here all along. Living our lives in parallel to hers and to the lives of all those living in the collective arts spaces, putting their work ahead of all else for the time that they can do that. For reasons more numerous and complicated than I could outline here, I didn’t feel as though those choices were possible for me. For us. I am wistful at times, in spaces like that. But I am also relieved to be past a certain time of anxiety and uncertainty that plagued me in my twenties and early thirties. There is anxiety still, of course, but it has mellowed, softened at the edges. I know that not every question will require an answer and that to live in the uncertainty is a kind of answer in itself.
We met up with our friends at my favorite bar, and we realized with a laugh that it was the first time the four of us - friends for years - had been out together without our kids. And at night! We caught up on our various work situations over gin cocktails. We had to watch the clock. Matt volunteered to relieve the babysitter at the agreed on time, and I lingered for a few more minutes as we finished our drinks. We made a plan to have dinner together this weekend, to cook together as we often do while the boys busy themselves with their books and blocks. A simple beauty to our lives - to the routines, to the reasons we find to laugh with the people we love.
On the way home, I picked up some chips. I had made salsas last weekend (my first foray into canning) and so we ate nachos on our couch at midnight. We ate ravenously, as if we had not eaten in days, and then we sat back with our hands on each other’s full round bellies. Here we are. We have been here all along.