Day 357

I’ve written before about the journal I’ve kept since sophomore year of college. That journal served as inspiration for a literary project I’d like to pursue someday.

Yesterday I read the entries from my month-long trip to Britain and Ireland in the spring of 1989. I’d planned and put off that journey for years, and it finally happened at the end of a very difficult year for me. I was a frustrated graduate student with no clear plan for the future. (teach? write? get an editing job?) My grades were good, but I felt my intellectual respect among my instructors and peer students was lacking. I was lonely as well, so desperate for a girlfriend that I stumbled into a pair of disastrous and fortunately brief relationships. I had recently stopped taking an acne medication known to cause mood disorders, but I was still prone to lengthy bouts of surliness. My soul was a dumpster fire of anger and despair, but my spirits rose somewhere between the train ride from London to Cambridge. Being away from the source of my pains allowed me to make a dispassionate evaluation of my circumstances. I realized life wasn’t so bad; many problems I’d identified seemed wholly chimera now that I was half a world away, and I also realized how those that were real had been exacerbated by my foul disposition.

And yeah, I met this gal… but the story we wrote that weekend will be solely ours forever.

Why am I writing about this in a COVID journal? Because I want, need, to have a similar journey, both physically and spiritually. My family and I have been far more fortunate than many, but a year of being mostly confined to our home has been emotionally taxing. I’m not as emotionally damaged as I was back in ’89, which is a good thing. However, I could use a break, and my wife needs one even more. We need to get away from everything for a while, catch our breath a moment after a year of mostly holding it in.

Of course, in a time when the only way I can partially satisfy my wanderlust is to run errands, when my wife and I can’t even cross state lines for a midweek getaway, I’m not expecting to book any flights in the near future. And as I mentioned before, I realize how much better off we’ve been compared to many. Until we can finally take that long trip to a foreign land, it’s best for us to not complain so loudly about our plight.

Fall 1988

11/19/88

I’m in my third year of graduate school, a year of coursework away from starting my dissertation. I drive down to campus for a night of reading academic journals, but on the way to the library I meet four other graduate students (two I liked, one I despised, and Ginny, whom I have yet to realize has no interest in sleeping with me), who talk me into having a drink.

We go to a bar, cracked linoleum floors slick with grease and watery beer. Offer an opinion on Dukakis or Derrida or something like that, a Miller Lite argument, jocular and ill-informed, fully krausened and beachwood aged, utterly devoid of logic. The silly-jism is rejected with the mocking disdain it fully deserved.

Parked two blocks away. Stagger past the elevated station, consider riding back. How man, four? five? “You all right?” Hey pal, you’ve had more than any of us. See a crack in the sidewalk, place my right foot at the start, extend my arms wide — eloi eloi lama sabachthani, muddafugga — and walk across the crack like a canyon-spanning Wallenda. Don’t miss a step. All right, one. Close my eyes, extend my right index finger, pull back my hand, touch my nose. Bitchin’!

Get in the car. Five stoplights in the city. Can’t go too fast, or too slow either. Stay way behind whoever gets in front of me. Whatever you do, don’t swerve. Pass the fifth light, steer into a wide curve leading into Evanston. Nobody beside me… think I’m still in my lane. Three additional lights, two stop signs. Driven this road long enough to rely on muscle memory. After the third light, hang a left onto my street. Pull into the alley behind my apartment, find my spot. Made it.

Step into the apartment. Cold night, so my glasses fog when I get inside. Take the glasses off, put them in a jacket pocket. Look around; roommate’s home with parents. Alone, in the dark. Take off the jacket, hold it in right hand. Think about trip home. If a cop stopped me, would have been a certain DUI. Lose license, hefty fine, night in jail. A swift end to the life I’d been living.

I realize that’s what I had wanted. And I failed, just like I was failing at everything else.

I lift the jacket above my head, and fling it down on a metal chair. It’s not until the next morning that I realize my glasses, stored in a pocket, had been shattered.

***

Between January 1987 and November 1990, I did not wrap my car around a tree, get tossed out by any of my roommates, lose my graduate school stipend, have my stomach pumped in an emergency room, get fired for showing up late to work, have a sexual harassment complaint lodged against me, stumble into Lake Michigan and drown or suffer some other embarrassing accidental death on the streets or rail stations of Chicago, or have my ass kicked within an inch of my life by someone who decided I needed help with my self-destruction.

Which demonstrates yet again that it’s better to be lucky than good.

Life is composed of a number of transitions, and this one was a doozy. A curious five-year spiritual journey had ended at the same time I started graduate school. I was faced with a entire series of new experiences: managing my finances, sharing an apartment, teaching, working as a proofreader. I also declared myself ready for a serious romantic commitment, despite my fear of commitment. I wanted love, demanded it of the world, without knowing how to offer it.

I was also on an acne medication which has been linked to an increase in depression. An increase in alcohol consumption, a prerequisite for graduate study at my university, most likely compounded that side effect.

There were many new challenges to face at the start of my graduate studies. And a combination of poor decisions, bad luck, and unfortunate timing led me to a dark mental state which I never hope to visit again.

***

Her name was Meredith, but everybody called her Merry.

Actually nobody called her Merry, because her name wasn’t Meredith, since I’ve never known anyone named Meredith in my life. Meredith is a fiction, an amalgam of several women I knew at this time. Some of what will be written about Merry is based on reality, and some of it is entirely fictitious. , Merry was created in the hope that none of the women I actually knew at the time will be embarrassed at seeing herself in this melodrama.

Merry was from Nashville, and we didn’t attend the same college. She had moved to Chicago after graduation, and was a member of the church I attended between my undergraduate and graduate students. We became friends through the church’s young adult programs, but after I left the church I didn’t see her for two years. Towards the end of my first year of graduate study, we wound up on the same bus rout. I found Merry to be as bright, articulate, and fun to be around as I remembered, and we exchanged phone numbers.

We saw each other a few times over the course of six months. We enjoyed each other’s company. She knew I had left the church, but didn’t press me for an explanation; she saw I was struggling with dark emotions, but offered support rather than judgement. The problem, though, was me. I was desperately lonely, but too afraid to let anyone see how much of a mess I was. And she was committed to a church I had sworn never to visit again.

I stopped calling Merry. She left a couple messages I didn’t return. Perhaps Merry realized how messed up I was, and stopped calling because she knew what I needed at the time was not a girlfriend, but professional help, or maybe she decided it was time to move on. Whatever the truth might be, all I know for certain is that, after a few more random encounters at libraries and grocery stores, I haven’t seen Merry in over three decades.

***

After four years of stumbling, I finally got myself straightened out. I went into counseling for my depression. I switched my acne medication, and moderated my alcohol consumption. I got a job, which provided the stability I desperately needed. I started dating, and enjoyed learning about the women I met. By the time I met the woman to whom I’ve been married for a quarter century, I had controlled my self-destructive impulses.

I don’t believe in looking back, and wouldn’t change a thing if such an impossibility were available. So in order to complete the writing exercise I was recently assigned, I’m going to create another fictional character, one who’s much like me but managed to not push Merry away. Let’s call him Bernie, and imagine he allowed Merry to help him get straightened out a few years earlier than when I actually did. I want to see where Bernie ended up, after deciding to turn left instead of going straght.

Time for a Turn

An exercise from a short story workshop I’m taking: Think about a time you had an opportunity to turn left, but chose to keep going straight. Write a story in which you decided to turn left instead.

As soon as the instructor gave the assignment, I knew what my topic had to be. It’s actually something I’ve written about in the past, and thanks to a writing habit I’ve maintained for close to four decades, I have a good record of the moment I kept going straight.

Since my sophomore year in college, I have maintained a journal in a series of spiral-bound notebooks, which I’ve kept with me through the years. The journal has served a number of purposes over the decades; should I ever grow curious about my monthly expenses from 1991, where and when I went on vacation in 2012, how I felt after the first day at my new job in 2004, or my general emotional state from just about any year, I can pull out the notebooks from that time and see what a younger version of me thought at the time.

Although I didn’t recall the exact date, I was pretty certain the moment about which I wanted to write occurred sometime during the notebook started at the end of 1986:

After flipping through a few dozen pages, I found the journal entry which began this story: March 17 of the following year. If you look to the upper right, you’ll see a few words that show that yes, this story is about a girl who I let get away.

But what makes this moment so right for this exercise was that, several years later, I used my journal to imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t let her get away. I knew it would be interesting to see what I thought back then, and see how those thoughts may have changed in the following years.

Problem was, I couldn’t recall when I wrote that “what if” scenario. It definitely seemed like a multi-page entry (most of my journal pages contain two or dated entries), and I was pretty sure I had made it after my children were born. By starting at the turn of the century and skimming forward through my notebooks for lengthy entries, I figured it wouldn’t take long to find that entry.

Several hours later, I was flipping through the 2016 journal, and starting to wonder if I had skimmed past that entry. Surrendering to my fatigue, I set the journals aside and went to bed resigned to the thought of abandoning the search for that second journal.

But on a whim this morning, I went backwards from the turn of the century, and quickly found a reference to “that ‘what if’ exercise I went through a while back about me and Marie” (and yes, I’m changing her name for these blog posts). Inspired, I kept flipping back, and eventually found it: multiple pages, over several days, a fully imagined scenario where she and I stayed together. The journal was from the year between my two children were born — several years earlier than what I believed, but I was relieved at not having to go all the way back to the 1980s.

Later tonight, I’ll read those journal entries. Much will be very familiar, yet I’ll be surprised at what I’ve forgotten. The “what if” scenario I wrote a decade after the event will be my starting point, but now that I’m more than two decades older, this will be a new story. I feel fortunate to have so much material to work with, and also excited to start with an empty page:

Long Trips

I’ve been asked to write about myself in several different contexts lately, and I’m posting my responses on this blog. Here’s one that I did for a church I recently jointed, with much of the identifying information removed.

In March 2018, I was fortunate enough to go on a tour of Israel. The tour was co-hosted by this church and a synagogue where my family are members. My wife and children are Jewish, while I am… well, it’s complicated.

Here’s the short version: I was raised in rural Maine, where my family attended a Congregational church in which I was baptized. Never placing much emphasis on religion, my family stopped active participation in that church around the time I started school. I considered myself a proud atheist until I attended college, at Northwestern. I was a small-town boy in Chicago, half a continent away from home, and in that era before mobile phones and social media, completely isolated from family and friends. That is the best explanation I can give for joining a fundamentalist evangelical student organization at the start of my sophomore year.

I will most likely marvel at my five years as an evangelical Christian the rest of my life. My intellect was never comfortable with the movement – many people I met at that time believed Earth was 3000 years old, for crying out loud – and I now recognize much of the spiritual comfort I believed I felt from the group was actually little more than companionship. I don’t regret my time as an evangelical, and have started to use my experience from that time in my fiction. But when I finally did muster the courage to leave, I felt a relief that has lasted to this day.

Years after making that break, and still living in Chicago, I met the woman whom I would eventually marry. She had been raised in a conservative temple in Cleveland Heights, and since were were from very different religious backgrounds, we talked at length on this topic as our relationship advanced. She was committed to Judaism, and while I was still a believer at heart, I had grown too cynical about institutional Christianity to impose my belief on anyone. By the time we were engaged, we had reached a mutual decision: our wedding would be officiated by both a rabbi and a minister, and were we to have children, we would raise them Jewish.

When the youngest of our two children was still a toddler, we moved to Cleveland to be closer to Debbie’s family. After a brief membership at a large temple in the area, we became one of the founding families at a small synagogue in our town. When they folded after a decade, we joined the synagogue where where our children knew many of the temple youth. And when we heard about the interfaith trip to Israel last year, we signed up with enthusiasm.

I still had no interest in joining any church, and my motivation for visiting the nation of Israel was more historical than spiritual. Yet when you spend nine days on a bus with a small group of people in a foreign land, you almost have no choice but to get to know your fellow travelers pretty well. And while I was hardly surprised that the church members I met were not anything like the evangelicals I had known in college, I found it reassuring to know there were Christians who believed in science, intellectual honesty and curiosity, and a productive engagement with society that included the belief that people were born perfect the first time.

Upon returning from Israel, I began attending services and social gatherings at this church, which I found to be very similar to the Congregational church my parents had been loosely associated with in my youth. Unlike my earlier experience with evangelicalism, I asked a lot of questions, and only after arriving at some very good answers did I choose to become a member, a decision wholeheartedly supported by my wife, who by the way has just been hired as the interim musical director at another temple. I had to travel half-way around the world to find this church, but now that I’m here, I feel like I could stay a while.

Bound for Somewhere

[I’m currently taking a writing class that in all honesty has been pretty disappointing. Yet I liked what I wrote for one of the assignments, so at least I got something out of it.]

My high school guidance counselor was a big-city tough woman who, after four decades in Philadelphia, fled the chaos of urban life for the chaos of small-town living. She had broad shoulders, thick arms that looked like they could crush you if she wished (and given her temper, this often did seem to be her wish), and a voice gravelled from cigarette smoke. She did not suffer lack of effort gladly, and would call you out if you didn’t perform up to her standards. Yet for all her brusqueness, students at our school knew she had our best interests in mind, and would fight anyone on our behalf. Which is why none of us ever reported her for using the f-word in class.

I was one of a handful of students who got along well with her, so when my time came to discuss college applications during the fall of my senior year, I actually looked forward to our meeting. At that time, I wanted to attend one of the small liberal arts colleges my father and I had visited over the past month, each of them far removed from my hometown in rural Maine, but no more than a day’s drive away from my family. A good, but comfortable distance.

As I entered her office that afternoon, she was leafing through papers on her desk. Without looking up, she commanded me — “Sit.” I obeyed. “Where are you applying?” I gave her the names of three colleges in New Hampshire.

For the first time that afternoon, she looked up at me. “No,” she said. “Not good enough.”

She leaned back in her chair, and pulled a college guide from the shelf, a book thick enough to cause blunt trauma should it be used as a weapon. She tossed the book onto her desk, and glared across the table at me. “Major.” I stared back at her blankly, and she replied by barking my last name, and asking “What are you going to study?” When she called you by your last name, she was done joking with you.

“J — journalism.” I swallowed. “I want to be a journalist.”

She pursed her lips, evaluating my career choice. She then nodded, and as she opened the college guide, I exhaled.

She leafed through several pages, until finally stopping. “North Carolina. Good journalism school.” She looked up, and pointed a gnarled, nicotine-stained finger at me. “You’re applying there.” She returned her attention to the guide, and was about to turn the page when her eyes found another entry. “Northwestern. I don’t know if you have the grades to get in, but that’s your reach school.”

I raised my eyebrows upon hearing, for the first time, the name of the university which would be at the center of my life for the next two decades. My initial reaction was to the distance. “You really think I want to go to Seattle?”

She looked at me as if I’d asked her if I could apply for college on Mars. “It’s in Chicago, for Christ’s sake. My God, we gotta get you out of this damn town.”