Restlessness was the hallmark of a decade. In front of us always were the questions: what next? where? We rambled through apartments, neighborhoods, cities, states, following the spinal cord of U.S. 1 or I-95 up and down the east coast of our country, never quite settling in or slowing down.
The last five years in the same house, one we pay a mortgage not rent to live in, have itched with a current of dissatisfaction with its stillness. The sameness of my morning commute: the bus stop, my neighbors who wait there with me every morning whose names I still don’t know, the eerily enforced silence of the route into the city, the dim rhythm of the yellow lights in the tunnel, the angry and reluctant squeeze of the subway cars. All the rooms in our house we rarely occupy; the one IKEA love seat in the kitchen we’re likely to squeeze five people onto at once; the trellises behind the house that drew us, in spring, to buy it; my swing from inattention to attack on the vines that eat our fences leaving a scar when I yanked too hard and my arm found a metal spike.
It is a lonely occupation of a place, despite six humans and three cats residing under the same roof. Despite half a decade of walking down this Main Street, it doesn’t feel mine at all the way the one I knew in high school – just the last two years of it in fact – felt like a territory conquered. There, then, every storefront was a story I’d written or would write. My parents were prioprietors. I stood behind a counter with an index card box of files making credit decisions for the month’s prescriptions the same way the bank on the opposite corner gave me a loan for a red pickup because I was buying it from my dentist’s wife.
How is it that those two, three years gave me possession of a place when here, now I hardly feel the right to claim as mine? Was the bless-your-heart warmth of the South so distinct from the ambition of the City, the suburban shame of living across the River from it? Is the duality of my work/home divide, created in part by that river, such an opposition to the immersion of work/school/church I knew then? Is it that the unity of place then is the antithesis of being a mother/wife and “executive?” Is it the staying-puttness that led women (me, even, for a time) to graduate, go away to school, and then come back to the same classrooms to stand in front of them and teach that is at such odds with the striving, being drawn to elsewhere always, despite not knowing where elsewhere might be?
What is the value of a place? How does it fit who and where you are in life? Or mold you to it? Both?
Rick Bass, who I’m reading with a thirst for words I’d somehow forgotten I had, was a geologist before he was a writer. Sediment and rock still lend permanence, real or imagined, to his work on the page. I’m following him into Montana’s Yaak Valley this week. I hope to understand how place has found, riven, and inundated the fissures within me. I hope to quell (or perhaps succumb to) the restlessness. To remember how to belong.
When I swim breaststroke, my right knee drags behind, some malformation that corrective shoes couldn’t correct disqualifying me. I used to swim on a team, Saturday meets I never thought of as races because I wasn’t going to win anything, just making my cool way from one wall to the other and back again.
I was working up heat under my swim cap, the rhythm of my breath and the strokes taking me forward toward that final touch on the wall that wouldn’t be followed by turning and pushing off with my feet. That was the one where I could strip off the blue rubber cap I’d dipped below the surface to add a bit of water to then stretched over my chlorine-bleached hair.
I wasn’t a good swimmer; I wasn’t fast. I suppose I was steady. I showed up, won Most Improved one season, Most Dedicated the next. Every winter day after school and all summer, I dove off the starting block, the muffled echoes of splashes and voices to my left and my right, then just me for an hour, mostly underwater.
Swimming breaststroke, my body glided or sometimes lurched up, and my hands, drawn together like the blessing before a meal, reached into the water ahead. My legs kicked apart from each other, syncopated. When I let go into the stroke, it was a feeling like a wave, fluid, and I was both riding it and making it, creating wake behind me, unaware of everything – the suction of plastic goggles pressed to my eyes, the drag of the second cement-picked suit the coach told me to wear during practice so I could to feel faster on meet days, other swimmers, sound, time. There was only forward, following the black line at the bottom of the pool, only touching, turning, doing it again.
My body could move more quickly through the water if I pushed it, if I looked up at the clock every other leg to check the second hand. My right knee could do what it was supposed to — kick out like a frog, like my left knee keeping me in contention for something — if I spent all my attention on sending it the proper instructions: up-out-together, up-out-together, up-out-together.
I didn’t, though. I was racing against no one. I wasn’t even racing. I was washing my mind clean, purging myself of thought, feeling, past, present, future. I was earning the cool rush of water over my head at the end of practice when I removed my cap and leaned back slowly, baptized again by my own hands.
I’ve been binge reading Gay Talese for weeks now, and tonight I reached new lows, or highs, depending on how you look at it. My commute this week has been filled with his 2006 memoir, A Writer’s Life, but tonight, I cracked open “TimesMachine,” the New York Times archive, which stretches all the way back to 1851. Fortunately for me, my storytelling hero of the moment wrote what looks from the search results like over 1,000 articles in his decade-plus tenure at the Times. For those without an all-access pass to the archives, here’s an excerpt from an article whose headline screamed clickbait long before clicks were even a thing.
What I love about Talese is how he notices things. He is so specific, and in his precision an “eight-inch extension onto the brake” is something you know, have always known, even though of course no one has paid the slightest attention to it before. It is a craft, this ability to get it right, to sift through all the possible images to paint the one that has meaning. I have been honing this ability at work over the last 18 months, and my whetsone is my colleague and friend Roy, who never lets (me let) go of the craft. Even when something feels finished, he finds the places it isn’t and whittles them away. I find myself quoting Proverbs when I think of how his noticing things echoes how I feel reading Gay Talese: it makes me better at what I do.
“Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Proverbs 27:17
On top of the gear shift between Reggie and I was a styrofoam take-out box, and inside it was a piece of cake.
“Have some cake,” Reggie said. “It’s good.”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“It’s cake,” somebody said from the back seat. “Have some.”
I know it was after two because the place we’d gone to with the go-go dancers up above us in cages had already closed down. It might have been after three because we’d spent a real long time getting from coat check out the door and over to the bar with the jazz band that started packing up just as we sat down for a plate of wings. That must be where Reggie got the cake.
“Fine,” I said. I reached over and slid my thumb up under the lip of the box. It popped, slid, squeaked, and the lid sprang open. There was the cake.
Reggie was still parked, I think, when I pinched off the top layer and the caramel that stuck to either side. Only a few crumbs dropped past my knee onto the floorboard of his car when I licked the frosting off my fingers.
Reggie was right. It was good cake.
“Look. A plane,” my son whispered. There’s a skylight over his bed, and since the trees are bare for winter we could see the lights on an airplane that must have taken off from Newark Airport a few minutes before.
His room was dark except for the corner where he’d switched on the nightlight. He and I were nearly nose to nose on pillows, nestled under a blue blanket featuring a llama that his Abuelos brought us from Ecuador and a green and brown afghan crocheted by my Nana when I was a kid. Under his pillow was a stain from a nosebleed he had two nights before. I had meant to change the sheet, but I forgot.
“Oh, cool,” I said, catching the tail lights of the plane and hearing its afterwhoosh overhead. I listened to the sounds of the frozen branches creaking against the siding and the radiator gurgling in the walls. A train rolled by a few blocks away and its whistle blared. Night noises. Soon I figured I’d hear him breathing when he finally fell asleep.
“I’m probably going to London in a couple of weeks,” I’d said at dinner.
“Lucky,” he’d said.
“Why did you say I was lucky because I’m going to London?” I asked him when the plane had passed.
“Because,” he said, “they have a lot of fancy hotels there. And cool museums. They have Big Ben.”
“I saw Big Ben last time I was there,” I said. “But from kind of far away. I didn’t go to any museums though. Would you like to go to London some time?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “Well, no. It depends. Would I go in a plane?”
“Yes,” I said. A boat would take too long.
“I only want to go in a plane if I can sit in the fancy part,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, the part where they bring you dinner and take good care of you,” he said. He rolled over for a minute, flipped his pillow to the cool side, waited for me to respond.
I didn’t know how to, because I was wondering if he was getting his notion of flying from stories I’d told at the table, or from watching Home Alone.
I didn’t say anything, so he asked, “Do you fly in the fancy part of the plane?”
“It depends,” I said.
“On what?” he asked.
“Where I’m going. If I’m flying for work or with our family. How long the trip is. If I’m flying overnight and sleeping on the plane,” I said.
“What’s the longest plane trip you’ve ever taken?” he asked.
“Eighteen hours,” I said.
“Eighteen hours! That’s six hours more than half a day!” he said.
“It is,” I said, never having calculated it quite like that.
“Where were you going?” he asked.
“Asia,” I said. “Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong. Do you remember that trip, not last summer but the one before?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “That was a long trip. I don’t like when you go on long trips. Two or three days is okay, I guess, but when you go for a long time, it’s not good.”
“Well, if it takes almost a whole day to get there,” I started to say, but he interrupted.
“Did you fly clockwise or counterclockwise?” he asked.
I held up my left hand in a fist, blocking the skylight and the swaying trees. My right hand became the plane flying around the tiny fisted Earth. “Do you mean did I go this way?” I moved west across the expanse of North America and an imaginary Pacific. “Or this way?” I flew the tiny business class passengers in their lie-flat seats with their hot lavender towels and complimentary champagne and orange juice over Africa and the Indian Ocean instead.
“Yeah,” he said. “Clockwise or counterclockwise?”
“Well, a clock is a circle,” I said, joining the two mirrored Cs of my thumbs and index fingers together above us. “So you can go this way” and I indicated going one way with the tip of my nose. “Or that way” and went the other way. “But the Earth is a sphere,” I said, and I reformed my tiny planet. “So really you can go around it to the other side almost any way you want to,” and I made a dozen rapid orbit paths over Russia, over Greenland, over Chile, more.
“But which one is safest?” he asked, turning to look at me again. There was the little boy this summer who overheard too much NPR in the backseat and told me I can’t go to Nigeria because of Ebola.
“They’re the same,” I said, brushing his hair across his forehead. “Once you’re up above the clouds it doesn’t make a difference.”
“Oh,” he said, and I saw the even littler version of him that my sister always remembers, the one who said “Why?” again and again until some reason you gave suited him and he just said “Oh” and then left his lips in the shape of a clock long after the sound had gone.
I had loved that small boy so much I’d thought it was all the love I had. But the capacity for love is as endless as the paths I could take to get around the world, or the ones he could choose to who he will become. He is still a boy who wonders. I wonder, too: at him, at being his mother, at having the sort of job that puts me on planes that fly to the other side of the Earth, at how to love all of it without missing any of it.
“Why did the boy throw the clock out the window?” he asked me, trying on a joke he’d heard at school.
“Why? I asked, even though I know.
“To see if time flies.”
Lately I feel a little bit like The Joe Biden Random Compliment Generator: real and not real, slightly disturbing but possibly a little bit brilliant all at the same time. This holiday season, several people I care about have said in all seriousness, in one form or another, “Angie, I need you to cheer me up.” And, one way or another, I have.
There’s something about the request that feels both vulnerable and bold, false and transparent, needy and giving. Asking to be cheered up requires confession. You confess to me you are lacking; I admit to you I am willing and able to play at, and with, happiness in the hopes of creating the real thing in you. You reveal your hurt, your dispiritedness; I conceal my doubt that I can make it, or you, better.
You need me. I enjoy being needed, and then I do the best I can to meet that need – both in the hopes you’ll no longer need me and also, if I’m truthful, in the hopes it will be me you need the next time you feel this way again.
Whether I’m across a desk or the dining room table or somewhere on the other side of the country, we are both getting something out of this arrangement. You know that don’t you? I hope so. Then again, maybe I don’t.
What is cheer, then, holiday or otherwise, but the most generous and most selfish gift we give?
Happy New Year to those whose spirits I’ve somehow managed to lift. You’ve lifted mine, too.
A year ago, I started chasing a story about Detroit. I dogged the bankers who were working on the deal until they relented, determined to make a film about the lights coming back on in the Motor City.
Last week, we made that story. Last week, a security guard in a bronze two-door Fleetwood followed us up Woodward and over to Corktown, up and down the now bright streets parking under the LED lights to keep watch over our equipment, over us. He didn’t say a word when I knelt down and stole a picture of the insignia on the side mirror of his car. He didn’t know I’d grown up in the back seat of a long succession of cars just like that one, curling up in blankets on the wide floorboards on long drives.
Ruin porn wasn’t what I was interested in us making. I’d fended off enough of that in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina as a Red Cross worker the day families went back to their ruined homes in the Ninth Ward for the first time. I had been the one responsible for keeping watch over the cameras then: news crews from all over the planet chasing a story just like I’d now come to Detroit to do.
As we drove out of the sections of downtown where signs of life were more than evident, on our way to the old power plant to shoot a scene, the empty and burnt-out houses we passed made it clear the rest of the city is still firmly in the middle of its own aftermath. It reminded me of driving around the levees in Louisiana trying to spot the sources of the leaks.
Last week, we, the storytellers, sat in an abandoned building in front of a push-pin and string map that until last year was how Detroit managed the city’s streetlights. We sat in a row of folding chairs with headsets on and we monitored the monitors and listened for soundbites as the director asked the same questions again and again. I raised both my arms with both my thumbs up when I heard a good one, locking eyes with my co-creators of this story when we knew we’d gotten what we needed. My own earnestness punched me hard at one point with the belief we were doing more than making a tv commercial: we were recording history. Possibly we were.
“If no one tells the stories,” I said later at dinner, feeling noble and full of purpose as I sat next to a guy who’d written legislation to make the whole idea we were filming possible, “only the people who experience them will ever feel the hope they provide.” But while I was making a film the day before, he’d been making sure legislation passed so tens of thousands of abandoned buildings would come down. I could only listen as the people around me who lived here, who led this city, spoke with real passion about police response times, school buildings, what was next.
I was experiencing this story, standing in the cold with tiny balls of sleet bouncing off my giant purple coat. I was an urban explorer peering down at massive and dormant machinery marked “not for sale.” I was me in the back of my dad’s Cadillac again as we rode the glass elevator to dinner on the 72nd floor of the building where it had been designed.
“Detroit hustles harder,” a sticker on our equipment cart read. I looked for one at the airport gift shop on my way home.
We captured the story I’d hustled so hard to get us to make in Detroit. Rather, we constructed it by choreographing extras walking up stairs, down sidewalks, across parapets, along the riverfront. By interviewing government officials, musicians, bankers, retired cops, nurses, moms who are starting to feel a sense of hope.
I just hope we do it justice.