When my sister and I were really young, we dressed up as barbies for the 4th of July to participate in the local parade close to my grandma’s summer house.
My grandma had an old, beautiful run-down home on the Connecticut sound, nestled in the woods of a suburban neighborhood. We would go every summer when I was young, reuniting with the larger extended unit, my cousins and me all in our suits with our buckets and pales. Our old foldable stollers were stored every winter in the shed, covered in cobwebs and stained from the sun, ready to bring us down the hill to the beach each year.
The town was well-to-do. My grandparents were part of the country club by the beach, which had a pool right next to the water. There were boat shoes and fancy yachts, manicured lawns and well-maintained pathways along the water, each house flying their own American flag.
Back then, my mom had a hairstyle she did for us called “the gonzo”. We would throw our heads upside-down and she would scrunchy it up on the very top, the bumps from stray stands as part of our look. For our parade day ensembles, the gonzo felt like the appropriate compliment to our Barbie motif. We paired the outfits with belly-exposing bright pink t-shirts, little white skirts, and some hot pink lipstick purchased from the dollar-store in the rougher, other part of town.
Emerging to debut our looks for the 4th of July parade, amongst the fancy golf men in their boat shoes and the classy women in their visors, my dad met us in the crowd, and raised his eyebrow at my mom. All the other kids were appropriately dressed in red, white and blue themed attire that seemed both modest and high-end. We were the hot pink hookers.
And we walked that parade with confidence and with joy, our heads held as high as our hair.
For all my country’s faults (of which, I admit, there are many), there is still something special about America. Individuality can still be celebrated in a way that doesn’t always agree with the “doe normaal” I struggle with here, in my new home country. In my memories, in America, there are still opportunities to be unapologetically unique and unapologetically yourself.
So I say, for this Fourth of July, let’s celebrate that. Make an entrance. Show up in pink when everyone else is wearing blue. Be fabulous, be loud, be your own version of patriotic, whatever that means.
And for everyone out there feeling different than the rest, happy 4th of July!
My dad, with a strategically placed slice of silver hair on an otherwise beautiful head of brown locks, sat proudly at the back of a canoe, attempting to keep his posture straight while resting his belly comfortably in his lap, in between an unfastened bright orange lifejacket. He was finally taking us on a boat trip, just as his father had done for him.
“Girls, are you ready to have a ball?!”
We looked up at him, slightly indifferent, fidgeting in our seats and trying to clip together our vests. In a whiney and helpless response,
“daaad, I think I already got my butt wet.”
He ignored this, and clumsily used the oar to push off from the dock and float the canoe deeper into the lake. As my sister and I swayed back and forth, hitting our kid-sized oars against the boat and splashing more water than we moved, my dad dutifully paddled away, pointing out birds with overly exaggerated “oohs” and “ahhs”. My sister and I smashed our fingers between the canoe’s rim and our paddle poles as we looked up into the sky.
Time passed and as it did, my dad likely started to realize that we were no longer moving. That we had remained in the same patch of brush at the side of the lake for the last 10 minutes, going around in a circle. My sister and I got tired of looking at the sky. We started to fidget again.
“Hey, are we stuck?” I asked cautiously.
My dad kept his humorous tone, “Hmm we do seem to be going nowhere.”
I tried to smile, “How do we escape?”
I wonder if, in that moment, the rest of the family felt as I did: that we were trapped on the titanic and would never make it home. The time passed slowly. I got hungry. My dad looked tired from his efforts. We sat there together, quietly, by ourselves, on the lake.
Finally, some time later, in the distance, we saw a family in a similar canoe, laughing and enjoying their time as we had not managed.
“Dad, save us!” I yelled, trying again not to let the panic come out too obviously in my voice. “Ask them for help!”
My dad looked resigned, a look he often seemed to have, exhausted by the weight of the world and all the disappointments brought along with it. But he fixed his posture again and looked intently out at the other boat, trying to sound as casual as he could,
“Excuse me, hi, we seem to be stuck. Do you know how we can get out of here?”
As it turned out, my dad needed to sit in the middle of the boat, where all the water my sister and I had accidentally splashed into it had accumulated. Sitting at the end where he was, the captain of his ship, meant the weight was set too far back and we were only able to move in circles. Since he was doing all the work, we weren’t going anywhere. He needed to man the ship from the middle, so my sister and I could coast along in the two canoe seats on either end.
I think back on this memory as some kind of metaphor for love, and for disappointment, and for what it means to be a father. He wanted this canoe trip so badly. He tried so hard to make it work. And, in the end, the only way it did was for him to sit in a puddle in the middle of the boat, helping his daughters to safety. In a lot of ways, my dad lived much of his life in this way: for us. Always in the middle. Always sacrificing himself. His happiness for the well being of the group, for our sake, to get us home in one piece, gliding along the lake in our seats, happy and relieved he had come to our rescue, again.
A man in his late 50s sat outside a large white brick apartment building in his beaten down black Ford pickup truck taking long pensive drags of his cigarette looking perfectly comfortable behind the wheel. The truck wasn’t running, but was double parked, with the driver’s side door partially open and his leg casually hanging out. He had Levi’s jeans on that looked worn and unwashed, and he was wearing his signature black leather moccasin slippers in place of shoes.
A harried blonde intellectual frantically emerged from the building, twisting his hair in one hand and holding a small lamp in the other, generally looking exhausted and confused.
The man in the truck looked up, indifferent to the panic on the younger man’s face, and casually blew out his cigarette smoke.
“Wow, New York really is wild isn’t it? God, look at all these people. I could sit here all day.”
“Yeah. It is the city” the blonde man responded absently.
The older man in the truck paid the comment no mind, and continued as if nothing had been said,
“I can’t believe how nutty everyone is. You really have to be tough here. Like heartless. Wow. I just saw a lady’s dog poop right over there” he flicked his cigarette in a direction down the street “and she just praised the hell out of the dog and walked away, leaving the shit right there.” He shook his head. “Jeez, New York.”
The blonde man awkwardly placed the lamp in the bed of the truck, next to the few bookcases and an IKEA chair, and turned around to go back inside.
A minute or so later, a girl came out the same door, looking affectionately at the man sitting in the truck. He continued as if no interruption had been made.
“You really have to be tough in this city, huh? Maybe you should get a dog.”
Loss creeps up, attacking the unsuspecting and the worn down. Sneaking in at inopportune and unexpected moments, claiming victims for an afternoon, a weekend, a few years.
We manage demons, live life. Schedule. Organize. Conquer. Seize.
It hits as we rebuild. Cloaked differently now. No more train trips for wine, patio iced coffees. No more dentist, hairdresser, weekly dinners, causal run-ins, flights to the familiar and the safe. A second year missing Christmas lasagna from home.
Loss is lonely. It ambles in on different schedules. People are on the train, but you miss the ride. They fade, or struggle, or disappear. “I didn’t know.” “I don’t understand.” Nothing right or wrong. Simply an unnoticed, heavy, carried shadow. A winter coat when you yearn for the carelessness of spring.
The end seems close this time, a clearing in the bramble, but the last few steps are always the most impatient, the most urgent, the ones that leave scratches from the thorns.
“Ravens are standing on a pile of bones – black typeface on white paper picking an idea clean. It’s what I do each time I sit down to write. What else are we to do with our obsessions? Do they feed us? Or are we simply scavenging our memories for one gleaming image to tell the truth of what is hunting us?” (p. 58-59)
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds Picador, 2012, New York.
Today’s meditation was about letting things go – places, things and people. The latter is the hardest. The former has given me a lot to think about lately.
This pandemic has made me homesick in a way I haven’t experienced before. Deeply confusing, perhaps sometimes misplaced, nostalgia. For some sense of comfort I vaguely remember, but never necessarily had. When before going back to my small suburban hometown made me feel claustrophobic, now thinking about it brings me calm. A world well known. Navigable. Predictable. After a number of moves, three different cities, and two different countries, home is where people speak my language, where I know how to order a coffee, where everyone around me wears a mask without me having to ask, or apologize. Home is where I am understood. Where I belong.
Belonging is never guaranteed of course. While I dream of moving back, I know things have changed in the area I haven’t lived in for over 20 years. I’d need to re-integrate. Make new friends. Learn to cope again with traffic and cars and shoveling snow. Just like here, I would still get cold. Still get crabby. Still perhaps think the grass was greener somewhere else.
But today, I can’t let go of that dream. As my friends and family all get vaccinated, The Netherlands remains closed, curfewed and exposed. No end in sight, no endless barrage of social media pictures proudly displaying vaccination cards. Instead, here, we wait. We brace ourselves. We ho and we hum. We drink coffee and we eat cake. We tell each other “but there is sun, at least”. “There are flowers blooming.” There will be something better, some day. Have faith.
And I do have faith. I know life changes, countries change, this pandemic changes. But still, I think of my home, and the mall close by, the one my dad used to joke was my “North Star”, the location I drove to in order to navigate anywhere else. This mall has become a mass vaccination center. The place I went for soggy salad wraps and my first pair of fake red leather pants is now giving people promise and hope. Saving them from a global disease. And I keep thinking to myself, home isn’t so bad.
She felt the tears welling up behind her eyes, making her feel like she may sneeze. If only all of the emotions she had could be contained to that, to just a sneeze or a yawn, maybe she could manage to get through the afternoon. But the memories started flooding in, and she wondered if she was promoting her own sadness by letting them come, or if she would have felt this way even if she had blocked them from her thoughts.
She was sitting on an orange plastic subway bench underground on an otherwise sunny Sunday afternoon. She had started the long journey home from visiting an apartment on the other side of town, settled in for a long and bumpy ride. She had been going through the city the last couple months with a feeling of numbness, overseeing her daily agenda with a mechanical precision that made her feel in control. Like she was managing. Like she was doing just fine. But very occasionally something would throw her off balance, a small glitch in the routine of her well-planned days. It was moments like this when she realized it wasn’t sustainable. It wouldn’t work. Different choices would need to be made. Reality, somehow, would emerge, and the raw emotion of it would boil over putting out her flame.
There was a man with a little blonde girl sitting across from her in the empty train car. She couldn’t help stealing looks at them as they sat. On the third or fourth quick glance, the tears started streaming down her cheeks. She knew once they started, she couldn’t easily get them to stop. The all-encompassing feeling of sadness was mixed with some annoyance. Why now? Why so publicly?
The man was probably around 35 with brown shaggy hair and blue jeans. He was in a casual Sunday T-shirt, a little too worn to wear during the week, but too loved to throw away. The little girl kept hiding her face in the side of his torso, mucking up his t-shirt further with the juice box all over her face. Her little legs were dangling from the seat, and sporadically kicking in glee whenever she took a sip from her straw. She would sometimes look up at him and say something nonsensical. The man would nod, or reply in an understanding tone of one or two words, always mildly distracted by the book he was reading, but stroking her hair absentmindedly as he read.
In the seat across from this pair, she wondered if he noticed her sitting there, silently wiping the tears that flowed from her eyes like a tap that wouldn’t shut off. He didn’t seem to pay her any attention. A lot stranger things have happened on the subway. In the meantime, as she sat there, she marveled at her ability to cry without making a sound.
This would be the moment she looked back on years later when she thought of that summer, and her decision later that day to leave the city for good, and move back home.