Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
Energy, swirling and bubbling, slishing and sloshing, through our bodies. We touch something, which sends a reverberation that radiates outward, to continue its neverending run.
Tense energy, swirling, sloshing, through my body. My words touch everyone around me: cold, negative. Eyes and bodies shift, as does something inside me. My inner discomfort has overflowed, and I’ve transferred it to those around me.
Fear, tension, nerves, stress. There’s always something.
Life has showed me that there will always be something. Swirling inside my brain, there will always be some dark shadow that threatens to stands between me and my entourage. I can’t accept that.
I sit down to write. Difficult and uncomfortable at first, it soon feels like I’m scratching a deep internal itch. A soul itch. (Sitch?) The sloshing, watery shadow starts to find equilibrium. Give it some time to flow through my fingertips and transfer onto the screen, in a controlled release of creative energy.
A reminder that I shouldn’t stay away for too long.
Lying snuggled in the comforters, with double the space and pillows because F’s gone off to work. Bye sweetie, I’ll be having breakfast in bed… Sucka…
Going for a walk as the day starts warming up, basking in the best golden sunlight of the day.
Making thoughtful, well-prepared meals.
Taking that precious 3pm nap.
Tasting a fine Irish whiskey at noon if I feel like it.
Unburdened by the clock.
Deep breaths, birdsong.
Love, love, love.
Sunday was day 0 in Amsterdam. I never count the day you arrive as a full day. You’re lost and disoriented, cars and trams beep, bikes plink bells at you, men seductively catcall in multiple languages, you’re surrounded by hordes of idiotic bumbling tourists, and you hate yourself for being one.
Stumble along on the sidewalk. Clouds of marijuana smoke explode in tufts from the mouths of eager testosterone-ridden men. They leer through the haze of the window and the weed.
Dragging my stupid suitcase, squeezing myself through narrow spaces between tourists, flattening myself against buildings to avoid bikes. I’m squinting into the sun and scuffing my sneakers on the uneven pavement. Bakeries are abundant and fragrant, and there’s music and movement everywhere.
I’m dazzled at this new, different city.
That feeling is reserved for Day 0. There’s none other like it.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
Sometimes, things start to feel lackluster, and one day blends unremarkably into another. I’m on auto-pilot, and the urge to complain comes about more frequently than I’d like. My head is filled with cotton, and the outside world looks bland and uninviting.
Ennui: a feeling of dissatisfaction and bored, weary listlessness due to a lack of excitement and stimulation. Also associated with cynicism, world-weariness, and self-indulgence. I’m so deep, man. I’ve got a bad case of ennui. It’s a French word, look it up.
Ugh. I’m giving myself douche chills. I can’t stand myself when I feel this way. In order to combat this feeling of stagnation and boredom, I pull out my mental list. I pare things down, take a deep breath, and try to look at myself, now. What is special about this moment? Is there something I can indulge in, to appreciate my world and bring things into color and focus?
This morning, while shaking off the remnants of a nightmare, I poured myself a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. I hadn’t tasted these babies since I was a kid, and the silly monkey on the box called out to me at the grocery store earlier this week. In the gray quiet shadows of the morning, I curled up onto my couch with my bowl of sugary nostalgia, and chowed down. Something lifted in my heart, and I felt a nice warmth there. Sure, I’m shirking my healthy-living promise to myself; but sometimes, a guilty pleasure is just what you need. Every chocolatey morsel of goodness brought a new idea to mind.
I recommend everyone make themselves a list. You might be surprised at how small a gesture it takes to show yourself a little loving compassion.
For me, it could be…
The nostalgic crunch of breakfast cereal
A piece of whole-grain bread topped with a chunk of sharp English cheddar
Gliding my new gorgeous Micron pen across the smooth paper in my new notebook
Caressing the pages of a new journal, deciding what its purpose shall be
Burning a stick of incense I’ve been saving from Japan
Admiring a rare sight here: the frosted white treetops on a frigid morning
Brushing through my hair, adding oil to make it shine
Painting my nails clear in an effort to stop biting them
Pouring myself a finger of Cuban rum at the end of a 6-day work week
Wearing an outfit that makes me feel like my final form
Quenching my thirst with a large, perfectly cool glass of water
Looking up a new subject to learn about (at the moment: 18th century cooking and re-enacting)
Walking through the garden, smelling the herbs
Planning an upcoming trip or outing
I’m talking about self-care: doing things because they make you feel good, and for no other reason. I’ve made a list, and when things start to look gray and I need a pick-me-up, I refer to my list of comforts.
Now, on this gray Sunday afternoon shrouded in fog, I’m off to another one of my comforts: gathering around the table with family, and enjoying a meal. Today’s meal: pot-au-feu. Please excuse me while I run off to stuff my face as an act of self-kindness.
It’s time to head into town and put on my worker-bee hat. Work starts in just over an hour.
I duck under the rose trellis to cut through the neighbor’s yard. The dew darkens the leather on my boots, and I step around a few errant apples that have fallen from the tree.
Hitting pavement, I climb the hill that leads to vineyards, and to the train station beyond…
On the left bank of the hill, I greet my two buddies: Sweetie Pie and Surly Grump. Sweetie Pie looks up from her innocent grass nibbling, bats her eyelashes at me, and coos out her bleat. Surly Grump’s head pops up; wispy strands of grass stick to his chin like whiskers. He glares at me, digs his hooves into the ground, and aggressively croaks out a husky wheeze. He sounds like an old man who’s shouted himself hoarse by yelling at the neighbor kids to get the hell off his lawn.
Yeah, hello to you too.
I reach the sculptor’s house, and the familiar flapping circles around my head before coming to rest in front of me. He flutters in, lands on the pavement, and pat-pats alongside me as I continue my walk. He must be a homing pigeon; this isn’t the first time he’s followed me to the station. He’s got green and blue tags on his ankles, and I wonder where he lives, who owns him, and why he follows me.
I’m singing softly to myself, and my feet crunch the gravel in time. I’m on a one-lane country path, and large expanses of grapevines and untouched land yawn out on either side. I can see the whole valley from this vantage point, and I feel free. When I get too far ahead of my walking buddy, he takes flight, circles around, and falls back in step alongside me. When I reach the end of the one-lane country path, he flies up to the top of the first building, and watches me as I descend toward the sleepy train station.
I’m back in the “real world,” and work starts in 45 minutes.