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On living with the impermanence of it all
I am loathe to admit that this Monday started the same way as last Monday but apparently I’m taking the Sunday Scaries to a whole new level by simply not sleeping that night? And letting Monday morning fall into a pit of oblivion? Is this perimenopause? Is it good old anxiety? Let’s not make this a pattern, please God.
This time the lack of sleep had to do, most immediately, with the kid’s impending school camping trip and all the worry and fear it brought swirling into our home. But once she was happily dropped off at school with her sleeping bag, her pillow, her sunscreen, her bravery, it hit me that part of my own Big Feelings had less to do with her going on a camping trip she was, at best, ambivalent about (although, yes, I was quite edgy because no one loves watching your baby do something that scares them), and more about the fact that we are already in the dreaded transition out of this place we are only now getting the hang of.
Sabbaticals are, by nature, an exercise in transience. Most of the people we’ve met here are only here for a brief time — a year, six months, three. The graduate students are here for slightly longer, and of course the families at the kid’s school are mostly here permanently, but by and large there’s a sense of ships passing, of luck at having ended up here at the same time. In December we didn’t know a soul. And next month we will leave having met people I cannot imagine not being part of my life — perhaps not forever, but certainly as vivid memories of our experience in Cambridge; everyone from dear friends we will surely see again in LA or Toronto or Israel or back here one day, to the mothers on the What’s App thread asking for paracetamol and cupcake tins, to the barista I spoke to every morning at my beloved coffeeshop where I’ve written a big chunk of this first draft of my novel. They all make an indelible imprint, and it feels quietly devastating to leave them all, even while, from the start, I knew this was the whole game.
It’s in times like this, when transitions seem to be all that life is, that I feel ill-suited to all of this, to life itself, or perhaps to the roaming life that I’ve chosen with an academic. I don’t think I’m necessarily someone who would be happiest if I had forever stayed in one place, in the same zip code with all the same friends and all the same streets and dinner on Sunday nights en famille (although that I would really love) (and even though I really never ever ever thought I’d leave New York), but sometimes the ways things just keep changing is too too much, small heartbreak after small heartbreak. Obviously this is where the Buddhists come in, with their reminders that everything is impermanent, imploring someone like me (which is to say, all of us) to not cling — to the past or to the future and most of all to the present.
When we were in Vienna in April, a dear friend and I went out for burgers and cider, as we used to when our babies were babies and we were desperate for time together as adults to laugh hard enough to pee ourselves. Now the kids we birthed a week apart are almost 10 and we hadn’t seen each other since they were three and the Irish pub we used to meet at had closed down, but Goddamn it if we weren’t going to hold onto our tradition. So off to another Irish pub we went (apparently there’s always an Irish pub in Vienna?) and we, again, laughed until we peed ourselves (though less, see: 10 year olds) and also shed some tears and mostly just nodded solemnly in recognition at so much of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife, a person, even on opposite sides of the world.
Part of the beauty, I knew, was that we only had this one night together so we dove right down to the bottom of the proverbial ocean (we actually had a list of topics to cover in Notes). You must come back! she said toward the end of our very long dinner, and while I wanted to say, I know! Of course we will! I knew we wouldn’t, no matter how much I wanted to, no matter how much my husband wanted to. This was the time and money we had allotted for this particular trip, and part of its magic was that we knew it was only this — one week with every beloved person we’d shared our early parenting years with in this extraordinary city.
It is easy to say, soak it all in, or enjoy every moment, or whatever lame thing people say about experiences like this when the truth is that it often feels like the ground is being pulled out from under you even while you are trying desperately to stay standing.
I am already worried about the moment when our kid has to say goodbye to her best friend here, and of course — since time doesn’t seem to be entirely linear — the image that immediately pops to mind is of the first time they met. In early January, we went to said friend’s house and my daughter refused to speak, so bored of meeting new kids she claimed to hate, and the other girl gamely kept inviting her to participate in the cookie-making (her wise mother had planned an activity). Eventually cracking eggs led to them finally running upstairs together and they have been tied at the hip ever since.
We’ve told our daughter all along that friendships last across time and continents — her father and I are good examples of this. Our trip back to Vienna was proof of this! Her Godmother and I have not lived in the same city since we were 18 and she is still my best friend! But my heart can’t help but break at the image of her recent 10th birthday party here with six girls she didn’t know just six months ago, fighting over pizza and licking ice cream cones and jumping into our college’s pool, full of glee at being together; this little clan the girl has managed to form around herself. It is hard to imagine her without those girls, and yet, some of them she will surely never see again. Her friend Iris wrote succinctly on her birthday card, “I’ll miss you when you go back to the USA.”
Soak it all up feels trite, but right — what else can one do? — and is also a little like partying while the ship sinks, knowing it’s sinking. Am I too dour? Obviously all of our ships are sinking — we’re all going to die! — and all we can really do, all we must do, is enjoy ourselves while we’re here, whether “here” means alive or in Cambridge. Enjoy ourselves with broken hearts, letting it all in, the sadness and the joy, the changing pulse of it all, moving through our bodies, until our very last breaths.
✨ We are over 50 strong in Abby’s Secret Summer School, which starts July 1! ✨ Come join us! 20 minutes a week, $32, a summer of creativity at your (literal) fingertips. You do not need to be “a writer” to join. More info (and the link to register) here! Feel free to reply with any questions. (And you can read through all FAQs here—just scroll down.)
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