I leave Madrid for Santiago de Compostela on a sunny Sunday morning. The evening before, at a Spanish friend’s house, I had admitted that my family was from Galicia, and Lady of the House’s son immediately piped up, But you do not seem crazy! You know that all Gallegos boast they are 10% crazy, right? He shook his head, confused at the idea that anyone could be proud of that. I did not tell him that if what he said were true it would explain Quite A Lot about one side of my family.

I don’t know what to expect in Galicia, other than 10% of the people being nuts. Nearly twenty years prior, my high school sweetheart had studied abroad in London, and capped off the adventure by travelling the Camino de Santiago before joining the Peace Corps in Mauritania after graduation. His trek down the Camino had been fruitful for him, creatively speaking, and it had resulted in a play – a musical – which he’d sent to a select group of readers via his mother. It was the first in a series of many musicals he wrote, and he’d ultimately grown up to be a Broadway composer.

The envelope containing That Particular Play had arrived at my college apartment in a manila envelope with the soundtrack on CD or a cassette tape – I don’t remember which it was and given the era, either was plausible. He’d also sent word that a single bird flying overhead seemed like a sign, and when he reached the church at the end of the trek, the floodgates opened, and he cried, because then he felt like he had found God.

I ripped the manuscript up without reading it; I listened to the tape once, because I loved the sound of his voice more than I hated him; and I burned the postcard where he described the bird, the sky, the church, and God. He had broken my heart – broken me – so profoundly that I didn’t think I’d ever feel whole again. After losing my first love in such a public and humiliating way, I didn’t think that my head and my heart would be part of the same complete person again.

At the time, I didn’t know he was travelling the roads that my family had lived on; that he was exploring the places I was From. Back then, I had no idea how we would both grow, and more importantly, how much work time actually does. I was just angry in the way that Hurting Young People often are.

Before I left for Spain, this past June, I had bumped into him in California. Someone snapped a photo of us, arms around each other, smirking into the camera like we might have done Way Back When, and it reminded me of being on the cusp of all the things we could not contain twenty years ago: Our love; our anger; our fear; our knowing that This Was A Finite Thing.

That’s heavy stuff for teenage hearts.

I am thinking of him again as I land in Santiago de Compostela, in their modern airport nestled amongst the greenery that makes the approach look like I am landing in Norway or Ireland. My heart aches with old fury; untapped grief; with feelings I cannot identify but that feel vaguely familiar.

Is this what it feels like to be a pilgrim? 

I am only in Santiago for two days, so I am only planning to walk the last ten miles or so of The Way of Saint James; of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage derives its name from the patron saint of Spain – Saint James the Greater – whose body is entombed in the grand cathedral at the Camino’s end. The name Santiago itself comes from the Spanish derivation of James from Latin – Sanctu Iacobu – which, translated from Vulgar Latin to local Galician, became sant iago, hence Santiago.

The story goes that after James was martyred at the hands of King Herod in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), his body was returned to Galicia, but was thrown into the sea – emerging covered in scallop shells. As a result, travellers come to Santiago and carry bleached shells on red cords, emblazoned with the shield of Saint James as evidence they are pilgrims who should be granted a safe passage. 

I pick up my red lanyard and hit the trail mid-morning on my first full day in town, the sun bright overhead. When I reach the first scallop-shaped trail marker, a bird flies across the perfect blue sky, and the floodgates open, and the tears come in a tidal wave that I did not know was contained behind my eyes. I snap a photo of the trail marker and I send it to my high school sweetheart, without any text, because I know that in this moment, almost twenty years after his own journey, he is the only person who will understand my heart.

Then I walk for ten miles, crying. I am crying because these are the roads my people have walked for generations and this is the first time, ever, I have been in a place that I know I am From. I am crying because I came all this way, and did all this work, and married all these men, and at the end of it, it is just me here, alone, with nothing to show all these dead ancestors for it. I’m also crying because I’m probably at least 10% crazy, just like the rest of them. 

How did I get here?

As I emerge from the Spanish woods and near the cathedral at the Camino’s end, my phone buzzes with a text message from my high school sweetheart. He has received my picture of the trail marker.

The start of everything, he says.

And I understand, suddenly, in this hot, stark moment in the north of Spain, that who I am is not just a disappointment; not only a litany of failures or a sum-total of endings. I am just at the start.

At the end of June, I fly to Madrid to be with JRA and Lady H; Grandma and Papa. We are celebrating and mourning; vacationing and working. Both Grandma and Papa have worked in and across Spain for many years; JRA is fluent in the language; only Lady H and I have some catching up to do. We eat late-night dinners and drink late-night wine, and generally, things are Okay, even as we approach the Anniversary of the Last Day of the World.

The Last Day of the World happened last July. Pete had messaged me that June, asking if Paul and I wanted to go out to dinner for JRA’s birthday – the date was set for an early-July Saturday night between his birthday and hers. We had met – two couples – at a wheelchair-friendly restaurant, and had taken a long, leisurely summer dinner. Paul and I had gone on holiday for the two weeks after – first to California; then to Newport. It was nice – it was the last, pleasant dinner out I could remember having with Paul – no fighting; no drama. But within two weeks, Pete’s younger brother Tommy had died suddenly. Within six months, Paul and I were separated, and Pete himself died shortly thereafter.

Nothing was ever the same again after that one, specific night.

We spend our time in Madrid visiting friends; wandering the city; exploring the Prado. We stand in front of the Bosch paintings; Velasquez’s works and JRA leans over and begins to say something about the little people in one of the Velasquezs but thinks better of it. It was a joke for many years – how much I hated all those exploitative little people shows on TV; how angry I’d get about them – until I found out that I had a bad, probably Spanish, gene. Then all bets were off; then, maybe my revulsion was just some kind of genetic fear.

Later that day, we are changing clothes before dinner, and Lady H asks me about RHJ. How IS RHJ? she asks, like a chatty girlfriend.

(She is six years old.)

He’s fine, I deadpan.

You know what I think? she says, I think “third time’s the charm.”

She says the words thoughtfully, like she is considering this as a viable possibility as the words tumble from her adorable mouth. Two nights before, the second of her two front teeth had come out over dinner. She had spent the day wiggling the hell out of it, and I, in my role as Tia Fearless, I had gripped it a few times and twisted; yanked; done the dirty-work of a much older sister or maiden aunt. I’d rubbed my icy fingers on her gums and passed the precious few ice cubes from my drink across the table to her – over Grandma’s furrowed brow, and JRA’s disgust at the whole affair. It was then that Papa had told us, as I sipped my umpteenth Abarino of the night, that there was no Spanish tooth fairy. Instead Ratoncito Perez visited you in the night and swapped a gift for your tooth.

Forgetting my Spanish, and my manners, I immediately exclaimed, We’re letting a rat come into the house in the night? What does he bring you – jamon iberico?!

Papa, in his calm, pedantic manner, replied, Technically it’s a mouse.

Lady H said, I think he brings manchego.

Grandma, for her part, quickly realising that obtaining a hunk of manchego at that hour would be nearly impossible, chimed in, I think he brings you an IOU for whatever you want. JRA began laughing so hard she was unable to contribute to the conversation.

Moments later, Lady H spat the tooth into her hand and then handed it to me.

So I listen to Lady H tell me Third Time’s The Charm through her adorable gap, like she is both a woman and a child, and it makes me laugh, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces; into dust – because she is older than she should be but she is exactly who she needs to be; because I may never stare into the face of my own gap-toothed elf, mise-en-abyme, because of genes or circumstance; because this is exactly how things happened and it wasn’t what I expected when I married Andrew, or I married Paul, or when we all went out to dinner for JRA’s birthday on that fateful double date.

If you had asked me a year ago, on the last night everything was normal, if I thought we would be sitting in Madrid, taking stock of the damage one year later, I would have thought you were nuts. But looking back now, through gapped teeth, and the streaky rearview of grief, it is actually that last, perfect night in Hell’s Kitchen that seems much more far-fetched.

A Quarterly Update on What I’ve Been Reading:

16. Janesville – Amy Goldstein (nonfiction; how the GM bankruptcy impacted a small Wisconsin town)

17. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar– Cheryl Strayed (nonfiction; I was a religious reader of the Dear Sugar column at The Rumpus for a long time; loved this)

18. Option B – Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant (nonfiction; I was at a lunch with Adam Grant and was given a free copy otherwise I wouldn’t have read this; glad I did)

19. Emotional Agility – Susan David (nonfiction; psychological look at getting “unstuck” – basically a longform version of a HBR article I enjoyed. Worth reading)

20. Moonglow – Michael Chabon (fiction; I loved this. Fictionalised memoir of “the author” and his Holocaust survivor grandparents – poignant, funny, and heartbreaking; this review in The Guardian sold me)

21. How to Be Here – Rob Bell (theology; Bell is an acquired taste for some Christians, and this book reads more Humanist than say, Velvet Elvis)

22. Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts – Regena Thomashauer (garbage; someone gave me this book as a gift when they heard I was getting divorced and I read it in an afternoon on a flight. It is horrifying, unless you are the type of person who refers to other women as “Sister Goddesses.”)

23. The Danish Way of Parenting – Jessica Joelle Alexander & Iben Dissing Sandahl (garbage; another gift; and honestly, I am pretty sure that the American author thinks that Americans are emotionally stunted idiots  and didn’t realise she had emotional problems of her own until she moved to Denmark and started seeing a therapist and this book resulted)

24. Nonsense – Jamie Holmes (nonfiction; a book about reducing cognitive dissonance and the ways we make sense of the world. Super interesting but not necessarily engaging)

25. Native Speaker – Chang-rae Lee (fiction; fascinating novel about hard grief, clashing cultures, and the secrets we keep. One of the best books I’ve read. If you read nothing else on this list – this is a good one)

26. Evicted  – Matthew Desmond (nonfiction; a sociological look at poverty in America through the lens of real estate. Fairly apolitical in nature. The author embeds himself in Milwaukee housing over a period of years and writes about it. I am fairly entrenched in some of my viewpoints on this, but Desmond was able to open my eyes to things I had never considered)

27. The Remains of the Day  – Kazuo Ishiguro (fiction; the story of a career in service. Brilliant rat-a-tat writing; crystal clear prose; in my view, Ishiguro’s best work)

28. My Promised Land – Ari Shavit (nonfiction; the story of the birth of the nation of Israel told through the lens of a left-leaning Haaretz journalist. Fascinating; repetitive; long. Worth reading if, say, you are going to Israel and know little about it)

29. The Heart – Maylis de Kerangal & Sam Taylor (fiction; a novel about the death of a young man and the story of the transplantation of his organs. Sounds grim, but some of the most beautiful, striking prose I have read – translated from the French by Sam Taylor)

Some more take aways: While I am still trying to read more writers of colour, I am mostly focused on challenging my own perceptions. I am reading things that come recommended by people from whom I wouldn’t necessarily take recs. I am reading things that sound terrible to me and finding I love them. I am trying things that work and don’t work (hence the reason you see stuff I label “garbage” in this list – I am willing to TRY something that I wouldn’t normally read, and I’m willing to SHARE it, even if I think it’s awful).

Also, I think it’s okay to think a book is “garbage.” You may disagree with me – and I think that is great, Sister Goddess. I think that’s just great.

It is the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter, and my dog, Roo, has gotten into a playful scrap with another dog. The damage at first seems minor (a bloodied ear, maybe) but by Tuesday morning, the dog is incapacitated and screaming, so I rush him to the vet.

Roo has never been seriously ill or hurt in all his seven years of life – an occasional gross stomach bug, but otherwise, nothing – and watching him in pain is excruciating. Once we arrive at the vet’s office, the doctor takes him out of the exam room, still screaming, to take a closer look at his injuries, and I fall backward into the chair, rubbing my temples, furious and terrified at my Inability To Do Anything Useful.

The depth of my Aloneness in this moment is nearly unbearable to me. Since my divorce from Andrew was final seven years ago, Roo has been my one constant companion. He has survived every crisis with me; celebrated every triumph. He has faithfully given me purpose when I felt I Could Not Go On. He sat beside me through all my surgeries; my injuries; my heartaches. He is a dog, and in his dogness has always known exactly what to do to help me when the going gets tough.

I, however, am human, and I rarely know what to do.

A prime example of my Chronic Inability To Know What To Do came early in my marriage to Andrew, when we had had to put my beloved terrier Lilly to sleep. When the critical moment came and the vet prepared to administer the permanent drugs, instead of holding on to my dog, or taking my husband’s hand, I ran from the room like a crazy person. I dashed out on to Lispenard Street; paced the block until it was all over, leaving Andrew alone with Lilly as she died.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of her dying – Lilly had been in kidney failure for months so I knew it was coming. At the Animal Medical Center, where they’d cared for her throughout the last days of her kidney failure, they had taught me to give her fluids under the skin so we’d have just a few more precious days together. In a spectacular display of desperation or denial, I had even gotten her groomed before we put her to sleep so she’d look pretty as she went to meet her maker. I think it was that I was afraid of something bigger; something emptier. I think I was afraid of grief itself.

And now here I am, with my dog who is screaming in pain, and I want to run away but I can’t because it is only me – he has only me – and I have never felt so alone in my entire life. The vet comes back and she gives me drugs for the dog, and tells me his neck is badly injured but he will recover. But it will be hard. It will take time. Everything will take time.

Later, RHJ says to me, It’s ok, I know that going through something like this with a beloved dog is hard…

And I try to explain, It’s not about the dog…but the words don’t come.

It is not about the dog at all. It is about remembering running from the vet’s office and into the street, terrified. It is about how, a week after Lilly died, the hospice called from Florida to say my grandmother was dying and my mother and I left a wedding in California; packing up and flying out the next morning to be by her bed to do the work that women do – bringing lives into the world, and shepherding them out of it.

It is about the fact that on the last night of my grandmother’s life, that Nat King Cole song, Unforgettable, was playing in the background, and I hadn’t been able to listen to it since, but inexplicably, as Paul was being fitted for his wedding suit, the Muzak screeched to a halt, and Unforgettable began to play. I took it as a sign that despite my doubts, Paul was the Right One, because I am always desperate for signs. But maybe that was the wrong sign.

I realise, as Roo recovers, that I have been waiting for signs to tell me how to be Helpful, or Right, or How to Do Things Correctly, like I am Steve Martin in L.A. Story. Symbols that indicate: How to Be Married to One Person for a Long Period of Time. How to Put the Dog Down and Not Run From the Room. How Not to Destroy Your Own Life in 200 Easy Steps.

After three weeks, Roo is walking again; acting like himself again. As I watch him lounge comfortably as I write, I am suddenly confident that there is no playbook for this. We are all just fumbling around, all of the time, blind like newborn kittens, mewling and suckling, with no earthly clue what we are doing. This revelation doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving my ex-husband alone with our dead dog in Tribeca Animal Hospital in 2006, but it at least gives me the sense that I am not nearly as alone as it sometimes feels. That everyone else is just as clueless and afraid as I am; just as prone to running screaming from the risk of loss.

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

When you are mixing
Drinks
Lives
Households
Politics
Religions
There are some days when even the most
Mundane of things
Seem Remarkable.

For instance:
He is a vodka drinker;
I am Gin.
But by some Divine Intervention
Some Holy Miracle
Our many households always seem to have both.
But then there are other days
Like today
When
By grace and willpower
I manage to speak in the strange patois
Of loving other people’s children
And everyone and thing is accounted for
And then I look down
And realise
I am wearing socks
That are not mine
That are not yours
That were probably your ex wife’s

And I think God must be laughing at us.
And all of our plans
And of this mixing
Of drinks
Of lives
Of the mundane and the divine.
(April, 2017)

(This is the third in a short series of posts)

I drink gin by myself on Christmas and Boxing Day in Brazil – touring Iguazu Falls and doing some yoga before heading back to Buenos Aires later in the week after Christmas. I am in the muggy, jungle-y part of Brazil, and each day, I dutifully slather myself head-to-toe in mosquito repellent, because the State Department’s website has warned of Zika in this part of the world, and I am notoriously sweet to insects.

You’re not family orientated, Paul’s words echo in my head like a mantra.

Each night, I sleep with a mosquito repellent band on each of my wrists and ankles, and one to tie my long, blonde hair up on my head.

You wrap your hair? Mr. A remarked when he came to blow it out on the morning of my company Christmas party.

Of course I do, I rolled my eyes and gestured down to the coil hair-tie on my wrist; pointed at the folded satin pillowcase set out to be put on the bed when the housekeeper changed the sheets later that day.

I don’t know any white girls who do that, he laughed.

You need to spend more time with Scandi girls, I said, Austrians; German-extraction types. Our Bottle-blonde hair breaks!

And here, in Brazil, I am sleeping in a haze of gin and DEET; desperately fending off a teratogenic virus for the benefit of an imaginary marriage-wrecking child; putting up my goldilocks with mosquito bands instead of invisibobble ties. In the mornings, I kayak in rapids with a tour guide who takes me too close to the belly of the Falls, and the spray soaks me; chokes me. It reminds me of being across the border in Chile – whitewater rafting in the rapids of the Maipo River when my first divorce was being finalised.

I got sucked under, then, and thought for one terrifying second that I would drown before I remembered how to put my feet out and float downstream until the guide could fish me out of the river with a lifeline. At the end of that journey, I’d crouched over our campfire, soaked and lonely, stinking of silty water and a fire made with wet wood that was too weak to dry me out.

I do not drown, and I do not get bit, and I will not let myself be sucked under again. I fly back from Brazil to Buenos Aires where I meet friends and I laugh like a woman unchained. We fly to Mendoza where we drink wine in burning hot vineyards where the sun glints off the snow in the Andes and everything looks like Southern California.

We hire a driver and drive the road between Argentina and Chile, hugging but not crossing the border, next to the narrow-gauge railroad where the tracks are rusting and the trains have not operated since the 1970s. We stop in the valley where Aconcagua rises in the distance, and I remember that my friend PG climbed that once, because I’m the sort of woman with friends Who Do That Kind of Thing.

Everything is deja vu, even here in the middle of the Andes.

I FaceTime my parents again on New Year’s Eve, and it’s a quick and sweet call because they are with my aunts and uncles at the lake. I tell them I am in Mendoza; they ask about Pete this time, because they have read between the lines about Paul. Pete is still in hospital, I say, and I give them specifics. My dad is worried about Lady H; JRA; Pete himself. They ask me what I am doing; they are curious about who I am with – who my friends are – but I say nothing more.

On New Year’s Day, I fly back to Buenos Aires, and take a taxi to our hotel where we are promptly robbed. I can’t even be mad about this – there’s a gentle buzz of chaos all around me – few streetlights or stoplights; seemingly no rhyme or reason at intersections; invisible lane lines on roads – and being robbed in a gentlemanly way through an alleyway park job, a switcheroo scam, and some money clearly printed on a laser printer, seems rather low-stakes in the overall scheme of things.

Everything’s fine. At this point, casual lawlessness seems almost comic relief after the rigidity of Dublin 4.

I spend a few days taking in the delights of Buenos Aires; basking in the gardens of the hotel. It looks like the set of Evita. I practice my godawful Spanish, which has improved since my trip to Chile in 2010, and all the other business and pleasure trips to Spain, but is still comically bad for someone whose heritage is largely Iberian.

Argentina is a joy. I feel like myself again for a few days; or at least, like my head is above water.

And then, on the last day, my flight back to New York is late, and checkout is mid-day so we decide to go to the spa to kill a few hours of time. I get a massage and I shower off the oils and it is only as I am putting on my leggings for the long flight back to JFK that I finally notice the first swellings of a single, massive mosquito bite on my upper thigh. It all comes back to me suddenly – the river, and the spray, and the choking feeling, and the loneliness, and the wet wood, and the longing, and the two divorces, and the monsters in my genetic code, and I remember that I am not family oriented, and I feel like the water is holding me down once again.

 

Here is a list of things that people say that make me crazy:

1) I’m writing a book

2) I think I have a book in me

3) I really think I could write a book if I just had the discipline

4) NaNoWriMo is just my favourite holiday

5) I am shopping my NaNoWriMo Novel but I’m not getting any bites so far

6) You can buy my (self-published) novel on Amazon.

7) Why haven’t you downloaded my book, it’s only $0.99 on the Kindle store this week

8) Will you read my book?

9) You used to be so much more prolific – what happened?

10) You should write a book.