Into the woods

On grief, proprioception, college tours, lighthouses, and new stories

A lot happened this summer. In mid-June, I lost my mother (to a heart attack, not COVID-19). Two days later I sprained my ankle and learned the hard way about proprioception. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the reception of stimuli produced within the organism,” an ungraceful way of describing how the mind figures out what the body is up to—or, in my case, fails to figure that out at crucial moments. I missed the last two steps while carrying a double load of laundry down the stairs.

It’s hard to describe the sudden shock of an injury like that, the dislocating swerve from normal. Friends told me their own stories about mishaps suffered right after a traumatic event (see: death of a mother). It makes sense. As my therapist said, when a parent dies, the existential shift requires us to remap emotional landscapes we’ve lived in our whole lives. That burns up mental and physical energy that would otherwise be spent on being in the world. I felt that and feel it keenly, two months later. The ankle’s functional again, though I can’t run on it yet, but I get emotionally winded more quickly these days.

The day I sprained my ankle, I went to a beach in NC with my family for a long-planned week out of the city, our first real trip since before the pandemic. I hobbled down to the sea on crutches and read “Goodbye, Columbus” (don’t ask me why) and ate ice cream and thought about mortality and grief and relief. Mortality for the obvious reasons. Grief because even a complicated and often difficult parent—if you have read my book, you know something about my mother’s complexities—is still a parent, and we don’t get many of those. Mom was my gateway into this world and a reference point for most of my time in it so far. Relief because I don’t have to worry about her any more. It has been a long seven years, and counting, and I feel sadder but lighter now.

I noticed something else soon after Mom died: I remembered more about her. Older memories—some of them happy and some not, but all undeniably Mom—began to float up from the psychic depths. I’m glad to have them back and to be able to think about her as she was in earlier days, before the extreme clutter and the dementia swallowed her up. She feels more alive to me now than she did during her long years in assisted living. Here’s a photo of her taken by her second husband, when she was in her 40s:


On the Fourth of July, I boarded a plane to the West Coast to look at SoCal colleges with my younger kid, now a high-school senior. I wrote the obituary for my mother on the plane ride out. Obituaries are not a genre I have much experience with; I wanted enough detail to bring Mom to life, but some details felt out of reach, too private, too uncertain. Some I had to look up, a reminder of how much we do not know about each other, even in families.

By then I’d ditched the crutches for a walking boot and was able to drive again (sans boot). I love to drive manual (harder and harder to find these days, and we should all be driving EVs anyway if we drive at all), but the trip made me grateful that rental cars default to automatic transmissions.

Grateful, too, for the chance to make the trip at all, given a sprained ankle, the Delta variant, wildfires, historic heat waves, and the other uncertainties and risks of this second pandemic summer. (I hate to type that.) We were lucky, catching a break between waves of heat and wildfire smoke. Some of the colleges my son wanted to see had just started doing in-person tours again; others let visitors do self-guided tours. He saw enough to get a stronger sense of what he does and doesn’t want.

It was his first trip to the West Coast, and we made the most of it. We arrived on the Fourth of July and watched fireworks from the median strip on San Vicente Boulevard. We snuck in some sightseeing that made the trek feel almost like a vacation (remember those?): a stop at Amoeba Music in LA to pick up some vinyl, a near-sunset visit to the Griffith Observatory, a drive up the coast to Malibu. We ate some of the best tacos either of us has ever had at Guerrilla Tacos in Silverlake. (Try the sweet-potato tacos if you go.) We drove up into the vertiginous and twisting streets of the Hollywood Hills, underpowered rental-car engine complaining all the way, to get a look at the cantilevered house that doubles as Harry Bosch’s digs in the TV series. It was…well, it was fun.

Here’s a shot of me, boot and all, taken by Finn at the Observatory, in what one friend called my “clumsy Indiana Jones mode.” Indy has pretty much been my fashion idol all along, so I’m okay with that.

Back in DC, I took care of more details related to my mother’s death, sending out emails and calling friends. I’d already arranged for her to be cremated; beyond that, final arrangements—scatter the ashes or inter them? what about a memorial service?—can wait a while. One thing about death: it takes someone out of the slipstream of time. Memories first, memorials later.

In spite of losses and travels, I surprised myself and got some work done. Deadlines, which I used to dread and now rely on, pulled me back into action. Writing happened slowly, but it happened. I sweated for too long over my first review for the LARB, an outlet I’ve been eager to write for; that piece, the first review I’ve done since the Before Times, should be out next month. I filled notebook pages and index cards with the glimmerings of ideas for next books and new explorations.

I’ve been wrapping things up on the first-book front. The paperback of Clutter: An Untidy History will be published in January. I proofed an updated PDF of the book and caught a few lingering typos that will be fixed for the paperback edition (and in the ebook, where mistakes are easy to fix).

And I wrote an afterword for the paperback that explores how our relationship to our stuff did and didn’t change because of the pandemic. I wrote about my mother’s death, too, the end of the most personal part of the story. I’m proud of the afterword, and can’t wait for you all to read it.

Pre-order the paperback now; January will be here before you know it.

Preorder the paperback of CLUTTER


In August, Finn and I made another trip, this one by car, to the Northeast to visit liberal-arts colleges. (So many lovely, leafy campuses. So many terrifyingly low acceptance rates and rattlingly high tuitions.) In between campus tours, we made pilgrimages to the graves of my mother’s New England relatives.

Halfway between Worcester and Boston, Finn spotted a sign for Walden, and on a whim we took the exit and tramped around the pond and thought about Thoreau’s sojourn in the woods. HDT and I share a birthday and a fondness for nature, so I’ve always felt some kinship with him. And transcendentalism, at least as described at the Walden Pond visitor’s center, sounded pretty appealing to a smart 17-old who’s well aware of the shortcomings of modern life.

Then it was back on the road, bound east and north. We had dinner with an old friend in Brunswick, Maine, and her son—the experience of an in-person dinner party astonishes me these days—and then Finn headed off to spend some time with friends by a lake in western Maine. Solo, I visited my aunt in South Portland, and heard stories about my mother I’d never heard before, or had forgotten.

The day before I drove back to DC, I went to Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth. I sat on the rocks and looked out at the sea and pretended I was in an adventure tale. Maybe I was. Maybe I’ll write one. I’m ready to tell another story.

I hope you’re staying cool and finding adventures, near or far, during these dog days of summer. Thanks for reading.

Cheers,

Jen

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