My dad died in November. It happened to be on my kid’s birthday. It happened to be a few days before Thanksgiving. It happened to be at the start of the month or so of chaos that is the holiday season – the season filled with shopping and class parties and band concerts and end of the year reports and then New Years and then omigod it’s January. Then, it happened to be January, and now it happens now to be just a few days before his funeral.
Make no mistake, I am very aware of the fact that my father is gone. But my energy associated with this event so far has been practical by necessity, rather than strictly emotional. You in the unlucky club of having to handle the business end of losing someone will recognize this space. It’s the bubble. Compartmentalizing for the sake of functionality. Moving forward not so much to avoid the grief, but because the grief must coexist with more mundane things like deciding who will get who from the airport and if there will be enough scrambled eggs at the funeral breakfast and if the dogs got fed. Sure, you can and will break down in tears, but you’ll still need to write the obituary, so cry … but cry and type, sister. Cry and call the cemetery. Cry and call the probate court. Cry and fax the death certificate.
Lots of people have discussed the simultaneous doing and feeling that comes after a death, especially on the internet. There’s a lovely article by John Pavlovitz that gets shared a lot about this strange bubble, the space where you’re in grief but also at the grocery store. A woman on Twitter explained my favorite analogy about grief, the “ball in the box,” that shows how your grief button gets hit unexpectedly and potently. I also like this widely-shared Reddit wisdom about grief in relation to 100 foot waves. These are all great reads and filled with the deep experience of humans who have been there. But I think my favorite words come from one of my neighbors. She was getting her eyebrows waxed before her dad’s funeral in a moment of self care, and she heard a song on the radio that brought her to tears. The lady waxing her eyebrows unknowingly apologized. “You’re not usually this sensitive,” she said. Yeah … “not usually this sensitive.” That just about sums it up.
So far this week, I have not cried at delivering my dad’s ashes to the cemetery office, but I cried at picking the right black top to wear. I have not cried at talking to the officiant for the service, but I’ve cried as I folded 200 programs, reminded again and again that this little piece of paper sums up my dad's whole life. I have not cried at the fact that our family and friends are coming from all over because the funeral is this weekend, but I cried at the sight of a cough drop on the floor of my dad's car – a small, tangible artifact that he was here and now he’s not. There will be a million of these, a million little songs on the radio that hurt more than me getting my eyebrows waxed. But check out how neatly those programs are folded. Look at that lovely guest book I picked. Enjoy the scrambled eggs at the funeral breakfast … we’ll order more if you need them. Those are my little offerings of love right now. And of grief.
I woke up to a flooded basement. The toilet ran and dripped down the walls and made a non-ignorable puddle in the basement. We had only gone up to the lakehouse for one night because being at the lakehouse on New Years Eve is a lucky tradition for me. Years when I don’t do it have felt perilously off from the start. One included a broken heater. One resulted in my kid getting accidentally locked outside when a dog chased her. One featured a very reasonable choice to forgo what turned out to be an unforgettable family experience that I will always have missed out on – a true FOMO come true. Come to think of it, all three of those were the same year. So, we went up to the lakehouse for luck this year, and woke up to broken toilet. But I did my good luck duty, so it could have been worse, right? I called my uncle, the plumber, who offered his help. I guess that was, and is, good luck.
We always eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Years. We do that because I read it’s good luck in Spain, so I shove them in two at a time and chew sloppily while Ryan Seacrest chatters. I make my husband and kiddos do it, too. Every year, my husband complains how much he hates it, and the children nearly choke. I start off the new year with a mad husband and choking children, but if I don’t do it, things’ll be worse, right? Right. Gotta eat the grapes to avert bigger disasters.
I have a rotten head cold. I want to snuggle on the couch and stare into space and not think about the broken toilet. But I am baking cornbread and making the only edible version of black eyed peas my family will eat (LuLu’s L.A. Caviar, a fine recipe indeed to convince my family to eat black-eyed peas with a smile). I will stir some cold, canned collard greens into my reheated Chinese food, too. I must do this, because black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread ensure wealth in the new year in the South. To sit on the couch and nurse my cold instead invites financial disaster. Years when I’ve tried to forgo it, and I felt a pang every time I had to tap my savings account. Doesn’t matter that I likely still had to tap the savings account on the years that I did. I suppose the luck is having a savings account to begin with. I suppose the head cold is also good luck – I am so congested, I will not be fully aware of the odorous intestinal results from my family thanks to the fiber in the black-eyed peas.
The point here? I have had years when I have intentionally bucked the traditions. I have had years when life was weird or hard, and I just didn’t get there. And I noticed. I noticed. Maybe the universe didn’t, but I did. So we went to the lakehouse. We ate the grapes. I just had a hot piece of cornbread. I am getting out the dressed up black-eyed peas. I can reassure myself throughout 2020 that I did the things that brought the luck, and my path is going to be just as awesome as it possibly could be. Of course it will. I bought my insurance, and tomorrow, I'll have the righteous farts to prove it.
I learned an amazing word last night: liminal.
As in “liminal space.”
You can get the full Wikipedia definition of “liminality” here, and you can get a sense of it in this website, or this Instagram post, which is where I stumbled on it, but here it is in a nutshell: a liminal state or liminal space is when you are on a threshold in between two things. You’ve left an old normal, and you are moving toward some future normal... but, you ain’t there yet. You’re hanging out in uncertainty and ambiguity. You are in between.
Turns out they have a name for that shit, because it has happened to human animals throughout history, and it happens to each of us throughout our lives at many different times and in many different ways.
We sometimes experience the liminal en masse, I learned, as we do with our peers or friends during puberty or graduation. Sometimes we get thrown into the liminal by a sudden big change, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. But the reality of liminal space is that you aren’t the thing you were any more, and the playing field hasn’t just shifted: it has disappeared. You can’t go back, but damn if you know what you should do to move forward. You aren’t really ready for motion yet, necessarily. You are in between.
A general example of liminal space is that distinct kind of loneliness and out-of-sorts feeling that comes with being in airport or airplane. You aren’t home, and you aren’t where you’re going. You’re transitioning, wandering around without your people and without your place. You’re a little bit more at the mercy of the universe than usual. You are subject to change without notice, and you will need to deal with whatever comes equipped only with what’s in your suitcase. Your job is to hang out, wait at the gate, and be ready.
Nope. It’s not. I suspect that’s why they have bars and stores in airports -- to help people tolerate that space. I have tolerated it myself many times, from figuring out what Christmas would look like after my mom died, to the unbearable ambiguousness of being nine months pregnant. It ISN’T fun. You literally have no way of knowing when the next phase of your life will hit, or what it will look like. Or if you will survive it, literally and figuratively. You do what you can to get ready, but meanwhile, you just have to tolerate the anxiety and hope it’ll be fine.
While it ain’t fun, the truth of this space is that it is utterly unavoidable -- and that's good news. We are ALL going to be there, and we are all going to be there more than once. It’s such a common thing that societies have created rituals around it, whether it’s transitioning to adulthood through a bar mitzvah or having an extended ceremony around weddings or deaths. As a species, we get that these are weird times, and we see that there’s a sort of magic in them. In fact, this article from Psychology Today says that creativity and liminal space are friends. Sometimes that ambiguity and self-reflection are necessary. Sometimes you can’t get where you’re supposed to be going without going through it.
That’s great news once you’re past it, but if you’re hanging out in the liminal, it takes energy. Energy not to freak out. Energy to look for the path. Energy to be a new thing. So for those in the liminal space, I salute you. I am right there, too. Come sit next to me in the airport bar, and let’s share an overpriced Toblerone. You tell me where you come from, and I’ll help keep an eye on the departure board to see where we both get to go next.
It’s a rainy Sunday and my house is filled with the smell of melting plastic.
The melting plastic is from one of those homemade sun catchers where you dump the little beads into the different sections and bake it in the oven so the beads melt and look like glass. It was created by my 6-year-old after she won a kit at a mommy-daughter tea.
It’s one of those suncatchers that will hang in her window for the next 15 years, occasionally falling thanks to a cheap and yellowing suction cup that you will lick the back of and reapply. It will be there when she’s in junior high and high school, in the corner, forgotten and covered by the drapes. It will be there when she comes home from college and looks up at her childhood window from the driveway. It will maybe even make it into a box that we pack for her when she moves to New York and we are retiring to the beach. It will be a little dusty, just a touch sun-bleached, and we will have licked and reapplied the suction cup dozens, maybe hundreds of times by then.
And today I am making it, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with my 6-year-old, amidst the smell of melting plastic, on the day after a mother-daughter tea.
Isn’t life the coolest?
An increasing number of my friends have been reading and posting about an article by Ada Calhoun, entitled “The New Midlife Crisis.” In a nutshell, it describes how Gen X women are overwhelmed, exhausted, and depressed, and it illuminates very specific and valid socio-economic reasons why we should be. It’s a solid read--well researched, thoughtful--and it hits close to home for a lot of reasons. In fact, it hits so close to home, it’s painful to get through it. It makes me a feel a distinct kind of hopeless. And that’s why I feel compelled to raise my hand and say this: If all of us are screwed, you guys, then none of us are. None of us.
Hear me out here.
Whenever I consume media about the folks in my generation (and I am technically a member of the Oregon Trail generation rather than a full-fledged, proper Gen Xer), the gist of it is that people my age are some sort of neglected, latch-key, sandwich group, never to enjoy the safety in cultural numbers that either generation before or after us enjoyed. According to some pundits, we’ve always had it bad. We’re neither Boom nor Millennial, and therefore we will never get to have what they have. According to “the reports,” we’ve been screwed since the day we arrived, and, by the way (as pundits sometimes love to remind us) don’t we know that? Aren’t we scared? Aren’t we worried?
Sure. But in that, I would argue, lies exactly the gift and the strength of our generation. Just like a mildly well-adjusted middle child, we get that there are plenty of reasons we could feel overwhelmed, stressed, and slightly cheated by our generational birth order. But the truth is, we’ve never really had it another way. We feel all those things, but not with the same perspective of any of the other generations. We’re used it to it, so it feels normal. I don’t say that in a hopeless, defeatist way—just the opposite. We have been bred to be resilient in a way that differs from the generations around us. Sure, it bothers us, but we’re used to being slightly uncomfortable. It’s kind of our superpower.
See, we are a generation that has been able to function before, during, and after some pretty profound cultural shifts. We grew up in a time when there was no such thing as the internet. We did our elementary school reports using encyclopedias, and then, when they invented Google, and we used that to do stuff instead. But we could still use the encyclopedias if we had to. We’re not afraid or confused by technology, and we’re also not totally dependent on it. We could still get the report done using either set of tools. We’re not wringing our hands over the changes. We’re cool either way.
We grew up in a generation where divorced parents were starting to be the norm. Where entertainment and news distinctly melded. Where gaming systems went from Commodore 64 to Xbox One. Where computers went from being Apple IIEs to freaking IPhone 10s. Think about that—and the level of flexibility and tolerance you have to have to be able to hang with that. Then think of how little fear we feel at enduring those kinds of changes.
I’d argue, in fact, that we’re the generation that doesn’t just hang with change, but is used to making the best of it. We are savvy to Waze, but who could also read a map if we had to. We store stuff in the cloud, but if our phones die, we still know our spouse’s phone number. We can joyfully post cat videos to the interwebz, but, mercifully, did not have every moment of our idiotic teenage years documented in painful detail thanks to social media.
Guys, we’re a generation who might all completely agree with all the stuff in this article. But we’re also a generation that has coped with that level of weirdness and uncertainty and change before, and guess what? WE WERE COOL. WE CAN HANDLE IT.
Our generation is like the kid who has spent their whole life riding on the hump in the middle of the backseat. We slide around a little more, but we’ve learned where to put our feet so we can brace ourselves for the curves. We don’t get carsick because we can see out the windshield. When we need to fall asleep, we can lean either way, and we’ll find a shoulder that will hold up our head. The window seat is awesome if you can get it, of course – but we rarely get it, so we’ve adapted all along. That is our strength. We’ve developed a tolerance for being uncomfortable. And that means we can hang with whatever life is bringing us.
So, trust me. That article we’re reading may be absolutely right. We might all be screwed in very distinct and specific ways. But the truth is, we’re used to that. In fact, we’re built for it. So, if we’re all screwed, guys, then none of us are. None of us are. And don’t you forget it.
Like many of my peers in Atlanta, I just dodged a little bit of a weather bullet. Our pal, Hurricane Irma – conveniently scheduled for September 11 in order to maximize my low-grade, lingering disaster anxiety – came to town, bringing heavy rain, winds, and lots and lots of power outages. I was very fortunate that I was not affected one iota as dramatically as many of the victims who bore the brunt of the storm, but hanging out in a house with two small children and listening to the news tell you how scary everything is outside your window does count as a certain level of “impacted.” After three days of no school, constant news monitoring, and carrying a flashlight with me to pee in case the power went out, I decided that the scary part was over, and we just needed to get out of the house. Out to lunch. Out to somewhere. Out. So, like any proper suburbanite, I got the in car and rolled out to the nearest fast food joint with a decent indoor playground.
We dodged a few downed limbs getting there, but when we rolled in to the much-revered house of chicken nugget purveyance, it actually looked a lot like the typical weekday lunch rush. Three polo-shirt-clad business men shared a booth, each on the phone with other people. A set of parents with small children cut up chicken nuggets with the side of plastic fork. Two women chatted with one another, keeping one eye on their kids in the glassed-in playground, and offered an occasional head shake either across the table or to their children when they were climbing something they shouldn’t be. As we sat down at our table with our food, I overhead a man obliviously talking at top volume on his phone. “LOT OF LIMBS DOWN!,” he said, “BETTER CALL THE INSURANCE COMPANY!” Then he ended with something that struck me: “If you just need to get out of the house, you should come down here.”
Although I was in what some people might think of as suburban hell, filled with screaming children, potentially obnoxious phone conversations, and artery-clogging fast foods, this man was suggesting that this was a good place to be. He was inviting people to join him.
And I agreed.
Sitting there, I personally felt more relieved than I had in the three days since the news reports started. What I really needed to comfort me after the bustle and jostle of the storm was the bustle and jostle of other people. I didn’t just need to get out of the house, I needed to go sit and be part of a community. Kids seem to inherently understand this. You “need” to get them out of the house because they not only want new surroundings, they need the stimulus of other people. Adults sometimes don’t acknowledge it as readily, but we need it, too. I needed to be out, elbow deep in ketchup smears with screaming babies in my ears. I needed the village.
Clean up from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is going to be long, painful, and expensive, and I encourage you to support those efforts however you can. (I personally sent money to a charity exclusively devoted to buying people clean underpants. True story.) However, there is one special wish I am sending out to the humans who need it most after these storms: May you find yourself smack dab in the middle of a community. May it make you feel much, much better during everything you’re going through. And, may it be filled with crying babies and ketchup smears and everything else you need for it to feel like home.
LITERALLY. Not figuratively. LITERALLY.
On the floor of my bedroom, for the last month or so, there has been a pink unicorn neck pillow with its stuffing coming out. I kick it out of the way every once in a while when I need to get in a drawer, or I pick it up and then put it back on the floor when I can’t find a better surface to pile it on. I’ve been meaning to fix it, but, you know … I move it around ceremonially instead. It sheds little blobs of white polyester stuffing that I occasionally find stuck to my pajamas or wedged in my shoe. It is there so I remember to sew it up, and it’s there to remind me I haven’t sewn it up yet.
Ever have one of those? That niggling little thing that sits there and bugs you when you notice it, but mostly you just move it around and make a mental note to put it on the long, long “one of these freaking days” to-do list?
MAN, those suck.
I was having a day yesterday when almost every single thing in my mental load was of the cement-truck-sized variety. The kids went back to school. They went to an after-school-care program for the first time since the big one was a toddler. I met with one of our financial helpers to talk about the money I am making … and not making. The fridge isn’t working right. I needed to spend time on the book I am writing and send out an invoice for something else, but I needed to be there for my hubby and myself and my friends and also worry about the kiddos and their mental health, and diet, and success in school, and friend group, and screen time. I needed to get groceries. I needed to do my taxes.
Every single damn thing was overwhelming and ridiculous and fraught with emotional and financial peril. And I took care of a whole lot of them (maybe not the taxes), but at the end of the day, all I could think about was all the shit that still hadn’t gotten done. The boulder that hadn’t been moved yet. The clothes that didn’t get folded.
At 11pm, I sat down in bed and stared into space for sec, and I noticed the little pink shedding unicorn. The head was ripped off in a way that made it look like its throat had been cut. It was dying—bleeding out right there on the floor. I sighed, then got up, dug out my makeshift sewing kit (that I bought at the grocery store, and, thank god, had pink thread), and started to sew the thing back together. It was a Frankenstein job to be sure—almost literally in this case, since I was sewing its flopping head to its neck—but I pulled the stiches tight, and it looked reasonably reassembled. And I relaxed for a minute. And I felt a little wiggly moment of joy.
I am not a seamstress, to be sure. I am not an expert at piecing together the pretty little edges and knowing what stitch is the best. But, I reached in the drawer, fished out the tools I had, and I fixed that mother f’er. It wasn’t perfect, but it was DONE.
I am a creative human, trying to balance my sweetie, my family, my work, and myself, and, like most people, I often deal with cement-truck sized things to worry about. And, like most people, I feel confident that if I only had the time, I could sew up everything just perfectly. I wouldn’t be leaving my little blobs of stuffing around to stick to someone’s pajamas or shoes. I wouldn’t look like I was bleeding out on the bedroom floor. I’d have my head much more firmly secured.
But sometimes, just putting a thing together with sloppy stitches and pink thread from the grocery store is okay. In fact, it’s great. Sew that thing up using whatever you got, and then take a minute to appreciate your handiwork. Breathe, relax, and feel the joy.
I am here to tell you, at 11pm, I fixed the hell outta that unicorn.
And I feel better … in more ways than one.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.