It happened so fast. It happened in slow motion. As I turned my Jeep Liberty into my condominium parking lot Friday afternoon, I was thinking of all sorts of things: Finally getting back to the gym now that my strep throat was feeling better, learning those repetitive Act One lines for the show I’m rehearsing, what I would bring to dinner with our friends Saturday night. I wasn’t thinking that in a few seconds my neighbor would back out of her parking space without seeing me, and gun her car right into the driver’s side door of my Jeep.
I remember seeing the car coming at me and realizing I could not speed up nor brake enough to avoid the collision. I felt the back of her SUV collide with me, felt my front door buckle and push in against my hip, and heard the crunch of metal meeting metal. I didn’t feel my knee slam against the steering wheel column… I didn’t feel that until later when I found the big ugly red mark there. I didn’t feel my shoulders slam back into the seat after my seatbelt stopped me… I didn’t feel that til much later when I was trying to find a comfortable position for sleep. And then it was over and all I could think was, “No! Not my Jeep! Not my Liberty!”
The driver’s side door was crushed in and wouldn’t open so I climbed over the passenger seat and out to inspect the damage. MY neighbor was distraught, apologetic, worried, and solicitous. “No, no I’m not hurt.” “No, it’s ok , of course it was an accident. I know…don’t worry. Please. It’s fine.” And of course it was. There was no bodily injury, no shattered glass, just a couple of severely dented doors, and a broken mirror. Yet it wasn’t fine. I headed inside and called Kelly to come help me figure out what to do next. Snow was beginning to fall as we exchanged insurance information and called to place the claim. Why it didn’t occur to us to go inside to make the call I don’t know, but as I stood in the cold on my cell phone, staring at the crumpled doors of my Jeep, I suddenly could make no sense of what the kind Allstate agent was telling me. “I’m going to give you to my wife,” I said, “I’m a little shaken up and I am not concentrating.” Kelly took over and did what she does so well, make lists, ask questions and get things done. Me? I started to cry.
Now here is where you say “Katie, seriously. It’s just a car. You were fine, the car wasn’t totaled, and doors can be replaced, you have awesome insurance, the accident wasn’t your fault, so why the tears?”
Ah yes. Why the tears?
My bright red 2004 Jeep Liberty was the first car I ever bought by myself. Yes at the ripe old age of 38 I finally negotiated, and signed for and paid for a car all by myself. (This fact makes my wife incredulous. She, of course, bought her first car at seventeen.) It was the summer of my divorce and it was the one totally selfish thing I have ever done for myself. I remember taking Liza, only five at the time, still in a booster seat, to test drive it. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with my friend Vicki, an amazing saleswoman, while she scribbled figures on a pad of paper and helped me negotiate over the phone with the salesman. When we picked up the car Liza and I giggled as we pulled out of the lot, windows down and the feeling of freedom before us. “Momma we got a BIG Jeep with BIG wheels!” she squealed from the back seat. And we were off. For me, that Jeep Liberty symbolized MY new liberty, complete with doing scary new things like buying a car for myself for the very first time. For the next 8 ½ years that Jeep took us to work, to school, endless trips to Maine to handle my mother’s cancer care, to the beach, to Rhode Island to see my brother, to the mall, to Nashua to visit Kelly in her apartment, and hundreds of other destinations. It kept me safe in the worst of snowstorms and I always felt particularly butch every time I would pop it into four wheel drive to get up the hill to my condo. Along the way it gained a Provincetown Sticker, a gay pride sticker, an Ogunquit sticker, a Holy Cross Alumni Sticker, an Obama/Biden sticker, and an HRC sticker. A string of pride beads hung from the rear-view mirror, and the collection of cds Liza listened to during her years in the back seat went from “Blues Clues” and “Kidz Bop” to “High School Musical” to Taylor Swift, until finally they were replaced by our battling iPods when she moved up to the front seat. The Jeep bore witness to everything from the nervous tears of a five year old on her first day of kindergarten, to the exhausted snoring of a 13 year old after 3 dance classes and a tech rehearsal. It’s walls hold the confidences of our best mother daughter talks, and the echoes of my tears when I was sure I was failing completely as a mom. While I was relentless about the maintenance of the car I tended to be a bit neglectful of the interior and Kelly often commandeered the Jeep for a thorough cleaning. And through it all I never stopped getting that little thrill I felt when I would see the bright red of its paint waiting for me in the morning, after work, or even in a random parking lot. MY Red Jeep. MY Liberty.
Now I’m a big girl. I know doors can be replaced and eventually my Liberty will be back for me good as new. But the tears that I shed for those crumpled doors weren’t just for paint and metal. They were for what they represented. My new life, my new liberty. But I know it will be home soon, back with us for more adventures… and someday, hopefully, there will be another young lady behind its wheel.. getting her own little taste of liberty.
But not TOO much!
We’ve all heard it. “Just put it out there to the Universe!”. Times are tough? Need a break? Not sure of the next move? Want something really badly? “Just put it OUT there” man! The Universe will answer! Because I seem to have more than my fair share of more new-agey inclined friends I tend to hear this a lot. My mother would have told me to pray to the Blessed Mother for divine intervention. My father would have told me to “work for it!” In the social media world I have a whole slew of friends who subscribe to some feed called “Begin with Yes” that offers up pithy sayings about the awesome power we each hold to create our futures. (Their posts are inevitably accompanied by Thomas Kinkaide-esque paintings of sunrises, mountains, and unicorns). But whether it’s saying endless Hail Mary’s or meditating on the power of the Universe in a yoga class, or networking ourselves silly in pursuit of success, we all get that message somewhere along the way that we just have to BELIEEEVVEEEE in it hard enough, WORK for it hard enough, do all the right things, and just be a good enough person, then what we want will simply… be. Except, sooner or later it happens.
The Universe says “no.”
The past eight weeks have been a soul-crushing, spirit-numbing, tear-stained sequence of “no,” after “no,” after “no” that began on New Year’s Eve and continued relentlessly day after day. I said more prayers for divine intervention than I had in the previous 46.8 years of my life combined, I had long talks in the car with my mother (who’s been dead for five years), I had bursts of strategy and action certain that I had figured out how to conquer the latest obstacle, and every day I woke up and “put it out there” yet again, convinced that finally the Universe would have to say yes.
It might have been bearable if the “no”s had been limited to say one particular area of my life – work, or parenting, or friendships, or volunteer work – but they spread out like an invasive weed to take over all areas of my life. Potential funders who I’d cultivated for weeks and months turned me down, previously fulfilling and fun volunteer gigs degenerated into swampy messes of finger- pointing, slammed doors, stress, anxiety, and some of the most gut wrenching decisions I’ve ever had to make. A show I’d longed to do for years held auditions and I didn’t find out until they were over. Friends who I thought were in it for the long haul suddenly became very conspicuously absent, even angry with me, (probably rightfully so, I’ve been kind of insufferable). Even the small blessings I prayed would come true for my daughter and her friends were summarily denied, denied, denied. January turned to February and I felt sure the streak would be over but it marched relentlessly on. “No” became the standard order of the day.
What the hell Universe? Is this really how it’s supposed to work when I “put it out there?”. Were all those pastel colored posters with their pithy sayings lying? Where were all the friends with their memes and quotes now? Lost in my own stress and misery I binged on carbs, spent long nights buried under fleece blankets, cried on Kelly’s shoulder, cried in the car, cried in the shower, and sent the stock of Yellowtail Shiraz and Kleenex skyrocketing.
And then I noticed something.
I know, you’re thinking “oh THIS is where she’s finally going to see that all those ‘no’s were leading to some great big glorious new ‘yes’ she didn’t see coming.” No, that’s not it. There so far has been no glorious ‘yes’ awaiting me, and trust me I’ve searched for it! What I noticed was that this year seemed to be especially bad not just for me, but for many, many of my friends who were facing trials far beyond my petty problems. Real problems such as health crises, and job loss. And then I noticed that many of my other friends who were often the most silent voices in my very loud and crowded social media world were reaching out to me simply saying, ‘I’m worried.’ Or “I’m here.” Or “I’m so sorry.” They weren’t armed with ready-made sayings, they weren’t promising that things would magically be better, they were just … simply…there. And their actions reminded me to do the same for my friends who were truly suffering. To step outside my own misery (my wife would call it my own tendency to ‘catastrophize’) and try to make things a little better for people who really needed a boost.
I’d love to say that as my 47th birthday inches closer day by day that I can see the dawning of new hopeful skies on the horizon. I really can’t. The friendships that strained remained strained, the things that broke are past repair, and the disappointments still sting. But somewhere out there spring is coming and even if it may not bring unicorns and sunrises and magical days filled with ‘yes,’ it will bring the promise of softer days, longer light, and the comfort of the passage of time.
And for now, that will have to do.
I have at best an uneasy relationship with January. In my youth and young adulthood I was captivated by the holiday season and resented the cold return to the ‘real world’ that arrived every January 2nd. As a kid it meant my brother and sister returned to college or their grown-up lives, leaving our house emptier and colder and me bereft of their company. In my adult life, January has often meant grappling with long days too cold to bring a baby or toddler outside, dark, bone-chilling mornings scraping off the car, icy drives to school, slush and road salt tracked into the house, and endless piles of mittens and hats that have since been lost to what I’m sure is an alternate universe populated by stray socks. While the snow-covered landscape does have its beauty, it seems to be an unmovable barrier to the life I want to be leading. A life that’s warm. A life that isn’t frozen.
This January has seemed especially cruel. The temps plummeted, the snow fell, and everything from little inconveniences, to fairly significant changes and hurts and disappointments appeared, haunting my sleep, upsetting my stomach, and creasing my brow. I became cross, impatient and short-tempered, and my barbs sharper and more pointed, a telltale sign I’m struggling with change, uncertainty, and anxiety. My front steps became a metaphor for my moods, as I fought what seemed to be a hopeless battle against the inches of ice built up from the dripping roof above. I salted, chipped, and cleared (cursing under my breath and attacking the ice with abandon) every night only to be faced with inches more the next morning. I’d curse and start again much to Kelly and Liza’s amusement. I became the crazy woman of the front steps, defeating the ice my only goal in a month where everything seemed daunting, hopeless, and sad. A January thaw brought some hope to the situation and a bit of a spring to my step until another storm arrived like clockwork and the battle began anew, an apt metaphor for the way January has been treating me so far.
In January’s quieter moments, when I’m not driving Liza somewhere, or poring over spreadsheets and grants, or answering mountains of email, I click through my pictures of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and summer escapes. But even the holiday season already seems a lifetime ago, when our home was lit by the colorful glow of the tree, and we spent long afternoons reading our new books, when wine and chocolate and pancakes (not all at once) were the order of the day, and nights were spent laughing ourselves silly over Wii games. The cocoon created by our family had enveloped me completely and I was angry at the harsh winter light and relentless challenges that heralded January’s arrival. Little things taunt me. The scatter of pine needles frozen into the snow of our back deck the only remnant of what was truly the best Christmas tree ever. The patio table upended and covered in snow reminds me of grilled feasts after a day on the beach in what seems like another world. And the 2013 calendar Kelly gave me (photos of gorgeous porches – one of my obsessions) has as its January photo a tropical porch overlooking the South Pacific. (Really? They couldn’t find an ice covered front step in a New England suburb to more accurately represent this month?). Oh sure there are January’s bright spots – Kelly and I have the time to indulge in our pre-Oscar movie watching blitz, and our weekend calendars are a bit less crowded. And of course at the end of every stressful day and tear-stained anxiety attack there is the comfort of the thoughtful presence of my wife, and the big fleecy blanket that is big enough to cover two middle-aged women watching Bravo.
The brightest sign of all however lies in the creeping minutes of sunlight (weak though it is) added to each day as the calendar marches slowly onward. There are eleven days left in this longest, cruelest month, and I mark each of them by noting the sky seems just a bit brighter when I leave work. And I remind myself that even as January punishes and pushes me, that after its’ passing I can begin the countdown to my summer and my beaches — what I call my calendar dance. That hopeful happy moment when I realize the time that has passed since our last swim in Ogunquit is greater than the time until our first dip of 2013. This January has hurt in ways large and small. But, like the problems I currently face, January also won’t last forever. And out there lies the promise of sun and warmth and life on the deck. A life that’s warm. A life that isn’t frozen.
In the meantime however, if you need me, I’ll be under that fleece blanket.