The essay below is about turning 50, not killing yourself, cowboy boots and rock and roll. It was originally published in the Chautauqua literary journal, whose nice editors nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.
Why Life Is So Long
Finally, I smiled. My parents had driven me to the studio of a family photographer whose job was to find and preserve my four-year-old essence. He perched me on a stonewall and gave me a fringed suede vest and a mini Stetson to compliment my ankle socks and Keds. It would take almost five decades for me to get matching cowboy boots.
For reasons no one can explain, the same reasons you like chocolate and I like vanilla, I was a New England girl who craved all things Western. Every morning of my childhood I drank coffee milk out of a blue plastic cup shaped like a cowboy boot. Every Saturday I watched a local children’s TV show hosted by a former Texas cowboy named Rex Trailer.
Of course I smiled for that photographer.
Were my parents cheerful that day, too? If so, it was also a rarity. They’d married too young and a bit haphazardly, which led, after a few good years, to a union of yelling and brooding.
You can see the typical family mood in other photos. My mother looking deflated in the kitchen. My brother with a grim face as he plays some sport or another. Me, crying. Crying in a bonnet. Crying in a play fort. Crying in a high chair. It was as if they were collecting evidence: here sits an unhappy child.
Was living under the shadow of that sour marriage what made me miserable? Or would it have happened in any family? I was prone to melancholy. My brother, who grew up in the same environment with the same disgruntled people, is not. Or perhaps he’s prone to denial and I’m not.
It was more pleasant at my two best friends’ houses, though they may not remember it that way. There was too much drinking in one home, too long a stretch of unemployment in the other. But Janet’s and Toddie’s parents adored each other, so even though there also happened to be a lot of cigarette smoking in both households, the air seemed clearer, the clouds over their roofs lighter and fluffier than those over mine. I could relax in their homes.
The only place I relaxed at my house was the living room, a rectangle of flat planes and uncomfortable surfaces. The epitome of 1960s pared-down style, it featured tables tiled in stone (cold), furniture upholstered in wool (itchy) and gloomy art: a city-scape in the rain on one wall and a spikey metal object d’art that could have been the sun or a medieval hurling weapon on the other. The only soft spot was the wall-to-wall carpet. The only source of comfort was the stereo.
I don’t remember when I didn’t mimic the rotation of the records in that room. The platter would slide down its spoke and the needle would kiss the wax and I would spin. Not dance. Spin, like a kid trying to get dizzy. I was aware that this behavior was odd, so, as I imagine is the case with habitual masturbators and nose pickers, I restricted myself to enjoying it privately. I only spun when no one was home, or when my mother was busy elsewhere in the house and I made sure no one was walking past our giant windshield of a picture window. God forbid the tomboy across the street catch me being weirder than I actually was.
I was a tightly coiled child, but turning in circles opened me. It was as if my emotions lived in a centrifuge and spinning divided the heavy feelings from the light. First I’d feel sad and angry. Then joy would splatter out and I might even begin to sing.
As a little kid, I spun to my parents’ classical and Broadway tunes. The music improved as my brother matured and slid his rock records into the stack. I liked Harry Nilsson singing about limes and cocoanuts, and I developed a mild appreciation for The Doobie Brothers, but I fell in love with Fleetwood Mac. I was 14 when Rumours came out and must have listened to it 14 hundred thousand times.
“Listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness,” the band of five spouses/lovers/enemies sang. I obeyed.
“The Chain” became my favorite song on the iconic album.
“I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain,” they roared with a blend of sorrow and fierceness in their voices.
“Chain, keep us together,” they begged.
The chain that had linked me with my childhood best friends broke shortly after the song came out. Toddie, whose mother had started referring to me as “my other daughter,” moved to Africa. Without her, Janet and I started to pull apart. There was no dramatic fight, just new interests and new friends that pulled us into other orbits. Or, maybe we were too sad to move on as a two-some. All I know is that I lost Janet and Toddie and the chance to be near grown ups who modeled snippets of personal calm and marital solidity. Is it surprising that things began to break in me? If I were a record, I would have started to skip. If I were a stereo speaker, you would have heard pops and scrapes.
A clinical depression that wouldn’t be effectively treated for many years was in full bloom by the time I turned fifteen. Music still evoked emotions, but I stopped spinning. I put my own records on the stereo then flopped down on the carpet instead of letting the music move me physically. Billy Joel’s early songs of isolation and cynicism –we all have a face that we hide away forever – were the sort of gloomy anthems I preferred. John Denver’s odes to country roads and rocky mountains soothed me some, but as much as I stared at his cowboy-hatted head on the album cover, I couldn’t remember why.
I stopped eating, not because of a diagnosed eating disorder, but because I felt nauseous all the time. But that’s all I felt. That, and terror. About everything and nothing and the fact that the word suicide had entered my mind’s vocabulary. I never had a suicide plan, but I’ve had what ifs, which might be scarier. What if I do it? What if I’ve lost that much control?
I told no one, but due to my weight loss and despondency, my mother signed me up for a buffet of therapy: individual, group, family. The first two did nothing. But during one session with my parents, one of the adults asked if I’d considered suicide. Who knows what I answered, but I remember my father looking directly at me and recalling that as a teen he had opened his family’s medicine cabinet, seen a bottle of pills, and thought about it.
I’m sure he followed the anecdote with platitudes about permanency and hope, but he didn’t have to. That someone else had suffered the what ifs and lived to divulge that secret was salve enough. I wasn’t the only one.
These were the days before antidepressants were widely used, so the depression eventually dissolved on its own, though my father’s admission seemed to kick off the healing. But I couldn’t completely shake the fear that I wasn’t built to become an old lady. Life seemed so long and so hard. Even when I wasn’t sad, I’d occasionally think: I have to keep doing this for how long? Life itself seemed like a tremendous amount of work. What if I wasn’t good at it? What if I lacked stamina? What if I decided to quit for real?
By mid-high school, I had found my way back to music. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I began going to rock concerts whenever I could. While I couldn’t exactly spin in those dark, weed-infused arenas, I rediscovered the same joy I’d felt in my living room as a child. Even better than spinning alone, at a concert you can stomp and scream and sing with other people who are also waterlogged with emotion. You can let the happy girl in the cowboy hat break the surface until the lights go up.
I also made it to the West. A high school trip brought me to Colorado, followed over the years with vacations to Arizona, Wyoming and Montana. Each state bestowed a sense peace I didn’t know I’d been looking for. In one city, I allowed myself to buy cowboy clogs. These, I was told, were what a cowgirl slipped on after kicking off her riding boots. I’m still not sure I believe that story. The clogs were square-toed, backless clunks that looked uncool and unattractive the one time I wore them in public. I didn’t let myself get full boots because I didn’t believe I’d earned them. Liking something and deserving it seemed incompatible to me. Did I have habits, such as cattle herding or line-dancing, that required cowboy boots? No. Did I live in the West? No. Therefore, my thinking went, owning cowboy boots would make me a phony.
My parents stayed married and miserable, but their example made me determined not to settle. I succeeded, marrying a wonderful man with whom I share few common interests. He is science and I am literature. He loves exercise and I dread it. He listens to Top 40 pop-country music voluntarily. Worst of all, he doesn’t like concerts. Whenever I’ve coaxed him to one, he’s stuffed his ears with rubber plugs and kept his eyes on the emergency exits.
It’s possible to lose your essential self without noticing. It doesn’t necessarily hurt and you can remain relatively content after it’s been misplaced. The formula for heedlessness is to keep busy, to find yourself a role that makes personal freedom difficult, to get a little martyry. Domesticity works nicely.
I sank roots in the East, befriended women who complained about finding good help, and had children who filled the house with the sound of cartoons. I could have listened to my music through headphones, but that seemed wrong; irresponsible or inattentive, something a good mother wouldn’t do. Also, the thought of tuning out was too frighteningly tempting: if I twisted those buds into my ears, I might never take them out again. Next thing the family knew, I’d be dragging a suitcase out the door during SpongeBob.
I played CDs on a kitchen stereo once in a while, but the kids usually made faces or comments. On the few occasions when they tolerated my choices, I didn’t dare sing or spin or dance. They know I can’t move with any grace or rhythm, so if I ever let it rip, it became a big joke. Ha ha, isn’t Mom hilarious!
Do we hide the habits that feed our souls because we’re ashamed of those pleasures, or because we treasure them so much we need to protect them from the grubby paws of our loved ones? Either way, I limited my intake. I only let myself snack on music when I was alone in the car. Then I sang and cried, when necessary, to tunes as much as I wanted.
I stayed in touch with Toddie, the childhood friend who moved away, for years. We wrote each other detailed letters on Snoopy stationary, fervently promising LYLASF (Love You Like A Sister Forever) on the outside of the envelopes. But as we grew, sisterhood faded into impersonal Christmas cards. Janet and I drifted so far apart that even though we still lived two houses away from each other and went to the same high school, I knew nothing about her teen years: not who she dated, not even where she went to college.
The good news is that I’ve never learned how to scrape anyone out of my heart. Usually this disability is a burden rather than a blessing. With all those old friends and paramours and relatives rapping around in there, as vivid as when I first met or last saw them, it’s sometimes hard to concentrate. But every once in a while, to ease the pressure, I look one of them up. The first times I reconnected with Janet and Toddie, the reunions didn’t take. I met each of them for pleasant lunches that tapered into awkwardness before the bill arrived. The reunions did nothing more than reassure me that they were doing fine and that they no longer fit into my life.
Toddie’s wedding invitation was a formality to let me know about her milestone. There was no expectation that I’d attend the event, which would require a short flight and a long drive, but I went anyway. It was a small wedding so I got to spend time with her family, who welcomed and loved me as they always had. After the reception, I went back to my hotel room, fell to my knees by the bed and sobbed into the mattress. It was a child’s cry, pure and saturated with sorrow. The intensity of it startled me. I wasn’t depressed anymore, so what was this display all about? The only answer that made sense to my thoroughly therapized mind was that this was unprocessed grief. For a few years after she’d moved, I’d acknowledged how much I missed Toddie, but I hadn’t admitted how essential her family had been to me or how painful losing them was. They say kids are resilient because they compartmentalize, packing up the pain that threatens to clutter the hallways of their lives and storing it in some attic of their psyches so they can move forward. Maybe that happened to me, and seeing those people again pulled the twine off that particular parcel.
The reconnection with Janet wasn’t as dramatic, but it was sweeter. After several bland get-togethers over three decades, we finally clicked one summer at the beach. That it was the same beach we went to as children, the same sand where we dug so many holes, may have had something to do with our return to ease. Or maybe it was time. Years had passed and we had taken different roads, but now we could talk about anything. I didn’t worry about telling my truths or hearing hers. It was as if the crust we develop as we grow, that layer that makes us weigh every conversation, however subconsciously, with the goal of keeping ourselves safe, had flaked off. As children we hadn’t made such calculations. We’d just lived: telling stories on swing sets, running inside for popsicles, going to sleep in matching pajamas. Now the activities had changed, but not the sensation of being both unprotected and safe. Far and long from our parents and our childhood houses, being with her felt like coming home.
To celebrate my 50th birthday, one of those I once feared I wouldn’t reach, I invited my favorite friend from nearly every stage each stage of my life to meet me in Austin. Five made the trip: a college roommate, an early work colleague, a young motherhood companion and those two childhood pals.
Other fiftieth destination parties are usually more traditional: a spa or a tropical island or a mountain climb. I chose Texas because I’d been singing about it in the car for years. Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and a heap of old country singers led me through songs that rendered their state exotic. For much of my adult life, I drove around suburban New England and imagined fields of bluebonnets and stretches of dirt road. Plus, there was that old pull, the Texas cowboy of my childhood TV days. It was time to see the place.
We ate Mexican breakfasts and marveled at the glorious architecture of the state capitol. We watched bats fly and drank tequila cocktails at the hotel where Lyndon and Lady Bird hung out. We shopped for cowboy boots.
I had no plans to buy a pair when we entered the boot store. I just wanted to smell them. Give me the choice between a bouquet of roses and a scrap of leather and I’ll always pick the latter. The store, lined as it is with rows and rows of boots, rendered me leather drunk.
For fun, we tried some pairs on. First, the wildest of Dolly Parton styles – turquoise embroidered, red spangled – which we stood on benches and modeled for each other’s cameras. Then I pulled on a simple pair of black Lucchese’s. These are the boots that have been handmade in Texas since 1883. I expected them to be heavy and stiff like most of the others I’d sampled, but they were soft and pliant. I wasn’t even wearing socks. Those boots felt like socks.
Toddie and Janet must have seen my awe and called a summit.
“We want to buy those for you,” Toddie announced. “It’s our birthday present.”
I was moved and panicked. I have issues with people spending money on me. If I let them buy me these $300 expensive boots, what would I owe them? Guilt, subservience, equally perfect gifts? Maybe we could split them, I offered. No, insisted Janet, who seemed to know intuitively that I needed to conquer this particular hang-up.
“Grow,” she commanded.
So I did. I accepted their gift. Janet, who’d discovered and cultivated her liberal side throughout her adulthood, would give me the left boot. Toddie, who sympathizes with Tea Partiers, took care of the right.
Those boots might have magic sewn into the seams, because my long-held, much-misguided notions of authenticity seemed to vanish. With my friends’ blessings, owning something I liked even if it didn’t fit into my prescribed narrative didn’t seem irrational at all. Fighting that desire did.
It had been raining all morning and I worried that my beautiful new boots would get wet, but I really wanted to wear them.
“It’s clearing up,” someone said.
That looked to be true, so I pulled them on. My posse had been waiting for me on the sidewalk while I learned how to care for my new treasures. There’s a Fleetwood Mac lyric that says: When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know.
Believe me when I tell you this: as I emerged from the boot store, the sun came out.
I wore the boots all day with a swingy dress and pulled them on again that night with a pair of shorts. No fringed vest or mini Stetson this time, but boots. Finally boots.
We were on our way to sample Austin’s live music scene. I’d ordered us tickets to see an up-and coming band I’d heard on the radio shortly before flying to Texas. I thought I recognized Fleetwood Mac in their sound and I was right: one of the leaders of my favorite old band sang back-up on this group’s first single. When I went to their website to see their touring schedule, I discovered that they’d be in Austin the weekend of my birthday celebration. Of course we’d attend.
They delivered songs from their latest album, then threw in a surprise: “The Chain”, their young voices harmonizing on those old words: I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain…
Neither Fleetwood Mac nor this band ever sang about fixing a chain, yet that night was proof that repair is possible. You can break the chain that connects you to your essential self by misplacing friends or depriving yourself of music or devaluing the things that made you inexplicably happy as a child. But it turns out you can also solder that chain back together decades later and it’s even stronger.
The show was at one of those music halls without seats, so we stood near the stage. I was the only one who knew the songs and Janet was the only one game enough to dance to anything. For the whole concert, I moved, wildly and badly in my leather boots, next to my original friend. It was like spinning in my living room. It was like screaming at a rock concert. It was better than both.
This, I thought, is why life is so long.
Susan Kushner Resnick, 2014