“I don’t drive into the city…”

 

I recently attended a work-related event in Plymouth, a charming and quaint little burg located about halfway between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The event consisted of a dozen or so upper-middle-class white women meeting for tea and to discuss a chosen topic, “preservation”. I was contacted by the group’s leader and invited to share product samples and talk a little about my business. Others read poems, shared family stories or talked about their work restoring old homes. It was a nice event, if not really my thing, and the women were very sweet and friendly and supportive. But when I invited them to visit my place of business, I was taken aback and dismayed by how many of them replied sweetly, “Oh, I don’t drive into the city…” as if that were a totally normal excuse.

Wait, what?! These women seemed educated, and while “cosmopolitan” might be a stretch, they certainly weren’t the MAGA red-hat-wearers that I typically associate with fear of the city (Macomb county, I’m looking at you). The one who restores old homes was dressed very stylishly, in striped wide-legged pants, a turtleneck and a cool vintage beaded necklace. She looked like she could have been a board member (or major donor) at the DIA. Another was around my age and was also an entrepreneur in the same sector as me. To her credit, she actually did come visit and meet with me to talk business, but was perceptibly on edge about the drive, almost canceling at the last minute because of a light snow.

I really wish I had responded to them with, “Oh, really? Why is that?” I think some of them were literally just scared of driving in “big city traffic”, but obviously that wasn’t the whole story. I’m kicking myself for the missed opportunity to enlighten people that Detroit (especially any of the parts these women would set foot) isn’t some scary lawless place where criminals roam the streets with assault rifles waiting to rob, carjack or shoot any visitor (read: white person). Not to sound naive, but I honestly thought those anarchic, post-apocalyptic stereotypes were limited to certain subsets of Macomb and far Oakland counties (and others from farther afield who have never been here and don’t read anything about what’s actually going on.) It was pretty depressing to realize just how far we still have to go with the city’s public image when “educated” people who don’t even live 15 miles from the city limits are scared to come here.

Of course many of my fellow Detroiters would say, great, we don’t want those people here anyway. And while I personally wouldn’t mourn not having to share space with sheltered bougie suburbanites, the reality is that bodies equal dollars, and Detroit can use all the dollars it can get. I can hear the argument already–that those visitors would only spend money at businesses in downtown and Midtown, not the neighborhoods. That may be the case, but if some of that money is then used to pay the wages and salaries of residents, who may in turn spend money locally in their neighborhoods, I still think it would be a net positive. The more the narrative changes (i.e. “I went to Detroit and visited all these cool places and there were people of diverse backgrounds all hanging out and I didn’t get shot…”), the better for everyone, and we can continue to dispel the ugly clichés of the sort you see in the comments section of any article in the Free Press.

I realized the other day that this summer will mark 20 years since I moved here. As someone who has the ability to move amongst and relate to people from many different socioeconomic strata (I grew up in a suburban area and have a college degree, but I am also a low-income city-dweller), I have an opportunity to exert positive influence when I encounter skeptics or outright critics. Next time someone tells me they don’t come to the city as a rule, I’m going to do better to tease out of them exactly why not, and to give them a different perspective.

hot springs eternal

There’s something about hot springs that, for me, is really special—the literal immersion of oneself into nature. I’m not much of a swimmer and I hate being cold, but the idea of just sitting in a warm pool in a magnificent natural setting is highly appealing. In the bleak of a Michigan February, I find myself pining for these places of beauty and warmth. I’m making it a point to seek out some hot springs on my next trip down south (perhaps this one, or this one when it re-opens), and am toying with the idea of a trip to Iceland, where geothermal baths are plentiful.

September 2001, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

It’s late in the evening. We’re on our way to Niigata to visit the island of Sado-Ga-Shima, famous for its gold mines and legions of feral cats. We stop off at an onsen, or traditional Japanese hot springs bath.

As with most things in Japan, there is a cultural learning curve. Bathers enter the baths nude–a personal article of clothing such as a bathing suit would be seen as unclean; sullying the water. 44-year-old post-pregnancy me would, ironically, probably be less self-conscious than my 27-year-old self was about public nudity. But thankfully, the darkness obscures us. We sit in the open air, bathed by moonlight and warmth and heady infatuation.

***

June 2010, Buena Vista, Colorado

On a blindingly sunny Saturday, M and I hook up with our old Detroit friend K, who has offered to act as tour guide that day since our host D has to work. She drives us obligingly a couple of hours out of town to Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa, with a stop for a hike at the beautiful and scenic Roxborough State Park. Despite calling itself a “spa”, which might connote something fancy, Cottonwood is a kind of funky, unfussy place where you can rent a lodge-style room or even a campsite. It makes me happy that these kinds of places are largely accessible to the general public and haven’t been overly commodified or made exclusive. Overseas, I would expect as much, since other cultures consider it more of a “right” that everyone be able to partake of a natural attraction regardless of income. But, given our American tendency to privatize and bleed every dollar we can out of tourists, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever that’s not the case.

cottonwood

***

October 2014, Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Winding through the mountains of Sao Miguel island, my best friend A and I happen to pass a sign for Caldeira Velha, a park with hot springs, and can’t resist pulling over. We don’t have a whole lot planned for this trip, other than to see where the road takes us. We park the car in a lot off the twisting road, and walk towards the park. The red dirt path pops cheerfully against the intense, saturated greens of the forest. We reach the springs, where you can actually see the water boiling up out of the ground in spots. A small waterfall flows gently over a ruddy, moss-covered rock face and into a natural pool. We don’t have bathing suits, so we roll up our jeans and sit at the edge of a smaller pool, like a large bathtub carved into the rock, submerging as much skin as we can. There’s an autumn chill in the air, providing a welcome contrast to the deliciously warm water. We sit in silence broken by the occasional birdsong or foreign chatter, and meditate on our good fortune.

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A couple of days later, we are in the town of Furnas, known for its hot springs and geothermal cuisine, in which pots of beef and root vegetables are stewed low and slow in the ground. This time I am prepared, having bought a cheap swimsuit in a tourist shop the day before. There are two main baths in Furnas. One is in the Terra Nostra botanical park; a huge pool of mineral-rich water the color of milky tea. The other, which we decide to try, is the Poça da Dona Beija, a series of five pools of different temperatures set amidst lush subtropical foliage. It’s dusk when we get into the water, and a fine rain mists our faces. We make small talk with a couple of young Canadians who have overheard us speaking English and who we recognize from our flight. The iron-rich water stains our nails and skin and swimsuits. We splash around, blissed out by the cool rain, hot water and the beauty of twilight fading on the verdant gardens.

eulogy

The following was written on August 16, 2015 and I feel enough time has passed that I can share it now. If the person this was written about reads it, I hope they know I still very highly regard the time we shared, and wouldn’t change a thing.

So here’s what’s happening right now: a quiet Saturday evening, crickets and a cool breeze. A snack of shrimp “cooked” in lemon juice with sea salt, thyme & shallot, drizzled with good olive oil and garnished with some charred cherry tomatoes. A not-quite-chilled-enough glass of Peñedes, but it’ll do. A bouquet of flowers I bought in a lame attempt to cheer myself from a loss that, although I predicted it long ago, was nonetheless heartbreaking.

I don’t know how to say this and I may regret writing it. But someone very, very dear to me has, for reasons known only to that person, chosen to withdraw their already tenuous friendship from my life. I’ve wanted to write about this person before, because they amaze and thrill and delight me, but for reasons of privacy I kept it to myself. Perhaps down the road, with distance, I can tell our story, but not any time soon.

My reaction to this loss was surprisingly calm. I had always known there was an inevitability of our connection dimming (for a multitude of reasons I can’t get into), but I always thought it would be a gentle tapering off, where we gradually stopped spending time together but remained friendly acquaintances. That was actually more or less already happening, and although it didn’t make me happy, I accepted that this was the natural order of things; a friendship like ours, while a thing of beauty, just isn’t cut out to be sustainable. When we unexpectedly hung out recently and had one of the best times I’ve had all year (and maybe with anyone ever), it was a pleasant surprise, but I didn’t see the overall trajectory shifting. What I should have remembered was that every previous time this person had pulled me in a little closer, they subsequently felt the need to shove me away with an even more violent force.

For most of my friendships, although I try not to be demanding, I have a very basic set of social expectations, of the sort that most of us do. However, ours was a different story. I had learned with this person a while ago to accept only what they were freely offering to me, and not to ask for, let alone demand, anything more than that. My time with this person was so special that I was willing (and more or less happily so) to forgo my usual friend expectations: text me back in a semi-timely manner, let’s hang out sort of regularly, etc. I quickly learned to hold back, take cues and wait until I was called upon to spend time with, rather than suggesting any social activity.

This may sound to most people as if I was some sort of doormat, desperately waiting around for a phone call or text. Not at all. In fact it was strangely liberating to have this kind of a friendship. For perhaps the first time in my life, I knew for an absolute fact that I accepted someone 100% for who they are and not anything that I wanted or wished they would be. And as a person who has spent far too long in unhappy situations because my expectations on others ultimately led to disappointment, it made me so incredibly happy to know I was capable of that! I don’t think I could say that before about anyone who wasn’t my immediate family member (or maybe my best friend A). This was huge progress for me personally, and has carried over into other aspects of my life and other relationships. In fact I think a big reason why I’ve been able to let go of so much anger and be at peace with M is a direct result of what this friendship has taught me. It’s made an immensely positive difference in my life.

What I’ve thought about in the last few days is this: I still love this person dearly. I’m very much hurting. I don’t at all understand their actions, which were swift, angry and honestly a bit cruel, but clearly the 100% acceptance thing wasn’t working both ways and I suppose this is just something they felt they needed to do. I have no choice or say in the matter. With other friends, I’d likely have attempted a reconciliation by now, but I don’t think that’s the thing to do here. Perhaps in time they’ll reconsider, and I really hope that’s the case. But no matter what happens, they can never take away the happiness I experienced being part of their life. They can never erase the beautiful memories, the corny inside jokes, the meals we prepared and shared, the philosophical discussions, the music we played each other, and the absolute sense of psychic connection with another human being. I will cherish all of those things even if they can’t or won’t, and my memories won’t be diminished by this act of severance. My heart is full of both love and sadness, but at least it is full, and that is something to be grateful for.

***

Postscript: Months went by in which I neither saw nor spoke to this person. On my end, I was afraid to reach out because I didn’t want to push or force anything (and probably also because I didn’t want to suffer more rejection.) Eventually we saw each other, and much to my delight and relief, big (and sincere) hugs were exchanged. These days we don’t really interact anymore except when we run into each other around town, but that’s ok. Just being able to appreciate what we had, and knowing that we are at peace, is enough.

 

ambush 1990

The fat little man ambushed us, limbs and appendages flailing as he stumbled toward us, his breathing labored from the effort, or perhaps nerves. In his hand was a 10-franc note, the pretty one with the cartoon drawing of the Little Prince on it. He waved it in our faces. “Regardez! Regardez comme il est beau,” he huffed, gesturing at his shriveled penis. His clothing lay in the bushes a few yards away. We saw the thing unrolling in slow motion– his progress out of the brush and onto the path in a wooded area of the Bois de Boulogne where we had taken a shortcut on a perfect summer afternoon; his brandishing of the bill in our faces; his chubby hand reaching out to grab my small, still-developing breast. We walked at a clip, our pace having increased as soon as we’d seen him out of the corner of our eyes, but it didn’t occur to us to run; in his nakedness, he somehow seemed less of a threat.

As we left the woods and re-entered the open expanse of the park, we giggled nervously and incredulously over what had just happened. We thought of the clever, biting things we would have said or done, if only we’d been quicker-witted: stealing his clothes; telling him “C’est beaucoup trop petit pour moi.” We didn’t feel scared or upset particularly, even though something far worse could have taken place. We were in that bubble of teenage-hood where invincibility trumps reality, and in the end, secretly savored the thrill of a brush with danger and a crazy story to tell our disbelieving friends when we got home.

on being awkward

No one likes to feel awkward. The word itself makes me cringe as I type it, with its strange w-k-w string of consonants that just seems more wrong the longer you look at it.  Awkward situations, awkward relationships, awkward phases… the adjective connotes something not merely uncomfortable but discordant; askew.

I-Love-Dick-Kathryn-Hahn
The inimitable Kathryn Hahn in “I Love Dick”

I have been awkward ever since I can remember. I’d like to think that at least sometimes it’s in a cute or charming way, à la Clare Danes in My So Called Life, or Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (and yes I know I’m dating myself terribly with those references!) Although I’d love to be one of those supremely self-possessed, polished women who always says the right thing and never does anything embarrassing, I’ve come to accept that that’s probably–no, definitely–not ever going to be me, and that’s ok. As I get older, I gain greater self-acceptance with each passing year, and I try to embrace my awkwardness as one of the many personality quirks that makes me who I am.

Even now in my forties,, I still occasionally gravitate towards shows about awkward teenagers. I recently discovered two such shows on Netflix, both British, one called The Inbetweeners about four teenage boys, and another called Some Girls. They’re terribly funny and I think anyone tired of today’s polished teens (you know, where every girl has perfect hair and a dewy glow and looks like she was dressed by a stylist, and even the supposed “nerd” characters are just hot chicks with glasses) will find them refreshing. Incidentally, did anyone watch “13 Reasons Why”? I have so many issues and complaints about it (not least of which is that the main character is a perfect example of the aforementioned super-cute-but-supposed-outcast girl), but I hate-watched the whole thing anyway.

Of course there are plenty of shows for adults with awkward females as the main character, à la Bridget Jones. I find most of these pretty annoying. One remarkable exception is Chris Kraus in the new Amazon show “I Love Dick“. I suppose I identify more with her brand of awkwardness, which is harsh and painful, more so than the cloying cutesy-ness of, say, Zoë Deschanel’s character Jess in “New Girl” (derp, derp). Chris Kraus perceives that she’s obnoxious or abrasive to others, but it’s like she can’t help herself, and we can’t look away. This, to me, is an infinitely more interesting heroine, although there were times when it almost became difficult to enjoy because it brought up familiar, unpleasant feelings of being that person who no one really likes much because you can’t rein yourself in enough to fit in.

I guess at this point in life, I’ve pulled back from social interaction except with people who have mostly known me for years. It helps that I have a mate and am no longer out and about all the time. I can put my head down, not stick my neck out. I am “safer”; less of a wild card. My awkwardness is more contained and bounded.

There are so many feminist implications of the awkward female trope that I can’t delve into now, but here’s a really excellent article about the role of the “female loser” as protagonist.

traveling companions part 3: family

It’s pretty inevitable that you’ll end up traveling with family at some point, whether by choice or obligation. If done right, it can be a great bonding experience. If not, it can make you feel like a screaming teenager again.

Growing up, pretty much all of our family trips took place in and out of cars. With four kids, there was much of the typical bickering/ whining (“mom… she’s touching meeeee!!!!”) and parental threats of pulling over to administer punishment for said bickering. But there were also lots of fun moments of games of I Spy, 20 Questions, and sing-alongs (where I learned how to rock a harmony with my mom singing Beatles or holiday songs).

Since then, family travel has mostly consisted of a bunch of us converging on or around someone’s house, whether it be my dad’s lake house or my mom’s place near Hilton Head. The key for me in these situations (or really anytime I’m in large groups) is the ability to get away and have a little quiet time each day, especially if there are kids around. Usually this means getting up early to read, write or take a walk before everyone else is up, or just disappearing into a bedroom for some down time. As social as I am, I find that I get cranky if I don’t have these opportunities to recharge.

Of course there have been other family trips where we meet somewhere and do more of a tourist thing. In the last 13 months I’ve been on three trips with my mom and her husband- twice in the Blue Ridge mountains, where I brought a friend each time, and just this past weekend to San Diego for a family wedding. In general my mom is great to travel with. She likes to be active, and is usually up for any type of activity we suggest. The only problem is when she starts complaining, usually about service or food at restaurants and/ or about driving and traffic related issues. I’m not sure if it’s a function of her age and being set in her ways, or if it’s just her personality, but it always puts a damper on things. I think the more you go elsewhere and experience other ways of being, the less you have an expectation that things “should” be a certain way, and maybe it’s easier to adjust or accept differences. Or perhaps certain people are just more rigid. My mom didn’t really do much of any traveling until later in life, so I try to cut her some slack. When I do encounter this kind of behavior, in her or other people, I try to diffuse it by saying things like “Just be glad that we’re able to be here!” or other statements that focus on the positive.

When I started traveling on my own, I reveled in the fact that I was out in the world without my parents, discovering things for myself and figuring out how to be independent, so I wasn’t chomping at the bit to include them in my travel plans (not that they would have wanted to… they didn’t even make it to France the whole year that I lived there). My first voluntary trip with a family member was in my mid-20s when I went to Italy with my sister B- there was a February sale on tickets that happened to coincide with her college spring break, so we went to Rome for under $300 each. I’m five years older than her, and I’d say this trip marked the beginning of our relationship as peers. There were a few bumps in the road, mostly due to our age difference and level of experience as travelers (I’d spent nine weeks backpacking through Europe and was accustomed to staying in youth hostels and eating on the cheap; ironically, although she was younger, she had slightly more upscale standards) but overall we had a great time and I was so glad to be able to share that with her. We’ll always chuckle about the night in Florence when we dined and dashed because the food was so horrible and we waited 45 minutes for a check that never came.

Once all my siblings were adults, I’d hoped to be able to take more trips with them, but it seems like things never line up. My sister N had young children for several years. Now, her kids are old enough where she could leave them, but B just had her first baby. Meanwhile, my brother J and his wife are child-free for the time being, but don’t have the financial freedom to do a lot of traveling. N wants to do a girls’ weekend this winter for her 40th birthday though, so who knows. I’ve always wanted to go overseas with J, because we have a lot in common and I think we’d enjoy the same destinations, activities, etc. But at this point, it’s looking pretty unlikely that we’ll ever get to go anywhere just the two of us.

My mom, who’s in her mid-60s, is planning a trip to Ireland with her sisters for this fall or possibly next spring. I really hope that down the road, after people’s kids are grown (or even before), my siblings and I will plan some trips together. Although we all have different travel styles, I like to think that we’d have a ton of fun wherever we went. And who knows, maybe they’ll get me out of my comfort zone to try something I wouldn’t normally do, like a cruise or all-inclusive resort. You never know, stranger things have happened when family is involved.

cast hexagram 47

Three weeks ago my marriage officially ended in a courtroom downtown Detroit, in a surprisingly sun-filled room on the 18th floor overlooking the river and Windsor, just a scant couple of blocks from where it began. Below is my I Ching reading for that week. I’m happy to report that I followed the wisdom therein, biting my tongue, knowing that all the words I wanted to say would fall on deaf ears and only make me feel worse. (Anyone who knows me will know what a challenge it is for me to hold back when I have something I want to say, so I was particularly proud of this achievement.)

Also as advised, I espoused cheerfulness; I’m a strong believer in the fake-it-’til-you-make-it school, and I find that the more you act like you’re fine, the more it takes hold and becomes genuine. I never in a million years thought I’d be an advocate for what I probably would have deemed phoniness at another stage of life, but age and experience have made me see things in less black and white terms. Today, the cheerfulness almost feels real, and it gets a little realer each day.

The lake is above, water below; the lake is empty, dried up. Exhaustion is expressed in yet another way: at the top, a dark line is holding down two light line; below, a light line is hemmed in between two dark ones. The upper trigram belongs to the principle of darkness, the lower to the principle of light. Thus everywhere superior men are oppressed and held in restraint by inferior men.

THE JUDGEMENT

OPPRESSION. Success. Perseverance.
The great man brings about good fortune.
No blame.
When one has something to say,
It is not believed.

Times of adversity are the reverse of times of success, but they can lead to success if they befall the right man. When a strong man meets with adversity, he remains cheerful despite all danger, and this cheerfulness is the source of later successes; it is that stability which is stronger than fate. He who lets his spirit be broken by exhaustion certainly has no success. But if adversity only bends a man, it creates in him a power to react that is bound in time to manifest itself. No inferior man is capable of this. Only the great man brings about good fortune and remains blameless. It is true that for the time being outward influence is denied him, because his words have no effect. Therefore in times of adversity it is important to be strong within and sparing of words.