Yesterday evening I emailed short notes to two of my dearest friends to 1) apologize for not writing much, as one does; and 2) to ask after their life events. (Not to keep you in the dark: one set of spouses, in their eighties, has had loads of health issues this year; the other set of spouses, hovering around age seventy, just sold their longtime California home and closed this week on another, even drier, California home, one that is smaller, one-story, much less land to tend, and in walking distance to simple amenities, like a grocery store.)
I expressed to both halves of these respective spousal sets that I have felt, for want of a better word, deserted. Is that the word I want? I feel deserted as at a railway station, as if I’m supposed to be headed somewhere and there are no trains, or as if someone has forgotten to pick me up after a long journey; deserted by things as disparate as companionship, comradeship, an artistic muse, a sense of mission, original ideas, and the national shared practice of democracy. That’s quite a list.
When I wrote this to my friend Anna, she suggested I write a short blog post on the subject of desertion, and that felt exactly right.
Other Desert[ed] Places
First of all, I feel deserted by the practice of writing letters. Just so, long and deep conversations have deserted me. Other than Tom and Anna (my friends noted above), everyone else I’ve been in regular contact with for years tends to speak in memes and emojis, maybe links to articles at most. I respond in kind, mirroring what I receive. I know that many people are pressed for time in general and have dozens of people with whom they are in communication, whether friends or family or work colleagues. I never want to assume I should be somehow special. (Many of us have felt deserted by even our closest friends once they married, had kids, and made new parent friends.)
“Didn’t you see my post?” Deep connection has been supplanted by observational strings, er, threads, on Facebook. Several friends noted that it’s just easier to share their lives all at once rather than in individual letters to, say, me. In my own posting life, general observations shifted from “life in New York” to “politics all the time” when 1) Humans of New York started up, doing what I did far better and more deeply than I was, and with pictures; and 2) I saw the coming of a deep fascism with the election of the black president. (Big Tell for me: At President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, Justice Samuel Alito, who was in view of the camera, on several points about threats to our democracy, shook his head and said, “That’s not true.” I’d never seen a partisan justice at such a speech. Related: then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) wouldn’t look at the president, saying in an interview, “I can’t even look at him.”) All that open racism shocked me. Racism was, truly, the only explanation. I had to go on the offensive, deepen my understanding of racism, post like hell. Right?
In 2012, I voted for Obama’s re-election, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) became Senate Majority Leader, and a month later I released by e-book compilation of social media observations, Easier to Live Here: Miss O’ in New York City.
Now what? The nation was growing in chaos, and my sense of joy at living in New York began deserting me. This was 2013. My playwright’s lab disbanded; my first professional work project as a staff member at my work went to press and I felt sort of “done” with that job after seven years but couldn’t afford to leave; I was assigned to Grand Jury Duty at Kew Gardens in Queens for the entire month of September (with the disheartening revelation that Miss O’ may well have been the smartest person in the room, and that shouldn’t ever be the case), and that same month I began a deep but doomed love affair that would consume my heart for the next nine years, until learning, belatedly after a final breakup, of his death. (One of many blessings of this dear but complicated man was that he was not on social media.)
The joy of knowing others doesn’t really come about in 140-character or 280-character posts, memes, emojis, GIFs. All these little sparkly things are fine, I guess, once you have a long-standing relationship of some kind—all good friendships develop their own shorthand, and in that context these digital digeridoos seem to me to be the equivalent of my friend Cindy’s old habit of looking at me, dropping an eyelid, and miming a cigarette to the lips when someone was about to pontificate or otherwise be an asshole. Without a word spoken, I would double over with laughter. I often act out the same gesture as a touchstone. A good meme can do that, too, and it’s funnier when you know the sender from your heart; but if I’m honest, it’s empty when that’s all there is.
Second of all, I feel deserted by stillness. This morning, for example, I woke before dawn to find the all-night party music from somewhere was still on in full force. The school playground next door now has LED stadium lights that are blinding our complex in the name of “security.” I can’t seem to find calm. (Tell it to Ukraine. See what I mean?)
I miss a mind quiet enough to read longform New Yorker articles in one sitting. I miss a body quiet enough to sit still and play a new album all the way through, listening to every song. Then playing it again, this time reading lyrics and liner notes and credits. Then playing it through a third time. Vinyl was even better because you could play the A-side three times, and then the B-side three times, and then listen to the whole thing once through. My friend Lynda Crawford, a playwright, wrote on Facebook that she missed listening to records the way we used to—one friend would buy the record, and everyone would come over and sit on the floor and we’d play it, and talk about it. I remember doing that with a 45 RPM of Helen Reddy’s hit “Think I’ll Write a Song” on the A-side, and then playing “Angie Baby” on the B-side, and my mom, Lynne, coming upstairs and saying to me and my friend Peggy, “Who is that? Is that still Helen Reddy? Now that is a good song.” She was right. But we all had to hear the song three times.
Now, I hear you saying, “But Miss O’, you can still do those things.” (Still. Hmmmm.) Yes, I can, in theory. But I have Twitter to scroll. I might miss something. I have Facebook to check. What if a “friend” liked my post? What if no one liked it? (Should I edit it?) What if someone died and I didn’t realize it? What if what if what if what if what if what fucking IF. FOMO. (I’ve had to look that acronym up I think each time I’ve seen it in New York Magazine, which feels less and less relevant each issue. The best one in the past few years was an issue dedicated to Jerry Saltz and his quest to be a great artist. More of THAT.) Where was I?
The truth in all this is that I am deeply sick of feeling deserted by…something…somehting I cannot seem to touch with my soul, my heart.
Friends have lost family in the past two years. Last year, a poet friend lost his beloved wife to a stroke; two weeks ago a dear neighbor lost his brother suddenly to a heart attack; this week, another friend lost his beloved wife to lung cancer. Part of this is, we are all aging, my friends and neighbors and I. But the loss isn’t less. The feeling of desertion stings.
President Biden, who lost a son to brain cancer seven years ago, gave a speech Thursday night—possibly one of those historically great ones—defending democracy against fascism, and the three major networks and PBS deserted him and the American people by refusing to air it. (The next day, as if to reinforce this sense of desertion, newspapers seemed to support the wounded fascist MAGAs over the 70% of Americans who want to preserve the democratic union.)
And when all this happens, all this sudden and deep emotion, I seem to shut down. I don’t know how to help anyone, to help the country. I feel deserted by my mind.
In her deep empathy, Anna said in response to my feelings of desertion and perpetual waiting, “Seems like a lot of us are waiting for an unknown something. I wonder if we should just act as if what we’re waiting for is going to arrive or has arrived.”
That’s what President Biden has chosen to do—to act as if the People want democracy, are willing to vote to preserve it—and meanwhile, he is just legislating like hell, bringing down inflation, addressing global warming, championing women, the whole bit, like tomorrow is not only coming but is already here.
So, to paraphrase Helen Reddy, I thought I’d write this blog, one in which I act as if what I was waiting for was the impetus to write a blog. After all, the worst thing we can do is nothing.
Take a memo.