So This is What it Feels Like

I had a moment of clarity the other night. I was in my tiny room of blank beige walls, with everything from stockings to cans of spray paint speckled across the floor. Two candles were lit, and my college lamp sat on the carpet, illuminating one small corner. I was scrunched up on my frameless bed, eating ice cream and drinking Bigelow tea while watching an episode of Grace and Frankie, the mildly amusing Netflix original series. It was then that I had a moment of perspective, as if looking in at myself from another point in time. This is what living in my adult-life twenties feels like. I am here, and I am in it.

frankie

I can relate to a lot of what Hunter mentioned in her last piece. I probably sound selfish in saying this, though, since I have a job that I’m very grateful for and for which I spent days of last winter and spring working towards. And here I am, with the job I hoped and dreamed for, and I have never felt so discontent. It is not that my job is dissatisfactory or that my co-workers are unkind, but rather that I expected my job to instill creative and holistic meaning into my life for this one year, and it has not done that. Shame on me.

Normally the straight-A student and the one to initiate group projects, I have never felt so scattered and unhelpful. My skills for maintaining a planner have somehow escaped me; I’ve been terrible about keeping up with friends; my room has not looked clean more than once since I moved in to my new apartment; I owe my brother over $100 for an Uber cleaning bill after letting loose a little too much on a night of bar hopping. In some ways I feel like the Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin characters of the aforementioned show: I feel lost and confused and like nobody can shake me out of this mindset except for myself. But the one glaring difference is that Grace and Frankie had one moment of their lives that shifted everything: a dinner in which their two husbands (longtime business partners) declared they had been having a 20-year affair and were now leaving their wives for each other. I, on the other hand, have no such closeted gay husband or an event in which the rug was torn out from under me. I am simply going from school to full-time employment, a normal “transition” period. I have no clean excuse for feeling this panic.

It might have something to do with my month in Germany prior to beginning my job. I was a counselor at an international children’s camp and experienced my fair share of high and low points within that setting. But I became so close with so many of the children and other counselors, learned so much about other countries as well as myself, that I was fully attached to the camp culture, and had a hard time being severed from it. So maybe it was the rapid shift from Chaco sandals to suede wedges, from 11-year-old conversations and water fights to design thinking workshops and networking with Detroit’s great minds. Maybe I am still experiencing culture shock.

Or maybe it is that a contemporary college education does not appropriately prepare students for life on the other side. Clearly from reading any one post on this blog, none of us stepped down from the Commencement ceremony stage and glided atop a fluffy cloud of postgrad bliss.

Or it could be that I have written very little for myself since this summer, and I am now being shown how crucial a part of my creative being that has become. Or maybe it is a combination of all of these theories.

I came back from my month in Germany on a Thursday afternoon, with an accumulated seven hours of sleep for the past 36. That, along with the jet lag, made me a dysfunctional member of society. I attempted to wash my clothes and ended up leaving soaking wet clothing scattered in the kitchen. I kept standing in the middle of rooms with my mom behind me asking, “Annie, what are you doing in here?”. I spilled two cups of water. I think a small part of that dazed and hazardous me has stuck around, never shaken back to a functional state.

Yes, getting out into the world keeps one sane.
Yes, getting out into the world keeps one sane.

But here’s the thing: since I started writing this piece and put it aside for a few weeks, things have gotten better. Not perfect, but better. The moments of panic have diminished, and I seem to have more of lashing-outs from my water-spilling self rather than it being a constant presence. My job, for better or for worse, is becoming my new normal, and I am opening up to the fact that I am far from alone in this city. My housemates (who I barely knew before moving in with them) have enriched and enlivened my experience in Detroit exponentially. My parents are a short drive away, and I am not ashamed to rely on them for advice, support and old furniture. My brothers are also back in the area, and our weekly sibling dinners have meant more to me than I think they realize.

It is currently mid-autumn. I have lived in my apartment for two months, and I have figured out several running routes in my neighborhood. I have not brought myself to submit any of my material from my last semester of college. I found a good place to have my eyebrows done for a good price, and I listen to more Top 40 radio than I should. I (like Hunter) am eating too much ice cream lately, my love life is as nonexistent as always, and I occasionally chat with my neighbors outside of my driveway.

The wind is turning cooler, and my goal is to move forward through this year’s changes with as positive an attitude as I can muster. Living in my 20s is not glamorous or set on the path to success, but it is fine and full of wonderful people, and for now that is all I ask.

Annie

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Arkansas

Annie Gough

Growing up, a summer week spent in Arkansas was always a week for relaxation, shenanigans, and just the right amount of humid, hazy boredom. This summer, these typical qualifiers were not to be had.

For the past four years, I have been a responsible young adult and held summer jobs in which I was fortunate enough to be allowed a week off, but only one week. And each summer, I chose to designate my vacation time to spending seven days in Northern Michigan with my immediate family and our family friends. Not going down to Arkansas to visit my mom’s side of the family, her only remaining family besides her sister.

On the twelve-hour drive south with my mom, I thought of the years long gone, when my brothers, Arkansas cousins and myself would drive tractors around the family farm, shoot rifles at junkyard toilets, tend to stray puppy litters, hold three-hour ping-pong matches, and watch too much Matlock. I knew this trip would be different: my great aunt Liz has Alzheimer’s, and it has come to light so subtly and yet so rapidly all at once, that nobody quite knows what to do about it. Still, I brought a tower of magazines to read and even my acoustic guitar, hoping the solitude of the small farm town would force me to pick up the instrument after months of neglect.

When my mom and I arrived that first evening, there was no potato salad, cucumber-tomato salad, and ham feast awaiting us. Aunt Liz grew flustered by the sudden company and demanded to be taken for a car ride, without us. We quickly learned from my great uncle Johny that she no longer likes lots of people around, she can’t walk without assistance, she doesn’t know when she needs to use the restroom, and there was a chance she may faint while being moved.

Aunt Liz, a woman who always nurtured me and soothed me and made sure there was plenty of chocolate cake in my belly — my Southern grandma — is now essentially a different person.

You know when there’s something in your life beyond repair, so you try to mend everything surrounding it? That, for my mom and me, was Arkansas 2015.

Equipped with my iTunes library and some questionable cleaning solutions, the two of us got to work straight away. The first task was to go through all of the cabinets and sort out all of the expired foods, spices and medicines. Next was to put in new shelf liner atop the sticky old layer, then scrub down the outside of all said cabinets. When my mom got to cleaning the two bathrooms, she came out of the smaller, mustard-hued room and commented, “you know, I don’t think it would be that hard to tear down the wallpaper and repaint that thing.”

And it wasn’t. Not the first layer, at least. The wallpaper was original, nearly half a century old, and so only a thin layer of it peeled away with ease. We used a blue, mucousy spray to aid in scraping off the rest, and that’s when my mom essentially kicked me out of the bathroom, urging me to cook dinner. The bathroom was her disaster to remedy, to caulk and sand and clean and paint. To return to a normal state.

So I cooked. All week long, I made green salads, apple crisp, dishpan cookies, sautéed summer squash, creamed corn, chicken-ricotta meatballs, anything. I even made my own version of the cucumber-tomato salad I had come to love receiving when in the south. All of this thrilled Uncle Johny, to have home-cooked meals once again, but I knew that my offerings were only temporary. On more than one occasion he asked if I’d like to stay on as an in-home chef, and I knew he was only partly joking.

There were moments of clarity, when Aunt Liz would answer questions with conviction, when we could hold a conversation that went beyond yeses and no’s. My mom’s sister, Suzy, flew down part way through the week, too, which brought a little more life into the house. I found her one night scrubbing at the floor moldings all along the kitchen walls. The days were generally strained, so that by the time night spread and Uncle Johny was asleep on the couch, my mom, aunt and I would be silly with exhaustion. Drinking red wine out of solo cups and eating my dishpan cookies, we looked through old family photos of the farm when it was a dairy farm, not a soy and catfish farm. We pieced together the lineage of mysterious relatives, told old stories and, of course, like out of a Traveling Pants or Ya Ya Sisterhood novel, we laughed until we cried.

The three of us left Arkansas quietly, on a Saturday morning just as the sun was rising. I don’t think any of us wanted to trivialize the experience with sappy comments; I know I didn’t.

I really can’t imagine what it is like to live constantly, or constantly be close by, to a loved one with Alzheimer’s. It is truly one of our race’s crueler, more mysterious diseases — the loss of memory and the mind is a frightening concept to me, and I didn’t fully understand the heartbreaking effect it can have on a family until I experienced it in my own. And so to all of those who care for a person with Alzheimer’s, to them I extend a great amount of respect and sympathy. For now, I will keep my Arkansas family in my thoughts, with the goal to not wait another four years to return, and maybe even mail a batch of dishpan cookies to Uncle Johny.