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Something I say a lot in therapy is “I don’t know how to think about this” (my therapist, frustratingly, doesn’t seem to like to tell me how to think about things — just nods and nods — but your column is good for that), and here is something I don’t know how to think about:
I have a very close friend whose whole family is from a once-great and bustling American city which now has a really shitty economy and no good job prospects for the old-timers. The city declared bankruptcy in the last year. His parents, entrepreneurs, both lost their jobs and businesses (through a combination of the financial crisis, the city collapsing, sheer bad luck, and risky decision-making) and eventually lost their house as they fell behind on mortgage payments. They used to be doing well, were comfortable, and now they have bad health and live off family, quite depressed, with a mountain of debt. They do these small jobs, but nothing in this city really pays well enough to get them back on track and in their own place. I also think they are defeated and exhausted, and the people around them sense this defeat and want very little to do with it, like it might be catching.
They are in their late 50s, have an ill parent who keeps them in the city (although I don’t know where they would go even so), and my friend says it’s so hard to watch this slow-motion disaster. My friend is doing okay, but not okay enough to be of much financial help, but he tries. He says it’s just difficult to know that you can get older and — contrary to much popular wisdom — things can get much harder. That life is a struggle, getting older is difficult and heartbreaking, your body gives out, and complete uncertainty and failure is what we have to look forward to. What’s the point?? It’s so hard to have the energy and motivation to remake your life past a certain point. And is it even possible?
I agree sometimes I don’t know the point when I see situations like this. It looks hopeless. I struggle with depression, and it depresses me more. And also I don’t know the right things to say in response to all this loss, to make it less awful, make sense of it, frame it in a way that isn’t totally devastating. My friend’s parents have each other (they’re both very sweet people) and two great kids. But it doesn’t feel like enough right now. Is there a right thing to say?? What is the point??
How Do I Make Sense of This
On the first day of class in tenth grade, my English teacher asked me to read a poem out loud in class. I was about to start when she spotted my last name in her book and said, “Hmmm. I bet you think you’re clever, because of your sister.” (My older sister was the valedictorian.) “Well,” she continued, “what you don’t know is that your brother is the smartest one in your family.” (My older brother looked like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, got middling grades, and put all of his energy into playing D&D on the weekends.) “Anyway, go ahead and read.”
Right. So now let’s see if the dumbest little fuck in the family can manage to say a few words out loud without screwing up. The poem was “The Bean Eaters,” by Gwendolyn Brooks:
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
When I was finished reading, my teacher asked what I thought the poem was about. I looked down at the page again, panicking.
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
My mind raced. Okay, so their lives are basically over. Their plates are chipped, they’re poor. It’s a sad poem. And then there was the end.
And remembering …
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
Those last few words reminded me of my grandmother, who was having trouble with her memory and was a serious pack rat. We had just moved her out of her house in Chicago that summer so she could come to live with us. She had closets full of yogurt lids and empty glass jars and old newspapers, all saved for some imaginary art project that would never happen. Clearing out that house was one of the most depressing things I’d ever done: All of her plans were up in smoke, her life was basically over, and she didn’t even know what year it was.
So, I cleared my throat. “Well … the poem is about having no money and having no control over your life,” I said. “These poor people are surrounded by their own filth — chipped plates, tobacco crumbs — and they’re basically just waiting to die.”
“NOOOOOOO!” my teacher screeched, standing up and slamming her gnarled fist down on her desk. “NO NO NO NO NO!” She bellowed, pounding her fist onto the desk over and over with each NO. Then she got up and stood right in front of me and pointed a scary finger in my face and fixed me with two ferocious eyes.
“That is WRONG. You got it ALL WRONG. They are poor, but they are happy! You think they have to be miserable just because they’re POOR?! THEY HAVE THEIR MEMORIES! TWINKLINGS AND TWINGES! What do you think those are? TWINKLINGS! AND! TWINGES! YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW, DO YOU?!” She returned to her desk and sat down. “Oh, you kids are so spoiled. You’re so, so, so spoiled! It makes me sick, it really does. You don’t have any sense of anything.”
So, that went really well.
But let’s get to the point, which isn’t actually that this fine nation of ours is filled with crumbling, once-great American cities packed with crumbling, once-great public schools that employ once-great teachers (who eventually become world-weary sadists with boundary issues? Amirite?). The real point is that when you’re young and you’re a little depressed and you’re not sure what will make your life feel rich and fulfilling and worthwhile, it’s pretty impossible to understand how it feels to have lived a full life already.
That’s not me calling all of the youngest ones the dumbest ones, either. That’s me saying that YOU are the one we need to worry about in this picture, not your friend’s parents. Because where you are right now is extremely fucking hard. It is insanely tough to start down the path to adult life with even the slightest whiff of depression onboard. And, honestly, it’s tough even for the happiest, cheeriest person alive to navigate their 20s WITHOUT getting depressed.
When you’re a little depressed, you see the world through a smoggy, gray haze. You look at older people who’ve lost everything and you think, Is THAT where we all end up? There are so many unknowns in your life right now. So, when you look at older people who are ALSO facing unknowns, it just buries you. Is there no relief from feeling lost? Even if you do figure things out and get a house and a job and a life, it could all be taken away from you in a heartbeat! So, what’s the fucking point?
Listen to me: You don’t know how bad it is for them, but you also don’t know how good it is for them. I know they’re only in their late 50s — which really isn’t that old, by the way. But I guarantee they’ve navigated a few hardships already. They’ve experienced disappointments. Yes, I’m sure they’re depressed and overwhelmed right now. But they’re nice people, and they have each other. They have “an ill parent who keeps them in the city.” To you, that sounds like one more shitty thing in their lives, and I understand that. But sometimes having a big responsibility can actually HELP you make it through the hard times.
Let’s go back to those twinklings and twinges from the poem, okay? When I was young I breezed right past that line. TWINKLINGS AND TWINGES. There’s joy in those words that I couldn’t detect. And even once my teacher shouted at me, I still thought: Oh yeah? What’s so good about having only your memories? What’s so good about being surrounded by beads and dolls, vases and fringes? That sounds like one of those really claustrophobic episodes of Hoarders, the ones that make you feel like your body is crawling with lice and bedbugs and YEEEEYEEEYEEE! [Runs away screaming and jumps in hot shower.]
Part of the satisfaction of getting older, though, comes from feeling connected — deeply connected — to other people, and to yourself. Your friends’ parents are still showing up for this ill parent, and they’re showing up for each other. Maybe they’re arguing every night in some relative’s guest room or even on the fold-out couch in some living room. I don’t know. But they’re together, living through this as a couple, even as some of their closest friends back away from them.
You’re sensitive, which is a nice quality. You’re alarmed by how their friends could abandon them. Pay attention to that part, because it’s one of the most devastating things you learn as you get older: Some of the most loyal-seeming friends in the world will end up bailing on you when things get tough. Sometimes it means they didn’t love you in the first place, and you just didn’t know it before. But other times it’s just pathological: I Hate Feeling Uncomfortable, So I Avoid Heaviness At All Costs.
Now you’ll never be like that, HDIMSOT. Now that you’ve seen that up close, you know you’ll never be a person who doesn’t show up for a close friend. Maybe this couple was reckless with their money, and maybe they weren’t. It doesn’t matter. Never use an “I told you so” attitude to let yourself off the hook from showing up for someone you love. And don’t use the “I don’t know what to say” excuse, either, or the “I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong” excuse. You probably will say something wrong. That’s okay. JUST SHOW UP. Show up and say, “God, this sucks. I’m so sorry.” Just keep saying that, and keep showing up.
Your friend IS showing up. He’s concerned, and he’s trying to help them. Don’t underestimate how big that is, having a son who wants to help you. Yes, that sounds terrible in some ways: “We should be helping him! We’ve squandered his inheritance!” Fuck inheritances. It’s beautiful that he wants to help, and his parents can feel that, even though they’re in pain. Your friend just needs to keep showing that he loves them and that he’s grateful for all that they’ve already done for him. He needs to give them the gift of his words. Two sweet people will treasure that more than he can possibly imagine.
And yet, it’s also true what your friend says: You get older, and, contrary to popular wisdom, things do get much harder. Popular wisdom is usually complete horse shit, in fact. Mostly it’s designed to keep us from freaking out about how bleak everything actually is. We’re spoon-fed this diet of enforced cheer in the form of pop songs and chirpy sitcoms and TV commercials to keep us on a straight and narrow path of docile consumption and compliance, while the world goes straight to hell. And the sad fact is that we ALL get older and older, and we don’t have the money we imagined we’d have, and we’re never quite as fabulous as we imagined we’d be. And then on top of it all, the debts start piling up, and our hair starts turning gray, and our balance of days on Earth gets shorter. And one day we look in the mirror, and we say to ourselves, “Fuck, am I ugly! And I feel terrible. AND IT’S ONLY GOING TO GET WORSE FROM HERE!”
Yep. Growing old is a motherfucker. Three years ago, a friend of mine died, and I felt sick about it, and I was losing sleep over money issues, and my writing felt stuck. And when I looked in the mirror (rarely!), I saw an angry, old lady with dark circles under her eyes, but when I tried to put on makeup to fix the problem, I just looked like an angry, old hooker instead. I mean sex worker. (See how old?)
Life IS a struggle. But that summer of Feeling Old, I flew home to my mom’s house, and instead of feeling flinty and annoyed by my mom, I was quiet. I noticed how organized she was and saw how she walked or went to her exercise class every single day. I noticed the new watercolor of her dog that she’d painted and framed. And then she made this great salad with Stilton and pine nuts and cold beet soup for dinner one night, and she poured us glasses of wine, and she told us about the birds she’d been seeing at the bird feeder outside her big window, and then she played the kids some bird calls from the special audio bird book she has. “Let’s find the eastern towhee,” she said. “That’s the one that sings, ‘Drink your TEE-HEE-HEE-HEE-EA!”
I’d always assumed my mom was a little unhappy and maybe a little lonely. She’s old, she lives alone, why wouldn’t she be, right? That night I realized that my mom was actually happy. She’d struggled mightily to save enough for retirement on a secretary’s salary, and she pulled through some hard stuff. And now she was savoring her life, full stop.
And look, I promise I won’t write about my mom every week. But I need to mention her here, because life IS a struggle, but you know what? IT’S NOT OVER ‘TIL IT’S OVER. There’s a little popular wisdom that isn’t complete horse shit. Sometimes, just like Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, you just have to keep putting on your clothes and putting things away.
I’ll bet your friend’s parents haven’t given up yet. Uncertainty and failure might look like the end of the road to you, but you know what? Uncertainty is a part of life. Facing uncertainty and failure doesn’t always make “Two who are Mostly Good” weaker and weaker until they give up. Sometimes it wakes them up, and it’s like they can see the beauty around them for the first time. Sometimes losing everything makes you realize how little you actually NEED. Sometimes losing everything sends you out into the world, to breathe in the air, to pick some flowery weeds, to take in a new day.
Because this life is full of promise, always. It’s full of beads and dolls and chipped plates; it’s full of twinklings and twinges. It IS possible to admit that life is a struggle and also embrace the fact that small things — like sons who call you and beloved dogs in framed pictures and birds that tell you to drink your fucking tea — they matter. They matter a lot.
Stop trying to make sense of things. You can’t think your way through this. Open your heart, and drink in this glorious day. You are young, and you will find little things that will make you grateful to be alive. Believe in what you love now, with all of your heart, and you will love more and more until everything around you is love. Love yourself now, exactly as sad and scared and flawed as you are, and you will grow up and live a rich life and show up for other people, and you’ll know exactly how big that is.
Let’s celebrate this moment together. There are twinklings and twinges, right here, in this moment. It is enough. Let’s find the eastern towhee.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.
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