Something in my mind said plum so I circled back home on my green Schwinn 10-speed once again. I’d already done this 7, 8, 9 times. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, not too hot for an aimless cruise around town, and those plums were so perfect, so juicy, so sweet. They were sitting on the counter, a whole box of them from some farm stand. And there were so many of them, so many more to go, maybe all of them before my plum loop would be interrupted.
When is this going to stop? I was fascinated but also a touch worried to be in the grip of something that seemed to be overtaking me from the outside. Or the inside. Either was concerning.
At 16 I didn’t think eating disorder which wasn’t so much in the public mind at that point. I thought existential angst. I was suspicious of the plums, that they were covering things. Buried things. And while I didn’t know exactly what existential angst was, my imagination was captured, being in a phase of mining high minded books for impressive concepts and big meaning.
“This is existential angst,” I thought, so surprised that this big thing had come for me, just a kid really even though I pretended otherwise. I felt strange, like a character right out of a novel, and also more real, like an official participant in life — just the beginning of my long and increasingly conscious life of feeling things.
Even now there is still so much left to keep feeling it blows my mind. You would think you’d run out of feelings or wear them out after a few decades. But that’s not how it works. And they can come as such a shock. When Nina Riggs, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great granddaughter was dying of breast cancer, she experienced suffering, true suffering, stunned by the wonder of actually being a participant in such a thing. She was young, a mother of two small boys, and also heartbreakingly funny as she figured out how to die, going back and forth between thinking about buying a ridiculously expensive leather couch from The Pottery Barn, something she’d never cared about before but this was her chance and maybe it would help, and reading Montaigne, gleaning from his philosophy how to live so she might understand something about how she was supposed to die.
In the end which came fast, as she was going through the grueling work of getting herself and her demolished spine where the cancer had settled, from her bed to the portable toilet just feet away, the thought I’m suffering came to her. She said that to herself: “I’m suffering,” and was stunned to truly know and name this profound thing that happens to us and that had now come for her on the more brutal end of the spectrum.
But her memoir, The Bright Hour, is so beautiful a book it almost makes you want to think that maybe the dying part was a little okay. At least there might be that.
From a practical side, feelings are all about management. Being a person of big ones I’ve been tracking clues much of my life as to what to do about them. Fresh out of college I taught drama for a couple of years and spent a lot of time reading scripts. Two things from Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart cropped up, possibly both clues but probably not, probably just the one of them:
- How one sister called the panty hose industry out for skimping on the nylon material — so true! Who are they kidding with those height/weight charts that are supposed to ensure not ending up with the crotch about three inches lower than where a crotch normally goes?
- And how one sister toughens herself up for life by going to the local ice cream shop to watch the nightly news on the tv they have mounted in the corner, taking in the nightly atrocities while licking down an ice cream cone, two scoops. If you can enjoy ice cream while watching people blow up or whole communities being swallowed by a tsunami as human beings try vainly to outrun it then surely you can manage any feeling coming your way.
Years later when I was around 40, sitting in the middle of route 1A traffic — no problem, no trouble going on that day, just waiting to turn left onto my road — I thought of that sister and her double scoop cone, as I had done so many times over the years. I thought about her tactic of licking it all down and how much ice cream I would have to eat before being anywhere close to usefully trained and I thought The problem is I feel too much. That’s all there is to it. There is just too much to feel. Maybe, I thought, I am just not made for this world.
And then there are plums
Thank you William Carlos Williams
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
— William Carlos Williams
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out.