Sorry, the number you’ve dialed has been disconnected.

night swimmingWe rose before dawn, in the dead of winter, when the only light was the moon’s reflection on the Nebraska snow.

We lived in a small, four-room guesthouse – a generous term, as the “guesthouse” was a two-story garage, the top half converted into living quarters: two bedrooms, each barely big enough for a bed, with kitchen and living room in between. It was temporary lodging for both of us, my sister and me, while she took pre-med classes and I wrote speeches about fiber optics and intelligent transportation.

She had moved in at the end of summer, before fall semester. The weather had been temperate then, and we had walked, Ella-dog in tow, every day after I got home from work, out of our little neighborhood near the Joslyn Castle, up hilly California (which became Underwood), to Storz Drive, where we turned and wandered through the park until we were ready to head back home.

We walked vigorously, to tame our thighs. To gauge our aerobic effort, we talked, while we walked. Our topics ranged from books and cooking to what we wanted to be when we grew up, and about how the world seemed less joyful after Princess Diana died.

As the days grew shorter and colder, we shifted to morning exercise indoors, watching videotapes in our dim living room. On days we felt like being gentle to ourselves (which were seldom), we watched Ali MacGraw’s Yoga: Mind & Body. On days we wanted a challenge (which were frequent), we turned to Brian Kest’s Power Yoga, 1, 2 or 3.

Dressed in Target sports bras and running tights, while the radiator hissed in the background and Ella snored on my green striped sofa, Margaret and I would reach and contort, jealous of the tiny, artfully-grungy Santa Monica women we watched on our tiny television screen.

And we would wait, expectantly, for our favorite line, when a breathy, dark, muscular, pony-tailed Brian Kest would say: “Be where you’re at, ’cause you’re already there!”

In the strange way that intimacy between siblings fosters code language, this line became part of our shared vocabulary, my sister’s and mine. Countless times, through births and deaths, triumphs and depressions, one of us would turn to the other, deadpan, and repeat these words, snickering at the grammar, howling at the memory of our own ridiculousness, two girls from Memphis, living in Omaha, pretending – for an hour – to be somewhere else, while we were supposed to be getting more grounded.

I found the Power Yoga DVD (three videos on one convenient disc) while doing some long-overdue cleaning, sorting through miscellany that had multiplied in a large, green bin over a longer period than I’d like to admit. Deposits safeguarded for future withdrawal, some part of me once thought: J. Crew catalogs and magazines I wanted to read, my mother’s half-used notepads, mortgage refinance offers, kindergarten drawings pulled from the refrigerator when their first-grade replacements came home.

I had bought the disc (an upgrade from those dusty, old videotapes) not long after I stopped nursing my daughter, fantasizing I could reclaim a shape I’d never had to begin with, the image of some non-existent, could-have-been me clear in my imagination. When my imaginary self failed, once again, to materialize, I dumped that digitized Ashtanga yogi into my accumulating hoard, next to a 2005 article from Real Simple about how to keep mail from piling up.

My daughter is now almost 14.

The cleaning project, a personal archeological dig, was one of a dozen or so items (and the most realistic) on my list of things to do while the children were at camp, we adults and dogs home alone for a whole month. “What will you do with yourselves?” friends asked, often with a conspiratorial wink or a quiet aside about repeat honeymoons, Champagne brunches and twice-a-day sex, as if those things had ever been routine, ever, even before we had children.

What we did, in our month home alone was this: a day or two of marathon Criminal Minds-watching, while lying in bed with pizza and pink wine; several days of cooking dinner together (like, both of us, at the same time, in the same kitchen); and many days of each doing our own thing, which has always been our way together.

And one day devoted to that goddamned, overflowing bin of daily avoidance, the pile of denials, set aside because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with them.

What was taxing about a J. Crew catalogue? Well, there was a dress that might’ve looked good if…. one day…. I couldn’t decide….

Also discovered in the bin: a Ziploc bag of Christmas cards we made – all of us, as a family – the Christmas before my mother died. A plastic box of crumbly Fimo that had melted in places because of the chemicals in Fimo. (We were going to make Fimo beads, as a family; one day, we were going to do it.) Three different file folders, all labeled “Personal,” one from each of the three jobs I had during that green bin’s life cycle.

The best artwork I saved, remembering how much I enjoyed coming home from college and knowing my own kindergarten masterpieces (and my sister’s) lived in a drawer in my mother’s entry hall. The things themselves weren’t magnificent; her keeping them was. There was some nostalgia in that drawer, to be sure; but it was also an anchor, grounded in reality. “Look,” my mother would say, “this is who you’ve always been.”

The person I’ve always been, I suppose, has also been one to delay decisions that don’t seem important in the moment.

After our morning yoga videos, all those years ago in Nebraska, my sister and I would make coffee and get ready for our respective days, hers at school, mine at an office. Too many of those days would also involve spending money I hadn’t yet earned, juggling complicated, ill-conceived relationships, sneaking cigarettes and pretending none of those things were true.

I wonder sometimes, the way we all wonder these things, what life would have been like if I had been more present then, if I’d dealt differently with any of a hundred different decisions, if I could call back that old number and have a different conversation.

But the past isn’t available for repeat performance; and a false-narrative past was never there to begin with.

So, now, here we are, my sister and I, with families and jobs, bills and causes, trying to help our children make sense of things that don’t make sense to us, trying to give them anchors with only a light touch of nostalgia. And we are older – by decades – reaping the benefits that can come with experience: a willingness to see clearly (or try), to deal with uncomfortable things instead of avoiding them.

The school year has started, so I rise before dawn, turn on a few lights, make fried eggs. Sometimes, between getting everyone else out the door and me off to work, there is a short window for exercise. I’ll swim or walk, more conscious, these days, of aerobic effort, but long ago having abandoned hope of taming my thighs.

More than once, come such a morning, I’ve turned again to my old yoga friends, now streaming on Amazon. Alone in my bedroom, surrounded by my pack of dogs, I’ve stretched and contorted, thought of my sister, and myself, and the past.

I am no longer jealous of those tiny young women on my now-large TV screen. I still think the world to be sadder without Diana than with her.

I am stronger now than I could have imagined 20 years ago, both inside and out. My shoulders, in particular, can easily bear my full(er) body weight, possibly because they are less weight-bearing in other, invisible ways.

It is true that if we don’t look at history honestly and learn from it, then we carry the burden of repeating it.

“How are we not going to do this again,” Bernard asked, while shredding the still-unopened Lock in Today’s Low Rates envelope from our mortgage company, date-stamped 2012, as I sorted through the mountain of baggage.

“I need you not to come straight home and start binge-watching TV,” I said, trying not to sound peevish, “and I need you to help me go through the mail, every day.”

“OK,” he said, after a minute. “I need you not to say ‘I don’t know, I can’t deal with that right now’ when I ask what you want to do with the mail.”

Tonight I will cook dinner, and we will clear the table of the day’s accumulations. We’ll sit together, reluctant teenagers and all, eat what will probably be scrambled eggs and bagged salad, talk about what’s happening at school and in the world.

And in my mind I will hear the full instruction, not just the half: Be where you’re at, because you’re already there. And when something opens, move deeper.


Food | Week of August 21, 2017

The New York Times “What to Cook This Week” has some good suggestions, as usual. In all truth, we’ll probably be having spaghetti, turkey sandwiches, and eggs, because this McSweeney’s thing is for real.

4 Comments

  1. Oh, dear. How do you do it? Send me right back (Jane Fonda and Gilad Bodies in Motion on DVD but regrettably by myself because we didn’t sister like that and I didn’t know how to gather people to me to sister me then)? And yet you find me where I am, vaguely disappointed (my lord, the desk collapsing under the mail) but also satisfied in the disordered beauty that’s this life, right where I am. Thanks for sistering from afar with words, stranger. We weren’t by ourselves after all, right where we were at.

  2. and I am still doing yoga in Nebraska… Beautiful, wonderful movements and contortions that speak acceptance, gratitude, flexibility, strength, and balance. An effort to bring life back to the most basic necessity of existence… breath. An awareness to be present now and to know there is no promise of future time…

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