In the north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there is a cross-country ski trail that our boys dubbed Gut-Wrenching, as in “Let’s go on Gut Wrenching!”
The trail started tame enough and then had a steep downhill with a turn at the base of the hill marked helpfully by a tree with a thick, scarred trunk. No room for error. The only time I went on it I carried my skis down the hill. But then I was fearful. They weren’t. They were reckless. I admired that about them, their recklessness, until it developed different forms and sometimes broke my heart.
But one of age’s peculiar benefits is a markedly reduced fear of trees in one’s path even while one is careening down a hill. It isn’t recklessness as much as it is deservedness. Only some of you will know what I mean here but that is fine. Not everyone needs to share our secrets.
Parts of it were funny. And other parts were humiliating.
And even though I’ve told the story before, it deserves another telling, if only to show that maybe humiliation can diminish over time while the humor of a thing can grow.
I went to New York in July of 2015 to get a BlogHer Voice of the Year award for an essay I wrote about hearing loss called Blindsided. The person who told me I’d won, Rochelle Dukes Fritsch, a good friend also from Milwaukee, won for her remarkable essay What’s Behind My Tears for Ferguson which I wish I could link for you but can’t. We were flabbergasted, astonished, but both of us knew we’d written really good essays, pieces with meaning and importance. The awards were well-deserved and we glowed about being recognized in this important way for weeks before the big conference in New York. Still, I dreaded the trip for all the reasons I’d written about in my essay. Hearing loss had weakened me, taken the wind out of my sails. I was worried about navigating it all. But I went anyway.
On the night of the award presentation, we were summoned, along with a couple dozen other award winners, to a champagne reception on an elegant balcony overlooking a vast room where the names of the winners scrolled on a giant screen. Later, we would go down the stairs from the balcony to the big stage in front of a sea of people and have our picture taken. In the back of the balcony, past the champagne servers and the little bunches of people taking selfies and congratulating each other was a table with the BlogHer VOTY awards arranged in alphabetical order.
My name wasn’t there.
Rochelle’s name was there. She picked up the fancy box with her award and held it to her chest. Then she joined in the search for mine. We went through the rows of awards a dozen times. No Jan Wilberg. I checked the emails on my phone to confirm that I’d actually won. I did this while wearing a name tag identifying me as a BlogHer VOTY. Maybe I was some kind of auxiliary VOTY, I thought. A runner-up. Maybe I was supposed to be at the root beer reception. I checked the BlogHer website. Maybe they’d reconsidered. and I hadn’t been paying attention. No, my name was on the list of winners, plain as day. Jan Wilberg for Blindsided.
“Here. I think they just got your last name wrong.” She handed me a box with the name Janice Winkler. “That stuff happens all the time. This has to be you. Here.” And so I took the box and decided it must be mine but wondered hard how Jan Wilberg had become Janice Winkler.
We joked about it. I untied the ribbon, opened the box and showed the lovely glass award to people I knew only because of their blogs. We had instantly become birds of a feather and I wanted comfort and support from my new flock. “Look! They got my name wrong.” Oh, they’ll fix it, they all said. So funny. To come all this way and have your name wrong but so what, that’s life. It’ll make a great blog post. Ha, ha, ha.
Then, Rochelle nudged me hard and gestured over her shoulder. Behind us, Janice Winkler’s name was scrolling on the giant screen. She had won an award for Photography. For a photo of two people skydiving. Which is what I felt like I was doing at that very moment. I crammed her award back in its box and tried to retie the ribbon. It looked awful, like a present a kid had swiped from under the Christmas tree and then put back hoping not to be discovered. I was terrified someone would see me fumbling with Janice Winkler’s award. That I was wearing a hideous striped red and black shirt didn’t help. The thief wore neon.
My goal then was to melt into the crowd, pretend I’d put my award somewhere so I could handle the champagne with both hands. I felt naked though like I’d lost my pass to the Jamboree. So when I spied the leader of BlogHer coming down the stairs, I went up to her and told her that somehow my award hadn’t been on the table.
“Are you sure you’re a winner?”
Here’s where the humiliation part of the story picks up. She waved me away like I’d somehow wandered into the wrong room on my search for the Needlepoint Convention. This old broad with her two hearing aids and her hideous shirt must be lost because she couldn’t be one of us, nope. I was incredulous. Me, an award winner, albeit without the physical evidence, being waved off like a champagne server with an empty tray. It was a scorching, eye-blinking, I wanna call my mom to pick me up from school moment which I will probably never forget. There was more to it, you know there would have to be, more back and forth, more questions and answers. But what I remember most clearly were the accordion folds of my age, my disability, the disregard, the embarrassment, and my horrible shirt, a squeezebox of humiliation.
But I overcame. There was no choice. And there was Rochelle, my kind, funny, compatriot friend. I decided to act like I belonged there, like I was a winner, isn’t that what they say to do? So that’s what I did. I drank champagne and later I stood on the stage with all the other winners, next to Rochelle, and had my picture taken. A few months later, my award came in the mail. No ribbon, but with the right name. It’s right here sitting on my bookshelf, looking like it belongs there.
I know because I just laughed all the way around the block remembering the panic and peril in the utterer’s voice, the great sense of urgency, the many eyes of the neighbors focused on us, two people, two dogs and two leashes. It was several years ago but it seems like yesterday.
Thinking of this, like I have dozens of times, I had to cover my mouth laughing because I tend to be a loud laugher and being an older loud laugher just attracts the diagnosticians so I quieted myself down. Still, it’s hysterical, even thinking about it right now. Oh my. “Hold this. My pants are falling down.”
The person who originally uttered these moving words (so to speak) was walking around the block with me. He was bemused by my enjoyment of this shared memory but not laughing outright which he rarely does anyway.
It’s like old times with the rabid anti-abortion protestors coming to town. This is the week that the well-known national hate group Operation Save America is converging on Milwaukee to scream at passers-by and harass women coming to appointments at local abortion clinics. This time, unlike 20 years ago, there will be trained security at the clinics and no counter-protests, no linking of arms and singing We Shall Overcome. Typing that, I wonder if we really sang We Shall Overcome or we just felt it in our hearts but, in any event, we haven’t yet overcome because abortion is still a right in doubt, a provisional right dangling now by the thinnest thread . Happily, Garbage Fyre Fighters from the Abortion Access Front rallying and making fun of the zealots. We here in Milwaukee are grateful for good organizers and strong humor. Hate groups hate humor.
I found a birthday note for Jilly signed by Gram and Gramps stuck in Best American Short Stories, 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie. The book was in a Little Free Library in Milwaukee’s South Shore Park, next to the Best American Short Stories of 2006, 2010, and 2012, all of them ripe for the taking, like peaches in a bowl on the kitchen table. The card is much older than the book and the handwriting is even older, careful and ornate but shaky at the same time. there is this P.S. at the bottom of the card.
I found the poems my first boyfriend wrote me. Please return.
I’m going to keep the note for Jilly, just in case.
I spent part of the week between a rock and a hard place. On the horns of a dilemma, in a fat headache of situational ethics, conflicted and chagrined, all of which I soothed by buying extraordinary amounts of cheese and crackers at Costco along with a forty-pound jug of animal crackers. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof.
Alright. It’s four pounds, not forty. Still.
I won’t say I suffered through the week – there being so much food, wine, and beer laying around – but I sure was consternated. The dilemma came down to dueling principles and I sided on the one that involved having made a personal commitment. I’d explain more but it would be pointless at this point. There are new waves to surf.
Flamethrowers burn out. I’ve seen it dozens of times. A new person appears on the scene from out of nowhere. Maybe a hundred people have been working hard on a problem, parsing it, teasing out solutions, trying to change the world step by painful step. And the new person – always smart and bright and engaging and different – shows up and decides that the process and the people involved in it are all useless. Flamethrowers don’t ask questions, though. They don’t spend time inquiring or gathering data or learning the process by which progress is made, however imperceptible it may seem, they just pour more gasoline on the torch they always carry in their purse and let fly. AOC – as much as I love her fearlessness and her brilliance – is a flamethrower. I hope she stays around long enough to also become a powerhouse legislator. It’s a harder skill to learn and harder still to practice. We’ll see.
I’m out of gum. There isn’t a stick of gum anywhere in this house, on any dresser top, in any drawer, or in any pocket. My house is a gum desert.
Everybody raves about Costco but I’ve resisted joining figuring I was done with the world of Big Food when my kids grew up and left home. I used to go to Sam’s Club and buy vast quantities of pasta and lemon pepper. I still have the lemon pepper I bought there fifteen years ago and, yes, it still smells nice and lemony and peppery. I take it out just to sniff now and then, reminiscing, I guess, about life when I thought lemon pepper would be so swell to have around.
I remember buying a giant jar of pickles, a jar so big you had to hug it to bring it in the house. My younger daughter was crazy about pickles then so I bought it for her, her own personal jar, but then we had a big fight about her not putting the jar away and I picked it up, hugging it like a toddler, all the way outside where I heaved the sucker, pickles and all, into the trash. So my memories of steroided food are not all great. That said, as they say, I took my friends’ advice to “go to Costco” when I told them we were having a candidate fundraiser at our house tonight.
“Get a deli platter! It’s cheap! And easy! And so lovely.”
So I tooled out to the far suburbs this morning, all set to pick up a deli platter and maybe a fruit platter or a veggie platter, too, but when I got to the deli counter there was a wooden box with a slit in the top. “Put your deli platter order here.” There was a stack of forms and a bunch of short stubby pencils. Huh?
“So how long does it take to get a deli platter?” I asked the woman behind the counter who was washing her hands and looking at her hair in the mirror over the sink.
I was stunned. Incredulous. I don’t have 24 hours! I wanted to say. But I just said “crap!” and started pushing my cart in circles around the giant boxes of strawberries. Panic is the enemy. Panic is the enemy. A frequent recitation of mine, this time it was true. I needed to stay calm. Think about how to construct my own deli platter which, over the course of 10,000 years, I have done plenty of times. But in Costco, the task seemed gargantuan.
I bought sliced cheese and salami, both in huge double packs, a box of crackers with six boxes of crackers inside, a stack of three containers of olives, which I bought because it had such a cute handle, and then I bought a forty-pound bag of pita chips and enough hummus to pave the way back to the Middle East. I moved on to fruit.
I bought a box of eight freak kiwis that were yellow and not green inside, I don’t know why, and two perfectly round watermelons roped together in netting which made them easier to carry, like you could sling them over your shoulder like a baby or over your arm like a purse, the cleverness of it impressed me but I didn’t need two watermelons which quickly became beside the point. The clock was ticking.
I bought a river of blueberries, a basketful of raspberries, and fat strawberries, all in big plastic containers suitable for housing a hamster family. And then I decided I should get some nuts so I could have little dishes of nuts surprising people when they sat down in various places. I always like a lot of nuts so this seemed like a deluxe idea to me.
Except the nuts were in bags larger than my backpack. There were no small nuts. Jesus, I thought, I’ve got to get out of here. Then I looked down and saw that I’d bought a bin of small chocolate chip cookies which were sitting on top of the trough of big chocolate chip cookies and, realizing I’d forgotten the one when I got the other, I looked for a place to stow the bin but I was standing amidst the khaki pants at the time so I walked, like the little rule-observant nerd that I am, all the way back to the bakery to put them in the right place.
And then I got to the check-out where the guy rat-a-tat-tatted at me like we were in some big contest with the other check-out lines, like Step on it, Sister! and then the card reader rejected my card. Yeah. Can you imagine, after all I’d been through? The cashier shuffled his feet and stared at me. I was killing his time, you know. So I came up with a Plan B which worked miraculously but will be tomorrow’s panic. It was a rough first day at Costco is all I’ll say, my foray back into the land of Big Food has left me weak and overwhelmed with watermelon. Take me home to Trader Joe’s.
I’m recovering from toxic doses of the world is too much with us. You know, like in the William Wordsworth poem –
The world is too much with us, late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! The sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers, For this, for everything, we are out of tune, It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be A pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
I remember the snippet, “The world is too much with us,” like I remember “Let not your heart be troubled,” both things my mother would say at various times to comfort me or herself, it was never clear which. She never went into more detail and for a long time I thought those were just standalone sayings until I Googled “Let not your heart be troubled” and found the rest of the verse in the Bible (John 14:1-3) so I could read it at my mother’s funeral which I ended up not doing although I held the Bible in my hand with my finger marking the place in case I thought I could do it but it ended up that I couldn’t.
It was okay though because it was just the first part that had true meaning to me – her telling me not to let my heart be troubled – and then other times saying to herself or the air or to me that there was just too much going on in the world for a person to bear. For her this could have meant anything – she had a deep and intricate internal life that was secret to me, certainly, and probably to everyone. So it didn’t take too much for the world to be too much with my mother. It takes a lot more for the world to be too much with me.
The remedy to all this too-muchness is as it was for Wordsworth. Being outside, being in the natural world. My mother translated this into laying in the blazing sun for hours on end, day after August day. I thought she was nuts at the time, actually for a long time, but now I’m figuring out that the scorching heat of the summer sun was her own private balm. So much of life is about reframing.
I realize that I feel good tonight. The world isn’t too much with me. The long walk along Lake Superior is with me, the sliding of the screen door is with me, the wind from the northwest is with me, and the roadside daisies are with me. My balm.
I’ve been having trouble managing my joie de vivre.
Or finding it.
It went dark on me this month.
I think some of it had to do with my eyes. Having my cataracts removed meant that I could see a lot of things more clearly, including myself, unfortunately. And things in the distance, or not so far distance, like age and weakness, lost abilities, dependency. Someday, I won’t be able (or allowed) to drive my own car.
I’ve thought these things before, for years actually, even though I am healthy and sane and able. When I do, I usually put the top down on my convertible and drive faster. But that hasn’t worked this time. Everywhere I go, I hear the clock ticking. Like Captain Hook, I am tortured, running from one side of the ship to the other. Where is that damn crocodile? Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Resignation or struggle. Those seem to be the two options. And self-pity. But because self-pity has sort of an entitlement threshold, not many people talk about feeling sorry for themselves for getting older because, you know, there is the alternative.
The other night, after a long futile search for the hearing aid that goes on my left ear, I ripped the cochlear implant receiver off my right ear, fed up with its weight, its claw around my ear, threw it on the dresser where part of it splintered off to the floor, and yelled “I’m sick of all this machinery!”
Then I fell into bed and started crying. Crying like somebody died. Great, heaving sobs. About having to wear things on my head that help me hear.
But it wasn’t about that. I don’t know what it was about. If I said I knew I would be pretending, posing myself as a master of this aging process when, right now, I feel like its victim.
I do know that, like most tough times, the only way out is through the middle. And through the middle lies something – survival, possibility, life, happiness? Every time I’ve put my head down and kept on in my life, it’s been worth it. It will be this time, too, I think.