The other day my daughter gave me a hug and I recalled a particular section of Cherry Street. You know the spot where the train track crosses Cherry, just before Highway 65? If you’re driving east the street rises up on a little hill, where the train tracks are, and then it rises further and goes over the highway below. Up until a couple years ago this was a desolate spot, but now there’s a dog park on the right, just before one’s car wheels bump over the train tracks.
When I was in college I often thought of this bit of Cherry Street, although I don’t know why. Nothing interesting has ever happened to me there. I guess I was homesick, although it always seemed odd to be homesick for a part of the road in one’s hometown where nothing of particular interest occurred. And yet that’s the only way I can explain it: homesickness. Now I live on Cherry and could, if I wanted, drive to that stretch of road in less than ten minutes.
I hadn’t thought of the spot in years. Something about the manner in which my daughter hugged me triggered the memory, I guess, although of course I still have many questions about why this bit of Cherry is a memory for me at all.
My daughter is in a particularly jaunty phase of life. She rarely walks anywhere when she could hop or twirl, she is always coming downstairs in fancy dresses at inappropriate times, and she loves to make me laugh.
I just read The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. My brother-in-law loaned it to Tony and me, because he liked it and thought we would too. He was right. Even though the subject matter is sad, it is very jaunty. Its jauntiness reminded me of my daughter and also of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which I had to reread after The Accidental Tourist. I don’t know how Anne Tyler and Nora Ephron managed to achieve such jaunty tones in books about the death of a child and infidelity, respectively, but they did.
Was there a reason women in the mid 1980’s were writing things that were so funny and sad at the same time? I asked my grandpa and he said it was because of Richard Nixon. He didn’t elaborate on that explanation, but I took it to mean that the only way to live through Watergate was to cultivate a healthy sense of humor, which one could then use, a decade later, to write a bestselling book about a sad subject. It seems like a plausible explanation, except that today’s politics are worse and dumber than Watergate on a regular basis but contemporary fiction is less jaunty.
Reading still gives me a headache some of the time, so I listened to Heartburn as an audiobook, but I made it through The Accidental Tourist the old-fashioned way. Sometimes when I read my eyes feel like they’re loose in their sockets, like they’re moving too fast on the words. I get a sensation like I’m running across a balance beam, keeping up with my eyes.
Anyway, here it is again. December. Almost my birthday. It keeps happening, against all reason. Last year was tough, but I’m still here, getting older by the minute.
Last year around this time I learned how to roast a chicken. It turns out that roasting a chicken is much less difficult than I imagined. My first chicken was a hit, so I kept at it. Now I have a multi-step chicken routine: I buy a whole chicken. I roast it. We all eat it for dinner. Then Tony takes whatever meat is left off the bones, shreds it, and freezes it. I put the bare chicken bones in the crockpot along with some carrot tops and wilted celery from the crisper drawer. I also add chopped onion, garlic, spices, and water. Then I turn the crockpot on high for four hours, or low for eight. When the time is up, we strain the crockpot and have homemade chicken stock. Later I use the stock and the frozen shredded chicken to make soup or pot pie.
There is something exceptionally satisfying about this routine. I didn’t know I was missing a chicken rhythm to my life until I had it. It is so satisfying that I think I could, with a little ingenuity, start a religion with the chicken as a kind of prayer method, an edible rosary.
I feel like I discovered roasting chicken, although I know I didn’t. I also feel I’ve discovered a new way of writing, and it might be true. I lie in my bed and look up at the fan on the ceiling and I say the words that I would like to write into my phone’s Notes app. I don’t just say the words, I also say all of the punctuation. I don’t mind writing in this way. In fact it goes much faster than how I was writing, which was longhand, and it gives me fewer headaches. Perhaps this is the way that I was meant to write all along, by talking.
The ceiling fan I look at while I write is objectively hideous. Most ceiling fans are ugly, the definition of function over form, but this one is bad by even ceiling fan standards. It is faux wood and faux gold, with ornate glass shades on the light fixture that hangs below the fan blades.
My parents had this same fan in multiple rooms of the house in which I grew up. I have known this fan all my life. Tony and I helped renovate that house before my parents sold it. One of the projects I did involved the fans. I took the faux wood blades off of this exact fan and painted them white before reattaching them. I removed the glass shades and added Edison lightbulbs. When I finished with this fan it looked much better.
And yet here it is again, exactly as it was. Or, that isn’t quite true, this is actually worse than it was. One of the three lightbulbs and shades is missing completely, giving the fan a haphazard look. I am to blame. When we moved in I took the shade off and unscrewed the lightbulb, dutifully embarking on the first steps of the renovation I had previously undertaken with this fan. But I got tired of the whole thing right away, really tired, and have done nothing about this fan in nearly a year.
I wonder if I will keep confronting this fan throughout my life, as a reminder to me of all the things I cannot change. Or maybe I’m misreading the fan’s symbolism. Perhaps it represents something good, a kind of solidity, a fan I could come to count on if only I could let myself trust it.
Tony and I are looking at houses again. It seems we are always looking at houses. We love to buy houses with ugly fans and other ugly things and fix them up. But now the houses we are looking at are further away, not in Springfield. I might move away from Springfield, which means I will move away from the intersection of Cherry Street and the train tracks. I am sure I will miss it, for reasons that will remain inexplicable to me.
Here is what I think, as my birthday approaches yet again: it takes an inordinate amount of faith to keep going these days. It isn’t just the pandemic, with its new and deadlier variants and its vaccines that are still, incomprehensibly, patented. It isn’t just climate change and the fact that all current evidence suggests there is no way to avert a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise, which will surely have catastrophic impacts. It isn’t even just late capitalism, with its terrible inequality and exploitation. It isn’t the stock market or the housing market or global supply chains. It’s all of it together. It’s so hard to believe in any of it lately.
But still I find a way to live my life as if tomorrow will come, as if I will live to see my daughter grow up, as if there will be a world for her to grow up in, as if in three decades the numbers on the screen that supposedly represent my retirement account will still be there, and able to serve some use for me. This faith might pass for jauntiness in December 2021.
Last year I gave up on so many things. Giving up sounds bad, but it is the natural response to the world as it currently is. This year I’m thinking, I don’t know, maybe there is something past lack of belief. But what is it? Roasted chicken? Cherry Street? Ceiling fans? Jauntiness in the face of it all? I’m still working at it. Happy birthday to me.