|Helena Fitzgerald||Nov 18, 2019|
In the spring of the year before the last decade ended, I got incredibly sick with the flu. There was a bad flu with an ugly name, its mascot an animal often used as an insult, going around New York. There would have been memes about it if there had been memes but there weren’t yet, not quite. Still its name was ubiquitous enough that when I called an emergency medical helpline and described my symptoms and then said “please just tell me I don’t have swine flu” the nurse on the other end of the line said “I can’t… tell you that.” She told me to monitor my temperature and that I didn’t need to come into an ER if it stayed below… 103? 104? It got very close, which is why I don’t remember, exactly, any more than I remember anything coherent or narrative or linear about the next few days; except being in so much pain that I just howled, like an animal, like, well, a swine, squealing in misery.
I got better, eventually. That’s really the sum total of the memory I have of it; a howling darkness in my apartment that I remember as a single night lasting maybe 48 or 72 hours, and then a morning like water-thinned milk, when I felt well enough to go outside for a few minutes. I had been supposed to move in with my boyfriend that weekend, boxing up and loading out all my stuff from a dream apartment that any reasonable person never would have left to one that would soon become a nightmare. I got all my stuff packed up and I moved and life went on into the 2010s. But in a way, it felt like I took three years to get over the flu, and that, much like that 48 or 72 hours that I remember as a single long blacked-out night, the next three years were one obliterative stretch from which I emerged, weak and unsteady and a miracle to have emerged at all, grateful in the awful, whole-bodied way of stepping back to the curb just before a car hits you.
The time for which I feel the most fondness out of the whole 2010s is a time when, objectively, I was miserable. At the very end of 2012, I got out, in the manner of an animal chewing off its own leg to get out of a trap, of a dramatically bad relationship. It’s hard to talk about that relationship, or the years surrounding it, and fence off one thing from another; really, what it was like was when you wake up in a nightmare, and then realize that, no, waking up is part of the nightmare, you haven’t woken up yet, you are still in it, and trying to wake up again, and finding, with horror that bunches exponentially up atop itself, no, not this either, this is still the nightmare. I got the swine flu and then emerged three years and several relationships later, at the very end of 2012, when the winter was cutting the days off the year like meat off a bone, and the mornings were very cold and I was always up early, scraping pale 6am light over my accumulated sorrow, scrubbing it off again when it grew back overnight.
There’s that joke about the guy who keeps slamming a hammer into his foot and when someone asks him why he’s doing it he says “because it feels so good when I stop,” and that was the energy in which 2012 turned over into 2013 for me. It was as though, after a long season of breathing in dirt, I got my head above ground and there was all at once a surplus of oxygen, and the world felt starry, in the way the cold gets studded with lights above intersections at the holidays, spelling out the names of the neighborhoods, imploring us all to feel joy, to feel peace, to light ourselves up about something. The city was actually doing that at this time when I was gulping in new air through grief like cold water, it was actually that time of year when the holiday lights go up. But that lit-up sense continued on past it, too, into the next year even after the lights came down. I always think of that time as some great accomplishment, but I hadn’t actually done anything; I’d just stopped slamming the hammer into my foot.
There’s a lot of commotion on social media about the end of the decade; what have we accomplished, what do we have to show for ten years of living, what have we carried in our hands to some arbitrary finish line? Mostly these are nostalgia exercises, or excuses to talk about ourselves, like when someone at a party tells a story and then one after another everyone piles on with their own story that only tenuously clings to the edge of the same topic, anxious to for a minute elbow their way into the spotlight. Things like decades allow us to stop and envision ourselves in a movie, filmed, framed, and curated, rather than merely in a collection of days threaded with losses and triumphs so small as to be invisible to anyone outside of their occurrence.
If I file the decade down to points of light, I can land on Vicki and John and I watching it start to snow on the downtown city in early January from the booth in the big window at Angel’s Share, on a night when everything was new and the world blossomed cold and clean and promising; on Aaron and I sweaty and ecstatic at one and another outdoor concert in the first summer of the decade, raising our bare arms into warm air in the last hour of the long melting northern summer light, grabbing with hands and teeth onto the teenage years that neither of us felt we had gotten to have, selfish and frantic-hearted and transcendent; on the lugubriously hungover morning when I first talked to Thomas on twitter; on radiator-heat family Sundays in Suzan’s old apartment tossing love and bleak, raucous jokes like a rope down into the well of an impossibly cold winter, walking a tightrope together into a new year; on blurred-out nights at old Brazenhead when the light ran down the walls and people still smoked inside and I sat in one big chair all night long and everyone’s sweat smelled like paper and how year after year I had conversations with the same friends there, promising our lives had gotten better, that we had turned everything around, I’m brand new you should see me; on all the hotel rooms and guest rooms in other people’s homes; on airplanes and trains and crying in airports; on emails and texts whose fonts blossomed and changed and lived and died and smaller and larger phones growing hot in hands; on photobooths and parties and backseats of cabs; on other people’s couches, other people’s lives, on people I no longer speak to and parts of the internet I no longer use; on the bright, chilly spring night of Thomas and my first date and a scattered handful of dates down the rest of year, on the sudden fast tumble and acceleration of it, phone calls and rental cars and the tiny apartment in London that was nothing but a bed in a nook in the wall, one November night in the hour after the restaurant in a neighborhood I hadn’t been back to in years had closed and they stacked the chairs slowly until we finally went home crashing into a bright clear morning in a car a year later, the day we moved in together five years ago almost exactly today, slicing the decade in half, the first day in the apartment where I live now, the line of water towers in the sky facing north the clearest thing I had ever seen; a double handful of overheated parties in this small room and the process by which house parties replaced bars and replaced so much of the rest of the city; the way conversations began to edge and shade into questions about loss and change and comfort and endlesss endlesss jokes about how old we were, the sanding down of jagged edges in memory, so that the stories would conform to a shape and a container as small as a meme about the difference in ten years, a single sentence listing the accomplishments within those years.
I can be stunned at how much fits into ten years, and how little, how much I can hold and how much falls out of my hands, but I would feel this way about any randomly demarcated section of time. Give people any material subject and they will attach nostalgia onto it; give me any box and I will say that this box is exactly the shape of my feelings about the passing of time.
The past decade slips from my hand in an attempt at summary because it is a collection of moments that added up in many ways to nothing. If joys built on joys, sometimes, to create more joys, to create that kind of astonished longevity that gives shape and definition to long friendship, long love, even long habitation of a single room, all of it is still a passing moment. It offers nothing that can be marched up to a counter with a receipt and exchanged for permanence. We are pointing at the road signs as they pass outside the window; the photos come out irreparably blurred, objects dissolved into an illegible smear of light.
Writing about the past in this summarizing way is an act of forgiveness, not of recording. We are giving ourselves the grace of being neat stories, made safe in the telling. I have left a lot out of this essay; I will leave a lot out of any stories I tell about the decade that spanned the last ten years. The points of light elide and cover up the grisly tendon in between, but that’s the way we get from place to place, climbing grotesque ropes into the next day and the future, one hand over the other.
But if I had to answer what I accomplished, to put some tangible achievement solidly into the public record, I would come back to that same small and unremarkable stretch of months when 2012 turned into 2013. I would say that sometime early in the decade but no longer quite at its beginning, over a series of winter mornings, I got up and out of bed when getting out of bed felt impossible, washed my face and got dressed and propelled myself down the stairs, out the door of my building, onto the street and into the world. I would say I did it again and again until it became somewhat less hard than the first time. I would say that in this way I stopped something, I moved forward, or at least moved on to something else. I would say that perhaps this is how people change.
I would say that once upon a time, when no one was looking, I pushed my head out of the water and pulled myself to shore, and walked up into the clear air. A lot happened after that, but sometimes I feel like I can wind the rest of the decade back up to that origin point, everything else a ship out of that harbor. I got up, I got up dressed, I went outside. I survived. I was lucky enough to get better. Survival is not a consolation prize for not accomplishing anything else in ten years; it is itself the accomplishment, and eclipses all others, no matter what they are. Most of our accomplishments are matters of luck, if we are honest and if we round up, no matter how hard we worked, or how much we tried; survival is no different. Whatever else I did, the miracle is to be standing here much in the same way I was standing here ten years ago. Look at us all of us, unlikely survivors, past everything, going on into one more next cold morning, waking up one more time, almost ok enough to make a joke about it.
hi. just a reminder that griefbacon is ending at the end of this year and that all of it, including the archive, is free for everybody until then. it’ll be weekly until the end of the year; there’ll be an extra post this week to make up for missing last week. xo