Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. –T.S. Eliot
Part 1: Compartmentalization
A rude light in my eyes, a camera on my periphery, I was answering questions, intimate questions. I was not uncomfortable. I was not holding back.
Anything a person says, any personal story, is edited. This has always been my mantra about first-person narrative. Everyone has an agenda, even if they haven’t articulated one, even to themselves. There’s a way of telling so the story matches what the memory means to the speaker. A way of representing so the listener will visualize the experience as the teller does. What is left out, what is detailed compared to what is glossed-over, what is shaped by metaphor and how the chosen metaphor manipulates: these are only a few examples of editing. In written literature what’s most intriguing about the first-person narrator is what we, the readers, can perceive or appraise about him or her in the how and why the story is being told, not just in what happens.
This time with the light, with the camera, with spoken language coming out of me faster and with less control than when my fingers tap words—which can, after all, be deleted and replaced before anyone receives them—what’s apparently been edited is not so much the particulars, not the specifics, but the emotion. The director told me I needed to show more emotion. To provide emotion. Otherwise, he explained, the viewer won’t develop any emotion for me, as the character, as the subject of the film.
Why I am to be the subject of a film is itself snarled up in some spent emotion. My last book, a memoir called Something Wrong with Her, concerned female sexual dysfunction, anorgasmia, body loathing, and a return to a man I’d known (and had rejected) twenty-five years before, including the hot snarl of tormented writhing it took for us to see our way through to being together again. Because the traumatic reunion happened while writing the memoir, the book became both a look back twenty-five years at the beginnings of my sexualization and a real-time discovery and journey for the author doing the remembering. A filmmaker, reading memoirs to locate a subject for a film, selected mine, contacted me, and assumed I would be able to easily access the raw sensibility oozing from the book’s real-time portions as well as from the images of my college journal in a girl’s agitated handwriting.
The film will be a fictional sequel to that memoir, and I agreed to write the screenplay. Meaning I wrote a story that contained events (and emotion) that haven’t (yet) happened. But also meaning the backstory, the characters’ lives and conflicts and fears and experiences and obstacles are all the same as in the memoir. Mine. Or ours, since Mark, the man I’d returned to during the writing of the memoir, is co-star.
Certainly, as in a novel, the characters’ pasts can be sewn into what they decide and how they behave in the story of the film. But the details of those pasts, and how these “characters” assume their pasts have affected them, was dramatized in the film via interviews, after which the interviewer’s questions, prompts and pushing for more will be deleted, leaving the characters’ voices, frank and sometimes uncertain, searching for ways to articulate, as well as (hopefully) swinging between raw, bewildered, angry, troubled, even distraught. Emotion. Shown by a character recounting experience.
Except me—or the character-me in the filmed image. I couldn’t (or wasn’t) escaping also being an author who was relating experiences and past anxieties that I have already written, sometimes in more than one genre, and re-written, and proofread, and edited, then read at readings. Written material is supposed to still contain the sensibility of the writer (at the time of writing), but I have mastered the material. In other words, the author is no longer a mess.
The interviews for the film are also supposed to include a new round of confusion and doubt (inciting the film’s fictional story), but it is, this time around, a fake real-time. I’m supposed to display raw reaction to real past events that I have already mulled and re-felt and pondered and re-lived and looked at through multiple prisms, plus new ones that I am inventing. I am being frank, honest, unguarded. But…
Over a bowl of chili while scouting one of the film’s locations, the director says, “Maybe you just don’t have feelings.”
Getting older has compelled me—thus allowed me to learn—to pause longer before retorting. During the pause, my brain didn’t even deliver to me, until this writing, a memory of having been told more than once in college that I was excessively, messily, and problematically emotional. There was no “handling” the seeming chaos of incoming controversy. I cried a lot. Vented in a journal and in long letters to peers and supervisors alike. Stormed about, moped, brooded, agitated, and couldn’t accomplish any simple task as long as I was throbbing, an oily cycle of more throbbing.
My eyes on the bar area, three or four loiterers with nothing to do on a February Sunday at midday except sit on a stool with a beer (the waitress had told me one of them was also professor), I replied, but without any flare of passion, “That’s a mean thing to say.”
Mark was performing (or accessing) his past emotions more successfully than I was during filmed interviews. Except with his saxophone in a jazz quintet, he hasn’t had as much previous opportunity to express a bottled lifetime of frustration, melancholy, even rage. I told Mark about the director’s complaint while we prepared dinner together. Then, just as we sat down to eat, my brother called for my help with the challenge he was facing to put his dog down while his children were away at college and at a time his wife had just lost her mother and his own mother—our mother—was slowly dying of congestive heart failure in a hospital bed in the bedroom we’d each once called home. We talked about the vital responsibility of doing what’s best for the dog, reminded each other how most dogs barely show pain, enumerated the growing list of the qualities of dog-life that have slowly and then suddenly more rapidly been lost for his pet, lamented that nature does not take its course without suffering, and that we have to act for the mute animal who, as my brother noted, lies there and looks at him.
Only after I hung up the phone and started to tell Mark what the call was about did I have to wipe my eyes and steady my voice… even though it wasn’t happening directly in my life to a dog I live with.
In 1931 a film director needed his child star, Jackie Cooper, to cry in a scene. As an adult, Cooper revealed that the director arranged for a security guard to take Cooper’s dog and pretend to shoot it backstage. The director got the desired tears from Cooper in the scene. Cooper’s memoir Please Don’t Shoot My Dog may have snuffed the technique.
It’s been twenty years since I first faced that decision for one of my own dogs. For several weeks afterwards, I had to go to bed medicated and with talk radio on to keep myself from picturing certain details about the moment of euthanasia. The scar tissue around that experience is a thirty-page personal essay using the thirteen years of that dog’s life and death as a structure and means to explore related events in my life. Six years later my third loss of a dog happened just after my mother’s post heart-bypass stroke rendered us unlikely to be able to communicate as two adults. My then-husband became frustrated because I wouldn’t respond to (i.e. take care of) his sorrow over the dog. Of course, I couldn’t look at his because I was avoiding my own. Until I wrote it. Another thirty-pager—again using the structure of making the decision to end the dog’s life to also look at my mother’s stroke and the aftermath.
So writing, either fiction or nonfiction, has obviously been my way first to look directly at the source of emotion, and then to control it. Dramatize in language, so the thing felt is contained within. It has become part of something I made. Part of something I created, then revised, then edited, then saw go into production and had to help copyedit, promote, and sell. There I am, on the outside, doing a reading or talking to a class of undergraduates, and the thing felt—some things so hard to feel I had to use radio advice shows to distract me—sealed away in that thing I made. It’s still mine, but it can’t hurt me.
Until, that is, writing—or the results of having written—start to produce the emotions one seeks to avoid.
It began several years ago when a trendy independent press picked up what I thought would be my breakout novel. The publisher was edgy, innovative, and had been more than just noticed by the book-media establishment. Early in our publicity planning, I’d suggested, “Hey, the Associated Writing Program’s conference is in New York next year and they often like to highlight the publishing scene in the city hosting the conference, so why don’t you propose a Celebration of X-Books [fake name] as a conference event?” He asked me how one made such a proposal and I sent him the guidelines, to which he responded, “Much too complicated for what looks like minimal outcome, I think I’ll skip it.”
Dismissing a bureaucratic proposal as a waste of time was entirely in his m.o., so I forgot about it. Especially since learning that the novel had been printed with two fifty-page signatures in reverse order sent me to the floor of my study for the brand of hot slimy crying that produces a days-long sinus migraine. But that kind of frenzy over sheer bad luck was easier to put behind me than was the chronic dull bewilderment when it took my agent some prodding to get the publisher to confront the printer for a reprint.
Already carrying that steaming pile in my gut, my next meltdown was close to public. While attending the aforementioned writing conference in New York, I discovered my publisher had, in fact, proposed an event, A Celebration of X-Books; the event had been accepted and scheduled, but I was not one of the authors who would be sharing recently published work. My heaving, blubbering display took place behind a friend’s table in the book fair. She hadn’t been given a prime spot and the foot traffic was light. Later, only a little more composed, I called my agent and managed, through weep-warped words, to explain this new trauma. My agent must have suggested that I go talk to him, go ask him why. Or maybe it was my friend who recommended that course. I must have done so, because I ended up reading at the event. Was it my puffy, blotched face that prompted my publisher to invite me to join the line-up (or did I wait for some post-hysterics facial paralysis)… or did my agent again have to call and prod him? Maybe I didn’t want to know, because I have forgotten how it came about.
I understand weeping is common at this conference. The potential to be moved to do so is now at the top of my “con” list when deciding whether or not to attend. These last two dispassionate sentences might be a method of not revisiting what it felt like to discover how entirely insignificant I was to that publisher. An example of compartmentalization. (I’m getting there.)
But writing itself—the frequently harrowing hours of composition, revision and more revision—had never been, and is still not the source of any pathos I sought to avoid. One doesn’t produce seventeen books in thirty years without writing (as opposed to publishing) being the prevailing method to put away emotional turbulence. Writing is a common compartmentalization method in therapy, used even for non-writers. For most adults, compartmentalization is something that should be made possible, or instinctive, by simple maturation. Although I wonder if the method itself can become overly successful. I’m sure my film director thinks so.
As I stop for some research of compartmentalization—my crude understanding incited by therapy sessions during the last time I was a roiling wound, the years of the real-time memoir—I actually am compartmentalizing. Escaping the disconcerting accusation that I don’t have feelings.
First stop, Wikipedia, which doesn’t view compartmentalization as emotionally therapeutic:
Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves. Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized states.
Despite admitting it’s a psychological defense mechanism, the writers of this Wikipedia entry don’t seem to have a positive opinion of compartmentalization:
Compartmentalization may lead to hidden vulnerabilities in those who use it as a major defense mechanism.
For example, one can be vulnerable to being told she has no emotions.
I thought that when my therapist used the word in 2009, teaching me behavioral methods to handle depression, that it was a common therapeutic concept. But a paper in Counseling Psychology Quarterly in 2012 calls for the use of compartmentalization in therapy, as though it’s new.
It is proposed that compartmentalization and absorption can be applied as psychotherapy strategies. Therapeutic compartmentalization and therapeutic absorption are easy to learn and master, and can be used to treat anxiety, depression, and other adverse emotional states. Therapeutic dissociation strategies fit in well with the real-life eclectic mix of techniques used by most psychotherapists, and can serve as an adjunct to other forms of therapy.
Compartmentalization and absorption: my therapist used the first word without the second. What she told me to do: be as obsessively focused on my angst as I wanted to be for an hour a day, preferably in the morning. Sit and write everything I felt, address it to someone if I needed to, spew and describe and describe again, go over the details, just completely grind on it. What she didn’t say, and what I’m guessing now, is that was the absorption part. After the time is up, she said I was not allowed (or should not allow myself) to do any more of that kind of writing, even if it meant not writing at all. Go do something else. Invent other things to do if you have to. Shop. Cook. Garden. Don’t go on a walk (too much brooding time). Do something that requires consciousness: Train a dog. Organize the garage. Sort and scan old photographs. That was the compartmentalization part.
I was, however, not equipped to do this during the year I was weekly sitting in her office. I could do the absorption, but not the compartmentalization.
Back to real-time, I admit to withholding the title and first sentence of the above quote:
Milder forms of dissociation often provide a defensive function diminishing the impact of disturbing emotional states.
–“Therapeutic dissociation: Compartmentalization and absorption,” Brad Earl Bowins
So, compartmentalization is a form of dissociation. Dissociation is not supposed to be a good thing. But, in a mild form, it’s also fairly common, including the feeling that one is watching oneself in a movie, a sensation that followed me for several weeks after the film wrapped. Other mild forms include daydreaming, being “lost in a book,” etc. Severe dissociative disorders include amnesia and the condition formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
Searching dissociation resulted in far more articles relating to psychology and behavioral therapy than did searching compartmentalization (which also yielded essays on closet organization, and happens to be one of my compartmentalization methods.) But I found another researcher made the connection between dissociation and (therapeutic) compartmentalization in a piece ironically (for my purposes) titled “Dissociation isn’t a Life Skill.” (Sandra Brown M.A. Nov 22, 2012, Psychology Today.)
I wonder if digression is a form of dissociation.
A piece on grieving (which has since been removed from the information website where I found it) seemed to hit closer to the mark to explain myself:
Compartmentalized grievers are very different from other styles. He is able to fully rationalize what is going on around him and why a death has occurred. It is rare to see compartmentalized grievers display any real emotion toward loss. In her mind it is a natural part of the circle of life. This person will have difficulty relating to others who are experiencing the same loss. It is easy for the compartmentalized griever to go about their daily work and personal life as if nothing has changed. While some people may consider these grievers to be “emotionless,” his views on grieving are often associated with a higher level of intelligence or trauma from an event during life that has left him “empty” on the inside.
–Used to be here. I swear it was.
Dissociating entirely from “higher level of intelligence,” this selection almost describes me being filmed talking about personal experiences that I’d already developed in novels, stories, or memoirs. Did the director (also acting as interviewer) view me as empty on the inside? During one interview I took a sip of water and it trickled down my throat too close to my trachea, so I had a moment of difficulty speaking, my voice cracked and a few moments later I asked for the cameras to stop for a moment so I could blow my nose. The director, whose interview questions had been pushing me into more and more intimate areas, perked up, but I had to inform him I wasn’t sputtering in emotive sensitivity. He appeared genuinely disappointed. I must have seemed a dry husk.
So much the opposite of myself at twenty-one, in a university office I habitually filled with the foul and often stormy humidity of my prolonged angst. I wonder what my supervisors would have thought, hearing the director’s complaint that I was emotionless, or seeing me able to (re)relate delicate personal stories on camera without any outward appearance of distress.
But this change shouldn’t be surprising. My surfing foray (or digression) through layman psychology articles, abstracts and book reviews has helped me understand why my younger self was so emotionally beleaguered. An unfinished brain, awash with more emotion than rationality, cannot compartmentalize.
…between ages 9 and 10, the frontal lobes undergo a second wave of reorganization and growth. This growth appears to represent millions of new synapses. Then around age eleven a massive pruning of these connections takes place which isn’t complete until early adulthood…[I]n the teen brain, the emotional center matures before the frontal lobes. Emotion therefore often holds sway over rational processing. When we realize that the prefrontal cortex allows reflection while the amygdala is designed for reaction, we can begin to understand the often irrational and overly emotional reactions of teen… [F]ull myelination [insulation with protein to allow more efficient electrical impulses to move along the nerve cells] is probably not reached until around age 30 or perhaps later.
–at Wolfe, EdD, and using a study by Jay Giedd, MD
So by now I would assume my grey matter has prepared, learned, and insulated itself enough to protect me from ever feeling that way again.
Part 2: Depressive Practice
In the months after two intense weeks of filming, I spent no more than three hours working on a new writing project (actually, this essay). The rest of the summer I built block borders for my garden beds, planted baby trees, took pictures of fungus and insects and birds. I fished, I trained and showed my dogs, I tended a vegetable garden of greens and spent a good deal of time harvesting, washing, preparing, cooking those greens for a new way of eating adopted in March. I watched baseball games and mended my tattered garden jeans with patches. I did anything and everything I could do to not think about menopause stripping away any possibility I’ll have to re-create the sex life I never had; my mother spending her tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months in a hospice bed, muscles puddling, lifetime of experiences converging in dreams as her life dwindles; and, likewise dwindling, the remnants of my identity as a writer.
Despite the fact that my activities have largely been solitary (or accompanied only by Mark), no claim could be made that I wasn’t participating in living, that I wasn’t finding pleasure in the results of my labor, in terrestrial beauty where I fished and took photos, or excitement in dog-show victories and hooking large bass. I know because there was a period not so long ago when I couldn’t enjoy any of those things.
Ways to describe that interval in 2009 have become cliché. Word descriptions of the combined physical and emotional impact seem vapid. Once I tried this: “[Like] a pony that’s lost a life’s companion, won’t come out of the dark stall or shake the flies out of its eyes.” And this: “Oh shit, it’s morning again.” My version of suicide ideation was to imagine car crashes every time I approached a stop sign, and how learning to walk again would consume my conscious hours. Yes, something was happening. Nothing was happening. Too much was happening. Something was ending. Something was frozen. Everything was ending or frozen or already dead. Loss piled up. The compartments got too full. Instinctive automatic compartmentalization failed. The system crashed.
2009, when the aforementioned therapist tried to teach me to compartmentalize, hadn’t been the first occurrence. 1989-90: I had titled it The Dead Year. Toward the end of that bout, I got myself into a marriage—chased him, pursued him—because I wanted to get as far away from that feeling as I could. It worked for a while, a long while. A span that saw eleven of my seventeen books written and published. While I also fished and planted gardens and trained dogs, designed closets and painted rooms, took photographs; even cured, bleached, and re-built skulls of wild (dead) animals I’d found.
Somewhere during those eleven books, in 2004, a writer for a small Ohio newspaper who had already reviewed one of my books, requested my forthcoming novel. Against long-standing reviewer-protocol, he made email contact with me, told me how interested he was in my work, informed me when his new review would be coming out… and then, timidly—although looking back, it could have been warily—asked me if I suffered from bipolar or clinical depression. I don’t remember if he’d also read my first nonfiction book, out a year prior, containing an essay about my paternal aunt, hospitalized in a state institution from 1936 to her death (coincidentally in 2004), for paranoid schizophrenia. After I answered, not that I’m aware of, he decided not to review the current book. Despite The Dead Year and all its obvious characteristics, I hadn’t sought treatment or taken meds, and the only therapy was a group thing more concerned with codependency than compartmentalization.
The reviewer wrote back that he wasn’t really as interested in the book as he’d been saying. In fact, didn’t even care for that book. I never heard from him again.
The book he had reviewed was Dog People, which included a fictionalized version of The Dead Year. And the novel that provoked his question, Homeland, contained the most reclusive of all my introverted name-changing characters.
How could this incident not inform me of a growing trend: one’s writing is only as worthy, artistic, and provocative as one’s real maladies. Without a diagnosis and meds, the book he’d so related to and the one he had waited for to review were no longer interesting. Nor was I.
A man in my former writing group pointed out that it had gotten so that if one wasn’t on Zoloft one couldn’t claim to be a serious, literary writer. That wasn’t why I did eventually take my turn with the drug, and had a moment, six or seven weeks in, when I realized I was smiling as I blew bubbles for my dogs to chase, and that I hadn’t felt myself do that for a long time. I wrote in a journal, “I have been to an isolated static place. As I start to come back, flashes of unnamed fear… that I’ll settle, that I’ll let feeling okay or ‘normal’ make me decide to do nothing. Cause me to let everything fade back into vague, distant yearning.”
I have left out the trigger, the particular source in 2009, when Mark, receiving threats and ultimatums from his then-partner, tried to stop our communication. I’ve already written a book about it—a real-time book I wrote while the episode rolled out. And then the film that was meant to be the fictional sequel to that book, where the “characters” in the film had experienced what the book had preserved and exhibited. Which elicited the complaint, during filming, that I “had no emotions.”
I tried to explain compartmentalization to the director. He tried to incorporate it into the film, with vignettes of me tilling, casting a lure into a pond, play-training the dogs, exercising, cooking, staring at a computer screen without moving except to get up and look out a window.
Not long after, I began writing this essay. Another real-time escapade? Hardly. Except for how the “research” (otherwise known as needing validation) clarifies or even bends the road a little for me as I go.
Is it odd that Walter Bonime, MD (1904-2001), author of the efficiently titled psychotherapy classic Clinical Use of Dreams, has no entry in Wikipedia? (Case in point, there’s one for me, and I didn’t put it there.) Bonime’s second book was the equally methodically titled Collaborative Psychoanalysis, and yet according to a former student, who put her 2002 tribute in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis instead of any existing networking domain, Bonime was “forever an optimist and worked hard at experiencing life as a challenge, an opportunity, and a journey that could always offer something new, creative, exciting, and engaging.” (Silvia W. Olarte, 2002, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 545-546.)
This anecdotal data about Bonime’s nature would likely be used as hard evidence to challenge him, and no doubt rudely, if his theories were to jostle among the flotsam of social media now.
[T]he proposition is offered that depression is not a passively experienced or reactive interpersonal response, but an active means of relating to people.
–“Depression as a Practice: Dynamic and Psychotherapeutic Considerations,” Walter Bonime, M.D. [D]epression, rather than being an affliction, is a practice—a distorted way of relating to other people. It is a way of interpersonal functioning which unavoidably results in misery…
Despite the uniqueness of each life, the concept of the depressive personality can be generalized in terms of six cardinal elements. Enumerative presentation carries the hazards of rigidity and reductionism. What follows will, I believe, nevertheless, offer the opportunity for an authentic grasp of the basic problems. The elements are: despair, manipulativeness, aversion to influence, unwillingness to enhance others, anxiety, and an affective core of anger…
These people, always ones who have been deprived of affectual nurture in childhood, develop techniques of eliciting by multiple methods a sort of compensatory care from others…
It is an exceedingly difficult undertaking for a depressive to give up depressive practice. He or she has spent a lifetime trying in complex, idiosyncratic ways to be recompensed for an initial loss.  –Collaborative Psychoanalysis: Anxiety, Depression, Dreams, and Personality, chapter titled: “Psychotherapy of the Depressed Patient,” Walter Bonime, M.D.
Yes, it’s dated. Or has been superseded in the forty years since publication, although I could not find an article refuting or even referring to the notion of depressive practice. All I was looking for was something that said it could be a habit. A familiar fallback mode. It could be a cycle at least partially perpetuated by practice. One that for some reason became comfortable. The way a 200-pound body seeks to return to 200 pounds after its brain made a determined lifestyle change that brought it down to a vigorous 135. When I was twenty, my supervisor said of me to someone else, “She goes from crisis to crisis without learning anything.” In the early 90s this behavior became the more familiar drama queen. Since that time, the characteristic has taken on a more positive spin, or a respectable clinical diagnosis.
None of this suggests it’s not due to a disorder, genetic or otherwise, in the secretion of chemicals or incomplete pruning of synapses. Which one could have to a degree that warrants no meds or shrink. Which millions could have in low-grade variations, causing them to weep more easily, feel rejected, excluded, or affronted in trivial situations (called, interestingly, “narcissistic injuries” by psychologists). But is it also causing some to want to wear moodiness or brooding or melancholy as a badge of enhanced artistic sensitivity, instead of seeking to evade discomfort—from chronically fatigued eyes to sinus headaches to obsessive inertia to existential helplessness—instead?
For me, compartmentalization became my evasion. Change the subject. I watch myself doing it.
Have I been fighting against depression this summer? Four years too soon according to my every-ten-years routine. This time a triggerless bout? Or is it actually some kind of horrifying contentment?
There was a time, when people asked the disposable, “How are you?” I used to think (not say), “Still searching for serenity.” Just now serenity has been suggested by a thesaurus as a synonym for contentment. This can’t be what I meant.
So what’s missing?
Start with motivation. More than just daily stay-busy resolve. Incentive (or energy) that’s fed by future-looking with hopeful, excited anticipation. Something my father also has none of.
A few weeks ago I spoke with my father on the phone. A 95-year-old man who often forgets to eat, living in the house where he raised his children, alone except for a 24-hour caregiver and his bedridden, dying wife. I said, “How are you doing?”
His voice grown foggy this year, “It’s hard… waiting…”
“What are you waiting for?” Oblivious, or deflecting.
“Oh, you know… your mother…”
How did I answer? Maybe just “I know.” The only future he can anticipate is not going to generate enthusiasm.
Yes, my mother’s looming death is also in my future and I’ve had my compartments to avoid paralyzing feelings about that. But now there’s little eager expectation for a future of continued triumphs for my over-ten-year-old show dog. And what kind of future achievement is there for bass fishing and wildlife photography, except catching or capturing anything on the next occasion? What’s the ambition or hope for the garden that produces the basis for how I eat, except health, perhaps a longer life? A longer life to do what with? Write?
This motivated-momentum thing, aspiration and anticipation, is most missing in that part of my life where it used to rage: writing.
I don’t even like that word anymore. What does it mean? Making literature—too pretentious. Artists call what they do making art, musicians make music. Do writers make literature? Make fiction? Do you hear me?—I’m digressing.
What else could be recently absent? What’s not missing is companionship or love. And yet, there’s some measure of isolation. But isn’t it isolation by choice? Day after day, I don’t leave the house except for resupplying the pantry and material for projects, an occasional dog show. But my only human interaction of substance is with Mark. By tacit reflexive decision. I do rely on the radio to keep me company when he’s away teaching music lessons. Not news—it’s an election year, too vexing. Sports. An enclosed compartment.
My dog seems to be having the same dilemma, except he’s not a natural introvert. His favorite pursuit is not squirrels or ducks or even tennis balls, but meeting and cultivating new human best friends. (In his years as a stud dog, he had one other more beloved endeavor.) Throughout the two weeks of filming, the house was daily full of people. These were engrossed, hungry young filmmakers, but Tommy could always steal a little of their focus to win himself affection and laughter. Also, his lifetime dog-friend was having one of her last prolonged visits. Tommy and his daughter Crash had lived together since Tommy was three (and her entire life). During the almost-three years it took for the collapse-and-transformation of my former life, resulting in Mark moving 2000 miles to live with me, Crash and Tommy remained together three-quarters of that time. Every morning when I went into the basement to exercise, the two dogs rattled down the wooden stairs and played rope tug-o-war which turned into WrestleMania (teeth allowed, but no full-on bites). Together they inspected the yard for squirrels or the Loch Ness monster that had taken up residence at the bottom of the ground-water drainage intake grate. Together they each took a training bumper and raced across the common area to the pond for daily swims.
Then when filming wrapped, the crew stopped coming, and Crash went to her new home in St. Louis with my ex.
There were days when I forgot to feed Tommy because he didn’t seem to know how to remind me, when I didn’t wake and rise at six because Tommy wasn’t going to get up until I did. Some of his other symptoms are more anxious than withdrawn. He has become (even more) afraid of flies. It used to be a fly or wasp buzzing on the outside of the screen at an open window that caused his chin to rest on the most convenient horizontal part of my body in eye-bulging alarm. Now any fly loose in the house sends him to squeeze under my computer desk (if I’m sitting there) or smash himself between my knees and the kitchen counter, or crowd with our legs under the kitchen table so he can lay a chin on my thigh. He relaxes again after I search the house and kill the intruder. At training and shows Tommy has begun to let his treats dribble from his mouth instead of chewing and swallowing, the dog-rendition of I’m-so-stressed-I-can’t-eat. Mark and I both leaving the house at the same time means fortifying the area where Tommy will stay, to prevent rugs or mattresses from being ripped, blinds from being shredded, or doorknobs from receiving tooth marks. Tommy can’t be crated; he does not view a crate as a protective den but a trap and he’ll ruin his teeth on the wire doors and windows in desperation to escape. So I’ve started trying to make sure one of us is always home. Since I so seldom want to leave, it isn’t a problem for me, but Mark sometimes wants to go to dinner, a movie, a museum, a concert.
The only time I’ve cried the last six months—despite the marathon parental demise strangely paralleling the evaporation of my writer self—is at the prospect, looming, of having to retire Tommy from competition. The compartment of dog showing is starting to need other compartments to protect me. With the formerly primary protective compartment of writing having lost effectiveness as a shield; the approaching winter sending my garden, bass and northern pike, and most subjects of my photography into dormancy; not wanting to elevate cooking and eating and planning cooking and eating enough to warrant any more of my attention; my Facebook feed too full of (well intentioned) political brawling and abused animal shockers while baseball season ends with disenchantment and disillusionment… a new compartment is sorely needed.
And now the rough-cut edited film is going to return for my viewing and response. I should be enlivened, aflame, eager, yet I’ve never been impatient for this step in the process to occur. I’m not sure I’m ready to feel disappointment as I watch myself not show the emotions my brain must have been so determined to control.
I do want to feel something. Why am I afraid?