You Can Never Unknow Someone

I had another Bruce dream on Wednesday night. Number one hundred ninety or so, I think? (Let’s see…thirty eight years times five or six a year…)

It wasn’t unexpected, given all the Bruce-centered writing I’ve done the last six months as I slowly write a memoir. But like most of the other Bruce dreams, this one left me with an emotional hangover. The difference this time, though, is that I have more to say about them than I have in other blogs and writings. Maybe (maybe?) I understand them a bit better or at least in a different context.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bruce dreams, they started several months after he died in a train crash, and they often follow a pattern: I’m living my life as it is at the time and I find out he is still alive. I can see him, but he can’t see me and I can’t reach him. For example, in one dream, his brother’s wife told me he was living in a nursing home and that he was blind and learning to speak again. I asked her if he remembered me and she said yes, that he’d asked about me and was wondering where I was. I could feel in my sleep how excited I was to hold him and talk to him again. Then, when I got to the nursing home, I could only see him from behind a window. He was alone, sitting in a wheelchair and dressed in the same red flannel shirt he wore in this photo. I don’t know why I couldn’t get around the window, but no matter how hard I pounded on the glass, I couldn’t get his attention. He thought I’d abandoned him, and I felt a deepening earnestness and anxiety. Mad with anguish, I started crying for real, and I woke up exhausted and my pillow was soaked in tears.

Not every Bruce dream is that difficult. Several years ago I was able to employ lucid dreaming and change the outcome. It started with the same premise: I can’t talk to Bruce after I learn he is alive. But in that dream, I consciously realized what was happening and I forced myself to change the ending. He was in our kitchen, taking something out of the oven. I told myself to go into the kitchen and I did. I jumped on his back (like I used to) and kissed him and told him how much I missed him. He laughed and hugged me and said he missed me, too. I woke up feeling good instead of sad and drained.

Psychologists have told me it’s because I never saw Bruce dead that I have these dreams. They also attribute the dreams to the way I internalized his death. I was nineteen years old and had just had a baby. Apparently, like an old photograph, my brain hangs on to the way my hormones and emotions responded to his death, suspending them in midair like nothing changed in subsequent years.

The only way I know how to live with Bruce dreams is to live with Bruce dreams, and that’s not easy at 2 a.m. when you’re half awake and emotionally gullible. When the dark side of your brain comes out in the middle of the night, logic and proportion (to quote Jefferson Airplane) fall sloppy dead and they break loose from their chains. You can get up and get a drink of water, that’s true, but sometimes when you go back to sleep, the dream keeps going and becomes even more convoluted. What do you do then?

During this last Bruce dream, I woke up in the still early morning and I thought about it as best I could – the details and how I felt – yet part of me was still in that dream, and in that dream, Bruce wasn’t sure he wanted to get married. He didn’t seem happy to be with me. How do you convince yourself, when you’re lying in the dark, heart beating wildly, that these dreams are just your insecurities finding their way out?

Writing about him several times a week for the last six months has brought up all kinds of thoughts I haven’t thought in years, but obviously they’re still there in the back of my mind. They’re like a wall of post office boxes, each with their own combination: two clicks left, four right, one left…

I can only understand the dreams as an extension of grief; part of all the things we try to process someone’s death. Only, we can’t do it all at once, or even in a few weeks, months or years. When you’ve loved someone, spent a good amount of time with them, and suddenly they’re gone and you never get to see them again, you wonder, “What did I do to make them leave?”

Even though they didn’t leave on purpose, you still wonder.

You can never unknow someone, even if you really want to. And so you live with them. Bruce – all of him: from the day we met to the day he died – including his love, his skin, his near-bald head – is as much a part of my life as my own skin and love and children. He’s constantly in my life, and so will be the dreams.

As hard as they are sometimes.

Zen Garbage Bag Lady

I went through my closet and dresser the other day and filled a garbage bag with clothes that don’t fit. This time, they’re too big. Last time, they were too small. Too big, too small, and little time in between to wear them out.

I joke that I’ve been up and down the scale more than a stripper on a pole. In thirty eight years, I’ve not been the same weight (ergo, the same size) for more than a few years at a time.

Weight, 1983-present (not to be confused by The Alps)
The actual Alps

Like the scent of an old boyfriend’s aftershave picked up while walking through a bar, or eating scallops in butter and garlic, or listening to a song like “Separate Ways,” my weight, whatever it is, invokes deep-set memories. Looking at my weight charted this way, it becomes a timeline merging with the milestones and the minor events in my life. Pick a weight and I can tell you who I was dating or married to, how old my kids were, where I worked (or didn’t work), who my friends were, what kind of car I drove, where I went grocery shopping, how I wore my hair, where I went on vacation, who died, and who hurt me.

Weight is reflected in these events, relationships, and the simplest of everyday things because I have often let weight define me, or at the very least allowed weight to be a major player in how I thought of myself. But nowhere on this chart can I mark a moment when being a certain weight caused or solved anything. My life went on whether I ate a donut or a carrot.

Weight is tangible and can be plotted, but how do you visibly represent what’s going on inside? The self-esteem, the grief, the anger, the depression? I was thin, getting thinner, and fat whether I was happy or sad, but because it was easier sometimes to manipulate the outside than the inside, the peaks – or rather, the plunges – denote the times when I probably could have paid a little more attention to the inside as well as the outside.

Now here I am again, stuffing clothes that don’t fit into yet another garbage bag and wondering if I should keep them just in case or bring them to Salvation Army. But what I also have to wonder is, how am I taking care of the inside?

I’m eating right, sometimes perhaps not enough, though. Why? For a scale number? Hmmm…

I bought a guitar because I’ve always wanted to learn to play. That’s a good thing, right? But I’ll learn in isolation for now, which, after nine months with little human contact, is wearing on me in ways I’ve not examined yet. Hmmm…

I published my book, but I’m not interested in promoting it. Again, why? Because it’s not good enough? I’m not worth it? I don’t…care?

So much to consider just from plotting a weight chart.

Feeling the Feels of 2020

I sometimes meditate, I sometimes “pray,” but as 2020 progressed, the peaceful breathing and quiet communication with the god-presence wasn’t enough to pry open the jammed up emotions that have piled up like dead fish on ice.

It must be a 2020 thing because I’m (too) good at feeling the feels in “normal” times. Between covid and the ensuing physical disconnection, political disparity, and overall anxiety; a minor personal health issue; and the myriad issues with my aging parents, I started to feel like I didn’t have access to any emotions anymore. I knew they were there. I sensed them. But my subconscious couldn’t let them go.

Then a few weeks ago, I stumbled on to an animal rescue video. A rail-thin dog was crying out in pain from a gutter and a team of folks calmed him, took him to the vet, and after months of foster care, the once near-dead pup was ready for adoption. I cried and cried and cried some more. It felt so good I watched another video and another. Now I start every morning watching rescue videos and crying.

The dogs and cats and goats and horses are surrogates for my unprocessed emotions, and their rescue reminds me that hope still exists even in the darkest moments. They help me feel the things I need to feel in order to feel the things I can’t.

I realize that I’m seeing the good side of rescue and that a lot of animals don’t make it. I deal with that in another part of my brain. Right now, I need good news and positive outcomes: The dog who can’t walk and whose foster parent works with him to walk again; the abandoned mama whose pups are stuck under a concrete structure and are rescued in time to nurse and grow up healthy. I need these stories! I need their sad beginnings – the fleas, the scabs, the brokenness. I need to witness their healing. I need to experience hope.

I went back to my blog post from January 1, and not surprising, it was about hope. I couldn’t know then about all the feels we’d be feeling this year (and there were a LOT of them!). But just like then, I wish the same for all of us this new year: May we find (and facilitate, when possible) hope in 2021.

Obligation

It’s been thirteen days since Dad fell, eleven since an ambulance took him to a hospital, six since he was released to a nursing facility and one since someone at the facility tested positive for covid.

Dad a few weeks ago.

When covid killed Dad’s cousin in April, I wondered how long before it affected our family again.

Between finding the right help, the right facilities, and the money to pay for everything, caring for elderly parents is challenging. The paper trail alone can destroy a small forest. Add covid to the mix and fear, concern, and frustration pile up like snowdrifts that won’t melt until spring because everything takes twice as long to do as it did before.

Dad, who will be 90 in two months, needed occupational therapy to help him adjust to chronic dizziness, but it’s not helping much. Mom, with poor eyesight and hearing, and the kind of joints you’d expect of someone nearly 89 years old, can’t care for him the way he requires. Through a million phone calls and emails, my brother and I have secured a small apartment for Dad in an assisted living facility, which he was supposed to move into tomorrow, the day before Christmas. Not exactly home, but at least he’d have people around and some presents to open. Now he’s in quarantine, alone in his room, and his world, which has shrunk considerably in two years, is even smaller.

There’s a fine line between love and obligation. Love is a living, breathing thing; hopeful, and yet can cut us all to the bone. When loves wounds, it’s counterintuitive to go back for more, although we usually do again and again. Obligation, on the other hand… There’s no emotional attachment to obligation if you do it right and don’t let love creep in. Obligation makes the hard decisions easier. Obligation, more than love, is the driving force behind why (and how) I’m helping my parents during this time in their lives.

Our family dynamic is as fragile as crepe paper. It’s mostly obligation that keeps my parents and siblings loosely tethered to one another in good times, and in this current crisis, we cobbled together enough give-a-shits to tap into our collective conscience and, with Dad as the common denominator, put the skeletons and years-old-feelings back in their closets to do what needs to be done.

I feel no guilt making arrangements for Dad to move to assisted living and, in the near future, insisting Mom moves, too. Love just makes me cry over the whole thing: Dad’s loss of independence, his loneliness, and – most of all – his inability to accept any of it.

This is the point in most blog posts where I find the light, the positive, the “moral” of the story. Not this time. With all the pain around the world and especially in our country this year, I don’t want to puff up this piece with a lot of positive. That would just be phony and fake anyway. Obligation, not love, is getting me through this frustrating end to a frustrating year, and honestly…that’s OK. I’d rather feel my way through this the way it is, in all its yuck, instead of living in a fantasy wishing it was different.

Two Scenes, A Dozen Stories

Pumping gas at the Get Go last week, I noticed that near – not in – the garbage bin was an empty can of Chunky soup and its pull-off lid, a used-up Right Guard roll-on deodorant stick, an empty can of Pringles (the regular kind), and a can of Lysol.

I imagined the items were left by someone traveling alone. Maybe a male in his early 20s? Eating Sirloin Burger soup from a can seems like a young man kind of thing to do. Consuming a can of Pringles only takes a few miles, but it’s takes a lot of miles to use up an entire stick of deodorant and a can of Lysol. Where was he going? Where had he been?

So many questions. So many possibilities.

I’m nebby by nature. (The Pittsburgh definition of nebby, not the Merrian-Webster one.) Especially when I see something like a gathering of used items alongside a garbage can at a gas station. It’s not “trash” when you’re curious, and wouldn’t you be curious, standing there holding the gas nozzle with nothing else to think about?

Years ago, I acquired a box of miscellaneous paper items from an estate auction. In it was this holiday card from the 1910s:

Except for the stain, it’s a pretty little thing. It’s even got a church on it. So serene, so peaceful. Snow, stars… I place it on my Christmas tree every year. But that’s only part of the reason I keep it. I keep it for the message inside:

The sender put quotes around and underlined the words “My dear” for emphasis, and wrote, using a dip pen, “To the prettiest girl I ever knew.” Awwww…so sweet, right? Clearly the sender is enamored by the girl and wishes only wonderful things for her.

Or does he?

I’m usually on the side of true love, and every year my mind explodes with sweet stories when I dig out this card. I’ve been partial to the one in which the two – the girl and the sender – were ships that passed in the night, and that the girl kept the card to remind her of a secret love that could never be.

This year, though, the story in my head has steered me in the direction of unrequited love or maybe something sinister. This year, I paid attention to the signature, and for the first time, I compared the letter “r” in the word “ever” to the squiggle after the M and I think it’s signed “Mr. D”.

I’d not noticed that before.

Mr. D.

Hmmm…that feels weird. And it changes everything I thought of this simple Christmas card.

Unless it’s a pet name, “Mr.” infers distance or hierarchy in a relationship.

And now a Nabokov novel comes to mind…

Moving on…

“The best friend you have.” That’s a bold statement, even if it was true. I wouldn’t sign a letter telling a friend that I am the best friend they ever had.

But, OK, let’s assume things were different in the early twentieth century. Maybe Mr. D is an innocent character and is assuaging the girl’s fears and letting her know that he really is her best friend. Kind of like we used to do in junior high, maybe.

Nah… Mr. D/best friend? Now I’m hearing a Police song in my head.

Just one more step to the Stephen King Misery level. You’re the prettiest girl and I’m your best friend. Don’t forget it, “my dear.”

Yikes!

If any of these scenarios is true, why would Prettiest Girl keep a card like this from creeper Mr. D, only for someone to purchase it many years later?

Unless…

The box of miscellaneous paper didn’t belong to Prettiest Girl; it belonged to Mr. D, who kept it all his life because Prettiest Girl was his obsession. He knew he couldn’t send it, so he kept it as a reminder. A reminder of what he could never have…

OK, I’m done! It’s your turn. Be nebby with me! Jump in with your own interpretation of either story. Creep us out or create a Hallmark movie scene. It’s your choice, your imagination. (And you can keep your story to yourself, too. I just hope you have some fun letting your mind go.)

And remember, “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…”

Wear Shoes and Give a…Whatever.

Here’s a tip: When using the brush roller on an upright vacuum (you know the one you use to suck up the stuff embedded in the carpet?), don’t run it over your bare toes. They will get sucked up into the roller.

I’ll spare you a photo, but the purple color is telling me that I probably bruised, in a fine manner, the tendons and ligaments along and under the first three toes, and I probably broke the toe next to the big toe. Nothing ER worthy, but walking has been interesting the last few days.

In any other year I’d say, “Gee, that was random.” This year, however, it seems fated that I’d crush a few toes in a vacuum cleaner.

Aside from that, I have much to be grateful for this year, and especially this Thanksgiving weekend. My family worked together to make Thanksgiving doable with masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and carefully planned handling and distribution of food. The weather helped out, too. If it hadn’t been a balmy 54 degrees, we would have cancelled.

Of course I would have preferred a full-on T-day with big hugs and hot kid breath in my face as they show me their latest school projects or coloring book masterpieces. But I have caught many viruses from them over the years and I do not want to catch this one. Just in case they were mini symptomless carriers, they stayed away from Grammy, which took more restraint than any of us is used to, but we did it.

I know many of you could not and did not see your families and friends over this long weekend, and some of you are mourning loved ones lost to the virus or other causes. I’ve lost a few, too, and it breaks my heart when I see someone without a mask in a public indoor space. Such a simple act of kindness, and yet…

I didn’t have to hug my grandchildren for them to know I love them. I got to see them and talk to them from a distance, and that was OK. I don’t have to know you in real life to love you, too. And I do love you because, like me, you need the same air as I do, you have family you care about and friends who love you, and in the end, you don’t want to leave this place angry, fearful, or filled with regret.

Right now, I regret vacuuming without wearing shoes. Don’t be like me. Wear shoes when you vacuum. And most of you reading this already know this and do this, but for those of you who are on the fence, who are consumed by politics and/or are unsure of the science, take a deep breath. Please take a chance and make the choice to give a whatever.

The yearly “olive eyes” photo was different this year.

Waiting

I’m not the world’s most patient person, god knows, but I’m pretty happy with how I’m handling my impatience this week. My checkbook is probably not so happy – I’m a stress shopper – but mostly I’ve been buying Christmas and birthday gifts and cards, candles and dog treats, so at least it’s useful shopping. 

I like to write in the kitchen when I’m stressed, and not because it’s where the refrigerator is. My kitchen has a lot of windows and some nice views. It’s cozy. There’s a bluetooth speaker on the baker’s rack and this morning I was vacillating between the 70s and the 80s stations on SiriusXM until I wandered over to The Coffee House when I saw they were playing a new Ray LaMontagne song, “Highway to the Sun.” Within a few notes I was leaned over crying into my hands, not for one particular reason and yet for all the reasons. 

Tea makes me feel better so I made another cup. Random recommendation: If you like loose leaf tea, I can’t recommend this tea maker enough. No more tea specks and dust lining the rim of your mug or floating at the bottom. 

Along with tea, I made a batch of suet for the birds because watching birds at the feeders is more calming than scrolling through news feeds. I also made marinade for fish tacos that I’ll have for lunch at some point this afternoon. The marinade is a combination of olive oil, spices, sriracha and lime juice. Another random recommendation: Like the tea maker, I can’t recommend this citrus squeezer enough. It’s easy on the hands and wrists.

Back to writing and finishing this short and wandering blog, I’m listening to Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers’ new album The Long-Awaited Album. No tears, just reminding myself how lucky I am that I have a kitchen with windows, the means to make suet and a perfect cup of tea, and that I can cry at a song and feel pain and yet still hope that peace and empathy, and not anger and hate, dominate the days ahead.

Another Phone, Another Jeep

Last week I made two major-ish purchases. Major for me, anyway, and not necessarily because I wanted to, yet “needed to” stretches it a bit. Let’s just say I’ve done my part for the 2020 economy. (You’re welcome.)

Purchase #1

Buying a new cell phone is up there with buying a new car (see Purchase #2) on my Things I Hate Doing list. But over the last few months, my once cracker of an android started performing random tricks like turning off, flipping the screen this way and that when it was perfectly still, and refusing to charge, so it was time to say goodbye.

Because the people I communicate with the most are iPhone users, I looked at buying an iPhone. I consulted my brother-in-law (Mr. Apple Everything) and he advised me to wait until the iPhone 12 was released because the 11s would most likely go on sale, and they did.

I thought maybe buying a phone online would save me the embarrassment of not knowing what I’m doing when buying a phone in a store, but I still felt like a grossly inadequate consumer. The reviews were an amalgamation of John Q. Public liked this and that and Jane Q. Public didn’t like this and that, and finally – bleary eyed and frustrated – I figured… it’s a freaking phone. It won’t change my life. It won’t even change a flat tire. Its usefulness is what I make of it.

It took seven hours and a nearly 90-minute online “chat” with a Verizon rep to get the damn thing activated and the data from my old phone transferred, but I have a functioning and doing-what-it’s-supposed-to-do iPhone (although my granddaughter in the second grade can spell better than its autocorrect).

Purchase #2

I wish cell phones lasted as long as the vehicles I’ve owned. In 2009 I said goodbye to my favorite one ever, a 1995 Jeep Cherokee that I bought in 1998. In a farewell blog, I wrote that I hoped my next vehicle and I would be friends for 11 years, and we were. I bought a 2007 Jeep Liberty, drove it for 11 years, and traded it in for my new friend, a 2018 Jeep Renegade. And while it took a few hours – due mostly to computer and printer problems – the purchase was a refreshingly painless process, one I took care of all by myself – just me and my credit rating – without my boyfriend or father or other male prop present.

If I keep this Jeep for the same number of years as the other two, I will have the Renegade until…(counting on my fingers…1, 2, 3…)…2031? Is that even a year?

Why, yes, it is, apparently. It’s the year my second-grade granddaughter will graduate from high school! It’s the year of my 50-year high school class reunion! Goodness, I’ll be 68 years old! And I’ll still own the Renegade? Shouldn’t I be driving a Buick sedan by then?

I kid. Buick doesn’t make those anymore.

I’m crossing my fingers that nothing else quasi-crucial breaks down that I “need” to replace anytime soon. My checkbook has to catch up first.

Spring Training (and a book update)

In August I told you about my latest (and necessary) health goal: to clean up my diet for better liver function. So far so good. The scale has been kind and I can fit into jeans I haven’t worn in five years. Go me and all that, but the real success will be determined in February when I have my next blood draw. If my cholesterol numbers have improved, all the white bread, brie, and ice cream I’m not eating will have been worth it. If they haven’t improved, put me on a statin. You’ll find me in line at an Italian buffet.

Here’s a confession: I’m not committed to healthy eating just for the sake of healthy eating. My numbers scared me into it. I cleaned up my diet in order to help prevent heart and/or liver disease. (My father had two heart attacks when he was my age.) Say what you want about that attitude of necessity over lifestyle, criticize if you must, but I won’t deny – like I did back in my 40s – that I love and miss awesome awful-for-you food (and yes, some foods are truly hard on the body, sorry/not sorry). Admitting that makes it real and real I can deal with. Denying that shit just gotten me in all kinds of trouble the last several years.

Speaking of five years, that’s how long it’s been since I’ve ridden a bike. Some of you might remember that I used to write a lot about biking. It has its own category here on my blog and it also has its own chapter in my forthcoming book*.

I started biking in 2007 when my then-husband bought me a bike after I reached my weight-loss goal. My bike became my friend and therapist, and together we rode a lot of miles and worked through a lot of personal issues. Sadly, it burned in a fire in early 2014 and I didn’t ride again until I bought a used Schwinn in the summer 2015, and then I only rode a few times. Grad school, menopause, lack of energy and ambition, depression…whatever it was, I haven’t ridden since then.

Now, with renewed energy, both physically and emotionally, I am “training” to ride again in spring 2021. I bought a used bike trainer and I alternate riding the bike and my stationary bike several times a week. I’m not killing myself in ninety-minute, body wrecking workouts like I used to, and I’m no longer ignoring painful body parts for the sake of the “burn.” I’m choosing to live the George Carlin way: “No pain? No pain,” and training my muscles and my mind to once again enjoy the bike trails that brought me so much peace through so much crap. (Not that I anticipate needing to work through the same crap again, god forbid.)

What I notice with this more laid back attitude and routine is that I don’t dread working out and I don’t have to force myself to ride for any amount of time. If I wake up one day and don’t feel like it, I don’t do it. But what usually happens is that later in the day, I do feel like it and the ride is a joy, even though I never leave the garage!

I’m not excited about winter, and I won’t lie that a Dilly Bar sounds really good at least once a week, but knowing I’ll be in shape to hit the trail as soon as the snow is gone will make the cold, snow, and Dilly Bar cravings tolerable.

——————————————

* The book! I keep forgetting to mention the book, which is a revised and updated collection of my columns and blogs from the last twenty years. The working title (although my publisher hasn’t come up with a better one, so I think we’re sticking with this one) is Weight-Loss Dropout and Other True Stories from the Zen Bag Lady. A mouthful, but small type will get it all on the cover. Anyway, it will – fingers crossed – be out in December.

The One About Sixth Grade

A month ago, I starting writing what I imagined to be a simple, sweet piece about when I was in sixth grade. But I’m forty six years removed from sixth grade, which became apparent as I wrote a few paragraphs, erased, and tried again. The problem, if problem is the right word, is that writing about when I was eleven years old when I’m now well into my fifty-somethings is tricky because what’s coming out is an interpretation of the seconds or perhaps few minutes of the moments I’m writing about. Is what I’m writing a true representation or just what I grew up telling myself happened?

I ask this both to challenge me as a writer who often writes about the past and readers who read writers who write about the past to consider the slipperiness of truth. Our long-term memories are usually subjective, some are even biased by a subconscious wish that things had been different, and no two people remember a shared experience the same way. I’m always interested, though, in why we remember what we remember, and how, years later, our interpretation of events – what we told ourselves is true – has impacted our lives.

Anyway, that’s way heavier than this piece actually is. You won’t need an advanced degree in psychology to get through it, I promise. (But I can’t promise you won’t need a cup of coffee!)

The One About Sixth Grade

My daughter shared a video recently of my eleven-year-old grandson playing Legos with his two younger sisters. They are sitting on the floor in the girls’ bedroom, building something and singing a song. Luca’s most reliable companion, his lime green blankie, worn thin over the years, is draped over his shoulder. Luca doesn’t bring his blanket with him everywhere, but in the house, it’s always there whenever he needs its friendly, nonjudging presence.

Watching Luca singing and building, and blissfully subconscious of his blanket, I thought about when I was eleven and in sixth grade. I had a blankie, too. Like his, it was practically see-through, more of a rag, really, but it was still soft in a few places and it helped me fall asleep every night.

In sixth grade, I didn’t yet hate my hair. Baiting a fish hook was still fine to do, and a bra wouldn’t be necessary for another year. I played tetherball and skipped rope, and I didn’t care that I sweat and probably stunk. We all did. Our classroom was thick with pre-hormonal kid stink after recess.

Yet, for all its naivete, sixth grade was when my childhood starting bumping into adulthood with increasing regularity. My underdeveloped understanding of the world, informed mostly by my Lutheran upbringing, was often challenged by more adult-like issues such as “bad” words, otherwise kind people being mean, and sex.

One of my more enlightened teachers, especially regarding sexuality, was music, even though at eleven the meaning of a lot of lyrics eluded me. I bought Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and while the lyrics were printed on the inside cover, “All the Young Girls Love Alice” flew over my head. Many songs didn’t, though. When I heard “Lorelei” by Styx for the first time, I thought, People can live together without being married? and quickly decided it wasn’t a question I would ask my parents. I also knew enough about sex to turn down the radio when “Chevy Van” or “Feel Like Makin’ Love” came on. That was not a conversation I wanted to have with Mom and Dad.

Growing up in mostly protestant white bread rural Minnesota, I assumed everyone believed the same thing I did. You didn’t say “Geez” because that was short for Jesus, and “damn” was the worst four-letter word I knew. Playing “soccer” one day during recess (in 1975, our understanding of soccer was that it was like football with a kick ball), I got in my best friend’s way as she attempted to kick a goal. “Damn you, Lynn!” she yelled. I stood there, stunned. According to everything Lutheran, she was damning me to hell.

“Damn” was not a word I heard in my house, and I for sure wasn’t supposed to say it because, well, my parents said the Bible said I couldn’t. So why could my friend? Where did she hear it? Was it because her father went to the bar sometimes or that her family didn’t go to church every Sunday? Religious “rules,” as I understood them, started to feel a little unfair and not all together right. My friend hadn’t turned into a pillar of salt for saying “damn,” and in fact, her life seemed perfectly normal, if not a little more fun than mine.

I had a boyfriend named Ricky and we held hands on the bus during our sixth-grade field trip, which felt all kinds of good in all the wrong ways my mother (and the Bible) warned me about. My first kiss, though, was not with Ricky, but a boy named Todd from Anchorage who was in town visiting his grandparents. It was not at all like a Fonzie kiss, but it wasn’t awful either.

Todd’s grandmother asked me if I’d show him around town and include him in activities while he was there. I doubt she had spin the bottle in mind, but anyway, a bunch of us were playing in a little clearing of brush behind our house. When it was my turn, I hoped the bottle would land on one of the cute boys, but instead it landed on Todd. I didn’t think of Todd as cute, although maybe he was. To me, he was just someone I watched Happy Days reruns with in his grandparent’s living room. Now I had to kiss him.

I insisted we go to the garage so no one could watch. He agreed. We stepped into the dark tin building and looked at each other in awkward silence. The pressure was on him to make the first move because I had no idea what I was doing. He leaned in, I closed my eyes, and it was over in two seconds, just enough time for me to process his lips, which I could tell he’d licked right before they landed on mine .

That’s all I remember except that we didn’t kiss again and we never talked about it.

Sixth grade was, for many of us, a pivotal time when vulnerability was something we started to feel, but couldn’t yet name. There were those who offered and those who took that bite of fruit from the tree in the middle of Eden, and those of us who took notes from the sidelines. We shed our innocence, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Either way, we discovered that the world was much bigger than we thought. I remember one boy in particular who was not academically gifted, but in music class, he would sing his heart out, every note off key. Oblivious to pitch, he sang for the pure joy of singing, whether it was “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” or “Streets of Laredo.” Did he have a blankie? I hope so, because the next year, no longer within the relative safety of elementary school, he was pretty much forgotten and remained on the fringe throughout high school. I asked my cousin recently where that boy was these days and he said the last he heard he was dealing drugs in Minneapolis.

Hmmm…

Watching Luca again with his green friend wrapped over his shoulder, I thought about my old blankie. My mom threw it away one day while I was at school thinking I didn’t need it anymore. I cried myself to sleep that night, I felt so alone. But I figured it out, like we all do to some degree, how to live without the things we grew up telling ourselves we needed, when the world was still small and one-dimensional.