Possum O’Possum: A list of things to ponder

We talk about the weather here. All. The. Time. It shifts and changes and plays tricks. It’s March and the cedar waxwings have returned, or so they say. The robins must be on their way. Wild turkeys stalk our woods like soldiers. I follow their tracks up the mountain. I have been ill and then not ill and then ill again. But I cannot stay inside another day. So I have put on snowshoes and clomped across the field to the road that leads out to the pond and the mountain, which is perhaps more of a hill. My head spins all the way across the field until my breath slows into it’s rhythmic hum. Just walk and you’ll be changed, I tell myself, and everything about these woods changes me. Any woods, any nature, any body of water gives me reprieve. So here I go out into the awful March of endless winter hoping for relief from my sick brain and cooped up body.

Photo byRihou Nyima

I would like to spend hours here in the woods. But my anxious mind lurches from lists and tasks to plans and hopes and fears. I can only stay so long. Though I wish I could live in this solace always, I haven’t quite figured that out.

The other day I learned while listening to a podcast, attempting to fall asleep, that people with higher anxiety dislike neutral scents because of the way they trigger fear in the brain. If it is not a good smell it must be a bad smell, the anxious, fear-triggered brain reasons. I found this amusing because my father and I seem to have highly sensitive olfactory receptors, and we are also the most anxious neurotics of the family. It is true that I have a certain animosity towards potentially harmless smells when I was feeling particularly anxious. I shout out to my husband, “What is that awful smell?!” And he rolls his eyes and shakes his head at me. I am keenly aware of his various scents, which tend to be strong, and yet my children always smell right to me.

While listening to NPR, another nervous tick outlet for me, I heard a story on workers that monitor Facebook posts, which is a job Facebook contracts to another company. The workers aren’t well paid and they’re forced to look at horrific shit all day, including, reportedly, live feeds of murder and sexual assault. The workers must raise their hand and log out to use the bathroom. They are given a nine minute processing period, which they can use once a shift if they need a break after viewing disturbing content. I cannot, as hard as I try, seem to locate this story online. Nor can I stop thinking about it.

Though I care for these workers, I am more obsessed with the concept at play. I keep thinking about how we would never have been able to creatively predict such employment decades ago, but, had we, it would have made for excellent dystopian lit.

Much of what is happening in our world feels dystopian to me. And yet I’m convinced we continue to evolve as creatures–our brains shifting and rewiring towards what MLK has called “the moral arch of the universe.” Its tiresome to hear certain grownups talk about how well behaved children used to be–you mean, well manipulated, I think, well threatened?

Yet, these monitors of Facebook are real people who are suffering from exposure to traumatic content, and they are not well-cared for and their working conditions are abominable. They have an increasingly important role in the shaping our political and social landscape. But we often seem to overlook the most important jobs in our society. And, in terms of social media, as my friend, the Historian Jill Mudgett has said, we are like babies in the social media universe, we are bound to make endless mistakes; we have no idea what we’re dealing with.

Photo by Alisa Anton

Hibernacula means “tent for winters” and refers to the spaces in which animals hibernate. Frogs partially freeze in winter and their hearts stop. They form ice crystals in their lungs and body cavities but a high source of glucose keeps them from completely freezing or dying. When the hibernacualum around the frog warms up they unthaw and their heart and lungs begin working again. Some frogs just climb into cracks to hibernate for the winter. I have often hoped to find one. This trick of nature fascinates me. If I could find a frog hibernating I could bring it home and watch it come to life. This seems like the ultimate party trick.

In Beijing, in my twenties, I once took a one-block cab ride for which I paid, up front, ten dollars. I had missed a flight to Siberia and had no idea how to navigate the city. My anxiety then was extremely high. Luckily I found a hostel, booked a room, and hit the lounge where I downed three beers and turned in for the night.

I am convinced my anxiety would disappear if I quit coffee. But, alas, that shall never come to pass. In the evening I think longingly of coffee before bed. In the morning I do not get up until my husband has made the coffee and brings me a cup. Yes, I know, I hit the husband jackpot. But all my luck went into that.

Long distance running is the only effective way I’ve been able to manage anxiety. But sometimes I get tired and quit. I’m training for a half marathon in May, in which I hope to beat my PR. Competition has always motivated me until it doesn’t, and then I’m paralyzed. At the gym, where I go to run on the treadmill, which is extremely boring, I like to watch the others. There is one woman who seems to have disappeared inside herself–her choice in clothing and obsessive reading on the treadmill makes me think this. When I tell my husband about her he is uninterested. I want to explain the way her face personifies this concept of self erasure but my husband finds me cruel.

The other night I returned from the gym and he was sleeping and I was outraged because I had wanted to tell him all about how I ran into our friend Sigrid and she taught me to hula, which I’ve never been able to do. Instead I ate a bowl of rice and beans in the kitchen and thought about how my baby sister was about to turn thirty.

The passing of time has been the most disturbing part of my life. I dislike stasis, so I am unsure of the alternative. While it is clear from mere observance, that we will grow old and die, we do not believe it.

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography

On the evening of my snowshoe in the woods, as I was clomping up the hill-mount, I saw a fluff of fur in the snow and stopped. It looked beautiful and alive but also dead. I could not see the entire body. I bent down with a stick and poked it, then lifted it up and flopped it around. A possum. It was not stiff and it bore no marks of injury. Yet I did not remember the thing about possums — playing possum.

I am a person stunned by wild animals. Despite having grown up in the woods, whenever I see a real live wild animal, especially up close, I feel excited. Here, in our cabin in the woods, whenever we spot deer in the field or rabbits in the yard we call out to each other to come and look. I couldn’t decide what to do about the possum in the snow. Leave it there and let it become another creature’s dinner or burry it beneath the snow. I laid my bare hand on it’s back and tried to feel for a heart beat. I did not think it was alive though, so I didn’t spend much time doing this.

The paws of a possum are particularly delicate; they have long slender fingers with elaborate padding and sharp nails. I pressed my index finger to this possum’s palm to feel the grooves and curves there.

When I finally shooed the children outside into frigid temperatures, I spy on them from my bedroom window. They are attempting to slide down a small hill along the side of the house on broken parts of a sled. Later I hear the younger one yapping like a wolf. Everything about this child surprises me.

The silence of this house is a kind of warmth. Not every house offers such delicious silence. But every empty house after children has given me this. To know I am alone gives me immense relief.

I decided to bury the possum beneath the snow. It wasn’t deep, just a layer to keep it safe. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this or why I feel a need to engage in sacred acts–or at least acts imagined as such. I said goodbye and climbed on. I passed the turkey tracks, deer, and wolf or coyotes. I stood at the peak and looked out for a moment into the trees and setting sun before I returned to the lower ground near the pond. I have been told that once a person falls through frozen ice into frigid waters, they only have around eight seconds before their body shuts down.

Later, I looked up the possum online when I realized that it could have been playing dead–something I had not recalled in the woods. Playing dead is involuntary for them. When facing danger, their body goes into a coma-like state that can last from between forty minutes and four hours. They are conscious but they cannot move. When I think about this odd evolutionary trick, I’m slightly horrified to imagine a comatose possum with consciousness, unable to move as it becomes prey. Or, in my case, unable to move or run away while a woman buried her in snow.

I once read War and Peace alone on a half empty train from Prague to Paris and the memory of this remains a kind of myth in my mind.

Prague

On Home & the Project of Becoming

So much has been written about home: landscape of memory, guardian of the lost. We are actuaries of our homes (I mean our first homes, our childhood haunts) calculating risks v. benefits of returns. Shall I move back there? Will it be the same? Will it be different? My mind runs over the landscape of this home as though tracing a path, a sort of traveling through. I collect specimens: the smell of pine, the heat of the sauna, the wet cold of a snow covered lake, the crunch of snow under my boot on a cold night, Orion’s belt in the sky.

We are close, my family and I. How this came to be remains a mystery. But perhaps it is the fact of five sisters and one (youngest) brother. Or something to do with tribe mentality, wanting to be a part of and fear of abandonment. There are, of course, variations on this closeness depending on the moment in time.

Home has always remained a function of my imagination, my creative mind, my ability to manifest thought, feeling, action in whatever way, unconsciously and then not. Right now, I think most of running when I think of my childhood home. I imagine a long line that unfolds before me, my legs growing strong, my mind clear. I see my brother, fourteen years my junior, running in front of me through the August heat, sprinting hard against the quandary of the body. I hear my breath, feel the beating organ pulse, push on, push on.

Photo by Josh Hild Minnesota, USA

Back in Vermont after three long weeks home with my two boys, I am finally alone. Silence folds in on me, a stillness everywhere punctuated by the solitary flight of a bird above the mountain.

I’m trying to get back to my writing mind, trying to dig down deep beyond the layers of fear, the raw anxiety of financial issues, the unknown.

We keep our lives in squares these days. I could show you mine: a lovely log cabin, a snowy wooded mountain view, a sun splashed table. But these images have become a commodity now and we are selling each other (and ourselves) our lives. What is wrong with that, you ask? It is not about ugliness but about the illusion of who we are. The covering over of fear and the inner life of the mind with stuff. The richness of our lives is always, as some say, an inside job, which means no amount of square, glossy beauty can make us happy.

And so, I have decided, this is the year of my becoming all the ways I need most: holding fear like a baby to my breast, giving her the comfort of words, the comfort of believing. I am at my best when things fall apart, as underdog and chaser of wild things. This is the year of justice. We are moving towards apocalyptic power, we are AOC & RBG, we are becoming. Long before Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming (amazing and def. worth a read!), back in my Julia Kristeva days, I fell in love with the word becoming–with the line of poetry I wrote in a cold Minneapolis cafe, watching the snow fall into the river and feeling my life scatter there at the surface: I am always becoming.

This is also the year of honest finances. I have to stop avoiding money and take a hard look at how I make it and how I spend it (ouch!).

And though we know a lot about a lot–intellectually– becoming is the practice of the moment and of making a different thought from the old, well-loved thought we have rubbed clean for years. It is making a different choice in the moment whenever you can. Our thoughts become our feelings which become the actions that shape our lives.

My car is dead in the driveway, my job is probably ending, I owe a lot of money in a lot of places — never-the-less, I am becoming.