The Membrane Between Us and Oblivion

Sunday, January 10, 2016 - 6:25am
Photo by Glen Scott

The Membrane Between Us and Oblivion

I went to sleep before midnight on the last day of 2015 more eager than I’d ever been to see the past year only in my rearview mirror. January 1, I hoped, would feel like the proverbial “first day of the rest of my life.’’ But it didn’t happen that way. Maybe my expectations were too high, like New Year’s resolutions that don’t even last 24 hours and leave the sour after-taste of failure.

The gloom, personal and political, internal and external, that had shrouded me for so long, didn’t lift that Friday morning. And, no, it wasn’t a hangover. But since I’d counted on the idea that literally turning the page from one year to the next would fix everything, the gloom only deepened on New Year’s morning — a stone on my chest, a throbbing in my temples, and a desire to huddle under the covers in perpetual, obliterating sleep.

Yes, my situation was idiosyncratic, in many ways mine alone. A severe concussion had kept me housebound for a month, 30 days (not that I’m counting) of isolation and self-pity. It was only the last and worst of many health problems, piling one on top of the next until I felt at least fragile and sometimes irretrievable broken.

Retirement? I hated it. A small dark apartment after a bright, spacious house? Ditto. Old friends falling away without replacement. A sense that my world was getting ever smaller, like a snow globe that could sit in the palm of my hand.

An attitude adjustment was surely in order. What made me special enough to sulk?

So many others I knew were equally beleaguered: without jobs, living from paycheck to paycheck. Their children troubled. Their parents failing. Their spouses recently dead. Those I didn’t know, but read about daily, were frightened by terrorists and Donald Trump, racism and refugee status, melting glaciers and madmen with guns. Surely, they too welcomed the symbolic turning of the year.

Verses of long-forgotten poetry spooled through my head in the waning days of 2015 and through the first day of 2016:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

And then January 2nd dawned, cold and bright. It was time, time to move forward, time to restore the chronological narrative that provides the architecture of life, time to re-orient myself, time to get over “it’’ — whatever “it’’ was. Time, even if measured out in coffee spoons, as T.S Eliot says in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “for a hundred decisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea."

It was a revision that I needed, a clear Rubicon between last year and this. So as women are wont to do, I headed to the hairdresser.

“Do something different,’’ I said. “Make it new. Cut it off."

And so he did, snip, snip, snipping. I didn’t watch as my hair was scissored to the floor. I trusted this man. It fell a lock at a time, then was swept up and thrown in the trash. I felt lighter than I had in a long time.

I have wondered during this strange interval if having a month of my life scrubbed from the hard-drive makes me that much younger. Quite the contrary. The locks of hair on the floor were grayer than before. Dark crescents seem permanently smudged beneath my eyes. I might have died but didn’t. I still could wind up like one of those repeatedly-concussed football players with a degenerative brain disorder called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Instead, there’s uncharacteristic optimism in this congenitally pessimistic soul. The membrane between us and oblivion is as thin as an egg shell. Walk with heavy feet and it will break. Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.


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Jane Gross

is a retired New York Times correspondent, who spent 30 years there covering all manner of subjects from sports to autism, aging and major earthquakes and wild fires in California. She is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves and creator of the "New Old Age” blog, now defunct, at the Times.

Prior to joining the Times, Ms. Gross worked for Long Island Newsday and Sports Illustrated magazine. Post-retirement, she volunteers mentoring New York City high school students and is trying her hand at ceramics.

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There is nothing like a haircut for a renewal of spirit. We did the reverse migration. Cramped in a small White Plains Apartment for 30 years was enough. My Dad had passed, it was time to go where New Yorkers have gone forever,Florida. A 4 bedroom house in the middle of Coral Springs is where we landed. I continued to work til last January. Then retired to a life only my mother could understand. My days consist of reading and shopping. I tried to volunteer locally but there are too many people wanting the same unpaid jobs. I will continue again this month.We have the time and resources to travel. Tis should make you laugh, I went into the shul to ask if I could work in daycare or the soup pantry. They asked for a resume and sent me packing. .....

There is website called Colour Me Positive. Each week a quote, a thought, an inspiration is posted with an invitation to interpret that thought in an art journal with pencils, paint, collage...whatever feeds your soul. You have the option of sharing with the group of other creative spirits and reading their experience. Many of the contributors are newbies, some accomplished artists, but none of that matters. You will be amazed at the healing power of art. Also, journaling. Julia Cameron writes eloquently on the power of morning pages. Purpose is what is being called for here. Every elementary school is crying for mentors, volunteers. There are a myriad of ways to improve the quality of life for others, thereby improving ones own. Today shop for art supplies!

Competitive volunteerism? That's too much like Westchester!

I, too, once had a traumatic experience that shattered what my counselor called "a wall of unreality." He said it's a wall we need to be able to function sanely in this world. And when that wall comes crashing down, well.... The aftermath is not pretty. To explain the concept, he spoke of the wall as being there to allow us to barrel down a narrow, two-lane road doing 55 mph with a semi heading toward us from the opposite direction. We do what are, if you think about it, insane things like that every day because of the wall of unreality. Without that wall, we're unprotected, and unable to function. The good news, though, is that the wall, when it shatters, can be rebuilt. It's not easy. And it takes time. I'm not even sure how it happens. But it does happen, eventually. Eventually, with the wall in place, you'll be light enough to fly again.

Ranae - Thank you so much for sharing. That describes my recent experience so well, and I was struggling to put it all into words. I'm feeling not only less alone in the experience, but also hopeful that the sense of protection will return. Thank you.

so lovely, thank you

Jane, thank you for articulating your personal journey so cogently. I'm not a doctor, but I don't think it's all too uncommon for one to feel as you have, after experiencing such a traumatic incident. If anything, it may have even accentuated or heightened your recognition of "where am I in life?" as you slowly emerge from a dark space.

I know from my own traumatic life experiences, that for me to crawl out of those ugly places, I needed to break down the walls that I perceived to have once protected me. As I embraced a more Eastern philosophy of life, and let go of the trappings of our ego-driven, materialistic society, my path to a more balanced existence became rather obvious. When walls are in place, how is anyone ever going to to see me as I am, not as I appear? Each and every one of us possess gifts/talents that are unique to our being -- so if we cover and protect those special qualities by giving them a new coat of paint, a wall is still a wall.

I hope you continue to improve. It is a slow journey. Be patient and kind to yourself. Rest. Let your brain reboot. Work in short bursts as able. Sit by a window. Look outside. Try to eat well. Have short conversations. Keep the volume low. Rest. Expect slow improvement. Thanks for sharing your story.

Thank you for another bravely honest post, Jane. I have long admired your courage and your clear style of writing.

I relate to your story in a couple of personal ways. When I was 19, I developed a case of strep throat that was so severe I was housebound for a week, unable to sleep, and miserably sick. I ended up hospitalized for a tonsillectomy, then spent another week recovering at home. I lived alone then, and the sense of isolation was intense, even for that short period. As I left the hospital, I felt like a stranger back in the land of the living - wide-eyed the whole time while people around me took for granted the sunshine, or the mailman, or the traffic. I'm much older now. The experience taught me to feel a deep sense of gratitude for whatever good health I may be able to have.

More recently, I was diagnosed with a slow-moving cancer. Scared the wits out of me for a few days, and then I prayed (to what, to whom, I didn't know, since I hadn't prayed in years). I simply admitted I needed help. I still cannot explain (nor do I need to - I only need to relish) the fact that a few days later, the most profound sense of peace came over me, and I felt assured that whatever happened, I would be alright. I later came to realize that each of us has a remarkable resilience; sometimes we can't see or hear it until we get quiet enough, or scared enough, but it's part of the gift of being born human, born of dust and spirit.

My own traumas have left me with a lightness and gratitude I may have never discovered otherwise. I wish you continued healing, Jane.

Love your essay. It, and some of the other comments, inspired me to write this:

Jane, thank you for sharing your experience of the New Year. If you don't feel completely healed from your concussion, I highly recommend a new book, Ghost in My Brain, by Dr. Clark Elliot. His documentation of his post-concussion trauma has been incredibly helpful to my family as we sort out my daughter's head injury.

Amazing. I keep wondering where this stubborn, "uncharacteristic" optimism comes from, as we emerge from each dark period of our lives. I wonder if creative people, who tend to feel everything in life more intensely than most, are imbued with a well of this optimism that matches their intensity.

I am just now catching up on your posts since "That Ugly Thanksgiving China" and was dismayed to learn of your accident. Now that you are on the road to recovery, consider the irony of "The Demonstrated Kindness of Strangers" following so closely on the footsteps of "Contentedly Alone in a Crowd". It would seem that you are not alone in a crowd after all and knowing that might further increase your optimism for 2016. Wishing you complete recovery and optimism going forward...