The Membrane Between Us and Oblivion

Sunday, January 10, 2016 - 6:25 am

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.

(Tony Hall / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

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.

And…

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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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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