It’s a Tuesday. A beautiful, sunny, slightly pollen-fogged spring morning in the North Carolina piedmont. I am in a Grand Ballroom in a Convention Center with more unmasked people than I have been in a room with since my last pre-plague rock show. There’s a retired college professor on stage giving a mostly bleak economic forecast and a brief lesson about the history of almost wars between Russia and the US since World War II to a room full of professionals who would perhaps rather hear about hotel room occupancy rates or most effective marketing strategies on TikTok.
I don’t mind stroll down 20th Century History lane, because I’m infinitely more comfortable talking about the Cold War than I am about influencers or hashtags, and because it pulls me out of the current mire of morning meditations on topics ranging from I probably shouldn’t have eaten those fried pickles at the cocktail mingle last night to Is it fundamentally selfish to be disappointed by life? to I know it’s shallow but ‘networking’ sure would be easier if all these people were wearing band t-shirts. Because I can only break the ice by complimenting a stranger’s tasteful blonde highlights so many times.
You know you’re in a tough place when history, even bleak, late 20th century history, feels like a reprieve. I’m pretty sure that’s how people end up in Cults or Conservative Politics (or both), and I have 100% the wrong wardrobe for that kind of heel turn. I had a therapist once tell me that Depression lives in the past backward and Anxiety frets over the future. “Try and stay in the present. Count to five. Remember that right now you are fine.”
Right now, the professor tells us, things wouldn’t look too, too bad were it not for the elephant in the room. An elephant none of us can yet fully quantify or qualify, but it could theoretically have start World War III and/or maybe throw a tantrum, hit a button and obliterate the planet. I’m paraphrasing. The economist doesn’t say “obliterate the planet.” That’s my line. I look around the room to see if anyone else is thinking it, but their make-up is too good, or their game faces too studied. Is it depression or anxiety to reconsider your Reagan-era plans for Living It Up In the Face of Mutually Assured Destruction and reflect on the changes? Like, I’m less sure I’ll be at the mall and I know I won’t be throwing myself at Kevin from Corn Dog 7, because both Kevin and Corn Dog 7 are long gone. But I might need to revive the playlist debate and try to figure out whether I want to go out plaintive, brazen, or down to party.
How’s that 80s nostalgia working out for you these days, babe?
But we’re living in the present. Take a breath. Don’t think about the elephants. Even though there are enough rhetorical elephants milling around the metaphorical room these days to launch a safari outfit. Consider your surroundings. The polyester convention center table cloths. The individual flower arrangements. The way the professor touches his glasses. I look at my blouse. That’s a spot on my blouse. It’s a nice blouse, but maybe I look like a weirdo. Like a not cool weirdo. Like, is this blouse doing anything flattering for me? Do I look like a billowing sail stretched with wind and two years of unhealthy pandemic eating habits? Maybe. Am I just an old washed up whale, light years from sexy and dangerous? Have I ever looked sexy and dangerous, like, in my whole life? Don’t answer that question. I do have a good haircut, I think. Am I the only woman at this conference with short hair? Maybe. Maybe I can tousle my hair in a way that is sort of rakishly handsome? Is there a feminine equivalent of rakishly handsome? Do I need there to be? Don’t we live in a bold new age in which I can be both glamorous and feminine and rakishly handsome at the same? I should be bolder. I should be braver. I should look like I’m paying attention.
I think about a picture in the New York Times of a woman in the back of a military vehicle in Kyiv a few days after the invasion, while I was in my hometown for my birthday. The woman . She was wearing a puffy coat that looked like my puffy coat and winter boots that looked like my winter boots and crying while she held a machine gun. And maybe it’s because she looked to be around my age and she had my jacket and I cannot imagine a single scenario in which I would be handling a machine gun and not sobbing like a baby that I couldn’t get the picture out of my head. All weekend. All week. All month. While I had cocktails and narwhal shaped birthday cookies and read by a fire at a spa in the mountains because I thought I was stressed. While I read the news and rehashed arguments and tried to figure out if it was foolish to keep doing the normal things or absolutely necessary. I thought about that woman. I think about that woman. I hope she’s alive.
These are historic times, the professor says. He’s not wrong. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to stay in the present. A couple decades back, during Baby’s First Existential Crisis, when I was young without qualifier and inclined to view big H-History as a way to shore up my bleakest takes on the human condition, I figured it would be clever as hell to tattoo “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” on my arm. Fortunately I ran out of money before I doomed myself to that particular Hallelujah chorus of Cringe. Good for my arm. Better for my dignity.
I didn’t really get it then(and not just because I was, at the time, still working my way through the source material). I didn’t get that history was a thing you lived through–that it was present and future as well as past—because I was sheltered and naïve enough to think (and sometime lament) that history wasn’t thing that could happen to me.
If there’s anything I have learned in the twenty-three odd calamitous years since, the thing I missed in all those books, is that history isn’t the elephant, it’s the room. We always forget we’re in it and we’re lucky when we can. So we’re always surprised when reminded where we are and how fragile and ephemeral those pockets of peace, how flimsy our status quo, how overwhelming and clamorous and difficult our world is.
It is a Tuesday. A beautiful sunny, slightly pollen-fogged spring morning in the North Carolina piedmont. I am in the Grand Ballroom at a convention center with more unmasked people than I have been in a room with since my last pre-plague rock show. There’s a retired college professor at a lectern on stage giving a mostly bleak economic forecast, but he’s going to try and end on a up note. He reminds us that nothing is carved in stone. Not the state of the economy or the state of the world or the state of my perhaps rakishly handsome haircut. The future, as the philosopher once said, is unwritten. And totally fucking terrifying.
But enough about anxiety.
Breath. Count to Five. Scribble notes. Clap.
Right now, I’m fine.