About a million years ago, the soft-spoken brother of one of my best friends in the world was completing his training to be an acupuncturist, and asked if I would be interested in doing an intake session with him. My friend’s brother was a funny, weird, kind guy. I believe it’s important to do things for the funny, weird, kind people in your life, because we are mostly able to survive the world because of them. And we should never take them for granted.
I was acupuncture novice. Having spent much of my life hearing all kinds of dubious claims about all kinds of non-Western, non-mainstream health/medicine, my bullshit detector was fully activated. I drove up to his makeshift office—at that time in a room of his home on the Madison County side of Sam’s Gap, spitting distance from the Tennessee line. Like any reasonable person who was born in East Tennessee, I viewed this as a portentous, if not actively dangerous location (you never know what could start an actual blood feud /send a vigilante mob after a circus elephant/mistake your sullen teenaged silence at as encouragement to start playing a @#$*ing banjo). Even more concerning, my friend’s brother, a Massachusetts native, saw nothing in his immediate surroundings to be alarmed about, which is basically horror film shorthand for I volunteer as tribute.
I tried to put my misgivings aside. I drank some tea, sat down in a chair, and answered a bunch of questions about physical and emotional maladies, while my friend’s brother nodded thoughtfully and took notes. He asked if I had any questions about acupuncture. I was still pretty deep in a period in which I thought being an asshole was more admirable that appearing credulous, so I asked about peer-reviewed journal articles and whether acupuncture was akin to voodoo. “Like, do you have to believe it for it to work?”
My friend’s brother offered up that there are a lot of things in life that you have to believe in to make work, and that acupuncture was hardly outer rim, as far as non-Western medicine was concerned. I lay down on a table. He stuck some needles in me, and asked how made me feel.
I told them I didn’t feel them.
He tried again. “This is sensitive spot.”
I felt nothing. Again. And nothing. And nothing. I made “A Chorus Line” joke. Nothing. I felt nothing. “Weird,” he said. He made a few notes. We ended the session and rejoined my friend in the kitchen, where we drank tea (gunpowder) and discussed whether “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was as good as we thought at the time (mixed opinions).
I drove back down the mountain in a drizzly fog, listening to a particularly sad, shambling indie rock song that was for the duration of the trip up and back down the mountain a fleeting favorite. I thought about the business of not being able to feel things and whether there was something wrong with me as a person. I’d spent a solid portion of my young life trying to laugh off painful things, because blustery post-bullied teenage logic dictates that as soon as people know your vulnerability they’ll definitely try to use it against you. Then, somehow that calcified and I went through several years as an extremely depressed college student mostly unable to cry, which is an extremely unsettling, constipated feeling. I don’t recommend it. Somehow, I grew out of it, shattered the seal, and by the time I went to see my friend’s brother I could get misty at things again. I could tell people that weren’t my parents or my therapists that I felt sad as hell when I felt sad as hell. I could acknowledge feeling a thing without immediately making fun of myself. Still, I worried. What if I was feeling wrong or not enough? What if I was just numb cold-blooded husk existing in a world full of emotional or sensory experience that would remain forever lost to me? I know this sounds hilarious in retrospect, given that the intervening years have transformed me into an the kind of person that goes full-on sobbing snot goblin at any number of things, from objectively terrible television commercials to like, a very good raw oyster.
The feels talk is relevant to me because I’ve been thinking a lot about grief lately. We’re living in a particularly grief-soaked era, for sure. I don’t think any of us have really dealt with that. Probably because there’s only so much a human person can do in a day, between jobs and exercise and families and streaming services and sleep. Asking a person to face all that has been lost over the last few years and sit with it thoughtfully? Well, that’s a lot to ask. Especially given the fact that I still need to make an appointment with the dermatologist and paint the powder room( maybe not in that order). I mean, I haven’t even listened to that Radiohead side project situation that came out a few months back yet (solid odds I’ll think it’s overrated).
Grief isn’t a thing you can put off forever, though. And that’s a thing I’m picking up now about being in my 40s, a decade defined by grief, even if you’re lucky enough to get through it without losing people or jobs or relationships or internal organs or parts your identity that you deeply love. Because what is middle age but seeing all the things you are not and have not and probably will not and trying to make peace with all that’s left. This isn’t as dramatic as it sounds. It’s normal and human. The metaphorical plate is still full of delicious food, maybe even fancier, more satisfying food, but the portions are getting smaller. Eventually, you’re told/you hope, you’ll realize you’re not as hungry, but as a casualty of a bajillion failed diets in every possible flavor, I’m here to tell you that never happens fast enough (if at all).
In the meantime, there’s all the ghosts of your multiverse that need exorcizing. The choices made. The lives not led. The shit that just did not work out for whatever reason. Those things linger. I’m not inclined to give that stuff too much air (there are a million bad movies and worse books about it). But I do sit up at night in bed, sweating at 3am, in another exciting round of “Is this peri-menopause or am I dying?” trying to work out whether I’m actually sad that I didn’t have enough fun in my twenties or whether falling in love, if I ever do again, will feel the same flavor of heady and electric and dangerous and breathless as it did when I still thought falling in love was a thing that could happened whenever I put on lipstick and stepped out into the world. Most of the things I’m losing are things I didn’t need. The doors closing go to empty rooms and dusty hallways. But I’m a collector, by nature, and I have a hard time not noticing the space on the shelf.
(What metaphor are on now? Six? Seven?)
A few years back, I was partial to telling people that “Happiness is a things you remember.” That sounded sage at the time, and a convenient hedge to get around the fact that great experiences don’t always live up to expectation when you’re in the moment. I’m sorry if I told you that. It’s bullshit. Or at least it’s bullshit for me. Because I think happiness is the things you look forward to. It the essence of the anticipation. It is 5am on Christmas morning. It is the moment when you realize that, yes, holy shit, yes, they are going to kiss you. It is the final question on the final exam of your final year. It is being so excited for your trip that you can’t sleep on the plane across the ocean. It is the unopened letter in the mailbox. It is the final moments of planning and stressing and working for whatever when you realize it just might be coming together. Like, for real this time.
These things, or some probably more mature facsimile, I (know? suspect? guess?) will continue to occur. I get that. I will find happiness in the sincere hope that that they will. People keep trying to make me feel better by reminding me to feel gratitude, which I do. They tell stories of people who have suffered incalculable unimaginable loss and still find ways to keep on learning Spanish or doing macrame or planning a speaking engagement in Hungary. That is so awesome. And I get what a terrible brat I sound like when all I want to talk about is how much I miss looking forward to the idea of a thing that never ended up working out.
So I return to the feeling things. Speaking as person who never could feel when I was supposed to, I’m kind of ornery at the idea that I’m not supposed to feel this collection of griefs now. Maybe we should all just take a minute and revel in it. Just go fucking full banshee. Moan and wail. Rend your clothing. Howl at the moon. Be irresponsibly sad for all the empty spaces on the shelf in daily life, in your memory palace, in your community, in your heart. It seems counterintuitive, but if I have to endure my forties in this world at this time, the least I can do is allow myself the luxury of being a baby about it every now and then. And if you’re in similar space, you have my permission to do so too. Maybe we need the catharsis before we can have the applause. Maybe we need the catharsis before we can even hear it at all.