Road Trip Blues

I don’t get it. I used to really love road trips. The sense of adventure. The sense of stepping out of your everyday life into a transition. The sense of possibility and openness. Now, this trip, I just feel panicked.

Not that anything bad per se has happened. Not like last time we made this journey to and from my mother’s house in Texas and I managed to slide our car off the road (there was ice, but it was still my fault and the car was totaled). No, everything has gone surprisingly well. The puppy is having the time of her life—so many new smells! So many new people and dogs to meet! And everybody else seems perfectly happy, content to listen to David Sedaris reminisce about his family while the miles pass under our car.

Nor is there anything in particular that I am especially worried about—unless you count nearly every member of my (extended) family. I suppose that could be it, but it feels more existential than critical. Yes, all of us are in crisis one way or another this summer, whether ourselves or worrying about each other. But we’re all trying to put a brave face on things.

Which, come to think of it, probably is the problem. We’ve been through quite a lot as a family these past several months, not to mention these past several years. Death, alcoholism, adultery, cancer, you name it, we’ve suffered it. But I challenge you to figure out who did or suffered what. Put us all together in a room, and we’ll do our darndest to pretend that nothing is wrong. At least, that is, until one of us snaps (usually me), and it all comes pouring out.

Or not. My aunt once told my sister that when our mother came home for a visit just after her divorce from our father, her mother (our grandmother) gave a big party during which not a whisper was made about what our mother was going through. I’m not sure I believe this; maybe my aunt misunderstood. But I can definitely imagine our grandmother trying to put a good face on things in front of all of her friends. It was a small town and gossip traveled fast. Now, of course, things are somewhat different—or are they?

I envy David Sedaris his ability to translate his family’s foibles and crises into humor. Not that I have any illusions about my family’s being half as interesting as his. Or is it just the way he tells things? The stories I could tell you about us if only I had the nerve! I liked the scene with his sister Lisa, when she is telling him not to put her parrot Henry into his books. There he is, notebook in hand, ready to make a story out of her feelings for her pet. Yes, it’s funny. But surely not in essence any funnier than my mother’s affection for the turtle living in her backyard. Except that turtles don’t talk.

There’s an interesting metaphor. The Sedaris family is all parrots—at least, David is—while my family is a colony of turtles, hard-shelled, long-lived, tight-lipped when it comes to talking about the things that they’re really going through. Except that like all families, we do talk about each other behind each other’s back, usually in tones of hushed concern, shaking our heads, crying a little and just wishing it would all go away. I tend to be the unstable element in the mix, clumsily insisting that we should talk about things. But what, really, can anyone do?

I had an insight yesterday as I was driving and reflecting on why what David S. does with his stories works. They are all, for the most part, intensely personal, not at all what you might describe as profound cultural analyses. Except that he makes them so simply by virtue of putting them into words. Alcoholism or adultery or cancer is a shameful and private thing, until I label it with a noun and thereby bring it into the realm of shared experience and conversation. The trick, I realized, in writing about these things is to accept that the particular really is the universal. If I’ve thought or experienced something, so, most likely, have thousands if not millions of other people. It’s like the guy who wrote Fight Club says: “If I could think of this, somebody else already has.”

If I’ve suffered something, no matter how embarrassing, somebody else already has. For example, vaginal itch. TMI? Only if you think of what I am experiencing as somehow uniquely personal. But how many women do you imagine have lost their vacations to bad cases of itchiness? I seriously doubt it is just me. Otherwise, why would the Valley Market in Angel Fire, New Mexico, carry Vagisil? Not to mention all sorts of other medications for equally private and embarrassing ailments. People get constipated and smelly and infectious and itchy and swollen all the time. The drugstore shelves are eloquent witnesses to our common humanity. There is nothing so humbling as realizing that if it is there on the shelf for you, you can’t be the only one who needs it.

Likewise, melancholy. Can I really be the only one feeling this way in the year of our Lord 2010? Maybe it’s because I’m 45, possibly perimenopausal, most certainly stuffed full of memories and my fair share of regrets. How many more times will my family and I make this particular trip? What if we move? What if my mother moves? What if the world runs out of gas? Some of the things that I’m feeling don’t seem to have to do with my family’s particulars. I am more oppressed than I ever remember being by the miles and miles of billboards and strip malls, particularly here in Missouri (my natal state, if not exactly my home state). And yet, at the moment, we’re driving through woods, not too many billboards around, and I still feel a bit wistful, even here in the backseat with the puppy by my side.

I wish that I could find a way to write about all of the things that I’m bottling up inside. It was easier in the early years of this blog when I was basically writing only about myself. But, like David S., there are things that I’ve thought about in my experience with others that I would really like to find some way to express. At the moment, however, I am afraid that a greater part of it would simply be rage—and that’s something even I am afraid to particularize.

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