Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Strange Day

This is a strange day, and not just because it started at 3 a.m.

The cellist rolled out of the driveway at 0330 this morning on her way to Maryland to take an orchestra teaching position there. Her 15-year struggle in the cultural wasteland of northern New England had worn her down to the point where she did as crusty locals tell incomers to do, and went back where she came from.

The decision was not made lightly. It doesn't not reflect on the happiness of our marriage or her ability to deal with the climate and isolation of northern rural life. We're not as far north or as rural as the state has to offer, but we're well clear of anything that would be mistaken for urban or suburban. Such a place has many attractions. High-quality arts education is emphatically not one of them.

Northern New England seems actively hostile to her profession. When it comes to serious music education they only like half-assed shit that makes everybody look bad, but does not single out individuals as particularly bad. It is a pact of mediocrity. The few sites where music is pursued at a somewhat higher level are like small, low islands facing the waves in a cold, empty sea. Those islands are already populated with other castaways, eating everything that grows or washes up. They're as likely to push another person's raft back out to sea as they are to try to accommodate one more on the island. To be fair, there's only so much food and shelter.

A parting like this creates a strange new reality for both people. The one going forth has to undergo the displacement, homelessness and a new job. The one left behind has to live with the sudden absence of the partner. I have to relearn how to live alone, but not really completely alone, because I have to maintain the place we had in such a way that she can return when her time permits. But when she's not here, she's not here. I have to do everything in a larger and more complicated facility than I would have if I lived truly alone. While she is occupied by all the new things in a new job -- regardless of the familiarity of the profession -- I have to get used to being here, missing only the most important person in my life.

In 1996 when we started into our relationship, I could have lived with a seasonal cohabitation. We had that for a couple of years, but never really questioned that we would merge our living arrangements. She liked New England. Maryland was clearly sagging under the weight of surplus population. So she came here, full of hope. Once she'd given it more than a couple of years we could never go back to the way it had been when she was a plucky single woman living in Baltimore and I was a mountain hermit living in New Hampshire.

We both gave up much for what we gained. So this reconfiguration to something like that earlier phase is not and does not try to be a return. It's a new game. For one thing, I can no longer afford to be in this house by myself. If I suddenly had to make do without the financial contribution of my spouse I would virtually disappear as I cut off things like cable, phone and Internet to reduce expenses. The nice cushion I had in the mid 1990s has been whittled away by necessary expenditures as we tried to stay afloat while she pursued her career in this cultural desert. What a couple of idiots, right?

We did not know she was terminally ill when we got together. I don't even think we knew it by the time we married. So that casts a shadow over any vision of the future. How soon will her kidneys fail? How much will she be able to work once she goes on dialysis? It's not a matter of months, but no one knows for sure how many years it might be, while research creeps along in search of treatments that might extend kidney function, let alone cure the disease. So there's that.

Obviously no one knows how long they have. Her brother dropped dead in an instant from a heart condition no one knew he had. We all know someone like that, perhaps even several people. And there's cancer, blood clots, ALS, MS, car accidents, bathtub falls,... But having a specific ticking clock adds to the sense of urgency when the person you wanted to spend your life with needs to spend significant amounts of time pursuing her adult professional goals a considerable distance away.

Today I stacked the last of the firewood. I usually solo that chore, so the lack of another person did not stand out. But the task made me think of winter, and preparing for winter, and all that needs to be done before then. Subtracting my wife made the prospect look more intimidating than normal. Winter, even in the age of global warming, is a primal force around here. You need to be ready and you need to stay ready for as long as it lasts. It is the season around which everything else revolves, the season of darkness and cold indifference to life. We are grateful for all that is not winter, even if we love the opportunities winter brings. If you're not using winter's advantages, its disadvantages loom monstrously.

I consider returning to Maryland, but only to a place outside the sprawl. Even then I don't know if I could afford it. One thing about hardscrabble places like rural New Hampshire, the cost of living is pretty low. Income is low, too, and the physical demands are greater than in southerly climes, but somehow a balance is possible that I never found in Maryland with my patchwork of credentials and experience.

Once the tourist economy fails along with the middle class, New Hampshire will have nothing. There's a bit of industry in the southern part of the state, but the job creators will have no incentive to put a facility in a place with so little transportation and communication infrastructure unless they're attracted by sufficient numbers of desperate people willing to work for cheap money. We're probably a couple of years from that, but nothing indicates that the political and economic trends will change course to prevent it. But in my new strange world I can't let myself look too far ahead in any case.


Julia said...

Hi, Tim! It was interesting to read this -- Jeff and I have some similarities to you guys in how our relationship started out (long distance relationship and marriage), and in Jeffʻs struggle to find a way to sustain his artistic career here in Annapolis. Iʻm so sorry you two have the added stress of illness hanging over your heads. I hope that this winter isnʻt too brutal, that you can share some of it together, and that you can figure out a way to live together full time again. Itʻs an odd thing -- even though I do almost all of the housework, yard work (including all of our wood stacking, haha), things seem to get chaotic when Jeff is gone, even for a short time. I donʻt know if thatʻs the case with you, but for sure maintaining a house for one has a totally different feel about it!

cafiend said...

It can feel overwhelming. I have to be careful not to pile everything that has to be done into a teetering mountain that buries me.

Laurie got back up here after just over a month away, and she'll be here again in a couple of weeks. After that she may drop in early in November. Then I'm going down to MD for Thanksgiving weekend. After that she comes up for Christmas break. Then nothing is scheduled. At some point I hope to rip apart our old bathroom to get it ready for renovation. This is actually better without someone else trying to operate out of the house on her own schedule, but I do have trouble maintaining my energy when I don't see another human for days. I have to watch that. If I don't have to got to work and I don't have to go out to buy food or supplies I really can go a couple of days seeing only cats.

Julia said...

The only seeing cats situation happens to me from time to time. I tend to avoid leaving the house unless Iʻm forced to. However, as much as I (mostly) love being alone, I guess Iʻm not cut out to be a true hermit.

cafiend said...

Rather like many cats I kind of like to be AROUND people as long as they are not making demands of me. Or doing or saying annoying things I can see or overhear.

Among hermits I bet a lot of them stay away from people but feel connected to a supreme being or other incorporeal companionship.