Concede. Admit defeat. Then proceed.
Shelley Ettinger is the author of Vera’s Will. Her work has been in Nimrod, Mississippi Review, Cream City Review, Mizna, Newtown Literary, Stone Canoe and other journals. She was a fellow at the first Lambda Literary Foundation Writers’ Retreat in 2007. An activist for nearly fifty years, originally from Detroit, Shelley lived most of her life in New York City. She now locks down, apparently for the duration, in San Antonio, where she’s working on a new novel.
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Sometimes you just give up on a day. From the minute you feel your right index fingernail scratching your left cheek and realize you’re coming awake, way too soon, too foggily, and way closer to when you finally fell asleep than is reasonable, you know the day is lost. Before it’s even begun, you chalk it up. And you commence the self-soothing pep talk. Don’t be hard on yourself, old buddy, old pal. Don’t force yourself to try to do what you know in your gut you are never going to do. Expunge the guilt prophylactically. Erase everything on today’s task list and add it to tomorrow’s. So you’ll get nothing done. Not today. So okay. It’s no great tragedy. You creak yourself upright and shrug yourself into the forfeited day as into a tatty old housecoat you’ll totter about in till you tumble back to bed hoping the next morning’s outcome improves.
And you’ve dated yourself, already, in your endlessly self-referential mind, referencing housecoats. Like the kind your grandmother wore while she made kreplach to drop into the Friday night chicken soup. With the snap front and the short sleeves, collarless, patterned in some hideous faded flowery print.
This was a day like that.
There’s a thing they don’t tell you about old age. As it encroaches. There’s a way it disrupts your way of moving through, of being in, the world. It’s not dementia, nothing so dramatic as that, though demented, in the non-clinical sense, you might as well be, if only because you’re driven to distraction by your tooth-grindingly disturbing distractability. It’s the quotidian subtractions. Of a moment here and there. Of a thought. Intention. As in, let me put a tissue in my pocket, I’ll grab one as I pass the bathroom on my way to the living room. A small, spare, inconsequential notion, and it vanishes in a flash. Take one step toward the living room and you’ve lost it. The intention. Even of something as trivial as a tissue. You know you were going to detour somewhere and do something but you don’t know where or what. You might remember it in a bit but you also might not and if you don’t you’ll be sorry when the next sneezing fit rolls around. You know you’re not losing it, not exactly, not yet, you’re still at only the earliest cusp of true age, you’ve barely hit your seventies, but you also know it approaches. Here it comes, bearing down on you like a goose. One of those animals that are lovable in fancy, in farmyards or cartoons, but in whose way you do not want to get or it will knock you to the ground. It will flatten you.
And yes you’ve searched for housecoats like the ones your bubbie wore, snapfront, cotton, a sort of a combination apron and shmatte top. You’ve actually searched, everywhere you can think of, including deeply depressing websites catering to the denizens of seniorlandia, where you now reside or soon will. They had pockets, those housecoats, they were terribly utilitarian, so fuck it, you could do with one or several. But you can’t find them. Things are not so desperate that you’ve also considered housedresses like your mom wore. At least a housecoat is a top. Which implies pants. A suit! They say gender performance tends to blur among the very old, it’s hard to tell who’s presenting as what or trying to as everything sags and softens and making the effort turns swollen-knuckly tough, and anyway let’s be clear you never were some kind of hardcore butch, never claimed to be, but one thing you have not worn since ninth grade when school finally allowed girls to wear pants and never will. Is a dress. Which a housedress is, as the name implies. Thus if you’re ever seen in one that alone will constitute adequate data for a firm dementia diagnosis. An epic ensuing unscrolling of given-up-on days onward to the end.
But not yet! Not today! Sure you gave up on this one from the start, right fingernail, left cheek, shrug it off, tatty housecoat, shrug it on, but does that mean you’re down for the count? Maybe not. Perhaps you’ll putter, pick up groceries or get gas. Make your gal an egg sandwich. She loves that. You’re no slug, no useless waste of space who can’t do even the slightest chore, wash your grandmother’s china teacups so you can display them on the built-in shelves as you’ve meant to do for, what is it now, nearly two years since you moved in to this new place. This slightly shabby basically affordable prettily presentable apartment your gal and you have never finished fixing up since it quickly became beside the point virally speaking: you’ll never have guests because you live in a ridiculous country hell-bent on entrenching itself permanently in pandemia.
So. One of those days you give up on from the start. Where’s the harm? No day’s ever a total loss anyway, is it? You’re never doing absolutely nothing, never neither producing nor consuming, are you? Make your gal a sandwich. Eat yourself a plum. Read. Watch TV. And yes these were supposed to be your easy days, long awaited, no more clocking in, no boss over your shoulder, time to frame as you choose, but not like this, that never meant this, so much doom that even when you’re not actually scrolling—stop reading the news! put on some music, grab your gal and dance! take a walk, early, before the subtropical heat hits!—you’re retreating from the gloom that has fashioned itself the frame. The context. Of everything, ever looming, and you, silly goose, you’re no match, you’re helpless to reframe the day, reshape it into something of worth, who are you to think you could wrest it back. You claim no prowess. Leave it. There is no shame in surrender. You’re powerless.
But why isn’t anyone doing anything! Why aren’t you? You always did, you’re not supposed to be retired from all that. What happened to the wherewithal, yours, anyone’s, why doesn’t someone put out the call, occupy the governor’s mansion to stop him stopping the masks, the guy is hellbent on killing you all, shouldn’t that be enough to shake you from your sloth? Because what the actual hell. You’re well. But paralyzed. First from fear, now from shame at what the fear did to you, so you can’t sleep, so you watch more TV, so you’re too early awake, shaky, befogged, so you cede the day.
This was a day like that. Again. Concede. Admit defeat. Then proceed. You’ll do something tomorrow, by golly by gosh, old buddy old pal, some one thing or three, and there are infinite thousands of things to do if not infinite days for the doing. Oh. You can’t yield ceaselessly. There are limits. A countdown. A click, a tick, a tick tock ticking. A clock. The doom may scroll endlessly but your days do not. All that carpe diem stuff suddenly resounds. A strategem. Tomorrow you will work. You hope. You’ll seize. On something. Or you won’t.