Waving, Not Drowning

In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, we abandoned Eloise’s Suburban and walked the wet, rutted road that led to her house. It was lightly raining, and there was an orange tint to the sky that made even the sagebrush look beautiful. There was a rainbow forming to the North, and a pair of desert cottontails bouncing in and out of a lone patch of grass.

The laughter in my throat was stilled by the heavy clomp of her boots in the mud. She was angry at her truck for running out of gas, angry at the rain, and angry at the whole world it seemed. She muttered and cussed, and insisted that I thought she must be a real fuck-up. What I was really wondering was how an empty gas tank could trigger what amounted to a self-flagellating tantrum.

“What a great start to your trip, huh? You must think I’m a real idiot.
“That fucking gauge was above E. You saw that right? That it wasn’t below E?
“I bet you’re regretting being here.
“I’m tired of shit like this always happening to me.”

After the third or fourth reassurance, I realized it didn’t matter what I said. Eloise was determined to be miserable. Her hostility was easily tapped, and there was a black hole to her being that she catered to as if it contained the only precious truth left in the world.

A mile-long walk left us standing on her porch, rain soaked and muddy, and I couldn’t help but think that with someone else, this might be a fun occasion. Leah would run for the wine glasses, Sheila would challenge me to wrestle in the mud, Jen would tell jokes, and then laugh so hard she’d have to stop walking. None of them would have done what Eloise did next –- which was to take off her boots and throw them against the garage wall.

“Never mind that those were my favorite boots,” she seethed to the mud-streaked plaster.

Later, I sat on a couch in her living room, listening to a litany of trivial, wine-soaked complaints. Her parents loved her, but not well enough. She had a stellar education, but not Ivy League. She had many friends, but no one who really understood her deep complexity. She had a trust fund, but it wasn’t enough to quit working. There were lovers that used, and lovers that left, and a sense of never being appreciated.

“It would be nice if even just once I got back 10% of what I gave to others, but I guess I’m screwed on that. Everybody I ever meet is so selfish.”

For four nights, I sat like a cypher in Eloise’s smoky living room, willing myself into stillness as I watched the stars through the skylights. She was an unlikely Scheherazade, a steely, bitter-eyed woman who seemed to have spent her life creating conflict so she would have an outlet for her combativeness. With every story, she seemed to grow fresh scars, counting and recounting the wrongs committed against her until there was no good will, and no right thing left in the world.

Instead of bolting, I found my curiosity turning morbid. There was a sour aftertaste to our one-sided conversations that was all at once revolting and intriguing. My incredulousness was stretched but not yet sated, not even when she told me the story about driving drunk, and the massive damages done to her lover’s face when she drove into a ditch going 80 mph. Even in that story, Eloise reigned as the ultimate victim. The lover sued, Eloise received a suspended jail sentence, and when the story hit the local newspaper it was humiliating.

“So her face – did they manage to fix it?”

“What? Oh. She lost most of her lower jaw and lower lip, but had lots of reconstructive surgery. Between the insurance company and me, she made out pretty well. I ended up having to go to treatment, though, which was stupid because I wasn’t an alcoholic — but who cares, right? I paid through the nose for that night. There are still people in this town who hate me…”.

On the morning I left, I woke up early and walked through the house, and for the first time noticed how beautiful it really was. Stained glass French doors led to a wrap-around patio. The floors were a dark walnut wood, and there was an exquisitely patterned red Persian rug in the living room. Abstract art hung neatly from clean white walls, lit from below with key lights. In four nights, I hadn’t noticed the antique chairs, covered in cobalt blue velvet, that framed the fireplace, or the soft white chenille of the couches. Either Eloise’s misery had sucked all the color and light out of the room, or I was so enchanted by it that I turned blind to everything else. In the pale yellow light of morning, I was reminded of a song by Sara McLachlan – “you live in a church where you sleep with voodoo dolls, and you won’t give up the search for the ghosts in the halls”. Eloise’s home was like a tainted church, a sanctuary lost to the cause of both old and ongoing wars.

In front of the airport terminal, Eloise handed me a folded up piece of paper and told me to read it on the plane. It’s just a poem I wrote, she said, something I wanted you to have.

Nobody heard her, the dead woman,
but still she lay in the abyss moaning.
I was much further out than you thought, she said,
and not waving, but drowning.

As if there were not enough reams of torment in her own life, Eloise resorted to stealing the tragic words of others. The poem was written by British poet Stevie Smith, and only slightly changed by Eloise’s interpretation.

I might have never known, but I discovered Not Waving, But Drowning in the county library when I was nine years old, and ran home to read it to my mother –- a woman who was drowning in an unhappiness I was powerless to change. I was always looking for words she would recognize –- that would move her in some way, or that let her know that while I didn’t understand everything, I did understand that she felt I was to blame in some way, and that I was sorry, sorry, sorry. For three decades, I waited for the day my mother’s secrets would spill, and we could forgive each other for the darkness. The right combination of words were never found. There was no grand rescue, no heroic act of forgiveness, no chance of saving either one of us from wanting what we could never have.

Yet, years after her death, I found myself drawn to sitting silently in the darkest shadows of other women, waiting for a hint, a revelation, or some epiphany. When I wasn’t actively seeking out the most brooding people I could find, they seemed to find me.

And the only thing I ever really learned from all those years of shadow sitting is that misery can travel beyond time and circumstance, and become a black hole that voids all light and swallows any possibility of good. There really is no mystery to the the forever-lost, the fucked-up, the hateful, or the chronically bitter. We move in this universe on differing parallels –- some paths are rife with danger and difficulty, and some are so easy that they seem supernaturally preordained, but most are a mix of challenges, habits, and celebrations. Sometimes there are choices, and sometimes there are unmitigable circumstances. We fall as often as we get pushed. We embrace each other, or we stand apart. We scar, berate, and rail against each other, or extend our compassion and love. We kick each other, or help each other up.

We are the secret, the key, the magical, elusive meaning of things that we search for in the clouds, ancient books, and new-age gurus. There is really no major mystery to who we are. We are what helps creates the other. In the largest picture, we are the source of each other’s love, misery, happiness, anger, regret, support, hope, longing, and despair.

Eloise and my mother were partially created by others on their path, as surely as Beethoven, Curie, and Van Gogh were.  But instead of gathering love, they nurtured grudges. Instead of striving for happiness, they chose to lash out in anger and bitterness.

The worst monsters and tyrants in the world only exist by collective permission, as do the greatest thinkers, pianists, artists, and inventors. We don’t always agree with the collective, and often lack the power to enforce our differing will, but many of us accede our personal ethics as if our singular thoughts, ideals, or dollars had little value at all. We sit in the shadows of corruption, perverse politics, bad will, unjust laws, and miserable people until we are numb and feel them as inevitable.

And perhaps they are, at least until the collective masses experience a new call to enlightenment, but we don’t have to sit in the shadows and wait. We don’t have to sleep with voodoo dolls, or taint our sanctuaries with totems of death and misery. We can, instead, consciously choose to live in a way that honors our highest ideals.

We can stand and speak clearly instead of moaning. We can wave, and refuse to let ourselves be drowned.

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  1. challenge, habit and celebration….that sounds about right.

    when i as younger i was rather taken by the brooding types but i don’t have to tell you how exhausting it was. the car accident spin is chilling.

    now i can’t seem to live without laughter and outright ridiculousness on a daily basis. i think by the time i’m an old woman i’ll be a daffy old hatter (like my mother without the anger)

    beautifully written Jane…as always :)

  2. What a crescendo! I was swept away and uplifted at the end. Wonderful!

    Eloise – creating conflict, playing the victim – I think I know her.

  3. Kris, I used to think that the moody ones were deep. It turns out they were just moody.

    Thank you, Suzanne!

    Chris, we must all know at least one, and too often from our own family.

  4. Oh man!
    I know this Eloise in several incarnations too.
    Black hole is right.

    Now, that the monsters and tyrants only exist with our collective permission . . . .

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around that one. I will have to cogitate on it for a while.

    Thanks ;o)

  5. I think some days for me it easy to be Eloise….caught up in the can’ts and won’ts and didn’ts…..fortunately for me I have this beautiful happy 10 year old who is full of joy and hope and excitement and somedays the wisdom of the ages…and I am able to find my own better self and put those things aside and focus more on the moments…my path was not easy and still is not easy but had I not trudged through some of those times, I would not have the things I do have.

    Another writer not that long ago had an exercise on his blog where you could only write three good things. It was hard, almost all the comments were from people that found it harder than they thought to find the three best good things out of all the things things they were thinking of. Much like this article, it changed the point of view for the reader.


  6. OMG Jane, this could have been so many people I’ve known in my life, and what really struck me about this article was how little Eloise actually had to complain about. There are people who go through so much in life, but the “brooders” I’ve met are the ones who’ve been through much less but who take every setback as a tragedy. The people that really have been to hell and back seem to want or need to find the good in life, despite the pain they’ve known.

    Great article, Jane!

  7. No, I am not Eloise, but when you are raised like many of us were, the potential is always there. Always reach for the light. I sure know Eloise, though.

    Sure do.


  8. Susan, my thoughts on that are — just look at Bush. Our 43rd president wouldn’t have had the power he had unless the collective was willing to give it to him. Neither would have Hitler. Extending that thought out to more everyday events, like child abuse, we absolutely know that we do not do enough to protect children, yet when yet another child dies we cry, rant, and hold candlelight vigils, but our laws don’t substantially change. This week alone, I read of two children killed after being returned to those who beat them and broke their bones. It’s an outrage, but the collective thought is, and has always been, “Keep the Family Together”. The rights of the parents are most often put above the rights of a child. We also know that there’s no cure for pedophelia and that it causes great harm to children, yet prison sentences are often light, and there’s so much more we could do….but we don’t. We debate, instead, the rights of the perpetrators. So yes, I believe the monsters and tyrants exist in large part because we let them.

    Kate & Donna, I know what you both mean. The potential is there, but whether it’s our kids, our love for life, or ourselves, we reach for something redeeming. It doesn’t undo the past, but it does help frame a better today.

    Barb, I’ve also found that to be generally true. Weird, isn’t it?

  9. Beautifully written, Jane.
    Words are fortunate when you befriend them.
    I read with interest and intrigue.
    When caught in the grips of depression, I was Eloise. I’m thrilled to recognize that fact and to appreciate even more my well-lit place in this world.

  10. When I think of Eloise, any Eloise, I think of a trapped and frustrated bird, caged against it’s will and battering itself repeatedly against the bars. Birds have hollow bones that break so easily. With people, those bars are at times self-made. When we become adults, there comes a time to look at the bars we’ve made, decide if we really need them, and do what it takes to free ourselves. For some it’s harder than others, but it’s possible.

    It’s possible.


  11. You’ve so beautifully articulated some things I’ve often tried to find ways to write about… especially about our collective responsibility.

    And yes, oh yes, “We can wave, and refuse to let ourselves be drowned.”

    Thank you.

  12. I am a rescuer, by nature, by profession, by choice at times. I have had many Eloises in my life – partners, friends, colleagues. Living in misery became a way of life to them – blinded by the process of brooding every possible life event. The relationships always end in one way or another. I sometimes wonder, if I had the ability to speak out, confront, identify the behaviors, whether they would have had a moment of insight. Instead, politeness or sensible silence wins and nothing changes. I know it is not my sole responsibility to create a space where change can occur. However, I also believe that I could have been a piece of the process had I chosen to engage in the dialogue.

  13. There is a lot in this post I want to process and think about.

    Re: Eloise

    I am forever attracted to thinkers who see the light and the dark in life but not to brooders who use their lives to spread bitterness and negativity. I wouldn’t last 24 hours in the presence of an Eloise–and I wouldn’t apologize for it.

    Not Waving but Drowning. Yes, that’s been a favorite poem of mine for years. I’m stunned she felt compelled to steal it AND to send you off with a final dose of guilt and darkness, an indictment that says “You don’t get me!”

    Really, I think this post is all about Narcissism. So many political leaders are narcissists. Think about recent political scandals and how the players always position themselves as VICTIMS. Sometimes it’s so outrageous, it’s funny.

  14. If there was ever a public case study of narcissism or Eloise at Work, it would be Blagojevich. Even more than Bush and company, because Blagojevich was so incredibly public with his self-delusions of grandeur and victimization. Even while something like 94% of the public was against him, Blagojevich convinced himself that he was wanted, and that only the vengeful Senate wanted him gone.

    The alarming thing is that 6% of the public stood behind him. Even more, 20-something percent, believe that Bush was a good president.

  15. No, Anne, speaking out only makes the Eloise’s feel more victimized and misunderstood. Even when they have a moment of insight, it’s quickly overcome by feelings of rage and/or self-pity.

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