At times in my life, I’ve been utterly boxed in by events, people, the cosmos, God, destiny, historical moments, and my own particular incarnation. Not a thing I could do about whatever bear trap gripped me in the darkening woods. Circumstances were such that whatever I did to escape would only imperil me more. In chess, this ugly predicament is called zugzwang: any move you make will put you in checkmate. It’s a real mofo, zugzwang is, and I wish I had a snazzy solution for it. But the very nature of zugzwang is that there is no solution. Still, I’ve lived through my zugzwangy times and even learned a few things.
F’rinstance, in 1974, I got out of graduate art school just in time to face a fried-out economy, a crazy husband, only one advertised college teaching position in the whole U.S. of A., no canvas to be had anywhere, and broke-ass married me with no unmarried living skills, stuck in Iowa City. Zugzwang.
After smashing into a variety of high tough walls, I discovered there were no useful answers to any of it. I separated from the loony husband, but he still mooched around Iowa City creating his own special brand of havoc and sorrow. Meanwhile, I lived in my gritty studio and slogged down to the Rec Center for showers. Along with 25,000 other painters, I applied for the one advertised teaching job located somewhere in the South Dakota Badlands and, so help me, I begged Jesus nightly to show a little mercy and just give me the goddamn job. Since there was not a scrap of canvas to be had anywhere, I did a bunch of uninspired drawings that went nowhere and were blessedly seen by no one. As to the economy, I’d been poor so long I didn’t notice much change in the status quo, but floated along on various rat jobs. Zugzwang.
One morning, after sudsing off in the Rec Center’s communal shower, I decided to check out the indoor pool. My one athletic ability was swimming, although I’d grown up in the East Coast and learned to swim in the choppy bean green Atlantic. A pool seemed utterly exotic to me, and an indoor pool was nearly unimaginable, so I had to at least look at it. It was Olympic sized and used only for lane swimming during the day. I remember standing there in the humid tiled room, watching the swimmers back and forth, going nowhere. There was a chart on the wall that itemized the number of pool lengths it would take to swim to Cedar Rapids, to Chicago, and to Saigon. The crazed obsessiveness of the idea enchanted me.
I could do that, I thought. I could swim to Saigon.
Swimming to Saigon wouldn’t fix any of my problems, change the state of the world, or produce more canvas. In fact, there was no benefit to my swimming there at all and hence the attraction: the attraction of detachment. I began the next day and swam 50 laps a day for the next two years.
I never got to Saigon but, one night, when I was down to my last 45 cents and spent it on a cup of coffee, in that coffee shop that night, I was offered a really good job with the city and took it. My fruitcake husband left town. I started doing a lot of photography which got shown and seen, met a good boyfriend and moved into a house. And then, in a matter of months, I left Iowa City forever, to take a job in Texas and to marry my boy.
The big thing I learned while swimming to Saigon, was that when I couldn’t solve or fix or change anything, it didn’t much matter what I did as long as I did something. If I did something, preferably something irrelevant and slightly nuts, the universe would take care of itself and of me, its child.
And so, this past year, I hit zugzwang again. My husband had a massive mid-brain stroke with hideous complications, we had no insurance, in caring for him, cluelessly and inexpertly, I had no time to keep my business and lost all my clients and our income, and our only consistent medical help was at Baylor Emergency. For five months, I didn’t know if my husband would live or die. As he struggled through those first months, very often he was someone unrecognizable. He hallucinated or raged or wept, while I felt despair, sorrow, pity, or fury when I could feel anything. Mostly, I felt exhaustion. Zugzwang.
And so, because I once tried to swim to Saigon, I started this blog. I started it because, given our nearly constant and dreadful emergencies, writing seemed like the most frivolous thing I could do. Nights when I should have been doing a thousand urgent things, I wrote until I fell asleep on the keyboard. And I wrote because, as Lord Buddha says, Life and Death are a great matter and I was smack dab in the middle of both.
But I didn’t expect anyone to read my patchy account of our own private Vietnam and I was pretty knocked out when actual readers arrived. Not only that, these were readers who got it, who’d been there or someplace hellishly like it and even so, wanted me to write more. I am here to tell you that my nightly postings and my readers’ replies have saved my mortal ass. And in doing so, they saved my boy.
It was writing about this changed world I was now in, and the readers and writers who wrote to me, spoke to me, and said that my words connected with something they knew, too, all of it together caused me to glance around my gloriously odd neighborhood, one peopled with generous eccentric neighbors so that I saw a peculiar but real paradise on earth enfolding me. Writing and knowing others were reading what I wrote woke me up so I could care for my husband with a loving heart. Writing this blog for a community got my brain out of hock so I could recall my days as head of a hospital orderly department, got my nursing chops back, started getting my boy healthy, instead of just surviving one godawful thing after another.
And, stroke be goddamned, we started to get happy. Wheelchair and all, we began to go to restaurants, browse through bookstores, go shopping, stop off for smoothies, and have friends over. We’re relearning joy, a day at a time, sometimes a minute at a time, but joy we will have, come what may.
And we are takers of no pitying shit.
At one of our used bookstores, my boy wheeled in from another room to meet me at the cash register.
“Ooooh,” said the clerk a little too cutely. “He was off browsing. He almost got away from you.”
“Don’t worry,” I snarled, “he won’t get far on foot.” My boy snickered nastily while, I noticed with mean satisfaction how the clerk paled and suddenly got busy with some papers.
And then, one day at PetSmart, I saw a rescue cat with some others. When I got closer, I saw she was a little calico who looked at me in the exact same way I looked at her. Click! And we recognized one another, as sure as anything. “There you are,” I whispered, and thought, at long last. And I brought her home.
“She’s so beautiful,” my boy whispered, with wonder in his voice as I took her out of her carry-all. And, yes, she is beautiful, with a black bandit’s mask and pale green knowing eyes. Her name is Suzy-Q and she is nothing but love, play, gentleness and joy.
When I see her, I remember my dear cat, Tone. I remember him well and I know that nothing is ever lost, dead, or destroyed.
Oh, my brother! May I recognize you in your next incarnation! How happy I will be!
And zugzwang be damned.
Swimming pool photo by Rufino Uribe [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.