On time and timezones and trauma; on finding magic and/or beauty and/or acceptance in the in-between; on learning to derive comfort from liminality
This New Year’s will mark the first I have spent in a time zone other than Pacific Standard Time (PST). In fact, the next seven days, on a spontaneous family trip to Dallas, then Houston to visit family, then New Orleans, then back to Dallas, will be the longest period I have ever spent in Central Standard Time and only the second time I’ve been here. The first was over summer, when I visited my girlfriend in Chicago for five days. I don’t know much about the central United States, north or south, but I am sure that these experiences will be at least slightly different.
I grew up in PST and now I split my time between there and Eastern Standard Time (EST), from the westernmost time zone in the contiguous United States to the easternmost, from Los Angeles to Long Island, a 40-minute train ride to midtown Manhattan. Countless people dream of making it one day to the place where I grew up, the place I took for granted for the majority of my life. California is held in such high regard in the Western cultural imagination that no matter where I am, I can find someone wearing a shirt emblazoned with my state’s flag, as I did just a few hours ago at a mall in Houston. Other than New York, LA is considered the ultimate destination.
As a teenager, I loved LA, but I wanted nothing more than to escape. (I’m not a teenager anymore and I still cannot fathom the idea of ever returning.) So I escaped as far away as I could, to a place that is the polar opposite of LA. I deal frequently in extremes. But I am trying to change that.
I am awoken on the morning of New Year’s Eve from an uneasy rest by the sound of my family milling about, chattering about what time the hotel breakfast buffet closes. This is the most uncomfortable couch bed I have ever known, and I have known many, but it’s not uncomfortable enough so that I don’t spend an additional half hour in bed before reluctantly dragging myself downstairs to the lobby to fuel myself on a bland vegetable omelette and lots of coffee. I don’t remember the last time I was up this early—8 am CST, 6 am PST. Coffee is needed, even if it’s watery hotel coffee.
After breakfast, we head out on the road toward League City, a suburb of Houston, which is a 4-hour drive away from Dallas. The journey from the hotel lobby to the minivan we’ve rented in my favorite shade of red is brief, but painful—30 degrees, without factoring in the wind chill and the tiny droplets of precipitation that sting like pinpricks. Once I’ve stuffed my suitcase in the back and settled into my seat, I slam the door shut as quickly as I can. Never before have I found comfort in a minivan, but there’s a first time for everything. I take comfort too in sliding on my headphones and blocking out the sounds of my family bickering aimlessly with “All Hail West Texas” by the Mountain Goats. It feels appropriate, even though we’re on the opposite side of Texas. But it proves appropriate anyway.
“Blues in Dallas” comes on as we are officially exiting the titular city. It’s toward the end of “All Hail West Texas,” and I had completely forgotten about it. It’s simple in an almost juvenile way–about 5 notes on a keyboard that sounds like it could be a children’s toy, played over a drum machine, and of course John Darnielle’s gentle crooning voice. The recording is so lo-fi that the sound of the keyboard pedal can be heard gently clacking if you listen close enough. It is the only song on this album that uses this instrumentation, the rest of them consisting of just Darnielle’s voice and a guitar. But it is not this fact about this song that catches my attention. It is the final verse.
Down in Dealey Plaza, the tourists mill about
Down in Dealey Plaza, the tourists mill about
And I am far from where we live, and I have not learned how to forgive
But I will wait, I will wait, I will wait
This year, for me, has been one of grappling with the concept of forgiveness–extended toward others, extended toward myself. It is a hard thing when you are someone who deals frequently in extremes. There is a psychological concept called splitting, or black and white thinking. According to Wikipedia, it is “the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.” In other words, things, situations, people (including myself) are either all bad or all good, all black or all white. Everyone (including myself) is either an angel or a demon.
My therapist has been teaching me to try and reach the grey place. To slow the thoughts in my head that race like greyhounds and snarl and gnash their teeth at anything they perceive as a threat. It is not a thought pattern that I am proud of. But black and white thinking is often used as a defense mechanism. Part of unlearning it is, ironically, learning to forgive myself for thinking this way, understanding that I have been hurt and that I (sometimes subconsciously) act in what I viscerally believe is the best path to self-preservation. Allowing thoughts to come without judgment, recognizing their validity, and then letting them go.
Grey is hard, and grey is boring. But I know it’s vital.
The Texan landscape today, slipping past as we barrel down the highway, is even more boring than it would be normally. Texas does not feel like the wide open expanse people say it is. The highway is bordered by naked black trees that block my view of the horizon, and the grass is interspersed with patches of brown and yellowish-beige, and the rest is a pale green thing. (“Pale Green Things” by the Mountain Goats is playing as I write this line.) The sky might seem wide open on any other day, but today it is overcast, and it seems that the dull grey hangs oppressively just a few feet above my head. The sky isn’t even interesting enough to have clouds in it; it’s a uniform monochrome field, with no distinguishable cloud shapes in sight.
We pass a sign, the most vibrant green thing I’ve seen in miles. 180 miles to Houston, it says. 180 more miles of nothing as far as the eye can see. This is okay. I want it to be okay. It’s not as though the landscape is ugly–it’s not. Nor is it breathtakingly beautiful. It doesn’t need to be either; it just needs to be. It is unimaginable to me that some people make their homes here, in a place that I perceive as the middle of nowhere. But I know the majority of the United States is located in this in-between. I know that for millions of people, this in-between is everything, all they have ever known, just as major metropolitan areas are all I have ever known. Maybe they love the in-between. Maybe they even find it beautiful. I hope I can too someday.
50 miles from Houston now, and the clouds are becoming actual distinguished shapes in the sky.
20 miles from Houston, and the sun and the vast blue finally dominate over the clouds.
Finally, we get to my aunt’s house, located in a luxury housing complex in the absolute middle of nowhere. It could be a mirage against the flat, lifeless Texas landscape, if it was a little warmer. As we load out of the van, I think about my cousins inside, who don’t know that we’re here. I haven’t seen them in three years, since they lived in North Carolina until a few months ago, when they moved to Texas. The last time we were together was because of the death of my lola. The last time we were together was the worst year of my life. Now we are together to celebrate surviving another year, and this certainly was a year worth celebrating surviving. I’ve changed a lot since we last met; I hope to god I’ve changed.
I embrace every family member in the house, kiss every warm, wrinkled brown cheek, before I get to my cousins, who come down the stairs and seem shocked to see us. There is a static moment of disbelief as we survey each other, our mental images of each other still stuck in 2014–they’ve gotten much, much taller; my hair is so much shorter.
But that static moment is broken as someone bridges the divide and we smile at each other and embrace.
The rest of the day is uneventful. We spend hours catching up, I buy the Jackbox game pack and that keeps us busy and screaming at each other for a few hours. Mostly, we wait for the hours to tick down to 2018.
Somehow I didn’t realize that watching the broadcast in CST meant that it would be impossible to watch the ball drop in Times Square at, something I have done literally every year for as long as I can remember, since they delay the broadcast for PST. My mom calls us down at 11 anyway though, and confusingly, we count down with Ryan Seacrest to midnight. It feels kind of good knowing that I’m counting down at the same time as my friends in New York, but I have no idea what personal investment everyone else has. (I find out later that my mom was just hoping to go to sleep.)
Actual midnight comes and we watch Imagine Dragons and Lucy Hale, of all people, lead the countdown into the new year somewhere in New Orleans and midnight passes and there is no sharp intake of breath or choking back tears, like there has been for me in years past. Does this mean I’m getting older? Or is it just the fact that I was forced to ring in the new year with fucking Imagine Dragons?
But 2018 hits me about five minutes after midnight, when my cousins and my siblings burst out of the house running into the black Texas night, and I see light exploding in a sky that finally, finally seems infinite and I realize as I type this that these are the first fireworks I have ever seen on New Year’s, and even a week ago I could have never anticipated that they would be in suburban Texas. And the wind is blowing and it’s the coldest I’ve ever been on a New Year but I don’t feel it at all, and my cousins and my siblings run around the block screaming, running nowhere but in a circle, running for no reason but to whoop and rejoice in the sheer wonder of being alive. And it is so, so wondrous to be alive, in spite of everything in the past, present and future. I throw my head back and laugh as I watch them and it feels like something comes undone in me as I do so. We are in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing in particular, and I am finding magic anyway. And I feel the light exploding inside me.