november 5, 2020…moving pictures, part 3

Moving Pictures. A Farewell Tour to 25 years in the Twin Cities, part 3

Thursday, October 29,
my last night in the Twin Cities. I’ve been packing and crying and cleaning and sighing all day, wondering is this really, I mean really? good bye Twin Cities? Forever?

#1 Dayton Avenue, St. Paul, MN. May 2013 – May 2016: I love this address, I love this neighborhood, Rocco does too. It first imprinted on my cells with the drafty old Iglehart home, and became a permanent part of my DNA when I moved to Dayton Ave. Sometimes I get wistful, and drive to St. Paul, just to walk around the neighborhood. Left to his devices, no matter where we begin, Rocco will lead us to the front door of this familiar brick house.

The kindest owner/landlord—single dad with 3 teenagers—lived above me, with their wild yellow lab, Taz. The sounds of life drifting down from their upper levels into my first floor apartment was a balm for the skin-crawling dead silence of my country home on Oldridge. Inviting front porch in summer, cozy fireplace in winter, the most traumatic Forth of July fireworks antics I’d ever encountered anywhere, worse, even, than living next door to Wisconsin.

My mom stayed with me a lot here. She watched me rearrange furniture a lot here. One night, she sat on my sofa, glass of wine balancing on one knee, Kindle on the other (she told me later, she was Googling “rearranging furniture + mental health”), watching as I shoved and dragged my belongings into a new configuration.

She casually asked, “So, when are you going to stop rearranging your furniture, Jen?”

“When everything in my life feels like it fits together again,” I said.

She adored this neighborhood, too, we shared countless gin and tonics on the front porch in summer, bottles of wine in front of the toasty fireplace in winter. She adored my landlord and his family, became friendly with his mother, who often came from northern MN to help him with the grandkids (something my mom could wholeheartedly relate to).

I took a year off from grad school while living here. For all the writing, I didn’t feel any wiser, any more enlightened, any more healed. What started as an education now felt like a failed exorcism. The ghosts remained, like squatters, moving freely between my cells. Two years, then three years, then four years after Bob’s death, “All I do is write about a dead man,” I thought. I’m sick of this story, I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want to live haunted like this for the rest of my life. I despised the label widow and the pedestal that came with it. It felt unfair, a betrayal, to talk about Bob when he wasn’t here to verify, or refute, or offer his version of my stories. I wondered how healthy it is to continue to relive this experience overandoverandoveragain by writing about it overandoverandoveragain.

I traveled a lot while living here. I was diagnosed with caregiver PTSD while living here. I spent a small fortune in therapy, trying to talk the ghosts from the rooms of my bones. I went back to grad school while living here. I accumulated more teaching certificates while living here.

Three years after Bob’s death, I began dating while living here, not on purpose. I’ve never dated on purpose—it’s one of seven wonders of the world that I ever got married. I don’t “put myself out there,” I’ve never used a dating app (no judgment, just not my thing). I’m usually minding my own business, and shit just happens; I’ll shrug and say, okay fine, we can meet for coffee, but my bullshit radar is razor-sharp and sniper-accurate and most first dates are usually just that, first. This was not a new development since Bob died, and I’m not saying it’s the best strategy or that I recommend it; for better or worse, it’s the way I’ve always been. I went out with safe men, who lived across the country, who lived in other countries, who were married to other women, who were married to their jobs—men whom I knew wouldn’t or couldn’t get too close, because there wasn’t enough room for much else but me and my ghosts.

Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage when I was living here. I went on a few dates with a senior captain of a major airline while living here. We met at a roller derby match. What followed was a fascinating first-hand study of what was seeping into our nation’s psyche. On a cold winter day, we met for coffee at the Mall of America (his idea, not mine, red flag #1), where he told me about how much money he made, the big houses he owned, how much fun we’d have traveling to Japan, the Philippines, the Netherlands together (red flags # 2, 3 and 4). He rolled his eyes at my “love is love” bumper sticker. “Oh, you’re one of those,” he said with a scowl. I took copious mental notes of his actions, his words, wondering how much of my soul I’d have to sell, how much of my brain I’d have to shut off in exchange for the brand of ease he was hocking.

A constantly-professing Christian, he told stories about the good work he did, serving meals at a homeless shelter, with his men’s group at church. He rattled off percentages—how many of the men coming to the shelter could work if they really wanted to, how many did have jobs but were taking advantage of a free meal, how many were this, how many were that, and came to the conclusion that no one at the shelter actually deserved the free meal. I stopped him mid-sentence, “Hey wait a minute—you don’t get to judge the people you’re serving. I’m no expert, but I’m 100% certain Jesus didn’t do it like that.” My bullshit meter shot off the dial before I’d finished my coffee, yet a strange fascination compelled me to spend time with him, listen to his rhetoric, take note of his skewed ethics—this was something I needed to know—an echo of the politics swirling around at the time. I ended my informal study when he broke a date for a hockey tournament, which was a-okay by me; it was his aggressive insistence that I join him to watch the tournament that was especially concerning—it began with bribing then guilt-tripping then vague threats. I’ve saved all our text exchanges for an essay I’ll one day write. Maybe.

I fell in love for real while living here, with a man who wasn’t married to someone else or a job. He didn’t live impossibly far away, but still felt safe—he lived in another city an hour and a half from me. I fell in love with his huge appetite for life, the way he devoured good food, a hoppy IPA, the way he devoured me. I fell in love with the messages that we sent back and forth before we had our first real date, the messages that continued long after that date. I fell in love with the conversations we had, whether we were together, when we were on the phone. He told me he usually hated talking on the phone but we’d find ourselves regrettably hanging up well over an hour later. I fell in love with the time we spent together, whether it was going to a concert or waking up with tangled legs under the sheets The two of us together were magic, but as soon as the lens started pulling back, revealing more of his enormous life—two ex wives, two daughters, grandsons, a band, so many friends, so many ex girlfriends, it went from being a novelty to scaring me for reasons I struggled to understand. What I could only feel with increasing discomfort, what I didn’t have words for at the time, is that his huge appetite for life was showing me how severely starving I was in my own.

My youngest sister, Gretchen, came to live with me while I was living here, after she did one of the bravest thing I’ve known anyone to do—she left her husband, a big comfy home and cushy life, with nothing but the clothes on her body and whatever she could fit in the trunk of her little Kia. I cleared out the back bedroom for her.

Philando Castile was brutally, publicly executed by a police officer in Falcon Heights while I was living here; the murder captured on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, her tiny four-year-old daughter in the back seat. I consumed news coverage of his murder, which talked at length about who Pilando was, how beloved he was by his family and friends and his community at the JJ Hill Montessori school in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood where he worked, down the street from where I was living.

Philando Castile became not just another headline or statistic to me; he materialized as fully human, a decent, loved and loving, flawed being, as we all are, who did not deserve to be murdered over a traffic stop. I marched in peaceful protests, I stood outside the governor’s mansion singing and chanting, I wrote to and called my representatives expressing outrage and support, I read, and read, and read—newspapers, online articles, essays by known and obscure authors, oh my god, so much catching up I have to do…though I’d lived in Cathedral Hill for over three years, the first and only time I stepped foot inside the neighborhood’s namesake was for Philando’s funeral. It was shoulder-to-shoulder packed, his death tore the Twin Cities wide open, it had the power to rip the whole world wide awake.

The 2016 election campaigning was beginning while I was living here. I felt and saw and heard an ugliness resurfacing in our country, gaining momentum, a disorienting “us vs them” mentality spreading like a virus. What the hell is going going on here? Where the hell have I been? I wondered.

In February, I wrote to a California friend, a man I had met a few years prior on a layover in the Phoenix airport, on my way to San Diego. It was my first trip alone as a widow, I traveled over the holidays.

“I honestly get nauseous and scared at the thought of Trump being president,” I told him. “I can’t believe anyone would support a candidate who is so steeped in hate and absolute stupidity. And seriously. That fucking hair. Just goes to show that having money doesn’t also always guarantee you have good taste…But he has an unbelievable number of supporters who worship him, so it’s a very real possibility he could be our next prez, which is a pathetic statement on our country, definitely. I’m sure people around the world are just dying over our circus act of a presidential race … why, oh WHY can’t ANY of our parties come up with a young, hot, charismatic AND SMART candidate like Canada, dammit??!! I can’t even begin to imagine what our country would be like if Trump is our next president. I’ll move. Not kidding. Along with a massive exodus of other terrified Americans no doubt, and we’ll have to hope like hell other countries will forgive and forget all the awful things Trump and others have said and are saying about ramping up border control and keeping refugees and immigrants out of the US, and still be willing to take us in … I also get pissed when I hear things like if Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, Hilary supporters will vote independent, or vice versa. THAT would ultimately be what gets Trump into office. I usually get so annoyed with people take the “the lesser of two evils” route rather than voting on principle, but this is one time I’m making an exception to that rule. I’m not a huge Hilary fan, but she’s light years better than the Trump Freakshow… okay, now I’m all worked up — thanks for letting me vent! feelin’ the Bern…:)

My sister moved out, my rent was going up (the first time in the 3 years I’d lived there). That September, just before the election, I moved from St. Paul across the river to Minneapolis.

#2 40th Ave. South, Minneapolis, May 2016 – May 2018: I moved from Dayton Ave. to south Minneapolis, into a little 2 br stucco not far from Lake Nokomis. South Minneapolis is known for its progressive leanings; I managed to find the one block that was not. I was a Bernie supporter, through and through, as the bumper stickers on my ol’ Jeep proudly (still) proclaim, and maybe explains why my neighbors let their dog shit in my yard and didn’t make eye contact and scurried into their house whenever we passed on the street. Or, maybe they were plain old assholes, who knows anything for sure? But, when Bernie didn’t get the Dem nomination, I put my dashed hopes aside and stood with Hillary. Any other option was not an option. This was the first time in my life that I felt, with blindingly, excruciatingly, imperatively clarity, that my vote was not just for me, but for those—many I knew, far more whom I didn’t—whose lives and livelihoods were in grave danger.

In tandem with the election theatrics, I had just signed a lease and paid first month’s rent and deposit for a small commercial space on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul, on Minnehaha Avenue, to open a Pilates studio. The landlord turned out to be Minneapolis’ own small-potatoes version of DJT, a lecherous, unethical creature who was more handsy and creepy than a landlord (or anyone) has a legal right to. I kept brushing it off as me being too sensitive; he’s from another generation, he doesn’t know any better. It was a surreal two weeks, a parallel universe of the national scene, his behavior grew more brazen as the campaigning grew more aggressive. I finally confronted him and his partner (with my sister, Jill, planted as a witness/reinforcement) with three pages of documented transgressions. I broke the lease, he returned my rent and deposit, gave me two days to get my equipment out of the space and into storage, not because he admitted to any wrongdoing, but because of my two witnesses, he feared I’d take him to court.

The upside to this awful story is that I found a small space to rent at University Baptist Church in Dinkytown, which is how I learned that not all Baptists are variations on the godawful Westboro theme, but can, indeed be astoundingly progressive, tireless social justice warriors…I can’t say I because a member of the church because religion still scares the shit out of me, but I can say that I looked forward to going to church at UBC more than I did at any point in my life.

On election day, 2016, I donned my Wonder Woman knee-high socks (with little capes, even!), and with stars in my eyes and hope surging through my veins, I traipsed across the street to my local polling place to cast my vote (a Lutheran church, where I duly noted many cars in the parking lot on Sunday mornings, emblazoned with Trump 2016 bumper stickers).

I was so confident, so sure that, despite the deep chasm the year’s campaigning had gouged into our national psyche, more people than not still had the heart and mind and soul to vote—not for a crude, loud-mouth realty show host who inherited his fortune (a member of the lucky sperm club, my husband would have called him) and a history of sexually assaulting women and bragging about it on camera and degrading the elderly and people with different abilities and using other people’s money and labor to run business after business venture bankrupt—but for those who’s lives matter, deeply. Needless to say, but I will anyway, I was proven horribly wrong.

As is my nature, that’s been deeply embedded, I felt personally responsible for this, and sank into deep despair. But this despair also fueled a spark that had been burning softly, patiently in my heart, patiently waiting for me to notice.

I went to my beloved Auntie Patty-cake’s home in uptown that night, to hang with her and my mom and watch the election results. We grew sick to our stomachs as we watched the results coming in. There was something gruesomely familiar to the scene—I couldn’t stop comparing what was happening with the election to my husband’s time in hospice. We knew how it would end, not well, but we didn’t know exactly how, or when, or…I left Pat’s early, I couldn’t hold out till the bitter end. Hate and divisiveness were winning out. I crawled into bed and was jarred awake the next morning, it was still dark. I didn’t have to check my phone, the collective grief was so palpable, settling heavily into the spaces between my cells like thick sludge. My god what is happening, where the hell have I been?

The next day, my mom and I found a church service at the Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, on Macalester College campus, a hastily-organized event offering solace for those mourning the loss of America as we once knew it. It was like being at a funeral, everyone was crying, the heaviness in the room was oppressive, we could hardly breath. We lit candles, sang songs of hope and love, hugged one another tight (remember when we could do that, with such ease?), assuring one another that the fight was not over, the hard, necessary, long-overdue work had just begun.

I watched my sister, Jill’s, life unravel with the fury of a cyclone when her husband left her and their kids and a house facing foreclosure. I helped when I could—her kids came to stay with me a lot, I watched her dog a lot, I helped clean her house. I watched with strange envy as she uprooted her bewildered, fractured family from their home in Golden Valley and haphazardly replanted in St. Peter, first in my mom’s dollhouse apartment—all three of them and my mom jammed into her tiny 1 br. Through a series of celestial happenstances, she got a job with an online university (she could work from home and be with the kids) then an apartment, and a community who immediately enveloped her and her kids.

I began my thesis while living here, stringing together all the stories I’d written over five years, about being a caregiver for my dying best friend, who happened to be my husband. I had my first essay published while living here in south Minneapolis. I won a MN State Arts Board grant while living here. The Us v. Them fervor was spreading across the country like a virus. I started writing an essay that wasn’t about my dead husband, “Pelvic Floor Disorders, Explained (or, How DJT Became 45th President of the United States)” but then I got stuck. I didn’t have words for what I was seeing, hearing, feeling.

My thesis committee raved about the quality of my work, but the big question was, “We know what happens to Bob in your story—we are in love with and heartbroken over him, you’ve made him so real. But what about you in your own story, Jen? What happened to you?” I didn’t know how to tell that part of the story.

I got sick—literally, physically, mentally, spiritually—of writing, of everything, while living here, the culmination of too many things bearing down, catching up, swallowing me whole. My story came to a grinding halt, if it had ever began at all. I graduated with my Masters in Creative Writing in April, while living here. Then my landlord’s husband died, so I had to move, again.

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