Swiveling Till I’m Ready to Stop

If there’s anything American, it’s the advice to Move on.

Persecuted for your religious beliefs?  Move on.  Jump on a rickety ship and sail across the Atlantic Ocean.  Who cares if you get seasick or you can’t swim?  There’s got to be something better on the other side of the ocean.  They don’t call it a New World for nothing.

Feeling kind of crowded in your New World settlement, what with all those nasty witch hunts and long, boring sermons?  Look at the western horizon and follow your nose.  There’s a limitless land out there, teeming with wildlife and forests and some pesky people called Indians who’ll get in your way.  Who cares?  Keep moving on.

After a few generations, in fact, Americans get so good at moving on, always west, we come up with a new name for our habit: Manifest Destiny.  It’s catchy, it’s imperative, it excuses a truckload of sins and slaughters.

I’m one of these Americans divided in my own skin, one-quarter native American, three-quarters English and Scots-Irish.  Most of my ancestors were the pale-skinned, spunky, pushy, move-on types who bore God knows how many horrific hardships and rutted roads and mud huts to eventually spawn someone like me, who can’t even stand to camp out for a night.  This is Manifest Destiny?  (Given my decided lack of enthusiasm for Nature, I’m sure I’d be a tragic disappointment to my Native American forebears, as well.)

But that strays, as usual, from the point.  The point is that the frontier got chewed up and paved and strip-malled and the whole move on, go-west movement got stymied by the Pacific Ocean and the price of California real estate.  So, we’re a nation of go-getters and movers-on without new land to grab.  Now what?

As far as I can tell, the same restless, can-do spirit remains quintessentially American.  But it’s mutated into more of an emotional  realm, where we tell ourselves stories of how we must move on, where we admire optimism above all other qualities.  We don’t linger in the mire of sadness and loss.  Get on with it!  Push forward!  Above all, just keep moving.

Which is, obviously, what I should be doing, too.  My friend’s funeral was two days ago.  I saw old friends whose faces I barely recognized.  We talked and laughed about long-gone times in the past, we told funny stories, we drank.  But that was yesterday.  Today should be something else, something fresh and hopeful and new.

I admire this forward-looking American spirit, which I recognize I don’t have enough of.  (I mean, let’s be honest: The character I always identified with in the Bible was Lot’s wife.  She swiveled around to look at what she’d left behind and turned into a pillar of salt.  I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson there.)

But I also recognize the limitations of always moving on, of never lingering in sadness.  Always in a hurry, always moving ahead, you lose something.  You miss some kind of depth and richness of experience.  You forget memories that are wonderful, even if they’re painful to recall.

Which is perhaps the greatest pain of all, when a longtime friend dies: A part of your own past disappears, as well.  You’re one of the sole keepers of what’s gone.

I’m remembering the time a group of us were in Cape Cod 10 years ago.  We’d already had a minor wreck, but every trip has its mishaps.  We were sitting outside in a small town, when a bridal party swept past in a coach pulled by horses.  It was such a beautiful scene that we all teared up.  Except for Pat, who screamed, “Wait!  Have you signed a prenup?  I’ll do it for free!”

Move on, don’t wallow, don’t linger.  Good advice for another, better day.  Not for me, not for today.  I’m rambling along incoherently and randomly, thinking about unrelated things like American history and long-gone frontiers and times that are over.  If you see a pillar of salt, you’ll know who it is.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about good times when you least expect it

20 comments… add one
  • Steve Link

    For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also. (Matthew 6:21.)
    The end of a treasured relationship leaves a hole in heart that is only partially filled by memories. Nothing else fully fits that hole, nor will. Stuff everything you can think of into the hole, there will be gaps nonetheless. Moving on is fine, but you move on a little less than you were before. It’s okay. It’s by design.

  • Cindy A Link

    I love it when people tell stories about those who have passed. Makes me feel like I’m getting to know the best part of someone I’ll never meet.

    The greatest person I never met was a man named Tim. His whole neighborhood showed up for a cancer fundraiser. They comforted his grieving wife and small daughters and raised a shocking amount of money in memory of Tim. They did this every year for four years until Tim’s widow remarried. Everyone moved on, but I still feel an inner glow when I think of all those people who loved Tim so much.

    So now I’m feeling oddly the same about Pat. Her friend Ruth is making happy memories for those of us not lucky enough to know her. What a wonderful way to heal the wound and to pay tribute to Pat.

  • I love the idea of your friend Pat offering a free pre-nup to a bridal party. Too funny.

    This must say something about me. I thought your post name was “Swiving Till I’m Ready to Stop”. Maybe a few too historical novels lately, but it gave me a giggle.

  • I say if you have to be a pillar of salt, stay a pillar of salt. It’s hard to move on when a dear friend is a part of you.

  • Wallow away, my dear. You owe it to your friend for all the good times and fond memories. She’d have done the same for you …

  • Ruth, your writing is just so incredibly fresh and vivid. I love “truckload of sins and slaughters.” But that’s not the point; the point is that the emotional landscape you’re talking about here is also vivid and real. Move on is the message but often it feels more like slogging, with us pushing our way through a boggy reedy marshland where everything seems to be reaching out to drag us back. Staying in place and sifting through the memories may be a more productive alternative.

  • Cindy D. Link

    I think Lot’s wife was punished too harshly for looking back at what had been her home. In another lifetime, I wondered aloud to my therapist if there was something wrong with me because I was still somewhat sad about my divorce 3 years after it happened (I was married for 25 years). Her answer was, “Do you want to be the kind of person who can leave behind 25 years of your life without some emotional attachment to the good parts?” I think she was right. Lot’s wife and I needed to look back salt or no.

  • Great writing. As usual, you made me laugh, but this piece also drew me into contemplation of human foibles and our race through life. Sometimes it’s best to stay in a place and make it one’s own. So many of my friends are running into major problems with grown-up children right now: mental illness, drug addiction, aneurism that led to paralysis, death. Four different major issues all this fall. These are moments when we need to take the time to grieve for what could have been. And, you’re right: grieving does take time.

  • So interesting to think about how Americans differ from other cultures on approaching loss, destiny and everything else. I remember when I lived in Austria my German teacher said she’d seen Forest Gump and “didn’t get it.” Then again, the TV show that was all the rage there was, gulp, Alf–remember that about the alien living with the family?

    I’m glad that you’re dealing with your sadness in your own way. Sometimes we move on too quickly.

  • Sometimes we’re moving and don’t even know it.

  • Dammit Ruth. You made me cry.

    My father died when I was barely a teenager. He and his wife, my stepmother, were killed in a horrific car accident. Everything was whisked away from me. We were not to “speak of the dead.” We had no photos of “the dead.” I still sometimes get choked up when I speak of my father.

    My kids have been asking about him. I find it so wonderful to say, “Oh yes.. he was very tall. And he had blue eyes like you Max. And he would have loved to meet you Annabelle. He would have thought you were adorable and loved to watch you dance… and my god Luc.. your hair… you definitely got his hair…” And the photos (what few I have) have gone up on the walls. And it’s been good.

    I always felt bad for Lot’s wife too… I think it’s good to look back for both the good and the bad.

  • Susan Link

    Everyone grieves on their own timeline. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to be back to “business as usual” within a few days of the funeral. It took me several months after my father died before I felt like myself again. But I think we’re seeing hints of that signature Ruth humor that we all admire so much. The anecdote about the prenup is classic!!

  • Vera’s comment is astute. Stillness frightens us b/c we are scared we’re not doing something and doing something is supposed to equal worth.

  • @Cindy D – well said. I think most of us would rather be the kind of people who feel emotional attachments to past experiences, even if others are calling us maudlin or overly nostalgic. What’s the point of life otherwise if you’re not making connections you can look back on with a smile?

  • Ruth, I did not know where the post was headed, seemingly a rambling stream-of-conscious thing, but it all gelled at conclusion– a wonderful post. Working through a personal kind of new experience with words– words put out to be freely examined by others. For people to reflect upon and possibly offer feedback that will cause the writer to feel less alone in the new experience. It is the kind of path a writer would choose to seek answers and understand self.
    To contribute my two cents worth, I see a person who is presently enduring a multiple layer of losses. Losing a parent, re-examining the earlier loss of the other parent. Having an enjoyable sabbatical far from home, then savoring the return to home, followed by a decision to pull apart and downsize home, realizing you are advancing to another step on your personal timeline. and now the loss of a close and long friendship. Bam! Bam! Bam! A lot of blips occurring on that timeline. But I’m reading within the lines you’ve written, that you may be questioning the worth of why you’re dwelling on the memories of a close friend, is it perhaps abnormal? No, it’s not abnormal. The memories are good of this friend and, on many levels, not nearly so complex as the lifelong relationship to
    parents. Pat’s passing is yielding an opportunity to combine your various grieving processes into one in which you have the unique pleasure of wallowing in a safe harbor of good, good memories. And isn’t that what a close friend would do? Provide you with a safe harbor and all the time you need to come to terms with the big picture? Pat would do it, wouldn’t she.

  • Her funeral was only two days ago. If you are reeling from grief TWO YEARS from now, I will NOT EVER NOT ONCE tell you to move on. It’s so painful when someone close to you dies. A little bit of you dies with them. That bit never comes back. Please give yourself space to grieve for as long and as hard as you need to.

    And if you’ve never read TEAR SOUP, I highly highly recommend it (it’s supposed to be for grieving kids but it’s really so good for grown-ups): http://www.amazon.com/Tear-Soup-Pat-Schweibert/dp/0961519762

    Jennifer Margulis
    Mothering Outside the Lines

  • I lost my husband more than two years ago. Do I still miss him? Only when I breathe in or out. There’s no timeline for grief, nor is it linear. You start to feel better, then slip back, then rise, then slip. You can be laughing one minute and crying the next.

    So give your grief the attention it needs, burrow into your memories, maybe write them.

    I thank Jennifer Margulis for alerting me to this blog post via her Facebook post. And I thank you for sharing this.

    Joan Price

  • Beautifully said, as always, Ruth. I am a firm believer that Heaven’s right here on Earth and by keeping our loved ones’ memories fresh and alive they are experiencing a little bit of Heaven. You keep on thinking about Pat and enjoying those memories.

  • Love this, Ruth. Thank you.

  • I wish I could have met your friend Pat. She sounds like an awesome lady, and a lot of fun to hang out with.

Leave a Comment