I do remember the flowers

The first time I came home from South Africa — was home even the word, at that point? — it was for Claude’s second birthday. A mad weekend trip in October. Four days in transit for three days of visiting. I recorded that I was “so excited, so dead-tired, so hungry, starving; so little in the face of life, of longing-for-longing, for lovewish; damp feet from biking in the rain; so much commotion, inner agitation in search of composure.” Organically, I no longer remember this moment. All I have are these notes, these traces of someone coming out of hiding. I suspect that I cannot remember because the weekend was such an anomalous episode in such a long moment of stony inner silence.

Another time, my partner sent me flowers. I do remember the flowers. They were delivered to my work, delighting the administrative staff and making me feel slightly self-conscious, since it was a spartan office building with few traces of our personal lives. I went about my day, but then a few hours later, I suddenly found I could not bear to be apart from the bouquet, as if it had become a symbol of otherwise inaccessible sorrow. “The more Talia needs me to make things OK for her, the less I can be un-OK myself,” I wrote that day. We always liked talking about our family system of feelings, about the shifting emotional equilibrium. “I’m invested in emotional stability and dampening because I have to be — because beyond liking my work, my job is basically to do affective buffering for all these freaked out students and tutors (with their role ambiguity and terror about finishing their masters) while mandatorily telling my colleagues how happy I am to be here…”

There was something perversely self-protective about emotional labor that year: It took me out of myself. By taking refuge in care work and all its repressive, performative strictures, you can put off feeling your own feelings for quite a long time. The unconscious can steer you away from them when they become impossible. But in the end, to defer is not to cancel. By spring, I cried all the time. Daily. A complete mess.

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