This morning, I am publishing a modestly adapted essay I wrote in November 2019. The timing of its original publication now seems deeply ironic, as we were a blithe hop, skip, and a jump from a global pandemic that would send the entire world into a grinding halt. That is: everything changed just three months after this essay was published. But the essay is seasonless. It resonates as much now as it did then, for old reasons that ache in new ways, and for a crop of new reasons, too. I still miss Elizabeth. I still mourn the ends of girlhood friendships. I still grit my teeth at the changes in my own children. I was watching my boy trot around the lip of the pool the other day and a sob involuntarily rose to my lips. He was holographic, sylphlike, seeming to change from baby to boy before my eyes: his still-chubby face, his now-slender body; the tighter orchestration of his movements against the infantile floaties on his arms.
The other day, I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis:
“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back, everything is different?”
This is true in ways both auspicious and grief-inducing, as I articulated in my original essay. Today I am sitting here revisiting the notion of change — that Janus, that ancient god of doorways — and plumbing for new insight.
One of the hosts of my current favorite podcast (still devouring these episodes — what a delight!) made an off-handed reference to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Don’t Want Anything to Change” song. She invoked it as the perfect song for when you need a good cry, whether you’re nursing a broken heart or grieving the loss of a loved one. And though I was not feeling lachrymose on that particular chilly October morning, I tuned in, and these lyrics left me swallowing, hard, as I walked up Columbus Avenue and thought back to some of the emotions I grappled with when my friend E. was very ill:
I can feel you fading
But until you’re gone
I’m taking all the time I can borrow
The getting over is waiting
But I won’t move on
And I’m gonna wanna feel the same tomorrow
And I don’t want anything to do
With what comes after you
I don’t want anything to change
I always think a lot about change this time of year, because of the turn in seasons. And I think a lot about E. this time of year because her birthday was September 26th — and she loved birthdays. There were always thoughtful presents wrapped in carefully selected paper, long and effusive cards detailing the ins and outs of our friendship, peppered with inside jokes that I can only barely make out as a thirty-five-year-old when I have the emotional stamina to thumb through some of the memorabilia from our young friendship, cupcakes from boxed mixes with goopy letters frosted on top, occasionally balloons, brought to school and stowed by her locker. Do I have this wrong or did we occasionally write on the windows of her car in the school parking lot with window markers to celebrate the day? (T.D.(T) or E.S.(P), please clarify.) And her parents always threw her a proper party at their home in Vienna for the occasion. I can see so clearly her bright and happy face excitedly chatting with all of her girlfriends fanned around her, the entire day joyful and silly and feminine — just like she was.
Oh, I miss her.
When I think of her now, I often wonder what life would be like if she were still alive. Would she come up to visit me in New York? Would we be comparing notes on child-rearing? Would she send me middle-of-the-night texts while breastfeeding her own child? Would we meet in the summer at a beach house somewhere between Virginia in New York, where we would inevitably spend two or three nights re-living our youth? (And would she remember that summer afternoon in the parking lot at Kings Dominion?)
These unfair and unproductive musings are markedly different from the kind of grieving I experienced just before and after her death, when I was appalled to think about the gaping chasm she would and did leave behind. Her absence was a shock I could not accommodate. It was an acute kind of grief that — when I wasn’t thinking directly about her passing — softened around the edges into mushy, maudlin, ephemeral observations of the changes in my life now that she was gone. I would be driving down Wisconsin Avenue past Thomas Sweet ice cream shop and I would think of the evening we marched over there with our parents and a posse of our friends after the awards ceremony that book-ended every school year, and the way we laughed and whispered and held big cups of frozen yogurt with sprinkles as our shoes caught in the red herringbone brick of the Georgetown sidewalks and the sun set behind us. And I wouldn’t think directly about her so much as the fact that we would never walk that stretch of Volta Street together again, or get frozen yogurt together, or talk about that night together — and how everything was changing, and how awful it was.
If you were to toss out the word “change” at random, I would reflexively think upon it in favorable terms: turning over a new leaf! open doors! new beginnings! progress! movement!
But change is a trickster, a Janus. And it can be the grimmest of reapers. It is woven so deeply into the fabric of grief that I occasionally forget that its churning gears are to blame for much of the gritty heartache of mourning a loss. The befores and afters. The retiring of things once used. The way I still wrote her birthday into my planner for many years though I’d bite my tongue every time I’d do it. The acerbic longing for the normalcies of what once were.
And change is hard, full-stop, no matter what age you are or how well-supported and emotionally aware you find yourself. Change is hard when you are a toddler and are suddenly accommodating a new routine, or a new brother, or a new home — or, like our child, all three at once. (Yikes!) Change is also hard when you are a thirty-something woman recovering from a c-section and overwhelmed by all the new thoughts and emotions and responsibilities that are swirling around you. And I would venture to guess that change is still hard when you are in your fifties and sending your children off to college, or when you are in your sixties and retiring from a job your love, or when you are in your seventies and moving from your home into a retirement community.
Why is this? I wondered as I listened to Bonnie’s lyrics again a few days later. It must be in part because we are creatures of habit, attached to what we know, alarmed by and dubious of what we don’t. And if you think about it, every institution in our lives is oriented around stasis. Do you know, for example, how difficult it is to move from one state to another, even in the U.S., a federation of states with a shared government and shared interests? When we moved from Illinois to New York, it felt almost like no one had ever attempted to move between states before we had — everything was protracted, done on paper, faxed to weird back offices, biased against us. For example, it was a multi-month-long challenge to get our fare cards for the L cashed out. We had to fill out a paper form drafted in like 1982 indicating we were permanently relocating, send it via email to a random inbox that I to this day cannot believe did not bounce and wait eight weeks for our check of $108 to arrive in New York. Transferring all of our information and turning off utilities and all that jazz — the entire thing was archaic, tedious, and heavily inconvenient. It made obvious that change is an underprivileged entity. That everything in our lives is optimized for lock-in, for stasis. That there are myriad invisible forces designed to keep us in our places.
And we construct our own centrifugal forces, too: the rituals of our mornings, the sequencing of nighttime skincare regimens, the spots in our home designated for piles of mail, or discarded shoes, or dish towels. Everything around us designed for comfort and habit and routine.
But life is synonymous with change, even when we can’t see it happening. As a mother to two young children, I am often reminded of this fact, as that pair of pants that fit micro two days ago now no longer button, or that puzzle that used to be too advanced for mini is now easily completed — and then, much to my wonderment and glee, placed back in the box and returned to the shelf. (Thank you, Montessori!)
Oh, change, you two-faced woman, at once the mask of grief and the mantle of progress! I don’t know about you or what you’re up to but I’ve come around to the notion that you will be my recurring visitor whether I invite you or not.
+Serena + Lily is running a tent sale! Love these gingham crib sheets, this table lamp, this floor lamp (perfect for a nursery), and this seagrass-wrapped pitcher (a great hostess / housewarming / engagement gift too).
+I love the fact that rugby shirts have been in the past season or two. This La Ligne rugby is epic (and on sale for around $100) and I also love the ones from Kule. For your little boy: love both of the colorways of this J. Crew style! Adorable with a pair of white shorts.
+These earrings are so fun.
+I was reading recently that lost luggage is at an all-time high! Next time you are traveling by air, tuck an AirTag into your suitcase!
+One day, when I am traveling more frequently, I want to invest in a line of Rimowa suitcases.
+Pistola Denim makes the best reasonably-priced white denim I’ve tried. The only other brand of white jeans I’ve loved is by J Brand but they no longer make it!
+Beautiful, demure dress for a more conservative affair.
+Fun woven ballerinas!
+Love the colors of this toddler pullover!
+This looks like the easiest dress to wear.
+This dramatic scalloped hat is fun.
+Adorable under-$100 bag.
+Sweetest canopy bed for a little girl.