Two Words

It’s amazing how two words can make your whole day.

It’s amazing how two words can destroy it.

The two words that lit me up like a Christmas tree were “someday perhaps?”

The two words that cratered me were “Mother’s Day.”

The words that made me smile were in reference to a future hangout with the aforementioned pen pal that I’d never actually met in real life, but had been writing to for years and years. When he/she (not giving anything away) comes to DC, it will be fun to laugh together, hug, and show them my version of my city.

My mother died in October of 2016, and as you can imagine, I’m not over it. Mother’s Day happens every single year, and I am sort of used to the onslaught of ads that pointedly ask if you’ve remembered to buy presents. The thing is, though, I’d forgotten Mother’s Day was coming up, and being reminded when I wasn’t thinking about it and wasn’t prepared was, in a word, awful.

So, like you do, I immediately bought a ticket to the opening of the new International Spy Museum that day. What I mean by this is that the museum itself is not new, the-new-spy-museum-atthey’ve just moved and expanded from F Street to L’Enfant Plaza. The only thing I will miss about their old digs is the Shake Shack around the corner. Because, of course, the thing you need after looking at espionage gadgets is a black and white malt. But get it to go. Every time I’ve been to a Shake Shack, seating was a nightmare.

I’m also saving some money for the gift shop. Last time I went, I got a t-shirt on clearance that says, “Argo @$#% Yourself” with the spy museum logo on the sleeve. It is brilliant, but I don’t wear it unless I’m hanging out with friends I feel comfortable with- not always a huge fan of meeting new people in a t-shirt that says “fuck,” even bleeped for child safety. Since I am such a huge fan of “Argo,” I found an old promotional t-shirt on Amazon for $10 that says, “the movie was fake. The op was real,” and has “Argo” in large letters with the skyline of Tehran cut into the bottom, plus the release date of the film. That one I wear all the time.

As I was telling a friend, I think I found the last piece of memorabilia available except the script, which I don’t need because I have the movie memorized, anyway. To say that I’ve seen it 25 times is an understatement by a large margin…. mostly because it is jaw-droppingly scary in some places and so damned funny I start laughing and can’t stop in others… especially every time Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and/or Bryan Cranston are on screen. To wit:

The setup is that O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) is driving Mendez to an airport to get on the plane to Tehran.

O’Donnell: I’m required to remind you that if you’re detained, The Agency will
not claim you.
Mendez: Barely claim me as it is.
O’Donnell: Your ˜In Case Of’s’ good?
Mendez: Just Christine (his son’s mother, they’re separated). Guess I should have brought some books to read in prison.
O’Donnell: Nah. They’ll kill you long before prison.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Argo,” Ben Affleck both directed it and played Tony Mendez (emphatic fist shake at not casting a Hispanic actor), who rescued six diplomats who managed to escape from the embassy in Tehran and hide out in the Canadian ambassador’s house (the ambassador is brilliantly played by Victor Garber- also one of my favorite fictional spies as Jack Bristow in “Alias”).

I love how the movie is heartbreaking and hilarious in one breath. And no, I didn’t have to look up the lines, just can’t remember whether they’re at National or Dulles. And even though I’ve seen it more times than all my other favorites combined, I still cry at the end (not a spoiler, just the orchestral score).

My best wish for the new digs is that they have a huge Tony Mendez exhibit, because he died not too long ago and therefore, I would guess that even more of his ops are declassified. I am not totally clear on the rules, but I believe when you die you lose your covers, and the ops you’ve done can be made public… just not the ones that involve other people still alive and/or are still in progress. It’s possible some are still current, because I believe that after Tony left the CIA full time, he was still an occasional consultant. No one would want to lose all that experience permanently unless the person was really, really gone. I can’t imagine the grief inside The Agency, because he was a straight-up legend.

In a way, I think that subconsciously I picked going to the spy museum because Tony died to remind myself that I am not the only person in the world in grief.

I feel the same way about walking through cemeteries. To me, it is not morbid. It is an uplifting reminder that I am not alone in my sadness, situational depression, wondering what we’d be gabbing about if she were still here, etc. What I find is that as time goes on, the well of emotional injury gets more shallow, but there are triggers that pull me right back to her open casket, and how I felt completely disoriented, as if the world had started spinning the other direction and I could feel it.

One of those triggers was Tony’s death. I started crying and couldn’t stop, eventually realizing that it wasn’t all about him. Yes, it was devastating to lose a national treasure, but it was also a direct hit on how “gone” death truly means. And not to demean losing friends or extended family, but your reality doesn’t actually crack until you lose a parent. The entire universe seems different, and for a while, it loses all its color. You just wander around sort of half alive in grayscale.

I knew that I was getting better when I could make an effort to see friends, but at first, it was only other people who had also lost a parent. They were my people, the ones who I could confide in and share my rage at the dumb things people say when you lose a loved one, knowing innately that they mean no malice, so you can’t get mad at them directly. You can only get mad at the situation. Bad theology got on my nerves, didn’t measure up to one lady who compared the death of her cat to the death of my mother at church. It made my rage go to 11 and I had to excuse myself as not to emotionally rip her to shreds, because if I had waited even another three seconds, I would have taken her head off.

There’s only one other situation that makes me truly uncomfortable, and that’s the people who, upon hearing about your parent’s death, start crying because they can’t imagine what’s going to happen when their parents die, and that also happened to me in public (again, at church). The reason it’s tone deaf is because my natural reaction was “well, it’s a good thing I’m going through it and not you.” It’s just so egocentric that I cannot deal. It’s just another situation in which I just have to walk away, because I have not come up with an appropriate response, just a sarcastic one.

And that’s the thing. Because you know the people around you aren’t trying to hurt you, there’s just nothing that anyone can say that will make it better, you have no idea what to say in response to the awkward and often just stupid.

If you don’t know what to do, let me tell you. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint, and everyone processes differently, but this generally works across the board. Say “I’m sorry for your loss,” and offer to be present. And that’s it. The ones I loved the most during that time were people who showed up, but didn’t say much of anything. They just sat next to me as I stared off into space and were willing to listen if I could manage to talk. But they offered no advice on what to do, they just let me process verbally. It’s never a case of needing advice on what to do, especially if you haven’t lost a parent yourself. It’s giving the person room to breathe and never, ever comparing grief, even if you’ve been in the same situation. Because we’re not in the same boat, just the same ocean and trying to keep our heads above water. Suffering is universal, but we all have different ways of coping.

For instance, when I was actually in town for the funeral and with my sister and my dad, I hardly emoted at all because I was speaking at the funeral and I wanted to feel put together for it. I wanted to be able to be funny, because the eulogies I enjoy the most are the ones that offer real insight into the person. My mother was a church musician almost her entire life, starting at 12 or 13. So my opening line was, “this is the only funeral Carolyn Baker’s ever been to where she wasn’t working.” It had the desired effect. The entire congregation just broke up.

I am also quite socially anxious, and only three people I knew besides my family came to the funeral, so I had to put on a mask and a suit of armor to deal with being in a HUGE crowd where I knew practically no one. The mask and the armor are extroversion to an Oprah-like level, while inside I am shaking and counting the seconds until I can get home. In short, I didn’t look like someone in grief until I flew back to DC, where I only got out of bed sporadically for about three months. I allowed myself to completely fall apart, just not in front of anyone. I did once, and it was terrifying, so I never did it again. I gave lip service to letting people in, and then I completely isolated, only emoting through e-mail or crying into my pillows when no one was home. I couldn’t even bear crying that was loud enough for my housemates to come running, and they’re people I’d trust with my life.

In public, I became stoic and divorced from my emotions, because feeling even small emotions led to a flooding out I couldn’t stop. It was better not to start, because it would stop me from engaging in conversation. Even when I was with friends, there was a risk I wouldn’t take- being there, but not present….. people talking at my body while my soul was out there somewhere, unable to respond appropriately with laughter or empathy or whatever the situation needed…. as well as just nodding and smiling because I could hear people talking, but I couldn’t understand what was being said. It became background noise.

In essence, compartmentalization was necessary to have a fighting chance at moving on.

I thought I knew grief from bad breakups, and it was a wake-up call to realize how differently devastating this grief continues to be.

That’s because even though you gain and lose people to circumstances throughout your life, there’s still a small chance they’ll reappear. You apologize for being shitty people to each other and as long as the apology comes with changed behavior, it will generally stick…. or as I call it from a stolen line, “resurrection happening in the middle of the mess.”

As an aside, Easter is a very important holiday for me, because I don’t generally celebrate Jesus’ resurrection literally, but the way we resurrect ourselves, both individually and in community.

When a person dies, as opposed to a relationship, you lose hope. You lose the future. And if the person dies relatively young, you get angry at having the years stolen away in which you feel entitled. My mother was 65. She died just months after her retirement from teaching- she never even got to enjoy it. What I miss the most is that I thought we could go to church together more often, because she wasn’t working. Even when she took time off to come and visit me, she’d never take time off from church as well. When she died, she was completely free, because her church had so few members that they decided to close, and she hadn’t found a new church yet. I’d already started looking through solos because I thought I had my favorite accompanist back, and I’d already talked to my choir director about it.

My choir director and my mother were cut from the same cloth, and every time Sam played solo piano, if I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell the difference. When my mother died, it made me come unglued. I went to church for about six weeks after I came back from the funeral, and it was just long enough to realize that it was the biggest trigger of them all and I still can’t go back. I know I will; eventually I will get that trigger stamped back down to manageable, but today is not that day.

I do appreciate that Mike, the husband in the family I live with, keeps inviting me to his church, even though it’s relatively conservative United Methodist. I’d still take him up on it because I know the hymnal from front to back, as well as soprano descants for nearly everything. Singing would be the most important part of church for me no matter what the congregation believes.

In true introvert form, I want to be invited even if I don’t take you up on it.

Another two words that make my day?

Please come.

Personal and Global

My gut is telling me I should write something. My mind is saying, “I got nothin.’ This is because so much has happened that the pictures from each event are swirling so fast that I can’t grab one long enough to describe it. As one Tumblr user said, “do you know how much braining it takes to make the words go?” I’m not sure I’ve ever identified more with any statement. Ever. I am much better one-on-one, so I’ve been writing a lot of letters… believe it or not, there are actually some things I won’t vomit all over the Internet. I know it’s hard to imagine. I mean, I’m so shy and retiring when it comes to talking about myself. But right now, so many things are internal that I literally can’t force them from the river that runs underneath my skin into my fingers.

What I can say is that my birthday was full of joy at having my family here to celebrate. It’s been years since I had a birthday party with my dad and sister. What’s even better than that is my sister is the good kind of lobbyist, so I see her almost as frequently as I saw her when we both lived in the same city. Now that Congress is winding down, I won’t see her again until possibly October and definitely in November, but it was great that this month’s work trip coincided with the transition from 40 to 41.

Movies and television about the CIA are so fascinating to me that I love that my age is the same as George H.W. Bush’s presidential number. No comment on how I’ll feel about 43. In this vein, I would like to skip directly from age 44 to 46.

Interesting sidenote about CIA television. Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime Video begins in Lebanon, so I’ve been able to look at amazing pictures from the real country (it wasn’t actually filmed there) thanks to Hayat’s upbringing. For those of us just joining us, I rent a room from a Lebanese family, complete with photos in country throughout most of the house. Because of them, Lebanon is on my bucket list- too beautiful to ignore.

I will just have to find a big, strong man to accompany me, because I’m a feminist and I’m also not stupid enough to ignore the rules in a Muslim country. Lebanon is not as strict as some of the others, but I’m not taking any chances. Because I’m such an introvert, I’d probably be the most comfortable in a burqa, and I’m not kidding. I’m a writer and observer. Not so much with the talking to strangers, and although I am generally delightful in conversation, for the most part it is me overcoming my natural shyness and jumping into The Leslie Lanagan Show.™ You don’t generally get the real me until we’re at a secluded table, cups of coffee between us… and even then, we have to have known each other a while. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with people until I’m assured that they know the real me, and for better or for worse, love me anyway. But no one I’ve ever come across dislikes The Leslie Lanagan Show.™ It comes from years and years of practice. Fake it til you make it and all that comes with it.

It is probably for this very reason that I spend so much time alone, because I want to spend my time as an authentic person, able to walk around in my own gargantuan inner landscape. I think mostly about where I want to go from here, not career-wise, necessarily, but who I want to be as a person. As my anxiety goes down, my capacity for love goes up. It’s easy to love people who love you back. Hard to love the irritable, the angry, and the unknown.

My authentic self wants the capability to love the world where it is, how it is… and at the same time, so angry about the things that divide us as a country and as citizens of the world.

For instance, it is inconceivable that people are having trouble believing that Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House is just a basic hatchet job, when this is the same reporter that broke the Watergate story and has also covered seven other presidents in addition to Trump and Nixon. For instance, my favorite Woodward book is Obama’s Wars, where he doesn’t even blink in his critique of the president, and presents some information that tempers unfettered adulation, such as his own Syrian blink of 2012-13. No president is above reproach, and while I admire Barack Obama greatly, and would do basically anything he asked, that does not transfer into thinking he is a perfect person. No one ever is. We are all angels & demons, depending on the choices we make and when.

Trump… opens with staffers stealing things off the president’s desk, knowing that if the papers aren’t there, he’ll just forget about the issue… and one of them involves instigating conflict with North Korea. I am not kidding when I say that almost literally, the bombs start dropping in chapter one.

So, to discredit a reporter and non-fiction writer who has an amazing reputation is infuriating to an enormous degree. If anyone is capable of telling this story, it is Bob Woodward.

Write it down.

So, to put it mildly, my thoughts have moved past the personal into the global, which is probably what is driving my interest in intelligence-gathering. One of the points that Woodward makes, which is very relevent at this time, is that the FBI and CIA have different standards for espionage. This is because CIA evidence is rarely used in court cases, and “the Feebs'” evidence often is. Therefore, vetting in the CIA doesn’t have to be quite as high, because it does not have to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of evidence” requirement- the former in criminal cases, the latter in civil litigation.

This, of course, bit CIA in the ass during the WMD years, which has, in turn, made them even more cautious now… in the words of Martha Stewart, “a very good thing.” Now I’m just pleased with myself. I made a complete sentence using CIA and Martha Stewart. #touchme

But, of course, it’s not just thinking about the world that has me interested in intel. I am just one of those people who likes Knowing Stuff.™ To be in a room full of journalists or government workers is being invited to sit at the cool kids’ table for me… the reason I know DC is where I belong.

One of the great joys of my life is when Dan and I meet for lunch, and I get to walk her back to her office in Foggy Bottom. I’ll let you guess what that means. More fun to figure it out on your own. However, I will say she’s not a spook. But she’s sure as hell smart enough to be. Also, because she’s so small, it tickles me to think of her back in her Army days, running around in full battle rattle. I have no doubt that one of her main strengths was running right at the enemy and knocking them off-balance. 😛 (Oh, am I ever going to catch hell for that one…)

Now I’m back to thinking about the personal, all the light my friends bring into my life. I am one lucky, lucky 41-year-old. I’m not sure how the next trip around the sun can top this one, but I’m sure going to try. It seems easier when I feel like I’m literally lifted off the ground, the warmth of friendship holding me aloft.