Monday, September 1, 2014

Bunk Bed Bonding in Quail Bell Magazine

Quail Bell Magazine has once again done me the honor of publishing me, this time a personal essay about my beloved roomie of three years, Tiffany. I've re-printed it below. Follow the link to check out my essay at Quail Bell Magazine, and please do roam about and enjoy their many other wonderful posts!!

Reflection: Why Community Matters Even to the Rugged Individual

Bunk Bed Bonding

For three years in my twenties I shared a bunk bed with my polar opposite.

Tiffany was a cheerleader in high school; I read Wuthering Heights and climbed trees by myself. She had never been kissed and still slept with stuffed animals; I was moving into our bunk bed specifically to break my habit of sleeping with men, as part of my intentional two-year dating sabbatical (but that’s another story).

Whenever I think about us sharing a bunk bed it makes me laugh, because we were truly and deeply the Odd Couple. She was a dancer and morning person who for the three years we lived together never once raised her voice, lost her temper, swore, or cried in front of anyone in the apartment—a real, classy, sweet-hearted lady. I was a cranky waitress who ranted about everything from theology to art, nailed blankets around my bottom bunk to create a dark cave to shut out light and human contact. I was famous among the roommates for my moody wine-and-foreign-film nights for one. She was known for her permanent smile, her love of coloring books and baking fat-free, home-baked muffins.

I usually shut people out; she usually hugged anyone that would hold still long enough. Our being bedfellows shouldn’t have worked. But not only did it work, it changed my perspective on community, intimacy, and family. Our whole apartment did, really, but Tiffany was the keystone.

Family is rather a fluid, theoretical concept for me. See, I am the black-sheep wandering child of two black-sheep wanderer children. My immediate family and I moved seven times before I was ten, and we were not in the military. I have a brother and sister I haven’t met. My parents divorced and my Dad moved to Thailand for a while, going on to live in four states and three countries. My brother graduated high school and moved across the state. When I went to college, I moved cross-country.
In a way, I think this splintering of family is an unavoidably American thing. First shedding the broader cultural community of country, creed, or background for the sake of rugged individualism, then taking that individualism and running with it until extended relatives, then immediate family, then spouses and even children part ways to dive into their own separate life paths, never to be at the Sunday dinner table together again.

Sharing a bunk bed with someone, much less any real intimate details of my life, was not in my vocabulary.

I remember when my amazing Mom took me to Italy to celebrate high school graduation. I remember a tour guide looking at me with consternation and confusion when I explained that I was about to move to New York City for college.

“But your mother is in California?” She said, her accent and eyebrows thick.

I nodded. “Yes, she’s in California.”

She stared, stricken. “Aren’t there colleges in California?”

It was hard to try to explain to a person from another culture that family was never the priority. Rugged individualism was. At least, it’s hard to explain that without sounding like a jerk.

It’s also hard to be a rugged individual in a bunk bed without being a jerk.

The first time I met Tiffany was when I went to see the apartment with all the girls. It was the first time most of us had met each other. Mutual friends (community) had connected us all, and on a hunch we decided that living together was a good idea. Yikes.

After agreeing to the move, I was worried that Tiffany was way too perky and sweet to be genuine. She, bless her, never admitted to worrying about my off-putting directness or alarming number of possessions. Somehow, we stuffed ourselves into a room together. A neighbor helped us build this bunk bed we’d ordered online. Tiffany took the top, and we never switched.

I rode that rugged individualist train until it broke down, waylaid by intimacy bandits. By the time I moved into that bunk bed with Tiffany, I had come through an existential crises of questioning every thing I’d ever told myself about who I was and wondering if the nomadic and self-focused life I’d led in New York City was really at all healthy. I was frustrated: If you’re a rugged individual who defines your identity through your actions and work rather than relationships, family, and community, what happens when your actions don’t seem effective? Or your individuality isn’t recognized externally? What if you’re a storyteller but there’s no one to tell stories to offstage, and you can’t get an audition?

This is like that dumb question ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?’ There’s a simple way to answer this. Ask a rugged individualist, because they’re probably hanging out at the same spot in the forest where there’s no one else around. They’d love that spot. Oh wait, that’s right, you can’t ask a rugged individualist because if they see you coming, they’ll run away. They’re elusive, like Bigfoot. Ask me how I know.

Within weeks, Tiffany’s big blue eyes and disarming kindness had worn me down. I found myself whispering my dreams to her through the wooden slats and mattress separating our bunks. Though I was always hot, I found myself switching on the space heater after she’d gone to sleep because she was always cold but would never turn it on for herself out of consideration for me. Having someone go out of their way for me like that made me melt and made me want to step up. I hadn’t had anyone else to take care of or think of in a long time. Though she was always busy, Tiffany would find a night most weeks to invade my fortress of solitude and share a movie with me in the living room. While other roommates would typically accept my brusque dodging of personal questions, she’d fix those bright turquoise eyes on me and wait until I caved.

She made it feel like I was home.

I realize I’m not the first young adult in my generation to build a pseudo-family with roommates and friends. But when I think about it, about how that bunk bed changed my life and how Tiffany worked into my heart so thoroughly, I can’t help but see that the enormous impact she had on me as a direct correlation to the enormous vacuum that preceded her.

I’d built a lot of walls over my time in New York. It’s really hard to be vulnerable enough to be intimate with someone, anyone, when you know your relationship is probably just one stop in his or her transient life. But a culture and mindset of rugged individualism tends to ignore one fundamental characteristic of human nature: We are pack animals who need love. I need intimacy. I need to build families. And my life of self-focused ambition had forgotten something every good artist remembers. You can only create from yourself, from the wealth of your own life.

And people are my wealth.

Tiffany was really the one, I think, that refreshed that lesson for me as an adult. She started as a stranger and became my family, forcing me to recognize that ultimately every stranger is potential family. It was impossible to get away from her in a physical sense, and that led to a deep emotional intimacy I’ll never fully recover from – or want to live without again. By being the ying to my yang at a difficult and significant moment in my life, she showed me that distance and rugged individuality are no excuse for letting intimacy slip. Two strong magnets will snap together even across the kitchen table.

Now Tiffany is about to move to another hemisphere with a new husband, and the cycle of building community and family continues. I like to think Tiffany taught me to be in a family, reminding me to think outside my own defense mechanisms and share. She showed me the amazing difference between being my own audience and sharing stories with another vital being.

Our bunk bed is in two pieces now but I’ll always remember the original shape. While Tiffany's not immediately above me anymore to listen to my dreams, she’s got me in the habit of whispering again.