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February 7, 2009 by · No comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: sutto007

Sometimes a place makes you sick. Not because it’s environmentally polluted or contaminated. I don’t mean that. I’m talking about the pollution of the soul, the demise of the spirit. Sometimes a city, a town, a location can make you positively, desperately ill; it can kill you – if not literally, then in the spiritual sense. People who know this about places know it intuitively but more often than not, they know it through personal experience. M. was one of them.

M. was by nature a spirited soul, someone so full of life and so much in love with adventure that she would go anywhere, try anything (within the bounds of safety). Her energy, like her friendship, knew no bounds. She was generous, genuine and good. We met as young women in a city full of potential, or so we — like so many other young women in search of autonomy – thought at the time. Newly graduated from university and with a few sound internships under our belts, we were embarking on our careers, and our lives. Little could we imagine what the future had in store, but we thought whatever it was, it would be of our own making.

We began, as most women of our generation did, as executive assistants, me in a hospital and M. in a law office. But we were “smart girls” and very soon we had each moved on to more lucrative and promising posts. I became a departmental administrator and later a senior manager while M. began what for a time was a bright political career.

The problem for M. was that we were living in that most political of towns, a place where outside of a monumental marble edifice planted firmly on a hill overseeing the city, nothing much mattered. A place where who you knew, and what you could do for someone, was everything. A place where people you thought of as good friends said things like, “Gosh, I’d really like to help you but I need a favor from ______, so I really can’t say anything.”

Initially, as these insults became more grating, M. remained cheerful, free from any form of corruption and ever optimistic, choosing to believe that other people’s bad behavior was an aberration in an imperfect but still pleasant world. She trusted others even after they had given her reason to doubt them, and they trusted her, primarily because she did what she said she would, and never left a message unreturned. Eventually she garnered respect and gained visibility, and that’s when the trouble began.

The fact was, M. had become very, very good at what she did. People liked working with her. Her boss didn’t think this was a good thing, however, seeing as how it had begun to divert attention away from him. And so he found ways to diminish her workload, her stature in the community, her very credibility, until one day, there was nothing left for M. to do but to seek other employment.

In the circumstances, that was not easy. Political parties had changed and so had the players. There were issues of “funding,” “timing,” and “circumstances beyond one’s control,” although everyone assured M. that she would be called the instant things changed. Still, the days and weeks and months dragged on, and being no longer affiliated and close to power, M.’s phone was rendered silent.

Never one to give up easily, M. licked her wounds, returned to graduate school, got married, started a family, and tried her hand at freelance work. Eventually, she was invited to join a non-profit organization whose work interested her immensely, although it was only peripherally political. This, she thought, would be a satisfying home for her intellectual and career aspirations for a long time to come.

But alas, after some years of being “the golden girl” who kept numerous projects afloat while various V.P.’s, all men of course, were flying to exotic places cutting deals with greedy governments, M. lost her job again. For just like after World War II, Johnny had come marching home and there was no longer a need for Rosie the Riveter. When the time came for a new proposal and the reauthorization of funds, M. was effectively demoted so that a returning prodigal son could assume the more senior job she had managed so capably. So M. became, once more, a woman without portfolio, a woman living on the margins of her chosen field, and on the periphery, one might say, of the city in which she lived, a proverbial “stranger in a strange land.”

By now, M. had begun to change. She had grown quietly angry, skeptical, increasingly wary. She laughed less, or at least with more edge. Her optimism gave way to caution and careful assessment, frequently tinged with acidity. It was at this time, too, that she started to become somatic, experiencing “a pain in the neck” as well as feeling “sick to [her] stomach.”

Still, M. persisted, and managed to start an academic career as an adjunct professor in a well-respected university. Despite the fact that she worked for a woman variously described as “a piranha” and “demure but deadly,” she soldiered on, respected by her colleagues and revered by her students. Soon she came to love being muse and mentor, but this career too was thwarted when the piranha decided unilaterally to replace her with a macho Ph.D. who had been chased from another institution of higher learning for sexual harassment.

The colleague who first told her about this fiasco also said, “I certainly wouldn’t trust him alone with a female student but of course, I can’t say anything.” When the piranha called M. into her office and handed her a letter which read, “As of today, your services will no longer be required,” she had the presence of mind to ask her one question before leaving the office: “When you wake up every morning and look in the mirror to put your makeup on,” M. said, “what kind of a woman do you see there?”

It was all M. could do now to keep body, soul and family together for she had become so full of despair that her desperation choked her as if insidious kudzu vines had wrapped themselves around her heart and were proliferating faster than she could draw breath. The blood no longer flowed through her body but slugged through her veins as though her very soul were occluded. She felt as if her heart were failing just as her spirit had done. She became unable to speak publicly without quivering, lacking all sense of credibility given all that had transpired. Anxiety rose in her throat choking her until “fight or flight” became her only options.

When she talked about this with people she trusted, their eyes became glazed with confusion and helplessness. Some of them told her how lucky she was and advised her to “enjoy the down time” or cavalierly said, “You’ll get over it. Things will change.” Her husband grew tired of her weeping. Her children looked afraid. She felt responsible for the demise of her family life as well as for her own spirit.

So she went to see a therapist who looked at her blankly when she said, “I feel as if my essence has shriveled up and died,” or “I feel so trapped.”

Then she began to fantasize relief. She dreamed of traveling to New Mexico, driving a Jeep Cherokee, wearing Navajo skirts and silver jewelry, her hair flowing freely in the wind. She imagined going to the nearest international airport and boarding the first plane that was announced. She invented torrid lovers and wondered what it would be like to be lost in a cave with them.

Eventually her fantasies gave way to pockets of respite in which she took short trips on her own, visiting old friends, spending a week at a retreat or a weekend at the beach, reading good books and writing. At first, her husband said he understood her need to do these things, but as time went on, she saw that her absences made him unhappy, and he grew increasingly needy upon her return. Both of them, she recognized, were unfulfilled by this new arrangement, but what else could she do if she were to stay truly alive – a woman now over fifty whose children were grown and who no longer knew her place in the world?

As the years went on, M. made of her life something good and meaningful, teaching, traveling, mentoring, writing, giving to the community both large and small. She negotiated “a separate peace” with the world, as she had done with her husband. Her children came to understand her and to respect her fortitude in trying times.

And although she did recover herself — her sense of balance and sanity and safety in an all-too-fragile universe — M. knew one thing for certain: that a city – a toxic city – had caused the demise of a future that might have been. A place had damn near destroyed her, just as surely as if she’d suffered a fatal plague. A pox of a place had gnawed at her insides like a huge, enveloping, metastatic cancer. That is why once she left that place, she never again, not once, revisited it, fearing its pollution would pervade her innards once more, rendering her forever incapable of recovery.

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