I know now I will never experience anything like it again, will never get tangled in early love and its embodiment. The palpable heaviness that symbolizes intensity, a portent of inevitable heartbreak, will remain a memory, a theory, of the person I used to be, incarnate almost against my will, the phantom in the works lost to the chemistry of two.
The truth is overwritten by rose-tinted nostalgic romanticism: I had no voice. I lay waiting for you, passive as the door you eventually walked through. I defined my value in terms of your interest or lack thereof. And this was my first experience of love, apart from the examples of the disappeared, the crippled, the abusive, or cruelly silent, men I had watched through doors cracked just enough to allow a glimpse of candlelit shadows, their voices cutting through the fog of night and interrupted sleep. These were the narratives that imprinted upon me.
Show and don’t tell, goes the writing maxim. So I take you to a child’s twin bed with a pink plaid bedspread and then to the child herself, old enough to be considered fair game, her fashion taken from thrift stores, her summer wardrobe consisting of boxers and t-shirts she buys from the Elkton Acme, to the ambiguous mix of love and hate that burned into her in the room with the TV always going and the electric heater switching off and on, grey, then red, then fiery orange and eventually back to grey again.
There is an emptiness. I have attained to it, allowed the voices of the past to echo and take the space they need, to experience this new, hopefree age, where there is no rescue, no excitement around the corner, no lies that await discovery. Just life, where the sweetness of a memory can intermingle with the ambiguous story surrounding it, the past webbed to the present, all of it neither here nor there but allowed to exist in the infinite space of my internal life.
Yes, I know I used the lines about emptiness in the last post. They are from a poem by Kevin, probably written around the time in question.
Title taken from the first line of “Julia.”
Image: Me, the summer between 15 and 16.
Yesterday, in the process of cleaning up my email, I came across evidence of two bleak eras, days of confusion and blindness, that I really should have trashed years ago. I read them while sunk into a soft chair in the university library, my feet up on a faux-leather ottoman, a sunny, green expanse of campus beyond the wall-to-wall window in front of me, suddenly pulled back into the sticky emotional trap of the past. But maybe I never really left.
There are times when feelings go underground, when we don’t want to confront what is in front of us, when it feels easier to ignore than approach. This is the world of the emotional dodge and parry. The unsaid becomes a lead weight. The air gets thick with implication and memory. And those who don’t discuss the unresolved past and silent present tend to recreate it in secret ways, in stolen deed or hidden thought, in a life crafted of avoidance and worry. It will out eventually, in ways over which you have little control. What happened can’t be changed. But it can be confronted and apprehended in the way it affects your present.
In my experiential group at school, we are supposed to operate in the here and now, to talk about our feelings about what is happening within the group as it happens, to give feedback on our experiences of others in the group. It’s a good way to live one’s life, too, to be aware of where you are in the moment, to touch the tendrils of history that wrap that around your wrists and ankles and make themselves known as you struggle to speak, to feel what it is like to be bound by the past without pulling it into the present, to communicate those feelings instead of grasping them close.
I could say that what I feel right now is not strictly about the shared cruel foolishness of some years back, but about how those events affect my feelings, behaviors and actions as I type. So this is what I feel: Mourning. Guilt. Sadness. Empathy. Forgiveness. Fear. And relief.
Image from here.
The author advocates for more open adoptions and a rethink of how we handle the practice in general. When she writes about her struggles, her narrative voice is tinged with pain and grief. When she speaks for other adoptees who feel similarly, she gives it to us straight: Here’s the thing: Many adoptees don’t feel at home — ever, anywhere. The statistics are sobering, her observations profound. For those who feel like Barcella, living as an adoptee can be a deeply painful, potentially conflicting experience. It is meaningful, heavy, and huge.
Apart from this emotional baggage, so personal and impossible to unpack here, many adoptees live with the unknown, particularly people who came from closed adoptions or from outside the U.S.. Imagine having to contend with the possibility of never knowing your medical history, full heritage, who you resemble, or the names of your parents. For people who have grown up steeped in the reality of where and who they came from, it can be tough to picture what it is truly like to occupy a blank genetic slate. I have a taste of it, one section of my background blackened out here and there. There are gaps, lacunae, open windows in rooms with riffled-through drawers. Outside of a name or two and some dates, my mother’s entire family history is as blank as the skies were over Berkeley yesterday morning, vast and clouded over.
Barcella’s representation of her experience as an adoptee ignited the ire of Motherlode readers. People can’t seem to give her the space to tell a less than cheery tale. They get defensive. They mention exceptions. Commenters are particularly angry about the author apparently taking on “victimhood” status. You think you had it bad? . . . when I was a kid, I wished I was adopted . . . maybe your depression was inherited from your biological parents and has nothing to do with being adopted . . . what’s the big deal? And, of course, what is the alternative to the way things are now?, a difficult, perhaps impossible question to answer.
The article and its miasmic haze of comments brought another salient, universal question to mind: why is it so hard for us to listen to each other?
This song is what was playing on my internal soundtrack as I finished this post. Somehow it seemed appropriate for something I wrote in (quiet) honor and protection of my mother, a baby boom adoptee from the era of The Girls Who Went Away.
Image from “One.Fly.Owl.”
The city lives in my absence and it will continue to morph, to change, to become more itself while I occupy a totally different quiet life thousands of miles away, a life molded by a child and years of isolation and no paycheck. I am not the same person I was in my early 30s, but I would love to get a spark of her back. It’s like I was in love and when my lover betrayed me (who betrayed whom?) I ran off across the country to this simpatico town where it never rains and we are boxed in on all sides by busy, ugly streets and my self-definition withered down to who I was to other people. I dug myself into a pit and now am crawling my way out of it, but the landscape has changed all around me and I’m somehow in my mid-forties, years lost, identity somewhat battered, a flimsy thing that barely stands up on its own. In the process of gaining a son and all the true joy and pain associated with being a parent, I gave up some things I should have held on to.
I miss my ability to be spontaneous. I miss long walks down gorgeous streets. I miss levity and unfettered freedom and optimism. But most of all, I miss my independence, the deep knowledge that I am a separate human being with needs, wants, and interests, who could look forward to the future and occupy the present. I want it back.
Who am I? I can be more than a mother. I can be more than a wife and a recluse. I am a student, but is going to school the right thing? I think so. Still, I don’t know how all the pieces fit together. Everything is unfamiliar. It’s no wonder that a glimpse of the me who used to be – the we who used to be – makes me mournful. Why not retrieve the best of her while keeping the good stuff from who I am now?
It can be done. So I will do it.
Image from Counterforce.
And I realized how unhappy I am. Not depressed, but unhappy. Bored. Unfulfilled. A complainer at that -- I am not unloved or uncomfortable. I am centerless: nothing holds. I see the time I’ve already wasted. My fate lies in my fumbling hands.
But is this wasting time, being useless – watching the boy pull off coin tricks or show me his crazy dance moves, listening to his laughter when he reads, sitting next to him on family movie night? Is it wasting time to hollow out my days for my family, even when my presence no longer absolutely necessary? It depends. Balancing the boy’s needs with my own is a tricky business. I still have not figured out how to be both present at home and in meaningful ways in my outside life. Yesterday I mentioned to him that he might be able to skip a day of his afterschool program next semester, when I may have only one day on campus. He demurred, mentioning wanting to be with his friends. Which is great – this is what I want for him – friendship, a life outside of our house. But after almost a decade of building my life around his time, sometimes loving it, often resenting it, I find myself at a loss when considering two full days at home by myself. Three classes isn’t enough. Housework certainly isn’t enough. And the more time I spend here alone, the more inward and isolated I become.
It’s my problem to solve. It’s up to me to find my get up and go, though it feels like it’s gone up and went. I feel like a sheet on a line, insubstantial, whipped by the breeze, waiting for someone with capable hands to release me from the clothespins and return me, folded, to the linen closet from whence I came.
But there are solutions that will put me back into the world, ways to be useful, help others, and get out of myself and this small life, putting the talents I’ve left behind into the forefront again.
So I’m going to saddle up and find them.
Image of flowers by me.
Then school started. The loose ends became more frayed, my ability to dodge them hampered. Graduate counseling programs often force you to deal with your own shit, even if you’ve been dealing with that shit for a very long time. Things come up. Anxiety forms and grows. Most weeks I don’t get out of my family therapy class without swallowing down the tinny taste of suppressed sadness or using a wadded-up tissue to dab away tears at least once. This is hours after my group counseling class, where we spend half our time in an actual process group, anxiety occupying a place in the circle, often dogging me (and others) in anticipation the day before.
Groups bring up stuff. Being asked about one’s family of origin does, too. What do you do when it won’t fit back into the box you packed it up in?
In my case, I carry that overflowing box with me for a couple of days, wandering around in an enervated haze. I feel the reverberations of my mine-laden Monday, attempt to integrate new knowledge, try like hell to accept the messy process of change and recognize what counts for healing. Not that it’s really so conscious. It’s mainly an amorphous, irritating, funky feeling, where it seems like I have no reason for being so slow and preoccupied. And then I remember: I’m carrying this (*^$# box around. How can I repack it so that it never pops open again?
So everything is on the surface right now, accessible with a memory, with an in-class exercise, with a question that inadvertently hits a sore point. I so want a quick fix. Somatic psychotherapy. EMDR. A visit with an intuitive. I want to tape that box shut and store it away. I want to feel everything and then be done with it, have my body reunite with my mind in a shotgun wedding, till death do they part. Failing that, I want to grieve what I can never get back and move forward from there, knowing that my feelings are legitimate, signs of life, lines of connection to myself and other people.
It’s all a process, with long lulls and sudden lumbering lurches forward. I’m strong enough. I’ve got the stamina to handle it. But I wish it were easier.
Image from Intentional Workplace.
It’s easy for me to come here for the quick fix, for access to the lightheaded swoon, or, if not the swoon, to the emotional plummet. Writing about my past or emotions that overwhelm provides a safety valve, a way to maintain homeostasis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It serves a purpose. But there are times when my emotions are profound. To express them here too lightly cheapens them, waters down them down. Unless I find the right words.
I handed in my genogram yesterday. I was the arbiter, the decider of who counted as family, who was an influence, who mattered enough to make it. My biological grandmother and her other daughter, my mother’s half-sister (who doesn’t know we exist), made the cut, as did the trifecta of J’s, John, Jim, and Jared. Kevin was there, and Aunt Mary, the foundling. And I included the boy who emerged almost 29 years ago, the one whose birth was also a death, with a dotted line connecting me to the shadowy form, the submerged body, of the other responsible party. This bit player in my life, this game changer, only comes as a set of initials, “RD,” his anonymity preserved forever. He even remains anonymous to himself, perpetually clueless.
I have a lot of feelings about that time. I used to feel like a criminal, marked by my negligence and the resultant death. I was ashamed. That has faded, though I can’t say it will ever fully go away. But I also feel angry. Forsaken. Ready to claim the trauma, to own it, and feel it and know in my bones that I did not deserve to be left unsupported. And Sunday, crying in the kitchen, my husband there to hold me, was as close as I have gotten in a long time to really feeling it. Already that emotion is fading, going underground. The facts rearrange themselves into a story again, the occasionally trotted-out tale of my lonely youth. But the story has such depth. It formed me. It showed me what to expect of others and what to think of myself.
I was young and in pain. No one helped me, even after I gave birth to a stillborn child in the unheated cottage I called home. I was profoundly alone and left profoundly alone. The event itself was traumatic. Being left holding all the emotion, all the responsibility, being abandoned as an already-wounded 16-year old just was further trauma. And that’s really what it was. Trauma.
Instead of just writing about it here, I want to talk about it with the ones with whom talking about it scares me the most. What if they say I deserved it? That I was a bad person, impossible to take in? That I was too much? What if they are threatened by the talk, feel guilty, and in their guilt lash out? It’s happened before. Perhaps I need to gather support. To rehearse. Because I don’t think I can keep it in any longer. That’s a good thing, ultimately. Potentially healing. But scary as fucking hell.
So that’s where my brain’s been, its tentacles wrapped round the event that will never die, thinking again about the people who turned away, not knowing the effects of their non-action, never knowing the power they abdicated to a child. The fear that I brought it all upon myself has frozen me in place, trapped me in blame. But a thaw may be on the horizon.
Image: The genogram (with some information blurred out, though it’s impossible to read anyway).
Several years ago, I wrote about a man with whom my mother and I once lived, who, while working in a somewhat nebulous capacity as an undercover police officer, shot and killed a man, a month after shooting and injuring someone else. Calvin Trillin wrote about this case in his New Yorker “U.S. Journal” series. The article was later reproduced in his book Killings, perhaps chosen for the way it symbolized the tension between the drug culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s and small-town America.
John met my mother in mid-1973, when I was three. It was after he was acquitted of the 1969 murder, but before his trial for perjury. We lived with him for less than a year. My memories of the relationship are from its bookends: feeling proud of myself for being very quiet when he visited our apartment on an early date and feeling frightened when he plucked me out of daycare post-breakup to buy a stuffed animal. He was a scary man who did some bad things to both my mother and me. I don’t have strong memories of these things, but I know the stories. And the stories may be incomplete. I was sometimes left alone with him, though my mother put an end to that after he spanked me with a spatula, leaving marks.
I had to decide whether to include him in the genogram. So I did, this man who wielded a dark influence, this man we assumed for years was dead, taken by drink to an early grave.
He turns out to have a sales job in PA. I could connect to him on LinkedIn if I wanted to.
I could. But I won’t. What a strange, strange world we live in.
Image of some Hell’s Angels from autoevolution. John was in the Warlocks motorcycle “club” when he was recruited to be an undercover officer.
I am in a funk. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working on a genogram, a kind of extended family map that reveals patterns and connections, for my family therapy class. Or it’s because of the small group activities in that same Monday evening class, discussions that sometimes bring me back to a bad place, a teary, stupid place that I thought I left behind years ago. It could be the way the course is lightly arranged – “experiential,” the free jazz jam of the counseling curriculum, peppered with these crazy riffs on the therapeutic process, the occasional discordant low tones of theory punctuating the lulls – which makes me feel like I have to build a foundation of knowledge all by my lonesome. Which is reminiscent of the foundation I had to build for myself in childhood. Which is a situation that sometimes indirectly comes up in the exercises we do in the family therapy class. It’s a circular argument, a closed system.
I like structure. I like to know where the next note is coming from. I need to know the basics of the music before I can appreciate the freeness of an improv session. Give me rhythm. Harmony. Swing. Bebop. Hard-bop. Give me at least a taste of the history, a prelude, before you hit me with freedom and fusion.
But apart from an attachment to really learning the theory behind the techniques, I have to keep in mind boundaries and thresholds, know who to let in and what to keep in. I haven’t been able to keep it in. If I don’t withdraw, it comes spilling out of me, pain in liquid form. And that’s the point of therapy, right? Not the point of a counseling graduate program. So I’ll bring it up in therapy. I’ll talk to the prof about how I feel like I am being ripped by the tides of her teaching approach, with no sea floor to even tap my toes against. It is nothing but endless waves, a liquid, turbulent horizon. My arms and legs are spent, and the piece of driftwood I’m hanging on to is so small and keeps disappearing along with me under the next wall of water.
All I need is a boat big enough to take those waves, the knowledge that somewhere beneath me, earth meets ocean. I need to start in the shallows and work my way to the depths.
I need to know the history of jazz.
The song that was going through my mind when I started this post:
Image by Konen Uehara, from wikimedia.
My memories of those days are not sun-washed. It was always overcast or in between or the sky had flung its pierced curtain of darkness across the sky hours before, the moon pushing through only to lengthen the shadows. I was never fully present but kept trying to escape the recent past, to forget my hidden shame. In my quest to quell, to quench, I added to the burden.
Shame has the power to keep us in place. It is an ever-tightening garment, a binding of anger turned inward. It does not allow for flow. I carry that constriction. My future clients probably will, too. How would I guide a client to the point of self-forgiveness, to the shrugging off of shame? How do I guide myself?
Self-forgiveness is one of the reasons I started this blog over six years ago. I’ve done some bad things in my life, some of them within the lifespan of the blog, but the thing I thought I needed to forgive myself for was not completely my fault. When I was a teenager, my life blew up. I was unparented, essentially abandoned. After the explosion, I was left holding all the responsibility. That was my job, to take the pain away from the grownups, to contain the anxiety for the rest of us. Forgive myself for what? I played the role I was given. Nobody anticipated that it would be a life or death part.
I still carry shame for that time, for my actions as well as for my abandonment. That felt personal. Over time, my shame became a heavy lead-laced cloak, me naked and trembling beneath. Reluctant to make myself vulnerable, to expose my shivering form, I pretended the cloak was a gossamer cover of insouciance. It was better to pretend than to show my true pitiful self. But over time, I pulled and ripped pieces of the cloak away until whole sections tore and dragged on the floor. As scary as that experience was, it was also freeing. I take more healthy risks, with great effort to be present as I do so, presenting myself as if I am fine with as is. I continue the process of shedding my shame.
It can be done, in small concentrated moments or in huge, fantastical rips. Sometimes you will take those tattered pieces and reattach them. The process is not linear, but iterative. And I truly believe that everyone has the capacity within themselves to let go of those feelings and find the goodness within. Besides, shame is bullshit. A sham. The devil’s work. With guilt, you have the possibility to change, to do it differently next time. Shame traps you within yourself.
Gather up your strength and toss off that leaden cloak. Enlist help. Find someone to tug on one end while you pull on the other. Have a friend hold your hand as you let it drop to the floor. If you can do it, than I can, too. Because no one can do it alone. And that’s no crime. It’s a sign of strength.
Image from The Wit of the Staircase by the late Teresa Duncan. Her somewhat disturbing story can be found here. More here, from Vanity Fair. The things we stumble into . . .
If the mold is based on a stereotypical idea about judgmental old folks, I don’t want to fit it. Curmudgeon becomes shorthand for bitter elderly (wo)man. It’s not the fact of being older that is the issue, it is the assumptions many people make, that somehow older folks have hardened and brittled over time, are constantly clucking their wizened tongues and making judgments about kids today and how the world has changed while they’ve stood still. This is a mold that deserves to be broken.
In most cases, I avoid fitting neatly into a category. Who wants to be poured into place? My abundance cannot be contained. But sometimes I want a tribe, my people, a group of all ages, not always looking on the bright side, the ones who cultivate their shadow selves, who exist in the dappled light of the forest, where things are not always as they seem, and the rock that might trip you up hides in the shade.
I am fine with this darkness, with this ambiguity. But I weary of being the lone voice, the one who names what is often nameless.
Image from Books by Caroline Miller.
How do people do it? How do they limp along in life without the engine of intrigue to keep them going, existing free of distracting stress, no attractive nuisances in their peripheral vision? Is this what being a grownup is about? Studying, list making, dusting, chopping, sautéing, serving, filling the day with gerunds? The washing up, the vacuum attachment and scrub brush prowess, the no dirt know how? The normalcy of it all, mundane and everyday?
The bones of my existence are beautiful, stark things. They float in a cloud of luck, detached from each other but solid and real. Image what could happen if they joined together and worked for a common purpose! Instead the head bone is disconnected from the neck bone. The hip bone floats free of the thigh bones. It is a crackling soup in here.
But no one notices. Surely this means I have gotten away with something. The police have searched the area and come up short, despite these hovering bones. We have been overlooked, obscured by my blue eyes and the time mapped on on my body and face. And I obscure us myself, hide my bones and bones to pick in abandoned stretches of mind. These corridors are spacious and dry, plenty of room to float, while on the outside I load the dishwasher and make tomorrow’s coffee.
There must be balance, a symmetry, the pursuit of the unachievable mixed with the comfort of a well-padded life. The foot bone connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connected to the leg bone, and so on, held together by love and will, right up to my addled skull.
Photo of silent movie actress Theda Bara with a skeleton from funkomavintage.
I wish we could have a conversation, share the commonalities, outside of the one that brought you here. That commonality is, of course, a thin wedge to place my assumptions upon. The meanings we create out of dust, minor clues, and imagination . . . . Perhaps it is all pure fantasy.
That thing, the first cause, is a faded memory. Surely you are aware that our shared context has dissolved? What you have in full Technicolor is a yellowed newspaper clipping for me, as out of date as newsprint and the Technicolor process itself. It’s a story about people I used to know, like that wedding announcement I ripped out of the Times 23 years ago. We no longer exist the way we once did.
I did something stupid and got hooked. Over time, the hook rusted away to grit and dust. The only evidence it ever was is a ghostly stain, a memory of corrosion. So perhaps it is not what we once shared which continues to draw you. Maybe you are here for the writing, for those glimpses at and full-on flashes of the intersection between fact and fantasy.
I will never know.
Here is what I wish for you -- no hooks, just hand in hand love, trust, and the ability to hold and be held, to contain the knowledge that you are loved, even when it feels like there is no bottom to the ache. It’s not as simple as it sounds.
But you know that.
Painting [Conciencia (Conscience)] by Aimee Garcia Marrero, courtesy of a Washington City Paper review of her 2004 show at the Fraser Gallery in Georgetown.
In the movie scene, in the last frames of the episode, in the middle of the book with the troubled character who reminds you of yourself, the man kicks away the chair beneath him. We see his body gently sway. His feet point to the floor. We hope that the beam collapses or the rope breaks. We want someone to find him before it is too late, a rescuer with a hunch, the last person he spoke with, the roommate with the sensitive ears. Failing that, we want it to be quick. We don’t want to see what happens when a body is subjected to such violence.
Suicide as plot device can fool you into believing you know what it is like to feel that sort of despair. Unless you have felt that sort of despair. You don’t really know such deep bleakness until you are in that moment yourself. I’ve been there, but I’ve never been there, if that makes any sense. And I hope to never feel that way again, though I know the odds are against me.
We are born into this world alone. We die alone. Hear it deeply voiced and serious, a cliché-ridden movie trailer voiceover to a film you don’t want to see. But perhaps it is true. We emerge as singletons, the symbiotic relationship with our mothers broken at birth. When the time comes to make our exit from this life, we do so without a guide or companion.
I suspect those who attempt suicide feel this aloneness more keenly than most.
From the prompt “Solitary.”
Image from here.
I thought of the table with its harvest gold cloth and surround sound conversation, where the jokes were over my head and the criticism personal and deep. In those days, it did not matter what I said, even when my face was furrowed and sadness seeped out of me. Sometimes the grownups spoke to me in clipped tones, trimmed close to the ground, no room to hide. I always wanted to be alone, to sit in the garage on the rusty chaise lounge, sip chamomile iced tea, and read a book, become a shadow in the shade. Some journeys are not meant to be retaken.
What if I could choose my moment to go back – which would I pick? Would I reoccupy it as I was, with the clean conscience of childhood, no foreknowledge, or choose to come preloaded with the experience of time? Would the baggage and wisdom of adulthood ruin the moment or deepen it?
I had no desire to shove myself into the past, to mourn again the loss of childhood and of the adults that occupied my middle distance. My mother would be in her 20s, her bed made by committee but she its only occupant, and my dad, too, cynical in the way young men can be, hope still shining through the fissures. The dead would rise, my grandparents by turns soft and sour, arriving in a cadenced whir of sewing machines and table saws, the air around them fogged with sawdust and coffee, ozone and sweat. And I would again be comforted by the beliefs that died as I grew, my misplaced faith in adults, the assurance that time was my own and time was infinity.
My husband said he would go back. Any day would do. It would be more time with his mother, and he could return to the present with that memory, the sound of her voice, the soft touch of her hand. He had a point.
What would you do? What day would you pick? Your answer may depend on your childhood and where your peace lies.
1970s pattern image from Dressing Vintage.
However, I do tell stories from time to time, most of them autobiographical. And a little while back, my friend Anne mentioned this to writer Leah Peterson, who was looking for other writers to profile in her blog. Today, I am the featured storyteller at leahpeah. If you are coming to this writing to survive from Leah’s site, welcome!
One of the questions I answered for the profile was “Tell me a secret?” I struggled with this. Did I go with relatively light secrets or with the big one, the burden I carried until I was in my late thirties? I decided to go for the light stuff, my former SECRET security clearance and the fact that I have a license, but don’t drive (yes, still).
I have an uneasy relationship with the secret I carried around for over twenty years. I am not ashamed of it, but I am afraid of its heft. I am afraid of it weighing down other people. I am afraid of being pitied or becoming a subject of voyeuristic interest because of it. I am afraid of getting lost in it again myself.
Though the secret is here, buried in the blog, it is not the presence it once was. It’s more a fact, a life-shaping experience, but one that doesn’t define me. I wrote and wrote and wrote about it until I no longer felt a need. And then I deleted most of it from the blog, not wanting to be summed up by what happened when I was 16, alone, and helpless.
Still, I will never totally elude my adolescent experiences. But why should I? They are part of who I am. Just not the only part.
It’s still a struggle.
Image of me walking to the BART taken this morning by me.
I am in fashion limbo, at that awkward age where it feels like some things – second-skin jeggings, shorts so tiny they creep up my ass to reveal the subterranean curves of my ever-sinking buttocks, gladiator sandals that strap ‘round the calves as they train-track it up to my knees – are no longer options. Actually, those things were never options, but still . . . I couldn’t pull those looks off if I wanted to at this point (well ok, maybe those sandals – if they offered the right kind of arch support). I am a middle-aged lady whose days of cling and showing a little skin are behind me.
Perhaps I also feel this way because I am in a kind of general limbo, in the midst of an existential crisis, except that I am so distracted by my various tasks and insecurities that the existential crisis is somewhat smothered. I can hear its muffled voice underneath all this whining. Who am I and what should I be wearing? it whispers. What sort of meaningful work am I capable of doing? But the whines, the booming anxiety, the echoing heartbeats, cover it over until all I am left with is a closet of black skirts and loose-fitting pants, with shirts in variations of gray to match and the same pair of shoes every damn day.
I am tired of whining. It’s trap, a way of hiding from a deeper truth. So I’m frumpy for a few more months -- who cares? So I don’t know who I am anymore – I’ll figure it out. So I am having trouble getting over that pesky hump of being here now – accept your limitations and go home or just keep on trying.
Sometimes I wonder what people from my out in the world life would think if they read my work. I don’t share the blog with classmates. My supervision group members have no idea that it exists, and I certainly am not going to be distributing the link to people at my placement. All these folks are too busy to even care, and I can’t say that my material has been gripping lately anyway. But there’s a lot of it, a lot of my internal life out here in what passes for print, the inner made into a display, as though I would not exist without some written record of my thoughts, joys, and pains. However, what I put in this blog is generally not the stuff I share in the real world except with a chosen few. For most of my acquaintances, I am a quiet mystery, or perhaps simply quiet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, about my need to be seen and approved of in some way but only in a format that I shape and edit into being. What you read has been carefully moved from draft to final product. It has been rearranged and polished, even more so lately, as I struggle with feeling competent in other areas of life.
But the need to control my public self is what it is. It is what it is. Perhaps I can just leave it at that, observe this tendency without judgment.
I have so much – health, a solid family, a great kid. My husband has a job he loves that supports us financially while he also supports us emotionally. A little temporary stress won’t hurt me. Accepting the fact that I am high-strung might help loosen a string or two, and the need to be seen the way I’d like to be is not a crime. Sometimes acceptance is the path to change -- sometimes acceptance is the change.
It is what it is. I am who I am. And a shopping trip to Crossroads Trading Company might help pull me out of fashion limbo, though I’ll stay away from the jeggings and the slips of skirts that are more than half a foot above the knee.
In the dream I had right before waking, I was holding a party in Central Park. My clients were invited, but there were not enough adults to look after them, and the children scattered. As I climbed a steep hill in a frantic search for my charges, a man passed me from behind. He bore a burden of a sculpture, a compact, gleaming metal object made of sharp-edged spirals attached to an anvil-like base. The man thanked me for ducking out of his way, then gave me the secret for climbing uphill when you’re carrying something dense and weighty. Every few steps stop, rub the small of your back, then reach back around and gently pat your other hand. His message was clear: care for yourself.
As I walked home last night 13 hours after leaving it, I thought about this profession I am becoming a part of, the amorphous, ambiguous world of counseling. And it came to me: people are not problems to be solved. We are human beings who do things for reasons. Those reasons need to be honored, even if our actions seem insane from the outside. We are not trouble or troubled – we are trying to protect ourselves from trouble, from pain, using any means necessary. Sometimes we keep on protecting ourselves long after the danger is past.
Changing these patterns takes time. The impetus must come from within, though support from loved ones and outside guides helps. But changing is not problem-solving. You are not a problem, though your behavior may be problematic. Change comes from self-compassion, from an ability to hold the difficult feelings, to allow yourself to make mistakes, to acknowledge that we are all ugly sometimes. The path to change is through accepting yourself, flaws and all.
There is no soul mechanic who will come along to patch you up with his fix-it wrench and his human engine knowhow. Your future is in your own beautiful hands. They may have to pull you up a sheer face of rock or hold on to a frayed rope as you shimmy into the unknown. You could find yourself reaching out in the dark for people that may not be there or grasping an invisible chain as it whips you through the ether. Be kind to yourself. You will get through. You will reach the top, will touch ground, will grab that hand. You will find yourself on the other side of despair. You are capable. We all have it within us.
Change isn’t easy. It’s not predictable. But it is possible. And there is no need to go underground.
Some rights reserved by familymwr.
I found these pictures while I was looking for old cat photos this afternoon (you’ve inspired me, Grace). Suddenly I was caught up in memories of cozy mornings waiting for school closing announcements, me snuggled next to my grandmother in her room or lying alone in my twin bed with the pink plaid quilt, bulked up against the cold. I was sitting next to the electric heater in that long-gone kitchen, my breakfast on the tray in front of me, enveloped in warmth.
The blizzard of ’78 kept us out of school for days that January. The following year, after I moved back in with my mother, another blizzard hit the East Coast in February. The Delaware schools were shut down and my mother had to work, so my grandmother picked me up on a Sunday and took me back to the beach (as we called the Eastern Shore river community where my grandparents lived). It was a leisurely trip past snow drifts and through slush, with a stop at the Acme in Elkton for provisions. Once home, we unloaded groceries from the car and brought them into the house. As she opened the pantry to put a can of soup on the shelf, my grandmother clutched at her chest and staggered back, suddenly unable to speak or breathe. I barely got the cat off the chair by the heater before she collapsed into it and lost consciousness.
Although it has been almost 35 years ago to the day, I still remember the fear and confusion, the knowledge that seeped into me as my grandfather and I sat at a neighbor’s house through dinner and nightfall: my grandmother was dead and I had done nothing to stop it.
Grief is a surprising, sneaky thing. It reaches out of the inky darkness to pull you under years after the fact. There is no avoiding it. You just have to ride it out and let it go. It will submerge you, but the plunge is temporary, until the next undertow sucks you in.
Tonight I rode it out and let it go. And though the eight-year old me and the boy at eight may share a resemblance, our stories are very different. I’m glad for it.
During my junior and senior year of high school, I lived in the Little House, an unheated, unplumbed summer cottage my grandfather built on his property for my aunt and uncle’s family. Those formative, lonely years, were packed with drama and loss and co-authored in part by D, my boyfriend at the time, almost six years my senior. When he was in college, D barely made it home for the occasional weekend and could only be reached by post or long distance call from the rotary phone in the main house, calls that went to a pay phone on a dorm floor and could be answered (or not) by anyone. The one time I the dialed the number, late at night, a girl answered. She called to D in a familiar tone. I hung up.
With D, the draught of disappointment was always followed up with a chaser of hope. The Valentine would appear two weeks late. He would come home from college and show up at my doorstep after midnight, swaying slightly in the doorway, skateboard tucked between arm and torso. In those moments, I was lovable, my body filled with warmth and light. I was seen. I was important.
My sixteenth year was the last I allowed myself to care about Valentine’s Day with its syrup and pap and its promises of love. I lived by myself in a cold little cottage and didn’t know the truth of my worth or what I could reasonably expect from another human being. How do people show each other they love them? How do you suss out love in a confusion of conflicting messages -- the parent who doesn’t show or who buys a house where there is no room for you, the boyfriend who waits two years to take you on a date, the familiar who crushes you with his weight while you close your eyes and grit your teeth?
Love is messy. It contradicts itself. And children need it to be unconditional. Reliable. For some adults this is not an easy task.
These days, love is three weeks of sickness, one family member after another falling prey to the virus. It is the back room with its lingering scent of nachos competing with valentine roses, the game of Magic: The Gathering between my husband and son in the background as I sip champagne and try to write. Love is the homemade cards, the little hurts inflicted and forgotten, the bigger hurts still shadowy in the background, but not getting in the way of the fact that I m committed, that this is my life no matter how scared I am that it will one day disappear.
That’s love. Imperfect and contradictory as it is.
The Squeeze song that inspired the post title is here.
Image by bethan.
How does one write about depression without sounding like a self-pitying whiner or someone full of misdirected anger (you aim the gun at your own soul or at the place where your soul used to reside)? How does one make it interesting? I’m not as deeply sunk as Hyperbole and a Half’s Allie Brosh was when she discussed her struggles. She wrote her moving accounts at the end of a drawn-out episode that scraped emotion down to bare, bleak bone. At their worst, my bouts have been emotionally intense, your garden variety blazing self-hatreds. I was useless and hopeless. I knew this would never change. But at least I could – and did – cry. A lot.
I am nowhere near that state. I am generally holding it together while I stand at the nebulous crossroads of non-rumination and self-examination, trying to not focus on my perceived deficits, the myriad ways I fuck up with clients, while being as self-aware and questioning as possible about the myriad ways I might be fucking up with clients (and talking about these things with colleagues, thereby revealing my tendency to fuck up). This balanced self-awareness is essential for the counselor path I currently travel. Keeping vigilant while not sinking into doubt is like holding two opposites in my hands at once, hot/cold, rough/smooth, sharp/dull. It is like trying to contain dampness and flame simultaneously, impossible and dangerous.
And I find I want to apologize for what I write here. I am sorry to drone on. I am sorry to be so melodramatic, to complain when there is nothing to complain about. I am sorry for other things, too, for needing to structure my life in such a way that I reduce my stress to an absolute minimum. I feel guilty that I am able to do this. I feel ridiculous for complaining, ridiculous for feeling so down. Writing about this stuff feels shameful and embarrassing, weak and needy (will I post it? if so, will I take the post down?). Rant though this (may) be, it does not make me feel better. It makes me feel . . . ugly and ungrateful.
It does sound ridiculous, no? Well, this is what depression can be like. These thoughts are hard to escape. I have to leave them by the side of the road, to dance right past, to give them a wink and walk on by. I could drown in the self-doubt, could get lost in the loathing. So instead I will acknowledge where I am now and remind myself of all the good things, to make a list to use in times of great emotional danger.
Yes, it’s time to start working on that list. It’s time to start reaching out.
It’s time for some help.
Image Some rights reserved by wakingphotolife:.
This is what I would like for you: sun, clouds, storms to wipe the slate clean, shallows to splash in and deep water where sleek fish await your hook. On a patch of fine, white sand, just far enough from the tide line, sits your cabin, connected to the grid by a thin thread of electricity. It may leak in blustery weather, and the propane heater sputters in the cold, but the cabin is (mostly) sound. It is small, square, and contained. It is enough.
I cannot wish you perfection or pure happiness. But I can wish you contentment, a steady, light rain on gray days, the warmth of the sun at its height, the fleeting beauty of flowers in bloom, the promise of their fruit. I can wish you stability, companionship, and flashes of joy. And when despair threatens to freeze and wither your capacity to love, I wish you the ability to rejuvenate yourself by a fire of your own making.
I do not have to know you to know what we all need.
Image License Some rights reserved by nathangibbs.
It frightened me how quickly I could conjure you up, how I felt the slow tingle of addiction course through my veins. I wanted the thing I should not have. I had to be crafty to get it, to be a liar, a sneak. It was the feeling of getting away with something, the cool burn of whisky sipped from a flask in a car doing 90 down a one-lane dirt road and his hand was too high on my thigh, and all around us was dust like smoke, and it was only that moment that mattered, the moment before I got what I so badly wanted.
I could never possess you. I did not really want to. You were a symbol, a sign of my arrested development. At 18, I had the romantic maturity of a middle schooler with the body and quasi-freedom of a college freshman. It is only lately that my emotions have caught up with the rest of me. And I am so sad right now, so sad and slow, that for a moment I conjured you back, a boy with whom I barely spoke.
For I am slipping into the trough again, feeling low, incompetent, and bleak. I have accepted that I will never feel that frisson of danger again and am ok with that. Been there, done that, should have gone for therapy and antidepressants first. But as I slip, I wish there was another way to feel the thrill of pursuing the pointless, to get a little pick-me-up from the other side of the abyss.
A Helmut Lange 1967 fashion photograph from an article at the Daily Mail.
As part of my search for clarity about grad school, I went to an intuitive today. I left feeling grounded and more sure of myself. I have a better idea of what I want to do, though I am not writing about it until I talk to my family, who are out of town for the weekend. One of the surprising things that came up, totally unprompted, were my preteen and early teen years and how they connect to my current doubts about my abilities. We did not delve into particular events, just pushed deep enough for me to recognize that the formative tween years get short shrift in my narrative, get pushed aside by the overlap of life, death, and loss that came before and after. That in between time has its stings and insecurities, its layered silences, its insults that I learned to accept as matters of fact.
The intuitive told me I need to separate who I am from how people treated me. I was not – I am not – what happened to me. It is a simple, profound thought that bears repeating. I am not what happened to me. You are not what happened to you. We are separate from our experiences. Yes, we can use those experiences to inform our lives and, yes, the experiences shape us, but what happened to us, particularly in childhood, does not define the essence of who we are or were. What happened was not about us. It was not our fault. It was about the people around us, the ones obsessed with destruction, or the ones who pretended nothing was going on, or the ones who knew, but felt powerless to help.
I feel sorry for those people from my past, trapped in the stickiness of their unhappiness, unable to do anything but try to trap others. Still, those years inform me, are a part of who I am, and who I am is good, damn it. But I am not yet at the point where I can totally forgive. I have a lot of righteous anger to feel first.
In the dark night of the soul, anger, sadness, and mourning come before the dawn. Perhaps all will be clear when day breaks, but the light on the horizon is still a few hours out. In the meantime, I invite in the child I once was. I make her a cup of tea and a comfortable bed and tell her she is fine just as she is. In the morning, we will let go of what came before as best we can.
Image from Citizens Voice.
Maybe it was the job you wished you had, so you tossed away hours daydreaming about it while the world swirled around you. Maybe some distant city attracted the sparkle of your mind – if only you lived there, everything would be better. Or it was a woman. Or a man. Somebody else. Anyone else. But let’s leave you out of this. I can only focus on what I know about myself. I spent years on and off with part of my mind dedicated to crushes, to adolescent, projected puppy love. Even now, crushless, I cordon off a vital part of my imagination, a vital part of my vulnerability, by letting the shadow of memory hang over the present.
It is like remembering the decadent meal I never had at a restaurant I could ill afford. It is a jealous, grasping recollection of dust and stale bread disguised as intimate laughter on skin-warm nights. I seek the crumbs. I collect information. I track down leads. I sweep the floor and gather my gritty winnings in a jeweled box. There is a compulsion to my gathering and hoarding. And in the process I miss what gleams around me.
Today I came across a picture of an old crush with his current squeeze, or it came across my Facebook feed. I wasn’t looking for it and it didn’t bother me in any way but this: why did I waste so many years thinking about this person? During my long season of crushing, I was always coupled. Nothing would ever have come of it. And I probably wanted it that way, wanted to remain safe, with the tingling, dangerous thrill of what would never happen.
In a recent reply to a friend’s comment, I mentioned my issues with vulnerability. I have been trying to untangle vulnerability from weakness, but there are knots in the twine and my fingers are stiff with cold, and sometimes it feels like I twist it up all over again. Still, I have made progress. I can now see how often I distract myself.
I see the game. I seek and find, I grasp and gather. I pay attention to what is not important to keep me from focusing on what is. I know it. Now how to get past it?
Image of Cupid’s bow and arrow (in San Francisco!) by Miles Actually.
My palms were calloused. My lips bitten. My toes cranky after being jammed into shoes with points so sharp they may as well have been shivs. This was my prison break and there were fractured bones and shattered light bulbs and barroom bathrooms where a friend watched the door and no one dare sit on the toilet. What did I care? I was made for this and this was pure rebellion, a reaction against stereotype, me the wide-eyed drug mule with a heart of lead, with nails of sharpened steel slipped into ladylike white gloves.
I courted those who wielded love like violence, who bloodied with blunt emotional force. I gave my world to fire. I gave myself to pain, directed blows to secret places, dabbed on makeup when the punches strayed. And what was I supposed to say – that I deserved it, one way or another? That I controlled the trajectory of a stranger’s fist? It was a balancing act between love and hate.
I craved safety and I craved danger and sometimes I set fire to old letters and books I loved as a child. I wanted to be covered over with ash. I wanted my scars to be hidden by bruises, the bruises hidden by cloth. I had a misshapen heart and nobody needed to know it but me.
The covered over, battered sense of self that comes from physical and (or) emotional violence in childhood cowers underneath a hard exterior. It leaks out through the cracks. To live fully, you have to learn to deal with it, to ignore the self-doubt that tells you what you really deserve, who you really are. In the midst of difficulty and insecurity, you must remind yourself of the best in you and work hard to make sure the best isn’t muffled out by the soundtrack of what came before, the marks against your body, heart, and mind.
I create new soundtracks. I embrace the scars and the strength that come from survival. I do not deny the source of my self-doubt, but give it a voice and use that voice to direct compassion towards myself and others, to remind us that we are not alone. The voice gives me depth. It is relevant. And it does not define me.
Image from a relatively recent ad taken from a Business Insider article. I hesitated to use it because I found it disturbing, but it also illustrates a point about how women -- and girls -- are often looked at and treated, which has always been a subtext to my story. I thought about using this or this, both old ads that have been used as supposedly humorous illustrations about how things used to be. But we’ve come a long way, baby. Or maybe not.
Do you remember the time of lies, the months of fever, when the world was distorted through heat and smoke? The wood was too green, the season too warm. I wasted fuel that year, with nothing to show for it in the end but broken hearts and a field of stumps scattered with damp piles of ash. The acrid smoke brought tears. The innocent stumbled, hapless and blind, along smoldering paths and knelt, gasping, on beds of brittle pine needles. I watched behind a radiant, fluid wall of fire.
This was life. I have never been so aware of my own heartbeat or so sure of my sin. Yes. I was a sinner. I let innocence turn to ember, let the wind carry away my guilt. Until the wood ran out. The fire died, and my two halves turned to face each other. My guilt reappeared in a sudden gust, thicker than smoke and just as damaging.
Thus began the era of cold, the years of darkness, which slowly became the time of repentance and rebuilding. The sun, muffled by smoke, began to emerge. That was life. What we live now is life. We occupy the reality of love with its negotiations, monotony, and moments of transcendence. The past is already written, the trees bear scorch marks, but the story goes on.
Could I have stopped myself that year as I blithely felled lodgepole pines and set matches to piles of kindling? I do not know. That era is a part of the narrative. I cannot subtract it or deny the twisted beauty that emerged, the space made for new growth. I cannot deny the power or the dramatic loveliness of flame.
Here. Let me make you a fire, gather armfuls of fallen wood and stack them against each other in a circle of stone. I will touch lighter to branch and we will watch the wood catch. It will be safe and beautiful, a manageable drama. As the flames eat away at dead wood, I will ponder my obsession with this metaphor, my attraction to the inferno, my need to play with what can so easily rage out of control.
Oh, what hope comes with great destruction!
Image Some rights reserved by marfis75.
The only version of eternity the living can pull off is temporary and generally measured in years. And so the leaving begins early for those who have already lost too much, who must protect against the pain before the pain comes. Their exits consist of little shrugs and slow pullings away, the rearrangement of tensed bodies in other directions, the creeps to the opposite side of the bed. It comes in idle daydreams and uncontrollable nightdreams, in clipped conversation and the adding up of things not said. These retreats smooth the way for the true final scene, when one or both of the lead actors must go, voluntarily or not.
What will it be? Accident? Cancer? Fear? The fickle heart, both figurative and literal? Does it lurk in the blood even now? Will there be years of health until the body just peters out, the absolute end of the whole affair peaceful, easy, and expected? We just don’t know. We don’t want to know. And in the early days, death and disease seem almost unthinkable to the young and healthy. The heart will stay true, the mind will stay sharp, love will give and bend like a flower in the wind and be as strong and as light as titanium.
It is not so easy. Love requires work. True commitment requires bravery and the ability to stare down one’s past or come to terms with it in some way. It is only as I have become more integrated that I have been able to hold the these thoughts and emotions simultaneously, the deep love, the knowledge that I don’t want my marriage to end, the heavy reality that, someday, it will. I don’t want to leave before the story concludes naturally, to sidle out during intermission or withdraw during the scenes of stark famine. But I have been guilty of the occasional absence, the slip outside for a cigarette. There are times when I have been stuck inside my own fear, blinded by it.
These days, I try and speak my mind. I do my best to stay present, to stay close. I sit in deep gratitude for what we have, in awe of what can be created, lived, and dissolved in the short space of a lifetime.
Image Some rights reserved by h.koppdelaney.
Seven and eight are good years, when the brain is just starting to warm up and the hormones (hopefully) aren’t kicking in. The life that surrounded me in July 1977 wasn’t necessarily all happy, but I could escape it in books or my grandmother’s house. All I knew was the present moment, with a bit of past behind me. This is what I think creates nostalgia for childhood – a spotty, optimistic memory as well a desire to return to a state of not-knowing, where everything was new and, for many of us, experience hadn’t yet made its deep, dark imprint.
Having a child is a guaranteed ride back to your own childhood, for good and bad. I’ve only lately realized more fully how much of my parenting has been reactive, which isn’t unusual for those grappling with childhood hangovers. I have had to pry my techniques out of a sense of self-protection, because it’s not me we are raising. We are raising a kid whose childhood is very different from mine. He comes with different strengths and with a more solid foundation. He does not need to be protected from the experiences that marked me.
I know that each of his ages will bring back memories. Soon it will be the year I spent with my grandparents, followed by the Shangri-La of the brief time when my mother was a full-time student, followed by my grandmother’s death, followed by years of darkness.
I am as prepared as I can be for these reminders. But there will be other complications. Over the next school year, I will encounter what will feel like my childhood self again and again as I interact with my clients. This is one of the reasons counselors-in-training have individual and group supervision. In addition to supporting budding therapists, supervision gives you an opportunity to work through what is known as “countertransference,” which I think of as seeing your own experiences in the experiences of clients, of confusing your life, past or present, with theirs, or reacting to them in inappropriately personal ways. This is in part the role of individual therapy as well, to help you work with whatever gets triggered by clients’ stories and situations.
The client version of this is called transference, but people do it all the time outside of the therapy context. I see it in my interactions with the boy and the man. I see it in how I interpret others’ responses to me, in what makes me anxious, sad, or angry. Transference enters the scene constantly and it is always worth it to check in with yourself to see if what you are reacting to in someone else is actually within you. This is not an easy task.
So when I found myself crying one evening at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, a little wined up and maudlin, because of the joy the boy took in his freedom on the campground, I knew it was because of the premature ending of my own childhood. This is part of the nostalgia, too, the memory of what it was like to have a safe home base, my grandmother, in contrast to being a child who once knew safety but no longer had a place to feel comfortable and protected. That was my life, not his, and chances are that he will look back on his childhood with joy that is not tinged with pain, but is instead filled with the knowledge that we took care of him, protected him when necessary, and supported his forays out into the world.
That is the goal, anyway. We will do our best.
Image (two doll images in a row!) Some rights reserved by if this is tuesday.
Back when I was a teenybopper and peppered my conversation and writing with the expletive BARF!! (always in CAPS, always with at least one !, often underlined more than once) I marked both the date and the time of my journal entries. Who knows, my thinking went, maybe I’ll look at this diary years later on the same date at the same exact time! I was tossing out a line to my future self, not understanding that my future self would cringe at her earlier self-representation, as though I could have toned it down at the time, could have taken that youthful enthusiasm down a notch or sanded off the shine to make it something jaded and subdued. At 12 and 13, I was holding it together all on my own. Even with my necessary sense of self-control and self-protection, my writing bounced and rolled with the naïveté and intensity of early adolescence. I was, after all, 13. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that my journal entries were normal. And noting the exact moment I put pen to paper? Time was important. The moment needed to be marked even as it slipped away.
Who are we and who do we become? That girl was me, as were the earlier versions. I remain the same now, but I am totally different. I’ve experienced too much not to feel the loaded space between me and pure joy, a space thick with memory and association. Living permanently in the emotional imbalance of adolescence isn’t healthy, but that sense of magic about life, the dewy newness of it all, that earnestness, is worth finding again. I still exist in contradiction, my mind and emotions in constant push-pull, but the emotions are often flat. They are line drawings of what was once solid and rich. Sometimes living among these two-dimensional ghosts is enough. More often it is not.
Accumulated experiences, little disappointments, swaddle me like thick animal skins. They protect me from cold. They confuse me in the heat. They mute life’s sharper points. They make it hard to feel my own temperature, to gauge who I am and how I really feel. So I must remind myself. I must fill in the emotions, conjure up memories of newness, shrug off the skins one by one.
I bring back the excitement of anticipation and commitment to joy that I once had, where it is always May and the boy I have a crush on is just about to notice me. I recall the thrill of looking up a potential love interest’s last name in the phone book, tracing a finger across the entry, reaching for the phone, losing my nerve and dropping the receiver back in place. I remember when I couldn’t wait for dusk to fall, for the sky to darken and fill with stars, because the night promised something amazing, a story, an encounter, a chance to walk barefoot on cool grass in the dark. I return in my mind to spring in Washington, DC, the cherry trees in bloom, heavy and fragrant. At 22, I had already been through great loss, had already started forming my shell, but still, anything felt possible. The world was open and new at my feet.
Surely we can create joy again and again, believe in the fantasy that almost anything is possible at any moment. It must be so. I will make it so. I will leap over cynicism and forget heartbreak. I will feel anticipation and openness again, will experience happiness pure as my pounding heart.
Image Some rights reserved by J. Star.
Last week, former roommates of mine (a married couple) lost their oldest son. He was 18, fresh out of his freshman year of college, and the circumstances surrounding his death are still somewhat murky. His death haunts me. We are lucky, so lucky to have what we have. I was reminded again to appreciate the moment, to take nothing for granted, though, of course, it is hard to always live this way, with a light grip, the most delicate of touches, never assuming that the hand I reach out for will always be there.
I am prone to considering every negative possibility, to attempt to block tragedy by imagining it. This is exhausting. Impossible. Somehow I have to live in the in between world where nothing is guaranteed, acting all the while as if it will go on as planned. Occupying ambiguity is not a task for the weak-hearted. It is too easy to hide behind the threat of loss, to use it as a form of self-protection, not getting attached because I never know when accident, disease, or another person’s perfidy may take the ones I love away. How do I love fully, with acceptance of the temporary nature of life? I struggle with this question all the time.
But yesterday was as perfect as it gets. We discovered something new. We walked in the shade. We walked in the sun. We lived in the moment and wanted for nothing.
Image of the East Bay, off in the distance, taken by me at China Camp State Park.
It turns out that I am a grownup now. The equine nostril-flaring of yesteryear has changed to deep, calming breaths. There is no pleasure in stamping my petulant foot. I no longer have revenge fantasies and don’t compose whole monologs or written diatribes in my head to those who done me wrong. My life has morphed from angry punk screed to wistful Billie Holiday song. Been there, done that, know that a lot of it is long behind me, that the path ahead will be what it will be.
Perhaps the adolescent me is finally integrating with the adult me. Kudos, I say. Yippee! It’s about time. Still, there are traces of her floating here and there, wisps of thin cotton 80s Esprit shirts that are in need of ironing, a chain of safety pins for earrings, cigarette ashes and butts dampened in the backwash of a 7-oz Budweiser, the bottle tucked into a hole in the box springs and then forgotten. It’s a sardonic, cynical blend that doubts love and fears attachment and feels colossally invisible, the thing you can’t see that takes up valuable time and space.
One of the big themes in the counseling world today is trauma and its affect on mental health. There’s big-T Trauma (experiences of the life-threatening and/or violent variety) and little-t trauma (the things that cause people great difficulty -- basically, what feels traumatic to a person). It’s one of those subjects that I’ve always wondered about for myself. Was I Traumatized as a child or traumatized as a child? Was I (T)traumatized at all? Should I accept the theory behind cognitive behavioral therapy, which posits that how we feel is often related to how we interpret events, that we can change those interpretations to feel more positive and therefore feel better (poof go our problems)? Am I wallowing in it all? Do I just need to think a new way and all will be magically cleared?
I don’t spend a great deal of time with my therapist going over my past. It comes up on occasion, of course. We don’t avoid it and sometimes it’s very necessary to talk about. What we are trying to work through are the effects of that past. They are pernicious, these complicated overlapping lengths of wire that wrap through and around my heart and psyche. It seems clear to me now that my continued driving phobia is related very much to the traumas of my adolescence as well as to how that adolescence affects my interpretation of my needs today. But knowing something and being able to change it are very different things.
Still, look at how much I have already changed. Compare now to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. My writing is different. My life is something new, beautiful, and complex. And I’m the one who’s done the changing. No outside forces were responsible, though I am grateful for the support of other people.
I’m allowed to struggle, to be imperfect, to hold my fragility in strong hands. I give myself permission to be human, to see my faults as foibles, to treat my fear as a symptom and not a necessary protection system. But I’ll also rejoice that some of my old coping mechanisms are falling away. I grant the girl her gin-infused orange juice and her loud music, make her toss the pack of cigarettes. I revel in her sheer emotionality, the joy and pain, the things I separate myself from. I tell her we’re ok. We’re ok now. Bit by bit, more of her will come to me, safe in my adult arms.
Learning to live in acceptance is not a simple task.
I’ve simplified cognitive behavioral therapy to a caricature above.
Amazing image from the 80s (“Punk rockers in Downpatrick”) courtesy of the Burns Library, Boston College Some rights reserved.They don’t look quite so punk to me, but they do look like they’re having a good time.
Every so often, it’s nice to be reminded that I can still make friends. It is not always easy to meet people in adulthood. I don’t do casual chitchat or hit the town in loud, large groups. I haven’t traveled with a pack since middle school and the friendships I make tend to be intimate, the type where we plunge from the shallows of small talk into darker, deeper water almost immediately. It’s not for everyone. Since moving to California, I’ve made two local close friends, one of them from my graduate program, and I feel so lucky to have them.
On Friday, I took a quote, an initial paragraph, and my thoughts and went with them. Unfortunately, I went to a very bleak place. And then I posted. And then I thought better of it and took down the post. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, premature posting, careful redacting, lighter rewriting, post obliterating. I’m sure Friday’s post still exists on the rss feed – nothing there every seems to die. I’m not sure if the bleakness was because of extended sleep deprivation or whether, in keeping with the California landscape, I was stuck in the muck of a washed out mental arroyo after a winter downpour, but damn, self. Not every man I’ve known is cruel and the ones that were don’t deserve my rumination. So there.
But I do still like that first paragraph. It reads like a last paragraph, the memory of the end of something, the real end. I dedicate it to those who have overcome childhood pain, who still struggle, but do their best to be kind and open-hearted.
The last time I saw him, the sky was cotton-puffed, a series of striated altocumulus clouds stretched across it. It was the same sky as the other last time, and the last time before that. Look at the clouds, I wanted to tell him, but we were well beyond weather chitchat. His eyes were on the road ahead. I was going to make a joke, compare us to The Who, always on the perpetual Last Tour tour, but then I remembered: Entwistle was dead. There is a last time for everything and I often don’t often know it’s the last time until months, maybe years after the fact. Even then, I question the finality. I avoid the little deaths.
He was cruel and made excuses for his cruelty, could not face his actions directly and so reflected the shame on to me. I clung to warmth. I clung to needs barely fulfilled, but eventually only his caricature remained. The heat, the clouds of billowy smoke, the convex mirrors on the perimeter of self, all concealed a core of pain that he could not abide. His cowardice is all I remember.
My fascination with the sky continues and the clouds of Berkeley do not disappoint. Cumulus, cirrus, nimbus gather against the dark hills, float against a blue sky. I take my phone and shoot, hoping to capture the moment in the same way it captures me. I do not expect anyone else to notice because I am the designated noticer. I am the one that feels and sees. I am weary with the task, but have no choice in the matter because this is who I am, silent, invisible, discreet, the emotions within both tumult and strength.
“Life is a lot more fragile than we think. So you should treat others in a way that leaves no regrets. Fairly, and if possible, sincerely.” — Haruki Murakami - Dance Dance Dance
“All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” — Tennessee Williams - The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
All cloud images by me.
Image of a path at Glen Canyon Park by sfsteve.
Image of a young John Entwistle from last.fm
So. Therapy. What were we doing, I wanted to know. What’s the plan now? I feel so much better than I did a year ago. I’m more grounded, centered, myself. I’m also in the know -- therapists actually form treatment plans! It isn’t just about talking, feeling, remolding, and eventually feeling better. My therapist and I decided there are places left to explore, rocks I turned over years ago that continue to block my path, trails I wound through my heart now dense with briars and the hidden warmth of small mammals, a landscape filled with life I have not acknowledged. We will enter the complex, obscure land at my center. I’ve worn a path around its perimeter, hard packed the soil with my compulsive circuits, but I seldom go in. It’s dark in there and the trees are thick and wild. The beast that occupies this land frightens me and I am afraid there may be more than one. From my occasional forays, always accompanied, my person, my professional, listening and supporting me, I have only seen evidence of the beast’s existence, not the beast itself. I come across crushed branches, smashed undergrowth, the musty grass where it beds, the branches of a bush picked bare. My scars ache. I cannot get comfortable. I want to kill the beast or exile it, but what if the beast is a part of me?
Back in the early days of personal computers, a friend owned an adventure-based game (or so the story goes, since I did not know him at the time). The first thing a player encountered was a troll. Using the simplistic commands of the time, the player decided on his options of attack. Hit troll with sword. Kill troll. You had to kill the troll to move forward, else be killed. My friend’s mother, a pacifist, wondered why there weren’t more options. Did you have to kill troll? Why not “befriend troll”? This question led to much adolescent eye-rolling. But why not? Why not befriend the beast? Maybe it is not so beastly. Maybe it controls my sleep, my self, my ability to be truly free, because I do not acknowledge it. Maybe it is a lonely, howling thing, the part of me I neglected out of necessity long ago and to kill it is to do away with a part of myself.
So we’re going in. We’re going to the heart of it. And I wanted to hug my therapist when she told me that when I had that baby so many years ago, I didn’t live in a cottage or a “little house.” I lived in a shack. I gave birth in a shack. Maybe it was a nice shack, what with the wall-to-wall indoor/outdoor carpeting and the paneling, with the windows and the attic and the oak tree out back. But ultimately, it was an unheated shack without running water or a telephone line, my place of exile. And I wanted to hug her again when she said we needed to go in to soothe the beast, delve into my issues with closeness, my experiences around love and need, caring and communication, before I could even think of doing anything about it outside of myself. First, work on me. Then bring in others. I know I’m being vague. But it was such a relief to acknowledge the influence of psychic pain, mine to feel by rights, mine to slowly clear out. The work that needs to be done first is internal. Hard, yes. But without that work, I don’t think I’ll be able to take in the rest, to make further changes.
I can’t tell you how freeing that thought is, how it both takes away the pressure and gives me the responsibility to be courageous in the face of the knowledge of darkness, to make the changes that bring me back to the world.
Image: “The Hunderfossen Troll” by hammershaug.
When I painted the porch window yesterday, I had to remove the lock. It wasn’t off for long, just enough for me to worry about invaders, about pushers and breakers and shovers, about thieves and takers. The window is currently nude, devoid of curtain, the smears of paint on the glass waiting for me to scrape them away and vacuum up the remains. Maybe the breach, the window’s vulnerability, broke into my dreams. Maybe the neighbor man wanted 20 dollars for a middle of the night cigarette run. Maybe the few grains of Abilify that we’ve added to the bupropion are addling my brain.* It is true: I am not quite myself, am a little jittery, more aware of the drumbeat of my heart and the intensity of my thoughts. And, as evidenced in this post, my thoughts leap from topic to topic, with just the thread of a theme connecting them.
Last week I had a dream about handling a dead body. Don’t worry – it turned out all right in the end. It was D and we were in the Little House and I was worried about the disposal of his remains. I hadn’t killed him, but I was left with the dirty work and the guilt. Could I possibly fit all six+ feet of him into a garbage bag? How would I drag him to the trash can? Would the garbagemen notice? I decided it must be a dream, and if it were, I could command him to get up and walk out. At first he told me he must be dead, because he didn’t feel anything. But eventually, sleepily, he roused himself. Problem solved, I woke up. This theme of death, murder, bodies hidden away or causing disposal problems, is one that has dogged my sleep for years. Why D this time? Because he was on my mind? Because he was the one who gave the first blow, the initial jab? Or was he?
In a moment of speculation with my therapist this morning, she noted that I didn’t seem to think the profound neglect I underwent as a teenager was enough to explain some of my longterm conflicts and struggles. I appeared to discount the lack of protection, my parents’ inability to watch over me and to help me hold the pain that we inflicted on myself, my innocence, and my small stillborn innocent. I appeared to underestimate the deep and pervasive effects of D’s adult use of the child me, his stealthy theft of what I had left of childhood. It was a teary session. Who wants to truly comprehend one’s neglect, neglect that had permanent consequences, or the fact that you can love and hate someone who does you wrong, simultaneously, confusingly? Why not look to an unknowable past for the theoretical answer or turn the confusion on yourself? Let those people off the hook? Stop any attempt at feeling like I deserved something more, that something was stolen from me? It’s a feeling I have to dole out in small amounts at safe times. I was robbed of many things. I will never get them back.
*Apparently, Abilify can cause lucid and bizarre dreams. Great. Maybe I should be taking even less.
Top image is of the window, bottom image is of a corner with newly painted walls (which doesn’t show the subtleties of the colors).
I spent most of yesterday writing about myself. For a class. This is the kind of thing I probably have to expect from a counseling program – lots of self-examination, maybe some application of theory to a narrative that just seemed like a story, my story, sure, but mainly a list of causes and effects and the weakness of me for being affected by the causes.
Let me tell you, writing about this stuff for far-flung friends and virtual strangers? It’s a piece of cake. Writing it for a professor? It feels very, very weird. Part of this is because I am not used to exposing myself in an academic setting and I’m also not sure how far to go, how much is appropriate. I’m also afraid of revealing my weakness, whether it be past (what happened to me) or present (the nagging effects of what happened to me). And I feel like I “pass,” like I don’t seem like someone who got knocked up at fifteen or grew up in a fair amount of intermittent tumult. I pass and I both want to pass and want to show that I’ve been places, sister. I know from instability. Not that I’m clinging to it. It’s not that. It’s just that I know.
In this case, I have to apply three of Erikson’s psychosocial stages to my life and write about how I got through each one, whether I came out shining with the primary adaptive ego quality (yay!) or limped on to the next stage carrying the core pathology like a heavy stone upon my back (booooooo!). This isn’t an either/or process, however. It’s possible to come out with a little of both, and it’s possible to struggle with and conquer parts of the stages later in life.
I didn’t pick the boring stuff for my paper, of course, though anyone who writes about her or his life is going to have obstacles at each stage, some struggle combined with triumph. There is no such thing as a boring life story. I’ve tried to keep it to just the facts, with as little melodrama or breast-beating as possible. But still – damn. Some shit has gone down in my life. And here I am, intact for the most part. Though I can see parts of each stage where I barely limped through or didn’t quite make it, I also see how I did.
One of the surprises for me was how much I’ve relied on my ability to think, on the flexibility and strength of my brain, to get through. It’s been good to me, my brain. I’d go so far as to say it’s a good brain and it’s the one part of me that has been affirmed in every stage of my life, from the beginning. Sometimes it tangles my emotions up in knots, or tries to box them up nice and neatly, not noticing the overflow, the way they seep through a corner and slowly obscure the floor. But it also protected me when I needed protecting, it got me attention and praise, and it still keeps me going, though it’s trying to balance thought with emotion now, letting things out into the open.
This has provided me another way to look at my experiences, through my strengths, what kept me intact. I recommend it as a way to turn a difficult life story around, in addition to looking at the environment you grew up in, the people and outside forces that helped to shape you, and how you dealt with it. What kept you safe? Connected? Intact? For me it was my grandmother, the best parts of my mother, my close friends, my sense of humor, my sensitivity, and my ability to think. I'm grateful for them all.
Those who were not protected crave protecting. Those who carry shame carry their humiliation, their betrayal, with them. The shame is vast, it’s ice layered upon rock, and first you make a hole from which to breathe and, if you’re lucky, the warm of your breath crumbles the rock and melts the ice and over time, over decades maybe, the time it took you to get there, you continue breathing, your movements imperceptible but, still: movement! One elbow juts through, then another, and vast sheets of ice fall from your arms, and meanwhile your face appears and you start to see your situation more clearly. You know what you need to do, take deep breaths, attempt to bend one knee, then the other, give your torso a twist. Finally, (again, if you are lucky) you emerge, battered, dusty, with the red marks of cold on your skin and the stiffness of a someone not used to a full range of movement. You take a step, not quickly, not with grace or much enthusiasm, but it is forward step and it is beautiful.
The vastness of shame, the way people can carry this invisible, weighty, obscuring feeling, has been on my mind lately. I’ve been struggling with it in myself, trying to figure out, to feel out, its origins without getting lost in the narrative of my childhood. We’re here together, my shame and I. I’ll deal with her in the most effective way possible, going with the big feelings, recognizing the themes and my right to feel, and most of all, to treat myself with empathy.
I’ve caught shaming behavior in myself lately, have been noticing the little ways I have that can humiliate the people I love, put them in their place. It comes out when I feel unseen, unappreciated, put upon, and so my words reach out and sting the cheeks of the boy or his father, the scapegoats for my predicament. I’m sure I’ve been doing this all my life, but now I can see it. Sometimes the remarks seem innocuous, sometimes they are designed to hurt. I’ve let them fly out of my mouth for years thinking they were relatively harmless, just the grumblings of somebody who was cranky or pushed too far. Meaningless, really. But lately, I've turned my comments over in my mind. I've talked them through with the people I’ve hurt and repaired the rift as best I can.
I can't say those sorts of things anymore and believe my words are meaningless. Shaming is a trick of those who feel powerless. I am not powerless. I don't want to make others feel powerless. Still, with a kid the opportunities to humiliate and shame are many, though it may not feel like what I am doing is shaming or humiliating. I need to pay attention to what I say, to what my motives are, to how I can help the boy feel like he has power, like he is good, and all of us are humans who make mistakes and then do our best to make things right if we are able.
So the old days, when I wanted the protection I couldn't seem to give myself? They're over baby. The real me is emerging again. She tries her best to be strong and kind and available. She keeps her heart open even as she struggles with shame and fear. And sometimes she falters, just like everyone else.
Image by Creativity+ Timothy K. Hamilton
So. Ladies. Lay-deez. I’m not talking to all of you, just the ones who need to hear the message, the ones teetering on the edge of self-acceptance: it is impossible to create a self out of fog and tears. Look for the bedrock within. Find people who will support you in the search and give you a hand as you climb back up. Don’t drown yourself in drama and sticky reunion, no matter how right it feels, like losing your religion and finding it again, like god died and then returned to you, only to you, your personal savior. It’s beautiful stuff, I understand it. But I’m also no theist, and while the god I don’t believe in may love me and forgive me my multitude of sins, he’s not propping me up on a pedestal or keeping me from ruination. He gave me the tools to become whole from the get-go. It’s the humanity within, the truth of our power. Feel it. Accept it. Stand on it. Surround yourself with those who affirm it. It will all be fine. It already is.
But why listen to me? I’m but a crone in training, traveling in my own foggy haze. I’ve tried to cover the hollow feelings over with alcohol and anxiety, with sex and saviors. I see myself in you and tailor my advice accordingly. I spread the word of exculpation by emotional excavation, even as I struggle with it, and while I find the struggle somewhat pleasurable, like worrying a sore gum or gently palpitating a bruise, it is still a struggle.
Still. I see the hollow feelings for what they are now and I fill them with what feels right and authentic for me. That includes trying my best to stay present with those who love me, not pulling myself down with guilt or anger, and trying to understand the fear behind the impulse. It is so, so complicated and I know I'm speaking in riddles. But if you get it, you get it. Keep on reading. Reach out if you wish. Let love in without getting lost in the sheer joy and relief of acceptance. And give yourself credit for coming so far already.
Image of the Charm City Roller Girls by Bukutgirl.
Early morning Monday plus late night Monday plus interrupted sleep Tuesday plus marathon school day Wednesday plus Wednesday diet of nuts, berries, and vegan jerky chased with champagne at the day’s conclusion? At ten p.m. last night, I collapsed. I didn’t even make it upstairs, choosing instead to crawl to the guest room and crawl into bed, though at least I didn’t sleep in my clothes.
Yesterday was my birthday. It was also the day of my life span development class group presentation. Weeks of buildup, angst, and fact-gathering led up to something that was over in an hour. Done. On to the next presentation – cultural issues in counseling Middle Eastern Americans, here I come! But in the meantime, if you need any stats on standardized testing in elementary schools, if you want to discuss No Child Left Behind, or if you want to know, in the immortal words of President Bush, “is our children learning,” drop me a line. Maybe I can depress you as much as I apparently did the class. Or maybe we can come up with a bright side to the whole thing, come up with a plan to eradicate poverty and all its attendant issues, because poverty robs from children. Poverty is immoral and a system that encourages it–and blames poor people for being poor–is immoral as well. I could say more, but don't want to turn this into a rant.
Yesterday was my birthday. Or my un-birthday. I barely saw my family, had to rush out the door as the boy was waking up and rushed back in as he was going to sleep. We’ll celebrate tonight, Birthday Part II and there will be Part III tomorrow. The celebration never stops!
For many years, I’ve had issues (for lack of a better word) around my birthday. It’s hard to put these complex feelings into words, but I think they have to do with self-worth, with the shame of being born me. I have a sense of original sin without a religious background to blame it on. It’s a lousy feeling that has been more at the forefront lately, which is actually a good thing, because I recognize it for what it is, a vestige, an explanation from long ago, a feeling that deserves to see the light of day so it can be returned to that light.
My aunt sent me a photo scrapbook for my birthday–a lovely surprise–filled with pictures of me, many from my very early days, many with my dad. It was a touching gift, but initially difficult for me to page through. There she was . . . No, there I was–it is so easy for me to go into third person when writing about this stuff–there I was, so small and innocent. Looking at that little girl, at me, brought on feelings of shame. Shame for what? For her weakness? For her dependency? Because she was ineffectual and couldn't protect her mother or herself?
Does this make any sense? It doesn’t have to.
This was not a feeling I wanted to tamp down. I needed to experience it, or to re-experience it, to feel a bit outraged, too, at whatever would make a little girl–me–feel that way. The feeling was the opposite of victimhood. It was acknowledgement. It was about strength and not running away from emotion. I’ve been feeling around in the dark, reaching into the painful places, knowing the pain is there for a reason, it needs a voice, and I can tell its story and integrate it back into the whole of me.
Sometimes I have to remind myself: what happened to me was wrong. I didn’t ask for it. No one protected me, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t worth protecting. It doesn’t mean I can’t protect myself now or have to silence my voice in exchange for the illusion of protection. My emotions and ability to see are part of my strength. I will not deny them.
Image of me at (I believe) the Philadelphia Zoo in the petting zoo area, probably around 1975.
Sometimes old habits emerge, and they are strange enough now that I recognize them as habits, well-trodden trails, wide and comfortable ruts, my old go-tos to keep me from entering the world. For me, it’s anxious thoughts that focus on what went wrong, what I’m doing wrong, worries about how I am perceived that keep me from really perceiving others and being present with them. When I recognize that my mind is leaning toward the dark, familiar path, I turn it back toward the light. Part of this is because of I am truly healing and in the process reentering life as an active participant. Part of my new perspective comes from seeing what my fellow classmates have battled and struggled with and recognizing that I am pretty damn privileged and have been from the beginning.
We never went without food or shelter. My grandmother was there for me, my grandfather, too, in his own way. I always knew it was expected of me to get a college education. We had books. My mother told me I was smart. The deficiencies were there, but there was so much good, too. And here I am, in school again, coping, participating even when . . . I was going to write something negative. There they are, the well-trodden paths of negativism, with their well-worn metaphorical clichés. I can't afford to go there anymore. It's a false picture of reality, an image of a shadow on the surface of a deep, rich pool. My go-to place is gone, replaced by an old growth forest, every layer humming with glorious, complicated life.
Sometimes I wonder how much to take credit for in this. Do I stand on a dais and spread my thank yous around? Well, they're important of course. I didn't emerge fully formed and complete. I didn’t do this all by my lonesome. I thank my mother for believing in me and nurturing my mind, my father for being there in the best way he could, my grandmother for giving me the most solid foundation of stability and love I could have, enough so that when it died with her, I still had something inside, the internalization of it, to stand on; my grandfather for letting me live with him, even when it wasn't good for him financially; one aunt for providing a place to go in childhood, another for her clear and solid love; my first husband for being so kind and generous; my second for loving me, supporting me, forgiving me, and believing in me; the boy for being the boy, prodding me to get beyond my childhood pain without even knowing he was doing it; my friends for their presence and support. I thank my therapists, the ones who have gently nudged me along the way and helped me find the seeds of change in all my rambling. Let's not forget me, too, the one who went through the difficult transition, who squelched through the muck of my own pain and finally started stepping out of it (not without the help of many of the aforementioned, of course).
I knew someone once who considered himself a catalyst for other peoples' personal change, the first domino to fall, forgotten by the end of the line, but important nonetheless. I am not sure I believe that one person can be a catalyst for another’s internal shift. You can’t encourage change in someone who does not already feel capable of it. But you can support them in their human frailty, help create an environment in which change can happen. It’s a group effort. The idea that other people are essential, play a positive, supportive role in my life, is one I would have rejected even a month ago. Sure, other people are nice, they might even like me, I'd think, but this is something I have to do by myself -- I created this distrustful, bruised, ugly self and it's up to me to change it back, make it all nice, neat, and tidy (ignoring the fact that I developed this self in part because of other people). A lot of these thoughts were based on fear, fear of exposing my ugliness, revealing my inner Gollum, and being rejected because of it. Ah, but there I go again, one foot about to sink into the soft, warm, familiar mud. No more.
As I start to integrate my childhood self into my adult self, as I (slowly) drop the constant vigilance, as I build the structure in which I heal and rejoin the world, my perspective becomes clearer. We all have a bit of darkness inside. We are all lovable, despite the darkness. We can define ourselves by the light while acknowledging the shadows within. And I feel so grateful. I feel a warm, radiating heat that my heart sends out to yours. Thank you for being here.
Images of trees along a trail at Joaquin Miller Park, a path mottled with light and shadow, taken by me a few weeks ago.
More on the "nattering nabobs of negativism," for those who are unfamiliar with the quote or who want to learn more.
Is it any wonder that the dream I had before waking was of a bunch of stuff on the curb, my stuff, being picked through and hauled away by the curb shoppers of Berkeley? I rifled through the bags that lady put on her pickup truck. I pulled out the old photographs. I snatched away my diaries before strangers learned about my adolescent obsessions and cluelessness. I tried to stop it all before I woke up.
Last year I leveled the remnants of both my former professional life (the shoes! the shoes! why did I keep the shoes?) and of the early days of the boy. That was another sort of death, or an acknowledgement of the change that already was. But I was never as attached to being a librarian as much as I was (and still am) attached to being a cook, a creative, knowledgeable home chef. It’s not that I won’t return to that. I certainly hope I do, though I really don’t know. It’s that the days of time stretched out before me to cook, the weekends I spent making stock, the complicated layered dishes, the homemade pasta, no longer exist.
I’ve always thought of cooking as a way to show love and to take care of others. It’s interesting to me that after having had such unpleasant childhood experiences with meals – in my last therapy session, I couldn’t stand the fact that my mother’s abandonment of me at mealtime in my teen years still upset me – I should be drawn to cooking and that cooking should have such meaning. It’s about caretaking, of self and other, and not much has changed for me since last week when I posted about my disinterest in the whole thing.
At the moment, the ever-changing moment, I feel cynical about it all, about the effort I put into meals and the naïveté of my twenties when I cared about the things in the world, the idea that it would last, that the self I was then would remain, stalwart over a stovetop and the cats would always be young with supple muscles and limbs. It was all hope and future and escape from childhood into warm-hearted anticipation. I know good things still lie ahead, but I miss what was before, the life where I cared.
Still, ever heavy on the symbolism, I’ve been drawn to chef memoirs lately. Last night I started Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I’m caught up in it already, reading about a love affair with food that started early and never stopped. I want to experience the slippery taste of olive oil on fresh pasta, the tongue tingle of chopped garlic, the simplicity of a piece of bread smeared with tomato and topped with manchego cheese. I want to want it again, I want an appetite for the world, for warmth, for taking care and being taken care of. It will come back, I keep on telling myself it will, but in the meantime I want for the hunger to strike, for the moment when texture returns.
Image: shoes from my cooking school days. Still have them, not yet ready to give them up.
So that’s what I’ve been avoiding, I thought. And why? What’s the big deal? This wasn’t something I needed to rip into shreds and toss into the fire after downing snifters of brandy, hurling the glass in after it. This wasn’t the angry phone call or the ill-advised email. This was me showing myself what I’d known all along.
The woman I saw to tell me what I already knew said it was in my hands, under my control. But I looked at my hands and they seemed so weak. Needy. They needed holding, the gentle tug across the street, the pat, the hand over hand, and I wanted to be needy. There is nothing romantic about pulling your own heavy weight up the rope to safety. But there is no one else who can do it. My choices were to stand on the ground and stare at the rope, letting my anxiety grow, or to just get on with it, knowing I’d get chafed along the way but at least I was going somewhere.
So the puzzle. In my mind, it was a like a TV graphic, simultaneously one- and three-dimensional, kind of cheesy, the thing they show you on a 1980s true crime show before taking you to the reenactment. The sphere turned and as it did, the three pieces clicked out of place.
I felt relief. And then curiosity: why had I been avoiding this?
This was last night's dream:
I lived in the Little House again and smuggled him in for the night. He was reluctant, though he gave me everything he was capable of at the time, almost what I wanted, but always with the prize withheld, hidden in a vault in some secret place within him. We were close and not close, warm and not warm. I knew he needed to go. This wasn’t right. My mother could come at any minute and expose us. He wasn't supposed to be there anyway.
The sun was just beginning to spread its weak light across the yard when he left. He was already somewhere else, didn't allow himself to look back. As he walked away with purpose, my mother almost crossed his path. Neither looked at the other. They each left footprints in the grass, traces in the morning dew, signs of existence the sun would remove soon enough. I gently closed my door, hoping that my mother was lost in thought, that she would yet again ignore the obvious. I wanted to continue getting away with the things I had been getting away with, no matter how disgusted with myself they made me. Or maybe I wanted to be caught. At least the worrying and the guilt kept alive the lie that she might be paying attention.
My mother knocked. I opened.
Who was that? she asked.
Alexander. He, he slept on the floor. I made up the name. I didn’t want her to know what I’d been up to.
Well, why didn’t you introduce him to me?
She wasn’t joking. She knew my bluff without calling it. She wanted to meet him because she thought he was important to me.
Well, he was important to me. He was. And the old rules no longer applied. I was beyond the days of illicit sleepovers and sneaking around. Why wouldn’t she want to know? Why should I hide it?
I hid it because there was no room for the truth. I was wanted/not wanted and both my mother and the guy who left were equally ambiguous about me. They played both sides as I sat in no man’s land searching for clarity. I hated myself for wanting them both in different ways, each way equally important. Sure, we were nothing but dream symbols, figments of my subconscious playing familiar roles at a musty abandoned crime scene. Together we made up the puzzle, each a vital part of the trinity: the parent, the man, the child. The parent wasn’t going to help the child do the right thing. The child had to take care of herself.
I was no longer a child. I could take responsibility for my actions, had control over my life. I looked at the rope, glanced up to see it reaching to the next stage. There was only one way to find out what awaited. I rubbed my hands together, reached, and, with a firm grip, started to climb.
Top image, taken by Piero Fissore, is of Sphere Within Sphere, a sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro at Trinity College in Dublin. There is a similar sculpture by the same artist on the University of California Berkeley campus.
Sometimes, when I needed to remind me of myself, I let my feelings out of the container. I uncontained. A gorgeous ribbon of deep-scarlet emotion would come rolling out, all satin gloss and shiny-slick. I stroked it with one finger and then held it against my palm, ran it lightly against the inside of my bare arm until the goose bumps came. The ribbon was endless. I wrapped it around my body. I became a mummy of emotion, of blood lust and want and I was ashamed and unscrolled my emotion from my body, leaving behind a mass of satin until I was calm enough to wrap the ribbon back around the spool and return it carefully to the container.
We had a love/hate relationship, my deeply-felt emotions, desires, and me. They were my strength. They were my downfall. When I was a kid, adults discounted them, rolled their eyes at my weakness, at my melodramatic tendency to overemote. But what a pleasure it was to take out the scarlet ribbon and savor it before returning it to the box, enjoy its shine against my skin before I wrapped it back up and returned it to its rightful place. The only risk was in too much.
Ah. But that is why we are gathered here. Do emotion and desire need to be coiled and contained? Are these the things that entangle when set free? I feared their intensity, assumed that emotion trapped, that desire exploded and destroyed, and that giving these things shape courted danger. But in denying them, I cut myself off from something vital.
I don’t want to separate them from myself, to continue to separate myself from myself. The separation blinds me to others; it hollows out my heart. But I don’t want them to imprison me, either. The trick is to allow emotion, allow myself and what I want, to exist without letting it take over.
This feeling of emotion and desire’s right to be, of the right of the untidy but beautiful to exist within me, stretches out of my chest and floats delicately around me, gossamer, transparent, right. I grasp it with a quick hand, gently pull it closer and wrap it over my shoulders.
My vision is clear, my hands untied, my self undivided.
Image by Kai C. Schwartzer.
Here is a link to "Silver" by Echo and the Bunnymen on YouTube, a song from which I've gotten a post title or two and which I thought of when I wrote the last sentence of this post: the sky is blue / my hands untied / a world that's true / through our clean eyes / just look at you / with burning lips / you're living proof at my fingertips
I’ve often repeated this as a mantra, a reminder, a short soothing salve to keep myself going, while underneath the surface the doubts ripple. As an emotional prop I’ll be fine isn’t particularly strong, though it's gotten me through hard times. It looks to the future without figuring out the proper path. It assumes that the speaker isn’t exactly fine, but hopefully they will be someday. It’s the kind of thing you say when you are stumbling through a rough patch, tripping over uneven ground during a transition, and you don’t want to think that your destination is dark, not worth it, more painful than what came before. I’ll be fine.
I’ve spent a weekend alone while my family was away visiting family. At first I was apprehensive at the thought of a weekend by myself, especially a rainy one, where I would have too much time inside and not enough to keep me going. Because of the boy’s cyclical fevers, I wasn’t even sure if he would be traveling until the day of their trip (as it turns out, he got a fever yesterday, just about on schedule; confusingly [for diagnostic purposes], it's not a bad one, which is good for a travel weekend at least). I made a few plans, had breakfast with a friend yesterday and a phone conversation with another friend today. I had plenty of firewood, a good book, and a well-stocked refrigerator. I welcomed the time to think.
Thinking has been my primary task this weekend, that and keeping the fire stoked. In fact, I’ve learned a lot about starting a fire and maintaining it, how once it gets to a certain point you can leave it alone to burn itself out (it can take hours) or you can keep on feeding it fuel, let the flames of one log engulf another. Yes, it’s a clichéd symbol. I’m keeping the home fires burning. Or I’m figuring out what it takes to maintain a life, a relationship, oneself. Once the fuel is gone, the reason for being, you’re doomed, and you'd better choose the right fuel, too, not something too young and green that will create more smoke than flame. Fires take care and attention and the desire to be warmed, the acceptance that sometimes you will be flushed with heat. Over the course of the weekend, I've become fire savvy. The flames no longer scare me. I know when I'm safe and I know when to move my hand away. As I type the last of the firewood is crackling to its demise. I started this fire before nine a.m. It’s two o’clock now. My weekend companion will soon be a pile of ash and charcoal.
The future isn't totally murky. I will go to grad school for an MFT, though whether it will be at my first choice or somewhere else, I don’t know. I will build an outside life, devote myself to something I believe in apart from my family. As this missing link, a life outside the home, develops, the rest of my path will become clear. I can be devoted to both things at once. I will be fine.
I write it, I say it silently to myself, I tell the fire, the cats, the dog: I will be fine. But this isn’t a stop-gap phrase, a way of seeing myself through a difficult time. I am fine. I see my progress in my writing, even when my writing is sad or heavy. I see it in how I look at the world, in how I see my “value.” I’m learning that my value isn’t necessarily tied to what I provide to others, the tasks, the the devotion, the pleasing. My value, everyone's value, is intrinsic. I don't need to prove my value (by being a “good” person, whatever that means in context) or fit someone else’s idea of what I should be. The only person I need to please is myself. I'm the real deal all on my own. You are, too.
I am at peace. I’m fine. There are changes ahead, good ones, and though the transitions may be hard, I will be doing the right thing. The murk of my mind will clear. In the meantime, I’m not helpless. I can do small things – or big things, like driving – the mortar of my future existence, the small steps in the continuum.
Image of yesterday's fire, which burned from mid-afternoon to early evening.
I've added a new category, The struggle redefined. Why? Because the struggle has changed, though there will be times when I'm back in the thick of no hope (always, always a temporary condition).
As far as the boy's periodic fevers are concerned, we're almost positive he has something called PFAPA. It could be much worse. He will most likely grow out of it and it is treatable, though there is no one treatment that works for everyone.