Over the last week, I’ve filled up pages that were meant to be shared but never will be. A creature of habit, I wanted to send up smoke signals, to have a romantic tête-à-tête in the pied-à-terre with the one who pretended she could erase me. She left the country. Or she was never here to begin with. She was a whiff of floral perfume, the bouquet off butter infused with garlic, an intermingled scent of one on one, ineffable as a skipped heartbeat.
I borrowed people, made them my muses. I created lives and facts and motives because the stuff of my day-to-day bored. I was afraid to sit with emptiness, to sit with unhappiness, and so I distracted myself with fantasy. My muses were figments, which was just how I wanted them, pliable, taking up only as much room as I allowed, opining my opinions, gently tugging at my elbow when I needed direction.
I wrote about yearning because it distracted me from yearning. I wrote about being seen because it made me believe I was visible. I wrote to make the intolerable tolerable, to create meaning in the face of nothingness.
I fought my urge to write in sentence fragments. I sat in the space between silence and stillness, where the only sound and movement came from my hyperactive fingers on the keyboard.
I told myself that it would be better in the morning.
Image of “Holiday’s illustration (1876, cut by Joseph Swain) to the chapter “The Vanishing” in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Some rights reserved by Bonnetmaker.
My grandparents had a cedar closet just off their family room. I sought refuge there as a kid, sat under the winter coats, breathed in the almost medicinal smell of the wood, which never darkened and always looked fresh off the mill. Last I heard, the house’s current owners added a second floor to the place. Who knows what they did inside, whether the cedar closet, framed in by my grandfather (like almost all of the house) still exists.
I wanted to take us back to that cool, dark space, return to 1976, 77, 78, the years when my grandmother was still alive, the long lazy summers, the winter and spring I lived there apart from my mother. I wanted to write that paragraph as if I was there, sitting beneath jackets and woolens, eight years old and seeking shelter from the humidity and the sun. I just couldn’t pull it off. I didn’t want to go there. It was difficult to idealize the time, to get into the feeling of pure childhood, where the moment (ideally) should be eternal, no thought of the future or past. Every association I have with being a kid is of preparing for impending loss, girding against the pain of missing. Anyway, I don’t go there much anymore, The Past.
Last night, after the lemongrass tofu bahn mi dinner (delicious, but a pain in the ass to make), I had an urge to listen to Prince’s Purple Rain. Maybe it was because I’d just seen a Facebook picture of my childhood best friend on the cusp of her 44th birthday. Maybe it was the inviting in, the continuing reintegration, of the teenage me. It’s a song I associate with the friend, with the time when life flipped from one thing to something different and lonely. I also associate it with the person who was the other responsible party in my pregnancy at 15 ½.
I didn’t seek out that song, with the vivid memories it conjures, as a way of jumpstarting tears or of connecting myself unhealthily to what can’t be changed. I listened in mourning. I listened in solidarity with the abandoned and the beaten down. I cried. And then I put my memories into a box. They went without protest, knowing their own truth and importance, their place in my story.
Tomorrow, I will order flowers for my mother’s birthday. I’ll choose Vivid Memory in a Cedar Box, a symbol for love with all its depth and complication, for the stories we keep together and the ones we’ve necessarily experienced on our own. Even better, I know she’ll each be amused at the concept, the conceit, of celebration by containment, our lively memories like fresh-cut flowers, perishable in their delicate beauty, usefully boxed for storage.
The Round Robin starts in interest tomorrow. Writing prompts on their way!
Image Some rights reserved by Burnt Pixel.
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.
I write this and am unsettled by the interconnectedness of life, the way we can’t escape pain, how our past reaches out to bite us. In addictions class this morning, we talked family dynamics (I had to get out the tissues: I hate when these classes make me cry, these challenging triggers that make me question whether I’m really over my past). Then we had a group of people talk to us about their experiences with both addiction and recovery. It was useful. It was stirring. It was intimidating. It made me question my ability to do this work. What is the line between empathy and overreaction? If I haven’t experienced addiction, can I counsel people struggling with it? If I over-think it the process, am I dead in the water, useless, frozen by insecurity? How much of counseling is based on education, on learning the techniques, and how much is intrinsic?
So the class (whew), and then the rush home, the not-good-enough lunch, and back out to pick up the boy in an hour, and in between news of Boston and bombs. As I type, my husband is in a plane hurtling over Missouri on his way to DC, I’ve got work to do, a presentation to think about, some picking up around the house. I am paralyzed by post-class processing. And there’s more, an extended feeling of doom.
In the dream that woke me up Sunday morning, the boy and I were in a vast apartment lobby, searching for a friend of his. I’ve dreamed about this building before, although now it felt like the first floor of the downtown Wilmington Public Library, but more down on its heels, a public space gone to SRO. As I riffled through a box of crumbling leases, I heard a man arguing with someone and turned around to see him holding a rifle. Who knew what was next? People around the room dropped to the floor. I crouched behind the front desk, hidden, maybe safe for the moment. But the boy – he was lying facedown on the floor five feet away from me, totally exposed, his hands cradling the back of his neck. Should I go over to him and risk drawing attention to both of us? How could I protect him? Was I taking all the safety for myself? How could I shield him from the emotions I was feeling, the terror, the knowledge that the world was not a safe place? I woke feeling dread, powerless in the face of the actions of the aggressive and forgotten. What could I do to not only protect him, but make a world in which the man with the gun on a slaughter hunt is unthinkable, not a regular occurrence? A world where no one plants bombs in public places?
The truth is, I can only do so much to protect the boy. Life eventually kills. Accidents happen. Diseases creep. Wars break out. People crack. They also triumph over pain, feel connection after years of isolation, pull themselves out of addiction, and heal from great trauma. I can only do so much, try to raise him compassionately, give him what I can, hopefully encourage a sense of goodness in who he is, and hope that the world doesn’t eat away at him or that, if it does, he has the luck and strength to rebuild.
I can only do so much to make this world a place where people do not become so disconnected from humanity that they massacre others. But I hope to the god I don’t really believe in that I can help as a counselor, can be a small beacon of change, maybe interrupt the process, the shutting down, the neglect and rage that can lead to the death of empathy. I want to be a supportive witness, to be good at what I do as a parent and as a future counselor. I want this reservoir of emotion to be useful, worth something, without projecting my experiences and pain on others.
I have a lot to learn.
Image of a flower on the sidewalk by me.
Someday you’ll get used to it. Except no one gets used to it. Energy doesn’t die, it is transfigured by the chemical reaction within, and if you don’t allow it to enter freely, you are doomed to feel its damp, cold hands, small and strong, stroking the nape of your neck, the inside of your thigh, grasping at an ankle to trip you up. Never mind. You swallow and stuff, cram and ignore, until feelings are fleeting shadows, passing aches, gulps of cold air, the harsh tap of fingers on a metal railing in winter, and they all add up. But you don’t know it.
There are some endings you anticipate, you court. Who wants to feel panic in the presence of one who was once so intimate you knew the taste of their skin? Enough. No more ghost kisses against living lips, the chill where heat once reigned. The flicker of ineffectual anger, a leftover from being left over, burns only you. So you will extinguishment.
You want to quell the action of your amygdala in the presence of reminders (amygdala is Greek for almond, the shape of part of this parcel of neurons in the brain that takes up so little space yet wields so much power). Extinguishment takes practice. Exposure. Be patient. Remind yourself that your body is attuned to protecting you from danger, its warning system sensitive, honed early on to tell you when to hide and quick. It clings to its protective role.
Feeling nothing in the place of something is bittersweet, not because you’ve stuffed the emotion, eaten it, smashed it, but because you no longer hold feelings for the stranger in front of you. Until then, the unconscious reaction, the rapid fire of neurons, the flood of panicked neurotransmitters in the presence of the specter, mean nothing. They are artifacts of the dead, reflexes of a body that no longer mourns, echoes in a canyon where a river once flowed.
Image by _namtaf_.
I don’t know what it is lately. My writing starts out dark, it comes out complete, and then I think I’m done and I realize that what I’ve written is just one angle on a multi-faceted story. This post started as an exploration of grief, using the quote above as a starting point. The line is from “Coming True,” a poem written by my mother’s late boyfriend, Kevin. The poem must be haunting me, or maybe Kevin is haunting me, because it came up in the post I deleted this weekend.
Until recently, I hadn’t written about Kevin in a long time. It was not my intention to write about him today, but there he was, fading but still clear enough to startle. He came up in conversation with my mother this morning, another story demonstrating his slash-and-burn humor. I was talking to her about the Meyers-Briggs personality test I took for my assessments class (I’m an INFJ, btw). It sparked my mother’s memory. I wasn’t at the dinner party all those years ago when Kevin went for the kill. I didn’t see the carnage, the bloodied bodies of strangers who made the mistake of having half-baked opinions about their personality profiles. But the Meyers-Briggs mention brought him up and we were off.
Conversations with the dead are one-sided, the couldas and shouldas, the rewinds, the monologues, the implied consent. Even a medium is an intermediary, the stylus on the Ouija board a go-between, the feelings of presence indirect. And there is no way to bring the dead to the present, to show them how you’ve changed, to see how they would have changed in life. Sometimes, grief hits and it isn’t clear what you are grieving -- is it the person or what they represent, the lost presence or the lost self?
That foolish man. He wasn’t the only thief, the only one who took away part of my comfort in who I was, but he was the most vocal. I grieve for him and for the sense of self he battered and for the suffering he couldn’t help but pass on. I grieve for the things I didn’t express for decades because I thought I was a bad person to think them, thought that expressing them would show my ugliness. I grieve for the years I shuttered myself, for the anger I let envelop me, for the thoughts that lived and died within me without voice.
In the early days of blogging, the quote above was the total of my biography on the blogcatalog network. Actually, it is still my biography. I haven’t used blogcatalog in years, but my profile remains. I am who other people think I am. I used the quote because to me it represented the masks we create online and the way people make decisions about who we are based on this presentation. What we present to others could all be a ruse, an elaborate hoax. What I assume that they assume, I assume.
That was how I thought of it then. I see both blogging and the quote differently now, though I am not sure if Kevin would agree with my interpretation, a thought which tenses my stomach, but his words live beyond him and are subject to interpretation. The lines could be about being defined by other people, about presenting a self that you believe will please (or, in some cases, offend), while hiding your real, objectionable self within. I am who other people think I am. I work an image out of supposed fact. The image then determines how I act. Slowly, incrementally, I have been changing that way of being. I have been showing my true self. I have been accepting myself, allowing myself to exist fully, to make mistakes, to have opinions, to have a public point of view. It’s taken a lot of work. I have been hidden for so many years.
I mourn myself as I once existed and I mourn a man who, scarred, couldn’t help but scar. But I am strong. Present. Alive. And sometimes I wonder if only his death allowed my return.
Image by rent-a-moose.
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
As if in answer to my runaway angst yesterday (more about that below), today I have been stuck firmly in place. It’s the first day of the boy’s spring vacation and he woke up with a nasty case of pink eye, so we’re confined to our house for at least today (doctor’s appointment after 4:00).
I tossed and turned last night, was kicked to the side of the bed by the karate kid and pulled back in by his insistent, probing feet. I finally migrated to his room at 1:30. Intrigued by my unorthodox sleeping arrangements, the cats noisily explored the corners of the his room as I snuggled in. I tried not to let them bother me, tried not to let the rain hitting the skylights or my irritation keep me from sleep. At 4:30ish, they had a spectacular fight right outside my door. I was up.
And so I blearily worked on a post I started yesterday afternoon. It went too many ways. I started it distracted and continued it tired and distracted. There was a theme, but it wasn’t well developed. The post didn’t have flow. It was messages mixed with inspiration mixed with muddled metaphorical music. Then I posted. And tinkered. Posted. Tinkered. All the while trying to pay attention to the boy and worrying about tomorrow, when he should be in camp and I should be studying for a midterm, unless pink eye fells him for another day.
Here’s the last tinkering. For those who read the first versions, I’ll write about the hypothetical difficult client another day.
So I thought about the slip through the back door, the backlit climb down knotted window sheets, the pack of cigarettes in the convenience store that would start off my skid row journey. And I thought about you, one of my many hypothetical characters. You know where you are, who you are. I do not, but that has not stopped me from judging. Yes, I have judged, determined motives, imagined the intermittent tumult that seems to make up your life, the insecurities and runaways. I’ve thought about attachment, the places where we overlap, the ways in which we contrast. I’ve felt sympathy, empathy, irritation, identification. Sometimes I think about you and feel maternal, old and wise (and noble, and full of myself). All these feelings, these conclusions, are about me, not you. What do I know about you? I only know the blank places where I project my experiences upon you.
I want to understand you, want to know what brings you here, what you think about me, what you’ve heard (and how much of it is true). I form theories. You are a puzzle I put together in the dark except I don’t have all the pieces. I don’t know the flip sides from the front sides and I’m not even sure if the everything in front of me is from the same kit. I can only go on feel, on intuition, but I wear thick wool gloves that muffle my sense of what is right, and so I move slowly, deliberately, fitting together a ghost version of a stranger. I know my image is off, is a product of poking in the dark at abstract shapes. But I am compelled to keep theorizing, hypothesizing, to smooth the hints over and over again in my gloved hands.
We share something, that mix of dark and light, of shadow and beam. I don’t want to judge or be judged. I want to understand, to be understood. So imagine me here, at 43 ½, halfway through life if I’m lucky. I’ve done foolish things. My hands are graceless. They are capable of creating great beauty. I hold on to situations, memories, people that I shouldn’t, then let them go, suddenly light, changed. When I don’t acknowledge who I am or what I want, I fall apart. I’ve collapsed in a heap more than once, but slowly I reconstitute, becoming stronger after each fall.
I woke up knowing this had to be the last time I wrote about you, that the game had to end. I have to be a grownup and acknowledge that my value does not come from the attention of others, a lesson I absorb in dribs and drabs. It is not easy. And the open, curious, kindly approach I will someday take to clients can be applied here as well, except we are not in conversation. It’s all projection and interpretation on both sides. I’m turning off the projector, keeping the empathy, and wishing you well.
Top image by Chris Blakeley.
Middle image by melinnis.
Bottom image by Gunnsi.
Is my past threatening to you? Maybe we’re all worried about what goes on within, the tamped down this and that. The thing we deny is the thing that returns. But I’m a big girl. I’ve got it under control. I don’t steal to support my habit and I don’t use someone else’s works.
I have taken dangerous alleyways in the dark, played tag in the toxic burned out remains of meth labs and coke shacks, bruised innocents with my sharp elbows, marked them with my careless teeth. I have walked along paths of freshly swept concrete with my eyes closed, one hand on an iron railing for guidance, only to trip and skin my knees. I paid the price, but I also got something for my perfidy, something for my quiet fear. Adrenaline. Attention. Safety. Invisibility.
I understand too little too late. I realize there are things you say and do you can never take back. But what would you be if you didn’t even try? You have to try.
So, after a lot of thought, I’d like to reconsider:
Please, if it’s not too late, make it a cheeseburger.
It’s irreverent and silly, yes. But I understand too little too late. I wish I didn’t know what I do, that I hadn’t run with that knowledge. I wish that what I knew was irrelevant, instead of this echo, this remembered ache.
Of course, as Lyle hints, most wishes are bullshit. So while I’m occupying this fantasy parallel universe, I also wish for an end to poverty, for peace to spread across the land like wildflowers, covering the cities, sending its shoots up and down mountains, forming vast bridges of green and pink across oceans, lending the fragrance of universal love to the globe.
I have my regrets.
Let’s make this a clinical discussion. On the left side of my chest, protected by an ingenious ribcage, vulnerability’s armor, is my heart. A flutter here, a skip there; my rhythm is off. My lungs, partners in the maintenance of life, are out of time, too, as though they’ve forgotten their purpose.
I’m in a trough this week, body, mind, emotions, and I am trying to give myself permission to feel slow, stupid, and sad. I remind myself of what Rachel Maddow said about her intermittent bouts of depression. During those times, she knows things will take much longer for her to absorb. She warns her staff when she’s at a low point so they understand. It’s a kind, accommodating, and accepting way to deal with being temporarily stuck in the sludge.
I am pretty sure I was triggered late last week, that I got a little nudge over to the dark side. It’s no one’s fault, just a series of interconnected associations, insecurities, and silent retreats. I took it on internally. My emotions are my strength. They are my downfall, but I prefer feelings with depth to showy fireworks that are little more than reflections on dark water, all whir and smoke and pop. You have to wait for the next explosion to show you what love is and in the meantime, the night is black and you are alone.
I live with the darkness. I live in the light. I had to give up the pursuit of adrenaline. I have to hold the idea of love in my heart even when I am afraid.
By the way, I haven’t consumed an illicit drug in over 20 years. Just to make things clear.
Top image by meg’s my name.
Middle image by Sherri DuPree Bemis.
Bottom image from Etsy, though I don’t know the shop.
But today, I’m making it more public.
My writing at the moment is not particularly poetic. It is not meant for public consumption. Instead, it’s meant for a letter, a missive, the kind of thing one writes, takes a match to, and lights up a joint with, high flame to tight roll, the feelings gone up in smoke, scrambling my hippocampus and distracting my amygdala with the novelty of fire. My brain is taken up with something that it does not want to be taken up with. The colony I recently evicted from my mind, my equilibrium trespassers, found another way in. I just have to live with them until the feeling passes.
Perhaps posting this will free me. I feel a bit better already . . .
And I’m tired. So tired. The train car is packed with East Bay denizens making the long journey home. My bag is packed with books and binders. After a stressful week – sick kid, two finals, a paper – that followed another stressful week – two presentations – I have no desire to think about school. I have no desire to think about anything. How can a mind be full and empty at the same time?
My classes constantly challenge me, both socially and emotionally. Listening and absorbing takes energy, as does talking. We often break into small groups, or do intense exercises that turn surprisingly personal or allow us to occupy new viewpoints. It’s great. It’s fantastic. It’s changing how I look at other people and the way I perceive myself. Maybe this is why I am in graduate school for counseling, to be shaken up and challenged on a deeper level. It’s been the best part of my education so far, though I’ve learned a lot on the academic side, too.
(Here’s where I wrote more. A lot more. Paragraphs about self-worth, womanhood, and childhood. Sometimes I build worlds of words, convoluted yet rational worlds. Emotions become syllogisms and I always have to end on a high note. My talent, however, lies more in metaphor. I’d rather be transcendent than right.)
Learning self-worth as an adult is like entering an emotional time machine, returning to the source, the scene of the first blows. Anger dominates, followed by sadness, all eventually wiped away by understanding and triumph. Inside my chest, down in my stomach, the feelings whirl and mix together. Time to say goodbye, to take those years of denial and integrate them. There are bodies, so many bodies, and hands grabbing, a girl crying. Men are shadowy figures on the perimeter. The girl knows that if she dances, they will like her, maybe even love her. They will make her lovable. So she pirouettes and twirls, she shimmies and bends, trying to find a dance that will please.
I motion for her to rest, to sit down beside me and lay her head upon my shoulder while I envelop us in love, in a misty aura the pale pink of peony in bloom.
Image by MugurM.
Ah, but why champagne, you ask? Celebration! Thursday I was offered a traineeship at an agency that places fledgling counselors in public and parochial schools in the Bay Area. It is not only a huge relief to have something lined up for next year, but also to be pleased with the agency and their approach. Even better, when I told the first agency I interviewed with that I was no longer available, but would love to apply to work with them next year, they encouraged me to do so. They said nice things about me, too, another affirmation of my decision to take the counseling path.
Could I have imagined myself in this position last year? Almost exactly a year ago I wrote, “I no longer want to hate my weakness.” Today, I embrace my weakness, the phobias, my emotionality, the bad moods that often indicate that I’m denying some vital part of myself. I may not always succeed in being kind to myself in this way, but I am trying and becoming more consistent.
Lately, whenever I enter self-criticism territory, a familiar, almost comfortable place, my go-to spot when anxiety calls, I remind myself how far I’ve come. The criticism often comes in the form of denigrating my accomplishments – like landing a good placement or getting into grad school or making a bold move like quitting my job to go to cooking school as I did almost a decade ago. The meal I make isn’t balanced enough, my parenting sloppy, my emotional responses wrong. Sometimes it comes in the form of focusing on specific weaknesses or opportunities lost, the little mistakes, my over-interpretations of others’ reactions, the feeling that I could always do better. So I have to slow down and observe the happy side of subjective reality, the flip side, the deeper truth.
Look, self: we presented twice this week and both presentations went well enough. We interviewed at two agencies over the last month and felt good about both interviews, feelings that were borne out by the kind and encouraging responses we received. We feel increasingly comfortable being who we are, without hiding or denial. By shifting our reactions to the boy, he has become more settled and calm. The internal change that has gone on in the last year is huge and has led to external change, to a new sense of belonging in the world.
It’s a feeling to own, to revel in. Please join me as I live with ambiguity, occupy the contradictory dichotomies of happiness and tears, rage and forgiveness. What feels like a step (or leap) back is another opportunity to pay attention to what we deny or ignore. Accept what is difficult, but do not steep in grief or anger. Our experiences have multiple dimensions, many sides, and to look at them from only one vantage point obscures the others. Turn your life around in your hand. Walk the perimeter of surface emotion and go inside, knowing that you will always be able to resurface. Observe the colors, the hues of joy and pain. Be here now, with me. It helps. And it acknowledges that we really aren’t alone.
Image by Stuck in Customs, which I like for its colors, complicated landscape, and theme, Chicago thawing into spring, both beautiful and symbolic.
My hair is brown, hers black. My eyes are blue, hers hazel, less warm than you’d expect from an earth tone, cool until her face is within kissing distance and the fire begins. I blush. She whitens. My tension becomes her acquiescence, the yielding. At the end of every finger, my cuticles are torn and ragged. Hers gleam with health. I am quiet, my energy sapphire blue, a constant low purr. Her energy crackles, it shocks, everyone in the room feels it, an aura emanating three feet out. It changes colors like a fiber optic light show, orange, pink, turquoise, amethyst. Nothing matches or repeats. The rest of us shrink, gather our strength, protectively cloak ourselves in thin, indestructible force fields the woman cannot penetrate or burgle.
She’s come for revenge, has me cornered, and her breath smells like gin and cigarette smoke. Her energy shrinks, all bluff and pain. “Pink rose, my ass. You sold us out,” she tells me. “You sold us out years ago and now we pay the price, me with my hunger, with my aches and pains and wants, you with your mind and your thoughts, free. But neither of us are.” I reach out, pull her toward me, and we both start to cry.
Two days ago, I sat in a classroom with the other women, our eyes closed, our prof talking quietly. Inside, we pictured our minds and our bodies, two flowers, circling one another. My mind was a full-blown peony, blousy and unkempt, beautiful and almost too much. And it wasn’t like I couldn’t imagine my body, couldn’t put her in flower form. She was there, one pallid pink rose, open slightly, her petals starting to brown, like a flower that would never come to fruition. But here she is in front of me now, in writing, nothing rosy about her, my self-protection turned into anger against myself for my neglect.
She is sharp-faced, expressive, powerful. She is a figment of my imagination. When she isn’t sad, she’s pissed off. At least she gets to be angry, purely so. I would be angry, too, with what I had to do to her to free myself, to protect myself while she bore the brunt of other peoples’ wishes. We’ve barely overlapped since I don’t know when, and when we are close enough to touch, to meld, it’s always with a pack of cigarettes, a row of shots, with black leather and punches thrown, with the adrenaline that comes from getting the punishment we deserve. And we don’t do that kind of thing anymore. The midnight visits to street corners, the blood sister cuts, and bruised lips were exhilarating, but they weren’t real.
God, I feel this so strongly. I feel something only to be conveyed in metaphor, but the metaphor has heft and real life meaning, and part of me is fourteen, sixteen years, eighteen years old. I’m still twenty and I’m protecting myself and I don’t know when to stop. But I am not twenty or fourteen. I’m not twelve. I will protect myself retroactively, take the first step towards integration so that we can live together safely, without the threat of humiliation and pain.
So no I say. To you. And you. And you. Stop doing that. I don’t like it. No. No. No.
Together, we cry, the first time I’ve cried in someone’s arms since I was a teenager. When it is time to go, we separate and she turns and walks out the door, pausing to wave before disappearing into the obscuring velvet night. I am empty, alone, spent.
Next time, it will be a little easier.
Image: Plastic lady torso (probably for a bathing suit display) that the boy and I found on the curb yesterday afternoon. Image (Instagramized) by me.
I often feel as if a precipice is right in front of me, one step and I’m gone, off the cliff, or someone near me will make the wrong move and be taken before anyone is ready to say goodbye. It’s one of the byproducts of living through a loss or two, and the best way to live with the knowledge of life’s precariousness is to be in the moment you have. And it’s easiest with the boy, in a relationship that has the relative clarity of unfiltered filial love. I can’t claim to maintain this purity of emotion in my other relationships (and perhaps I am deceiving myself anyway: are motherhood and its associated feelings and responsibilities so simple?).
The complications of voluntary connection, the way I intersect with those who are not my child, become a tangle of history, emotion, and assumption. Do I feel what I feel because it’s how I really feel? Am I projecting or dodging? By showing how I feel, am I testing, or forcing the spotlight onto me, a distraction from complication? Anger and joy are basic emotions, one cold steel, the other sun on skin. Or that’s how I’d like to categorize them for your consumption, two simple emotions, sans agenda, no clicking gears and levers working within. As I write, I feel neither of them, just a wistful memory of warmth after the deadness of metal.
There’s a corner house I walk past, usually at night, with the dog. Over time, the house has been transformed, new plants, new paint, a backyard tilled, rich black dirt mixed with the paltry dry stuff they started with. Now a fence is taking shape and maybe a shed, or at least a place to store the garbage cans. Their mailbox is on a post about five and a half feet off the ground. How tall the people are in this house to be comfortable with that arrangement? How does the mailperson feel about it? Often, the house is dark (who lives there? when are they home?), but last night a front room glowed behind opaque shades. It was a warm golden glow. I wanted to be in that room, some other version of me without the baggage I’ve added over the last decade. Inside that glowing room I’d just finished an amazing meal and was sitting with a glass of wine, a cat in my lap, and a book in my hand.
The fantasy – which so totally caught my heart, you’d think it was romance – is not that far from my reality. I live in a house. I have cats. I read books. I drink wine. Last night, I poached salmon fillets and served them with a tarragon butter sauce, tangy with lemon and mustard, alongside boiled new potatoes and spicy sprigs of watercress. There was a glass of wine, yes, and freedom of a sort, yes, and then this life around me, life that I built, really we built. It was a good meal with good company, but I felt the wind from the hole in the wall, all crumbling plaster and ragged wood and empty space. Maybe everyone else felt it too, but I didn’t think I would ever know if our experiences overlapped or if the hole was in my imagination or if it was something else to every person sitting at the table. If only I could see the hole, was it my responsibility to patch it? Was the hole another projection of my inner experience on my external world?
In the house that Nora and I pass that is continually under construction, undergoing change, I imagined a room, warm, safe, and enveloping, the woman who resembled me sitting with a novel, a contented cat, and the memory of a good meal. She was comfortable within herself.
I can attain to it.
Image: Metals intertwined, by me.
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.
I stood in front of her, naked from the waist up, vulnerable as I’d ever been. The woman treated me so gently, warm, gloved hands against my neck, guiding my body into contortions, pressing against a shoulder, positioning my breast for the camera. It was the softest intimacy I’d ever had with a stranger, the most delicate. When I received a card less than a week later telling me I was in the clear, I thought back to the low-lit room, almost as romantic as if we’d had huge candelabras flickering and dripping wax in the corners. I remembered the woman with gentle hands, and the machine that briefly flattened me.
From my view through the store window, 8:45 on Saturday night, I could tell the man was friendly, making small talk with the normally taciturn woman behind the counter, who was hidden behind his gestures and shrugs. I rounded the corner. He exited the store. Our paths crossed. He saw the dog first and it was love, scratches on the head, a kiss on her nose. Nora soaked it in, her ears up, tips flopped, undone expression: more, please. Was this my dog? Yes. What was her name? Nora. Dora? Nora. Oh! Nora. This man was my vintage, my age type, a bit older, from the tail end of the baby boom, a little bit of I Wanna Hold Your Hand to my I Want You (She’s so Heavy). He had the face of D, open, trusting. I used to say D was like a Labrador retriever, guileless and friendly and this man was no different, with his soft brown eyes and his canine affinity. After making contact with my dog, he scampered across San Pablo. I wondered if I’d spooked him.
The rest of the walk home, I thought about safety and choices, how my big decisions might look from the outside, in some ways as irrational as the clothing choices of a toddler, as telling as a series of Freudian slips. So far, this weekend has been devoted to reading about how the things we take in – physically, emotionally – change us, about the way addiction roots itself, can become a part of the body and mind. Addiction is a complicated mix of genetics plus environment plus the substances themselves, their insidious paths through our bodies, past the brain-blood barrier, the neurochemical mimicry that encourages dependence, the desire for more. Emotion and memory are inextricably, physically, linked, even if we are not aware of those links on a conscious level. How did I learn about what it means to be safe, what constitutes danger? What were the concrete emotional experiences behind the life that I now lead, the patterns I’ve created and lived?
I’d never thought of this marrying of emotion and memory as being part of the puzzle, the answer, the idea that our patterns are in some ways physical. The book I am reading, Uppers, Downers, All Arounders, doesn’t explicitly apply the paths of addiction to other realms of human experience. But I think the “old brain” they talk about covers other arenas as well. It’s the place of emotional association, the one that leaps into action at times of crisis, and brings on cravings for things that make us feel good, even if that good feeling is never quite the same as the first or second time. It reminds us what it means to be vulnerable, what it means to take risks. It remembers the short-term, heart-pumping, epinephrine/norepinephrine endorphic rush of sex that comes with a promise of danger and the potential long-term terror of actual closeness.
Is experience destiny? Once shaped, once memory and emotion overlap through repetition and the rush of chemicals, once the memories are physical and associative, burned into us by the paths of neurotransmitters, once the structure of pattern forms, can we escape those patterns? The only answer I have is yes. Yes, we can escape! I wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t. I would not be able to become a therapist if I thought the answer was no. Some addicts are able to pull off the escape eventually, though of course that depends on any number of things that aren’t under their control. I can pull off the escape, once I make the associations, acknowledge the things that mark me and still affect me, conscious. You can do it, though at the moment I have nothing but hope to provide to you, no other suggestions.
Of course, there is no complete rethink of self. We are not lumps of clay being pushed this way and that, finally taking over to press ourselves into a more pleasing shape. And anyway, we’re pretty damn good as we are. But it does mean we can strive for change where change is needed as well as develop a clearer vision of why we do what we do on an internal level, one part physical, one part psychological, the last piece experiential.
Image: The looming phantom hand.
Was that the night I attempted to crash the dive bar? Where they kicked me out? Twice? In the spring, Martha, Joan, and I, drunk in a silly and giddy fashion, danced on the bar at that place. I was alone the night the guy at the door refused me admittance (no ID he said, though that hadn’t been a problem before). I was there with no connections, drunk and belligerent, a half-empty bottle of booze in my hand. Perhaps it was best that they refused to let me in.
The day after the pictured picnic, I was on the early shift at the restaurant. I vacuumed the carpet around and under the tables (off to the bathroom to puke); I took orders (off to the bathroom to puke); I delivered Tidewater sandwiches and baskets of warmed French bread with ramekins of whipped butter (off to the bathroom to puke). Maybe I’m conflating memories, but I think the staff meal that day, served at the end of the shift, was chicken liver cannelloni. I ate it with gusto, the alcohol having completed its poisonous circuit through the body. I needed protein and comfort. The chef was a damn good one, spent two months in France every year “researching” and, anyway, I ate those kinds of things back then, from rumaki to filet mignon to veal sweetbreads.
It was the summer of J, the summer of dumped D, the summer with a transition at the end, my move from Chestertown to Washington, DC. By my August move, Martha and I were not talking and I’d alienated J, though we were still together. By the following spring, Joan would become a frequent visitor to my odd Brookland group house of two. Martha didn’t come around until later, till the reunion over wine and white Russians (!) at dc space. So went life as a slightly fucked-up young adult, with friendships deepened by alcohol and overlapping dysfunction.
Seeing the picture brought me back in the way a nightmare returns you to a layer of panic you’d forgotten existed, the kind where you realize you haven’t gone to class all semester, or that you’ve been revealed for the fraud you really are, where you have to decide how to dispose of the body parts you’ve stashed in heavy-duty trash bags. I wouldn’t want to go back to that time, though I’m grateful (mostly) for the experience. Still, I miss the unguarded quality of those years, how I used to be more open with emotion. Generally, of course, caution is a good thing, at least in appropriate doses at appropriate moments. And the hysteria that was the main feature of my relationships back then is well under wraps. These days there is so much distance, so much static, between what goes on in my head and what comes out of my mouth. Perhaps this is inevitable, the battered nature of living past 35, with experiences that teach one to hold one’s tongue, the stodgy, rational nod to absolute self-control. Mostly, however, I don’t like feeling pent up. But sometimes I still don’t know where the middle ground lies between visceral conversations where I spill my own blood and polite presentations of filtered worries.
The psychiatrist who prescribes my medications passed on an app that tracks moods, Optimism. Every day, I fill in the amount of sleep I got, how well I ate, what my moods were like, how I coped with triggers, and so on, in order to chart my moods and their patterns, hopefully determining both what might lead to a bad day and keep track of how I’ve coped effectively. I highly recommend the app, not only because it helps establish patterns, but it offers reminders of our internal reserves, how we have it in ourselves to make choices that can (but not always) have positive effects on moods. For example, eating well, getting exercise, and socializing can all help with mood, as can getting a good night’s sleep (something that has eluded me since the arrival of Abilify). I have a choice in how I handle the moods, at least much of the time.
One way to cope, which isn’t mentioned or measured in the app, is not to “over-ruminate,” not to go back and focus on the bad stuff, to over-analyze what went before and what goes on now. Apparently women are champs at this sort of thing. This blog was forged on this sort of thing. It doesn’t do us any good, ladies. But the memories and my reactions of today are real. Let me offer an antidote to the sadness of the time: my friendships were rich then and the friendships I have now, in adulthood, are all the richer. I still know Joan and Martha, though we are no longer close. I can thank them in part for my connections to others today. I will always love them, too, and be grateful for their presence in my life.
Yesterday, I struggled mightily. Being one-on-one with the boy for a few days was taxing for both the boy and me; waiting for my understandably distracted husband to reappear and relieve me had its difficulties as well. The boy and I pulled through; my anger and fear dissipated when I finally got to talk to my husband after the bedtime routine. And I woke up this morning feeling better, ready to ready myself for school, which starts tomorrow morning with a 9:10 class on addictions. I’m looking forward to it. I’m nervous about the semester, with four classes in my course load. Still, I know more now about how to cope than I did a month ago. I know that I require connection, friendship, and deep conversation and that I can actively seek these things out. Sounds obvious, perhaps, but it’s easy to miss the obvious in all the internal noise, in the echoes of musty shame and unworthiness that still sometimes reverberate in my mind.
Edited slightly. Must stop prematurely posting!
Top image: Me, Joan, Martha, and Kimberly.
Bottom: The boy being silly in a dressing room at CrossRoads Trading Company.
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).
As I get more distance from the slow dissolving of self that I underwent over the period of a few years, from the deep conflict caused by guilt and my attempts to fulfill very human needs, as I continue on a personal rebuild, I seem to be letting go of anger, especially in the last few days. Maybe it’s the paint fumes, my busy hands, the anticipation of room carved out for me within the house. I’m almost done painting the office; the task is absorbing even while it is also, like all room painting, a pain in the ass. Maybe it’s the sudden addition of color, even in a small, contained space. Or the further acknowledgement of the unnatural state of living on an emotional island, though I still am not sure how to get off and my indirect method of trying to drain the water around me, cup by salty cupful filled and poured into brown sugar sand (wetting it only makes the sand, with its pebbles and rounded knobs of sea glass, hurt my feet more) is obviously never going to work.
Much work remains. This morning, this means something practical: I would like to get the last coat of paint up before the rest of the household wakes up. So I will leave you with a quote by Barry Lopez, nature writer and the author of an article, “Sliver of Sky,” from the latest Harper’s Magazine that details his childhood sexual abuse. The quote comes from Lopez’s recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. I’ve listened to the interview almost three times now as I’ve covered up the bland and scarred visage of our walls. It has meaning for me on many different levels.
For me, it wasn’t so much my mother’s failure to protect (and perhaps it wasn’t totally for Lopez, either). It was the broader category of adults, family members, mostly, with their problems, their blinders, the way they failed me and the ways I fail my son now. My failures are nothing like my parents’ inability to take care of me. Still, the wounded animal in me struggles to separate my past from my present and therefore remain present. Sometimes I have to fight to be good, to not cause damage to the boy, at least not of the deep kind that was caused to me, intentionally, selfishly, blindly.
You can drive a knife in your own chest by hating people and thinking in terms of who the enemy is and who's right. We're every one of us imperfect. We're every one of us, in some way, wounded animals. The most important thing is to take care of each other. And, you know, there are some things you can't forgive. You try very hard and you cannot, so you make your peace with that. Even though this is a story about something that happened to me and was awful, this story's not really about me. The story is about our failure to take care of each other. And so my mother failed to take care of me, and then the point would be what?
There are those I forgive because I love them and I see their wounded animal nature. Forgiveness is a gift for both of us. There are those whom I cannot forgive. And that’s ok. I’ve let go, let the anger dissipate, knowing I will never walk with those people again. They carry their punishment within them, a suffering that knows no relief.
Image is of a painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger, Battle of Carnival and Lent. I realize it is difficult to see the details. For a slightly larger image, go to artinthepicture.com.
We were young and we couldn’t help it, could do nothing about the current of want that flowed within us, centers of desire, and our thinking was quick, too, and what we lacked, though we didn’t know it, was knowledge, deep knowledge. Instead we had porcelain smooth arms and poison ivied legs, the sticky blisters running from ankle to ass because he pushed us into the brush by the side of the path, and we liked it, though we didn’t like the end result, the taint of sap and reputation.
Bodies were mysteries, with curves and crevices, once flat places rounded and full. It was only after the change was long over that we reveled in it. We eventually saw innocence and mystery in those years before knowledge and experience piled on, before we took and gave and others took from us, and added, too. On the other side of youth, with our worries and frown lines, our complications and withdrawals, we forgot what it was like to not know, to be fresh but not prepared, and assumed it was sweet and easy, blissful ignorance.
I say we said this and we did that, but I write about a time in which I did not yet exist. My time was later, with different words, different music, different hairstyles, though it is also gone. That feeling of newness, however, regenerates. The revelry in newfound power and growth echoes with each new crop of the young, when hormones alter the equation of childhood. Outside of occasional unspoken dread, like a shudder after a cold breeze, no one thinks of what happens when the body completes its growth, when life settles down. It is all endless possibility and if it isn’t, there is still a chance that something will happen or someone will appear (in a coffee shop, online, in the club with the flashing lights and the tinny beat) and change your life.
I had a dream about you again last night. We met in a library, something from the Colonial era, more museum than lived life. You felt me up in the winter chill of the white-walled reading room, between the glass cases with books handwritten by people long dead, every page touched with flourishes and quill pen drama. What we were doing was surreptitious. It was transgressive. It was about the body, as simple as that. Our bodies, your hand against my flesh, stroking.
I felt a fool. But I could not deny the power of touch.
When I woke, I was relieved. It was a story of skin, not of emotion. I can buy touch on the street. I can provide it myself. I can imagine it. I don't need you for that and when I chose you, it was simply for temporary warmth, like putting on a heavy coat on a cold day. The danger comes when emotion ties one body to the next. Make sure you’ve made the right choice, that the body you become entangled to, the body stuck beside you in emotion’s sticky web, will be the one you to support you, when everything else around you is crumbling, when emotion loses its pull and the body starts to crumble, when the things you've said to each other have soured the milk and appear to have darkened the future.
My friends and I used old fashioned words. We enjoyed our bodies as they grew. Touch happened, sometimes too soon, sometimes not voluntarily. Some of us learned to hate our bodies; their reactions to unwanted touch, the tingle of flesh and the quickening of heart, was betrayal. Our bodies were the bait. They were the sin. They were our downfall. The lucky ones, after years of work, unlearned the hatred. We forgave. The less lucky never did. And I admit some jealousy of those who were able to explore deep and wide, to accept their physical nature, to delve into the mysteries of the flesh without shame or self hatred, knowing their boundaries and enforcing them.
There once was flow. Flow was covered over by shame. Shame was excavated by talk, by love, by devotion of the heart and mind, love of and by another.
I had a dream about you again last night. You were nothing but a body next to mine, using words from the past, old fashioned, meaningless words. The touch was important, your hands smooth. I created emotion to fit the situation because I was a good girl, an emotional girl, taught early to keep touch married to feeling, who learned to let those who wanted have. To justify my worth, to explain my weakness and your interest, I constructed a narrative of connection around the theft.
I remain good. My emotions are real, a part of me. I protect myself when necessary. I unlearn the lesson slowly, unwrap the falsehood from the truth, belie the lie. It's never too late.
Image from april-mo.
Last night, we were all in the kitchen, three of us and the dog, with the occasional appearance by Asher, who mewed and threaded the space between us (Nick howled in the living room). This is new: the boy stripping leaves from sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and lavender, sampling cheese, peeling garlic, stirring butter and parmesan into pasta. When I think of family, when I remember the best of what I experienced with the group that had a history, my mother, Kevin, sometimes his son, and me (always with a dog or two underfoot), making meals is what I think of -- the actual eating of them was fraught with conflict. Even when things went well, the shadow of potential anger hovered over the candlelit table. Meals were also the worst of family, me being left alone while others cooked and ate together, or listening to the silence during the dinners I was a part of, knowing that the conversation would start only after I left the table. This is the world I became most used to; even when I was invited to the table, the food would be eventually be tainted with hostility.
The meals in our small family, where the animals outnumber the humans, have been pleasant (mostly), but I've generally been the one in the kitchen doing the work, from prep to cook to clean up. For years, the boy and his father would be elsewhere, reading, playing, while I chopped, clanged, boiled, and sauteed, and later soaped, rinsed, de-crumbed, and wiped down. Then my husband started helping more. The boy wanted in, too. I've had to change my expectations of meal preparation. I've had to let go not only of control, but of holding myself together alone in the kitchen. It's a good change and a sign of how far I've come and how my family is an integral part of the process. We are each distinct parts of a whole.
The nightmare hasn’t totally lifted. I still feel the remnants of the old hag who pressed me into the bed as I lay helpless, paralyzed by witchcraft of my own making. Night has moved to daybreak, but day eventually turns to dusk and there will be nights with no visible stars, where the clouds hang low and it will be cold but I won’t be able to see my breath because fog saturates the air. I’m no Pollyanna, singing and skipping, believing everything is rosy, that I’ve gone from broken to fixed. We are all broken, but broken can be strong. We are human and to be human is to be a contained mess (and sometimes just a mess).
Last year at this time, I held a lot of anger. For the most part, that anger is gone. I was disconnected from the people I love. Our connection is stronger, though much work remains. I struggled with internal contradictions, with an extended and tortuous case of cognitive dissonance, a self-imposed sense of duality, of either/or, my mind in one world, my physicality in another, my emotions frozen. Today I recognize the falsity of dividing myself into parts, of behaving as if I lay in the magician’s box, sawn in half, my toes wiggling, my hips tingling, my heartbeat slowed, my eyes closed in sleep. I am not yet whole, but slowly I work to rejoin myself to myself in the supportive context of my family.
Life is beautiful, even in its pain, even with the ache of recognition of the bad I’ve done mixed in with the good. Love in the long haul is not always pretty, which makes it all the sweeter, a new perspective for me, who had little faith in what I felt was the emotion of take and grab, of here and gone. It’s not just love between two people that has its exhilarations and sadnesses. It’s family love as the family changes. It’s love of myself, letting my good deeds leaven the impact of the bad things I have done and remain capable of doing. It’s the negotiation I make between experience, expectation, and the needs of myself and friends and family. Living with openness and kindness is not an easy task, especially with the realities of life in the mix, the limitations of myself and others, and the way I let sometimes let myself down. Eventually, I will run out of time. The life I build (alone and with you) will be what I stand on at the end. Life is a matter of accepting the conundrum, the ambiguity, of love and pain, given, taken, and shared.
My hands hold my history and yours (and yours and yours) and within it the future which is both infinite and limited. I will die, as will you. Our love, imperfect, sometimes misshapen, often ignored or mistaken for something else, a threat, a message, a tug at a pocket, will live on in some small way, through our children, our gestures, our feelings of goodwill in the pull between light and dark.
Images: Meals and us. Last night it was a variation on goat cheese stuffed grape leaves (the recipe has its issues, but is tasty, even without waiting beyond 30 minutes to cook the bundles), with mixed greens and baguette slices. In between the pictures of humans, the meals above are the asparagus and goat cheese tart with green leaf lettuce, pomegranate, and almond salad (top right) and (vegetarian) sausage with pumpkin seed spaetzle and apple cider cabbage (bottom left; I recommend putting the peppercorns, bay leaves, and coriander seeds in a sachet). The pictures don't do the food justice, but there you go.
What have I rejected over the past couple of days? An anti-irony post that couldn’t avoid being ironic (Honestly sincere); something on what my son might remember of his childhood that was really about what I remember of my childhood; a list of the various external factors that intermingled with internal factors to make last week one of those don’t pass by bridges or be near a loaded gun kind of weeks. I’ve ruminated on the acolyte. I’ve considered something practical, a series of Internet safety tips for those who aren’t paranoid enough. I revised pet- and house-sitting instructions, but that was real life, meant to be used later this week when we visit my brother-in-law for Thanksgiving. That revision came with its own sort of sadness when I read the paragraph devoted to aging Zoe-cat, two years gone now. Shows you the last time we used those instructions. I’ve used a shortened form for our recent trips.
Of course, there’s the question of why write anyway, when nothing sticks or when what I need to write about is so personal, so deep, that it can’t be reproduced here. It’s buried even for me. I can feel the stirrings within, but I’m not sure what it is that wants to get out and I am not sure this is the time for it to emerge. Maybe it’s that slightly unsettled feeling that is pushing me here. Maybe I’m just a tad lonely (that word again). Consider me the barfly, the regular, entertaining enough at times, mumbling and stumbling home at the end of the night. But I never slide off my barstool to the floor and sometimes, sober, I don’t show for weeks. You only know my nickname and you don't know where I live, but you miss me when I'm gone.
Don't worry. I always come back.
This has been a therapy intensive week. I'm packing the insight in early so I can carry it with me through the holiday. It's always instructive to get different interpretations on the same story. In one appointment, we added up. In the other, I unloaded and we examined. My therapist always asks salient questions, gets me to think about where my feelings come from, and leads me to alternative ways to approach situations. She also reminds me that my experiences are meaningful and that I should trust my gut.
I've been going to this person since January, after repeated negative experiences with my previous therapist, S, that took a Christmas day text from her to finally end. These are the signs I ignored: a sometimes dismissive attitude; lateness; and major over-sharing. By the time it was over, I knew about S's (dead) manic depressive husband, the night one of his pick-ups knifed him, his hospitalizations, their separate affairs, and the marijuana habit she kicked late in life. When an injury kept S from traveling to her Berkeley practice, combined with that Christmas text informing me of her extended absence, it was the perfect time to make the break. Though I had trusted my gut in my previous therapy attempt, with the blind woman who was always late, often by 20 minutes, and who didn't seem to understand the depth of my feelings, I stayed with S way beyond the first time she told me too much. Unlike the blind therapist, S wasn't a total wash. She could be helpful and was there for me during difficult times.
What do you do when someone is simultaneously good and bad for you? It's hard to balance out, to figure out when the bad starts to outweigh the good. Once you depend on the person, on their presence in your life, there is no unknotting, no simple disentanglement. Some threads will have to be cut. It will be painful. But it's so hard to heed the warning signs. I question my perceptions all the time. I have ignored every dark mark to be the sunlit object of someone's attention.
So here's my unsolicited advice, from the gut, for those who need it: Be cautious and beware those who sting when hurt. Pay attention to the stories they tell. Heed the places where the stories catch in your mind, the snags that reveal (the people they ostensibly loved, lied to and left; the bargains they forced). You know the truth. Acknowledge your knowledge. I write as someone who has routinely seen the signs and then anxiously moved past them, waiting for the truth to out, hoping like hell that it won't. But it alway does.
I needed new pictures, wanted to not look hopelessly battle-worn or pretentious band faux-cool. I did want to accurately portray how I look. These are kind of on target, though the iPhone is too kind.
Image, top: Me on the move, this morning.
Image, bottom: Me rolling my eyes at it all.
Still, I was apprehensive about the walk home, how we'd both take the rain. The boy was game. Two blocks from school, a river flowed along the curb. It was sometimes as deep as six inches, as wide as two feet. There were leaf dams and car tires substituting for boulders in the rapids, where the water rushed and gurgled. At the bottom of a small hill, two streets met in a graceful downhill curve. Their rivers collided, creating a ridge of water that eventually emptied into the street drain. The rain fell steadily. The boy let loose pebbles and leaves into the stream. He measured water depth and launched leaf boats. "This is awesome," he told me as we reached a street drain waterfall. "I love this stuff."
Only twenty minutes before, I had been on the same street heading in the other direction, oblivious to the flood, my stomach churning with emotion in need of a target.
I have spent most of the last week sitting on my ass on the couch when I wasn’t sitting on my ass in a café or walking to or from school with the boy. Believe it or not, I’m not a huge fan of sitting on my ass for hours on end (though if I am going to sit, it’s going to be on my ass, of course). It feels lazy. Ineffectual. Decadent in the dullest way. But behind (nyuck nyuck) the sitting and the guilt over sitting and the feeling of self-disgust was bleakness. Or perhaps I should say the bleakness is in front of me, a sheer wall of rock, no place to wedge even my pinky or mangled little toe. It rises past the clouds (perversely, the sky is an innocence of blue and the clouds fluffy little things, delusional with contentment). Bleakness is tan and smooth, bland and insurmountable, cool and dry.
I haven't been a total slug. My husband has been on travel since early Tuesday morning and I've maintained the lives of a dog, two cats, a leopard gecko, an ever-shrinking host of crickets, and a boy, solo. Every night I make the meal, do the dishes, set up the coffee, wipe the counters, clean the litter boxes. The boy gets to school on time, with a homemade lunch stashed in his backpack, even when we leave half an hour earlier than usual to walk there and the morning is a crush of preparation. And I've been writing, as evidenced by my frequent blog updates. So I’ve got my responsibilities and the writing and sometimes I have transcendence, too, moments of joy and actual presence. Mainly, however, I've been sinking. But it isn’t even true sinking, with the mud hungrily sucking at my parched feet, an affair of mind and matter, the slow sensual collapse into an airless puddle. I am lost or the parts of me that matter have floated away in disgust. The muck won’t have me and the sight of it bores me.
Writing about such things isn’t necessarily helpful. It indulges the feeling. I just want to skim the surface , to talk about how it feels to grind my forehead into the rock, without focusing on the ugly miasma occupying my mind. Because this, I am beginning to understand, is what it is like to sink back into depression. And depression isn’t a character flaw and it isn’t always a matter of snapping out of something but it is, I hope, temporary.
There are ways to structure one’s thinking so that you learn how to avoid negative thoughts, where you consciously sidestep familiar lonely paths through dark woods in order to trod the sunlit byways where the birds herald your presence. It isn’t quite as simple as looking at the positive side, but it is a way of approaching situations with a lighter heart and more optimistic mind. This mental trick has been very hard for me this week. It probably doesn’t help that my normal therapy appointments didn’t happen, I haven’t been on campus in over a week, and my remaining assignments have deadlines that seem very far away. My husband’s business trip and my anticipation of his absence have also been part of the recipe for gloom. I am alone and I am holding on to these feelings, looking for a way out though the rock, or just any way out.
I'd like to believe I can think my way out of this feeling, but depression is both less and more than a feeling.* Depression is an absence of feeling with an overabundance of hopelessness. I remind myself about the good things in my life, tell myself that the bleakness isn't tied to who I am, to my value as a human being, but is instead a quirk of genetics married to experience. But depression is not reasonable. It does not go gentle.
Still. I walked to pick up the boy, my heart and mind churning. I stepped in puddles without noticing them. I saw how I looked for a target for my bleakness, how I try to make someone, something, the villain. There always has to be a reason why I feel this way, a path I can trace obsessively back and back. Then, the revelation: what if there is no reason?
I find the idea comforting.
Songs one and two (plus bonus songs!): Golden Slumber, Carry That Weight.
*I see my equilibrium walkin' away, because I can't write "more than a feeling" without thinking of "More Than a Feeling," song three.
Image by davide.
Yesterday was an unsettling day in ways I can’t seem to describe. I spent too much time alone on campus and felt alone even when I wasn’t, and the day closed with a class where our guest speaker inspired but also alienated. I felt old(ish). I felt very white. I felt the invisible structure that has gotten me where I am today, still propping me up and leaving other people trapped under my pale shadow. My time on campus started early, with an appointment with my advisor about next semester’s classes. I’ll be taking four of them, which I think will be ok. But then I got an email that alerted me to a text about the boy getting sick in the car, the same old same old, headache followed by vomiting. Was this the return of PFAPA? How could I do anything, let alone take four classes, if we were going to plunge back into that world? I rode the anxiety train, the one I’ve let pass me by for the past few months, though I got off at first opportunity.
The boy was well taken care of, so I went to my evening class,the one with the speaker who was trying to leave his machismo behind. When it was over, mercifully early, I left without talking to anyone. I avoided a chatty classmate. I got on the bus, I hopped on BART, all the while trying to talk myself down from the anxiety, from the feeling of being overwhelmed, when I realized–I’m sensitive. Highly sensitive. And when you are highly sensitive, you have to cut yourself some slack and allow yourself what you need to feel calm and centered. (I feel like I’m talking about a high IQ or something, something that sets me apart and makes me very special, but trust me, the world is not set up for folks like me, especially those of us who are introverts. If you want to see if you, too, are highly sensitive, try this test).
I have to give myself permission to be quiet sometimes, or to tell a classmate that I need some alone time after a long day or acknowledge that, for me, getting overwhelmed at crowded events is natural. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the reason I don’t like talking on the phone with anyone but my parents and husband might be because of sensitivity combined with introversion, but when I read this post and saw myself, I thought, I am not alone! I am not a freak!
Being a sensitive introvert doesn’t mean that I dislike people or am uncomfortable talking to them. If that were the case, I’d have a very difficult time being a counselor and would have left librarianship well before I did. Contrary to the bookish, quiet stereotype, librarians spend a lot of time talking, clarifying, and communicating with patrons and their fellow librarians. Anyway, the point is–I like you people! I miss you, too, you other people out there, from friends to potential friends. I’m still squelching through the muck of loneliness, keeping my mind on the future, knowing that this loneliness is not a permanent condition. If I give in to that hopeless feeling, it’s all over. Even if I have to occupy a delusion, I will continue thinking that connection is right around the corner. I won't stop trying.
In the meantime, the boy isn't so sick, we've had a day of down time, and there's always tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Tomorrow, of course, is the day after election day. I hope all my U.S. readers voted.
Image: Me, when I was a shy girl, though I have my quibbles with the word "shy."
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.
Sometimes, when the pain is too much or when what I am feels like it will float away, when the me I think I am is not reflected back to me in the eyes of those I love who love me, I bind my torso, my arms, my legs down to the ankles. The boy recently brought up the unrealistic quality of movie mummies, wrapped lightly for easy of mobility, their limbs not bound together. Movie mummies take full steps, even if those steps are halting and slow, the gait of the long dead barely roused from deep sleep. He demonstrated how a proper mummy looks, bound his legs up tightly with knotted-together cloth napkins. The only forward motion he could make was a quick shuffle or a series of light hops, the mummy walk of the young, who know the feeling of being trapped but are hopeful and strong enough to push through it.
I don’t expect you to understand. I don’t have enough time to develop the concept. But I am the mummy, simultaneously frantic and slow, sorting the things, the thoughts, keeping them locked up tight, properly stowed away, because their spilling out undoes me.
In the dream that I woke up from Saturday morning, where Anne left me cheery messages and sent me fully-loaded tape dispensers through the mail of the incorporeal, I started a journey. The plane was smallish, the flight attendants a pair of floppy haired young men, beautiful and not yet chiseled. As we raced down the runway, picking up speed, the plane would slow down, then move quickly again. We made sudden, abrupt turns on the tarmac, as though the pilot had changed his mind and was going to take us in a different direction. Through the fog I saw the mess around us, the planes that had already collided on the runway, that would never leave the ground, and it was back into fog again, deep and obfuscating. The plane sped up, it slowed down, it turned, and I woke up feeling behind, late for a journey I could not yet start.
Talk to me in two weeks, two months, in the spring, this time next year. I shuffle, I move slowly, but I do move, and the world doesn’t just work itself on me, I work myself on it. The world and I mingle, and while I can’t call myself hopeful at this moment, I do feel strong and realistic. Sure, I’m lightly bandaged, but I do what I can to remain in the moment, aware of the symbolism in my actions and dreams, of my needs reflected in the sorting and boxing of the detritus of my family’s life, in the placement of things just so on the mantel, in the orderly arrangement of the boxes of tea and soymilk on the pantry shelves. There are no safety valves, no false images that I've created, to keep me in place. I am ready for the slow adventure, the turning of the wheel, and underneath the sadness, the resignation and acceptance, is a rising sense of excitement.
Image by mucus*plug.
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.
The final chapter of the textbook for our human development psych class isn’t a chapter. It’s an epilogue, a conclusion, a summing up. We all know how life ends. And it’s over. The textbook-reading portion of the class, anyway. Much writing remains and that’s what I should be doing now, that or sorting through the clutter, but instead I want to think about the solidity of self, what is real and why it is real, and what happens to it after our bodies give out.
I’ve spent the last five weeks taking furious notes and multiple choice quizzes (17 of them!). I’ve watched two Frontline videos on topics of interest to the human development crowd. I’ve written up three very long homework assignments and put out several stilted, overly researched contributions to our class discussion board. Sadly, I am a rule follower, at least when it comes to things like schoolwork. And this class has been all about the rules, with various instructions and admonitions, the kind of stuff that makes me doubt my ability to write in an academic style. (Do I need to write in an academic style? Isn’t it time for some real style in academic writing?) I am also congenitally curious and value data that come from sound sources. If I have a question about, for example, the prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder among men and women as compared to in soldiers returning from combat,* I locate a reputable source, fit it into my work and cite it dutifully. The end result is that I feel like a goody-two shoes who unnecessarily creates mini-research papers for very little reason except my compulsive need to do things the right way.
I’ve done a lot of complaining about this class, but the fact is that I am grateful for it. Change comes slowly to a person -- for example, people dependent on nicotine and heroin relapse an average of six times before getting clean for good (something I have in my abnormal psych notes, but haven't been able to verify from another source) -- even when change feels like a watershed. It is so much better for me to have externally motivated goals and lots of food for my mind. My mind has been starving and so I fill it again and again with facts and knowledge and still it demands more. At the moment, I’m also missing more regular human interaction, something that is intermittently important as I work, rest, work, rest. And, just as I knew that the coursework would come along to challenge me eventually (because I planned it that way), more social interaction awaits. At the moment, swimming alone in a sea of facts on adolescents, small children, and emerging adults, I feel a familiar yearning. It reminds me that having too time much time alone in my mind is dangerous and not particularly useful. It is not wise to create and occupy that airless space. It leads to desolation and deprivation.
You have to recognize the initial sink, the way the floor sudden gives, that which seemed solid and real just yesterday revealing itself to be a cloth stretched thin, a cracking length of plastic, a brittle sheet of wallboard. Then you attempt sniff out a reason. Maybe it's a lack of sleep (early morning followed by late night followed by early morning, waking up after Neil Young pushed you on a swing on the roof deck of some dive bar in a city you once knew and the woman you had drinks with, a blonde gone sour, the mother of his baby, and the night air was cool on your bare arms). Maybe it's that you don't have a good reason to get out of the house, so you don't get out of the house. Suddenly taking a shower overwhelms, food is merely fuel, brushing teeth a reward for answering another question on the final. More sleep, you promise yourself, and tomorrow getting out is built into your day, and the shower is a given. A few days of darkness may be only that.
*According to the National Comorbidity Survey, women of all ages and both women and men between the ages of 45-59 are the most likely to receive a diagnosis of PTSD over the course of a lifetime ("National comorbidity survey," 2005). But the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is 39% among male combat veterans (National Comorbidity Survey,as cited by Hamblen, 2009).
Hamblen, J. (Instructor). (2009). PTSD 101: what is PTSD. [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/ptsd101/course-modules/what-is-ptsd.asp
National comorbidity survey. (2005). Retrieved from http://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php
Image from Management of Heart Disease and Depression as Comorbidity.
That haunted abandoned-mansion-turned-dorm dream I had, where the doors would not respond to my touch? Well, it was probably no coincidence that the first thing the building brought to mind was my father's graduate student housing, a creepy Main Line mansion divvied up into single rooms, the dining room wallpapered in fox hunt scenes. I was about seven years old when he told me these manses were usually donated to the university after their occupants committed suicide, adding another layer of real life to the dream scene (and, yes, I am also irritated by the triteness of the father symbol, though I guess our parents are the main figures with whom our subconscious has to grapple).
I keep an intermittent dream diary, try to write the significant ones down before they evaporate. There are gaps of several months – I wrote nothing between the end of November and mid-May, for example, though I am sure I had significant dreams during that period. Paging through it, I am surprised at how many involve hauntings, ghosts, the fear of something that I couldn’t see but knew was there – and the one where the ghost was a little girl? Well, duh . . .
There are houses (the Little House, my grandfather's house, old houses, new ones, haunted ones, and, in one dream, a house that I moved from place to place, looking for the right spot to settle). There is violence – the bloody footprints I followed along the rocks by the Brandywine, the knowledge that I strangled someone, the scene by the Metro stop where an armed man is about to shoot and I have to protect the boy.
In the early days of the dream diary, I was heavy into interpretation, into stamping the dream with meaning without letting it flow from my fingers as it happened (although the act of writing is itself an act of interpretation). Over the last couple of years, I’ve just written down the details as I remember them. Reading them months or years after the fact is pretty interesting -- the symbolism jumps out. Boy, I sure was fucked up back in 2010, I think to myself. Thank goodness that's changed.
But some dreams defy interpretation. Or are more obscure than most. Maybe you can help me with this one:
The main elements were the dogs. There were two of them, one black, one tan, each of them an amalgam of breeds, each looking kind of like a (golden) retriever mixed with a lab mixed with a chow. Or something like that. Oh, and they were both dead. And stuffed. And posed.
The black one stood on her back legs, human style. She (?) was dressed in what I took to be a Victorian nightgown or maybe it was an undergarment, a linen full-body slip with a high neck, the fabric yellowed with age. The pup seemed a wee bit hoity-toity, a high society mutt captured in her civvies. Her neatly severed head (it was a bloodless cut) was tucked between her left “arm” and torso. The wink was implied.
The tan dog, also standing on her hind legs, had a more eclectic outfit. She was decked out like some sort of bobbysoxer cancan girl, wearing saddle shoes, a blouse with a cursive “T” over one breast, a dull plaid micromini, and fishnet stockings. One leg was jauntily posed mid-kick.
Each of the dogs was in a Plexiglas case – look, but don’t touch. I stared at them, feeling like I was both in on the joke and disgusted with the whole thing.
Maybe this was just one of those weird too-hot dreams where the brain pumps out something meaninglessly bizarre. I am sure it was influenced in part by going to see David Sedaris a few weeks ago -- the man is obsessed with taxidermy. I've also seen way too many dioramas with rodents dressed in old-timey garb and posed in human settings. Natty rats in the barbershop. Squirrels hanging out in the parlor over cups of tea. Shrews jumping rope. This stuff is called "anthropomorphic taxidermy" and, judging from what I've seen in the more morose shops in the city, it appears to be popular with the alternative art crowd in San Francisco.
Here's a thought: the dog in the high-necked nightgown, all traces of thought removed along with her head? Madonna. The naive femme fatale in saddle shoes and monogrammed blouse, her fishnetted legs coyly posed? Conflicted whore.
OK. The dream probably wasn’t particularly meaningful. For once my subconscious had a sense of humor, albeit a dark one.
Maybe my dreams are showing me how, after several weeks of stagnation, I'm back in the emotional flow. I've cracked wide open and the excess spills out of me. I plan on bringing up my recent Little House dream, with the man who didn't want to be with me and the mother who wasn't capable of it crossing paths, to my therapist. Heck, maybe I'll tell her the stuffed dog dream, too.
Last night, as I walked the dog through blusters and sheets of wind, my head pounded. The image of the dream mother walking towards me popped back into my head, a replay of the scene. The grass was unnaturally green. Her gait was fast. And I was so, so guilty. It brought back the days when I lived a constant lie (in more ways than one) and how I had to manage my anger, too, because hadn’t I pushed them all away enough with my untidiness? My mother . . . the guilt . . . how bad I still feel for the lying, the sneaking around, the things about me that I couldn't suppress that drove my parents away . . . how much I needed them and couldn't have them and so had to twist the need, to wrap it and twine it and box it up, to remove it because it was dangerous, because to acknowledge it would undermine everything . . .
It was as if I had opened some door in my chest and I just felt it, the guilt, the pain, not in a bad way, but as acknowledgment, a release of ache. I let the tears flow, fellow pedestrians and nosy drivers be damned. I don't need to punish myself anymore. I kept up the mantra until I got home.
Oh, god. The relief.
Expanded a great deal from the prompt "interpret the dream."
"Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix is part of the post soundtrack.
Image of a (living) dog playing pool by Cole Henley, cropped slightly by me.
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.
When I come shambling into your office with my hair wired out, the white strands (mulitplying at an alarming rate lately) with a mind of their own, all helter-skelter and askew – what do you see? I know you check out my outfits, give me the once over, deduce my mental state depending on how put together I look. Your attentiveness to my dress makes me want to play with the theme. Someday I’ll come in wearing tight red leather pants with studded boots and a sleeveless t-shirt that does nothing for my cleavage, like some sort of gender-confused 80s hair band refugee. Or I’ll get all prim and proper and Peter Pan collar, dress like the librarian I never was. I want to play with it, but I also resent the observation, the professional glance, the quiet decision-making about my internal state and I find myself wondering if the very desire to play with my outfits, to confuse the conclusion, reveals something I didn't intend to.
Middle-aged housewife and stay-at-home mother. Very little social life. Tendency towards depression. Bored and needing something more. Self-sacrificing and effacing. This is the box I think I fit into, though in the year since I first saw you things have changed. It’s not my definition of myself. I can see how it looks from the outside and how it may appear that I’m living the cliché. I have not chosen original ways to play with the edge. So, ok, I read the description and reluctantly raise my hand, with the caveat that you not confuse me with the role I appear to play. Not an easy task from your side of the stage.
Your youth reminds me of the benefits of age, time, and experience. Although I am not exactly ancient, somehow you make me feel both hoary and wise, the slightly addled crone on the couch. Maybe it’s the way you continually reassure me (unprompted) that I will probably not be the oldest one in my graduate program. Thanks, young’un. Now could you give me a hand out of my seat? But mainly it’s your inattentiveness to almost everything but my clothing that bothers me. I can’t blame you for that, really. You work on the outer perimeter of my psyche. You are a prescriber of pills, my mental health safety check. I wish I could keep the monthly sessions even shorter than the twenty minutes they generally last, but often I can’t help but blab out what is on my mind, as though we have a true therapeutic relationship. It’s like telling too much to a stranger at a bar or on the airplane seat next to you. Yet I am compelled. Stories of my life spill out, messy and inconvenient, though lately it’s been mainly good and I’ve been good, too, enough so that we are lengthening the time between appointments.
In my first meeting with my regular therapist, after hearing me let go of two months worth of tears, the rambling about past and present, she noted that I needed a therapist who would be attentive. It sounds like a simple thing, but the fact that she recognized it, that she named it, opened my heart to her. Attentive. Yes.
Still. If it weren’t for you, fresh-faced psychiatrist, and your powers of prescription and broad observation, I would be in much worse shape. I'm grateful to you and to my access to good health insurance. And the truth is, even with the therapists I trust, I hold back. I retain facts. I do not mention all my bad habits.
The clues are there, of course, just waiting to be found by someone paying enough attention. Yeah, yeah, yeah – it’s up to me to bring them up, to reveal the things I cover over. It’s my responsibility. I know it. And I have to choose my audience, too, tell it to the ones who matter.
Anyway. See you in six weeks. Maybe I’ll have good news.
Today's Ten O'Clock
Image by Alex Johnson.
And you know how music takes you back – to the time and place where you first heard it (there I am in Chesapeake City watching Maureen and her brother and sister at karate class, or we’re walking around barefooted on Canal Day, at fourteen-ish just old enough to start attracting the attention of creeps – I think the word we used was “scumbians”).
Or it takes you back to the concert you went to years ago. I saw the Cramps at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC on November 11, 1997 – thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can even give you the opening lineup – Guitar Wolf (a Japanese band) and the Demolition Doll Rods (who were all scarily thin and androgynous and wore skimpy outfits; the only song I remember was, predictably, about Darby Crash, an icon of the punk OD). And while I wish I could tell you what the Cramps set was like, the only other thing I remember was someone in Guitar Wolf flinging a guitar pick into the crowd, which ricocheted off my then-husband’s head, leaving a mark.
I haven’t been posting prompts here lately. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t particularly blog-worthy (the problems with wolves from Yellowstone branching out and killing cows on nearby ranches, for example). Or they are slightly new takes on old themes.
Because the Cramps take me back to that pivotal time, when the switch turned for me, when I went from Duran Duran to the Dead Kennedys, from INXS to the Circle Jerks, from Wham! to the Cramps. I was alone and angry and the music fit my life, and so I sought out the albums in record stores in Pennsylvania and Delaware when I could, flipping through the bins, looking for the strangest, most bizarre band names or the ones I’d read about in those British magazines I’d pick up at the Smoke Shop along with my unfiltered clove cigarettes.
I remember when I returned to high school for sophomore year with my striped eye makeup, my safety pin earrings, and my asymmetrical haircut (and my Circle Jerks t-shirt nicely coordinated with a pair of red shorts), the school nurse, who was also the cheerleading coach, looked at me with sad eyes and said something that gave me the impression that the balance had been tipped and I was now immersed in some sort of teen thing, lost to the grownups. Lost and waiting to be found.
The band names are like brand names, shorthand for a certain time and a certain type of music, which brings to mind a certain kind of person. The pastels and espadrilles-wearing me of early high school would not have been pegged as a fan of Suicidal Tendencies or the Dead Kennedys and she wasn't.
There are other brand names from that time, identifiers, words that bring back entire evenings, entire eras, or parts of them at least, before the drinks kicked in. And this was part of the switch for me, too, when I went from good to bad, from pale pink to pitch black.
I don’t remember the first time I tasted beer, when I tossed off the goody-goody and embraced the bitterness, the smooth, cool feel of it on my throat, the floaty, everything will be ok quality of it after a bottle was gone, followed by the half a six-pack sob fests, the opening of the gates of emotion.
The boys I hung out with were men, the crowd liked their Budweisers and their Elephant beers, and in the china cabinet in my grandfather’s house there was a limited supply of Paul Mason wine and Johnny Walker Red. In the freezer at home, Mom kept the gin that kept Kevin going for those dinners and hot summer days that always concluded with gin and tonics and acid remarks. I pilfered gin for my weekend excursions to Maryland, pouring it into a jar on my way out the door. Sometimes the jars would leak, giving my overnight bag a medicinal smell.
Oh, the drinks of the past, the whiskey and cokes, the vinegary wine, the Captain Morgan, the Southern Comfort, the watery beer of mid-adolescence. On hot summer Chestertown nights, my college roommate and I wandered the brick sidewalks barefoot, our plastic cups filled with gin and tonic topped with healthy slices of lime and there were Tequila Thursday nights and winey Saturday afternoons.
Dark and Stormies. Black Russians. White Russians. Dirty Irishmen. Bass Ale. Long Island Iced Teas. Berghoff Bock. Red wine. Champagne. Drake’s IPA. Which brings us to the present.
It sounds like a love affair, doesn’t it? A love affair bound to go wrong at some point. I‘ve let these beverages prop me up, open me up, keep me interested. This isn’t the story of someone who has given it up, but rather someone recognizing the pattern, the ebb and flow, the tidal qualities of me and alcohol, my coping mechanism of choice. The soundtrack has largely changed, but the beer remains the same (although of a much higher quality).
So here we have the band names, the booze names, the long-ago switch within me. What gives, girlfriend? Why the punk rock, booze-filled nostalgia tour? I think it has something to do with the discovery of my mother's birth mother, the aha, the recognition that my mother's extremely ambivalent feelings about being a mother, largely a product of her feelings about being adopted, affected how she parented or didn’t parent. It saddens me that her ambivalence was so deep and I wonder if we had made contact with her birth mother earlier whether things would have been different for both of us.
OK. I was just about to give this a positive spin, something about how I am happy with who I am today and I wouldn’t be that person without the kind of upbringing I had. Fuck that. I can be happy with who I am today, I can love the mother I have today and the mother of yesterday, be grateful for the myriad good things she brought to my childhood, and still think that my abandonment was unnecessary and undeserved.
So there. A mixed ending, just like life in all its complicated forms.
Adapted from two prompts, "my epiphany," and "faster, faster"
Image of Lux Interior (RIP) and Poison Ivy of the Cramps, not at the 9:30 Club, by Diego's sideburns.
These people are trampling my boundaries, I thought to myself indignantly. And I have to work up the courage to tell them to leave.
I woke up before I worked up the courage.
I was up in the middle of the night last night, reading about boundaries and how we are all manipulative in some way. The most useful webpage was written in the old jargon of codependence and childhood trauma, the stuff that I find irritatingly true. The very last thing I read before I closed my laptop and slid it onto the bedside table was about boundary enforcement. Boundaries don’t mean a thing if you aren’t prepared to follow through.
It's not like we don't sometimes get pleasure from letting our boundaries fall aside. Giving in can be an exquisite mix of pleasure and pain, familiar and warm as blood. Maybe we allow small invasions for a little attention. I did this during my childhood, where I was often more of a friend of, or even a parent to, my mother than I ever was a dependent child. Allowing this (with all of its attendant worries, being the constant sentry, feeling inadequate in my weakness) presumably meant my mother would love me and stay close to me. She wouldn't abandon me, or so I hoped.
The starving will do a lot for emotional sustenance, no matter how fleeting. I remember being very very small, no more than 3½, when my mother invited a man over for a drink. I was playing quietly and so proud of myself, thinking I am playing quietly. I am a good girl. Later we moved in with the man, who made me stand every night at the table while I ate. Today I wonder about my part of the bargain, a bargain I find it very hard to imagine a preschooler making: if I am quiet and I don’t complain, if I don’t make waves, I will be a good girl. I will get a chair. Not that I ever did.
Now my mind is jumbled with this stuff, the family tables that I’ve written about off and on, this feeling of being bad, unsuitable, too much, the idea that my careless mouth exposed me and led to my abandonment. Is it any wonder I find it hard to speak my mind today (or hold it in until it explodes)? Is it any wonder that I have a hard time recognizing and enforcing my boundaries?
Another one for therapy tomorrow. Maybe I should print this post out and read it out loud to my therapist so I don’t ramble on for the entire time about something only peripherally related, a distraction to take me away from the edge of enforcement.
Image by Larry Myre.
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 swiped this author's bio from my father's house.
He has a small file of my school stuff from second grade. My mother must have handed it over at the end of the year, a random move at a time of great change, right before she went back to college and I moved in with my grandparents. In addition to some artwork, the file includes handwriting exercises, blank pieces of yellowing, brittle paper, and a couple of sheets with "I will walk quietly in the halls" written 100 times.
The only evidence I have from elementary school, outside of a few report cards, is a box of schoolwork from third grade, when I lived with my grandparents. It's a similarly hodgepodge collection of mimeographed worksheets, diagrams, and the occasional letter from Mom. What Dad has is a treasure trove, a time capsule, and I wish I had the time to go through it more thoroughly, in addition to looking over the family stuff he brought out. Instead, I surreptitiously took a few things, though it occurs to me now that my sneakiness was unwarranted and revealing. (And if you ever read this, Dad, I apologize; it's an old habit, this secretiveness, my hidden moves.)
My memories of the time of being small are mainly of that terrible sinking feeling of helplessness, that little kid way of feeling stupid. Adults have all the answers and advantages. I remember their sly ways of taking advantage of our lack of experience, our innocence. Now that I'm on the other side, I still see it, though adults often do it unconsciously and with good intent. We forget what it is like to not know things, to be new and clean and full of wonder. We forget how much power we have over the small. Or maybe we remember somewhere deep inside and the memory galls us, so we pass along the old feeling of inferiority.
Seeing the world in all its crispness, before the heavy weather of disappointment, before each experience layers over with the next, should be celebrated and nurtured. Surely there is something shining within each of us, the curious, naive center, the thing that searches for happiness and total engagement in life? Could it be possible to return to the wonderment of a child, to reanimate the world, restart the imagination, and discover again?
When I was seven years old, I wanted to be a writer. My hobby was nature. I found fairy tale blue robin's eggshells on the sidewalk, brought home caterpillars, and created entire worlds out of mud. I did not walk quietly in the halls. I made my mother laugh. In the summertime, I would get as brown as a berry and was proud of my round tummy. I see this innocence in my son, how the world interests him, the way his imagination runs free. I know we all have to grapple with growing up. The fall is inevitable. But I believe -- I hope -- that we can get back to the wonderment, to being here now, and that we can nurture this in children, keep it alive.
Growing up is inevitable. Closing ourselves off from discovery is not.
You can look at the (extremely short) "book" this bio came from using this link, though I didn't include the crossword puzzle section.
Youth has a middle age, a half-life, and we were both there, on the precipice of being no longer young and life in the big city (it was a big city) is tough as you age and you keep on drinking and you’ve lost your job so there you are in a borough bar that glows red at night and goes gray at daybreak.
I find stories about drunks boring. The same old ache, the covering over of need with excuses and promises, the head-splitting mornings, the vomit all over the sheets. But some people do it right. I’m reading Lit by Mary Karr, her third memoir. It covers the period of her time in college through some point after the end of her marriage. She was a drunk, a hide-your-drinking, make excuses, I’m-not-a-drunk drunk, and while it gets tiring to read, and painful (she was the mother of a preschooler at the height of her alcoholism, though she took good care of him despite her nights on the porch blurring the lines with bourbon), Karr knows how to make an old story fresh. And I identified with T.C. Boyle's descriptions of that floating feeling alcohol can provide in the short story “Balto”:
The bottle was half-gone by the time they ordered—and there was no hurry, no hurry at all, because they were both taking the afternoon off, and no argument—and when the food came they looked at one another for just the briefest fleeting particle of a moment before he ordered a second bottle. And then they were eating and everything slowed down until all of creation seemed to come into focus in a new way. He sipped the wine, chewed, looked into her unparalleled eyes and felt the sun lay a hand across his shoulders, and in a sudden blaze of apprehension he glanced up at the gull that appeared on the railing behind her and saw the way the breeze touched its feathers and the sun whitened its breast till there was nothing brighter and more perfect in the world—this creature, his fellow creature, and he was here to see it. He wanted to tell Marcy about it, about the miracle of the moment, the layers peeled back, revelatory, joyous, but instead he reached over to top off her glass and said, “So tell me about the shoes.”
Have you ever been there? In love with the way alcohol slows down time, briefly lightens your burdens, gives you the feeling that you can escape, just for a moment? It’s even better on a clear warm day when the drinks start flowing before noon. I still remember the Eastern Shore spring Sunday when my friend Martha showed up at the Sugar Shack, my boyfriend’s place, with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada pale ale (at the time, 1990, an exotic beer for a Maryland girl). She drove us to the edge of the water and we sat and talked and drank while the sky glowed blue and the wildflowers shook in the breeze and the breeze churned up the bay. I wobbled into the Sugar Shack just before dusk after a lovely afternoon of conversation, my omnipresent tension briefly forgotten.
I’ve never gotten to the nitty gritty bottomed-out hell of alcoholism, though I certainly gave it a good go in high school through my early twenties. I understand the stress and boredom relieving powers of a drink or two, the desire for a sundowner. But this middle-aged youth, the left-hander at the bar, was on the far side of alcoholism. That night is blurry (was it mojitos we were drinking?). I remember my sideways strolls to the bathroom and the blinding post-closing lights, the way this man swung me around to the music and then dropped me to the floor. I was as loose-limbed as a ragdoll, laughed as I got myself back up, and we started dancing again before going our separate ways.
There was a time when I used alcohol as a way to expose the want, to peel off the layers of desire and need, to excavate my feelings. I didn’t want to think about abandonment. I didn’t want to give in to the feeling of being unlovable or needy . I didn’t want to think about sex, the smoky, humid nights of danger and my desperation for touch. I pretended this was something that I didn’t need, that I had no desire except when muddied by alcohol and an empty stomach, my skin suddenly aching to be stroked.
The need was weakness. It was confusing. Sex was my lure, the way I pulled people in. It was what they wanted from me and there was no room for me to want. My pregnancy at fifteen, the concrete danger of creating life before I was ready, the punishment of the baby’s death and my continued abandonment by my family, made it risky, too. I was stuck with the immature sexual mind of a violated fourteen-year old even as (most of) the rest of me made it to adulthood.
Ach. It’s complicated, and not in the lovely way of unknotting a necklace, taking the delicate chain and slowly tracing the source of the tangle. Maybe the process of figuring it out is like the excavation and restoration of an old crime scene, taking measurements of the bullet holes, scrubbing up the blood stains, before spackling and sanding the walls and putting in lovely hardwood over the pitted concrete. Discovering and remaking. But it’s always the discovery that is first, necessary and hard.
It's enough to drive you to drink.
Image by A. Currell.
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.
If Marylou were walking around the block Friday morning with her greyhound and a cigarette, there’s one thing I can guarantee: that cigarette wouldn’t stay lit. One raindrop after another would extinguish its will to live, would blacken the burning ember. And that’s why I’m glad that I don’t smoke cigarettes in the rain. Too frustrating.
I could have walked the boy to school Friday, 1.2 miles in the rain, the 53-pound first grader shoved into a bike stroller built for two toddlers, me getting overheated, feeling humiliated. But today, for the first time since the mid-1990s, I drove a car without another adult in it. To his school. That this minor-seeming event is so huge is revealing, revealing of my driving phobia, the psychological significance of it, the way it is packed and heavy with the past. Maybe I can lighten the load one brief drive at a time.
Still, two hours after my drive, I left for an even longer walk to my therapist’s office (one route at a time, too, I tell myself). I got there soaked through, a little pride knocked off, ready to spill my guts and feeling so weak about it.
I no longer want to hate my weakness. Thursday night, walking the dog (sans cigarette) in the surprisingly dry air, I tried to hug my poor defenseless unsupported sixteen-year-old self, the one who was thrust into an adult situation too early, the one who decided to live within me in defiance of what was expected of her. This is not a metaphor I usually like to cling to, the inner child, the dusty versions of ourselves that we need to make peace with, but I have to say it rings true in this case (and perhaps others – there are more of me in here).
She thought she had escaped her reliance on adults and in many ways she had. She lived as an adult, with the boyfriend sleeping over. She had no real supervision. Made her own meals. Bought her own clothes. Drank like alcoholic. The problem was that she wasn’t an adult. But no one stepped in to help and she ground her weakness into herself, like pressing out the glowing ends of cigarettes into flesh to put them out, in the same spot sometimes, and later they only reminded her of her shame.
I don’t want to focus obsessively on her story, on my story. I know healing comes through action. And those hugs were genuine, felt real. I love that girl. But I feel guilty for being that girl. It’s like being torn between two worlds.
From the prompt "Marylou walks around her block with a greyhound and a cigarette." Yeah, sometimes I'm not all positive thinking. I'm a survivor trying to live like a normal human being (apologies for the melodrama; I blame . . . myself. :-) ) Written yesterday in the gloom of a rainy day.
Image of a rainy day in Portland by drburtoni.
My life, my mind, my psyche, are controlled by metaphor. If I change the metaphor, I change the way I see things, change my approach, or maybe it’s the very process of changing the metaphor that is a sign of what shifts within. Anger, the metal’s forge, the process of taking the unformed and making it into something useful . . . I don’t need a knife. I need a form of transportation, a gleaming board on wheels, a scooter, a pair of skates. And each of these images makes me think of childhood, of an adult riding on a kid’s toy. A kid’s form of freedom, the kind I didn’t take advantage of then and have very little desire to take advantage of now. I’m not skating away with my seventies knee pads and my terrycloth headband. Escape is not on the table.
Let's return to the knife, to the art of chopping, the creative process of cooking, of taking ingredients and transforming them into something else. With some exceptions, cooking hasn’t satisfied me for years. Very few things have, and yesterday I was trying to figure out the missing link, what makes things pleasurable, what has been drained out of my life.
Hmmm. The anger is tied to a few things. This is one of the joys of therapy, the simmering mind, the heat turned up just so slightly, and then the detective hunt for the source of the pain, for the obstacle, the force field that I have allowed keep me in place (am I being obscure? I apologize.). My needs? Other people. The process of learning how to be a mother and a human being simultaneously, the realization that having an outside life does not mean I will become a bad, distracted mother. The paralyzing fear of causing damage. Of going to the dark side. Anger. Anger. The knife that I take to the onions, the garlic, before I toss them into the shimmering oil, before I perform the alchemy that allows the flavors to mellow and blend.
From a prompt "Sunday morning." Can't say it has much to do with Sunday morning, except that I woke up angry on this particular Sunday.
Image: Me and the boy at the Berkeley Art Museum, today, taken by the husband (who didn't even know that I put art on my list of needs).
I was reading through a fragment of a short story I wrote last summer when we were at Berkeley Family Camp. It’s a piece aching with premature loss, advance preparation for the removal of love, for the leaving of the boy. Every connection in life of the main character, a aging mother of one grownup child, is held together with duct tape. Her emotions are brittle things, chipped wineglasses wrapped in tissue paper and stored in flimsy boxes. The boy is gone and she knows very little about his present life, though she holds him close in her mind, her versions of him throughout his childhood clear and familiar, his present self a mystery. The warm, small body that nestled next to hers has become a foreign thing, awkward in its separateness and size. In the first scene, she sits in a lounge chair by a creek, wistfully watching children splash and play, observing their parents strong and present. She remembers.
It’s not that she regrets the lost connection or begrudges the boy his adult life. It’s that the loss felt inevitable from his first steps and the loss feels like (on some internal level) rejection. Dear reader, it may not surprise you that this mother was supposed to be me.
Along with anger, compassion, and forgiveness, I’ve been thinking about abandonment lately, that and what it means to be vulnerable and how being vulnerable for me as a child meant danger, something to guard against. There were times when I was left to handle difficult situations on my own, left to fend for myself, and so I did and learned that to depend was to be disappointed. It always sounds like a cliché to me, but it’s true. It fits. Along with that self-reliance, with that necessary isolation, was the idea that I didn’t deserve support anyway. If I did, then why was I alone in my struggles?
I was talking with my husband about this last night, about how it was somehow more comforting to imagine being rejected as a child for who I was, that there was some actual controllable cause or that I meant enough to my parents to be the cause, than to think that it had nothing to do with me. It was easier if there was a reason -- if only I had been nicer, kinder, less evil, less needy. If only I hadn’t said that one nasty thing. But their abandoments didn't have anything to do with me. It was just where they were at the time. They could only handle so much and were incapable of taking on more.
Making myself the cause of my own abandonment is comforting in a twisted way and it’s also not comforting at all. Of course I don’t sit around and think about how evil I am or needy, how much I deserve(d) to be left alone. Instead, I approach life prepared for the inevitable, steeling myself against the day the people I love go away, or I court it, in the hopes of the problem finally being solved, me being seen, redeemed … forgiven. But this is changing. Slowly, incrementally, I can see how my needs were and are legitimate, that I deserved the full attention of the adults in my life, and that they were incapable of providing for me. I can see that I deserve connection, that I need not isolate myself as penance for my wrongs, for my bad nature and evil deeds.
So often when I write these posts, I feel a release of feeling in my chest, a profundity of emotion, the realness of it all: this is how I feel and it is not going to change. I am trying so hard. I’ve been working on this for so long. And I think I am finally getting there. I’m at the edge of the cave, crawling towards the light, recognizing love for what it really is: a healing force.
Image by Bruce McKay Yellow Snow Photography.
I have been thinking about anger, forgiveness, and compassion. Writer Jim Murdoch recently commented here on the idea that perhaps we have to forgive ourselves before we can forgive other people (while Grace discussed the pointlessness of the concept for her). There is some truth to the idea that self-forgiveness has to come first, though I also see the two working in parallel, each process supporting the other. I’m in the midst of forgiving myself, struggling with what forgiveness means for me and how I apply it to other people (while I talk a good talk, I certainly haven't forgiven all the people on my pain list). I've concluded that a huge part of forgiveness involves compassion, suffering together with others, a recognition of our shared humanity and pain even when our viewpoints differ, even when the other person's vision of us is clouded by their own aching pain.
My desire to be open to others’ misery, even those who have hurt me and are not capable of being open to mine, is strong. I am beginning to feel that being open emotionally does not put me at soul risk (though, of course, this is a very new feeling, an ideal that I have barely put into practice. I can't claim complete emotional openness and 24-hour selfless compassion.). What is so interesting about this feeling, new and delicate and soft, is how it fits together with my recent shifts, my solid acknowledgment of my strength and my desire -- and, hopefully, ability -- to become more connected. Compassion frees me from emotional selfishness and allows me to make myself vulnerable even in the face of rejection, though it doesn't require me to pursue bad situations or put myself in precarious emotional conditions. Being compassionate is not the same as being foolhardy.
Lest you think I really am a Pollyanna, I’ve been writing a lot of very angry personal stuff this week, things totally inappropriate for anyone’s consumption but mine. This writing serves a purpose. It acknowledges my feelings, that I deserve to be treated well, no matter if I am a tempestuous toddler, an angry teenager, or a struggling adult. It carries the conviction that I am capable of authenticity, that I am capable of holding and comforting myself when I am scared and lonely, but can also ask for help when I need it, and that my needs are legitimate and real. These feelings and changes were partially the result of my ability to finally give long-simmering anger a voice and shape. I am grateful to that anger for allowing me to be myself, for helping me recognize when I have been wronged, and for protecting me in difficult times.
But I don’t want to live in anger. I let it serve its purpose. I open my heart again, knowing that I am strong and all too human, that I make mistakes but that my mistakes are not what make me. We all suffer. We all cause pain. Sometimes we run away from suffering, we push it away or deny it, which only traps us in its snares, and in that escape we often hurt others.
It’s people stuck in this cycle for whom I have the most compassion right now, the blind and hurting, those who are scared but don’t know it, those who want closeness but dart away at intimacy. I am slowly climbing out of that dark and airless place, one foot on the fresh meadow grass, the other pushing out of the sludge. I hope that my burgeoning openness, my growing compassion, will help me see others clearly, or at the very least calm me in times of trouble, anxiety, and pain.
We are all interconnected despite our vast differences. The thought comforts me.
Image: Not my kind of compassion. Some positive thinker chalked this on the sidewalk on our route to and from the boy's school. The joke we made was that if you quickly hugged the next person you saw, probably a stranger, they would slug you ("Quick! Slug someone!"). And maybe you would deserve it. Compassion is not forcing your lovin' arms around someone who doesn't want them there.
I struggle with accepting anger in myself and others, wrestle with being with it and not reacting in kind when someone directs (or misdirects) it my way.
This is good. This is hard. To sit with anger, your own or someone else's, to let it be without action or harsh words, with silent contemplation, can be almost impossible. But I think there are ways to feel it and, even if you express it badly at the moment, to pull back and wait for a moment of coolness to discuss it with the other person and to listen to their anger, too. A lot of anger comes from pain, either pain from the immediate present or something left over and suppressed, suppressed and simmering and ready to blow. It can come from fear, too, fear of feeling that pain again, so shove it away, push away the trigger, the other.
But what I really want to write about is anger and forgiveness. I know some people don’t believe in forgiveness (perhaps for them the goal is indifference). I know that it isn’t always possible and is dependent on the situation and the people involved, on the harshness of the crime and sometimes on whether the wrongdoer has taken responsibility for their actions. It sounds like a cliché, and I’m struggling with it myself, but forgiveness is a gift both to me and the person I am forgiving. It is a way of seeing someone and letting them be that person, letting go of attachment to anger, tracing the anger to where it belongs, feeling the pain and setting it free.
Maybe there are people you can forgive but can never be close to again. Maybe there are people whom you forgive and discover that forgiveness is the thing that cleared the way for renewed friendship. Forgiveness doesn’t have an agenda. It is a form of freedom from heavy emotion that drags one down. It's acceptance of the other person's limitations and your own, a nod to humanity.
Here are my forgiveness crucibles: unfairness; emotional cruelty; not giving someone a voice. I can go around and around in my mind about them, go over pains from years ago or just last week, obsessing over the wrong someone did me, imagining the conversation I would have with them, if they would only give me a voice. And so my psyche revs up and the anger lives again and my attachment to the situation is never severed.
I say forgive. Let go. Drop the reins. And, if you must, walk away.
It's a goal, anyway.
I chose the category "Facing fears" for this post because I think to listen to anger, to accept it in yourself and in other people, and then to choose to forgive, is a scary thing. It requires presence and risk taking and authenticity. Bravery. This feels very pie in the sky, but it's also how I feel at this moment.
Image of the boy running from waves in Carmel, free and happy.