Year’s End

I hate that I’ve sort of fallen into the habit of reflecting on my year at the end of the calendar. The December to January hand-off has never felt profound to me, nor do I sense anything of new beginnings in the dead of winter. That’s stupid, and bleak. I like the autumnal equinox for that sort of thing, but the past couple of years I’ve been waist-deep in school around that time and I don’t have the mental capacity to reflect on a year’s worth of experience. So here I am, on December 28th, going, “Gee, I wonder how 2017 has stacked up?”

Ugh. To be honest, it’s been sort of a bleh year. Which is fitting actually. I had no idea at the close of 2014 that it would come to represent the start of my personal hellscape. At the time, I thought it was just a particularly rough year. How was I to know that it was ushering in a whole new paradigm of betrayal, loss, depression and self-doubt? But when all those things (and more! so exciting) happened in increasingly large doses throughout 2015 and 2016, I think my perception of “awful” changed. I mean, really. Things can only be “off the charts” for so long before you get a new fucking chart.

And so 2017 – the first year of the Trump presidency, the year of the Las Vegas shooting, some terminally pregnant giraffe, superstorms that nearly wiped out the entire Caribbean, a solar eclipse and #MeToo – just doesn’t feel like it really rates at the bottom of my new chart. My chart is impressive as fuck and 2017 just didn’t bring it’s A-game. Not that it didn’t try – getting turned down for my school was cutting and accepting a decidedly less attractive goal was bitter as hell, but some good things happened, too. Moved to our new place with the furry family intact, made good grades in school, made new friends. Got my car busted up in an accident, but walked away unscathed. Relearned what it feels like to be broke, but also got hired at an interview which was a first for me. 2017 was too evenly balanced, too much like “normal life” to deserve an adjective like “bad”.

Still, it was notable. It’s the year my divorce was final. The marriage was over long before, but for the rest of my life, the date of my divorce will be a legal requirement for me to remember. That sounds fun. It was the year I let go of a toxic yoke that’s been defining me for most of my life. Self-determination is heady enough to make 2017 memorable. It’s the year I stopped apologizing to myself for who I am. I also really started coming to terms with the fact that I need to be alone for the foreseeable future.

I recently told a young friend the story of how women who turn 40 get the superpower of becoming invisible. Men stop leering, media becomes silent, cashiers and cops alike stare over your head like they’re not really engaging with you so much as shuffling you along. Women who turn 40 become invisible, except, maybe, to each other. But it’s this marvelous shield that protects us from judgement or even observation. It’s liberating and fascinating and a little scary, and really not conducive to dating. I’m okay with that. I miss sex (like I’d miss a limb, goddamnit), but I’m not willing to engage in any of the compromises which attracted men to me in the past.

2017 was the year I decided to stop doing other people’s emotional labor. I know that sounds like a trendy, pop-psychology term, but it’s a real thing. If you’re not familiar with it, look it up. It’s exhausting. Dropping that habit is, for me, the equivalent of getting two extra hours of sleep every night. I’ll probably make a few missteps while I find my equilibrium in this new normal, but if 2017 has one major thing going for it, it’s the realization that I am not required to manage any one’s emotions but my own. The unpacking of that particular piece of baggage deserves its own post, but for now, my relief borne of this knowledge is enough.

So. This week will be gray and drab and boring and frozen as the calendar inserts an arbitrary start date for a new year. The clock will start on a new set of lessons and trials and maybe triumphs all gathered under the same numerical heading. My dearest wish for 2018 is that I’ll be too busy this time next year to sit down and reflect on it.

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Break

There’s an empty parking lot not far from my house that runs the width of a city block. It’s a common dog-walking route for me because I can let the dogs out on a long leash and just sort of meander without worrying about traffic or distractions. Today, I took Heidi out by herself (that is, without Scout, whom I walked earlier) and gave her the “break” command.

It’s an old school word from our Germany days when off-leash walks were common and she had to know the difference between “heel” and “freedom”. Today, I first held up the leash and said her name to get her attention. Then I dropped the leash and said, “Break!” I swear she grinned from ear to ear before taking off at a run. Well, a trot. Her stiff hips and arthritic knees hobbled her and her body resembled a see-saw as she made the best of what mobility she has.

But her ears and her eyes were joyous. She never gets off leash freedom with me anymore, and while I’ll never know if her mind remembers the vast fallow German fields, with their poppy edges in summer and mounds of sugar beets in the fall and deep snow in winter, I can’t help but feel her muscle memory is sound. Her body remembers, and her exuberance is real.

She had all the happiness this afternoon. That’s the benefit to being a dog, I guess. I was overcome with the grief of knowing how brief her life is, how unfair it is that she’s fettered by both living arrangements and biology. I grieved for the life we both had five years ago, the happiness that I’ll never know again but that her body remembers. There’s a popular sentiment that we should strive to live moment to moment like our dogs do – finding joy in the present and exploiting it fully. I’ve never been able to do that, nor believed that we should. Heidi and I have always shared the full range of emotions – she gets the joy and I take the burden of sadness. It’s just the deal I made with her: I will make you happy, and you will breathe with me when I’m sad. And between the two of us, we live fully.

Not doomed to repeat it – doomed to never escape it.

I had occasion today to reflect that we may well be into the most turbulent and divisive times this country has seen since the 60s. And I think I meant the 1960s, but it’s possible it will get worse before it gets better and I might end up meaning the 1860s. That’s not hyperbole, that’s me paying attention.

First, I have only to pay close attention to my own situation: the most precarious I’ve ever been in, including my stint as a single mother working for just over minimum wage in the 1990s. At the time, I lived in California and there was both a state sponsored social safety net and my nearby family to help me out. (I availed myself of both at different times.) Now I have neither of those things. I am middle aged, uninsured and suffering from untreated health conditions, in the midst of retraining for a relevant career that at best will garner me lower-middle class wages for the rest of my life (at a student loan rate that, thanks to last night’s Senate vote, I’ll be unable to claim tax shelter from), and scraping together the money to pay my bills each month by virtue of a limited divorce settlement, selling my plasma and relying on my adult daughter to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, I and many of my peers wait for access to unfettered internet to expire and watch our government pass laws to both keep us in poverty and destroy the environment around us.

And I have it pretty good. I eat regularly, I can get out of bed unassisted, all five senses are in working order, I just got a part time job and enrolled in classes for spring semester. I have friends, heat, a working vehicle, and a computer. There are people I care about who can’t claim any of those things.

Those are just the personal stories. Every day I watch the government and my neighbors tear each other apart over disagreements about human dignity and as much as I see it happening in real time I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. The aging population – the ones who stuck daisies in gun barrels and marched for civil rights and sent men to the moon and brought them back from war and created art and literature that changed the world – have become scared of their own shadow. They, and in some instances their children, when faced with video evidence of police brutality and an avalanche of numbers about corporate greed, lash out at victims and claim that evidence is “fake news”. They rewrote history books to call the transatlantic slave trade “immigration” and they put spikes on benches to keep the homeless on the ground – or in it. They stand in pulpits and preach hate, then hide behind their god and cry persecution when contradicted. They steal future and resources from their grandchildren and blame iPhones.

We tend to look back and history and see what progress was made. That’s called survivor’s bias. Some people didn’t survive the 60s. And I don’t mean the graves that we keep sacrosanct or the bank holidays we use to sleep in. I mean plain, simple, everyday people didn’t survive. They starved to death. They died from abscessed teeth. They asphyxiated in garages. They slid off roads with no guard rails. They drank until their liver gave up. They got cancer from lead paint. And before they died, they suffered. Their families suffered. Some daughter, somewhere, watched her daddy get a toothache, be unable to afford or access a dentist, watched his face get puffier and puffier, until one day he got a fever, fell asleep and never woke up.

Once, we considered that kind of suffering beneath human dignity – both his, and our own. I guess we don’t feel that way any more. I wonder if I’m destined for an end as undignified. If any of my friends are. I fear it’s quite possible.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. In some cases, the argument isn’t that there is a large segment of our population that doesn’t care, but that they aren’t even willing to admit that their actions effect other people.  They are so concerned with protecting themselves – from injury, insult, or intelligence – that they will pull out an endless chain of excuses as to why “others” deserve what they get, but “I” is a protected class. They are so isolated by their fear of change, their fear of losing their privilege, that they have developed an entire system of blindness to the indignity of their fellow humans. And then they elected people who capitalize on it.

I used to be interested in history. I used to wonder about the mindset of people who went to public executions. I don’t wonder anymore, and I realize that this is history – right now.

Real Talk

Trigger Warnings for rape culture.

Let’s talk about rape culture!

Now that we’ve weeded out everyone who won’t listen anyway, let’s get real.

Some people get defensive when you say “rape culture”. There are lots of reasons for that almost exclusively rooted in denial, but I have noticed that those people deliberately misunderstand the term. They think we’re only talking about rape. LOL. The rest of us understand we’re talking about a culture that results in rape. But “Conditioning Girl Children to Believe Their Bodies Don’t Belong to Them Culture” doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it?

I’m going to start this by telling you a truth. I’ve never been raped.

Age 5. I decide to cut my morning routine short and skip wearing underwear under my polka dotted circle skirt. Someone in my family notices and next thing I know, I’m “playfully” hauled over my step-father’s shoulder while everyone in the house has a turn at pinching my bare bottom to make fun of me. My face is hot with shame and tears and I feel sick inside, while the adults around me probably feel like it’s a “fun” and “joking” way to teach me a lesson about how to dress.  And to be fair, it worked. To this day, I feel sick if I don’t wear underwear under my clothing. Years later I was sleeping with a man who insisted I at least “try” to sleep naked because it was “so much better.” I woke every hour with panic attacks until I put clothes back on. He never really understood, but he never asked me to sleep naked again. I called it a win.

Preschool. My birthday is in November so I’m half a year ahead of everyone else and bigger. The hyperactive little boy with socialization problems jumps on my back while I’m crouched over on the playground. I stand abruptly, throwing him off, and he lands in the monkey bars, earning a few bruises and wailing like I beat him with a tire iron. I’m forced to stand with my nose in the corner for hurting him. My mother is coming to volunteer at the school that day and I stand rigid with fear that she’ll see I got into trouble. It crosses my mind that this is an injustice, but not that I should try to explain myself.

First Grade. Our classroom is divided into play stations and I am at the Doctor station with a group of children. They want me to be the patient. I say no, but they insist by holding me down while they “examine” me. There’s a scream locked inside my chest that I can’t quite get out. I feel paralyzed as I look past their looming little faces at my teacher, staring at me impassively while I squirm and cry.  I never truly trust an adult with my physical safety after that.

Age 6 through 9. I want to spend time with my parents on their big bed on Saturday mornings while they drink coffee and read the newspaper. I’d just been made a big sister, we’re constantly moving and I’m a lonely kid. But the price is I have to submit to tickling that extends long past the point where I say, “Stop.” But I’m laughing, so I don’t really mean it, right? All in good fun. Nobody gets hurt. Except 30 years later when I tried to explain to my then-husband why I loathed being tickled and finally blurted out, “Because it’s like being raped only you’re forced to laugh!” He thought I was accusing him of rape. It’s unfair to rape victims and I hated using that analogy, but he literally could NOT understand why I’d hate to laugh. I don’t hate to laugh, but I hate being tickled. He never really made the connection, but his feelings were hurt so badly he never tried to tickle me again. I called it a win.

Third grade. Walking home from school and the cool boy who lives down the street follows me. I’ve wanted to be his friend for a long time, but he never notices me. He wants to tell me something. I slow down to let him catch up, he steps too close. I back away but he has to tell me a “secret”. We were alone on a suburban street, but I so desperately want him to like me. He leans in, grabs my face and plants a painful kiss on my mouth. I jerk away, run home and never tell anyone, strangely shamed. Just like I never told anyone when my best friend’s older brother jumped on top of me at a sleep over (where I screamed and promptly threw him off). I learned not to want the cool, older boys’ friendship anymore, though.

Fifth grade. Puberty hits me hard. I have the largest breasts in my class. I don’t wear the only bra, but I’m certainly the target of getting it snapped most. My parents are in the middle of a divorce. Grown men cat-call me regularly on my walk home from school. Everyone tells me I’m pretty, and at the same time makes fun of what I wear if it hugs my new curves too tightly. I’m wound tighter than an eight-day clock. At recess, the last boy plucks my bra strap. I swing around to confront him, but my subconscious has other ideas and a clenched fist I don’t realize is at the end of my arm connects with his ear. Funnily enough, toxic masculinity protected me that day as he didn’t want to admit to getting hit by a girl, and never told on me.

Middle school. Mom goes to night school. I’m getting ready for bed when my mother comes home, my nightshirt halfway over my body. She begins accusing me of fooling around with a boy. I’m confused. She says she saw a boy running from the direction of our apartment when she pulled up, and here I am half naked. Don’t lie, she says. I have to defend my innocence. That same year she threatens to throw me out “on my ass” if I ever come home pregnant. She’s scared. She cries and calls my father when I want to wear a fringed crop top to a party and asks him to explain rape to me. I’m 14.

Age 15. I decide sexuality is a weapon. I’m determined to never let it cut me again. I begin to cut others, instead. I’m called a “tease”, a “slut”, a “whore”. “That’s right,” I respond smugly. Because my body has never belonged to me until now, and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with it. I let boys who never slept with me say they did and the men I did sleep with I never named. I get called “bitch” a lot.

At 17 I have an abortion. I’m proud of myself because the boy doesn’t want me and I don’t want to be pregnant. He wants me later, though. But when I decide I don’t want him, he accuses me of killing his baby. His baby in my body that he didn’t want. He wants to shame me. I dump him almost immediately.

I was never raped. But I was conditioned to live like rape is my birthright, a right of passage that I can only put off for so long because my body was never truly mine.

That is rape culture.

I’m 42. I’m long past my sell-by date for sexuality in my “culture”, the rape culture that wanted to take my body from me before I understood who I was. My sexuality is no longer a weapon for anyone. All around me, famous men are toppling from pedestals built on false ownership of women’s bodies. And my lumpy, sagging, birth-scarred, worn-out, tattooed, pierced and independent body laughs and laughs.

What sound does a Scarlet Virago make? Snarky ones.

 

My daughter graduated high school in 2015, college earlier this year. Her peers that attend 4 year colleges are entering their junior year and are now, on average, $30,000 in debt. That number will continue to increase at the same rate or faster over the next two years. My daughter has zero debt and supports herself with her first entry level position.
Do I sound a little snarky? Yes, yes I do. I received a LOT of criticism for encouraging her to obtain a professional certificate over a bachelor’s degree. A LOT. And it takes nothing away from those kids getting their bachelor’s to point out that she is already living and working in the adult world, accumulating skills for her next goal and beholden to NO loan holders. She can start building her credit from 0, rather than -30,000.
Are there kids out there trying to accomplish their dreams? Absolutely, and I wish them the best fortune possible. Are they, along with their less ambitious but no less educated peers, going to be in fierce competition for a level of employment that can’t accommodate them all? Also yes. Are a ridiculous number of them going to be working two or three entry-level jobs (that require no degree) at the same time just so they can make payments on their student loans? Also yes.
I am so sick of this pervasive and pernicious idea that dreams are ALL that matter. That one’s personal happiness rests entirely on the idea that they ONLY do what they love. I love to eat, and sleep under a roof. And not spend my days stressing about my credit score and how I’m going to pay for an emergency medical expense. There is more than one way to accomplish one’s dreams, and the idea that mortgaging your soul to a bank, or risking a basic standard of living to achieve them is… well, it’s just foolish and naive and downright harmful in some instances.
Not to mention the fact that my life fell apart in such a way that I would not have been able to help my kid in any way if she’d needed it during or after her last two years at college. And given the number of college graduates living at home, she definitely would have needed it. At this point, she’s the one helping me, who doesn’t have a choice but to incur student debt to achieve the same basic level of education that she was able to get for free, because we utilized the resources available to us at the right time.
So yeah, I’m feeling a bit snarky. And ridiculously proud.

I set myself a challenge.

I’ve been thinking about how my definition of difficult has changed.

I used to do difficult things because I felt I had no choice. In some instances I didn’t, and in others, I took one difficult choice because I was scared of the other. If there is a gift to be found in the last two years, it’s learning to recognize that.

Despite my effort and hard work, it’s looking more and more likely I won’t be accepted into the academic program I applied to.  I honestly believe it’s not me – I followed the application instructions scrupulously and my grades are exemplary. But it’s a highly competitive program and there are, on average, three times as many applicants every year as places. I set myself a very strict financial timeline – I don’t know why I did that. Part of it was just the old habit of setting impossibly high standards for myself, and believing if I couldn’t meet them then I was obviously not worthy of the reward. Which is so, so conceited of me. As though I’m in complete control of all the variables and I’m either perfect or worthless – nothing in between. Old voices, I guess. The other part was just being ignorant of how this process can play out. I’ve never been a divorcee in my 40s with little education and no innate talent before.

But a brief survey on Facebook of potential career paths that would fit into my timeline proved to me that my first choice is actually my dream, inasmuch as I can be said to have a realistic one. I mean, obviously my dream is to hitch a small camper to my car, grab my dogs and my camera and take off to parts unknown. Perhaps then, it would be better to say that my “realistic dream” is really my goal, and I just so happened to choose one that is difficult to obtain.

I’m unused to assessing what is difficult but achievable, and what is impractical to the point of impossible. (See above statement about conceit and inexperience.) But part of the process of reordering my life is to be honest with myself about my ranking. I’m not stellar or exemplary at anything, but I am good. Certainly I’m good enough for the path I’ve chosen. And if the first pass doesn’t yield results, doesn’t my devotion to myself, my future, deserve another try?

So maybe this is my new difficult. Trying again. All-or-nothing thinking has been a part of my life since infancy. Both nature and nurture conspired against me in that department. And sadly, my life up to this point always felt like it was balanced on a knife’s edge of precariousness, with no room for second chances. In all honesty, sometimes it really was. Single parenthood leaves little room for mistakes, and the one time I entered into a relationship with no back door was the one time I really needed it. But here I am now, with no one but myself to answer to and my life is less on a knife’s edge and more on a curb. A fall off a curb at my age could hurt me for a long time, but it won’t slice me and everything I love to ribbons.

Saying “a dream deferred” is so pretentious, but “a goal delayed” feels too mundane for the risk I’m taking. I’m old enough to recognize what a slog the year of delay will feel like – I know there’s no exciting plot twist waiting for me there. But that’s not the difficult part. The difficult part is keeping my chin up, remembering that I am good enough, and not to let a lifetime of combined conceit and worthlessness throw me off my path. It’s a different kind of difficult.

Time Capsules

My 20s were a crash course in adulting. Motherhood, failed relationships, financial bungling – the works. I came out of them with a new sense of humility.

My 30s were all about tough lessons in partnership, individuality, and knowing myself better. I came out of them heartbroken, but stronger than ever.

My 40s appear to be about laying down burdens that I didn’t realize I was carrying, and applying the lessons of my 20s and 30s to a new beginning. I have no idea how I’ll come out of them, but I’m not intimidated by the possibilities.