I was discussing with a new acquaintance my journey over the last few years and where it might be leading. In the course of the discussion, they expressed surprise and admiration that I turned such bleak circumstances into what is shaping up to be a success story.
I realized that the key components to my success wouldn’t have been possible without the help of friends. I mean “friends” in the wide sense, here. Both close friends and people I’m simply on friendly terms with, but many of them played significant roles in getting me to where I am right now.
There were, of course, the beloved friends who kept me from drowning in my own grief at the end of my marriage. There was the friend who pulled strings to get my family – composed of 2 people and 3 furry companions – into an affordable new home when no one else would take us. There was the friend who suggested the college degree I’m currently excelling in – one that I had never even heard of before he brought it to my attention but one that is going to allow me to financially secure for the first time in my life. The friends that made me feel welcome and valued at my part time job. The friends who show up to be practice patients at my school lab.
So many people who contributed both large and small acts of support, but have without a doubt contributed to my overall success. I hesitate to say “success” too soon – as I mentioned in my previous post, there are some goal posts coming up that are solely my responsibility and I suppose it’s possible that I could still fuck it up. But so much of my momentum is due to the assistance of people who were nice to me. Who just checked in with a coffee date or an evening of conversation, gifting their precious time. I’ve always known how to say thank you, but feeling it is a different story. Gratitude is a complicated emotion for me.
No. That’s not true. Gratitude is a scary emotion for me. It makes my heart seize up. It makes me think that I’m on the hook for some impossible sort of repayment plan – like I’ve bargained away something that will tear me apart later. I wish I’d had a chance to unpack that in therapy. For the longest time, every favor felt like a pact with the devil – life or death against a future life or death. In the past, I’ve literally run from help. But this time I stayed, and being forced to sit with gratitude has made it less scary, less burdensome. It can still be heavy, but more like an anchor – keeping me safe in a storm-tossed season.
Three years ago my life started to come apart like a rock slide down a mountain. A few pebbles turned into a massive avalanche of falling boulders and ruin. Sometimes I rode the wave, but more often I found myself digging out from under the rubble, then standing around going “The fuck is this shit??” When the structure of your life disintegrates, it makes you examine the support beams. Involuntarily perhaps, but necessarily all the same.
I can’t describe myself as a romantic (and neither can anyone else), but the conclusion that I came to is that the fulcrum of life is love. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” Our earliest notions of love are formed in childhood. Then they change, evolve, grow, or die as we move through time and relationships. I’m not an expert on this; I just know that standing in the wreckage of my life made it easy to see what was left. Mr. Rogers saw love as roots, but I saw it as the skeleton of my inner house. The support beams that stood were not the ones I thought they’d be. Some others stood still, but they weren’t tied to the joist of my survival.
I left some old beams out when I started to rebuild – some old notions of what it means to love. I abandoned the idea that feeling love is the same as doing love. Love is a verb. It isn’t enough to say, “I love you” and expect the recipient to feel loved. That’s like saying “I can fly” and expecting people to call you Superman. It isn’t enough to feel a thing and assume someone else is going to feel it the same way. Love is abundant and cheap when measured that way. But I can tell you when I felt loved in the hellscape of my emotional badlands and it wasn’t in the conspicuous silences of people who claimed to love me. It wasn’t in their admonishments to guard my words, or in their cartwheels of conversations that somehow became about how my suffering was causing their suffering. The places where love wasn’t were just as surprising to me as the places it was.
So where was love? It was in the literal embrace of people who offered what they had: space, time, and a willingness to hear me. It was in the friend who held me as I sobbed out that I felt like a disposable person and who assured me, “You are not disposable.” It was in the arms of a woman who only knew me by profile picture but pulled me into a hug when I arrived on her doorstep, lost and in pain. It was in the offers to kick ass from a thousand miles away – sincere, I’m sure, but thankfully unfulfillable. Most surprisingly, love was in my therapist’s office – that tiny, darkened space in hour-long increments. I discovered there, to my astonishment, that I love myself but I needed assistance in figuring it out.
Love was in all the places where people showed up for me without judgement and with a willingness to share their strength – including myself. That’s it. It’s so marvelously uncomplicated, yet so improbable in daily life.
Where does that leave all those expressions of love that are felt so intently by the giver and never quite reach the intended? There is a saying that “impact is greater than intent” and while that’s true it doesn’t invalidate intent. Intent has value, but it doesn’t move. If you progress to action, to impact, then intent may be a foundation. If the growth is significant and the reach far, it may be said that the foundation is strong and the value might even in retrospect increase. But inertia is the death of progress. Like a dock from which no boats launch, a foundation that supports no progress, no action, cuts a lonely figure. Intent to love which doesn’t become active love instead becomes an echo of emotion that drifts away, inconsequential as a ghost and just as sad.
I think that’s sometimes natural. I had a conversation recently where I discussed the natural death of relationships – casualties of distance or maturity and there is space in my philosophy for the memory of love. It might be a genuine affection for the past, or a lingering tenderness for the person who now inhabits the person you used to show up for. Those beams still stand, though they bear no weight. Some are beautiful and there’s value in that, too. Others, not so much. I quarreled with an older family member over morals and our ethical stances and even as she told me she’d never talk to me again, she also said that she’ll “always love me” and that’s just strange as hell. We never see each other, we offer no material support in each other’s lives, and we are diametrically opposed in our world view. Where is the “love” in that? All she did when I was at my lowest was to caution me not to express my feelings in public. That’s not love. If there was intent there, it was indeed a ghost before it could reach me. That’s a beam I’m content to let crumble.
Love is hard work, and like most hard work, it doesn’t flow smoothly. Some days we’re just not up to it, other days it pours out of us in a righteous flood. Part of my struggle is realizing that not everyone who says, “I love you” can follow it up with the effort. Kind of like that one friend who says, “Sure I’ll help you move” and then is mysteriously unreachable on moving day. I have this horrible habit of taking people 100% at their word, not because I’m naïve or have never dissembled myself but because ferreting out hidden meaning is also hard work and I’m essentially lazy. But through many (oh so many) life lessons, I’ve learned that the intent isn’t enough; you have to do the heavy lifting. You have to show up, without judgment, and with a willingness to share your strength. I hope there are people in my life who feel I do that for them. I hope I get better at it.
These are the bones of love for me. Most of my life had to die before I could see it. I guess part of being a grown up is realizing that there was only one way for me to learn that lesson – a customized syllabus taught directly to my nature, both the strengths and the weaknesses. But Thomas Paine said that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The dearness of discovering what holds your personal house up is valuable beyond measure. I hope you find it and I hope it’s love.
I’m coming to a point where it’s time to accept that the cactus is not an oak tree.
I love oak trees. I grew up around California black oaks – their twisty limbs bending low to the ground, inviting you up or under the shade. They even smell nice – woodsy, just like you’d expect. Cacti are not oak trees. I’d like to sit in their shade and admire their beauty, but they’ll literally stab me to death if I try. And cacti grow in the desert. There is life there but it’s not the kind of life I want to live. I spent some time growing up in the desert, too, but it was painful, and lonely.
Look, I’m talking about people here. I think that’s obvious. But it helps to depersonalize them. People are the way they are, and some may change or grow but almost never because we want them to. Most people will never change to be what we need them to be. The cactus is never going to magically morph into an oak tree. I’ve known that for a long time. But I think I’m finally ready to be at peace with the idea that it’s okay not to keep returning to the cactus. The cactus fucking hurts, folks. I’m sure it does great things for its own ecosystem, but it makes a lousy shade tree. It makes a terrible shelter. It doesn’t love you back.
It’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree. It’s just different DNA. I mean, I could go into long backstory in which the cactus kept trying to convince everyone it was an oak tree and even fooled some people for a while, but let’s just jump to the part of the story where everyone can see it’s a cactus. At this point, it’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree.
It just isn’t. There are other trees. Leave the desert. Go find the shade and shelter you deserve.
That’s the most common response I’ve seen from men to my piece on women’s anger. Which wasn’t meant to be a “piece”, by the way – it was my last thought before falling asleep on Thursday night. I thought of women’s anger and other unstoppable things which led me to lava – its terrible destructiveness and its intractability – and I thought, “Hm, that’s something we have in common.” Evidently, some other women agreed.
So right on cue, here come the men. #Notallmen, of course, which we must be careful to say, lest a single, solitary bench-sitter who might have understood but instead got his one feeling – pride – hurt and decided to close ranks with ALL THE OTHER MEN.
“We have to be reasonable about this.”
No, we don’t. There is no reasonable response to the kind of abuse marginalized people suffer. Women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ – there is no reasonable response to having your rights and dignity stripped in public and private. There is no reasonable response to having your safety and security daily threatened. There is no reasonable response to rape. To violence. To the denial of your existence.
“You’re being completely irrational.”
Kindly fuck off with your offers of reasonable discourse. Unless, of course, you’d like to set the example by arguing your position from a physically threatening and mentally traumatic position. I’ll leave exactly what up to your imagination, but make sure it’s designed around the thing that most informs your identity. So, ignorance, maybe, or your precious testicles. Y’know, whatever works FOR YOU. Also, do this thing for centuries. Life span not up to the task? Recruit your ancestors and descendants! Make sure you’re being reasonable through every example of abuse anyone can bring up – which they will, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We wouldn’t want to overlook any tiny example which would invalidate your entire response.
“Too much anger.”
Not enough anger, actually. Are you a sports fan? How about if, just before the start of the game, the rival team walked onto the field, punched out the refs, stomped over to 12 inches from the goal line and said, “Okay everybody! Starting now, play by the rules!” Which is a shitty analogy, because in reality it’s more like NOBODY WAS PLAYING A GAME AND SOME ASSHOLES JUST ASSAULTED PEOPLE THEN DEMANDED NOBODY BE MAD ABOUT IT.
The reality is you’re afraid. Men are afraid that women’s sense of justice will require retribution. It’s what men would want, after all. And I suppose that having your very existence erased through scorching the earth with a layer of lava seems pretty retributive. But the powerless know better. Anyone who has had their life burned to ash through oppression, trauma, or violence knows what it takes to rise from those ashes. We’ve been doing it for our entire lives, while those in power never have. We have the tools, the knowledge, and more importantly the courage to both rise from and withstand immolation.
We are not required to modulate our response to trauma for your comfort. You can’t handle it and you expect our pity? Our sympathy for your discomfort?? Our anger is justified because it is the only justice we’ll see. You can run from the lava – I’m riding it straight to freedom.