Sorrows and Deep Sighs

The world is bona fide mess.

Our president has tacitly threatened nuclear war on the one other country in the world with a leader stupid enough to retaliate. The institution of police have openly embraced their role as blue terrorists in our communities. A series of catastrophic hurricanes is steadily destroying lives and nations in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling to survive.

My tiny, insignificant corner of personal misery isn’t much by comparison, but it’s everything when my own mind is no refuge from the wretchedness. The only solution I can think of is to put my misery to bed.

The end of my marriage came without my consent, or input of any kind, really. My husband simply left – emotionally and verbally if not physically. No matter how I begged for communication, he simply stopped talking or acknowledging my role as his spouse in any way. All of my anger, all my despair, centered… no, centers, to be fair, around the loss of my agency. To this day, I seethe with frustration over never being able to confront our problems head on.

But that was his entire goal.

If he never accused me of failing him, then I couldn’t accuse him back. He wanted a do-over without consequences. Because to him, ignoring our 12 years together means they didn’t happen the way they really happened, and without my input to contradict, he can remember them any way he likes. My real failings become imagined in whatever way suits his narrative. My real quirks become monstrous or nonexistent as fits the story he wants to tell himself (and the next woman). My heartache, too.

While I have real regrets and real sorrow and real hurt, my worst pain comes from my erasure. There is nothing I can do to make myself relevant in his life again, for good or ill. I’ve long since let go of my love for him, but becoming invisible to the single person I trusted with every corner of my soul? That’s a betrayal I might never recover from. No matter what indictments I can throw his way (and there are plenty), the crux of my misery rests on the helplessness of being invisible.

And that’s on me. Because I knew he didn’t really see me. I knew it, and I chose to make excuses for it. When he insisted on portraying me in ways that were inconsistent with my perception of our relationship, I objected – in the beginning. But when those objections were met with “I’m just teasing”, I backed off. Because I didn’t want to perceive my role as humorless. I wish I had. I wish I had been perceived as humorless instead of whatever was in head. At least then there would have been a modicum of truth to it.

Instead, I dove into the dark spaces between what I knew was real and what he would acknowledge. There was peace in not having to talk, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was tired. I’d spent my entire life navigating emotions for people too damaged to do it on their own and I was just fucking tired. What he offered was freedom from that, and I accepted.

And that’s on me, too. I was tired, I was lonely, and I made a fatal mistake out of weakness.

It’s happened to better people than me, but strangely that doesn’t bring me much comfort.

My misery may be tiny and insignificant in the context of the world, but it’s also tiny and insignificant to the other person who might have shared it. I am a myth to the only other person in the world I wanted to be completely real with. I let go of him a long time ago, but it’s time to let go of the frustration surrounding my erasure. I will have to come to terms with the truth of my failings on my own, and maybe that’s as it should be. There was a saying in my house growing up – You’re the only one you have to look at in the mirror.

I’m the only one staring back. That’s enough.

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Help is a Four Letter Word

It was almost a year ago that I shared a funny story with my therapist. I was trying to illustrate the inherent stubbornness of my nature. (Some would say willful obstinance and that’s certainly their prerogative. Ahem.) It’s a story from my childhood that I’ve shared and laughed at for over 30 years.

When I was eight, we moved neighborhoods but not school districts and it was the day for me to walk home by myself for the first time. Unfortunately for me, it was also “clean out your desk” day and back then they gave you a cheap garbage bag and a thumbs up while you stuffed 40 years worth of paper worksheets into 3 cents worth of perforated plastic bag. I set off confidently enough, but got turned around fairly quickly until I was well and truly lost. I wandered for a long time. Crying, trailing snot and a torn bag behind me, strewing old papers in a pathetic wake along suburban residential streets, I wandered in what was most likely circles, and given the length of my legs at that age not even big ones. It felt like hours and hours to my little girl mind, though in reality it probably wasn’t more than one hour, at most. But I was scared and worried and I kept on walking.

That’s the salient point in the story, as I’ve always told it. I kept walking. I didn’t knock on any doors to ask for help. I definitely didn’t sit down and wait for someone to find me. Oh no – I stubbornly snorted back my snot and kept going! Because even at eight years old I was an obstinate, willful thing! Ha ha, isn’t that funny?!

My therapist chuckled a little with me, but asked, all guileless and with genuine curiosity, “What would have happened if you had just sat down?”

And my brain’s gears came to a screeching halt while I stared at her, dumbfounded. No one had ever asked me that in 30 years and it definitely wasn’t part of my story. This is supposed to be the part where we all laugh at what a perversely dogged child I was, so I just looked blank while my brain struggled to change direction. Then my emotions caught up before my head did and I was choking on a flood of tears while I struggled to get the words past my closed throat. “I’d still be sitting there.”

It ate up 15 minutes of my therapy hour before I could breathe again. Before I could face the fact that at eight years old, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one was coming to save me. I knew that if I wanted to get home, it was up to me.

As it happens, my stepfather was out looking for me, and we eventually ran into each other and he took me home in our family car. But while I was relieved to be going home, I was also nervous about getting in trouble for getting lost in the first place. Because that’s my family’s legacy – self-sufficiency to the point of an eight year old fearing punishment over getting lost.

This was a family who loved me. My parents (and extended to aunts, uncles and grandparents, such as they were) loved me and wanted me to be happy. They absolutely wanted my safety and happiness above all else. But the execution was poor. They were lacking in tools, they had wrong information, and to a certain extent were just too fucking selfish to do the job of making me feel secure and protected. I honestly felt, at eight years old, that was my job.

I’m still unpacking the pain that one not-so-innocent question revealed in me, not least because those same people are still failing me.

I kept on feeling that way – through adolescence, teenage years, and well into the time when another human’s safety and happiness depended on me, I felt that I could only count on myself and had only myself to blame when it all went to shit. No one was coming to save me. Ever. I inherited my family’s selfishness completely. My world was entirely my own, only my own actions mattered, and all the blame belonged to me.

That’s a difficult life to lead. It’s even harder when you add in a confused, lonely man who thought he wanted to “rescue” me but really just wanted me to apply my control-freak ways to his life, too. Still trying to portion out the blame appropriately for that one.

I lived my entire life not understanding that there is supposed to be a certain amount of help and support when you ask for it. Is it any wonder I chose someone so spectacularly bad at giving it when I finally let myself ask? I still struggle with the concept! For children, it’s supposed to be unconditional. I missed the children’s boat. I know adults who are still trying to catch it and it makes me sad and a little impatient for them. That’s their journey and I try to remember it’s not helpful for me to judge it.

But it turns out there’s a boat for adults. There’s a life raft when you need it, a cruise liner, sometimes a private yacht. There are people who know how to say the right thing at the right time, whether it’s encouragement or a reality check or nothing at all. Sadly, I didn’t marry any of them. But today, I asked for help and a lot of people jumped in to offer it. They can’t go back for the lost eight year old with the torn bag of school papers, but they are here for me now.

I don’t subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” bullshit line of reasoning. But I do think that our minds are built to make order in chaos, and to jigsaw the randomness of life and the universe into some sort of cohesive meaning. So I don’t think that my husband needed to be a lying coward who would rather burn our lives to the ground than admit he made a mistake, but since he was, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about what constitutes help, when I deserve it, and who to ask for it. And that’s not a bad lesson to take.

Joys of Snack Size

A year ago, I wrote about the Dissolution of Snacks and its somewhat surprising mark on my journey through grief and the loss of my marriage. Today I want to talk about the joys of snack size.

I moved, you see. Downsized from 2400 square feet to 900 square feet, with all the attendant miniaturization of appliances one would expect. My plates don’t fit in the surprisingly tiny cupboards so the door never completely closes. It’s annoying. Peek-a-boo, I see you snarky little reminder of a once bigger life. I keep giving it side eye, like the cupboard is suddenly going to feel shame and quietly swallow the back of my plates so the door can shut completely. (If that happens, the nature of this blog is going to change drastically.)

The refrigerator is tiny. I can see the top without standing on tip-toe and it lacks a meat drawer. I thought I’d feel bad about that, because I’ve spent so long filling up a family-sized fridge that even after the family was downsized, I was still trying to fill it up. Like the refrigerator itself was making my shopping list based on its capacity. But here’s the thing – I don’t feel bad at all. Right now apartment-fridge holds a bag of pre-chopped salad, a 6 pack of flavored water, a bottle of wine and the smallest size sour cream you can buy. I honestly didn’t know they made sour cream containers that small. It’s adorable. It’s me-sized. It won’t get gobbled up by my housemate because somehow I raised a person who doesn’t care for sour cream. It is mine all mine. This is notable because two years ago I would open up the fridge to use a spoonful of sour cream out of the GIANT ASS TUB I bought three days prior only to find it gone, sacrificed to the lunch nachos my ex-husband was so fond of. I would buy industrial sized vats of sour cream and there would NEVER BE ANY when I wanted some.

Today, I had sour cream. A small amount, out of a tiny cup that I bought four days ago and that nobody has touched in the interim. I felt like the star of a commercial that plays during Gray’s Anatomy – some ideal of a single adult woman who delicately spoons out a condiment and never once wonders where it could disappear to if she’s not guarding it.

Likewise I find myself hanging pictures in my bedroom without regard for how they’ll be accepted by my bedmate – a sixty pound mutt of dubious artistic taste and even less preference. Pens go where they are most convenient for me, as do batteries and wash cloths. A brief survey of the other members of this household revealed that they don’t particularly care where I put my shoes, so long as three of them can stick their snouts in the really stinky ones and the fourth need not trip over them. I share my closet with no living thing, and even better, no ghosts.

After years of anxiously verifying my choices with another person (especially when that person had opinions but only reticently shared them – preferring the more quixotic option of silent resentment when I couldn’t read minds), the peacefulness of feathering my own nest can’t be overstated. The delight in single serving anything will never be taken for granted by me again. It’s mine all mine, and ghosts don’t eat sour cream.

Drinking Beers and Smashing Bottles

Where does one draw the line between reasonable conversation and the end of compromise?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. I recently ended contact with some people who’d been in my life a long time because I had reached the end of compromise on certain issues. But then I turned around on social media and advocated for diplomatic solutions to diametrically opposed political and social stances. How do these thoughts coexist? Can they?

My answer is yes, but with caveats that require unpacking privilege and identifying context.

In defense of bad advertisements

Social beverages, like soft drinks and beers, have recently decided to enter into the public conversation of social discourse, with mixed results. Pepsi and Heineken have both received a lot of free publicity by both enraging and encouraging the consuming public with recent advertisements. Pepsi with a cringe-worthy, tone-deaf, white-washed ad of stunning incompetence meant solely to cash in on the lives of victims. It was universally regarded as awful. Heineken followed suit with an ad that ostensibly posed the question about whether or not people with diametrically opposed political views could enjoy a beer and talk about their differences. While met with different responses, it has been (rightfully, in my view, but more on that later) criticized for also being tone deaf and irresponsible towards victims.

Full disclosure: I liked the Heineken advert. It spoke to that place within me that yearns for diplomatic responses to seemingly insurmountable differences and wishes very much I could be the kind of person who engages people in reasonable conversation and (if I’m being honest) emerges the hero by changing minds with my wit and charm and ability to connect with other humans.

It’s important to note, however, that I’m not particularly victimized by opposition to my ideological stances. I’m a white, middle-aged, straight, (nearly) middle-class, able-bodied, (mostly) neurotypical, English speaking, American cisgender woman. I mentioned in my original analysis on the commercial that people who are victimized or even marginalized by their social/economic/biological position are under no obligations to respond diplomatically to their oppressors. I believe that strongly. As a woman who has been silenced most of her life by patriarchal views on my “place” in society, I am in favor lashing out when backed into a corner.

On wielding a sword 

In my personal life, I recently reached the end of my rope trying to deal with relatives who hold opposing ideological views and insist that we share reasonable and “respectful” conversations about it. I’d had about as many quiet, diplomatic conversations as I could have with someone who used those conversations as a tool to further their agenda without actually listening to mine. Who brow-beat me with the idea of “respect” where respect meant I couldn’t express my anger or hurt or disappointment that they would espouse – and more importantly vote – for policies that actively threatened my loved ones.

So I got angry. I yelled (or at least used the caps-lock equivalent), I stopped validating their perspective, and I definitely stopped sandwiching my criticism between affirmations and compromise. I pulled out my firebrand persona and let loose with the sort of vitriol that I felt was absolutely called for when facing viewpoints that maintained a status quo of oppression and bigotry. In the end, they offered to never communicate with me again, and I gratefully accepted. I was and am convinced of both the rightness and appropriateness of my response. A response that is about as far from discussing our problems over a friendly beer as one can get.

The cognitive dissonance dance

The most conspicuous criticism I’ve seen against the Heineken ad was that the premise gave equal credence to unequal premises. In other words, the sort of false neutrality that the alt-right is famous for advocating, and, not coincidentally, why I recently cut off family members.

So, why did I advocate for representation of a diplomatic response? And a clumsy, ill equipped one, at that? Context, for one answer, and privilege, for another:

I’m not disadvantaged in the way that so many of my friends and family are. I’m not going to be immediately, physically threatened by the presence of an anti-trans bigot, or a climate change denier. Given my numerous other privileges, I’m not even particularly threatened by an anti-feminist blow hard. When I superimpose myself onto those positions by giving in to the manipulations of a 3 minute advertisement, it creates a context that makes it easier to imagine being able to talk about it.  It lightens my burden of self-examination and transports me to setting where real danger isn’t happening to real people.

The problem, of course, is obvious. And while the commercial may have been targeting people like me, it was speaking for people who are regularly victimized by their ideological opponents. The result was a statement on the irrelevancy of those victims, and it stung those who recognized it right away. It should have done the same for me. As a friend put it, a company with the economic resources of a multinational beer distributor had the ability to not make that statement (intentional or not) and should have done better. The fact that so many people find themselves analyzing the content (and, I dearly hope, their response to it) should be a strong indicator that if a company with that sort of reach wants to weigh in on social issues, it had better get it right the first time. The idea isn’t enough. The execution matters. Context matters. Privilege matters.

Speaking for myself only, I am privileged to be in a position where I can talk to dissenting people with a reasonable expectation of safety. A better context for Heineken’s intention would have been to put someone like me in a room with the anti-trans person and let us drink and talk. Those are ideological differences. An actual transperson or feminist woman of color is not going to feel safe in real life sitting across from someone who denies their right to exist and who is also diminishing their inhibitions with alcohol. (That part was weird to me from the start.)

I vehemently disagree with the assertion I’ve seen circulated that it’s “stupid” to like the Heineken ad. It’s not stupid to advocate for diplomatic solutions to ideological differences. It’s how politics work, it’s how we manage to not murder our neighbors, and how we keep from becoming totalitarian societies. Taking the ad at face value, however, is imperceptive at best, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here. Diplomacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Criticizing Heineken’s failure to acknowledge the real dangers inherent in some of our differences is appropriate and necessary, as is identifying the dangers of promoting solutions that begin on false equivalency. But since progressive liberals don’t seem poised to unleash a violent revolution, a framework for discussing tenable, peaceful solutions to resolving those differences also seems appropriate and necessary. At the very least, Heineken’s wishful thinking advertisement pointed out that the lack of such leaves a void many of us would like to see filled.

 

 

On letting go

When something awful happens, particularly emotional trauma, it feels like the world suddenly wants to give you advice on how to handle it. If it’s not typewriter text overlaid on a seascape with a vintage filter, it’s platitudes from well-meaning friends, or the ever-not-helpful Facebook parables. The common thread is that you’ll feel better once you do it, and everyone wants to see you do it (if for no other reason than you’ve been a giant downer for the last 18 months and for god’s sake, can’t you just please wash your hair??), but the actual process is more of a mystery. Bookstores have devoted entire shelving units to “self-help” titles, and a quick search on Amazon for same brings back over 650 thousand returns (which should in itself tell you that nobody has this shit figured out, but hope springs eternal). Letting go: it’s all “good”.

I’m here to tell you it’s not. It sucks dirty canal water off of hairy donkey balls.

Listen, first of all, letting go does not happen on a schedule. You can’t time it according to the 7 stages of grief, you can’t force it by following someone else’s plan. It’s an ongoing process with hills and valleys. No, scratch that. It’s an ongoing process with spikes and pits. And the pits have spikes. There are days when you’re balanced precariously on a spike looking down and days when you’re impaled on a spike staring at the sky above. And it’s raining. Grief, pain – these happen in their own time and they will just take what you don’t give them, so you might as well put your life on hold while they shake you like a terrier with a rat. That is an accurate description of how much dignity you’ll have in the process, by the way: limp and covered with dog spit.

Secondly, the prevailing opinion is that letting go leads to some serene, blissed out state where the lotus position comes naturally and the grocery store being out of your favorite ice cream during PMS no longer makes you want to go on a rampage. Also false. There is no reason, ever, for the store to be out of Ben&Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch at any time. But more importantly, letting go doesn’t leave you happy, it leaves you empty. Hollow. Drained. Here’s the thing about grief: it was once happiness. Of course it was, or you wouldn’t feel so awful. You don’t start at base zero and go down. Grief pulls you down off your happy little platform into a giant, steaming pile of shit. You can’t just watch your pain blow away in whatever F5 tornado tore through your life and expect the happiness to be there waiting when the dust settles. It’s all gone. Everything. Now you’re at base zero.

Oh, and here’s a little addendum to that second point: anger. Hoo boy. Anger is the carpetbagger who rides into town right after the tornado and is all, “We will rebuild!” but just goes around kicking your stuff while you’re trying to pick it up. Not that it can’t be helpful. In my case, anger led to some productive changes, like shutting down toxic relationships and to stop apologizing for being myself. So, to continue the metaphor, carpetbagging anger kicked over some dry rot and let the bugs out. But being forced to watch that, to participate in taking down the rotted, crumbling foundation of my former happiness? Gross. So gross.

Okay, so far, letting go happens on its own (often inconvenient) schedule, and it leaves you empty (after pissing you off). What’s the appeal again??

Could be simply the relief from the agony of grief. Emptiness is way better than constant anxiety, stomach problems, endless fatigue and a full set of luggage under each eye. Could be the promise of new beginnings – the idea that something better is waiting to be discovered. Both of these are valid, but they don’t really describe my experience.

For me, the end result of letting go is that I never have to do it again. Not for that particular pain. I’ve let it run its course and chase through every chamber of my metaphorical heart, and it will never come back as anything but a memory. Sometimes the memory smarts a bit, maybe it nips at my feels with sharp little teeth, but it will never, ever strangle and suffocate me again. I’ll never be sucked into that tornado, never be subjected to that storm, never have to rebuild that house. The emptiness is a relief, and the hope of a new happiness is a possibility, but the lesson of never going back is my greatest reward. I will never make those same mistakes, I will never be vulnerable in that same way again.

Letting go makes me stronger, but I couldn’t have told you that, let alone imagined it a year and a half ago. The process is a mystery, a non-linear jumble of fucked up parts that kicks over your foundations and impales you and shakes the life out of you. And if you survive it, you’ve lost an integral part to your former happiness. Letting go is not “all good”. No wonder so many people never get around to it.  I should probably close this out by saying something optimistic like, “But it’s worth it!” The truth is messier than that. I don’t know yet if it’s worth it. It’s been a helluva process. Maybe being stronger will have its own consequences that I can’t see yet. Emotions are weirdly entangled like that.

I’d be happy with a popular message that gives a truer picture of what letting go is actually like. On letting go

 

 

Mine

There are many ways to measure milestones in personal growth. My favorite is the one where you stop caring about other people’s expectations. It’s then that you truly find yourself, that you truly realize what it is you care about.

It’s hard to do that when you don’t feel safe. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate your family if you’re not lucky enough to be born into one that fits just right. I’ve cultivated my herd – we’re a mismatched lot, with baggage and foibles and handicaps and little glimpses of greatness. But we know how to build support. We know how to dump outside the circle. We know how to be honest. And we know how to love. Some of us took the circuitous route to get here, but being in this place with these people… it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. For the first time in my life I feel safe. Safe.

Letting go of old expectations was hard, but ultimately the most beautiful gift I’ve ever given myself. I am responsible only to me. I carry no one’s weight but my own. It only took me half my life to reach this particular milestone, but I am determined to hang onto it with all the stubbornness I’ve developed, too.

The Little Year That Killed

Another music icon from my teens – George Michael – passed away today (in London, aged only 53) and brought the by now predictable chorus of “Fuck you, 2016” from most corners of my social media. Which, inexplicably, sent up its own backlash pointing out how it’s not the year’s fault.

Well, yes, we know that. A year is a trip around the sun, measurably, with the calendar being sort of weird and arbitrary. 2016 isn’t a sentient being hellbent on mayhem, destruction, and the kind of soul sucking grief that turn you into a husk of your former self. *ahem*

Which is a pity, really, because regardless of intent, that’s exactly what 2016 has done to me and an inordinate number of my friends and acquaintances, and we’d all really like to hold someone – anyone – accountable. Assigning some order to this chaos goes a surprisingly long way toward making it feel like we had some measure of control over this careening, runaway train that was 2016.

No, it’s not the year’s fault. Neither is a celebrity death inherently more valuable than anyone else’s. But to deny that cultural icons create space in our consciousness – and therefore leave a space when they leave – is to discount most of human history. Art shifts and reinvents; both itself and its audiences. Not every celebrity is an artist (the same may be said in reverse), but there is not a 70s or 80s child that I know whose heart didn’t break just a little when America’s Mom, Carol Brady, passed away. Of course I mean Florence Henderson, who had a long and productive career playing many different roles, but there is an entire generation for whom she was the mom they came home to after school. That, my darlings, is an intersection of arts/entertainment and culture, and like it or not, its affecting.

Glenn Frey’s music is one of the few things my mother and I agree on. Gene Wilder turned up in all the films that made me realize what a weirdo I am. Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest poets of life’s essential truths. Morely Safer and Gwen Ifil were part of the old guard of authentic journalism and their influence will be missed. Prince was the soundtrack for and Muhammed Ali was a personal hero to a vast swath of America. What the loss of these people means to their friends and family is private, but the loss of their place in the cultural pantheon is significant, and in many cases symbolic. When David Bowie passed early this year, I was already lost in my own downward spiral of grief. A marriage that had just entered the explosion phase of the slow motion crash and burn that has characterized my life since August of 2015. Losing such a huge cultural icon and influence shocked me into reflection, and forced me to confront grief.

And then there is the political circus that was 2016, and that sadly, marks the start of what promises to be a 4 year shit show of incompetence at best, and WWIII at worst. That’s if climate change doesn’t get us first. The policies and promises that just under half the voting population managed to get into office promise to make my own life a Sisyphean struggle for the next 3 years, and for many of my friends and family as well. This isn’t hyperbole, this is just a simple fact over which I have almost no control.

Taken together, the national cultural tragedies added insult to the injury that was my personal life in 2016. I have wrested what control can be wrought, and am now at least in the engineer’s seat in the aforementioned runaway train, but it can still go off the rails at any moment. I could blame the train, or the tracks, but 2016 will pass from this earth and never be seen again. It can take the brunt of our anger and blame. 2017 will bring its own challenges and celebrity deaths, but it will not be the same as 2016 and for me, that’s enough.