I keep struggling to relate the strange epiphany I had recently.
As with most epiphanies, it hit me like a ton of bricks and then seemed glaringly obvious.
After my divorce, I decided I was never going to let a romantic partner treat me like a convenience again. There is an argument to made for how selfish my love for him was, but at least I know it was real love. The knowledge that it was never truly reciprocated was devastating, but ultimately survivable. So I dusted off my hands and adopted a meme for a mantra: “I’m not tearing down my walls for anybody. You want in, fucking climb.”
Once I made that leap of logic – that real love was possible and I wouldn’t settle for less than an equal share – I was suddenly extrapolating that to all my relationships with varying degrees of ruthlessness. The outer-circle ties – some friends but even some family – that had always been so taxing I gently disengaged from.
I applied it to closer relationships, too, and that is a work in progress. As I’ve mentioned here before, love is a verb, and it turns out that most of my family is appalling bad at applying that concept. Realizing that I’ve spent the last 40 years returning and returning to a dry well for life-sustaining nourishment is… well, it’s why I’m back in therapy to be honest.
The epiphany came when I started to understand that expecting my relationships to nurture me meant my relationship with myself, too.
It’s so obvious, right?
In a culture absolutely obsessed with rugged individualism and “self care”, you’d think that would be the first lesson I’d learn.
But hold up – psychology has shown us time and again that how we feel about ourselves is directly related to how others feel about us. We’re social creatures and if our social environment is made up of messages of unworthiness, well…
This is not a new idea. It’s not even particularly revelatory.
But the first time I treated myself with care and attention and didn’t hear my inner voice desperately trying to justify it in order to keep the messages of unworthiness at bay – that was a revelation. It didn’t come from telling myself to love myself first, or that I deserved anything. It came from doing the hard work of organizing my life to my own benefit. When I say hard work, I mean it all – asking for help, going back to school, getting into therapy, moving, tackling a career instead of a job, and culling toxic relationships from my life. I did all that first, and the feelings of worthiness followed.
Are following. It’s an ongoing process.
I wish I’d had access to these lessons 20 years ago. I wish I’d seen self esteem, compassion and equal relationships modeled for me before I turned 40. I wish.
Time doesn’t move like that for humans, though. All I can do is go forward. And hope I’m showing those things to someone else, starting now.
We’re coming up on a year since I went mildly viral with a facebook post just before “Justice” Kavanaugh’s confirmation. It got somewhere in the neighborhood of 8k shares across all media platforms, if you count all the copy and pastes because I was hesitant to make it public at first. 8000 is a nothing number in the internet world. It’s barely a blip when a terrible Buzzfeed listicle can get 80k just by showing up. But it was bigger than I had ever seen.
I find myself reflecting on it now and again, though. As I pointed out in my blog post follow up “New Pompeii”, the original piece (belatedly titled “Lava”) wasn’t well thought out or even particularly well written. It came from a visceral place of sorrow and fury as I watched women everywhere despair of our voices ever mattering. It poured out of me on a Thursday night just before I turned my phone face down and went to sleep. By morning it had resonated with a number of friends and by that night it was resonating with their friends. It took about 4 days to saturate. I copied it to this blog where it got a couple of trolling comments and a few more supportive ones. It spiked traffic here for a few days then, as with most things as ephemeral as digital copy, it faded into the background and finally altogether.
I didn’t attempt to capitalize on my 15 minutes (more like 15 seconds) of fame. Some of that is to do with my own personality and not being comfortable in the spotlight, but some of it is to do with shame. It reads as white, cis, and able. On the one hand, that’s authentic to me – I am all of those things. The fact that it resonated so acutely with so many others only highlights the mainstream nerve it hit. But for the 8k people it resonated with, how many tens of thousands did it exclude? How many women of color, trans women, disabled or neurodivergent women could have told a more nuanced story that would have resonated with better truth? They weren’t silent, and yet their voices were not to be found as readily as mine. That doesn’t negate the cacophony of agreement that came; it’s just something that weighs on me.
Fortunately, there have been numerous voices in the conversation since. But I think most gratifying to me is that there continues to be the conversation. I don’t think the lava has slowed. I think I was right that the anger would not abate, that it would advance on the subterranean trajectory it was on, and that putting out the fires would become harder and harder. No one I know has, in the past year, become more accepting or more complacent. It’s true I don’t know a lot of people, but I think even a small sample size is representative. I can’t say that we’re moving forward, but I am damn sure we’re not giving up ground. We’re scorching it first. As conflicted as I am about why my voice was heard so far and wide, I am still proud to have helped give form to the pyroclastic cloud emerging from women everywhere.
I believe we are still burning. Slowly, maybe, but just as inexorable as I predicted.
The trailer for the new Picard Star Trek series premiered a while ago and it choked me up. In trying to articulate why, I wasted a lot of time setting the scene – explaining where I was during the run of the show, why it had such a profound effect on my adolescence, and why, despite its problems, it still resonates in my psyche. But none of that really explained why Picard is my captain, and it occurred to me that I don’t have to explain it. He already did.
Picard is my captain because there are four lights.
Picard is my captain because it’s possible to commit no mistakes and still lose, and that is not weakness, that is life.
Picard is my captain because sometimes there are no laws that fit the crime.
Picard is my captain because children don’t belong on the bridge.
Picard is my captain because on his ship, no one is alone. No one.
Picard is my captain because ordering a man to turn over his child to the state is abhorrent and men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders.
Picard is my captain because I knew what tea, Earl Grey, hot was before the show and it was the key to my heart.
Picard is my captain because being broken down to component parts teaches us our humanity.
Picard is my captain because vigilance is the price we continually pay for freedom.
Picard is my captain because sometimes the line must be drawn here! And other times there can be no justice when laws are absolute.
Picard is my captain because courage can be an emotion, too.
I was a weird kid. While trying to obey the expectations of my family, there were others I wanted to be proud of me. People who embodied ideals that I didn’t necessarily see around me, but nonetheless knew were good and right. I try to live my life in such a way that Captain Picard would be proud of me. I’m hoping that I can measure that against the new series and be validated, or at least encouraged. I’m striving to make it so.
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.