The Painted Heart, part III

My heart is painted over with the lacquered armor of more battles than I can now count, more love than I was ever entitled to receive, and more sadness than is polite to discuss. My painted heart is both broken and solid, heavy with reality.

It’s a trinket, I’m realizing now. A novelty to everyone who’s seen it. A sentimental treasure only to me. That’s human nature, isn’t it? We each have to find the glue to put the pieces back together again, chips and holes and new paint all part of the “charm” until you can either cherish it or can’t stand to look at it. But certainly you can’t expect anyone else to love it in the way you do.

My painted heart is in pieces. I don’t know how I will look at it ever again.

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The Painted Heart, part II

You see it there in the window, all glossy cherry red and plump to bursting. In your hand, it fits like it was made to go there and oh the weight of it! You just know you could feel that forever – no forgetting it was in your pocket, not ever.

The paint is hard and shiny, and layered on coat after coat. The most recent application hides the imperfections of the last – dings, nicks and scratches all easily filled in with another coat of paint. There’s a flaw in the side – a place where the material is malformed, but it’s hardly noticeable, you see. And the overall effect is so very lovely. You just have to have it.

You slip it in your pocket. It pulls your jacket just a tad off center. You were right – you never forget the weight of it. Not once.

The Painted Heart, part I

When I was younger, a breaking heart felt like a rend in the universe. I could feel my heart cracking down the middle like a great boulder, the echoes like thunder in the wind.

Now, though, a breaking heart feels more like an old abandoned barn. Peeling and crackled paint flaking off and falling, silent, into soft, loamy earth. The creak and whine of withered boards straining against rusty nails, struggling to maintain a shape as outdated and antiquated as anything from the last century. Lonely and bleak, a skeleton of a frame waiting for the next storm to blow it down.

Boots

From time to time, I might post old pieces that I want to keep track of, or that I think are worth revisiting. This was originally written 27 August, 2012.


A decade ago, the word “boots” would have meant ankle-height, black leather with a low, chunky heel. Something stylish and comfortable that I could stand in at work for eight or more hours. And that would be the end of this piece. Okay, if I’m being totally honest, it might have included a brief fantasy about knee-high, laced up, stiletto-heeled, these-boots-are-made-for-sexin’ footwear.

Now, though, I see a pair of tan, size 13, authorized ACU boots.

I see long laces of 550 cord pulled tight and clasped with the little spring-loaded gizmo I don’t know the name for and the excess hidden in the top. Or I see the laces ends come out of hiding, and the clasp move to the end while fingers pull slack into each section. If there is such a thing as ceremony in this house, it might be this twice-daily ritual of lacing and unlacing the tan, rough-side-out cattle hide leather, side-vented regulation army boots. They go on last at the feet, but they signify an invisible mantle that settles over the head of the wearer – the attitude of the professional soldier. At home in the evening, they come off first and it’s like everybody relaxes at the same time – not a Soldier now, just Dad and Husband.

I love to see them sit neatly side by side at the door, brushed clean and softly slouched at the top. It means the feet that go in them are home, propped up bare on the couch or getting exceptionally stinky as they sweat in tennis shoes behind the lawn mower. Maybe they’re tapping against the bottom rung of the stool, in time to the music that plays over the work bench. The boots are relaxed and so am I.

Sometimes I see row after row of them, lined up, stiff and straight. They’re clean, of course, but also worn and tired, scuffed smooth by a year of  desert sand. I hear the sound they make, dozens clapping the ground in unison, a staccato rhythm of discipline and business. I see them in formation and it comforts me, those pylons in an upside-down sea of digital camouflage, marking individual pillars of soldiers. It scares me a little, too. They all look the same, but I know they are different.

I know a woman with boots in her house that will never be worn again. She leaves them by the door anyway because she can’t bear to put them away. That strikes me as both ridiculously self-indulgent and unutterably sad. I can’t seem to reconcile my need for pragmatic sensibility with the feeling that there is an encyclopedic wealth of subtext contained within a pair of boots.

I’m fearful of the day when the boots get put away for good. They’re our link to a way of life that defines our existence and a vernacular that has fused with our consciousness. What happens when those small daily ceremonies no longer bookend our day? What happens to old boots that have lost their purpose? Where to Army boots go to retire?

And will I ever think of “boots” again without first seeing my spouse, my partner in uniform? I hope not.

Friends

I’d like to say it’s strange how a topic can seem to dominate your reality for a short time – that feeling like the universe is trying to “tell” you something by repeatedly throwing it up in your path. I’d like to say that because then it would absolve me of having to admit that I’m just thinking about it a lot lately. Once I know that I am then I have to start asking why and once the “whys” start it’s like my brain turns into the three year old in the backseat who won’t shut up.

And now you know why I write.

I’m not a particularly social person, but on rare occasions I find myself in an instant rapport with someone. Usually it’s someone smart and funny and for some reason they think I’m smart and funny, too, and we trade social commentary and maybe a hefty amount of snark and I suddenly want to be around them more than I want to be alone. We’ll call this the “honeymoon” period. Of course you know where I’m going with this.

The honeymoon eventually fades – sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually. It can be the expression of an opinion that seems to come out of left field and makes you question everything you thought you knew about them. It can be a qualification on something you previously thought was unqualified. It can be you  suddenly started looking at them like they’re lunch and that really was not where they thought things were headed.

For whatever reason, the rainbows that seemed to arc over your every minute together have turned to a fine mist if not outright rain and you’re not quite so eager to spend all your free time with them. The people that are still around after the honeymoon is over are usually the ones I call friends. So when I say that I don’t make friends easily, you’ll know what I mean is that I don’t tolerate people for extended periods of time easily and if I do, it means something to me.

One of the things I’ve learned in the intervening years between the third grade and now is that nearly everyone I come into contact with has their own individual criteria for determining who will become the friends in their lives, as well. It was somewhat of a shock to learn that I am not, in fact, 100% in charge of every relationship I have, but I’ve learned to adapt.

These are all things I knew at least ambiguously in my head, but the “universe” or the three year old who lives in the back of my head or whatever you want to call it have been pushing it to the fore. Repeatedly. I’ve recently left the honeymoon phase of a couple of relationships that I don’t believe will stand the test of time. One I saw coming, one was a massive disappointment. At the same time, I’ve had other people affirm friendships I hardly knew were there. I don’t like being surprised (that comes standard with the controlling nature), even when it’s good news. I do that thing where my face gets hot and splotchy red and water leaks out of my eyes. At the same time, it’s always frustrating and a little bit painful when the honeymoon is over for the other person before it’s over for me. (I have a bit more experience with this, however. Can I get a whup, whup from all the other socially awkward adolescents in the house?)

I’m going to have a big party in a few months for a milestone that I’m excited to celebrate. I used the apparatus of social media to invite everyone I wanted to see there. I got the most unexpected responses. People I never expected to acknowledge the invitation have expressed keen interest. People I really expected to make the effort won’t be there at all. And that’s not accounting for who actually will or won’t show up on the day of, or the people who aren’t active on social media, or for the people who just aren’t keen on parties.  And it occurred to me that this is a microcosm of my life in friendships so far. Disappointment and wonder and a bit of absence. It’s not like being 16 and sitting in the garage with your best friends and knowing – just knowing – that if life is a sinking ship you’re all going down together.

No, it’s arguing with your oldest friend about not having any more beers because you’re tired damn it and you want to go to bed. It’s learning to go to the gym because that’s the only time someone has for you and you’ll take what you can get. It’s realizing that what you thought was smart and funny is really insecure and callous and what does it say about yourself that you didn’t see that right away? It’s realizing that the people who want to be there will be there and those people are your friends, whether you knew it or not. It’s showing up for them, because you want to, not because you have to.

It feels very strange to me that it’s taken me so long to understand that the meaning of friendship changes as much as the friendships themselves. It feels like I should have gotten that memo a while ago. It also feels like I maybe don’t understand it completely. Because I still want my sinking shipmates, I want the comfort of that security – but I’m not on that ship anymore. I’m adrift and so are they, on these currents that may eddy and swirl now and then, but never really join. It’s very lonely knowledge to have.

On Worth

What am I worth?

I’m asking this question again as I look for more work to supplement our dwindling finances.

It’s a place of immense privilege to even ask the question, I know this. I have to carefully consider my audience when I talk about how I turned down a minimum wage job offer because the commute and hours were heinous enough to nullify the $125 a week in take-home pay. Not to mention the work promised to be mind-numbingly boring. Those jobs are a good fit for someone, but I don’t think they are good for me.

I took a job last year based on the attitude that any work was worthy and that I shouldn’t value myself beyond my ability to just get a job. The job, when there was work, was stultifying and when there wasn’t (i.e., no customers) I had to pretend I was busy. It was monotonous and tedious and I hated every second I was there. Then I would come home and hate myself some more for not having a better job. Then I would retroactively hate myself for not going to college. Then I would proactively hate future-me for taking another minimum wage and/or stagnate job because I can’t escape the guilt of not being grateful. Because ultimately, my worth seems to be defined by how deeply I can ingratiate myself to anyone willing to hire me.

I’m stuck in a constant argument loop with myself: I don’t deserve interesting or intelligent job opportunities because I didn’t go to college (never mind the fact that many of my college-educated peers are just as under-employed as I am). This sparsely populated, rural area is an employment desert – no one can be expected to create opportunities in a place where most of the population lives below the poverty line. (Economics at its finest – no one can buy your product if they have no money to spend.) If I was smarter/more educated/worked harder I could create opportunities no matter where I was. Well, here I am, at the culmination of my life choices and I can just lie in this bed that I made until my flesh fuses to the sheets.

Every time I email a polished and professional resume to a local listing it is accompanied by a fear and shame so acute as to be nearly debilitating, and is utterly unique to employment searches. I don’t deserve this, no one will notice me, I am a pitiful contestant in this modern game where I don’t know the rules.

Worthless.

It’s not just being frustrated by the lack of choices. It is being certain of rejection. It’s having other people define my worth – not just in an hourly wage but in the kind of tasks they want from me. It is knowing, deep down, that they’re right.

The worst part is having to explain myself to well-meaning onlookers in my life. Explaining to people who are so far removed from privilege that they can’t understand why I’m so “picky”, or those that are so immersed in privilege that they can’t understand why I just don’t start my own business doing something at which I’m embarrassingly incompetent. I’ve been on the receiving end of platitudes, sympathy, even (strangely) political anger and all have been equally unhelpful or even hurtful. They don’t address the core issue – What am I worth?

I just don’t know. And the guilt of not knowing, the shame of suspecting it isn’t much, the defiance of anyone who would try to define it for me is eating me alive. Trying to monetize all of that seems like a horribly vulgar way to determine my worth. And yet, it’s the only way that matters.

Tattoos and Me

At one point in my rich teenaged fantasy life, I was convinced I wanted a tattoo of a leopard draped across my shoulders. I think this was influenced by a steady diet of Guns-n-Roses videos on MTV and a desire to shock mainstream culture with my internalized misogyny, oh-so-white sexuality. It’s embarrassing what the sheltered think of as shocking.

My first tattoo was less shocking. It’s a palm-sized sprig of Pennsylvania mountain laurel on the back of my left shoulder. When I was 18, a California girl facing the end of a year lived in the completely alien city of Philadelphia and the end of my first live-in relationship, I wanted to mark myself with a visual reminder of everything I experienced in this strange city of brotherly love that was often scarily hostile. The Liberty Bell, with its doomed crack and over-simplified symbolism would have been the obvious choice, but I went with the mountain laurel. Literally a last minute decision, made when I asked the artist what the state flower of Pennsylvania was and he looked it up in the set of shop encyclopedias because that’s how old I am – my first tattoo predates the internet. (Although you probably guessed my age by my reference to music videos on MTV.)

I sat wrong-way forward on an old chair, arms crossed along the top edge of the back and my chin digging into my forearms. My Flashdance-style shirt draped half-way down my back, I asked the artist, a thin, bearded, long-haired man I assumed to be OLD, how long he’d been tattooing. He glanced at my ID and replied, “Oh, about as long as you’ve been alive.” It’s funny to think he was probably as old as I am now. Then he turned on a buzzing like a hundred bees rehearsing an opera, placed a reassuring hand on my quivering back, and began to scar my flesh with ink. I fell down a rabbit hole of introspection and art and found myself in love.

I don’t want to credit Generation X with bringing tattoos into the mainstream (mostly because this is the internet, and as soon as I do, someone will present a thesis on why it’s not true), but some numbers claim the difference between tattooed Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is twice as much. When I was discussing my plans for the elaborate (and painful and thankfully never realized) shoulder-leopard, tattoos were still seen as counter culture, but counter culture itself was seen as a positive influence. Sailors and convicts had given way to rock stars and 70s icons and that was A-okay with us. Between Gen X and Millennials, the numbers increase yet again.

Which is not to say that tattoos are universally accepted. I happen to live in a conservative part of the country (both socially and politically), and have actually been tut-tutted by older people for my arms, which are approximately 60% covered in tattoos. It’s enough to get me second glances. Within tighter spheres of social influence, tattoos can mark me as a rebel (military wives in my age bracket), a liberal (the church crowd), an esoteric, artistic type (upper-middle-class intellectuals), or an instant member (music festivals and the Renaissance Faire). People adjust their attitudes when they notice I have large tattoos. It’s a very human thing to do. Even when they are adjusting for negative prejudice, I strangely feel closer to them – engaged in a social interaction that might have gone ignored were it not for the pictures on my skin.

What my tattoos don’t seem to do is give insight into my personality, which is ironic because I have custom, elaborate pieces that the artist and I collaborated on extensively. I chose meaningful symbols, specific colors and placement to reflect a culmination of experiences – a sort of I Am Here map for my life thus far. The selection of a tattoo artist merits its own post, but suffice it to say that trust in artistic vision is probably at the top of the list. Once the design is set, sitting in the chair and submitting to the pricking of dozens of microscopic needles piercing the skin becomes an exercise in mindfulness. Or at least it did for me. The pain I experienced was less about enduring suffering and more about perseverance during metamorphosis. The picture was already under my skin, coded in my cells – I just had to wait for it to appear. At the end of a four hour session, that waiting can get tedious, but still worth it.

I have plans for more tattoos. Ideas taking shape under the surface, waiting for their time. I have to arrive at the place before I can map it.