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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Dear 21 year old Me

This advice is useless to you, I know that. For starters, time travel to the physical past is still solidly in the realm of science fiction. But more importantly, I know you well enough to recognize that you wouldn’t take advice if it came wrapped in money and smelling like chocolate. I like that about you, maddening as it was. That’s not an indictment, by the way. You’re 23 weeks pregnant, cranky, broke, and beyond done with people trying to dole out “advice” about your situation.

Okay, so let’s begin again. Let’s not call this advice. Let’s call it a directive; a call to action that will take 20 more years to fulfill. And that’s okay, because the lessons you’re engaged in now will play a critical role in the action that comes later.

You are alone. Besides the squirmy little hitchhiker in your uterus, you live alone, you cry alone, and you worry alone. You celebrate alone. For the most part, you find this comfortable. At least, way more comfortable than the alternative, which is to submit to all that unsolicited “advice”, listen to other people worry, and – worst case scenario – awkwardly celebrate triumphs that feel intensely private.

Life is so fucking uncertain for you right now. But in addition to being alone, you are also introspective, stubborn, and determined. You are, to use an overworked and underwhelming phrase, finding your own way. That’s important. Discovering what works for you through trial and error will give you a rock-solid confidence that many people will label “strong”.

For a while it will seem like they’re calling being alone strong, and maybe some are. But what they’re really saying – and you’re just going to have to trust me on this, because it isn’t readily apparent – is that learning to trust yourself is strong. Failing spectacularly and trying again is strong. You could probably do without horse-whipping yourself into a semblance of discipline, but maybe that’s an essential part of your process. To this day, I don’t really know. The message is clear, though – you are the only researcher in your laboratory of life and you’ll find your own answers even if it blows up in your face. (It will.)

You are a badass, but for reasons you don’t fully appreciate yet.

You don’t want to hear that, I know. Just keep taking your vitamins, and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for how many hours you’re sleeping every day.

I’m here to thank you, actually. That freaks you out. You don’t like people giving you credit when you don’t ask for it, it makes you feel like a fraud. That particular attitude never goes away, FYI. But your understanding of what you earned will expand considerably. Confidence will become a way of life instead of an act of defiance.

But back to the thank you. You are teaching me – right now, in your tiny apartment, all alone, lashing out at everything that looks at you sideways – that safety is an illusion.

Something will change in about 10 years or so – I don’t want to give anything away, but you’ll try an experiment that you never thought you’d try. It’s a bold, intriguing move that requires a methodology you’ve never used before. I don’t want to tell you how the experiment ends, because I’m not even sure yet, but I can tell you that about 10 more years after that, you will reach a theory that will be revolutionary in its simplicity. Certainly it will be groundbreaking in your personal quest for knowledge.

You will come to the realization that simple kindnesses translate to life-rafts. You fill find your tribe.

I know. Let me give you a minute while you recover from the eyestrain of rolling your irises to the back of your head. Try not to gag – okay, now you’re just being insulting. I’ll wait.

Recovered? Great. I’ll continue, then.

The lessons you are processing right now will lead me to take risks I never thought possible, and – sadly – how to recover when I crash and burn so spectacularly it should be directed by Michael Bay. (That joke will be a lot funnier in 20 years, trust me.)

Listen to me. I know what you dream of. You get it.

You get it. 

And then you lose it. And it’s not your fault.

I know how guilty you feel. Like you are 100% in charge of your life and you’ve fucked it up beyond repair. That’s not true. You are 100% in charge of your choices, but as a good friend will point out a long time from now, you can only make those choices based on the information you have. And darling, you don’t have all the information. People will lie to you. They will betray you. As badly as you have already been betrayed. Worse, actually. The pain and anguish that you feel right now for not having seen that helps me. It really does. Because when it happens again in twenty years, instead of hating yourself, you will love yourself. You will hold yourself gently with the arms of people you trust, you will call out for help, and you will get it. You will absolutely love yourself through it.

I wish you could feel this now. I wish I could give you the gift of feeling that resiliency deep down, trusting it, relying on it. But that’s not how this works. Instead, you give the gift to me. You are a fighter, but that’s not all you are. You are also a thinker, a resolver, and you learn things by doing. Do all the things, love.  Think about them, resolve to understand them, fight when you have to and meet me here in 20 years. I will be waiting for you with so much gratitude. You saved me then and you’re saving me now.

Thank you.

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.

Adventures in Fitness, or How to Get Murdered by Your Sports Bra

It’s 7:00 a.m. and I am getting ready to go to the gym. As soon as I finish my coffee so I can poop first. This is my life at 39 (and three-quarters) – held hostage to the schedule of my intestines. Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am.

The gym, I long thought, was for young, svelte, fitness freaks who look like they model part time for Nike. (And if they don’t, how in the hell can they afford workout clothes? One pair of Lyrca/Spandex pants cost me $50! Don’t even get me started on sports bras – I’ll get to that in a minute.) Even when I was young and svelte, I didn’t think much of exercise and Nike can just bugger right off with its infamous marketing tagline. NOBODY TELLS ME TO JUST DO ANYTHING. But age and boredom and the 14 breaks I have to take on the stairs to carry my laundry into the basement have convinced me that perhaps I should re-evaluate my stance on fitness.

I use the gym on a military installation. It’s free, it’s local, it’s well-equipped. And on a good day, I can snag the recumbent bike overlooking the free weight room and get a show with my workout. Yes, I’m watching them.  They don’t seem to notice, being preoccupied, as they are, with watching themselves. That place is a hall of mirrors, taking muscles on a psychedelic trip through geometry. Groovy, man.

But I’ve mostly overcome the idea that anyone is watching me. If anyone is looking at me wheeze and melt through one lousy mile on the eliptical, I don’t think they’re actually noticing. They’re too busy striding magnificently on a steeply inclined treadmill, chest out, chin up, arms pumping furiously in full on Forrest Gump mode, no doubt imagining themselves running to the top of Mount Olympus to take their rightful place among the ancient Greek pantheon. I sincerely doubt they’re concerned about the pond of sweat that’s sloshing around in that little flat tray beneath my control panel. What’s that for, anyway?

The more often I go, the more I reward myself with the accessories that help me forget I’m going to the gym. Wireless earphones. Blue-tooth enabled iPod to listen to on the wireless earphones. New music specifically designed to keep your heart rate above that of a nervous hamster. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m supposed to be listening or convulsing. It works, though. I rarely find myself dropping back down to Leisurely Stroll Through the Park speeds. I’m trying to outrun the riot of 20-somethings that are attempting to have a rave in my ears. Are those still a thing, raves? I’ll tell you right now, if anyone breaks out glowsticks and a pacifier, I’m taking up shuffleboard.

I’m a largish gal. Squishy, you might say. Containing it all is a challenge for the most experienced of athletic brands, and they charge dearly for the privilege of carrying my boobs over the course of an hour. I have yet to find a sports bra that doesn’t get hung up on my back fat, making stripping off after the gym an exercise unto itself. Somewhere around the five-minute mark, after I’ve pulled 18 muscles in my neck I didn’t know I had, dislocating my shoulder and somehow punching myself in the nose with my elbow, I wonder if crime scene investigators will even suspect that the pitiful tangle of sweat-soaked Lyrca was actually the murderer. “The house appeared to be empty at the time of death, Sergeant, probably a suicide… Wait, what is this… AAAAH, IT’S GOT ME, SIR! IT’S WRAPPING AROUND MY NECK AND BLLLLAAAARGH… help!…” Why hasn’t anyone made this movie yet? There is nothing more horrifying than the prospect of removing a sweaty sports bra.

I have not lost a single ounce in the six weeks I’ve been going to the gym. My clothes fit exactly the same as before, and I would take up precisely as much room on a bus seat as I did before, if I took the bus. I told myself I was utterly unconcerned with losing weight when I started, and it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m a little disappointed. Looks like my dream career of booth babe at Comic Con is more out of reach than ever. ::sigh:: But I no longer take 14 breaks on the stairs to the basement. Last weekend I performed TWO chores outside in the yard (in Missouri. in August) and survived. And I think I may have passed some kind of fitness threshold when I started laughing maniacally halfway through my workout the other day. I like to think it was an endorphin rush and not my new pants giving me a wedgie.