Break

There’s an empty parking lot not far from my house that runs the width of a city block. It’s a common dog-walking route for me because I can let the dogs out on a long leash and just sort of meander without worrying about traffic or distractions. Today, I took Heidi out by herself (that is, without Scout, whom I walked earlier) and gave her the “break” command.

It’s an old school word from our Germany days when off-leash walks were common and she had to know the difference between “heel” and “freedom”. Today, I first held up the leash and said her name to get her attention. Then I dropped the leash and said, “Break!” I swear she grinned from ear to ear before taking off at a run. Well, a trot. Her stiff hips and arthritic knees hobbled her and her body resembled a see-saw as she made the best of what mobility she has.

But her ears and her eyes were joyous. She never gets off leash freedom with me anymore, and while I’ll never know if her mind remembers the vast fallow German fields, with their poppy edges in summer and mounds of sugar beets in the fall and deep snow in winter, I can’t help but feel her muscle memory is sound. Her body remembers, and her exuberance is real.

She had all the happiness this afternoon. That’s the benefit to being a dog, I guess. I was overcome with the grief of knowing how brief her life is, how unfair it is that she’s fettered by both living arrangements and biology. I grieved for the life we both had five years ago, the happiness that I’ll never know again but that her body remembers. There’s a popular sentiment that we should strive to live moment to moment like our dogs do – finding joy in the present and exploiting it fully. I’ve never been able to do that, nor believed that we should. Heidi and I have always shared the full range of emotions – she gets the joy and I take the burden of sadness. It’s just the deal I made with her: I will make you happy, and you will breathe with me when I’m sad. And between the two of us, we live fully.

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What sound does a Scarlet Virago make? Snarky ones.

 

My daughter graduated high school in 2015, college earlier this year. Her peers that attend 4 year colleges are entering their junior year and are now, on average, $30,000 in debt. That number will continue to increase at the same rate or faster over the next two years. My daughter has zero debt and supports herself with her first entry level position.
Do I sound a little snarky? Yes, yes I do. I received a LOT of criticism for encouraging her to obtain a professional certificate over a bachelor’s degree. A LOT. And it takes nothing away from those kids getting their bachelor’s to point out that she is already living and working in the adult world, accumulating skills for her next goal and beholden to NO loan holders. She can start building her credit from 0, rather than -30,000.
Are there kids out there trying to accomplish their dreams? Absolutely, and I wish them the best fortune possible. Are they, along with their less ambitious but no less educated peers, going to be in fierce competition for a level of employment that can’t accommodate them all? Also yes. Are a ridiculous number of them going to be working two or three entry-level jobs (that require no degree) at the same time just so they can make payments on their student loans? Also yes.
I am so sick of this pervasive and pernicious idea that dreams are ALL that matter. That one’s personal happiness rests entirely on the idea that they ONLY do what they love. I love to eat, and sleep under a roof. And not spend my days stressing about my credit score and how I’m going to pay for an emergency medical expense. There is more than one way to accomplish one’s dreams, and the idea that mortgaging your soul to a bank, or risking a basic standard of living to achieve them is… well, it’s just foolish and naive and downright harmful in some instances.
Not to mention the fact that my life fell apart in such a way that I would not have been able to help my kid in any way if she’d needed it during or after her last two years at college. And given the number of college graduates living at home, she definitely would have needed it. At this point, she’s the one helping me, who doesn’t have a choice but to incur student debt to achieve the same basic level of education that she was able to get for free, because we utilized the resources available to us at the right time.
So yeah, I’m feeling a bit snarky. And ridiculously proud.

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.

Holiday Spirits

My daughter is Elf-level excited for Christmas. At 19, she can leverage this excitement into a force to be reckoned with. It’s not quite the same cuteness factor it was at 9, but a lot harder to resist, as she doesn’t respond well to “It’s bedtime now” anymore.

I am somewhat less excited. The first set of holidays post-divorce is hard. Especially when Christmas was your family’s “thing”. For all his other faults, my ex really went out of his way to make the holidays magical every year and by and large he succeeded. I knew Christmas would be hard. I didn’t know I’d be up against the second coming of Christmas Spirit herself, but we’re making it work. Last weekend we decorated a village of gingerbread houses. She had The Polar Express playing in the background to accompany her mood, I had wine for mine. I made Christmas candy for my coworkers, and managed not to eat it all. Instead I had wine. We put up the tree, I had… well, let’s just say there’s a theme.

So far, I have not succumbed to Scrooge impersonations. But I did have to talk for 90 minutes in therapy to realize that I need to give myself space to be sad. Not despairing, nor depressed – just sad. It’s okay to be sad at Christmas. It feels a little like trudging.

to-trudgeBut it is punctuated by sounds that make me sing, food smells that make me hungry, and lights and pictures that make me smile. It’s not all bad. Next year will be easier. And the one after that, easier still. This is my lesson of 2016. Nothing feels like death forever, except actual death and that hasn’t happened yet. Of course, my other lesson of 2016 was that Dorothy Parker knew what she was about when she asked, “What fresh hell can this be?” because there’s plenty of it to go around. You’d think hell would run out, but no – there’s always a fresh supply on hand. The sell-by date on first post-divorce Christmas, however, will pass and not come again.

A While.

There’s nothing quite like that moment when your husband tells you he fell out of love with you “a while” ago.

On the one hand, it’s a punch in the gut, but on the other, it’s kind of a relief. It’s a relief to know that you weren’t imagining it. That it wasn’t your fault. That the dead weight you’ve been suffocating under IS actually that elephant in the room. Only it’s dead now. Like your marriage.

Of course on the other hand, you now have a two tons of rotting pachyderm to dig yourself out from under, so that doesn’t sound like fun. And honestly, I can’t think about that right now. It’s too much. My brain literally won’t even go there. It’s like, “Oh no, this is fine. It’s warm and heavy like a comforter. Just leave it. I like the smell of dead elephant. Really.”

So I’m just going to dwell in the relief for a bit. I’m going to languish in the absolute euphoria that comes from knowing this was not my fault. I’ve been rowing a boat for two people, expending all that energy, and I just looked behind me and it turns out there’s no one there. I can rest. I can stop fighting, and oh god does that sound so, so sweet.

At some point I’m going to realize that the tears streaming down my face mean something. Eventually, I’m going to want to tear things apart with my bare hands – I can feel it there, in the back of my mind, waiting for when it feels right. But not right now. Right now, I’m going to cradle that sad, frustrated, confused little heart of mine and whisper: It’s not you. It was never you. You are worthy. You are loved. I’ve got you and it’s going to be okay.

I don’t know what okay looks like, but I know it’s out there somewhere… waiting for me.

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.