Gratitude

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.

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.

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.

…and hardly ever what we dream.

I’ve been lax keeping up this blog. Life – it keeps happening all around me, and I haven’t had time to stop and reflect on it much. Even more so in the coming months.

Election news dominates. Yes, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. I’ll probably vote a straight blue ticket, since the GOP is now reaping 25 years worth of sown ignorance and bigotry. Jim Wright said it best here. I’m tired, I’m moderately nervous that the necrotic pustule masquerading as a human in a stolen orange flesh suit will leave a rancid stain that will never, ever wash out of our country. I’m deeply disappointed in many of my fellow humans.

But on a personal level, things are continuing to look up. My plan proceeds apace, with just as much uncertainty as ever. Dark days are now just dark, not the all-consuming nothingness that plagued me a year ago. Reminders are popping up on my social media – “Memories!” I could turn that feature off, but I need to see it. I need to see that I am alive, and whole. If, as Emily Dickinson claimed, hope is the thing with feathers, they are finally smoothed. And my storm was sore, indeed. There is an ugly bruise on a part of me, but if I can manage not to poke it then most days I can pretend it’s not there.

Staying in one spot to live my grief has been the greatest challenge of my life so far. Sometimes the memory of the grief is worse than the cause. Drowning, suffocating are such apt descriptions. Conversely, breathing has become newly precious to me.

I am grateful beyond words for the people who showed themselves to be my personal heroes. People whose support has been unflagging and unconditional. At the same time, it’s been healthy to redefine the boundaries with those whose erratic orbits are… unequal to the task. And that’s okay. Not everyone is cut out to handle me at my worst. As it turns out, other people have boundaries of their own (or should). I am unbelievably lucky to have connected with people whose boundaries mesh with mine so seamlessly that their support became integral to my coping mechanisms. Their beautiful humanity carried me when I had little of my own. I have a Tribe. I need them.

I’ve never been this person before, but at the same time, I feel more “me” than I ever have. It’s terribly liberating, wonderfully frightening. It’s like being 18 again, only knowing everything I know at 40. Youth isn’t wasted on the young, it’s previewed. And now, ladies and gentleman, our main feature begins.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.
― Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

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.