Sorrows and Deep Sighs

The world is bona fide mess.

Our president has tacitly threatened nuclear war on the one other country in the world with a leader stupid enough to retaliate. The institution of police have openly embraced their role as blue terrorists in our communities. A series of catastrophic hurricanes is steadily destroying lives and nations in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling to survive.

My tiny, insignificant corner of personal misery isn’t much by comparison, but it’s everything when my own mind is no refuge from the wretchedness. The only solution I can think of is to put my misery to bed.

The end of my marriage came without my consent, or input of any kind, really. My husband simply left – emotionally and verbally if not physically. No matter how I begged for communication, he simply stopped talking or acknowledging my role as his spouse in any way. All of my anger, all my despair, centered… no, centers, to be fair, around the loss of my agency. To this day, I seethe with frustration over never being able to confront our problems head on.

But that was his entire goal.

If he never accused me of failing him, then I couldn’t accuse him back. He wanted a do-over without consequences. Because to him, ignoring our 12 years together means they didn’t happen the way they really happened, and without my input to contradict, he can remember them any way he likes. My real failings become imagined in whatever way suits his narrative. My real quirks become monstrous or nonexistent as fits the story he wants to tell himself (and the next woman). My heartache, too.

While I have real regrets and real sorrow and real hurt, my worst pain comes from my erasure. There is nothing I can do to make myself relevant in his life again, for good or ill. I’ve long since let go of my love for him, but becoming invisible to the single person I trusted with every corner of my soul? That’s a betrayal I might never recover from. No matter what indictments I can throw his way (and there are plenty), the crux of my misery rests on the helplessness of being invisible.

And that’s on me. Because I knew he didn’t really see me. I knew it, and I chose to make excuses for it. When he insisted on portraying me in ways that were inconsistent with my perception of our relationship, I objected – in the beginning. But when those objections were met with “I’m just teasing”, I backed off. Because I didn’t want to perceive my role as humorless. I wish I had. I wish I had been perceived as humorless instead of whatever was in head. At least then there would have been a modicum of truth to it.

Instead, I dove into the dark spaces between what I knew was real and what he would acknowledge. There was peace in not having to talk, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was tired. I’d spent my entire life navigating emotions for people too damaged to do it on their own and I was just fucking tired. What he offered was freedom from that, and I accepted.

And that’s on me, too. I was tired, I was lonely, and I made a fatal mistake out of weakness.

It’s happened to better people than me, but strangely that doesn’t bring me much comfort.

My misery may be tiny and insignificant in the context of the world, but it’s also tiny and insignificant to the other person who might have shared it. I am a myth to the only other person in the world I wanted to be completely real with. I let go of him a long time ago, but it’s time to let go of the frustration surrounding my erasure. I will have to come to terms with the truth of my failings on my own, and maybe that’s as it should be. There was a saying in my house growing up – You’re the only one you have to look at in the mirror.

I’m the only one staring back. That’s enough.

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.

Joys of Snack Size

A year ago, I wrote about the Dissolution of Snacks and its somewhat surprising mark on my journey through grief and the loss of my marriage. Today I want to talk about the joys of snack size.

I moved, you see. Downsized from 2400 square feet to 900 square feet, with all the attendant miniaturization of appliances one would expect. My plates don’t fit in the surprisingly tiny cupboards so the door never completely closes. It’s annoying. Peek-a-boo, I see you snarky little reminder of a once bigger life. I keep giving it side eye, like the cupboard is suddenly going to feel shame and quietly swallow the back of my plates so the door can shut completely. (If that happens, the nature of this blog is going to change drastically.)

The refrigerator is tiny. I can see the top without standing on tip-toe and it lacks a meat drawer. I thought I’d feel bad about that, because I’ve spent so long filling up a family-sized fridge that even after the family was downsized, I was still trying to fill it up. Like the refrigerator itself was making my shopping list based on its capacity. But here’s the thing – I don’t feel bad at all. Right now apartment-fridge holds a bag of pre-chopped salad, a 6 pack of flavored water, a bottle of wine and the smallest size sour cream you can buy. I honestly didn’t know they made sour cream containers that small. It’s adorable. It’s me-sized. It won’t get gobbled up by my housemate because somehow I raised a person who doesn’t care for sour cream. It is mine all mine. This is notable because two years ago I would open up the fridge to use a spoonful of sour cream out of the GIANT ASS TUB I bought three days prior only to find it gone, sacrificed to the lunch nachos my ex-husband was so fond of. I would buy industrial sized vats of sour cream and there would NEVER BE ANY when I wanted some.

Today, I had sour cream. A small amount, out of a tiny cup that I bought four days ago and that nobody has touched in the interim. I felt like the star of a commercial that plays during Gray’s Anatomy – some ideal of a single adult woman who delicately spoons out a condiment and never once wonders where it could disappear to if she’s not guarding it.

Likewise I find myself hanging pictures in my bedroom without regard for how they’ll be accepted by my bedmate – a sixty pound mutt of dubious artistic taste and even less preference. Pens go where they are most convenient for me, as do batteries and wash cloths. A brief survey of the other members of this household revealed that they don’t particularly care where I put my shoes, so long as three of them can stick their snouts in the really stinky ones and the fourth need not trip over them. I share my closet with no living thing, and even better, no ghosts.

After years of anxiously verifying my choices with another person (especially when that person had opinions but only reticently shared them – preferring the more quixotic option of silent resentment when I couldn’t read minds), the peacefulness of feathering my own nest can’t be overstated. The delight in single serving anything will never be taken for granted by me again. It’s mine all mine, and ghosts don’t eat sour cream.

Arc de Virago

I think… sometime in the last few weeks I came to a realization that I’m only just now recognizing.

I’ve been brought as low as I’m willing to go.

I may be here for a while yet. I may even wallow in my worst moments.

But I won’t sink any lower.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. It’s tricky to know how or why or exactly when I gave my consent. But I know that I revoke it now.

I revoke my consent to let one man’s selfishness and fear make me feel small and distant. I revoke my consent to let one man’s inability to love me make me feel undeserving.
I revoke my consent to let one man’s cowardice define my life.

I will climb out of this hole. And then I will fill it with cement, set up a monument to myself and light a signal fire to invite the people who actually love to celebrate. Fuck unworthiness. Fuck despair.  Fuck him. I will not be owned by another person’s weaknesses.

But first, wine. And a book. Because building blocks and stairs are called for here. And time, I suspect. But I’m already building my monument in my head.

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.

We Can Be Heroes…

I got the news that David Bowie died on my phone while sitting on the toilet. It was undignified, ignominious, and wholly modern. As were my tears. I cried fresh, new, culturally relevant tears because I – and many others – lost an icon.

Bowie was (and GOD, how I hate to use the past tense) a hero of the margins – unrepentantly, aggressively authentic. His art was entirely his, without apologies. Many marginalized communities, especially the LGBTQ+, celebrate his weirdness as a beacon in a small, dark world and since many of my friends belong to that community I celebrate his weirdness with them.

So, that first bout of weeping was for them, and the artists and dreamers and weirdos whose light went out on the vast, cruel sea.

For me, though, the little girl who never had trouble assimilating, who embodied the term “wall-flower”, it wasn’t his weirdness that was my beacon. It wasn’t what he did that entranced me, it was what he didn’t do. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t conform. His opposition to Normal could have taken many forms, and I would have been in love with any of them. It was the act of defiance that made me watch him, his very breath a giant “Fuck You” to the establishment’s control and THAT enthralled me. Whether he was strutting across the stage in glitter, hypnotizing a young woman with crystal balls (unsurprisingly, that is both a literal interpretation AND a euphemism), baring his soul in simple, unaccompanied song, or orchestrating his final farewell, Bowie never seemed to do anything that wasn’t entirely honest and true to his artistic vision. For me, it was about his authenticity.

The little girl who assimilated retreated by degrees, replaced with a painfully self-aware woman. Right now, replaced with a woman who is self-aware, and in pain. The authenticity of my life is ugly, and raw, and set with jagged edges that rip the fabric of my psyche to shreds. My authenticity is not about sparkly jumpsuits and flipping off the establishment. It’s about emotional tar pits, and vicious anger, and snarling, black despair. My honesty is found in days when I simply can’t do anything but stare blankly and drink at socially inappropriate times. My non-conformity comes from screaming my pain instead of just bearing it, like the good little wall-flower expected to. My authenticity is not fit for consumption; it is not art. But it is real, and I am no less heroic for confronting it, head-on.

My first tears were for the freaks and dreamers, artists and weirdos and friends. But the tears that came later, that sent me running for the bathroom stall in the middle of my workday to sob into handfuls of cheap, single-ply toilet paper that dissolved under the onslaught – those were for me. And for Bowie, who surely knew that lonely darkness, and came out swinging a light of his own. I cried because my truth is ugly, it’s mean and bitter and exhausting. But it’s mine. I am living an authentic life, no matter if I can’t turn it into art or a beacon for three generations to rally around. It’s mine, and it’s true. And for now, it is enough. I am a hero, if just for one day.

david-bowie
David Bowie 1947-2016

 

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.