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.
Three years ago my life started to come apart like a rock slide down a mountain. A few pebbles turned into a massive avalanche of falling boulders and ruin. Sometimes I rode the wave, but more often I found myself digging out from under the rubble, then standing around going “The fuck is this shit??” When the structure of your life disintegrates, it makes you examine the support beams. Involuntarily perhaps, but necessarily all the same.
I can’t describe myself as a romantic (and neither can anyone else), but the conclusion that I came to is that the fulcrum of life is love. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” Our earliest notions of love are formed in childhood. Then they change, evolve, grow, or die as we move through time and relationships. I’m not an expert on this; I just know that standing in the wreckage of my life made it easy to see what was left. Mr. Rogers saw love as roots, but I saw it as the skeleton of my inner house. The support beams that stood were not the ones I thought they’d be. Some others stood still, but they weren’t tied to the joist of my survival.
I left some old beams out when I started to rebuild – some old notions of what it means to love. I abandoned the idea that feeling love is the same as doing love. Love is a verb. It isn’t enough to say, “I love you” and expect the recipient to feel loved. That’s like saying “I can fly” and expecting people to call you Superman. It isn’t enough to feel a thing and assume someone else is going to feel it the same way. Love is abundant and cheap when measured that way. But I can tell you when I felt loved in the hellscape of my emotional badlands and it wasn’t in the conspicuous silences of people who claimed to love me. It wasn’t in their admonishments to guard my words, or in their cartwheels of conversations that somehow became about how my suffering was causing their suffering. The places where love wasn’t were just as surprising to me as the places it was.
So where was love? It was in the literal embrace of people who offered what they had: space, time, and a willingness to hear me. It was in the friend who held me as I sobbed out that I felt like a disposable person and who assured me, “You are not disposable.” It was in the arms of a woman who only knew me by profile picture but pulled me into a hug when I arrived on her doorstep, lost and in pain. It was in the offers to kick ass from a thousand miles away – sincere, I’m sure, but thankfully unfulfillable. Most surprisingly, love was in my therapist’s office – that tiny, darkened space in hour-long increments. I discovered there, to my astonishment, that I love myself but I needed assistance in figuring it out.
Love was in all the places where people showed up for me without judgement and with a willingness to share their strength – including myself. That’s it. It’s so marvelously uncomplicated, yet so improbable in daily life.
Where does that leave all those expressions of love that are felt so intently by the giver and never quite reach the intended? There is a saying that “impact is greater than intent” and while that’s true it doesn’t invalidate intent. Intent has value, but it doesn’t move. If you progress to action, to impact, then intent may be a foundation. If the growth is significant and the reach far, it may be said that the foundation is strong and the value might even in retrospect increase. But inertia is the death of progress. Like a dock from which no boats launch, a foundation that supports no progress, no action, cuts a lonely figure. Intent to love which doesn’t become active love instead becomes an echo of emotion that drifts away, inconsequential as a ghost and just as sad.
I think that’s sometimes natural. I had a conversation recently where I discussed the natural death of relationships – casualties of distance or maturity and there is space in my philosophy for the memory of love. It might be a genuine affection for the past, or a lingering tenderness for the person who now inhabits the person you used to show up for. Those beams still stand, though they bear no weight. Some are beautiful and there’s value in that, too. Others, not so much. I quarreled with an older family member over morals and our ethical stances and even as she told me she’d never talk to me again, she also said that she’ll “always love me” and that’s just strange as hell. We never see each other, we offer no material support in each other’s lives, and we are diametrically opposed in our world view. Where is the “love” in that? All she did when I was at my lowest was to caution me not to express my feelings in public. That’s not love. If there was intent there, it was indeed a ghost before it could reach me. That’s a beam I’m content to let crumble.
Love is hard work, and like most hard work, it doesn’t flow smoothly. Some days we’re just not up to it, other days it pours out of us in a righteous flood. Part of my struggle is realizing that not everyone who says, “I love you” can follow it up with the effort. Kind of like that one friend who says, “Sure I’ll help you move” and then is mysteriously unreachable on moving day. I have this horrible habit of taking people 100% at their word, not because I’m naïve or have never dissembled myself but because ferreting out hidden meaning is also hard work and I’m essentially lazy. But through many (oh so many) life lessons, I’ve learned that the intent isn’t enough; you have to do the heavy lifting. You have to show up, without judgment, and with a willingness to share your strength. I hope there are people in my life who feel I do that for them. I hope I get better at it.
These are the bones of love for me. Most of my life had to die before I could see it. I guess part of being a grown up is realizing that there was only one way for me to learn that lesson – a customized syllabus taught directly to my nature, both the strengths and the weaknesses. But Thomas Paine said that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The dearness of discovering what holds your personal house up is valuable beyond measure. I hope you find it and I hope it’s love.
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.
When something awful happens, particularly emotional trauma, it feels like the world suddenly wants to give you advice on how to handle it. If it’s not typewriter text overlaid on a seascape with a vintage filter, it’s platitudes from well-meaning friends, or the ever-not-helpful Facebook parables. The common thread is that you’ll feel better once you do it, and everyone wants to see you do it (if for no other reason than you’ve been a giant downer for the last 18 months and for god’s sake, can’t you just please wash your hair??), but the actual process is more of a mystery. Bookstores have devoted entire shelving units to “self-help” titles, and a quick search on Amazon for same brings back over 650 thousand returns (which should in itself tell you that nobody has this shit figured out, but hope springs eternal). Letting go: it’s all “good”.
I’m here to tell you it’s not. It sucks dirty canal water off of hairy donkey balls.
Listen, first of all, letting go does not happen on a schedule. You can’t time it according to the 7 stages of grief, you can’t force it by following someone else’s plan. It’s an ongoing process with hills and valleys. No, scratch that. It’s an ongoing process with spikes and pits. And the pits have spikes. There are days when you’re balanced precariously on a spike looking down and days when you’re impaled on a spike staring at the sky above. And it’s raining. Grief, pain – these happen in their own time and they will just take what you don’t give them, so you might as well put your life on hold while they shake you like a terrier with a rat. That is an accurate description of how much dignity you’ll have in the process, by the way: limp and covered with dog spit.
Secondly, the prevailing opinion is that letting go leads to some serene, blissed out state where the lotus position comes naturally and the grocery store being out of your favorite ice cream during PMS no longer makes you want to go on a rampage. Also false. There is no reason, ever, for the store to be out of Ben&Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch at any time. But more importantly, letting go doesn’t leave you happy, it leaves you empty. Hollow. Drained. Here’s the thing about grief: it was once happiness. Of course it was, or you wouldn’t feel so awful. You don’t start at base zero and go down. Grief pulls you down off your happy little platform into a giant, steaming pile of shit. You can’t just watch your pain blow away in whatever F5 tornado tore through your life and expect the happiness to be there waiting when the dust settles. It’s all gone. Everything. Now you’re at base zero.
Oh, and here’s a little addendum to that second point: anger. Hoo boy. Anger is the carpetbagger who rides into town right after the tornado and is all, “We will rebuild!” but just goes around kicking your stuff while you’re trying to pick it up. Not that it can’t be helpful. In my case, anger led to some productive changes, like shutting down toxic relationships and to stop apologizing for being myself. So, to continue the metaphor, carpetbagging anger kicked over some dry rot and let the bugs out. But being forced to watch that, to participate in taking down the rotted, crumbling foundation of my former happiness? Gross. So gross.
Okay, so far, letting go happens on its own (often inconvenient) schedule, and it leaves you empty (after pissing you off). What’s the appeal again??
Could be simply the relief from the agony of grief. Emptiness is way better than constant anxiety, stomach problems, endless fatigue and a full set of luggage under each eye. Could be the promise of new beginnings – the idea that something better is waiting to be discovered. Both of these are valid, but they don’t really describe my experience.
For me, the end result of letting go is that I never have to do it again. Not for that particular pain. I’ve let it run its course and chase through every chamber of my metaphorical heart, and it will never come back as anything but a memory. Sometimes the memory smarts a bit, maybe it nips at my feels with sharp little teeth, but it will never, ever strangle and suffocate me again. I’ll never be sucked into that tornado, never be subjected to that storm, never have to rebuild that house. The emptiness is a relief, and the hope of a new happiness is a possibility, but the lesson of never going back is my greatest reward. I will never make those same mistakes, I will never be vulnerable in that same way again.
Letting go makes me stronger, but I couldn’t have told you that, let alone imagined it a year and a half ago. The process is a mystery, a non-linear jumble of fucked up parts that kicks over your foundations and impales you and shakes the life out of you. And if you survive it, you’ve lost an integral part to your former happiness. Letting go is not “all good”. No wonder so many people never get around to it. I should probably close this out by saying something optimistic like, “But it’s worth it!” The truth is messier than that. I don’t know yet if it’s worth it. It’s been a helluva process. Maybe being stronger will have its own consequences that I can’t see yet. Emotions are weirdly entangled like that.
I’d be happy with a popular message that gives a truer picture of what letting go is actually like.
What’s a New Year’s Day without the obligatory goals post? Of course, we’re all so busy sharing our goals that we’re not looking at anyone else’s, but that’s okay. It’s a vast internet and this is going to be more a reference point, anyway.
School starts in 16 days. I am unemployed. There are numerous appointments this month I must keep. (Remind me to update the calendar in my phone.) I have to get serious about tying all my social media together so I can start to diversify my revenue streams and make myself available to alternate sources of income. This blog will likely take on a new look, as I no longer have the luxury of paying for space to ramble. I’ll keep my domain, but in addition to my personal posts, there will be pages and/or posts devoted to my creative work, as well. Exciting stuff, but also intimidating.
I had my first paying photography gig last week, and it went really well. Portrait photography isn’t something I have a lot of experience with yet, but I may have found my niche among people who aren’t typically well served in this part of the country. Same with my embroidery art – I love to dot a fabric canvas with flowers, but add some socially conscious imagery or verbiage and suddenly I become a subversive crafter. Which probably doesn’t mean much in places like my hometown in northern California, but here in southwestern Missouri? Yeah, it creates a stir. Looking forward to capitalizing on that, if I can.
If 2016 was the home of my darkest moments, then 2017 promises to be the impetus of my forward momentum. I’ve never found the changing of the calendar year to be particularly significant, but even I have to admit that the symbolic shedding of last year’s misery is affecting. Being forced to wait during long, slow, tortuous lulls in my journey effected me in ways I’m still identifying. But all of the things I had to wait for are coming at me now – not so fast that I’ll miss them, but quickly enough to keep me eagle-eyed and limber over home plate, waiting to catch whatever comes next. Thanks for watching this game with me. It’s about to get exciting!
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