Hope springs. Back and forth, like rabbits.

Am I really having more good days than bad? I told someone I was, but I don’t know if that’s quantitatively true. I haven’t actually kept track.

What is true is that I’m immensely grateful for the good days, so they stand out. The days when I don’t wake up in the throes of a panic attack. When I’m able to pay back a little of the kindness that has been bestowed on me. When I laugh unexpectedly. I don’t think those days actually come around very often, so they feel bigger when they do.

But neither am I having the black nothingness days as often. When despair drowns me, and my mind goes to dark, dark places. Places I can’t admit to my therapist, let alone my friends.

I think the truth is I’m reaching a middle ground. A place where good days and bad days may be mostly balanced, but the remainder is unknown – a new normal. I don’t know how to qualify that yet. What do you call the days that are bereft of love, but maybe not hope?

I try to stay focused on gratitude. The tribe that keeps me sane, and supported. The job that will let me gain my independence. The vast network of small kindnesses that are like tiny threads with miniature life-rafts attached. Some days that’s enough. Some days – not so much. I try to remember that my life is not over just because I’m 40 and cut off from the future I had planned. It feels that way sometimes. I feel like giving up – the weariness is overwhelming. Am I so unloveable? I ask. In my mind, I know that’s defeatest bullshit, but my heart hurts. It’s a battle.

The weather has turned toward spring. New growth and pollen – making things equally beautiful and miserable and I have to laugh. I was at my darkest during winter – it’s like mother nature and I are striving for the sun at the same time. The earth goes on – I must, as well.

There’s so much pain to reconcile. So much disappointment in myself. There is a reckoning approaching, but I’m still not ready for it. I’m still cowering under the lean-to that has set up over my psyche. But I’m looking outward. The sun is shining. I may venture out today, or not. It’s the unknown that gets you.

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Today is.

Today my grief is a 200 lb python, wound lovingly around my torso, slowly and surely squeezing the breath out of me.

Today my grief is the crumbling walls of a white room, and the vast blank darkness beyond.

Today my grief is a stopped heart, and the tripping beats it makes to catch up.

Today my grief is aching arms, and tears that won’t fall, and eyes that can’t open without seeing betrayal.

People will soon stop asking me how I’m doing. My grief is nearing that expiration date on compassion, when concern slowly morphs into impatience, then disgust. But my grief still exists. It still greets me upon waking, it still waits for me in the quiet places and dark spaces. My grief doesn’t care how disgusted I am with it.

My grief doesn’t put on the same suit every day, or even every hour. It wears python skin, white paint, anxiety, crying. It shows up dressed in a sunny day and desperation. It lays atop the surface tension of a glass of wine, chased down my throat by the sharp tartness of escape. It comes costumed or bare, disguised or honest, but it comes, regardless.

Today is grief. Every damn day is grief.

Small Things, part II

A glance. It’s a small thing in real time. A moment – or a second. A split second sometimes.

We almost don’t notice it until after it’s done.

Why, then, does it have to be like an iceberg on the surface of our emotions? Just a small look, a small second – but beneath the look is everything.

When you love someone enough, a glance is all it takes to set the world right side up. To make your heart expand, to put wings on your soul. A glance, and they are the most beautiful creature you’ve ever set eyes on.

When that love is gone – what becomes of the glance? Of the wings? Of the soul?

I don’t know if I’m more afraid that no one will ever look at me like that again…

…or that I won’t look at anyone else that way again.

Such a small thing to lose. You almost don’t notice it until after it’s gone.

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 8th Dwarf

It’s not as though you’re the eighth dwarf, Angry, with just the one trait to define you.

Those words were written to me by a (slightly exasperated) friend who’d been watching me struggle with a decision that I thought would fundamentally change my identity. It probably doesn’t occur to him that over 10 years later that sentence still shocks me into stillness, into silent revelation.

I’ve fallen out of touch with that friend, a fact that makes me sad, nostalgic, mournful – even a little angry. But knowing that it makes me all of those things is his continuing gift to me. The knowledge that I am not a single, volatile emotion. I am not a caricature of myself. I am a complete human, and from that – I am enough.

Where did I get the idea that I was just Angry? Part of it is language. In English, we don’t say we “have” something, we say we “are” something. I am hungry, I am bored, I am scared. I am angry. (German and French, for examples that I have some knowledge of, don’t have this problem.) The other part comes from growing up with a parent who was scared to death of anger. It terrified her in a primitive, vulnerable, damaged place in her brain and she never developed beyond that fear. Seeing the parents she grew up with explains a lot about that, but doesn’t change the outcome.

The outcome is that anger as part of a spectrum was not an idea in my developmental toolbox. The perception of my anger was that it was dangerous, an invader bent on pillaging good sense and reason. I was unmanageable, unlovable when I was angry. I learned to fundamentally misunderstand every interaction where it was present – seeing threats where there were none, attacking without provocation, righteousness and shame inverted.  I learned to fear it, too.

But it was still there, existing on the spectrum even as I shied away from it. Eventually, it refused to be buried. Lacking any tools for dealing with the expression of anger, I let it simmer until a random addition of heat set me to boiling over. Sometime around puberty, I became known for my “temper”. Rather than help me dig beneath it, the people in my life entrusted with my emotional development  retreated behind great walls of disciplinary action. I’m experienced enough now to guess that was a defense on their part, but it had consequences.

At some point, I embraced the label. “Temperamental.” “Bitchy.” “Angry.” I let it off leash at the drop of a hat, my reliable anger there to keep threats at bay. Don’t get the idea that my life was all misunderstood, caring people just trying to get close to me. Sometimes my anger was justified and an effective tool. Sometimes people used it to their own advantage. In a display of internalized shame that still twists my gut, I was proud that I could be used in such a way. My anger didn’t just have value, it was my value. I am Angry, the eighth dwarf – never part of the official narrative, just there to lend uncomfortable realism.

I would like to claim that my friend’s words were the bolt of lightning that changed everything. The reality is more gradual. I was working my way out of that impossibly narrow definition for a while through being a parent myself, through friendships, through unutterable loneliness. I just didn’t have the words (a case of irony so thick it has to be processed with industrial grade machinery). I needed those words to give shape to the struggle – to define new boundaries and light my inner rebellion.

I’m still rebelling. I still find myself trying to listen to all my emotions as they play their symphony on my spectrum. Still trying to reconcile that I have a spectrum. Still trying. I am not the eighth dwarf. I’m not a fairy tale. I’m real, and I get to have all that it confers.