Pot Pies and Snow Days: On Pressing Time.

“We Vermonters, we value a good Snow Day,” David said.  Sarah was curled next to him, feet tucked under, nodding in agreement as she finished another row of knitting.  The birthday party was winding down, the quiet closing in as a few lingered.  Most were pulling on their boots and trudging through the snow to their cars.  It had been raucous and full of music and people we hardly knew, but the good cheer of a warm house on a cold night was unmistakable.

We are coming to our last couple weeks in our Vermont house.  We’ve been craving winter for years, but always avoiding it as our migratory patterns require us to keep to warmer weather.  But here, as we’ve been house sitting for the month, the snow has been generous in its portion.  But it’s nearly time to push the snow from the top of our camper and put our wheels back on the road.  Our November house has been a real success– woodstove fires and new recipes, and now we’d even hosted a party.  A luxury we haven’t had in our 3 1/2 years living in 16′ of space.  My morning journal pages are full of internal tire squeals as I am pumping hard on the brakes of time, gritting my teeth as the end of our stillness is coming too soon.

“Yeah, when it snows,” David continued, “we don’t try and fight it.  We take the day off.  We go out on a hike or do a project indoors, but we don’t waste it.  Snow Days are a gift– the gift of time.”

Sarah smiles.

It jogs the place in my memory I’m not sure ever happened.000431640010“I’m tired of eating burnt food!” I say, running to the stove and pulling the pans from the burner.  Smoke is filling the kitchen.  Again.  I pour a little water to salvage a breakfast scramble, lowering the heat, slurping my coffee, and pacing back the the running water in the sink.  My Someone cowers a bit.  He was in charge of breakfast today.  I soften.

“I just mean,” I say, “that we are always in a hurry to cook it too fast.  It all tastes the same.”

He agrees, but only as someone who hasn’t seen the pattern.  The scramble is saved.  We eat it quickly.  I linger over a radish.  What’s the point of not burning it, if I’m not taking the time to taste it?

It’s more than a pattern.  It’s an alarm.  I have to slow down.  My morning journal entries continue to fill up that week with smoke alarms beeping to get out of this pattern.

The tempeh bacon burns the rest of the week.  My Someone says it makes it taste like real bacon.  I agree, but I keep hearing the alarm ringing.000431640012I’m not unfamiliar with snow days.  In fact, the Snow Day could easily be one of my first confirmations that God exists.  As I watched the 5:30PM weather– a routine kept with ritualistic preservation in my childhood house– I prayed that those blocks of cartoon graphic grey clouds would deliver an abominable snowstorm big enough to keep me out of school.  And in the snowbelt of Western PA, it was an easy wish to grant by even the least competent of deities.

It’s the quiet I liked best, and was often the best predictor.  As I hit snooze on my “It’s A Small World” alarm clock and listened, I could often tell before even pulling the curtains back whether a Snow Day had been granted.  It’s the quiet of holding in a breath– the kind of quiet that illuminates the sound of the blood rushing and the heart thumping.  It’s the quiet of my mother pattering downstairs, less flurried than her usual movement of attempting to get four children out the door on time.  It’s the quiet that, as it snowed here in Vermont last week, I could hear it as I slept, and slept deeper before startling awake to the velocity of silence.

Back then, I could value the Snow Day, too.  Even now, the word Snow Day distinctly time travels me to the Blizzard of ’96, where it snowed enough for my father to push feet of it into a small hill.  We built shallow tunnels into the hillside and I contemplated its collapse as I burrowed further than I should.  It takes me to my fluffy snowsuit and sledding down our hill and Cup’o’Noodles that I drank from a mug that had my name inscribed on one side, and a Keebler Elf on the other.

The Snow Day is a gift of time for a kid, too. Sure.  But time isn’t so hard to come by as a kid.  Time is also evidenced in August with blackberry picking and fort building and wandering around the woods of the Allegheny Mountains, waiting on nothing but my mother’s voice or my rumbling stomach to call me in for dinner.

And then I remember this– in the quiet of the Snow Day morning, before I pulled myself out of my 101 Dalmations sheets, there was the unquiet.  The sound of a man– my father– thwarted by the weather.  Again.  Sidewalks to clear.  Driveway to shovel.  Foremen to call.  Plans to change.  Equipment waiting to be hauled to a different job.  Are the roads cleared yet?  Did the salt trucks come through?  Whether it’s the Curse of Adam of the Curse of Technology, grown ups are always finding a way to fight the the land, or the skies, or the miracle of the Snow Day.

Grown ups can’t value a good Snow Day.000431640014“It’s a gluten free blend, so it crumbles more…” I muttered, “I dunno how it’s gonna end up, but…”

I was fighting with flour, the powder snowing off the counter as I pressed in the shortening with a fork.  That morning, it had snowed.  Vermont typically doesn’t get snow until mid December, they’d all said.  But we had narrowly missed the worst of the storm on our drive back from Boston at 1AM.  We had woken up to a few inches, before the plows made it to our road.  I heard it before we even looked out the window.  We hiked first, our dog rolling and pouncing along the path.  We drank tea.  We ate pancakes.  I burned the tempeh bacon.

I declared it a Snow Day, but we waffled into an afternoon in front of our computers, sending off emails and gathering press kits to send out.  I scolded us for not holding our Snow Day pact, so we read books, then floated back to work again.  We shoveled the driveway and cleared the sidewalks.  By early evening, I had neither worked enough nor played enough.  My Someone went to another room to do some recording.

I stared in the kitchen.  If there was going to be any way to rescue our Snow Day, it would be a pot pie.  Of course.  It would be my first attempt since I had to stop using my mother’s perfect gluten-filled pie crust recipe, more than five years ago.  And I was already impatient, muttering at the dough and scattering the vegetables haphazardly on the counter to assess them.  After chilling the dough I’d made, I pulled it from the fridge, skeptical.  I slapped the first ball on the floured counter and pressed in the rolling pin. I pressed in the cracks forming along the edges, and chastised the dough for not being real flour.  But then the motion of the rolling pin began to soften me.  I was suddenly again 22, living in a small apartment with a smaller kitchen, standing over a lump of dough made from my mother’s recipe.  I was making my first pot pie.  I was cursing the cracks forming at the edge of the dough and watching the clock to make sure I had enough time to get it in oven before my friends came over.  I didn’t.  But when they came, they hovered over my experiment as though I was an expert.  And we talked and I pressed the dough, and with every roll, I felt as though I was pressing into time itself.  This pin, these fickle materials, were grounding me to this place with these people in this time.  Then I delicately placed that time into a shoddy Dollar Store pie tin.  An hour later, I fed that time to my friends, who by that point were two drinks in and couldn’t care less about the caved in top of a chicken pot pie.

I came back to my present time.  I assessed the gluten free dough again.  The dough wasn’t the problem.  I had inexplicable pity for it.  And then for myself.  I stopped making excuses for it.  Carefully, in pieces, I placed the dough into the pie pan, filling in the blatant holes with scraps.  I began to list my present time: potatoes, carrots, celery, peas, corn, parsnips.  I finished whisking the gravy.  I listened to the food.  I didn’t check the time, except to set the timer.  I could hear my Someone tinkering on the piano in the next room.  But somehow, a quiet had settled over the kitchen.  Snow quiet.  The din of my computer screen in the next room didn’t call to me.  Instead, a white wine vinaigrette called to be made instead.  I sliced apples and tossed them over greens with roasted pepitas and almonds.  I felt myself syncing with the countdown of the timer.  Not to beat the clock, but to beat with it.  Not slow motion, but present motion.

My Someone emerged from the next room just as I pulled the pie from the oven.  I waited with actual patience, then sliced at the right moment.  A potato tumbled on to the floor.  One for the pup.  There’s enough for everyone.  It was better than I remembered pot pie tasting.  We had seconds.  It was snowing again.

In Vermont, it seems, I may have figured out how to value a good Snow Day.

Cliffsides and Screenshots: On Death Mementos.

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I’ve had this screenshot saved in my phone since last year.  Since November 8th at 1:26AM.  I’m not sure why I kept it.  Except for the reason anyone keeps anything from the one they love, when the one they love isn’t going to have anything else left to give.  When the one you love is laid out to rest, and you are still caught believing that you can see their eyes fluttering.  When the one you love is three breaths from death, and you are frantically searching the room for the thing– the thing– that will help you three breaths and all your remaining years later to remember them.  To never let them go.  To keep the memory alive.  To… have something.

It’s a cruel ritual we play on ourselves– the ritual of grabbing mementos from death.  A shoddy replacement for a life we regret missing too much of.  Even when we had all of that life exclusively.  There is still the falling– the clawing at the dirt on the cliffside that we will work tirelessly to believe is a handful of life.  Is an adequate I’m sorry for what we didn’t do right.  But it’s still the dirt that let us down, that has us tumbling into a ravine of life without the one we love.

When we took Butter to the hospital that night, I was sure we were losing her.  My Someone pulled out his phone to snap a photo of her, drugged and scared in the backseat.

“No,” I’d said. “Not like this.”

“You’re right,” he said.

I wasn’t angry, but I concealed my own desire to snap that last photo, too.  To grab the tuft of her neck and bottle the scent of her smelly old dog smell.  Instead, I helped her walk the block– off leash– to the entrance of the place she would soon die.  It takes no effort to recall that walk.  How I had to push her back up from squatting to let her know she was no longer peeing.  I didn’t want to remember it like this.

But then, when they wheeled her into her last surgery– the one that failed– after we spent those two hours petting her on a gurney, singing her favorite songs and telling her we loved her, she popped her head up on the way out the door.  Her non-response for those two hours suddenly culminated in the face I do remember.  And I regretted every photo I never took.000431640015I think I’ll get rid of this screenshot.  Maybe tomorrow.  As I continue to fall down into this pit of life without her, this bit of dirt still left in my hands still gives me a tiny bit of hope.  The unrealistic kind that her head is going to pop up unexpectedly and all will be right again.  And this death memento is the only thing that keeps me sure that it is and is not true, at the same time.

Marko the Magician: On Tender Hearts.

Marko the Magician performs table side every Sunday night at the Italian restaurant– potentially the only restaurant we can eat at– in our little Vermont town.  We are house sitting for the month in the one-coffeeshop-one-stoplight place, and we are determined to feel like locals before we leave.  And the one thing that we knew for sure– from the signs on the door to the insistence of everyone in town– was that we needed to see Marko the Magician.

We anticipated a schmaltzy New England accented forty-something with too much time living in his mother’s basement begging for attention from uninterested patrons.  But Marko is legitimate.  He crashed our table within ten minutes of sitting, our friends laying aside their conversation to engage with their Sunday night celebrity.  We picked a card– any card– and had Marko retrieve it from his mouth.  He pushed our card through tables, sloshing our ciders every where and running to get napkins after we’d been amazed.  We laughed at his inappropriate jokes and felt disappointed as he left our table for the next.  If it didn’t get too busy, he promised to return.

We ordered another round.

When Marko returned, we talked shop.  We told him about our little camper and he told us about a gig he booked in California next week– and the gig he had last week in Toronto opening for the drummer of Styx.  I wondered how he got his equipment through security.  But he’s Marko the Magician.  Making things disappear is his specialty.

But his finest trick was his last– not the one where he made a Sharpie “X” appear on my closed palm without my knowing, but the one right before that– the one where he talked about the human heart.

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Harry Houdini, Marko told us, became most famous for debunking mediums.  He didn’t do it because they were edging too close to Houdini’s own show.  In fact, he occasionally employed practices that claimed to make contact with the Great Beyond.  But after Houdini’s mother died, he was so distraught, he sought out famous mediums so that he may speak with his mother one more time.  Time and time again, he left disappointed, recognizing that these spiritualists were not only frauds, but rich frauds.  There was the pivot.  He first apologized for his part in the market.  And then, he tore down the “vultures who prey on the bereaved” nationwide.

“You can fuck with someone’s head, that’s one thing,” Marko concluded, “But–” and he points to his heart here, swallowing a bit of emotion– “don’t fuck with someone’s heart.”

I teared up.  I took a deep breath.

Bravo, Marko.  Bravo.

Now– how the hell did he make that card stick to the ceiling?

Trick or Treat: On Giving Up the Have-Not’s.

My favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert, told me in her recent book that my fear is the least interesting thing about me.  I’ve taken the mantra to heart, whispering it to myself any time my social anxiety spikes, or saying something truthful feels scary, or taking a drive into New York City to have dinner with friends seems monumentally unsafe with the traffic and the violence and the public transportation I don’t understand, anymore…

I, of course, am weighing this mantra with my true fear– the kind that keeps me from burning my hand or falling off of cliffs.

But I am now tempted to also take it a step further– that my Have-Not’s are the second most least interesting thing about me.  I am incredibly privileged.  I don’t fear for my life when police officers are present.  I am certain that if I was completely down-and-out on my luck, someone could step in to vouch for me or give me a lift until I get on my feet again.  I’m not talking about the Have-Not’s that Have To be talked about.  I’m talking about the Have Not’s that commandeer a conversation to a full plummet before someone more sane takes the controls again.

I am starting tomorrow, when I will wear my homemade Coyote costume and go Trick-or-Treating for the first time.

Sure, I won’t be able to sigh wistfully at the topic of Halloween and claim that I have never had the opportunity to celebrate it.  I won’t be able to publicly mourn my lesser-than Satanic-panic upbringing as a point of interest.

But, I will be able to say something more interesting than “I have never…”

I’ll say, “I went Trick-or-Treating for the first time when I was 32.”

Plus, I’ll have lots of candy.

Kidney Stones: On Yelping in Truth.

“Can you just tell them that…”  I couldn’t figure out what I needed.  We were holed up in our camper in our friend’s driveway just outside of Rochester, NY.  I was looking for an excuse for my behavior, for an apology, for an invisibility cloak.  I was embarrassed, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I sat back and gave up.

“Can you just them that I’m sick?” I said.

“You mean, tell them the truth?” my Someone said.

“Yes.”

I laid back in bed and held my gut.  I cried.  Somehow, the pain inside of me was far less difficult than having to admit the pain was there at all.

Big girls don’t cry.  Don’t let them see you cry.  Don’t be so sensitive.  You can’t let them know they got to you.  Just ignore them.  Keep your head down.  Keep a stiff upper lip.  Just smile.

I have been trained to stuff it down.  Every social cue, a few pop songs, and even a Supreme Court Justice have indicated that not only is my pain unwelcome, but it is simply unflattering.  Inconvenient.  Unnecessary.  When I am injured and say nothing, I am rewarded-

She’s tough.  Can’t keep her down.  Don’t mess with her.  ‘Atta Girl!

Vulnerability, our most natural state screaming from the womb, is something that takes practice, now.  Partially out of survival.  But the other bit that I’ve lost– that keeps me quiet when I am bullied, or that keeps me from getting help when I need it– that’s the kind I am practicing to get back.  Occasionally, I am screaming for it.

The pain started at once in Michigan, slowly through Canada, and persisted by the time we got to Rochester two weeks later where we were parked in our friends’ driveway and unsure what my symptoms meant.  I had tried everything from my dog’s antibiotics to IBUProfin to yogurt, cross referencing the internet with home remedy books.  My Someone and I regularly discussed public healthcare.  It didn’t make me feel better.

It wasn’t the pain or the faintness or the nausea that had me as nervous as being found out.  I was running against my choice to be seen as ill, or as rude.  I picked the truth.  Then I told myself a few untruths while I waited for my Someone to return–

You’re faking it.

There’s nothing wrong with you.

No one will believe you.

Just buck up.

It’s all in your head.

They’re going to be mad at you.

They’re going to be mad at you.

They’re going to be mad at you.

My Someone popped back in.

“Are they mad at me?” I asked.

“What? No, of course not,” he said, laying a few things down on the counter, “But they did make you something.”

It didn’t immediately compute.  I ran through the options of what they might have sent out to me.  I could only think of an eviction notice.

“But I’m sick,” I said.  “Do they want me to leave?”

“What? No. They want you to get better.”

My friends had put together some research and a home remedy of essential oils.  And a bowl of curry for dinner.  I burrowed further under the covers.  I fought against my untruths.

And then, I decided to keep telling the truth, instead.

The truth has me on the mend.  Like when I had to truthfully tell my Someone it was time to go to the hospital.  I got a couple of tests and a diagnosis of kidney stones, which was a relief from all the untruths I was imagining while holding the pain in.  I’ve passed three in the last month, as near as I can tell.  In Boonville, NY, parked in the yard of some friends, my Someone had to liaison again with the truth that I was passing another.  He returned with a hot water bottle and a smudge stick that helped clear the air and my head.  I was well enough to play our show that evening.

The truth, it seems, is setting me free.  Even if it is dragging itself painfully through me first.  This pain is acute practice.

And these small gifts of oils and smudges being sent my way are far holier– far more useful– than an “‘Atta Girl.”

Ant Colonies: On Detecting Post Traumatic Death

The moment after I confronted the man who hurt me, I was free.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  I rode this high all the way to an amusement park the next day.  I rode roller coasters with friends, ate cotton candy, and skinned my knee from running too fast to get on the ride that scared me most… again.  I was fifteen and free.  I carried all of my ages, finally complete within me, silly and bleeding through my shredded pant leg.  I am 32 years old.  I am strong enough to carry all of me.

I rode this high all the way down the road to our next stops, retelling my story as I remembered it.  I wrote.  I marked time definitively.  I virtually high fived my friends.  I breathed easily.

And then, I fell asleep.  Typical teenager.  But I have to wake up.  I have to be diligent.  Or I could be carried off to the corpse yard.

It was our third day parked in the driveway of our North Carolina friends, and I was doing yoga in the driveway.  I had three large welts on my arm and leg from laying in savasana the day before.  These ants were biters, and seemed to wage an official war.  I took to sweeping the area before I practiced, but they occasionally wandered on my mat, anyway, and one in particular was swept with such force that it lay still, feet up, from the day before.  The other ants moved around it, occasionally stopping to inspect it, before moving on.  This sent me down an anthole of the internet.

The answer was less romantic than I’d hoped.  What I’d hoped was that these small creatures were mourning their dead.  What I hoped was that even the tiniest creature had a beating heart, and that beating heart couldn’t bear to part with their friend or co-worker or mother or supermarket cashier right away– that they were swiveling around the corpse carefully, nodding their heads and paying their respects until every member of the colony had the opportunity to view the beloved-now-gone member of the community.

I could already feel the easily-tied-up blog post forming.

The truth was, however, that they didn’t know she was dead, yet.  Likely, their pause in movement had more to do with dismay than distress.  “Come on, Janice! Quit being so damn lazy and get back to work!”

In fact, it would take another day– three days total– for the smell of oleic acid to finally be detectable.  This smell would then indicate that Janice was, in fact, not only lazy, but dead.  Once the smelly secretion confirmation comes in, they will finally gather, toss Janice on their backs, and throw her into the graveyard pile of other dead ants.

Three days before anyone even knew she was dead.

I suspect I am an ant colony.

After I confronted the man who hurt me and celebrated and, finally, fell asleep, it took me more than three days to realize I was dead.  It took a couple of weeks.  My laugh was slower.  My irritation was faster.  My Someone was at a loss.

I should be celebrating, I kept thinking. I was so brave. I was stronger than ever.

And then I felt ashamed.  I felt angry that I had done the thing that I was supposed to do in order to have the healing, and I was still so sad.  I was simultaneously lying on my back, riddled with death, while scurrying around asking myself to hustle–

Get up!  Get up!  What’s the matter with you?  There’s work to be done– we are free!

And still, the part of me that had been riding roller coasters was still.

The smell finally wafted into my nostrils when I called Bryan a couple weeks in.

“I knew it wasn’t going to fix everything,” I told him, trying to sound confident that this was all part of the plan. “I knew there would be a spiral down.  I guess I just have to sit in it for a while?”

Bryan agreed.  And then he confirmed the smell in the room.

“You’re mourning,” he said. “That girl who was abused for all those years– the one who was scared and fearful all the time, she’s gone.  And even though that’s not who you want to be, anymore, it doesn’t change that it was who you were.  Of course you are mourning that loss.”

Of course I was.  He was right.  I was dead.

Do you ever feel like you miss being in those moments of emotions from past bad relationships?  Like, I am happy and content and finally in a healthy relationship… but sometimes I hear a song and I remember sickly loving those moments of sadness and dread and not being understood even though I have someone now who understands me.

It was a welcome text my friend sent me.  She was talking to the right partially dead ant colony.  What I responded at the time was that– Yes!  Of course.  That desire to be destructive, to rip something apart for no reason, and to cry out into the boredom of the healthy– it is primitive and real and pressing.  But I am starting to wonder if that part of me is the part that I haven’t yet detected as dead.  If it still sits in me, unproductive and flatlined, but odorless.  And until the stench of it reaches my nose, I am unable to carry it off to the graveyard.  I am more likely to keep moving around it, wondering at its stillness.  Wondering what it’s still doing there.

Or, maybe the problem is that I carried it off to the graveyard too soon.

A final interesting fact straight from a horror movie is this: should you pour upon– or should an ant find itself smothered in– oleic acid while still living, the colony will carry its living thorax to the graveyard, anyway.  Never mind its kicking and screaming.  Never mind its clear indicators that it is, in fact, alive and productive.  The colony will simply hoist the little bugger up and toss it on the pile of corpses.  Dead to them.  Get out of here.  We don’t want you here, anymore.

This is where it gets tricky.

My deep sadness that believed it lost a part of herself, perhaps, was the beginning of an unlikely resurrection.  My entire body has since reacted.  Beyond the emotional despair, my physical body found itself in total disrepair, in spite of my consistent efforts to stay healthy.  My colony threw itself out.  The stench of death was too prominent to be wrong– out you go.  And because I had made such a healthy choice to be brave, to be present, to be eating greens, I mistrusted the judgment that I was no longer permitted to howl out as I tossed myself on a pile of dead.

I’ve learned to howl since then.

My friend Piper told me that humans, along with most creatures, have a primal desire to howl.  That they need to howl– in order to relieve stress and fear.  In order to remind themselves that they are still here and living and heard by another living creature.  Maybe it was true that part of me had died.  But there was plenty of me still left living.  And if any part of me was going to make it out again, I was going to have to cry out– to scream and be destructively loud– so that I might not be thrown out completely.

My Someone and I had started the ritual of howling just before we lost our dog in November– a call out to the Coyote Trickster of the Universe to let whatever happens happen, and to let it happen with a smirk and a trade.  We then howled our way through our grief when she passed.  We howled our way through the winter to remind ourselves that we were still a family.  And now, I am howling to keep death from doing me in, too.

What I would say to my friend, now, is what I am saying to myself– Howl your head off, creature.  Howl your head off so that you don’t get caught at the bottom of the heap.

Pastries and Old Dogs: On Falling In Love Again (and again).

“Do you think it’s a problem that I’m never going to fall in love again since Butter is gone?”

I was worrying my heart again, confusing my grief with my reality.  We were driving through Lincoln, Nebraska, running errands in a place last visited with my long gone dog.

“What are you talking about?!” my Someone responded.

I was startled from my inside questions.

“You just fell in love with a pastry!” my Someone exclaimed.

It was true.  We had just stumbled accidentally on a bakery downtown that not only had pecan rolls that matched my dietary restrictions, but had also a cute dining table with local coffee.  The pecan roll tasted somewhere between what they look like in movies and my mother’s cinnamon rolls that I hadn’t had in years.  The thing that happens when I taste something truly remarkable happened, where the air in my chest goes whoosh and I can hardly breathe for the happiness of the flavor.  My eyes well up and my nose stings and I can’t stop smiling.  Then, I work hard to chew and not cry at the same time.

“This is the most amazing thing today,” I had said.  “I am in love.”

But this was thirty minutes ago.  Now that the sugar wore off, I was worried about love.

“Okay,” I said, “But what if I never love again after Butter and the pastry?”

“You will fall in love by the end of the day,” he said.  “Maybe with a glass of wine tonight.”

I thought of this again– the ups and downs of every day of falling in love and moving on and falling in love and losing.  It wasn’t just by the year or the week or the day, but by the minutes.  All of this gaining and losing.  All of this unexpected refilling of what is empty, only to drink it all in fully and have to refill it again.

“Do you think it’s a problem that I am always falling in love?”

Sunday Mornings: On Going Back to Church.

“I’m afraid all of our friends will give up rock’n’roll to become worship leaders,” I told my Someone.

“Which of our friends still does rock’n’roll?” he asked.

“You know how I mean.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I do.”

I don’t want to go to church anymore.  Not that I do.  But now, I really, really don’t.  Not as a courtesy to my hosts or my parents.  Not as an Easter-and-Christmas check in.  Not even as a check-my-spiritual-temperature visit.

I don’t miss the liturgy.  I don’t miss the squirming.  I don’t miss the oscillating sensation between unworthiness and ecstasy.  I don’t miss the feeling I get when I walk through the doors– that I’ve been caught again.  Caged.

And I don’t miss the idea that what happens in a sanctuary is more important than what happens outside of it.  It just isn’t for me.

But I am envious.  I’m envious of my friends who are having children and returning to their roots– their church going roots that seemed to really stick.  With the exception of cooler haircuts and Jesus-as-Hipster accessibility, they seem to be continuing a tradition that has kept them safe, and will continue to keep their families safe.  A tradition where childcare is free for a couple of hours, and the snacks aren’t too shabby.  Some are even drinking beer during Bible study.  I’m not envious of their commitment to go every Sunday, though.  I’m envious of their ease in going– I’m envious that they want to go.  Or if they don’t want to go, that they want to be disciplined enough to go when they don’t want to go.  That they are choosing it, anyway.

“I don’t want to go to church,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” my Someone said.

“I want to stay at home and do crosswords and drink coffee and wear shorts that don’t cover my butt all the way, instead,” I said.

My Someone laughed.

“It’s just,” I pushed, “I don’t get nearly the pleasure out of going to church, as I do the pleasure of not going.  I feel like I’m getting away with something every single Sunday morning.”

It’s true.  I feel special.  Mischievous.  Like I’ve stolen hours that no one else gets to enjoy.  And it feels sacred.  I haven’t regularly attended anywhere for over a decade, and once the guilt wore out, I’ve relished every Sunday morning as a true gift of omission.  Like I’ve won again, and everyone else is a sucker.

“Your church sounds better, anyway,” my Someone said.

“You just like the butt part.”000431620001“We call it church,” Megan said.  “It just means that everyone comes whenever they’re ready, and we eat brunch, and we listen to a box of vinyl all day.”

We played our pal’s birthday party in their house just outside of Kansas City, where tacos and too many margaritas abound.  Our friends have a way of wooing generous people with their abundant generosity.  And we were invited to join the congregation.

It’d been a week since my no-more-church proclamation.  And now was an invitation to attend.

“Oh, and we make Bloody Mary’s and pour mimosas all day, too” she said.

As it turns out, Bloody Mary comes with less stigmata and stigma than the Blood of Christ.  So, even with a slight headache, we schlepped from our camper to the front door, opening it to find that the preparations for the service had begun.  A vegan and gluten free quiche was baking, and the tomato juice and vodka waited expectantly on the counter.  There was a quietness and last night’s Happy Birthday sign still hanging from the ceiling.  I wondered if my pajamas were appropriate attire, then decided instead to accept myself as this congregation would accept me.  Wholly.  Holy.  And with a side skewer of olives and pickles.

This Sunday morning, I didn’t feel like I had gotten away with anything.  As more of the congregation entered, groggy and smiling, I realized that I wasn’t envious of anyone else’s Sunday morning, either.  This must be what it’s like to go to church.  The kind you leave refreshed and believing you’d want to do again.  The kind where you are free to come and go as you please.  The kind you can find anywhere.  The kind that I’ve been told exists within us, wherever two or more are gathered.

Two or more and maybe a bottle of wine.

Dear Danny: On Confronting a Rapist, PART II

“Do you understand me?”

My abuser sat on the other side of the table, silent, looking down, clenching his jaw.  Seconds passed.  I once heard that the first person to speak after setting a price in negotiations loses.  This wasn’t a negotiation.  This was a confrontation.  I restrained myself, still, feeling comfortable in my own skin– maybe for the first time.  Then I repeated myself–

“Do you understand what I just said?”

Dan continued his silence– the quietest I had ever heard him.  For the four years he took over my life, he could talk over any situation.  He’d made himself invincible with words, chattering over my protests, my fears, my guilt– pummeling these feelings back and stunting them in my core.  I would carry them for years.  I was sitting across from him after these 12 years so that I could finally voice them– to say what I couldn’t say when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 19.  I was here to hand over the shame he had instilled in me, too.  His shame.  But first, I had to make sure he was comprehending what I was saying.  He could have fit a entire confession in the amount of silence he was keeping, now.  He was.

“I’m not asking if you if you’re here to admit this to yourself, yet.  I’m just asking if you understand what I just said.”

His hands shook.  His entire body quaked all the way down to his Christian tattoo.

“I understand what you are saying,” he snarled.

I didn’t need this guy to admit anything aloud to know what he’d done.  And that what he’d done was wrong.

“Good,” I said. “Then I’ll continue.”

“I’ve been thinking about movies,” my Someone had said, “and how when someone is confronting someone else at a table, there’s always something keeping the other person there.”

“Like money?” I asked.

“Like money.  Or threats on their life.  Or something that makes the accused stay at the table and listen to what the person accusing them has to say.”

“Why do you think Dan is coming to the table?” I asked.

“Because he’s guilty,” he said.

“Because he’s guilty,” I repeated.

I listed the ways he had physically abused me.  The rape, the way he watched me cry when he touched me, the time he gave me a black eye or cracked my head open on Mother’s Day, which sent me to the ER instead of to the banquet I should have been attending with my mom.

“Do you understand what I just said?”

“I understand,” he said.

Then I listed the emotional abuse.  The manipulation, the extra phone he bought me to side step my parents’ watchful eye, the sexual propositions with himself and his friends.

I paused.  I breathed.  This was not something I needed to rush, I realized.  Dan was unwilling to admit to anything directly.  He kept his words calculated, veering close enough to satisfy my question without landing, like someone who knows he’s being recorded.  He wasn’t wrong.  My Someone kept a small recorder in his front shirt pocket.  Days before we’d decided to take it.  Not because I needed evidence, but as a marker to prove that it really happened.  Because even if this man covered all his tracks with But-I-Loved-You’s or Never-Would-I-Ever’s, he couldn’t change the truth being spoken in front of him.  And that he showed up to hear it.

The truth is what brought him to the table, and the truth is what kept him there.  When the stakes are as high as these, it is nearly impossible to stay silent when confronted with lies.  But the truth had him panting.

“You fucked up my life,” I said.  “Can you please look at me when I tell you that.”

He looked at me.

“You fucked up my life,” I repeated.  He looked back down. I listed what I had lost– my family, my church, my town, my formative years.  I listed the fear I lived with.  I listed all he had not lost.  He tried to protest.  He tried to say that he had lost, too, but I stopped him.

“No,” I said, “No, not yet.  You don’t get to.  You spoke over me for four and half years, and in all my nightmares since.  You don’t get to do that, anymore.”

“Sorry.”

I paused.  In the recording, listening back, I hear myself sigh.  I remember this moment as it sounds.  A slight breeze and a huge shift.  I was off book– off of the list I had prepared– and had been suspended from it for some time.  15-year-old Mallory sat wide eyed and expectant within me.  The Mallory from two days ago who had prepared this list held her breath, too.  This was us– this was for all of us.

“You did not love me. Love does not look like that.  You can ask any grown up.  Any grown up,” I stopped, realizing.  Then, “You can ask any child, if that’s love, and they will tell you, ‘No.'”

My friend Danielle encouraged me in the days before to remember to breathe.  She told me to not lose the lifeline between myself and myself– to keep breathing, keep the airway open and clear to ensure the connection to who I am now.  My friend Ann told me to yoga like crazy.  To lose myself in this moment would have been to lose the moment.  And I had to use my body in order to do it.  My body, which I had blamed for years for betraying me.  My body, which I’d covered and obsessed over– what it looked like, what wrong message it was sending out without my knowing, what ways it was failing me– was the thing that I depended on now to keep me present.  To keep me accountable.

I trusted my body to breathe, and it breathed.  I wondered at the feeling of the blood moving through my limbs during yoga the mornings preceding.  This redemption was a full baptism.  I forgave my body from hair to toe, and thanked it for hanging in there.  And I welcomed the reunion.  My body’s return to me came with no time lost, forgiving and willing.

It turns out my body had never betrayed me at all.  The sick, sad man in front of me did.

“That was not love,” I said, “That was not anything that you can call anything else– that was abuse.  You abused me.  You took advantage of me.  You stole some of my best, most formative years from me.”

The day was beautiful.  In the recording, you can hear an abundance of Western Pennsylvania bird calls in perfect sway.  I didn’t hear them at the time, but I am happy to know they were there.  I remember the temperature was perfect, the sun was out on a rare cloudless day.  No mosquitoes.  The old shut down steel town was starting to shine.  I felt myself turning a corner.  I was growing tired.  Not of doing the right thing, not of myself.  But I was growing tired of my anger.  It was too beautiful of a day to waste on being angry at a picnic table when I felt my life just starting again.  I could hardly wait– there was so much left of me.  More, in fact.  I had to go soon.  My heart would explode with impatience if I didn’t.  I remembered again to breathe as I spoke, and continued to tell the story of what happened, what was taken from me, and what I needed back.

I asked if there was anyone else that he’d done this to.  If he’d molested any other children.  He said no.  I focused.  I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, but I believed him.  He seemed horrified that I’d asked.  I was horrified that he didn’t think I would.  I was grateful, and then I become angry again– to be grateful to someone for simply not raping them.

It was time to up my standard.

My friend Kelsey explained to me that children, after experiencing trauma, even at a very young age have an involuntary need to tell the story of what happened to them.  Again and again.  They need to play out the situation, recalling more detail, and have the story affirmed and told back to them.  This is what we do in therapy.  And the more we tell the story, the less power it has.  Eventually, it runs its course.  It finds its place in our brain and in our timeline where it can live without infiltrating our remaining experiences and feelings.

It sounds simple, but there are several myths that accompany us to keep us from retelling our story.  Myths like,

I’m too much.  I’ve already told it.  They’ve already heard me.  It doesn’t matter.  I’m safe now.  Get over it.  But you’re with a good man, now.  Don’t punish him.  Be happy.

In the past decade, when new memories would come to me, I would say them out loud.  But then, I would adhere to one of the myths, and shut it back down.  These memories would then fester, creating a network of underground trauma that would misfire and misinform my remaining experiences.  This kept me in a constant state of distraction and movement, evading the dark underbelly.  Which also meant evading who I am— because Who I Am was trapped under What Happened to Me.

And it goes one worse.  The inability to hear myself– to hear my own story– made it almost impossible to hear other people’s stories, too.  It is difficult to have empathy for others when the empathy I had for myself was in short supply.  So I inwardly began repeating the myths instead of the stories–

It doesn’t matter.  It happens to all of us.  Get over it.  You’re out now.  Just go get some ice cream and suck it up.  You’re making us look bad.  

I was suffocating.  But not anymore.  Time was up.  That girl trapped under that trauma– that tiny little air deprived me– was busting out.  And the story started back up again.  It rotated through the last year, building momentum, gaining detail.  And the only way to let loose the dam was to go to the dam itself with a goddamn hammer.

“I came here today, I think, because– because it was time.  Because it was time for me to not be ashamed, anymore, of that part of my life.  Because I’m not the one who should feel ashamed.  You can’t spin that.  You can’t turn that.  I have carried around your shame and your guilt for all those years, and they’re not mine to carry.  I came here to give them back to you.  I don’t want them anymore.  I’m happy, and I’m healthy– finally.  And, your shame and your guilt has no room in my life, anymore.  And that is– that is the least I can do for my 15-year-old self right now.”

I stopped.  I remembered something.

“You owe me an apology–”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry.”

How I had meant to end my sentence was, “but I don’t even need that from you.  I don’t need anything from you.”  I didn’t finish that sentence, though.  I didn’t need to.  I hoped, instead, that his apology sounded as pitiful to him as it did to me.  And that his apology was drowned by the sound of the truth rushing over a crumbling dam.

“Don’t do this to anyone else.  I would spend some really good time being able to use those words to apply to yourself.  Because they are yours.  I came here because you have been a monster in my life– an absolute monster.  Like, wake up with night terrors kind of monster.  And, I wanted to see that you weren’t.  And you’re not.  You’re just an aging– an old man.  An aging old man.  Who, had I been of age and right mind, and not at a pliable 15-year-old age ripe for picking– I never would have picked you.  It makes me feel sick to my stomach.  But that’s not even mine, anymore.  That’s yours.  You can keep it.”

He shook.  I remained still.  I checked in with all of me.  Is everyone okay?  Is everyone ready?  I felt all of me together.  Okay, gang.  Time to party.

“I’m going to go,” I said.  “Scott promised me a pizza party if I didn’t kill anyone.  And I’d like to have that, now.”

My Someone and I stood up.  We walked away.  I let the sound of the water rush behind me.

And I couldn’t. Stop. Smiling.

Dear Danny: On Confronting a Rapist, PART I

“Danny,” I started.  I hated the way his name sounded coming out of my mouth.  Like something familiar.  But he wasn’t familiar.  Not anymore.  Slumped over, straddling the picnic table bench catercorner to me, long scraggly hair and no eye contact.  I recognized him, but I didn’t know him.  He had aged to look like exactly what he had always been.  For the last two days, I had swayed between wanting to vomit and scream to feeling like my brain was going to explode.  But now, as I said his name, I didn’t feel any of those things.  I felt ready.

My Someone sat beside me, an incredible contrast with his collared shirt and straight back, kind face and composed breathing.  It was strange to have my dark past sit across from my illuminated present–  a wonder of me sealed between as both my 15-year-old self and my 32-year-old self.  My breathing smoothed and I looked at my list I had prepared for this moment.  I was grateful to Bryan and Danielle, two of my favorite friends, for encouraging me in the days before to write it down.  I started with number one.

“You are a predator,” I said.  I wavered for a minute, wondering if what I had just said was true.  I glanced through the rest of the list, took a deep breath, and kept going.

I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him dead.  I’ll do it.  

This is my recurring thought on returning home.  Every time I return home.  I didn’t ask for this.  I didn’t sign up for years of recoiling and shivering each time the hills roll me back down to Pennsylvania.  We were two weeks away from going back to the town where I had been a child, and where this asshole had forced me to grow up.  And I was tired.  I was tired of being scared to run into him.  I was tired of wondering what I would say.  I was tired of feeling ashamed, slinking around as if I had done anything wrong.

We were in Ohio, out in the woods.  Something was happening.  I was making a plan.  I was writing frantically.  I was erupting from 12 years of silence.  From 4 long years of abuse.  My journal pages felt alive

No more of this.  I’m on the offense.  What will I ask him?  What will I ask him?  What will I ask him?

1. Why?

2. Are you sorry?

3. What god did you serve then?

4. What does your god look like now?

5. How do you reconcile this?

And then I’ll kill him.

No, I won’t.

But I wonder what will be enough?  Would it be enough?

Maybe if I return his favors.  Maybe if–

1. I molest him for 4 formative years of his life?

2. I rape him?

3. I leave bruises on his arms?

4. I choke him til he passes out on the floor?

5. I crack his head open and he has to have staples to clamp it shut?

6. I offer to whore him out to my best friends?

7. I isolate him from everyone he loves?

It would be more efficient to just kill him.  I am the age he was when I left him.  Before the year he hung on a cross at 33.  Then resurrected with a wife and kids.  All made new.  For him.  Jesus Fucking Christ.  He’ll have to do better this time if he wants to resurrect from this.

I need a plan.

I need a plan or I’ll kill him.  

I exhaled.  I looked at the page.  Oh, shit.  I had to face this guy again.

Last April, I learned new words.  The first one was “molestation.”  The second one was “rape.”  I don’t mean that I didn’t understand what they meant.  I mean that I learned that these words applied to me.

I started by writing them down.  When I saw them, they made my chest feel like it was going to crack open.  I practiced looking at them for a week.  Then, I tried using them out loud to my Someone.  It took days– literal days.  And it took months following to say them without crying and coming short of breath.

I pushed forward.  I spent time applying those words to other situations.  Then I looked at those situations and practiced saying, “And that happened to me, too.”

Simultaneously, I spent as much time separating those words from other words.  I separated “rape” and “molestation” away from “love” and “god” and “complicated.”

It was an important practice.  The training was intense.  But I would recommend it to anyone.  Damn, if I didn’t get strong.

“I’m going to track down Danny,” I said to my Someone.  I had been agitated all morning, shuffling through my journal, gnawing on the thought.  I didn’t brace myself for his response.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” I repeated.

“What are you going to say?”

I thought of journal entry.  My brain split open, scene after scene gushing through the cracks that I had sealed for 12 years.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Okay,” my Someone said.  “I’m with you.”

And then, we let the weight of the decision pile on us.

We were going to need reinforcement.

The timeline seems simple from there.  For the next week, I talked it through during the day with my two friends and my Someone, each making themselves undeniably available, letting me rant and sometimes ranting with me.  We processed.  I talked more.  No one told me I was being dangerous or stupid or dredging up the past unnecessarily.

In the evenings, my Someone and I took to the internet, searching Dan’s name and old addresses, sifting through articles and bad bands he was part of to find a working email address and phone number.

Dan–

I’m coming into town next week.  I think it’s about time to meet.  I want to face this part of my past, and what happened.  It’s been 15 years.  I would like to meet in Ewing Park, during the day.  My partner will be with me– I have no intention of meeting you alone.  But I think, after everything you did, you owe me at least this.  And probably an apology.

If I don’t hear from you in the next 24 hours, I”ll try your phone number or email your band.

I guess time’s up.

Mallory

I heard nothing.  I turned to my friends during the day again, waiting.  Time’s up, we said as a mantra.  I emailed his band.  Nothing.

And then, I found it– a working phone number.  I called early.  I left a message.  I waited.  I went back to my work.

I was alone when I got the call back.  I panicked.  I shook.  I swallowed my fear and picked up the phone.

He began with a plea– he has kids, now.  He needs to find them a home if he’s going to jail.  He needs time.  I cut him off.

“What do you think this is?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“All I’ve asked is for a meeting,” I said.

This is what is strange about confronting an abuser.  The voice is familiar, and what is from a long time ago suddenly doesn’t feel like any time has passed.  Old patterns pick up where they were left, because nothing was ever resolved.  And that is the moment where Dan began to tell me that he would love to meet.  That he loved me and I broke his heart when I left.  That he always loved me.  That he still loved me.  I have to know that he didn’t try and hurt me.

“You know me– you know I would never hurt you on purpose.”

My head was swimming.  My skin was curdling.  I pushed myself up out of his words.  I came up for air–

“I don’t know that,” I said, “and you can save this for next week.”

I hung up.  I ran.  I found my Someone and poured out what I was told.

“No,” said my Someone, “that’s not love.  He doesn’t have the right to tell you that.”

I stopped shaking.  It was true.  He doesn’t have the right to tell me anything.

The logistics worked out over text in the next couple of days.  Dan pushed boundaries and deadlines.  I pushed back.  I wasn’t 15 anymore.  And I’ve been doing yoga, asshole.  You can’t push me around, anymore.

Monday night.  Ewing Park.  5:30PM.

And then the real work began.  I began writing down what I had stifled for 12 years.  I began to construct in real life what had come out sideways in broken relationships, angry rock songs, and obsessive tendencies.  I breathed deeply and stopped blaming myself for the night terrors and the post traumatic stress reactions I had to movies.  I had envisioned our meeting for years in a whirlwind of violence and untethered rage.  I was shocked to find that a meeting time and pen & paper were more satisfying.

Then, I waited until Monday.  We played shows.  I saw friends.  I saw a funny movie.  I learned to co-exist with the fear and nausea that swirled through my body.  This was nothing compared to what I’d already endured.

I wasn’t tricking myself into believing that this meeting would be the triumphant end.  I didn’t think it would satiate my need for revenge.  I didn’t even believe it would put it down for a nap.  But I was compelled.  It’s the only way I can explain it.  I needed to act in a way that was unafraid and without shame, even if I felt terrified and stupid.  The day of, I received texts of encouragement from the small tribe I’d created.  I couldn’t believe it.

“Everyone is Team Mallory,” my Someone said, “Seeing all these people who love you is just so… cool.”

He teared up.  My chest felt full of something other than fear.  The night before I had asked if it would be okay if I chose not to meet Dan after all.  I wasn’t considering backing out.  I was considering what this meant.  My Someone assured me that it wouldn’t matter.  The battle had already been won.

But it hadn’t.  I had to go.

“Being Team Mallory is just being Team Don’t Rape People,” I said, “You’d think more people would want to join.”

My Someone laughed.  I laughed.  This was insane.

We got to the meeting place 40 minutes early.  I picked out the picnic table and sat down, pressing my new dress with my palms and sitting with a straight back.  And then we waited.

This is right.  You matter.  You deserve to take up your space.  You deserve to speak the truth no matter the sorry state of that man, Danielle wrote.

15 year old Mallory is thanking you, Bryan wrote.

I thought of 15-year-old Mallory.  I pictured myself unlocking her bedroom door, her waiting on the other side.  My phone rang.

“We’re here,” Dan said.

“Shelter 7,” I said.

He walked slowly toward us, accompanied with a mutual friend from all that time ago.  The blood rushed to my head.  They sat.  This was happening.  Right now.

My 15-year-old self stood up inside of me.  She walked out of her room.  I opened my journal.  She looked down and began to read with me.

“You are a predator.”

This was going to be easy, after all.

“You molested me for four years.  I was under age for most of it.  It started when I was 15 years old.  You raped me.  More than once.  Then you denied it because you thought that would send you to jail.”

Time’s up.

“Do you understand me?”