On the morning of my birthday, I walk alone. Previously, I’d call my mother and wish her a Happy Giving Birthday. But this year, just like last, I’m estranged from her. So, I walk alone. Which isn’t entirely true, either, because I always take a dog with me. I walk and I think and today I sat at the top of the rock quarry and watched the sun rise behind the trees and listened to the roosters crow below, and I talked to myself and I talked to my dog and I considered my aloneness and tried to wrap my head around who I am now.
When I was talking aloud, it felt familiar– like how it felt when I was a kid, alone and ever lonelier, speaking out loud at first to myself, and then learning that I was to be talking instead to God. It was drilled into me that this journey is my own, that I will stand before the Lord naked, alone, and likely trembling, having to account for all the ways I didn’t live up to his expectations. Aloneness was a virtue, alone along with never resting and decidedly refraining from wishy-washy bullshit like “finding yourself.” And I guess that’s the trick to keeping one in line. If you are told you’re alone, the company of a big mighty God is a big mighty comfort. And depending on who is creating that God for you, you can be pushed and pulled in whatever direction serves other people best. Maybe that’s the secret. Because anyone who gets to know themselves learns quickly that they are never alone. And anyone who knows that they aren’t really alone can’t be pushed and pulled, anymore.
I’ve been engaging in a wide variety of wishy-washy bullshit of finding myself over the last year, disassociating with the God that was created for me, the God my parents used to control me, the God that was used to control my parents, the God that was taking up all the room inside of me that was reserved for myself. It’s been a genuine eviction. In the process, I’ve dusted off parts of me I haven’t seen since I was a kid, talking to myself before someone else got in the way to intercept those conversations and contort them into a language that I didn’t recognize. The results looks like this–
My temper has decreased significantly.
I am able to name my feelings, and am working on sitting in them.
I exercise regularly, because I love my body as it is, and it’s fun. I’ve dispelled the myth that sweating makes me less attractive, and also dispelled the myth that my role is to be attractive to others.
I’ve quit drinking, mostly, and didn’t put up a fight about it.
I don’t have to have an explanation for the wild roiling that happens inside of me when I feel like laughing and crying at once, and instead of stopping it, I let it flow out of me and welcome the crazy person status because it makes me feel very much alive and grateful.
I am more patient with other people’s beliefs.
I am more patient with other people’s choices, and can more easily and readily assess the situation from their perspective.
I forgive faster, and with completion.
I dove head first into a new craft that I love and don’t worry about trying to obtain perfection within it.
I view my boundaries with more objectivity, and remember that they are there not to punish, but to create a healthier relationship with those they are set up for.
I’m more affectionate with my Someone.
That is to say, I think I may be growing up. It’s hard work, a lot of dusting, and a lot of being alone. Which is to say, being never alone. I got that wild roiling on my way down from the rock quarry. The cacophony of roosters and birds and coyote yips broke down to individual sounds, and I welcomed the myriad of creatures who were sharing the walk with me. Instead of defending my time, my space, my idyllic, solemn birthday walk, I welcomed myself to be welcome here. It’s been a lot of years of not trusting my own voice, of letting other people talk over me– of being lonely. Now that I’m welcomed to my own life, it’s easier to welcome others, too. It’s easier to ask for what I need and take delight in surprises and to feel fully alive and find amazement in the smell of coffee and a vase of flowers and a Happy Birthday sign with the “r” crooked hanging on the wall.
I’m just so damn happy to be here, all alone together.
My niece has a friend in school that’s more of an enemy, but this friend always gets invited, anyway, in spite of the fact that she is a difficult friend for my niece, and a difficult house guest for grown ups. The grown-ups in this house refer to her as Loraina-the-Worst, and while I haven’t met Loraina, I do like a descriptive nickname, and have followed along. My niece, Saffy, insists on her friend remaining her friend, even when the dinner conversation goes like this–
Saffy: “Today at school, Loraina–“
Everyone: “Ohhh noooo! Loraina-the-Worst!”
Saffy: “But Loraina, she–“
Everyone: “What did Loraina-the-Worst do this time?”
And then Saffy will tell us what Loraina-the-Worst did, which is usually something relatively harmless, but under mob rule transforms to something more befitting to maintain Loraina’s -the-Worst title.
Two weeks ago, Saffy came home from school, a little quiet, and spent the afternoon doing homework. When her mother came home, she came downstairs and greeted her, helped her carry groceries, then didn’t complain when asked to unload the dishwasher. Then, when her mother had a stiff drink in front of her and was sitting down, Saffy said,
“Hey, Mom? You know Loraina?”
“Loraina-the-Worst?” my sister and I said in unison.
Saffy nodded and then took a deep, focused breath and said,
“Yes, well, Loraina, remember how a while ago, she was maybe not nice? And remember how she stabbed me with a pencil and it really hurt and I was bleeding, but then she got taken away, and remember she came back and how since then it’s okay now because I said it was okay with her when we were riding on the bus? Remember?”
My sister looked at Saffy, a little surprised, “Um, is it okay now?”
“Yes,” Saffy continued, very assured in her 8-year-old logic, “And because she probably won’t stab me with a pencil again, I was talking to her and she said that she was having a birthday party and that I was invited, and I think that it’s okay that I want to go now, and I was wondering if I can go.”
There was a shocked silence, then my sister said diplomatically, “Have Loraina-the-Worst’s mom call me.”
Loraina-the-Worst’s mom did not call. Everyone was relieved.
I’ve been severed from my parents now for over a year and a half; but as I’m walking my new life of healing, I’ve discovered tributaries of dissent sprouting from the origin of hurt– tributaries that became rivers that dammed in one intersecting moment two July’s ago. One of those tributaries is traced back four years ago. It was our second year in the camper, and I sat in the pull off of an Adirondack town on the shore of Lake George. The view from our spot wasn’t spectacular, but it was free, and caught me in the place of my memory that the enveloping woods of Western Pennsylvania do– deep, melancholy, and comfortable. It was a time of missing every toy I’ve ever owned, as Regina Spektor puts it, and often rewriting the characters of my past in order to create a more peaceful, sensible present.
I spent an hour writing my father a handwritten letter. It was a dumb move, not having a copy, and a dumb move believing that it would stir him in the way it stirred me as I wrote it. I cried until I wept, then pressed it into an envelope. The stand outs, now, are something of–
Sometimes, out here, I am still woken in the night with the fear that someone will smash into the camper while I sleep. I’m not sure I ever will get used to it, but I am doing what I love. It’s what I knew I was supposed to do. Do you think so? Do you ever think of me out here, caught in my transient way? Did you think I would end up like this? Are you proud of me?
What will it take to be your daughter again? I want to have a relationship with you. I want you to call me. I want to know that you are proud and I am loved.
A real gutted vibe, for sure. I waited more than a month, finding out that my timing, as usual, was less than ideal. I’d dropped the letter in a mailbox in Vermont the next day; and he hopped a plane to Haiti to do mission work two days after. He was gone for three weeks. When he returned, I lost my appetite with the waiting. I imagined my letter tucked under heavy machinery catalogs and bids for jobs. I was cross with my Someone. I drank too much. I ate baked beans in bed right out of the pot, hungover and sleeping in a north Boston driveway when the call came in.
“Dad!” I said, brightly to compensate for the feeling of the beans pushing back up.
“Mallory,” he said slowly.
“Yes.” There was a pause. Maybe he hadn’t read it. Maybe Goddess decided instead to lose the letter and deliver results, anyway.
“Ummm, did you get my, um, letter?” I asked. This tipped the conversation to the familiar.
“Yeah, I got it all right– what is this shit?”
I stammered. I tried to repeat my intentions. I tried to recall what it is I wanted. I felt unprepared. I felt like an idiot.
“Yeah, well,” he interrupted, “If I’m going to call you, you better damn answer from now on. All I get is your damn voicemail.”
“But I work late at night and you work early in the morning, we have to–“
“Don’t give me any excuses, and don’t send me this shit, anymore.”
Surprisingly, the rest of the conversation was relatively pleasant. But of course it was. That’s always the way. I became small and inquisitive, asking questions about what he’d done in Haiti, questions that would inevitably let him respond as a hero. I meekly told him where I was parked, feeling ashamed of the kindness of strangers. I agreed again to stop writing stupid letters, and he agreed to try and call me once or twice a year, as I backed my demands down to the minimum.
“Really, it couldn’t have gone better,” I told Bryan later, recounting the good news. “I mean, it could’ve been a lot worse.”
Bryan didn’t say much, only repeating, couldn’t have gone better gently.
“No, but, you don’t understand– that’s just kind of the way he is,” I backed up.
“Mmm-hmm,” Bryan said, not without kindness. “Maybe it’s progress.”
It was the gentleness, that mutual willing suspension of disbelief, that got me wobbly. It was the gentleness that spread itself like a balm on the wound I’d opened as I wrote the letter. It was the gentleness I’d dreamed of– the alternative ending– as I dropped the letter into the mailbox and waited those five weeks. It was a gentleness that made the vulnerability worth it.
When the Big One happened two July’s ago, and I was crying in front of my father, begging him to call me, begging him to see me, to love me, it was not this memory of the letter writing that came to mind. That had already been washed away. It’s the nature of that water to disorient, wash out, make me believe I haven’t tried this route already. I could not remember the many tributaries that surmounted to the breaking of the dam. But as my Someone and I drove over the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, maybe away for the last time from my childhood home, I called Bryan. While I could not remember the tributary, the gentleness of the hand that pulled me from it was imprinted. And the imprint said, “There can be another way.”
There is. It takes stepping away from the deep ruts that have been made, pulling myself out– or being pulled out– of the water that keeps rushing me toward the same dam thing.
This week on our afternoon walk, we found a mouse stuck to a glue trap in the gutter of the street. We stared in disbelief at the small creature, fighting against the cruel, slow death.
“Help!” I cried out, feeling my arms grow thick and slow. “Help!” I said again, unable to process a sentence. My Someone reaching down with a leaf to try and unstick it, but couldn’t. I tried a plastic dog bag and got stuck. Then, we picked up the trap and began walking back to my sister’s house. My brain was not its thinking self, and I felt a wash of response pour out of my mouth–
“We have to put it out of its misery!” I said, gauging the loss of my day, the loss of time, the loss of our second walk against the a small, miserable creature. I was thinking of the blood that was coming from its mouth, the innards falling from its tiny butt. My Someone looked at me, gently.
“But its not completely stuck,” he said.
I was wrenched from my tributary, took a deep breath, and looked. He was right, the creature was only stuck with its feet. The blood I saw was spotty and coming from its chin where its hair had been ripped from the glue. What I thought were innards were just its nubby tail. This creature could make it. When we returned to the house, my Someone took to unsticking it, while I wandered the yard to make a terrarium. It was an act of making a new way, even as I believed this mouse would die.
I returned to the garage to help unstick its little feet, washed as much glue as I could, then placed it in its temporary stead. Then, I felt ashamed– a deep, unfathomable shame that I am not the person I believe I am. What sort of compassionate person suggests first to kill a creature only stuck in its way?
The kind of compassionate person who has been told again and again to put her compassion away, and to do the “right” thing. The kind of compassionate person who, when confronted with a wounded animal was told over and over again to put it out of its misery– to check her emotions and quit being so sentimental. The kind of compassionate person who was told that to be kind, you must be cruel. The kind of compassionate person who has been told there is only one right way.
For the next 24 hours, we monitored our little rescue. We sent out texts and calls and photos to ask for help. We found out that our mouse was not going to make it, because she was not a mouse– she is a hamster. Five days later, and she is our hamster, sitting snugly in a hamster cage, surrounded with seeds and kale she likes to eat, and a hay ball she likes to climb, and bedding she likes to burrow in. She went today to run errands with us in a hamster pouch I bought so that she can travel with more ease when we hit the road again.
There is proof that there is always another way. And when I divert from that way– when I crawl up out of the tributary or the glue trap I was caught in– there is where the living happens. There is living proof. Her name is Goo.
Saffy is collecting boyfriends this Valentine’s Day. She’s got a next door neighbor boy who gave her fake flowers for real love, and another one on the line at school who wants to play lots of games.
“Nobody really likes him all that much, he’s kind of, I don’t know, annoying?” she said.
“Oh, I see,” her mother said, “And what do your friends think?”
“They all think he has a crush on me, but they don’t really like him. Except for Loraina. She really likes him like a crush.”
At this, we tense. Our collective conscience says farewell to my dear niece’s short 8-year-old life to the hands of Stabby McStabberson Loraina-the-Worst in this heartsick triangle.
“And what did Loraina-the-Worst say?” my sister ventured.
“Oh,” Saffy said, unruffled, “She said that’s fine and asked if I wanted to play.”
We all began breathing again. Sometimes, against all odds, there can be another way.
When the doctor said, “Now, I don’t want this to throw you into a tailspin,” my reaction was delayed. I said, “Okay,” to her, and thought, Why would I be thrown into a tailspin?
I went back to the front desk and handed over my credit card and listened patiently as the receptionist explained the next steps in getting the necessary biopsy. I nodded along, thanking her excessively, while thinking about what the difference is between something looking like cancer and something being cancer. By the time I got into the truck, I had begun to breathe more heavily, so I took off my mask while I stared at my steering wheel. I imagined my cervix, or rather the illustrated drawing of someone’s cervix that hung on the wall of the examination room, with little white faces popping up like zits, scowling like a Mr. Yuck sticker staring back at my doctor. That would look like cancer to me. Or maybe she just caught them at a bad time. My brain left the cartoon and started stretching forward to all of the words I knew to be related to cancer. Chemo was the only one that came to mind. And bills. By the time I called my Someone, I was in a tailspin, as the doctor had specifically not ordered.
I was surprised to find myself this alarmed. Of the two of us, I keep a level head, often waiting far too long to go to a doctor when I know that I should. But my impending feeling of doom that had landed two weeks ago seemed to have some legitimacy, and I was painfully sobered by the possibility.
“What do you mean, ‘they found something that looks like cancer’?” he asked me. I thought of the Mr. Yucks hanging out inside of me, unwilling to say one way or another. I felt heavy, dirty, and panicked.
“I guess just what they said. We are not supposed to be in a tailspin.” And then, as I stayed steady, the world spun.
I spent a lot of my early 20’s in Asheville, and even while it isn’t the town I remember now, the streets are mostly the same. My body made the wise choice of auto-piloting me to the parking garage I used for work at the art gallery downtown. I called my Someone again once I’d parked, just to hear the air on the line, hanging up again to walk. Everything became so serious. Everything became time. My life and the entire world were picked up like a piece of paper, curled and full of everything and everyone I knew so far, and was tilting toward a giant, ominous black trash can. In its new form, I assessed by responsibility.
A hot cup of tea to-go: Good. Will consume within one hour. I definitely have an hour.
The $12 tea mug bought by the register as a panic purchase: Medium. May use a few times, but then will only be clutter for my Someone later, causing him to ask the question “When did she even get this mug?” May also be a point of compassion, “She believed she would make it.”
A chocolate truffle: Great. Eaten within seconds. Second truffle, also great. Helps one forget that she is eating time itself.
A book about bookbinding: Poor. Who has time to get better at a new craft when one is no longer good at living?
Animal, vegetable, mineral were just time, moving around me, avoiding me, crashing into me. I called my Someone again. I don’t remember if we said anything. Hung up. I ran into Megan at the parking garage. She’ll be due in January. She is holding time still within her, and I am letting it eat me away. She is a perfect human, I remember, making a perfect human. We are all perfect humans. And then, there is time.
I picked my littlest dog up from Kristie’s house, who let me stay as I had doctor appointments and online classes. I helped my dog into the back seat and sat in the parking lot of the apartment complex. I called my Someone again, we said something, and I hung up again. I began driving toward Black Mountain, the town I lived in right out of college. Some of the best friends I have came from that time. I was going to pick up vegetables from a community based program that asks no questions and offers anyone and everyone a box of vegetables for showing up. I waited in line in my car for forty minutes, picking up my phone and putting it down, until I finally did what everyone says not to do. The results were strangely comforting. Almost 100% recovery rate. Hysterectomy. Survival.
Easy, I thought. Then, said aloud, “It could be nothing.” My dog looked at me. I looked at her and watched her turn into time, a puppy turned into a middle aged dog with a limp in her back right foot, to a time when she would be here and I would not. I looked back at my phone and remembered the recovery rate. I put my phone down and forgot again. When it was my turn, a kind woman in a flowered mask said, “Lots of great veggies this week! Glad you made it!” I said, “Thank you.” She said, “We have one orchid left, and I think it belongs to you.” I thought, It does belong to me, and said “This feels like a metaphor to me, but okay.” They put a box of vegetables on the passengers seat and the orchid next to it. I looked at the orchid and watched it turn into time as I imagined myself feeding it two ice cubes a week. I imagined the orchid as a soul for my cervix. I imagined it looking up at me and saying, “You live if I do, lady.” I patted the moss on the bottom of the planter and said, “Okay.”
Orchid: Bad. Definitely a burden to someone else when I am gone. Definitely not rooting for me.
I drove my truck and my vegetables and my orchid to Lake Tomahawk, a small little pond that has a full view of the Seven Sisters mountains. I walked my dog around the 3/4 mile pond. I recognized someone. I said hello. We talked. I wanted to ask her about cancer, but instead I asked how she was doing. I praised myself for being so put together, then I felt sick as I saw the sun on the mountains. It’s all just so fucking beautiful, I thought. I said, “Okay, let’s go” to my dog, and we climbed into the truck and drove my vegetables and my orchid back to Kristie’s.
I tried to pawn my orchid off on Kristie.
It didn’t take.
I sat around a fire with four women I love. Most of them I met in Black Mountain. Before we opened the wine, Annie said, “How was your appointment today?” I cried. I told them. I asked if anyone wanted an orchid. I made a joke and everyone laughed. When I drove away, I felt more sure. Everything was going to be okay.
I did not think: They will think I’m a fool if I don’t have cancer.
I did not think: I should not have told anyone.
I thought: I hope we can celebrate later when me and my orchid are cancer free.
I called my Someone and said something and ate the caramel truffle I was saving for him. I hung up. Later in my bed, the first time I’ve slept alone in five years, I was awake. I let the sadness take me so I could fall asleep like the horse in the swamp in my favorite childhood movie. No one was there to yell “Don’t let the sadness take you!” and it was more comfortable this way, and so the sadness became sleep. My dog and I didn’t move the entire night. When I woke up early, very early, I thought, I am wasting time. Then I got out of bed.
The world did not shift back like I’d anticipated. Not even after 6 sleeps. I told more people. I am not ashamed of being wrong, but I am terribly ashamed of being alone. Ann said to not panic, yet. We don’t know anything. But then she said, “But when you do panic, let me know, and I can take it from there. I’ll panic for you, so you can relax.”
I let Ann panic for me for five days. I worried that she’d grown tired from the marathon of panic, but instead, she called me and sounded cheerful and let me say things I thought might be true and could also be false, and also things that were definitely true like, “I’m scared.” I did not say, “I wish I had not said anything at all.”
I fed my orchid two ice cubes on Sunday.
The biopsy was horrible.
There’s not a way around that.
But at least it was the next thing.
Bryan said, “That’s a thing. Now we wait.”
I thought, I want the next thing to be now. I said, “Yes. That thing is over. Now we wait.”
I like Bryan and the way he speaks in present “we” tense. I put him in a column of “People Who May Enjoy a Dead Lady’s Orchid” while I finished off the cookies Amanda had made and sent Steve to drop off for me in the parking lot of my biopsy. I was glad to have told Amanda because her baking is some of the best I know. And also, because eating her cookies made me feel less alone.
The day after my biopsy, I tried to get Jessica to take my orchid again. She did not. When I texted her and said “Your forgot your orchid,” she texted back “hahahaha.”
I suspected she also thinks it is the soul of my cervix. If she’s right, probably no one else should be in charge of it but me.
On Sunday, I fed it two more ice cubes.
It was only two weeks between the doctor saying “Do no let this throw you into a tailspin” and the second doctor calling with my biopsy results. Half of a month. In that time, I spent my time unusually. I could hardly read my books because the stillness made my thoughts more active. At the same time, I was trying so desperately to finish the four books I had started. I did not want my Someone to see a bookmark in them later and be overcome with grief that I didn’t even get finish my books. Then, I would scan the long shelf of books and bemoan the books I never read.
I watched the leaves fall from the trees outside in long episodes, like binging a TV show, and got trapped in my thought rotation of what-if’s-or-it-could-be-nothing’s. Another leaf would fall and I’d become overwhelmed by its beauty, swooning and desperately thinking– how? How can we ask for more than this? How can we get anything done for all of the beauty? But I would say nothing, even as the movement of the wind in the trees made my chest and throat feel like they were filling up with water and I could hardly breathe to keep from weeping.
When I would nearly explode, a call would come, or a text, or my Someone would remind me that it was time to eat. I was grateful for the distraction, even as I prized myself as someone who could face myself no matter the circumstances. But I had never been in this circumstance before. I’d imagined myself, in those dark daydreams, as someone who would quietly warrior her way through, silent and strong and stoic. It turns out, as I lived, so I was fake dying. I was greedy for life. I could not get enough.
I said to my Someone, “I will not go gracefully.”
He said, “I know.”
I said, “We may find out. I will be kicking and screaming before I let them take me out of this perfect beautiful fucking place.”
And he would squish my head in his arms and be silent and strong and stoic before he would cry and I would try out a new cancer joke I’d been working on through the afternoon while I watched the leaves fall.
He thought they were very funny, but not appropriate for the general audience.
For three days, we pretended that the election results were the only news we were waiting on.
It was my first time being grateful to our president.
So, that was new.
The worst part about it is that I’ve already forgotten. But we aren’t there yet. First, the celebration. It went like this:
“Hello, hello, yes, it’s me.”
“Yes, I just want to tell you that we got the results of the biopsy back, and you do not have cancer.”
“Yeah, this is definitely a time to celebrate! Go ahead and take the time to let the news sink in! We will figure out the rest later,” the doctor continued. “I’m so happy this is good news. We did not think that’s where this was headed.”
“Youdidn’tThankyoumetooIhadnoideawhatIwasgoingtodothat’snotreallyyourjobI’mjustsogladitworkedoutIwassoscaredit’snotcancer!ohmygodthatissogreat. What happens next?”
“Take some time. This is big. We will talk later.”
I ran inside where my Someone waited, staring at the front door.
“BENIIIIIIIIIGN!” I yelled.
“BENIIIIGN!” he yelled.
Text after text after text after text– benign, benign, benign, benign.
We drank wine that night and made something spectacular to eat, though it doesn’t register now what it was. That’s where the forgetting begins. As I hung up with the doctor, so the world snapped back. I was no longer clammering my way up the slick sheet of paper, watching everything I’d accumulated tumbling past into the eternal trash. I was upright. Still. Full.
As painful as was the waiting, so was it terribly tender. Everything mattered. I’ve known those moments briefly before this, and I will know them briefly again. But the cocoon of meaning, the nestling of every word and moment and kindness– just as I can’t live with that amount of worry, so I can’t live with all the sweetness. How could I get anything done? How could I enjoy my life while also recognizing the fullness of it? The beauty of the light in a room in the afternoon would be enough to paralyze me for days.
I am turned, though, with my face toward empathy and my hands in the now. Death may be the end of life, but it is also life’s expansion. While I am not so sensitive to every falling leaf for the sake of getting emails out on time, I’m not immune to the sacred expansion as I wake up before the sun and walk the woods alone on a cold November morning. Or when I catch my Someone through the window tripping over our big dumb dog. Or as I feed my orchid two more ice cubes on Sundays.
I’ve been praying for mine enemies. Or, at least as close to praying as I get. I think it counts– thinking of someone kindly and wishing on a star and all the dog hair that’s accumulated on the floor that they can feel it. I think doing so while on a yoga mat covers most of my spiritual bases, either way.
It didn’t happen intentionally. I didn’t squeeze my face really hard and think good thoughts. So maybe, rather, it did happen intentionally, but in little pieces along the way like the best of intentions. Like when I told that story of my mother to my in-laws– the one about how she would take my breakfast order every morning before school and serve it alongside a cup of milky black tea with a half spoonful of sugar the way I liked it. Earlier than that, when I started making the recipes she would make and remember the smell of them walking in from school knowing they were made because I loved them. Telling my Someone about how my father loved a good joke– how he’d whittle it and retell it until he constructed the perfect version before moving on to a new one.
This morning, when my parents popped into my mind and a pseudo-prayer formed, it didn’t feel like a surprise. Or, maybe it did, but more of a natural surprise, if that’s a thing. Like the feeling you get when you see the leaves changing in September. You’ve hung around all summer knowing Fall is on the way, it’s the progression of enduring long hot days. But seeing the change is still a surprise. A soft one.
Maybe in the same way a white woman like me craves a pumpkin spice latte at the sight of changing leaves, an estranged child like me craves forgiveness at the sight of small progress. So I moved my weird prayer-creatures to my temporary writing desk and started a list of all the ways I am like my father that I don’t begrudge. It looks like this:
All the Ways I Am Like My Father That I Don’t Begrudge
I am the owner of my own business, and have so far succeeded.
my love for a good joke.
my ability to make a boring story come alive, and a great story transcend.
the twinkle in my eye when I’ve just had a funny or good idea.
my ability to problem solve with efficiency and detail.
my strong sense of justice.
my love of solitude.
my ability to be both the central and supporting character in my own life.
my expressive face.
my inability to resist music I like with my body– fingers & toes tapping, body swaying, head nodding against my will.
my unwavering devotion to the one I love.
my love of a good dinner.
how I get quiet when I step into the woods.
I was shocked at the ease of it. I felt I could go on, but I worried about the risk of sinking into the begrudging– like adding my wild temper, my impassiveness in the face of compromise, the way I narrow my eyes when I’m about to say something dagger sharp in my anger. And once I stepped into that mess, I’d need a lot more paper.
Not that I’m in a shortage of it these days.
My Someone & I landed the jackpot of sequestering at the end of this year. For the last month, we’ve found ourselves in the kindness of friends in a historic house in Opelika, Alabama. The dogs have a big back yard. We have our own rehearsal space. The kitchen has enough room for me to experiment with strange Scottish confections I found on the internet and him to make big batches of sauerkraut & kombucha. And on top of having the opportunity to take an online book binding course, I’ve also had the pleasure of learning how to make paper on account of staying in the house of a paper artist. It’s really taken me. I spend late afternoons before dinner walking across the yard to the studio, swishing around and slapping water, both delicate and nonsensically haphazard, forming sheets with varying degrees of conformity. The process is messy and easily washed at once. It’s the kind of trouble I like to be in. I’ve relished being a novice, experimenting and playing like I used to with Play-Dough, but also feeling very grown up. Like an artist.
The process begins with boiling down bark– stick-like, tough stuff that’s been soaked for hours or days ahead. Then, when it’s been sufficiently broken down, you let loose and beat the hell out of it. To a pulp. Literally. The importance of beating it and not just throwing it in a blender is that you are looking to extend the fibers’ surface area, not cut them up, so that they have more room to latch on to one another in the vat. The vat, where the fibers are thrown in– a big tub of water mixed with a Formation Aid that helps the fibers go where they need to go– is my favorite part. It’s mysterious and murky, and you have to take your hand and churn the water so the fibers go every which way. The vat is a space for chaos, moving every inch of water until you dip your mould & deckle in and pull straight up toward your face, where you confront the chaos immediately– fibers land where they may– to make one sheet of paper. Unless it seems the piece isn’t complete, or is lopsided, or just doesn’t feel right. Then, you can turn the whole thing upside down and slap it back onto the vat in a fashion called “kissing off,” churn the water more, and try again. But when you are satisfied with it, these pieces are pressed and drained and dried in the hours and sometimes days to come. But that part– the chaos to creation that’s pulled up out of the vat and to my face– that’s where the transformation happens.
At least, until a week later, when I’ve formed the paper into a book where I am listing All the Ways that I Am Like My Father That I Don’t Begrudge. Though that transformation isn’t unlike the paper itself. I’ve boiled down my grievances. I’ve beaten every detail to a pulp, late at night, awake with a giant baton, over and over again. These thoughts, this hurt, it had to be beaten that way. It had to expand. I had to get it all out, beat it from every angle. When I’d fully beaten it, I kept throwing it in the vat, accumulating fiber and adding in water– small kindnesses, deep breaths, long walks– to ease the tension. I’ve been churning that vat with my own hands and pulling up that hurt, facing it in a new form, repetitiously.
We almost choked on our laughter at you…
I know you want nothing to do with us, but…
I’m never calling you again…
I press it, then write a new list, then dip my hand in and churn the vat again.
What happens at the end, however, is that if you stop adding fiber to the vat, the paper becomes thinner and thinner, no matter how much you churn. The fibers, since worked over and expanded, can still hold together. Thin, but there. But keep working a bit further, pulling the mould and deckle up again and again, and eventually, there is nothing left but a few misplaced fibers in a tub of water.
It seems I’ve finally thinned my grief to clearer water.
I don’t know what comes after that. Maybe what I’ve been pulling up all this time, piece by piece, hasn’t been complete chaos, but the small intention toward forgiveness. Forgiveness, I think, may not be the washing away of all those grievous fibers, but accumulating them in one place to repurpose the relationship. Forgiveness, in this way, may be paper thin, but durable enough to draft the next chapter. Or at least write a list of things I don’t begrudge.
With a little room in the process, still, to tell it all to go kiss off.
My Book Club is talking about Heaven, and I just realized I didn’t buy a ticket.
They’re describing acres to run, perfect gardens, and even talking animals. I feel particularly jealous about the talking animals. I’ve been coaxing my littlest dog, Puddle, to talk to me every morning for years. I get into her face first thing and say “What is this? What is this cuting for? Tell me! Tell me right now! What is all this cuting for?!” There’s part of me that thinks if I just ask her one more time, that will be enough that she will finally have the answer to my question that only she has the answer to. But she just wags her tail and does this hoppity thing with her front paws that I interpret as “I love you so much” but is more likely “It’s time for breakfast.”
What I’m saying is, don’t think I wouldn’t swear allegiance on any damn book so that I could have talking animals.
Instead, I read through the text chain and feel a little smarted in my heart’s mailbox. They aren’t being exclusive. In fact, the invitation is in there– it’s always there. The problem isn’t the dress code, either. I can play the part, I can rent the tux. I did it for years. The company is sweet, and I love them each specially, and they love me specially.
But even for all of the talking animals, I can’t seem to enjoy a great party in Heaven while just under my feet, a majority of the world burns in Hell.
I’ve been connecting the dots these last couple weeks. Which is how I found out that my complacency in social justice– and my awakening– has been hinged on my ticket to Heaven as long as I’ve known. While my kind, compassionate, empathetic Book Club friends have found a way to live with the cognitive dissonance and love without bounds, it seems that I can’t ride the train to Glory and also love my neighbor.
For as long as it has taken me to see my white privilege, it should not be shocking that it took me years to find my salvation without examination. It appeals to a pretty base level of entitlement: I did the right thing. I followed the rules, or– more loosely– I invited Jesus Christ into my heart to live eternally forever. Or, I was born into the “right” religion. Pretty standard equations for getting in.
As it turns out, renting my heart’s room out to the Right Guy left little space for me to worry about who else was getting into the party. The party was at my house, after all. I’m already here. Sure, others were destined for the worst damned eternity of their lives, and I totally feel bad about that, but, really, it’s their choice, right? If they wanted to do something about it, they would.
It’s not for me to decide for them.
Let God sort ’em out.
There’s only so much I can do.
If I can do it, so can they!
They should work harder.
Do the crime, pay the time.
Even if these weren’t at the forefront of my mind, they were the pillow of peace I made myself each night to be able to sleep while being part of a system– real or imaginary– that benefit me. A system that looks strikingly familiar to a United States that often refers to itself as a Christian Nation.
That doesn’t seem coincidental.
There’s one big reason that I can’t get on board with the system of Heaven and Hell. That reason is dinner.
Of the two of us, I am far better at ordering the perfect dinner from the menu. Early on, my Someone would order haphazardly and safely, leaving him a little unhappy about his plate. Inevitably, when the meals arrived, I would say “We should just split it.” His visible transformation from disappointment to delight was better than fancy food all to myself, anyway.
When I occasionally have ordered wrong, the pattern continues. Food is emotional for me. Picking wrong feels like there is something wrong with me. My Someone knows this, and because my delight is his delight, we split it. It’s a good system.
If my Someone and I can figure out in our limited judgement and emotional baggage how to defeat a system of haves-and-have-nots, I find it impossibly short sighted and negligent that a Great Loving God can’t go splitsies if someone orders “wrong” from the Celestial menu. I can’t imagine Her golden peas and holy wine would be slurped down in good conscience while someone across the table from Her stares despondently at a turd on their plate when they thought– hoped– they’d ordered the Special.
I mean, this is basic human level stuff.
What if it goes like this:
There is a Heaven, and it’s true that only people who have rented space in their hearts to Jesus Christ get in, and the rest of us who either didn’t have space or evicted the guy for being too sloppy are sent to Hell.
They’re all there with talking animals and fruit trees with not a one of them forbidden, and its the Golden Age of Christianity. Assuming that not everyone gets their brains wiped completely clean when they get in and have to deal with the grief of also losing themselves for forever– one guy at dinner is like,
“Hey, has anyone seen Mallory around here?”
And there’s a murmur and people look down at their golden peas and lots of people take sips of holy wine to try and ease the discomfort, because we all known that she didn’t take the ticket on account of feeling morally conflicted for agreeing to a religion as Fire Insurance.
What if then, the guy is like “We should really think about bringing some of those Hell people up. I mean, what’s a good party without party people?”
And while no one says anything right away, there’s unrest. And soon, all of the Heaven people are thinking about the fiery prison bars of Hell and all of the people there who ordered wrong, and then realize that while there are acres to run, they are also in their own prison bars of their conscience– of their privilege.
There are protests.
And why wouldn’t there be? This was supposed to be a space where everyone could come and be free.
Here is what I know to be true: when I believed I was going to Heaven in contrast to those who were going to Hell, I created distance. I didn’t want to get too close to those who are inevitably going to run in different eternal circles. Especially the obstinate kind who seemed to be happy. God, those people were the worst. Laugh all the way to Hell, why don’t you!
Here is something else I knew to be true: when I consented to the system– Celestial or Earthly– as being “the way it is,” I did not have the imagination to believe it could be anything else. Because anything else, and all of my hard work at winning the system would be wasted. What a shame.
Here is something else I know to be true: as I have let go of my ticket to Heaven, I have more deeply connected to people here on Earth. I have also had a startling and rather rude awakening to my social inertia. It was painful, but I have not felt this alive since… before I was “saved.”
I hope it’s all true– the part about on Earth as it is in Heaven. While it may be a smidge uncomfortable for Christians to share the space they worked so hard for, I can’t imagine wanting to be at a party of only Christians. Partly, because what else would they have to talk about? I can’t imagine the lack of love, color, and perspective without those other religions, the Wiccans, the atheists, the mysteriously in-betweens like me.
So, I’m not reserving my ticket for Heaven. I’m not using salvation as a free pass on social justice. The mindset is inhibiting, complacent. After all, I may need the practice. We may need to burn down Heaven, too, to make it right.
Or, I hope to God or Lucifer that there’s at least one Buddhist dog I can talk to in Hell.
I’m the daughter of a bigot, who is the son of an unashamed racist. She was also terrified of cats, any kind, not just the black ones. But the black ones sent her into a conniption.
I sometimes talk about my grandmother’s phobia of cats– or, ailurophobia– as a charming anecdote in conversation. She lived in a white house at the back of the family compound, behind the tall pine trees of her youngest sister, my Great Aunt Mildred, and kept a skeptical eye on the renters in her mother’s old house across the driveway.
When a stray cat would appear, she’d hide in her house, calling my father by phone to have him “take care of it.” My mother always blanketed it for me, but he’d often leave with a gun.
The power of fear is that it can kill cats.
I was never allowed to have a cat. It’s taken most of my life to come around to them. It required intentional interaction and continual effort. Cats were bad. Dogs were good.
I’m going to stop the metaphor, now.
Because part of becoming anti-racist is to look the racism squarely in the eye and call it by its name. And racism is not a cat. It’s a fucking disease. And I have it. It’s a public health crisis, and I am perpetuating it.
I knew which words were racial slurs and which were not by my father correcting my grandmother in front of us. After she passed, he started using the words himself, often during a joke at the dinner table or at the company picnic. Then it was his children’s responsibility to correct him. He’d laugh and brush it off. He wasn’t a racist. Grandma was a racist. He was having fun.
I thought that my dinner table objections starting at the age of 5 somehow disqualified me from being a racist. And yet, when I met a person of color, my brain would scan the information and find my father’s and grandmother’s voices, making those jokes, saying those words. I’d want to throw up. And then, I would remain silent. My interactions were stilted and limited, afraid that the voices that existed in my brain would somehow surface, that the people I was interacting with would somehow hear it and see me as a racist.
This is not how to become anti racist. This is suppressing the problem.
That’s what I’ve learned this week.
And now, I am doing things differently.
I am identifying those voices and I am chasing them out. I am admitting that they are there, and to do that I have to turn on the lights. Because the first step to change is admitting there’s a problem, and my internal narrative is a problem. There are too many people in there. As much as I believe there is generational trauma, I believe there is generational hate, passed through the DNA of my grandmother’s white racist blood through my father to me. I listen to it spew out of my sister and brother’s mouths. I hear it bubbling up from my nephews.
I hear it in my spiked heart rate when I pass through a “bad neighborhood.”
Dispelling racism is more than calling it out at the dinner table. That’s still making me the good guy. I have to do one better than just doing a little better than the generations before me. I need to recognize it in my blood and get a transfusion. And then, I need to do it again. Racism will never be in remission. It will require constant vigilance, treatment after treatment after treatment.
I’m not yet a cat person, but I am a people person, so it’s about time I cut the telephone cord to my past, step out of my white house, and act like it.
When I was 15, I had a job but no car, and a relatively cranky disposition from being held down by the powers that be. When Mother’s Day came around, I was unprepared. After church, I holed up in my room, and wrote my mom a song. It was naive and tacky, like any early songs, but I cringe at it for a different reason. It’s a solid start–
Moms around the world get diamonds and pearls
For all the things they do.
Those I did not buy, I hope you don’t mind–
I wrote this song for you.
Not a great songwriter, yet, but I was excellent at term papers. Here is the synopsis– a brief overview, and what you can expect. Do not expect to be given precious jewels on a 15-year-old’s pay grade. Check. Understand that there are better gifts, but you are merely getting a song. Check. Appeal to empathy and understanding in this hack job of a gift. Check.
I was on a roll. But it’s the second verse that stings–
In the years I’ve lived you promised to give The love I don’t always deserve. And without a doubt, I can’t figure out, How you always live up to your word.
Sure, it’s all out flattery– a nod to the power structure, the binding agreement that she is, in fact, the mother, and I am the one she cooked for 9 months before spewing me out. But what I can’t figure is, why was I undeserving of love? When did it occur to me that being born and growing up and going through puberty with all of its normal human changes somehow made me unworthy? Not to brag, but I was a straight A student. I willingly went to church three or four times a week. I participated in extracurricular activities and most of the time even dressed the way my parents preferred– with a brief goth period somewhere in the middle. But even if I hadn’t been a picture, I was their daughter. I didn’t choose to be here. I didn’t choose to be someone’s daughter.
But wait, the self loathing continues into the minor key chorus:
Through joys and sorrow,
Though tears have fallen
And skies will turn to grey–
Through the changing seasons,
I know not the reason,
You’ve stayed with me all the way.
But I should know the reason. The reason is because I exist. I am a human being. Which means, even with all of those shortcomings we have, I am deserving of my mother’s love.
My groveling humility may have been foresight. After all, the seasons have changed, and my mother is no longer staying with me. Certainly not all the way. Maybe that happened when I stopped groveling and started asking for the unconditional kind of love.
It’s much easier to be a son than a daughter on Mother’s Day. It may be true that it’s easier to be a son than a daughter any day. But Mother’s Day, in particular, for all of the after-bedtime banners I crafted and jingles to the tune of “Rockin’ Robin” I composed, for all the bedazzling and, later in life, flowers and cards I’d give, it could never quite compare to my brother. He would stumble out of his room, or call from wherever he was living and mumble “Um, Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.” That’s it.
I couldn’t bedazzle enough handmade cards to catch that kind of glimmer in her eye.
It was the local gossip at the dinner table, who’s having kids, who’s moving out. I’ve been coming to this town for a decade, but never quite got the hang of the town patter. My Someone chirped here and there, but mostly we sat, vaguely listening and occasionally side barring in the California sunset.
“I heard they had four daughters,” someone said.
“Oh, what a shame,” someone else replied.
My Someone got rigid.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said.
I shook my head slightly and looked down. I swallowed my anger. He should know by now. Hasn’t he watched it again and again? Hasn’t he watched me doing my very best? Hasn’t he heard me tell a story just to be interrupted– “But what about him?”
It’s much harder to be a daughter. And not just because the whole world demands that you earn your love while it’s given freely to your brother. But because our mothers never felt that they earned theirs.
What a shame.
It was time to wrap this gift up. I wrote the final verse–
There may come a day, though I’m much afraid When I step out there on my own. Come as it may, I might be far away,
But I know I won’t face it alone.
And I didn’t.
My mother cried when she sat in my bedroom listening to it. She cried when I graduated high school and college. She cried when I told her I’d been abused for four years right under her nose by a man who she and my father repeatedly invited into their home. She cried when I moved away and never came back. She cried when I asked her to let me be her daughter again. She cried when I asked her, for the last time almost a year ago, to call me– just call me. Just once a month.
I don’t know if she cries for me, anymore. She’s sent a couple of texts. She’s sent an email. She’s even sent a large check I’ll never cash to bribe me back. She’s tried every which way but the way I asked for, the way I know I deserve. A phone call.
Or maybe the point of the silence is, I don’t deserve it.
That can’t be true, though. Not anymore. Here is how I know.
I’ve had a gaggle of women stepping up. From a college professor to my college and post-college housemates, an estranged aunt, one good sister, and my friends’ mothers. I’ve been called the daughter they never had. I’ve been called a good friend. I’ve been offered to join other peoples’ families. I’ve accepted it. Because there are a lot of people out there who have come to love being a daughter, and in turn love their daughters– and other people’s daughters.
In this way, I am getting the love I didn’t know I’ve always known I deserve. In this way, I throw the line out–
“I don’t deserve this!”
I wait for the objection. And it comes.
Yes, you do.
I have a lot of hope for my friends’ daughters. Because I have a lot of hope for me, too.
I’m a much better songwriter, now. I reckon it’s time for a rewrite. We daughters deserve it.
When I was born 34 years ago, I tried to breathe too soon. This story is one of my Someone’s favorites about me. He gets teary eyed and smiles and pulls my head to his chest and giggles a little. It makes me like that story, too.
What happened after I tried to breathe too soon, is that I inhaled fluid to my lungs. I was stuck in Baby ICU while they sucked it out with what I like to imagine was a tiny turkey baster, and then I had to wait days until I was allowed to breathe by myself again. For a lot of years, I believed that this was another story about how I messed up, how I was overzealous, how I couldn’t get it right like everyone else, and ended up holding myself back because of it.
I’m always quick to hop the nest. And then I am caught midair, wingless, falling fast to the ground. It gets me into trouble.
The story looks different at 34. My whole life is centered around breathing. Yoga, singing, keeping my cool. There is no one who understands the importance of a deep breath better than I do. It would make sense that I couldn’t wait to get started, to get my lungs full of what is next, to come out ready to wail.
And then, to wait. To have tried– excited and untamed– and then to be still, waiting and watching and learning what it really means to breathe. I didn’t mess up. I took a chance. And then, before I knew I needed healing, I was being healed. I’ve been breathing ever since, for 34 years, with only a few hiccups.
I didn’t learn my lesson. I didn’t learn to watch where I step, to pause before breathing. But I don’t think that’s the lesson anymore. It’s one of my favorite stories about me. A little no-nothing baby who is ready before she is ready, taking a gulp of whatever is next before anyone can tell her so.
In our quarantine, we have found a rhythm to try and keep each day in its proper place. Wake up. Yoga. Shower. Drink coffee. Walk the dogs. Then there’s the span in the middle that gets muddled. Then dinner, another walk, and watch the sunset from the front porch and wonder where the day went before the muddy end with a movie or books or trying to stop working but feeling guilty if I don’t get one more thing done but there’s never time to have a break. Through most of it, I am calculating when the living starts. Presence isn’t my strong suit.
This isn’t so different from my normal life, except with running water and the consistent walk through the orange groves surrounding my Someone’s childhood home in Central California. I wish for rain most days. I like the weather matching the mood. And lately, it’s complied, and caused new problems. Any time I get what I want, it usually causes new problems.
I’m a vegetarian by choice, though I suspect also by nature. It’s a difficult and conflicting reckoning for me in matters of pets and food, swatting mosquitoes and crying over grasshoppers. For years, maybe in thanks to the racing snail in Neverending Story, escargot had been at the top of my cognitive dissonance list. And with the recent rains I asked for, the snails have been creeping out every which way in the orange groves. Including under my feet.
Our mental health walks became mental catastrophes. I hopped around them, moving quick like a bunny, only finding the death toll increasing. Then I tried moving slow, accidentally crushing one while avoiding another.
There’s a pandemic out there, I’m aware. There are bigger, faster problems than snails.
But maybe it goes like this:
I wanted to give up. And for a few steps, I did. I closed my eyes and walked ahead, telling myself that the unfamiliar crunching wasn’t a real life. It was a rock. That it didn’t matter. That my plans shouldn’t be disrupted by a crummy dummy little snail. That it was beyond my control. But then something pushed hard into my brain under my closed eyes and heavy feet–
You have to try.
You have to try.
You have to try.
Maybe one snail less in the world isn’t going to matter to anyone. But it might. So I opened my eyes again and looked down. I tried. Not always with success, but I tried.
I’m more grateful for sunny days on our walks. I found a few crushed shells along the way. When the crowded chaos is gone, the loss is much easier to detect. I worry that it might have been my fault, and hope that it wasn’t.
I will keep trying, I tell the little gooey carcass. I have to keep trying.
I’m not cutting kale with a knife very often, anymore. That goes for broccoli, too. These are added to the list:
I don’t wear makeup.
Or shave my armpits.
Or my legs.
There’s a proactive list, too. It consists of things like:
Staring back when stared at– especially when doing yoga in a peculiar but public, and perfectly acceptable, place.
Saying things like, “That’s not what I said,” or “Let me finish what I was saying,” or “Excuse me.”
It might look like a slow descent into letting myself go, but that’s inaccurate. I dress better and spend fewer days in yoga pants all day. I don’t buy clothing that I know will make me feel bad about myself, or that pinches my glorious little muffin top that I’m becoming so fond of. I spend much less time reeling over conversations with what I should have said. I take quicker showers so that I have more time to massage my aching feet and calves, all the way down to my big hairy toes. I’m eating what I like, and not too much of it. But sometimes too much of it, and then I forgive me. Or I celebrate.
None of these things feel rebellious or groundbreaking or revolutionary or even particularly feminist.
It’s not letting myself go. It’s just letting go.
In ninth grade, I wore a silky red dress with straps a scanty two finger-widths wide, in black strappy clog heels. I had entered– or maybe was entered– into the High School Talent Show. In the weeks ahead, I agonized over which song to sing, practiced until my voice gave out, and stayed up late going over the future scene again and again.
As I stood shaking in the wings of the auditorium, peaking out to see my parents and friends watching expectantly, I tried to bolster. I heard my name announced, walked to center stage, picked up the cordless microphone with one hand while my other hand clenched a single red rose. The backing track began. Just as practiced, I sang through the song, eking through each note and praying that my vocal idiosyncrasies would compensate for my poor intonation from shaking so hard. On the final chorus, I walked toward the catwalk that stretched around the orchestra pit. One foot after the other, the end of the song approaching, I made it to the closest point to the audience, the furthest from my starting point, bent down and handed my single rose to some shadowy boy figure in the front. Then I stood back up and delivered the last notes.
Hot damn, I nailed it.
And I won! I even beat out my friend Cody who played a Bach piece completely blindfolded (and flawlessly).
Afterwards, my parents celebrated by giving me chocolates and flowers. They were always good for gifts, and had them on the ready regardless of the outcome. On the short drive home, they told me I’d done a great job, that the dress was a hit– isn’t it so thinning!–, that the rose had been nothing short of a surprise twist. And then–
“And your father said– and I agree– that the best part was that you didn’t clunk your way down the catwalk like those other girls your age in those heels. Every step was completely silent!”
This was the one part I didn’t practice.
It dawns on me now that I learned much earlier than that to step lightly, and take up little space. But that was the moment the mantra began. With every pair of high heeled boots and shoes I mangled my feet with from that point forward, my brain accompanied, Softly, softly, quiet, quiet, easy, easy…
My parents were likely doing the best they could, trying to prepare me for the way the world really is. Coaxing me with compliments has always been a successful tactic. Especially for a kid who was always too much and somehow also not enough.
But I don’t wear high heels, anymore. And I’m also learning to put my foot down.
I suspect this is why I resent my Someone so much for walking. I can detect his gait from across a large echoing foyer over multiple polite conversations, from an upstairs room, from a distant sidewalk. He’s a hard walker from cowboy boots to bare feet. When we moved into our little camper home, it became problematic. He shook the house just by going to the bathroom, leaving me splattered with boiling pasta water or tipping wine glasses.
But then, even outside the camper, I felt my irritation growing. Particularly as my parents spoke to me less and less. Until I exploded.
“You’ve never had to think of anyone else when you walk!” I cried, “You can stomp around all you want, and you can tip over water glasses, and it doesn’t matter– nobody says anything! But I have to walk around quiet all the time and I never get to be loud and when I am loud I’m not acting right! It’s not fair!”
I thought of the talent show.
No, it wasn’t fair. For all the pretty singing and hard practicing I do to move with ease, I am judged by the ripple of sound my footsteps make. I’d practiced walking “right” all my life, and it still wasn’t enough to be loved.
I went for a walk. A big stompy one.
From the Women’s Movement to my friends to my online free yoga teacher Adriene– they are all telling me to Take Up Space. Other than a wide star pose on my mat, I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I’m still working on it.
On stage mid story last month, an angry venue owner with a reputation for condescending women stormed in front of me and told me to shut up and sing. That if I didn’t start the song right that second, he was cutting me off. It was shocking for everyone in the room. I was, of course, humiliated. But there was something else there.
The headliner of the night, a woman from Texas, performed her set with almost no talking in between songs, timid and lilting. Afterward, the venue owner said I could learn a thing or two from her. And that someday, when I was 80-something, I could earn the right to talk on stage, like his list of old white men he loved so much.
I didn’t learn a thing or two from her. Likely, she and I learned it at the same time. And now she, being praised into silence, was being used against me. In this hostile environment, she was surviving, and I was bucking. I was now all those other girls clunking around on the stage.
Our act hasn’t become quieter. Sure, I was a little gun shy at first. But now our show– it’s been foot stomping, story-telling fortified.
And I’ve added “Don’t listen to irrational chauvinists who try and make themselves louder so you will be quieter” to the list.
Maybe my friend won’t remember it at all, but I think of it with a significant amount of regret on a regular basis. We were sharing a hotel room that night, laughing and listing the ways we didn’t live up to our mother’s expectations for us. My friend, she’s been with me through most of it starting in early college, even housing my poor college ass for a summer where she welcomed me with a familial love that I had a hard time finding in my own home. And she is a bright, exuberant person that can go from calm and nurturing to peals of laughter with a seamless transition that has you along for the ride regardless of where its going.
She was one of the first adults I’d met who made me believe that I wasn’t a oddity– that there were more like me out there, and that I was bound to find them.
So in a fit of high energy jesting, she sat up, leaning to one side with her head tilted and her hand to her cheek and said, batting her eyes, “But I’d say I’m rather regal wouldn’t you?”
I, still carried away, found a refresh of laughter and replied, “Oh, no! You are a lot of things, but regal isn’t one of them!”
She deflated. I stopped. I tried to giggle sympathetically. She brushed it off with another little laugh and changed the subject.
To me, regal meant stilted. It meant reserved. It meant quiet. For her to be regal meant that she was not the comrade I’d known her to be– the one willing to sink in with a box of tissues and a bowl of ice cream and a sad movie while I waded through my divorce.
What I wish I had said, instead, was– “Regal doesn’t have anything on you. You are kind and good and feeling and engaged and hilarious and a flash of light while also a burning ember and whatever everyone told you that you need to be in order to be better and more accepted– like regal– they were wrong. You are perfect.”
But I stayed silent.
I don’t wear shoes much in the summer. I downsized my purse to only be able to fit my wallet and one book so that I stop carrying everything around with me while my Someone carries just his tiny wallet. My Someone has since taken to carrying a saddlebag. He likes it, and it helps him have the space he needs to carry what he wants. And it gives me the space to just take up space without my shoulders sinking me smaller and smaller. My posture has improved.
My Someone works hard not to move the camper, now, when he walks, too. I work hard to flop myself around on occasion. Once, I even spilled a little hot wax from our candle. It was glorious.