Author: mallorygaylegraham

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?”

Esmeralda Tells All: On Reading My Misfortune.

The first time I had my fortune told, it cost me two gold tokens in a slot that woke up Esmeralda.  She was a torso and a head that shook to life, rumbling the kiosk that held her sleeping, until someone needed their fortune told.  My Someone won’t let me have my Tarot Cards read.  There was a great deal when we lived in Nashville just up the street– $10 for one palm.  At least, I think that was a good deal.  My Someone wouldn’t let me find out.  My Someone, much like me, is afraid that what the reader will find is my inevitable early end.

But Esmeralda seemed like a good first step, as we stood in a huge grown-up fun house in Wisconsin called The House on the Rock.  She was safe.  Maybe because she was a doll.  There was spindly concertina music and a hint at thunder, the lights flashing and Esmeralda groaning, calling out “I am Esmeralda!” waving her plastic hands over a deck of cards.  Then, the machine shuddered and went black again, putting Esmeralda back to sleep with an anticlimactic shuffle of paper, which slipped to a lower compartment.  It was my fortune.

You have had a lot of trouble, for which others are largely responsible, but you are now reaching a point when you will be able by your own efforts, to control your own affairs. You are not easily understood, as you keep much to yourself. You are fond of the fine arts and like to be alone a great deal.  You some times have a desire to destroy things, especially in your young days, for which you are sorry afterward. Be careful of the figure 7 appears on any money transaction and keep your eyes open to some of your “would be” friends.

One of your lucky numbers is 7.

Drop another coin in the slot and maybe my next prophecy card will suit you better.

Esmeralda tells all at The House on the Rock, Spring Green, Wisconsin.

It worked out to be true, of course.  Much like reading the Bible, you can create anything from a liturgy, a few hand waves, and some sacred words.  It would go on that my “would be” friend that came to mind would break up with us in the next month, and that my first money transaction marked November 7– a parking meter receipt– would unluckily have me walking into a pet ER with my dog, and out without her.  But the first bit, the lot of trouble that isn’t my own, that could be something anyone could say.  Except Esmeralda gave it to me.

My friend Piper says that it is important to take time to feel sorry for yourself, because no one else is going to give it to you.  It is important, like animals, to take the time to lick your wounds, to assess the damage, to boo-hoo and sleep and roll around in the dark crying out that you are in pain.  The world isn’t going to help you do that.  Your friends, your family, even your Someone can’t do it for you.  It’s not their pain.  They have their own.  And no one can do you the justice you can do for yourself of grieving.

When we don’t depend on someone else to feel our sorrow– when we really commit to our sorrow– we understand that we are the only ones who can dig ourselves out.  Or, be able to, by our own efforts, control our own affairs.

And often, there waiting, are our friends and our family and our Someone, who had been there all along, and are ready with you to get into the work of What Is Next.  The journey of pain is much like the journey of birth and the journey of death– we do it alone.  But standing by are helpers, rooting for us, hoping we figure this one out.

Last spring, I went on a journey of pain, alone, confronting a few dark memories.  Or rather, four years of real memories in which a man– a 30-something worship leader in my house church– took advantage of 15 year old me.  And 16 and 17 and 18 and 19 year old me.  When I came through that journey, I was able to use words like “molestation” and “rape” for the first time.  It took me 15 years to say that.  It took 15 years to admit that I had a lot of trouble, in which others were largely responsible.

That he was solely responsible.

32 year old me is sick of this shit.

Last week, at a music festival in Michigan, we loaded our gear out and started driving when a woman flagged us down.  She loved our set, she said.  And she wanted to give us a free Tarot card reading.  I looked at my Someone.  Thumbs up.

Colleen offered me a seat as she shuffled her deck, splitting it in three and letting me stack it back up again.  Then she laid out my cards, explaining as she went.  Justice, Judgement, Death– they all showed themselves throughout my 8 cards.  And then, Colleen explained–

“You’ve had a lot of trouble in your life– you’ve had people do things that were very unfair, that weren’t your fault in your past.  And people judge you for it.  There was no justice for you.  You have a long road ahead, full of burdens that you have to carry alone.  But then, a new chapter will begin.”

I wondered if she spoke to Esmeralda.

“I can cut the deck again,” she said, “I can cut it three, four more times– a hundred.  But it’ll still come out the same.  You’ve got a lot behind you, but even more ahead.”

She isn’t wrong.

I am pushing ahead, now.  I am constructing a plan.  I am working out my anger.  I am licking my wounds.  I am uprooting fear.  I’ve allowed it to sprout in every facet of my life, and now I am actively ripping it out again.  And it is not enough, anymore, simply to identify it by name.  Like Esmeralda said, I can be prone to destroying things– especially my young days.  And it is time to destroy these roots.  I sometimes complain that it’s unfair– that this was not trouble I am responsible for making.  I dwell.  It’s a deep cavern, and it’s lonely.  But then I get up again, and keep pulling up these roots.  And as I am pulling them up, it seems possible that through my own efforts, I will be in control of my own affairs.

I don’t need to cut the deck again to know it’s true.

Dog Shelters: On Love and Greed.

“Didn’t you have two dogs?” our interviewer asked me before we went on the air.

“Yeah, but we lost her back in November,” I started.  I usually leave a pause after that to give the other person an opportunity to stop me. It’s a courtesy I’ve developed for people who don’t really want to know. He took the bait.

“Ah, well, one is more than enough,” he said. I started to object, but he beat me to it. “Sometimes we can be too greedy for love.”

I started to tell him that we’ve been stopping at humane societies and pausing at community boards filled with dogs needing homes. But I only opened my mouth to hear myself say, “Yeah. I guess so.”

I am greedy for love. I am greedy to have her back again. I am greedy to fill the space she left.

She was greedy for love, too.  I don’t know the science of it, yet, but I am suspicious that love does not conform to the normal laws of emotion and physics.  I am suspecting that being so greedy for love has somehow morphed to make one more generous.

I checked the local shelter this morning.

One greedy bitch seeking another.

No Bunny Else: On Sending the Wrong Sign.

IF YOU DON’T GO TO GOD’S HOUSE NOW,

WHY WOULD HE LET YOU INTO HIS HOME LATER?

“Maybe because his house smells like old diapers and grape juice,” I said to my Someone as we walked by. “Besides, my house is cooler.  He should just come to my house.”

The church sign up the street from our friends’ house where we are parking in Western North Carolina took a dramatic downturn since we’d arrived two weeks ago.  We pass it every morning when we walk our dog– sometimes twice.  It seemed to be the first effort made since Easter.

“What was wrong with ‘No Bunny Loves You Like Jesus!’?” I pressed.

“Now that was a winner,” my Someone affirmed.

“I just don’t think that tactic works on me, anymore,” I said.

“Which tactic?”

“The one that bullies me to do something right-now-on-my-terms-or-you-get-nothing-at-all tactic.”

We tried out different scenarios.

“If you don’t eat this dinner I made you right now, I will never make you dinner again!” I yelled.

“If you don’t come play with me today, I am never ever going to ask you to play again!” my Someone yelled.

We started down the hill.  It didn’t match up with the God Of Second Chances.  It matched up more closely to an abusive parent.  Ultimatums are not the work of the angels, it seems.  They are the work of a kid who feels upset that no one is playing with him.  They are the work of a bruised group of people who need to be right– just this once.  They are the work of people who don’t seem to feel particularly loved– or at least don’t seem very secure about it.  I’m not all that interested in that House of God.  It sounds a little too decrepit with a vague odor of cat pee to be able to host me and all my pals.  It sounds like a club I never asked to join– but it’s sold to me like the only club I’ll need to look good on my celestial college application.

The problem, it seems, is that the sign was created not for passer-byers to feel welcome, but rather for the inhabitants to feel safe.  Inhabitants that can’t quite get it through their heads that No Bunny Loves Them Like Jesus.

Locked Doors and Guns: On Being Afraid (a Little Less)

I paced around the camper more.  I baked.  I checked the lock.  I texted my Someone to make sure he was still out there somewhere, making deliveries for our temporary day job.

Everything all right?

Yup! Running a little behind.

I got up. I checked the lock again.  I thought about turning off the music to hear if anyone was approaching.  Then I dug my heels in and decided just to turn it down.  But only a little.  I closed the blinds.  I opened them.  I had to be on the ready.  I texted my friend Kristie.  She was watching the news.

Have they caught him yet?

I waited.  I jumped when my phone buzzed.

No.

Being afraid is exhausting.

“I’m not naive enough to teach my children that life is all sunshine and butterflies,” Nicole said.

We were parked in her driveway for a couple of days, and spent our time walking through the back door and being met with muffins or cupcakes and some insight on she and her partner’s new life as parents.  Nicole, like most adoptive parents, is constantly looking ahead.  They didn’t stumble into parenthood on accident.  They sought it out.  And they fell hard for their two little ones.  And so, they are carefully constructing their life together while leaving plenty of room to explore.  And also plenty of time before the bad things creep in.

“I just don’t think that raising them in a way that tells them that the world is bad is going to help them.  So, maybe by the time someone does say something terrible, they already believe they are good, and can overcome it,” she said.

It made sense, but it felt risky.  Like a hot stove or a steep stairwell, our instinct is to call out beforehand–

Watch out! we want to scream, Some people out there are going to judge you by your gender or the color of your skin or your family situation or other things you can’t help!  

And then what?

Why?

And how do you explain it?  Because religion?  Sociology?  Slavery?  Economics?

Maybe it’s all a risk, sending children in the world without prior knowledge of racism and sexism and all the other -isms that were created to keep them in their place.  After all, they could feel unprepared in their first encounter.  Which is probably bound to happen.

But, maybe, imagine the risk of sending children into the world who are only prepared to be hurt.

It was settled.  I would keep the music low, but on.  This was my Sunday afternoon, goddammit.  And it was rainy and perfect for the project I had laid out.  I would keep the blinds up because the cloudy gray light was pretty, but also to be alert.  And because I wouldn’t let some crazy gunman loose in town keep me from living my life– from doing what I had waited all week to do.

The man had already killed four people early in the morning at the Waffle House.  He was at large, potentially armed and likely naked.  That seemed easy enough to spot from my tiny camper.  No one was home.  And I was angry that this villain had hurt so many people and was now keeping a city cowering in their homes.

The police on TV were asking us to lock our doors.  I complied.  I’m not above precaution.  But I am trying to be above fear.

I checked in with my Someone again.  I tried to focus.  My mind kept wandering to a couple of late night/early morning kids who wandered into a Waffle House in Tennessee to sober up or just find a place to hang out.  I counted the number of late night/early mornings I found myself doing the same– a teenager too young to go to bars and too old to not be out late.

I kept working.  I kept checking the time.  I kept texting.  I checked “going to diners at 3AM” off my list of things I would do anymore.  I got angry again.

“I think there can be a mentality of ‘I don’t want you to make the same mistakes we made’ out there with parenting.  But I don’t think I want that for my kids.  I think I want them to make all the mistakes they need to.  Because not being able to make a mistake means… I don’t know…”

“Being afraid?”

“Being afraid.”

We got quiet for a second.  Fear based parenting, much like fear based living, is a tightrope.  But letting go of that fear– it’s a trapeze.  Both require nets at the bottom, I guess.  But only one of them allows you to fall into it without feeling like a failure.

I think I’m going to start taking a swing.

Maybe it looks like this– I will keep living my reckless road life, scrapping the security of a house and a steady job, but I will still wear my seat belt.  I will not run over to my friend’s house and delay my work at hand because of a crazy gunman on the loose, but I will lock my door and keep my phone close.  I will not assume that the sound guy that night is a sexist, but I will be prepared to stand up for myself in case he calls me “sweetie” one more time and explains what a microphone is.  I might make the same mistakes my parents made.  But I wouldn’t advise people around me to make the same ones I’ve made– though likely only if it comes up.

No amount of fear-based planning can keep us from falling– eventually.  There’s a giant net down there, and while it’s important to listen to fear long enough to hold on tightly and to chalk our hands to grip, at a certain point, the jig is up, and it’s time to let go.

Sheep Shifting: On Gaining and Losing Hell.

When I lost my sheep, I did just what the parable says.  I left my ninety-nine behind and recklessly ran through the woods, over hillsides, into caves, calling out to him, leaving voicemails, opening every portal of vulnerability– being a fool on a journey, looking more like a crazy person on a spin out– begging her sheep to come home.

In the parable, Jesus says that when the shepherd finds her sheep, she is so glad that she swings the sheep on to her shoulders and carries him all the way back to the other ninety nine left behind.  And there is rejoicing.

When I found my lost sheep– our best pal– I was told that the sheep does not want to be found.  In fact, the sheep had plans to build a fence, find a different flock, and– though he would quietly continue to follow me on Instagram and Facebook– he was otherwise uninterested in hanging in any more pastures connected with mine.  I went back to my ninety-nine empty handed.  A new hundredth sheep has been added, but there is still a missing sheep.  Like a stillborn.

While I see myself as more of a fellow sheep than a shepherd, the metaphor still seems to hold up.  And my wool was really in a tuft.  Even though my flock is healthier without that hundredth sheep, even though as I am recounting our history I see the pattern of a sheep who could not love the flock he was in, I am still missing a sheep.  It would take a major shave and regrowth for that sheep to fit in again.  But there it is– on the far side of the meadow– a tiny sheep-shaped hole I’ve cut into the fence myself.  Just in case.

And for this reason, I don’t believe in Hell.

It goes like this: God has a flock of sheep, and that’s us, and we wander around and get out of the fence sometimes and occasionally get eaten by wolves if s/he’s been careless.  S/He comes to find us when we are lost, and sometimes we say– nope.  Not coming back.  I want to hang in greener pastures for a while.  Maybe forever.

So what if this: if I have the capacity in my sheep brain to continue to hold a place for a missing sheep I don’t intend– and don’t even really want– to have back in my pasture, isn’t a God who is supposed to have more advanced feelings and capacity for love able to hold a place for me without, I dunno, hardening his heart or mine for the short span of a human lifetime?  I mean, s/he’s eternal, right?  What’s the matter with holding back the fence for the blip of a lifetime?  It’s no wool off her nose– she’s still got ninety-nine sheep to party hardy with in the meantime.  If I am feeling the distinct missing-ness of a sheep in my own flock I didn’t create, how much more would the God-Shepherd feel the missing-ness of a sheep s/he took the time to fashion each hair on its wool coat?

It’s his metaphor, for Chrissake.

If my sheep doesn’t want to hang with me anymore, I think he can still live a full and happy life.  God must be bigger than me.  So a fiery dungeon pit Hell as an alternative to being in hot pursuit of a higher power seems illogical.  Narcissistic.  And from what I’ve read, and what everyone seems to be saying (aside from the sign-carrying Turn-or-Burn variety) is that God is nothing if not loving and compassionate and selfless.  Hell doesn’t make sense in God’s own construct.

There’s a theory out there I’ve heard that Hell is actually the time we spend apart from God.  I think I could buy it.  I’ve formed a sort of Hell-shaped hole for my missing sheep, too.  It’s a hole that looks like hurt feelings and snarky comments and the time we are missing out on.  But it’s a Hell I can live with.  And I’m pretty sure he can, too.  In this way, I think we live in our own personal Hells all the time.  Occasionally, there is restoration.  Sometimes there’s not.  And out of those Hells, there grows a thorny wall that separates us from that person, growing thicker all the time.  We can choose to see that wall and believe it’s unsightly or painful.  Or, we can see it as potential.  It will produce some fine roses someday, and excellent shade from the scorcher of a summer we have coming up.

And in a strange way, even while we are in Hell, we are in Heaven, as well.  Finding ways to be happy in spite of or because of the one we are separated from.  We could live this way forever.  For eternity, even.  I think God would be as happy with one side of the thorn bush as the other.  After all, if we ever really needed to, there is likely a sheep-shaped hole in the bottom of the wall that makes it easy to crawl back and forth.  Because walls, just like the holes we put in them, are self created.  Kind of like Hell.

My sheep nosed his way under my fence shortly after I started unpacking this.  He said he’s ready to come around again.  I left the gate open, but I kept a safe distance.  A couple days later, he said he changed his mind.

No need to throw the gates open all at once.  All Hell might break loose.

Yucca Plants: On the Eternal Dunes.

We are wading through the thickness of it, trudging up hills and keeping an eye on the trail marker behind us and in front.  Every few steps, we are sure we’ve lost it.  It’s disconcerting and exciting and scary.  We squint through our sunglasses, occasionally lowering them for the exhilaration of the blinding light and blue sky.  I’ve only ever felt this way in the snow.  But here, it’s nearly 80 degrees and is only past noon.

“Is it up here?” I ask, unsure of the next few steps.

“I think it goes both ways– I followed it twice and didn’t end up in the same place,” a stranger’s voice responded.  I hadn’t realized we weren’t alone; but the backpacker, it seemed, had been alone for a while.  Here, in the White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, was either a version of Heaven or Hell.  And every person here staggered aimlessly, hoping for a way out the moment they walked in, while also looking for a deeper route in.  The long, rolling dunes threatened to wash us over with time– time marked only with an occasional Yucca or cacti or snake-belly pattern in the sand.  A real Paradise of Purgatory.

It’s a small miracle that anything can survive out here, the dunes like nature’s end credits– but with no end.  A wash of information scrolling up and over– a wild hare’s prints as soon brushed off screen as they were seen.  Animals manage, thanks to the adaptation of the plants.  It’s a sturdy system that takes all kinds– and all kinds are mostly reduced to three kinds.  The Hold-On-For-Dear-Lifers, the Live-Fast-and-Die-Young’s, and, my favorite, the Topple-Over-And-Start-Again’s.  Or, the Yucca.

The Hold-On-For-Dear-Lifers are mostly the stocky types– scrub brushes and a couple cacti.  They grow their roots in deep, refusing the change of the ever shifting sand around them.  Even when they’re held to the end of a dune, they hold harder.  For this reason, they grow in spite of their surroundings.  They know this isn’t their ideal condition, but they’re sure going to withstand it.  Desert be damned.  And, they do.  They are a source of water for some animals, and endure to provide a little more food, too– and they themselves can hoard what they store to last them on the hottest days and the coldest nights.  You can find them, bent and reaching, squat and firm, glaring into the whip of sand grains around them.

Then there are the Live-Fast-and-Die-Young’s– the grasses.  These little guys shoot up in clusters, immediately accepting their fate.  They grow up fast and straight, moving easily with the winds, indifferent to the moving dunes. Or, maybe not so much indifferent as open.  Ready.  Unshaken, even as they are being pulled from their roots.  These little buggers fly up wild and free, thriving and strong– and then they’re gone.  You’d never know they were there.  There’s no hole, no loss– just another shoot to replace them quickly pushing up behind.  Their ability to keep moving quickly makes them a easily replenished source of food, too.

They couldn’t be more different.  They couldn’t be more equally important.

“It’s just, I get so close– soooo eeeeeky close– to believing in the Nothing– to believe there’s nothing after this,” I tell my Someone.  We are driving after our show in Crawfordville, FL, where the trees all hang their heads heavy with Spanish moss and kudzu.

“And then what happens?” he asks.

“Then,” I stammer, “then… then I miss the trees.”

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“And then when I get so close to Christian Heaven forever, I can’t do that either,” I say.

“Why?”

“Because then, the trees here aren’t good enough, and I want to love them.”

“Hmmm, tough call.”

“I don’t know how to pick,” I say.

“Maybe you don’t have to.”

The Yucca is easy to spot– its long flower extending up from its jagged, leafy base– like a crow’s nest scouting out the sandy sea, watching the dunes around billow and deflate.  The Yucca has a strange little visitor– the Yucca Moth– who comes and whispers in her ears, pulling the pollen, then pollinating her in exchange for a place to lay eggs and rest.  The young moths, when they’re born, feed on nothing but the Yucca seeds before they go off in search of their own Yucca plant.  It’s a small, but symbiotic world, full of tiny births and rebirths within the plant.  Then, when the sands shift and the dunes decide that the time has come, the Yucca plant begins to shake, as well.  And with one last look at the world, with a warning movement slow to send the moths out– because this journey is only her own– the Yucca resists none of the inevitable pull, and pushes her long neck forward and dives face first to her grave.

It’s not over.

All those little relationships, all this craning of her neck, all this world within a world is for this: the stalk of her head digs into her grave, and the grave turns into a womb, and her death was only sleep, where out grow another stalk.  Another plant.  The same plant.  Again.

It’s so beautiful, I can hardly stand it.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what happens to us when we die.  Maybe I don’t need to decide.  But what I am starting to believe– the urgency– is that what happens when we are gone seems to dictate how we live.  With the Nothing– or Atheism or Live-Fast-and-Die-Young, the urgency brings an immediate call to love, love, love, now, now, now.  But it’s the urgency that twists my tummy.  All this pouring out– all this speed– and then… Nothing.

With Heaven– or Christianity, or Hold-on-for-Dear Life– it creates a hope that this is all for something later; but the later looms, and I am disappointed at the spitting sand instead of enjoying the movement of the dune below me.  I’ve watched too many friends– I’ve watched too much of myself– sneak slyly by the present with a smug smile that one day– on a better day than this– everything will be made right.  By someone else.  And these trees?  This Yucca plant?  All well and good, but the good hasn’t even started.

How sad.

The story I tell myself about the Later, it’s important.  It helps me tell myself how to live now.  And while I know it takes all kinds, I’m not sure I can survive these conditions with the speed or strength these two require.

There’s a fourth.

The trees in White Sands, they are connected.  Often several trees scattered that you would suspect least– they came from the same single tree.  The elevated water table in the park allows for a single tree to become tall and nourished.  And then, creating a standard for living for themselves, their roots follow the water through the ground.  When they realize how far they’ve strayed, they grow up– really up– out of the ground.  New trees are formed.  All of them connected to the same root base.  The Grow-Togethers.

I’m not sure what this does for my eternal perspective, but I am relieved to know there is a deep, warm embrace of many protecting and making strong the dark, watery underworld.

“I can’t believe it took us so long,” I said to my Someone.

“So long to what?” he said.

“To find each other.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “it was a lot of hassle.  But at least we figured it out before too late.”

“Maybe we can do better next time?” I asked.

“If that’s the case, then we probably found each other in record time this time, compared to the last time,” he said, “So I imagine next time will be much sooner, still.”

“Until we are born closer?”

“Until we are born closer.”

My Someone and I aren’t sure that we believe in reincarnation.  In fact, we likely don’t.  But we might believe in magic.  And we definitely believe in love.  And somehow, it seems right that we regroup between each life and try to make a better plan this time to find each other.  So far, this life, the one we are in, is our best attempt yet.  And I’m doing my best to enjoy it at its every moment.  I roll over, and tuck my head into the the covers like a Yucca flower in a sand dune.

“Okay,” I say.  “Let’s start over tomorrow, too, as if we started at the very beginning.”

My Someone rolls over, tucking his Yucca head under our dune blanket, too.

“Sounds good.”

April 4: On Turning 32.

Today, I am 32 years old.

I am still working on liking Chardonnay because I think that it’s what thirty-something’s drink.  I am sorely missing my best pal this year, but am starting to see the benefits of grief, and how it opens up into sensitivity, which opens up to seeing, which opens up to falling in love again.  One of my favorite things is blending famous people or friend’s names with inanimate objects or activities (David DuCovies for my duvet.  Donald and Danny Glovey are my gloves.  Ellaphants Gerald is my elephant blanket.  When my Someone asks “Are you ready to quit for the day?” and I say, “Yep, it’s Quittin’ Tarantino Time!”).  I make an effort to do this at least once a day.  This morning I think I learned what it means to breathe into a feeling and release the bad feeling out.  It was my first time thinking it worked.  I have a love of putting my feet in water that doesn’t seem to be decreasing with age.  For the first time since I was young, I didn’t watch my birthday come in at midnight– I made it only to 11:45PM and conked out.  I was, however, up in plenty of time to see the sunrise.  My favorite city to visit in Savannah, GA, with a close second of Rapid City, SD.  I listen to more music, now, and am pretty sure it’s because I am able to hear again without worrying if it makes me cool.  I am writing more, and starting to believe that the universe isn’t against my effort, but is rooting for me, instead.  Celery might be becoming my favorite vegetable, but I’m not ready to admit it to myself because it feels boring.  I do yoga almost every day, and take classes without feeling like anyone is watching me, anymore.  This morning, I did it in the middle of a park where people were watching, and I didn’t care.  I consider stopping shaving my legs once a month, but I don’t.  I love hotel rooms.  I am actively working on ways to find myself lost in a project– so lost that I realize that I’ve forgotten to eat, or that it is suddenly nighttime.  I started wearing jeans again this year, but only the sneaky elastic kind that are more like tights but nobody knows it.  They are the same ones my mother-in-law wears.  I am a sucker for jokes, but not the practical kinds.  I want to drink more tea.  I want to drink finer wine is smaller quantities.  I want to go roller skating.  I want to go bowling.  I want to go on more walks in order to think, and think less about whether or not I should be walking.  I’ve made a new friend this year who was right under my nose, but I wasted too much time believing she was someone she wasn’t before I finally set my ego aside and loved her.  My biological clock still isn’t ticking.  I often think of my friends with food allergies when I eat the food they can’t have, and I feel sad that if they were here in that moment, we couldn’t share.  This then throws me into a mental scrolling marquee of each of my friends and their allergies (Alli can’t have beans, Zach can’t have peanuts, Steven can’t have almonds, Dad can’t have gluten, Sherry is vegan…).  My dog is so cute, and I sometimes cry or grit my teeth at the sight of her to keep from exploding.  My Someone is so kind, and I am working at looking directly at him to stop from getting too far in my head and blaming him for things he isn’t doing wrong.  I think I am becoming more patient.  I am exercising my flexibility.  Most times I feel afraid when I am content, because I believe that this emotional indicator is the Universe’s way of letting me know that it is my time to pass on, now.  I am working on not feeling guilty for happiness.

It’s a good start, at least.  Now, I will start preparing for 33.

Resting Emotion Theory: On Choosing Love.

I’ve been working on a theory of Resting Emotion.  The state in which a person has a moment of nothing– a state of neither bad nor good– the emotion that surfaces.  It’s the moment after a room is laughing together, the joke has already been told, the oh‘s and ah‘s and mmm‘s have fallen to the floor, and the silent lull takes over.  Sometimes just for a second, sometimes a few beats.  In that time– the transition– what is the emotion that a person naturally fades to before the next thing appears?  When I was conjuring this idea, I believed mine was Sadness.  We were parked outside of Kingman, AZ at a place called Coyote Pass, where we woke to rock structures that looked like Mars and spent our mornings hiking and our evenings seeing multiples of stars we swore we’d never seen before.

I traced back to my childhood– the crushing sadness of waking up.  The debilitating sadness of the third pew from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.  The seeping, serene sadness of a sunset.  My Someone and I named it one late night after a show– years before he was my Someone– as the Other Shoe.  We had been laughing til we cried, until the crying became crying.  Maybe it’s fear or nerves and some other neurotic phenomenon, but wherever there was bliss, my body prepared itself quickly for the Other Shoe to drop, padding itself with sorrow that could welcome whatever punishment was coming for my happiness.

This is my Resting Emotion.  Contrary to podcasts and science that tell me that emotions are social constructs, contrary to nurture, contrary to free will and change– I was born this way.  My Someone was born with the Resting Emotion of Anxiety, resorting to the what-if‘s and potential failings that keep him twitching in the transition.  My little dog, Happiness.  At least there is a little balance.

We were fighting again.  We fight a lot since our dog died, and I am suspicious that this is our Resting Emotion coming head to head.  Sadness and Anxiety clashing to make Anger.  My Someone said something unintentional.  I raged.  I prepared myself to retort, brewing a wiry, stiff cocktail of jab and truth.  And just as I was ready to pour it out, a voice in my head stopped me.

Choose love.

The sentiment seemed so cheesy, so unlikely, that I did stop.  I clenched my jaw, I tried again– and the voice persisted.

Choose love.

I stopped resisting.  I eased.  I took a deep breath.  My Someone eased, too.  We changed direction.  We made dinner, instead.

Barf, I thought, this could actually work.

The thing about Resting Emotion is that all other emotions are a surprise or a challenge.  They’re unnatural.  They are work.

This morning I was thinking of my Resting Emotion.  It was holding up.  My Someone was still resorting to Anxiety, my dog still Happy.  And me, Angry.  I’d been guzzling the emotion for a couple of weeks, now, occasionally voluntarily.  I couldn’t get enough.  At least, not until the voice started.  Now, my Resting Emotion was in a constant state of challenge by Love.  I didn’t particularly like it, but the pangs in my chest and shoulders were decreasing, and the crease in my brow was less severe.  And my Someone and I were fighting less.  Which was still a lot, but less.

We are halfway through a four day pact to not-fight-at-all-costs.  We are winning, in spite of my Resting Emotion.

Which is why, when checking on my writings of my theory from a couple months before, I was shocked to see that my Resting Emotion was first diagnosed as Sadness.

And in this way, I am debunking my theory.

This is the thing about the little Choose Love voice that is taking over.  While it is foreign to me, it is still the sound of my own voice.  Which brings me back to Resting Emotion.  I think it might hold up, after all.  What if our Resting Emotion is Love?  What if our Natural State isn’t the garbage we tell ourselves?  So then, maybe we really can’t change who we are, but we fight it.  We can fight it by believing that we will only ever be Sad or Angry or Anxious for the rest of our lives.  We can fight it by saying that our natural state is Not Good.  But, I can’t deny that in a moment of white hot fury, my own voice told me to Choose Love, and I instinctively knew what that meant.  The instruction was vague, but I already had it in me to do what it asked– to a T.

So maybe our Resting Emotion is Love– and maybe it’s not an emotion at all.  Maybe regardless of who we think we are, our real selves will persist.  And there are 100 tiny redemptions we perform in a day to uncover ourselves rather than what we believe we are.  To uncover each other.  To uncover love.  To choose it.