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Shiny Shoes and Nazi Flags: On Stopping Categories.

“When we got coffee this morning, we told them we were coming here, and they all said it was as near to nowhere as you can get,” I told Ed.

Ed lives in Isabel, South Dakota.  It’s as near to nowhere as you can get, and it was our second time visiting.  This is a place of long roads with few gas stations, small towns with a minimum of two cowboy hats per male, and prairies that look like they could swallow the world’s oceans without eroding a single rock for how thirsty they are.  Ed is a person who rolls his eyes at what I just said.

“Did they also say, ‘It’s not the end of the world, but it’s damn near it!’ or ‘Even God hardly knows where that is’ or just ‘Why the hell you going there?'”

They had said that.  Almost in that order.

“Yeah,” said Ed. “Everyone likes to have that place– the place you call the sticks.  People on the east side, they think they’ve got it all because they’re still close to the big cities.  But they’re still in South Dakota.  But they need that.  Everyone needs that.  They need a place that’s further out than them.  They need the place that’s too scary.  We spend all our time marking off places not to go, marking off people who are too backwards or dangerous or too snobby.  I can’t explain it, but we keep making those things up.”

I stood staring for a second.

“Well, anyway,” Ed said. “Good to see you again.”

An Abbreviated List of What I Was Afraid of Before by Nature or Nurture That I Am No Longer Afraid of on Account of Having Experienced Them or Learned More About Them:

  1.  California.
  2. Yoga.
  3. People with different colored skin.
  4. Spicy Food.
  5. People with Really Shiny Shoes.
  6. Being Alone.
  7. Zip Lining.
  8. Swimming in the Ocean.
  9. Gaggles of Teenagers.
  10. Pastors.

Things I Am Still a Little or a Lot Afraid of Even After Experiencing Them:

  1. Wasps.
  2. Snakes.
  3. Heights.
  4. Christians.

I still have some work to do.

The thing about choosing a people to be afraid of, is that being afraid of them doesn’t make them less safe.  And putting other people in our safe category doesn’t keep them from being scary.  This I know to be true on account of my Someone.

List of Requirements for My Future Husband as I Recall Them as a 14-Year-Old:

  1. no blue eyes– blue eyes are not only not like mine, but also untrustworthy.
  2. not from California.  People from there are too flippant about marriage and he will surely leave me scared and alone in a state that is falling off the rest of the continent.
  3. must be a devout Christian.  Christian men take marriage seriously and will not leave me for some young thing when we are fifteen years in.

Truthfully, these categorizations did not stop a brown-eyed Christian worship leader from New York from molesting me for years.  And my blue-eyed Californian Agnostic-on-his-best day Someone has exceeded all expectations of his doomed evaluation.  Even on his extra shiny shoes days.

This I also know to be true on account of those people who look just like me and are carrying torches and speaking hate to people who look not like me at all.  People who do and don’t look just like me are dying because of these flag waving people who also look just like me because of all this dangerous other they’ve made up.  And they’re wrong.  They are completely wrong.

I don’t think I need these safe and scary categories, anymore.  I am working to break them down, to make my world a little more chaotic.   Because these categories are just superstitions to keep me safe, and these same superstitions are allowing other people to carry Nazi and Confederate flags in the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  I don’t want to be part of that– things I can justify avoiding, things I can deem as unfortunate.  And all the while missing out on a wide world of spicy curries and good people.  There’s no lucky rabbit foot in all of South Dakota that can keep me safe from feeling so full of all this other.

Open Vessels: On Being Not Chosen.

Back when I was trying to believe in a God who chooses some for love and some for destruction, it was difficult to get on board.  At the time, I thought it was because I had too much sadness for all those others who would spend their lives separate from me.  All those drug dealers and prostitutes and grandparents who didn’t go to church.  Meanwhile, I would spend Sunday mornings working myself Chosen to death, next to the greedy, the guileless, the molesting.

I think what I knew then is what I know now: that if this is true, that some are Chosen, then it is something I can believe whole heartedly, but only if I believe that I am not, in fact, one of the Chosen.

I know there are more out there like me.

All these heavenly strings attached, maybe it’s better to be the vessel for destruction, anyway.  A vessel implies an opening, after all.  And anyone who leaves themselves open for destruction can also be open to the ripping heart Destroyer of love.  No zippers keeping us inward and upward and compact for God.  Just fluid beings bumping into the just and unjust, trying to find a way to make it work right here, right now.

Puppy Love: On Calls and Responses.

Before my newest pup loved me, I could yell at her and she would not respond at all.  She would keep chew-chewing or sleeping or noting her paws.  I could make high pitched sounds of leaking cute, and she did not care that they were for her.  Her tail barely gave a waggle.

Before we knew each other so well– before she could hear the first jingle of the leash and know that it was time for a walk, before I could tease her until she would bark once at excitement, before she knew what too far was– she did nothing.  She bumped around on her own.  All I could do, and she couldn’t care.

Now, after she found out that I loved her, it is all she can do but to respond to my movements.  And when I yell at her, she is in the worst life.  When I make high pitched sounds of leaking cute, she bops her front paws up and down like she will explode.  She knows, now, that every movement is a movement for her.  This is how I know that she knows that I love her.

It is for this reason that I wonder whether I love God, or s/he loves me, at all.

For all this noise, I cannot tell that any of it is for me.

Seconds and Thirds: On Putting Back the Middle

It was my last night watching Eva Grace before we hit the road again.  The time before this, she was hardly talking.  Now, she was all ringlets and ideas.  We read one last story three times, and I sang her that song I had written when she was just ten tiny toes and diapers.  Finally, I was closing her door.

“Goodnight, Eva Grace,” I said.

“Goodnight, Miss Mallory,” Eva said to me.  “I’ll see you when I’m bigger.”

“I’ll see you when I’m bigger, too,” I said.

I don’t know why I said it, though.  All I have ever been doing is trying to make myself smaller.

I forgot until my Someone and I visited for two weeks.  Two weeks at my parents’ house is enough time to stir up all sorts of nostalgia.  And also enough time to conjure old fear.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, a three panel cabinet above the sink.  And right where one panel meets the other, a section in my middle disappears.  My arms are still there, and if I stand just right, I look perfectly proportional.  Except skinny.  Skinnier.

After my childhood baths and showers, I remember creating time vacuums standing there, willing myself small.  I counted it as motivation.  I counted it as something to work toward.  But all I was doing was cutting out my middle.  And no matter how perfectly aligned I stood and how good it looked, it was still disproportionate.

Ten, fifteen, twenty years later, standing in front of that same mirror, finding myself again in the same crevice, I furrowed my brow.  This middle of me that was missing was missed.  I moved to the full center panel.

That’s me.  Complete.  I smiled.

“Goodnight, Mallory,” I said, “See you when I’m bigger.”

I have a friend who is amidst carrying her fifth child.  She posts occasionally beautiful pictures of her pregnant self, openly reassuring that she is still someone who is lovable for who she is and not for what she is doing.  I mark “like” on each one.  Not because of how she looks, but because of who she is.  And this friend, she reminds me and the rest of the internet that her body isn’t something to be dissected, not to be laid hands on, not to be commented on, but that she is a person in there.  A full person.

Lately, I have been taking up exactly the amount of space that I am.  I have stopped apologizing for taking seconds.  I’ve stopped explaining my love of late night snacks.  Instead, I eat when I am hungry and laugh at the funny jokes that are being told over dinner instead of eyeing the last potato and wondering if I am deserving of it.  I don’t have to eye the last piece.  It’s already on my plate.

I am building up my middle– I am making sure that it is full.  And I am finding that the less I apologize, the bigger my insides are getting.  Soon, I will be able to say what I think right when I think it, instead of wondering if anyone wants to hear it.  Potentially with a mouthful of peanut butter tofu.

Virgins and Whores: On Selling Big Russian Novels.

My Someone isn’t going to finish his big Russian novel.  Each year when we trace back to my sister’s attic and exchange the books we read this year for the books we intend to read in the coming year, he picks up his big Russian novel.  He turns it over and makes a declaration.

“I’m going to read this big Russian novel this year,” he says.

“Do you want to read it?” I ask him.

“I should read it,” he says.

“Do you want to read it?” I ask him again.

“It seems like something I should read,” he says.

“Are you going to read it?” I ask.

“Maybe next year,” he says.

Each year he puts it back in the box for the next year.

“Next year, I am going to read this big Russian novel,” he says.

My Someone and I are recently learning how to get rid of the things we believe to be true about ourselves that are maybe not true, and are working, after we get rid of those things, to believe we are still good and whole.  This includes, but is not limited to, my following ambitions to become:

  1. a yoga instructor.
  2. a car mechanic.
  3. a park ranger.
  4. a person who loves sunsets without feeling sad or stressed out.
  5. a person who can sit with a hot cup of tea and sip it while watching the snow fall and not believe that I should, instead, be cleaning or cooking or writing a novel.
  6. someone who writes a novel.

The things we are getting rid of are not all bad things.  Having enough know-how to tell the difference between an oil leak and a transmission leak is fun, but does not destine me to become the only mechanic for miles around in a small town in Wyoming.  This also doesn’t mean that I can’t change my mind.  But like my Someone and his big Russian novels, sometimes keeping that intention around only makes me angry with myself that I am not yet the thing that I’m not sure I am or want to be.

Giving up my dream of chewing my gum really hard and polishing my ratchet while giving a bad estimate actually makes me enjoy the work of changing our tire on the side of the road instead of kicking myself for not seeing it needed changing earlier.

“If you take this Big Russian Novel, you have to put back these other three books you actually want to read,” I told him.  It was true.  We have limited space in the camper, and a Big Russian Novel is more room than we could afford.  “It’s your choice.”

“I am selling my Big Russian Novel,” my Someone said.

“What?”

“That’s it.  I’m not going to read it!” he said, a little louder than he intended.

“If you want to be someone who reads a Big Russian Novel, we can always buy you another Big Russian Novel,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “but now, we need gas money.”

And that is how my Someone shed his guilt and sold his Big Russian Novel and put our first tank of gas into our truck for our third year living wild and free.

But then there are these things:

“I want to know,” he said to me, “if you were actually innocent in all of this, or if you were some sort of teenage vixen making part of this happen.  Because I don’t want to be with someone who was anything but innocent in this.”

This was the man who felt he had rescued me from the man who had been abusing me.  This was one of our last conversations, and the moment I realized I was not only alone, but also needed to keep quiet so that no one else could tell me to be ashamed of the years I spent with a Bad Guy who did bad things to… and with… me.

It’s the “with me” part that’s so hard.  In the years after the Guy Who Thought He Rescued Me asked me this question, I’ve been spinning it around.  I ran myself into other bad situations when I leaned toward the part of me who believed I was the Teenage Vixen.  I circled back to create a wholesome looking life that wasn’t really mine to make myself the more Pure Version of the dichotomy.  The Virgin or the Whore.  Innocent or Guilty.  The options are so limiting.

And I have been so scared to pick a side.  Or to admit that I was anything but a doe-eyed victim.  But this Thing I Believe About Myself finds me in sweltering attics and dark basements.  This Thing I Believe About Myself carries with it an expectation of Who I Will Be or What I Deserve.

I am learning that no matter who I was then, it wasn’t my fault.  No matter which way you spin it.  And I guess my gut knew I wasn’t so interested in someone who demanded I be the kind of person who reads Big Russian Novels or says that being sexually abused as a 15-year-old makes me a vixen.  Even if it is a Guy Who Thinks He Rescued Me.

I am learning to not put this thing I was told to Believe About Myself back on the shelf for later.  Virgin or Whore.  I don’t want to pull it out of dusty boxes in the attic and wonder if this is who I was or who I am always going to be.  I am taking a lesson from my Someone and burning this one down to fuel for later.  And all the guilt that goes with it.  Let that get me a few miles down the road, and I will gauge whether I’ve made the right decision.

Time Loop: On Returning to Save Myself.

January 2017

April 2004

Dear Future Husband,

I’m sorry.  I don’t know if I know you, yet, or if you are someone I have yet to meet, but already I do not deserve you.  I have tried to guard my heart, but have failed you in so many ways, my love.  Please forgive me…

The letter went on.  With a follow up tucked in later journals and later pages of those journals.  I pulled them out instinctively, for a laugh, and read them to my Someone.  I began with a dramatic hand in the air and placed it over my heart in a longing Juliet sort of way.  But as my teenage self spiraled down and down into a pool of remorse and fear and self hatred, the mood shifted.  I looked up at my Someone.  He was sad.  I looked into myself.  I was sad.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Me, too.”

March 2017

We found ourselves in a studio in the woods of northeastern Michigan, and the late winter was setting in with twenty degree highs and winds that knocked the power out for hours.   Some of my favorite friends are in therapy, and I am envious.  I ask them questions about what they are learning and pretend I am laying on my back on a couch with the psychiatrist from Animaniacs writing incessantly on a wire-bound notepad.  I blame my transience and my lack of health insurance on not finding my own therapist.  I am coming to realize that the work they have been doing is difficult, and I was not ready.

Like a wounded animal, I have been crawling to dark places alone, concentrating on the healing, with ears alert for intruders.  Even the well meaning kind.

There in the dark, cooling studio in Michigan, I started a page I had been intending to start since I had found the letters to My Future Husband.   Or maybe that I had never intended to write at all.  Or maybe one that should have been written fifteen years before.

I woke up cranky and angry with the prospect.  I was no longer envious of my therapy friends.  I was scared.  I entered into a place in my mind resembling something of an old mining shaft and started digging around.  All of those old journals I had carried around without cracking open were cracking open here with all I had carried around.  There on a windowsill for hours I watched the birds and walked through the old mining shaft.  I emerged more broken than before, still wounded, still alert.  But different.

I am ready now.  And have been since.  It’s been a long few weeks.  But I am ready.

April 2017

I spend days in coffeeshops writing things down and reading notes from my friends’ therapy sessions.  My Someone often sits across from me, and says nothing as I cry or stare out the window or draw pictures of birds.

Dear Future Husband…

This was a note that was not written for my Someone, we know now.  This was 15 and 16 and 17 and 18 year old me writing to 31-year-old me.

me: Hey– are you there?

Me: Yeah, I’m here, I’ve read what you wrote.

me: Do we make it?  Am I okay?

Me:  You are okay.  We made it.  And I’m coming back for you now.  I’m going to save you.

It was in this way that I found out that I had created a time loop to keep me safe from 15 to 31.  That 15-year-old me was waiting in her bunker of journals, not for her future husband or a prince charming, but for her to save herself.

June 2017

From age 15 to 19, I was molested and raped by a worship leader of a house church who was 15 years older than me.

I am just learning how to say that out loud.  I am telling on him for my 15-year-old self.  I am advocating for her.  It’s really, really hard.

July 5, 2017

me: How is it going out there?

Me: Good.  I think you can come out, now.

me: I would like to believe you.

Me: Take your time.

Back Roads and Bicycles: On Pedaling, Anyway.

I don’t know how much it’s true about getting back to your roots to find answers.  I’m acutely aware of the wealth of metaphors as my Someone and I spend the next couple of weeks in my childhood home, at my childhood cabin, with my childhood family.  I’m often coming here ready for something, ready for a solution to the problems that started before I could write about them.  This time, I am coming just to try this: being here.  Not figuring it out.  Just… hanging out.

So when we were walking an old road, one grown over and given up on by the county to floods, I was half rolling my eyes as I recounted the summer days I spent pedaling this route.  There’s something about nostalgia that makes me a bit skeptical.  And also, a little worried to be the one at the party talking about the good old days.  But here it was.  Me on an old road not far from home, overgrown and talking about the past.

“This one time,” I told my Someone, “my best friend Emily and I were trying to figure out what the exact halfway point was between us so we could meet without making our moms drive us.  So we were on the phone, and counted down, and the second we hung up we both got on our bikes and pedaled as fast and hard as we could toward each other on this road.  And then, by some strange miracle, we both ended up exactly where there was this mysterious bench by the river.  It was so perfect we couldn’t believe it!  We decided to meet there again just to make sure it was real.”

The metaphor wasn’t lost on either of us.  It was so thick I could practically hear 13-year-old me swishing past, doing everything she could to make it work with the friend she loved.

I’m not just being.  I’m not just hanging out.  Old habits die hard, or you can’t change who you are, or some other saying goes here.  I am pedaling as fast and hard as I can toward the people I love, hoping they are pedaling toward me, too.  And maybe, in some twist of miracle, there will be a resting spot in the middle for us to agree on.

Here’s a bit of a trick, though.  Even if they aren’t heading my way, if I keep pedaling, there’s a chance I’ll still reach them.

Tick Picks: On Extracting Fear.

We’ve been picking ticks for a few weeks, and it is alarming enough to be the first topic of conversation with new people.

They are worse than they’ve ever been!  

They are impossible to defeat!  

You know my neighbor, he got bit by a tick and couldn’t go to work for weeks!

I’ve been asking questions, remembering the ticks we would pick from our dogs in Western Pennsylvania.  But somehow, the fear of Lyme’s Disease and near death experience isn’t coming to mind.  Even the South, where every other infestation seems to be in abundance, doesn’t have a leg up on these ticks of New England, who are ever traveling north– killing baby moose calves and giving everyone’s friends hearing loss or fevers or paralysis.

We are sympathetic and nervous.  We are diligent about checking our entire family each night, while counting the days until we can leave for safer, tickless areas.  We find them crawling up our arms as we drive across Massachusetts, and we feel violated.  Invaded.  Afraid.  We can’t fight them alone, and yet everyone is responsible to fight them alone together. People petting our dogs quickly turn them to their backs to check their bellies for ticks.  The communal awareness of this infestation is refreshing, but it is a community based on fear.

“It’s like some sort of German warfare shit up here,” Kevin said to me at our intermission.  “We are helpless here.”

Kevin was bitten recently with no symptoms.  But he is worried, I can tell, because he keeps touching the same spot on his leg where I presume he’d been bit.  And he keeps telling me about his neighbor who woke up a year later, paralyzed.

A community based on fear is still a community, it seems.  Since November, a lot of us have been swung to tables with people we didn’t expect to be sitting next to.  The fear that got us there is quickly giving way to speaking, and the speaking to remembering what we were never taught: we have so much in common.  I have been lately trying to embrace the fear, not as an inhibitor, but as a motivator.  The one emotion that calls most urgently:

Listen up!  Pay attention!  We have something very important to learn right now.

It’s fear that keeps me picking over my pups for the hundredth time and, still, finding another tick.  It’s Kevin’s fear that keeps me from reassuring him, and instead stupidly tells him about my other friend who lost her hearing in one ear.

“Completely?” he asked.

“Yeah!” I said.

“Did she get it back, yet?” he pushed.

“Not yet,” I said.

I wished later that I hadn’t said it.  What was the point?  He resolutely changed the subject to maps and jobs and politics.  Which is when he, too, came around to it.

“You know,” he said, “since 9/11, it’s all messed up here.  Everyone’s afraid of everything, now.  No one can live their lives.  I hate it!  I really do!  Everyone is just afraid and acting on fear.”

“Maybe so,” I said.

“But really, I hate it.  I hate how we all just hate each other.  I hate how we all treat other.  I hate it more than anything.”

He paused.

“I hate that, and these stupid, goddamn ticks.”

Jesus Bears: On Mutual Friends.

I like to poke the Jesus Bears.  The thing about poking them is that the reaction almost feels aggressive, but there is somehow a safety in the consistency.  My persistence is partly a barometer for my own feelings about Jesus, and partly to challenge myself and the Jesus Bears I am poking into figuring out that we can love each other even if we aren’t so sure.

But here, I was not poking a Jesus Bear.  Mostly, I was trying to be friendly.  I heard him talking about friends I knew, some of my best friends, and so after our set, I asked this man in the back alley of a Boston venue if he knew my friends.  He did know my friends.  He loves my friends!  We are practically friends because of these friends!  And then he said,

“So, you’re a Jesus-Lover, then!”

“Um,” I said, surprised that I had poked a Jesus Bear, “more like a friend of a friend.”

“Friend-of-a-friend of a Jesus Lover?” he pushed.

“No, more like a friend-of-a-friend of Jesus,” I said.

He nodded and walked away.

But this is how I wish I had responded:

1. What does that even mean?

or

2.  Why would you think that?

or

3.  You do know that if I say “no” that I am denying Jesus like Peter, but if I say “yes” then you think I am like you, and judging by how I just accidentally poked the Bear, I am not like you because…

and/or

4. I think that I am a friend to Jesus.  But I am not so sure we agree as to who that is.  Plus, Jesus and I used to play tea parties together and you weren’t there and he never mentioned you, so I kind of think maybe you aren’t a lover of him.  Unless you guys started seeing each other later at a different tea party.  And maybe sometimes just because you have a mutual friend does not mean that you will be friends with the person that your friend is friends with, and that’s okay.