The less I want to sound sanctimonious, the more sanctimonious my life becomes.
I’m 36 today. This morning, as is my tradition, I took my dog for a walk, alone, in the place I woke up. This year happens to be Flagstaff, AZ, tucked in a juxtaposition of two busy roads– one Route 66– and fragrant pines. I fought off my usual approach to birthdays, which is to guard it rigidly and have a perfect plan. Instead, I signed us up for a morning yoga class and cried in it for the last 15 minutes. I didn’t try and figure out why I was crying. The source could be anywhere from gratitude to my mother calling me for the first time in years on my birthday morning to the release of a stressful couple of weeks. Instead, I tried to enjoy it. I don’t cry as much as I used to, and I frankly miss the feeling of erratic catharsis.
Then, I walked with my Someone to a teahouse and slurped two pots of Milk Oolong alongside a blueberry muffin. I splurged on multiple readings from the Tao instead of the usual single daily allotment. We bought two kinds of tea to go, walked to an independent bookstore and purchased two books from one of my favorite authors. Then, we got to-go from a vegan curry place, came back to our camper, and ate with the smell of pine on our nostrils and the spice of chili on our tongues.
That is to say, I am having the perfect day.
It’s not because I planned it. It’s not because I laid down a cacophony of hints to my Someone leading up– a sordid map of how to make me happy.
I think it may be because I have stopped desperately grabbing at my life. I’ve stopped hovering over my small plate of time on Earth and have instead leaned back in my chair, examined it, smelled it, and am taking one bite at a time. Or, at least I’ve succeeded in doing so for this one day.
My Someone seems a little confused about it. Previous birthdays have been wrought with disappointment. Plans go bad, or expectations aren’t met. Or what I thought I wanted didn’t leave me feeling like I had “done” birthday right. It was a wild, flailing check list of what-I-should-want-and-should-do within a person who wasn’t really sure those things were what she wanted. By the end of the day, I’d concede that it was “Fine, really! I had a nice time,” in a voice that indicated that next year would be better. A real martyr’s move.
This year, he’s off the hook because I let myself off the hook. I know what I want. And what I want is to be quiet most of the day. What I want is to cry in yoga class and slurp tea and maybe sketch or just breathe all afternoon. And the reason this:
My birthday, this celebration of the day I arrived, is not anyone else’s responsibility. This is not a lesson in controlling my own narrative, or making the life I want to live. It’s about no longer trying to control everyone else’s narrative as it pertains to me. Including my own. It is not a day where I wait for others to appreciate me. It is a day where I appreciate being here. I got another helping on my plate, and I get to sit quietly and eat it at a table with others who have also been given a plate at the same time table as me. That is far from a disappointment. My expectations have already been exceeded. And I am no longer ravenous for it– I’ve already been given so much. But more is always appreciated.
Now. If only I could extend this birthday wish to the rest of my days.
My first name, Mallory, means Dark Knight, darkly armored, or in later translations, Dark Night or the Darkest of the Night. At least that’s what a little card my first boyfriend bought me from a gift shop in Eastern Ohio said. It sat on my Western Pennsylvania bedroom shelf for most of high school along with a smattering of pink trinkets that matched my pink walls. Pink wasn’t my favorite color, but it was the color that seemed to make everyone else happy to be my favorite, particularly after my Junior High goth phase. So I sank into it, even though I still preferred black. I was happier to make everyone happier, or at least less worried about me. My middle name, Gayle, I asked Jeeves about after the dial-up connected.
A strong and forceful wind.
I asked my mother, “Did you name me ‘A Dark Night, Strong and Forceful Wind?'”
She shrugged, “I named you after the ditz on Family Ties. And, yeah, probably.”
This, I thought, explains why my favorite color is black.
Earlier this month, we made it to Westcliffe, Colorado a couple of hours before the snowfall. By the following morning, the entire town was covered in 6 inches and counting. Our show that night went on as planned, folks trudging in wearing warm boots and heavy jackets. It was an open evening of full belly laughs and generous spirits. My Someone and I mingled afterwards by the merchandise table, keeping the cold at bay for a little longer. I fell into conversation with a bright light of a woman when I noticed her name tag.
“Gayle!” I said, “That’s my middle name, too. I don’t find many that spell it that way.”
“Oh, but you know what it means?” she asked.
“A strong wind!” I laughed, “A force, really.”
She looked troubled, shook her head.
“No… well, maybe. With a different spelling, I suppose. But this is from Abigail. The Hebrew name meaning ‘Father’s Joy.’ But without the father, Abba, part. Gayle just means Joy.”
I felt the strong wind fall out of my sails.
“Joy,” I said aloud, stupidly.
Gayle thanked me again and bounded off into the bright white snowy Colorado night.
This was a force with which I was not prepared to reckon.
I was still fighting my own Joy by the time we made it to California two weeks later. We were back at my Someone’s parents’ place, nestled sight distance from the Sierra Nevada mountains with orange groves and grapevines in every direction. We spent the early pandemic days here, and I was grateful to return on less tumultuous terms. I took the road reprieve to connect again, and rode a bicycle with my littlest big dog to the water ditch past the first orange grove. Dangling my feet above where the water should be, I called my friend Ann. Ann, from the Hebrew name Hannah, means “favor” or “grace.” Both of which she extended to me as I watched the sun get low on Pacific time, imagining the cold darkness of her Ohio Eastern time.
We talked about our mothers and our jobs and our Someones and landed squarely on God. In Christian culture, we refer to God as “Father.” Names like this are important inasmuch as they give a jumping point for what we cannot know. It’s problematic. For those of us growing up under the name of Father, we are often doomed to fashion God under the same pretenses. If our father was loving, our God was loving. If he was an asshole, then God is an asshole. It’s a simplification, but an important one.
Names are important. What we believe a name means can change who we are.
“I wonder,” said Ann, full of grace, “if you could find another person to fashion God after, if that would change your view of God.”
I thought of my failed attempts as a 20-something to call God a “She” or “Mother,” borrowed from edgy religious authors like Anne Lamott. It was unsuccessful.
I named you after the ditz on Family Ties.
I looked at my littlest big dog.
“I wish I could fashion God after my dog,” I said, laughing.
“Well, you can,” Ann said. “Or just after yourself. Think of how you take care of your dogs. Then make it God, the great loving dog owner, and you, the one she cares for.”
Like taking the Father out of “Father’s Joy,” I could take the Father out of “Father’s Love.”
This sounded like blasphemy from Ann.
I liked it very much.
Names that can be Named Are not true Names. The Origin of Heaven and Earth Has no name. Free from Desire, Contemplate the Inner Marvel; With Desire, Observe the Outer Radiance. These issue from One Source, But have different Names. –Lao Tzu
Which brought me to the ocean. I was not going to have a beach moment, where the waves lap on shore and I look over them into the horizon and suddenly have a strong feeling of culmination and conclusion. But, goddammit, if my feet didn’t sink into the sand and trap me in the end of a movie.
Last week, we spent our time ocean side in Morro Bay, California, where my Someone’s family gathered for a long overdue post pandemic reunion. Family time is historically nerve wracking for me. In this family, in particular, I am prone to feeling my name– a Dark Night and a Forceful Wind in the plucky make-nice of their ecosystem. This trip, I was adopted by a four-year-old niece named Amelia (meaning “industrious” or “striving”), who became my barnacle for the duration of the week. It was good to have a wild buddy to make faces and talk about colors and watch elephant seals with. She industriously turned my forceful wind into a bubbling joy.
And there, on a beautiful beach next to my littlest big dog, I watched the waves and stopped resisting my Joy.
Maybe it goes like this– that the miracle is not to be loved by a giant know-it-all God. The God I grew up with knew me down to the core– all of my failings, all of my secrets. This was presented as evidence of his love, that he could know all of that and still love me. This is no evidence of love at all. If I could know the every in-and-out of another human, it could only further create empathy, which creates love. To create an all knowing God is to create and all Loving one. That is not miraculous. That’s fantasy.
The miracle, I realized, is that I am a small person on the Pacific coast. And stretching beside and behind me are these other tiny specks of people, scattered by a forceful wind in random directions beneath a potentially infinite universe. And those random floating specks have found me. And from what little they know of me– from what little I know of myself– they love me.
The force inside of me is one of joy. Not a Father’s Joy, but my own. That is a more powerful wind than one that blows from Heaven Above. Soon, I will fall into the waves and be another speck floating in the foam. But for this time, in the Darkest Night in the Biggest Storm, there is a four-year-old and a fifty-four-year-old and a multitude of other varying aged specks who have found me, and I don’t need to be orchestrated by a Father’s hand, or even be named, to feel the full force of it.
I am cross legged in meditation– or worse, I am in Child’s Pose, forehead to the ground, arms stretched wide in front of me, haunches curled and relaxed. The door clicks, but I wasn’t vigilant enough, and when I finally raise my head to the loud heavy boot footsteps, it’s too late. I imagine myself running to the side door, but then the shots ring, a searing in my ears, and bang! My mind explodes into a white puff of fear. The sensation trickles through my throat, my chest, down to my legs. My eyes flash open at the sickness that follows, and I steady myself again on my yoga mat.
I am safe. I shake my head and try to push the fear down again. And again.
Since 7th grade, post Columbine, this is the mental reel with which I coexist. At movie theaters, amusement parks, yoga studios, restaurants. My instinct in every new situation is to assess entrances and exits, keep my back against the wall, and forcefully push away the onslaught of involuntary thoughts of becoming the next victim of a mass shooting. It’s not dissipating with age– it’s compounding. A few factors are involved there, not all of them in my head– like the increase of mass shootings, for instance. Now, I avoid movie theaters on opening night. I’ve become disinterested in large outdoor festivals and concerts in big cities. I’ve given up on returning to formal higher education of any variety.
It’s not working. The more I insulate, the more I am afraid. In late December, I fought back in the manner of a warrior. Or, rather, in Warrior I, II & III pose.
I signed up impulsively, before I could google it, before I could change my mind– one month of unlimited yoga classes. I continued to ignore the nagging in the deepest rut of my fear-addled brain as I parked, walked up the steps, and signed in for the first time. Then, I unraveled my mat and sat down in heart of my fear– the site of the 2018 yoga studio shooting in Tallahassee. Automatically, my reel began. The click of the door. The heavy boots. The searing in my ears. Bang. The white puff of fear explodes and trickles down my body. The sickness. Eyes open. Eyes close. Then the reel begins again.
My teacher enters mid reel, welcoming the room and instructing us into Child’s Pose. I obey, forcing my reel to a halt. After several deep breaths, the reel slows, but then something new happens.
“Please continue to breathe,” she instructs. “Our final student has arrived. I will now go and lock the door.”
The room breathes a sigh of relief. A tangible calm blankets the room at the sound of the lock turning. My reel stops for the remainder of the class.
In savasana, or Corpse Pose, at the end of class, I recognize a room full of women and men with their eyes closed, bodies open, doing nothing to lift a finger and defend themselves as a wild act of bravery. On the other side of that door could be the death of us. Another angry white man armed with a weapon built for war won’t be stopped by a locked door. My reel tries to begin again, but I stop it short. The noxious fear of what could be on the other side of that door could kill me here, within. Or rather, it has already been killing me. My life has been stopped short thousands of times since April 20th of my 7th grade year by this fear. As we rose from Corpse Pose, from the dead, to the breath cycle of conscious living, I looked my reel dead in the eye.
I’m coming for you, I whispered as the room, in unison, said “Namaste.”
Do away with Learning, And There is an end to Sorrow. “How different is Yes from No! How Good differs from Bad! What others fear must surely be feared.” Such propositions Confuse, And there is no end to them! — Tao te Ching, #20 An Infant Yet to Smile
I’m not alone in my fear. Studies show that more than 40% of the United States population hold gun violence and mass shooting in the top three of their utmost, raging fear. Many of us are living in a constant state of vicarious Post Traumatic Stress. This is learned behavior, of course. We are conditioned by the onslaught of news reports, death tolls, and unruly politics that favor illusioned and ill-defined rights more than lives. The learned behavior continues with security checkpoints at airports and elementary schools, and even incorporating the locking of the door at a hot yoga class. The latter was a comfort to me. Here is a community who, since 2018, had to unlearn their sense of safety, and relearn it again. Instead of ignoring the fear, denying the problem, or even quitting the scene altogether, they allowed the massacre to become an honored part of their practice. When the door locks, the ritual nods to the lives senselessly lost, and acknowledges that we, too, could be senselessly lost in a moment. But that we are trying, with ritual, to stave off the possibility a little longer. And we are still showing up.
This was an unlearning of fear that allows the learning of living.
I took note of this darkly hopeful act, and began my own unlearning during my second class. I walked up the steps, checked in, unrolled my mat, and sat in meditation. Come at me, I whispered to my reel. Fear is a desperate dog, ready to take any opening it’s given. The door click. The loud heavy boots. But this time, before the white puff of fear, I watch myself stand. I am running toward the darkly dressed white man, I am arms wide open and screaming forward. It’s a direct tackle. I may be shot, or I am not, but the imagination has frightened my fear instead of me. I wait for the reel to begin again. It does not. I open my eyes. Class is beginning. The door was already locked.
My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice. -Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I have been bolstering myself from What Has Not Yet Come to Pass for as long as I’ve been conditioned to do so. Which is to say, as long as I can remember. As a kindergartner, my reel was that of my house burning down with only me inside, spurred by the emergency window ladder that remained securely by my second-story window. Or of becoming suddenly an orphan. Or of the innumerable ways I could become unlovable.
Early last year, one year into the pandemic, I was heavy– physically and emotionally. My body just couldn’t move. I began, for the first time in my life, a more rigorous workout plan. It was hard. Not just because I hadn’t moved that way before, but because I was mentally strained following each workout. Why wasn’t I getting the post workout stress drain everyone raved about? It took a week of feeling not much better when I realized the problem.
I wasn’t allowing myself to sweat.
This seems basic. You exercise, your body sweats. But it isn’t basic for someone who has been conditioned to fear sweating, which might make you unattractive to someone, thereby rendering you unlovable. I reviewed the previous week’s workouts in my mind. I was moving in a way that would cause the least amount of sweat possible. I was stilted, strained, and suffering. For who? I was outraged.
I began looking at myself each morning in the mirror, fully naked, and saying “You see no progress because there is no such thing as progress. There is only now.” Then, before workouts, I audibly confirmed, “You are permitted to sweat, now. I give you full allowance to use your body in any way you would like.”
In this way, I unlearned my unknown fear of sweating. In this way, I found that being a human being is enough.
And also, by goddess, what a high a Barre workout can give you.
Claykneaded Forms a Pot. The Emptiness within, The Non-Being, Makes the Pot Useful. — Tao te Ching, #11 Non-Being
My Someone and I were soon hitting the road again, coinciding with my month of unlimited yoga ending. I’d worked myself into a sweat almost daily, returning home drenched and happy. My arms were tired, and I was keen to let my body rest. So I cancelled my Power Yoga class that night, signed up for a restful Yin Yoga, instead, and opened my supplies on the kitchen island for an afternoon of bookbinding. I was rebinding a salvaged cover, employing a technique in which I cut a new spine for the book, and fold it with the covers into a sturdy-but-thin book cloth. I had intent to send this to my creative potter friend– so I needed it to be strong enough to endure quick openings for sudden ideas. I cut the spine from the thickest book board I had, glued in the covers, and folded it. It wasn’t until I placed the handstitched text block into the cover that I realized my mistake.
In order for a book to work properly, in order for it to open wide for the give-and-take of ideas, it cannot be bolstered against the possible damages– man made and nature born– that could possibly come its way. In fact, the “stronger” the spine, the more weary the book becomes, strained against itself every time it tries to complete the simple task it was made for– to open. By worrying over the strength of my book to survive, I had made it inflexible. I’d made it easily broken. I finished the book, but included a note to Bryan–
This will be the last book I make this way.
This would be the last book I timidly tried to arm against the fear of What Has Not Yet Come to Pass. And in that way, I would make stronger, more flexible books, open to the world.
That night, during Yin Yoga, in the studio location where the 2018 shooting happened, my instructor informed me that Yin was not a form of relaxation, it’s a form of strength. By taking the muscles we use and abuse and lean into them in rest, they are becoming resilient. They are becoming flexible. Unexpectedly, my reel began. I practiced the new scenario, the tackle, but my mind took its own unexpected path. I didn’t reach the mysterious shooter in time. Instead, I spread my arms wide on my mat and fell back. I was bleeding. I wouldn’t make it. And I was completely calm. No white puff of fear. No sickness. I rested knowing that I did everything I could to remain safe, while also remaining open to the world. The reel didn’t begin again. My thoughts faded to black.
When I left that night, involuntarily carrying my keys between my fingers as I’d been taught to do in dark parking lots, I felt grateful.
I was sorted as a Ravenclaw, according to a very reliable internet test that had an immense chum bucket at the bottom of the screen. And so, that evening, my sister pulled the Santa hat from the tree and had each of us sit in a chair, placed the hat on each person’s head, and announced to the room what the Sort-of Hat had decided. My Someone ended up in Gryffindor, even though everyone knows that he’s a Hufflepuff. My niece was a Hufflepuff and my nephew a Slytherin, and that seemed reliable enough, so we went with the infallibility of the internet quiz and took our Hogwarts Houses to heart, and watched the 6th movie with this new information in mind.
I was happy enough with my sort– one of my best friends is a Ravenclaw. But I felt unnaturally enraged that my Someone was cast in the same house as Harry Potter when he clearly belonged elsewhere. I started making backhanded compliments about Gryffindor, which turned into questioning of the validity of the Sorting Hat, which turned into me feeling a little out of place. A real Slytherin move. So I backed off. My Someone sort of shrugged. He was happy to be wherever. Which everyone knows is Hufflepuff through and through.
My sister and brother-in-law surprised us Christmas morning with tickets to a family vacation to Universal. The previous week’s sorting would come full circle. My sister had sewn Harry Potter masks with beads that match our house colors. I looked enviously at my Someone’s yellow and red beads, then tried on my Ravenclaw mask and tried to fit in. The test said what it said, it must be true.
In line for Gringott’s, I made my confession to my sister and Someone.
“I just don’t know if I feel like a Ravenclaw here,” I said, giving the side eye to a robed figure in front of us. “Here, I feel more like a Gryffindor.” I felt ashamed. I felt like I was calling out the injustice of a system that wasn’t unjust at all. I felt like a sore loser. Then my sister perked up.
“Actually, I feel more like a Slytherin here.” We both faced my Someone.
“I feel more like a Hufflepuff,” he admitted, “Or, at least I like their stuff more.”
We made a pact before going inside to defeat the Dark Lord to tell the Sorting Hat our true hearts. Afterward, I walked down Diagon Alley and rode the train at 9 3/4 with the pride of a Gryffindor. This place was magical. But somewhere between the Butterbeer and lunch, I started to have my doubts again. I envied the cute little badger and mustard yellow robes of Hufflepuff. Maybe I wasn’t a Gryffindor, either.
My Someone gets all the luck.
When we got home, I talked to my favorite Ravenclaw about my situation. I was so turned around by the time the trip was over, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to be if I had a choice. I ventured into a more fantastic solution.
“Maybe,” I said, “I don’t feel part of any House because I’m outside of the Houses. Maybe I’m actually a magical creature? Like, maybe I’m a mermaid or a Hippogryph or something?” I did not tell her my tendency to request being the dog when I played house with my friends as a kid. I hoped to have a more unbiased opinion on the matter. One in my favor.
“Maybe,” she said, “you don’t feel like you’re a part of any of the Hogwarts Houses because you’re actually part of Ilvermorny? The American School of Magic?”
The thought had occurred to me. But not fitting in felt better as a magical creature than as another stupid American.
For the last two months, I have lived and breathed Harry Potter. I’ve watched all of the movies with my niece and nephew. I’ve gone to Harry Potter World. Even my dreams have become iterations of Potions class mixed with defeating Lord Voldemort. Maybe I needed to take a step back, take a breather. Truthfully, the whole experience at Universal, while very fun, had been a bit of a let down. Not because the Butterbeer wasn’t on point, or the magic wands were malfunctioning, but because it wasn’t real. When I said this to my Someone, he commiserated,
“Nothing can quite compare to the imagination,” he said.
But that wasn’t it, I complained. “It’s not because this isn’t what I imagined, it’s because it isn’t real. Even if every storefront wasn’t a facade, even if the wizards wandering around didn’t have nametags, even if there wasn’t a back door for staff only, the problem is, this makes me long for the real thing, and it doesn’t exist.”
It was petulent, but he nodded. It wasn’t the first time I’d attached myself instrinsically to a fiction. He was often the one pulling me out, kicking and screaming and despondent to the real world around me. Naturally, instead of confronting what was really bothering me, I put on my headphones, hopped on the treadmill, and fell head first into another fictional book to take my mind off my out-of-sorts House dilemma. I nearly fell off halfway through the first mile when the author said–
Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted. —Sourdough by Robin Sloan
I paused the book and turned up the speed. I tried to outrun what I heard. Panting, I hopped off.
It wasn’t about style or feeling or character traits. I wanted someone other than a crappy internet site– someone with real authority– to look at me squarely and say,
“You belong here. With us. Together. Definitely.”
And I needed it to be realer than real.
Being post religion, or at least trying to shed myself of the baggage of Only One Way and Absolute Truth, the world gets wider, richer, with far more possibilities and people to explore. But it also gets murkier. Especially when I’m looking for the One True Person to tell me I’m In. It’s a trade off, really. Security for Uncertainty, and it all seems like personal preference.
Or, maybe with a little more noticing, I can have both. Like bouncing along in a late evening shuttle bus from a hotel to an amusement park, florescent lights flickering, show tunes punching through small crappy speakers. And I look up, and I see the family who, against outside odds of fighting and manipulation and rivalry, have chosen each other. Who decided to drive 3 1/2 hours in a minivan together to do weird, fantasy family stuff. Who made sure that I had vegan and gluten free food. Who said, “You are invited, you belong here.” Who made Hogwarts print masks so that we all matched. I remember the inside of these sort of shuttles as a kid– I remember early morning shuffles to airports. Then, as an 8-year-old, it didn’t feel like this– like belonging. I was scared of being out of line, of making someone angry, of getting made fun of. Here, on the chosen side, it seems so long as we are all choosing the same bus, everything else sorts itself out.
For months I’ve been in a state of August. It’s the same way every year, a rolling boil of positivity and doing-better in January, running over the line of summer in hopes that what came before won’t catch up to me again. But it does. And it happens in August. August is when my New Year’s Resolutions seem like a futile mask of the deep dark in me. The heat, no matter how far north we travel, pushes it right out of my pores, and I am left with risidual discomfort and the sweltering belief that there will never be a break– there will be no more chill in the air, no breeze, no joy to pull me from eternal August.
Then in September, though later and later each year, it breaks. I laugh it off as the cooler air. I roll my eyes at pumpkin spice lattes and order them anyway, smothering my secret wants with irony. But August will linger until October in some cases. Around the time that I am unable to attribute my depression to the weather, something breaks again, and I’ll be in the clear until the Christmas Sadness takes its turn on December 22nd. That stretches through the New Year, and then I make a running start toward summer in hopes to beat out August again.
Last August was worse than most. We were in Rock Springs, Wyoming when my body came to a halt. The depression settled on me thicker than the wildfire smoke that hovered above. I coughed sporadically, my voice burning when we sang, my ribs aching when I breathed. I pushed harder, I worked out more, I scrolled on my phone more, I ignored the urgent and obvious signs that August was here. Until I collapsed, unmoving, unfeeling in our little camper.
“I can’t, anymore,” I said.
“It’s August,” my Someone said.
“But we quit drinking, it’s supposed to be different,” I said, arguing with the unreasonable void. My Someone shrugged.
I let myself go, then, into the red and white Wyoming sands of sinking sadness. I fought to eat breakfast. I fought to feel hunger. I fought to lift myself out of bed and answer texts. I fought to remain normal. I fought with mantras from Eckhart Tolle and Rilke and the Bible and some drunk lady I met in a bar once. It’s only right now. No feeling is forever. It’ll pass. Just take a deep breath, honey.
“Well, maybe you should just embrace it then?” Rupert said the following night. In a rare episode, our fellow road dog folk singer had a route that intersected with our own. He called the night before, and we shielded ourselves from the hard, sand spitting wind of Rock Springs, WY crowded in our tiny camper at a KOA. In spite of the high price and the looming silos across the street that locals joked “could blow at any minute,” we took a chance to console me with electricity, hot showers, and the sanity of stillness. And now, with a friend. In my typically August way, my sorrow bubbled at the sight of a familiar face, and I was framing my depression in terms of “the artist types” with Rupert. It was a magnificently awful ploy he swatted aside in favor of forthrightness. So we skipped the hypotheticals of medication and therapy and he landed squarely on the obvious.
“The way I see it,” he continued, “it’s part of the same thing. It’s only the downside of your creativity. You’re just looking at it from the other side. You can’t write and make as much as you do and not expect this part. I say, embrace the damn thing.”
I nodded. I felt silly. I felt seen. I felt too seen. I felt relieved.
The next morning, I started talking to myself. Or rather, to my Depression.
“Good morning,” I said. “I’m glad you are here. What would you like to do today?”
This is how I found out that my Depression wanted more than anything to stare out the window vacantly with a cup of coffee. Instead of arguing with him– “No! That’s what you wanted to do yesterday, too!” I told him okay.
We watched the too-close fifth wheel RV next to us dump the shit from their tanks, pack up their hoses, and roll out, leaving only the arid brown hills behind. I let my Depression finish a second cup of coffee, careful not to rush him. When I felt stuck, completely glued to the couch, I remembered my guest again.
“Um, Depression? Is there anything else you would like to do today?”
This is how I found out that my Depression wished to take a walk in the arid brown hills. With dogs. And my Someone.
“That’s a very good idea,” I complimented. The Depression seemed surprised, and maybe a little pleased, so I added “Very smart of you to think of that.” That gave us just the right amount of energy to put on our socks and shoes and step outside.
And so it went this way for the following week. By the end of the second week, I realized I’d forgotten to ask Depression what he wanted for dinner. I searched around, carrying a menu of ideas and options, but there was no answer. He was gone, without ceremony. He was missed, but my dinner tasted better. We were in the South Dakota prairie, and I pretended to blame his visit on Wyoming, until an inexplicable urge to unpack my bookbinding supplies overcame me, and I was busy the rest of the evening making tiny books.
“Hello, you,” I said to Creativity. I didn’t ask her any questions. She always knows what she wants.
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
My Someone laughed. When I memorized this Rumi poem a few years ago, in my difficulty reciting, I nailed the landing with that last line, extending my arms and almost shouting with a brightness that is incongruous with the remainder of the text. Now, I was incongruous with my circumstances. My favorite aunt was dead, and I was planning a memorial service in a state of shock from the state of Missouri in my state of late August. In a week, I would fly to the state of California to collect her remains and bring her home to the state of Pennsylvania, where I would shatter the blessed state of silence between my mother and I and spread ashes under the still green trees in a State Park.
I didn’t have time to ask if my Depression wanted to go for a walk, or if he wanted breakfast for dinner, or if he needed a deep breath. Instead, I typed out an overused poem for my under visited aunt’s funeral program. I let August vibrate within me. I stopped sleeping. I made phone calls, instead. I organized. I booked a flight. I checked calendar dates. I ignored August all the way through September, through October, into November.
“You’re circumstantial,” I’d told him in September.
“You’re going to take care of yourself,” I’d told him in October.
In November, he cornered me. This is the nature of leaving a guest unattended. It gets crowded, he throws his things around, and then, tiring of the inattention, he begins to throw your things out your own window in a tantrum. For the first time since August, I cried. Really cried. I had nowhere within me to sit– the furniture was gone. The shelves were empty. And I had nothing to fill them with. I hadn’t written a word since late July.
“Fine,” I said to the Depression, “take it! It’s yours! Have all of it!”
And he did.
I’ve been busying myself outside of myself since. Like a spouse kicked out of the house without a key, pretending to do yardwork so the neighbors don’t know I can’t get back in.
“Look at these roses, blooming in November, no less!” I pattered, sneaking a peak in the windows at the unrecongnizable space of my home.
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
On December 23rd, I waited on the front step of myself for her. The Christmas Sadness was late, and I was concerned. I looked inside– maybe she’d already found a way in without me. But it was only August in there, stomping around and burning the toast until the smoke detector went off. I had just finished reading Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton, wherein she describes the movement of our emotions in seasons. Just as Rupert had hinted months earlier, she confirmed– instead of fighting the damn things, welcome them. If you get sad at Christmas every year, acknowledge it as part of the season. Emotions, just like winter, are a season themselves. Be glad for their coming and their going. Because fighting their going will only fight the next one’s coming, and you’ll never find yourself in the living.
So I waited for the Christmas Sadness with a welcome banner of illustrious Italian novels, and a stack of snacks I like but won’t push August’s buttons, and comfy sweatpants freshly washed and still a little warm from the dryer. She didn’t come. I was disappointed. Then, a thought–
Maybe I’m healed!
The idea put me to my feet, spun me on my heels and nearly cured my disappointment. Until I tried the front door of my self’s home and found it still locked from August.
Of course she isn’t coming. There’s no room.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice. Meet them at the door laughing and Invite them in.
It’s almost January, now, but August has had a lot of time to make a mess of things. So, I’m taking extraordinary measures. I’ve slipped him notes under the door, putting my writing in writing back inside. I coax him without force. I signed him up for a month of unlimited yoga, which he seemed willing enough to open the door for. But what he really seemed to appreciate was the gesture of time– of sitting with him in front of this computer screen and tending to our history. It’s a lot to unpack, August to December. But he’s at least let back me in as far as the foyer.
This morning, when I woke up, he asked for more time. So I brought him to a coffeeshop and bought him a soy cappuccino and let him stare at the leftover Nutcracker soldiers outside the window. I thought we saw the Christmas Sadness peeking from behind the fat concrete columns. l invited her to join us, but she was feeling shy. August still took up too much space, anyway. How polite they all can be when attended to.
Be grateful for whatever comes. Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
If I had to live in Indiana, it would be in Plymouth. If I had to live in Plymouth, Indiana, it would be most specifically on Dan & Vera’s 25 acres– and nowhere else. The plot sits at the curve of a county road, five minutes from downtown. It rises up to thwart the dichotomy of cornfields and marsh as a canopy– an organically shady Midwestern oasis, green against the brown and tan around it, making the crop rows feel militaristic in comparison.
We spent our second weekend back on the road at Dan & Vera’s, parking between the big red barn and the canopy of trees, adjacent to the garden where the sunflowers have taken over the back left corner. They decided 30 years ago to forego another year of crops and pesticides– Vera couldn’t take it, anymore– and it was Dan’s land inherited from his father to do with as he wished. And they wished to plant 26 varieties of trees on 25 acres of Northern Indiana land. A beekeeper visited twice in our short three days, checking his new Italian variety of bees that were tucked behind where the new pond will go– just through the open path that leads past the pines. The pines were planted on the outside, the hardwoods on the inside. Dan maintains the circular, winding paths inside, where we walked our two dogs twice a day minimum, startling up young bucks with velvet antlers and large doe. We’d return, shaded, breathing easier, and wishing we’d come a little later when the two pear trees by our camper had a bit more to offer than the small buds of early fruit.
Dan’s son, Cain, spent the afternoon working on his car while his collie, Eva, stole a few sniffs of our dog. He told us that it’s only been in the last three years or so that the conglomeration of trees became a true canopy. An old story of nature succeeding by way of a young forest– and it took under 30 years. That’s what nature does– it fights farm and fire, as we vigilantly cut it back to make way for ourselves. Except Dan & Vera didn’t want to make way for only themselves, anymore. So they made way for a tiny forest to wild up the place– give the land a shake out from its clean shave. They spent all their money and time on the saplings, careful to choose a variety so that it could withstand plagues– like the ash borer.
After they’d planted, they brought in The Expert to help them assess the move forward. The Expert said they’d need to spray down the plants with pesticides. The way Vera tells it, Dan was hesitant but understanding. Vera was neither. She said no. The Expert scoffed and said it again, adding that they’d lose the whole lot if they didn’t spray.
“Everyone sprays,” he said, “you don’t have a choice if you want them to survive.”
Vera decided she did have a choice, and refused. The Expert talked to Dan again later, until Dan went to Vera and said he was sorry, but they’d have to spray.
“So I stopped talking,” she told me. “It must of been three or four days. But he heard me. He listened to my silence.”
Dan told the expert, for the sake of his marriage, that he would not be spraying.
Three years in and some of the hottest weather they’d seen in Indiana collapsed on the trees. The saplings were struggling, but the ragweed was not. It towered over the young trees and sometimes Vera’s head. She worried over the land, watching and wringing her hands even as she retold it to me. What had she done? She thought of her decision not to spray, wondered if they’d lose everything because of her stubbornness. She turned to an herbalist at the agriculture class she took that summer. She confessed that she’d gone against The Expert’s advice, that their dream of a green canopy would yield a field of ragweed– that the whole thing may be beyond her managing.
“Ah!” the herbalist said, delighted, “Ragweed! Wonderful! Ragweed is a Warrior Weed. Your trees are in good hands.”
As Vera retells it, her eyes get wide and she goes somewhere just past my shoulder admiringly, as if watching the ragweed still swaying. Ragweed, she explained, comes just in time to make way. It’s spiny to keep away most bugs and animals from stomping around it. It can grow intimidatingly tall, but its leaves are wide, and in hot Indiana summers like 27 years ago, those tall wide leaves create a precursory canopy of their own, taking the brunt of the sun and shading the plants below. Its roots, too, have been known to absorb harmful chemicals in the soil, say, from years of crop sprays wafting from field to field. Its roots, too, will clang around the dirt, loosening more compact places so that the more tender roots of young plants can grow deeper and more freely. And for all of its effort, all of its brute, how does it get thanked? It doesn’t. Soon, the young plants will become grown, casting their own shade down on the ragweed. Its terse, unquenchable need for the harsh sun will be unsatisfied, and it will simply curl up and go away. All on its own.
Ragweed is not a war monger, lashing out where it isn’t needed. It’s a true-heart warrior that knows when it’s time to lay down and be ready for peace.
That is exactly what happened on Dan & Vera’s 25 acres full of 26 varieties of trees. Suddenly, there was no more ragweed. The trick, said Vera, was waiting.
When we left, I sent messages to Ann, telling her the whole story. I was electrified by it.
“The Warrior Weed,” I said, again and again, “I just can’t stop thinking– who has been a Warrior Weed for me?”
On our new record, there’s a line in the opening song–
I read your Bible, You reap what you sow. And I’m the only– Am I the only?– Weed you’ve grown?
When I’d written it, my head was jammed with biblical metaphors, and my heart was wracked fresh with an angry, mean-spirited note from my parents.
I was a weed. I needed uprooted. I was shaking my little pollinating head all over the precious family garden and I was ruining it with my spindly stems and shaggy leaves.
I used to go into the yard and pick dandelions in early summer. I’d bunch them up and put them, sparse, in a couple of Dixie cups and set them on the table for my mother to find. She’d keep them for a day before they wilted, and then toss them into the trash. I overheard her once, when I was in my early 20’s, tell a friend about it. She said it with delight, pausing in the memory, and then said, “That’s our little Mallory. Picking weeds out of the yard for me like they’re flowers.”
It makes sense, now. I’d always had a hard time distinguishing flowers from weeds. That may be why I couldn’t see the difference between me and the rest of the family. It wasn’t until the verbal classification that I was pulled and tossed over the fence.
“Maybe my parents are my Warrior Weed?”
I was obsessed with figuring it out. The universe had handed me a perfect metaphor, and I wanted to fit it in.
“You know, because they were really harsh with me, but then I grew so much in spite of it?”
“In spite of it. And only after they were gone,” my Someone said.
“Dammit,” I said. “Then who is it?”
My Someone shrugged. He was more interested in eating his vegetables than worrying about my weeds.
Two weeks ago, we were in Northern Michigan. It was our week of lighthouses, playing a different one every night. It was the same spot we’d met our friends, Bill & Audrey, from Indiana. They were on vacation to Michigan two years ago when they heard us play, and stuck to us ever since. They’ve followed us as far north as Ludington, MI and as far south as Tallahassee, FL. They decided to recreate our meeting with a reunion and spend their vacation on another trip back to Ludington.
It was perfect weather, as far as Michigan goes, and the shows were a mix of post-pandemic enthusiasm and wonderfully understated normalcy. It was a blast. And Bill & Audrey showed for each one, front row, big smiles. They are careful listeners, compassionate speakers, and helpful gear carriers. The kind of people we love to keep around. On the last evening, Bill handed my Someone and I each an envelope.
“It’s about time you get some fan mail,” he said.
I set it on my bedside, keeping it for later, when we’d driven a couple of hours and had time to focus without the hum of the road. We landed in a rest area outside of Lansing, and while my Someone walked the dogs once more before bed, I opened it.
Bill told me a slew of kindnesses, and I was lifted. And then, I was shocked. He mentioned the weed lyrics, and he mentioned his trouble with it. But then, he said this–
First, weeds are strong and resilient. They thrive where weaker plants wither. You have emerged… thriving. Secondly, there are many weeds that are beneficial. Some weeds drive away predatory insects from gardens, while others have uses for everything from seasoning to medicine. The weeds are useful because, at some point, someone recognized their value…
My Someone walked in.
“Holy shit!” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I AM MY OWN WARRIOR WEED.”
“Cool,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. I was searching outside of myself for the person who made it possible to grow, for the person who had rescued me. And while I do owe a significant portion to the weeds around me, it was my roots that dug in deeper. I absorbed the toxins from the soil. I stretched out my spiky uncomfortable leaves. I grew from an earth that had been scorched and poisoned and raked over too many times.
Then, there was relief. Two years of taking the heat of the beating sun, of standing defiantly tall, and I could take my leave. I served my purpose, and now it was time to let those tender other roots grow. I kept reading–
But even after all of that, I still would not think of you as a weed. You are so much more than that.
I’ve been cranky all week, and everyone saw it coming except me. Mother’s Day hasn’t been a thing for me. I get a little snippy, but I usually assuage the ache with an excess of treats, day-drinking, and a few deep social media dives to validate my experience. My own mother never seemed thrilled with the celebration, even when we were on speaking terms. So a made-up holiday originally created for women’s rights that’s been bogarted by capitalism wasn’t a pastel-posied day ruiner outside of the usual fight-the-patriarchy way. Until it was. This year.
When I woke up blue on Sunday morning, after three consecutive blue days, I took to staring out the window in a motherless-child sort of way while I waited for the caffeine to permeate.
Happy Mother’s Day.
I’d written it almost involuntarily in my morning journal. Then, the blue broke.
I would not be spending this day as I have most of my life– sending a card too late and listening to the disappointment on the other end of the phone. And I wouldn’t be spending it as I have the last few years– making calls to the various women in my life who have stepped in to mother me in different ways. I am thankful to them and their astounding patience and care to detail; but by the end of the day, I’d be exhausted with gratitude and still with the ache of someone who needs mothering.
So instead, I would be thankful to the only person who can fill the role.
Happy Mother’s Day to me, a responsible adult who has recently taken on the demanding-yet-rewarding task of mothering a human to good health and balanced meals. To me, who takes care of me when I am sick, and makes me take baths even when I don’t want to, and demands that I eat my vegetables because they are good for me. Happy Mother’s Day to me, who celebrates at the right time, always, even if the victory is not drinking for a month, or winning an independent music award, or selling something on my Etsy shop, or having three healthy bowel movements in a day exactly 30 minutes after eating (no small feat). To me, who gets me to my shows on time, knows exactly how I take my tea, and who makes me an incredible chickpea Vindaloo– and spends all day getting the flavor right– after I merely mentioned the craving.
I am mothering myself– and have been over the last year– and I am doing a bang-up job. Happy Mother’s Day, you fucking saint. There’s no one in the world who could do this better than you.
After I threw my self-loathing, over-compensating traditions in the nearest metaphorical trash can (which I keep right next to me), my Someone and I hopped into the truck with a bowl of oatmeal made exactly the way I like it, and drove to take a Mother’s Day hike. I didn’t tell him I was celebrating. He didn’t make me a card that was signed by the dogs. And I was thrilled to not hobble together a faint resemblance to what was supposed to happen. While we waited for our friends to meet us, my phone buzzed. It was Kris. Kris, who watched the early years of my family’s rejection– who was the first to confirm that something was wrong, that it wasn’t in my head. Kris, who I’d lost contact with over the details that were very important, then become unimportant when I saw a decade without her and wished she was still in it. Kris, who I reconciled with back in August, and has since felt like a distant heartbeat– now a mother herself– that carries on a stray wind up from Texas.
She said I wasn’t alone. She said she knew it was probably hard. She said everything this mother would like to hear on her special day. I tucked the message in my heart and said nothing, carrying it to the top of a small mountain that looked out over the Blue Ridge Mountains, then all the way back again. Then, I couldn’t keep it in any longer. Three hours and five miles later, I told my friends about my special Mother’s Day message from Kris. I wondered if anyone felt envious of what a good mother I am to me.
When I got back to the truck, a second message waited– this time from Audrey up in Indiana. Audrey has come in the last couple of years– a fan, then a friend, a mother herself who not only listened, but unraveled the story out of me so I didn’t carry it alone. She was thinking of me, too, on this day.
Before dinner, Gretchen was waiting on my phone, too. Her little one is getting bigger all the time, and I felt honored that she would take a moment out of her own day to make space for me.
Me. Mother of one. I congratulated myself on arriving at the end of the day feeling full, my ward still in tact and damn near happy. I congratulated myself for letting go of making it someone else’s responsibility to take care of me. And in turn, the universe yielded a bucketful of mothers, expecting nothing in return, not even my unending gratitude that might deplete me for all I used to scrape for it. I mothered myself, and the club showed up from every decade of my life to commiserate and encourage– yeah, it’s hard. It’s exhausting. But isn’t being a mother great?
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.