Make Good Art.

-Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Sources of the Self

 This is not my usual kind of writing, but reflects the thinking I've been doing in my personal formation class this semester. From my final integrative paper

***

Part A: Multidimensional Sources of Self

The smell of Catholic incense makes me cry. 

It is an odd admission, but there is much about Catholic services that moves me with its beauty. I was, afterall, a student of theological aesthetics, and no one does smells and bells like Catholics. 

Being raised Catholic shaped the person I am today, both as a theologian and a human living in the world. I often describe myself as a recovering Catholic to people who ask. It was more than a religious tradition to me. It imbued every part of my life, from my earliest prayers to how I still consider the world in terms of justice and peace. 

Catholicism helped me develop ideas around a truly embodied theology, not because it had a particularly good one, but because everything it taught me about my body I knew was wrong. I am female and queer. Every single thing the Church taught me about how my body exists in God’s image (or not) was wrong. The Church hated my body and the way I expressed desire and love without ever caring to have a conversation with me about it. Moreover, there is not a doubt in my mind that having a Catholic conception of sex and pleasure led to me not reporting sexual assault when it happened. My views on sex and how I experience it are . . . complicated. Catholics often joke about the guilt complex, but it is the way we cope with constant feelings of inadequacy and sin before a God who, ostensibly, loves us. When I talk about having religious trauma, this is what I mean.

And yet, Catholicism did not just traumatize me. I owe my thoughts on socialism and a just economic system to the liberation theologians I read throughout my undergraduate years. Catholic Social Teaching taught me that faith without working to create justice and peace was hollow. 

Catholicism created my love of ritual. Even as a professed atheist I believe that there are moments in our lives and in the world that deserve to be delineated as sacred. We mark those moments by the prayers we say, the stories we tell, the food we eat. We experience the world differently in those sacred moments, whether it is a long walk in the woods or Sunday mass. We create rituals for all moments for grace in our lives. 

In the years immediately following my second failed graduate degree, I moved from the comforting confines of the Benedictine Abbey where I had lost my faith in God to Duluth, MInnesota. Ostensibly I was moving there for a job–a good one, where I would learn to be a grant writer. In reality I was moving because I couldn’t bear to be anywhere I had previously associated with my faith. In the list of poor decisions I’ve made, moving somewhere with no support system in the midst of a massive mental health episode was not the best idea I’ve ever had. It was, however, one of the most formative ones. 

If you have never personally experienced obsessive compulsive disorder you will never fully understand it. It is often portrayed as someone who is particular about where things are placed or funny about washing their hands, but there is nothing funny or endearing about it. It was difficult for me to function normally and I could barely leave my home. After being untreated for long enough, it morphed into a significant eating disorder which took years to bring under control. Just writing about it this time of my life floods me with anxiety. 

If there was ever a time for divine assistance, that was it. 

But God and I had already broken up, so therapy was my next best answer. While not a traditional route to spiritual enlightenment, exposure and cognitive behavioral therapy saved me life in a way that a divine being would not have been able to. I have continued to struggle with mental health issues until quite recently (blessed be the discoverer of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

While I would never wish the kind of mental distress I went through on anyone, and I certainly have no wish to repeat it, it is part of my spiritual life. Living in the spiritual vacuum created by leaving my graduate program caused me to flail around to find something to hang my system of belief on. I began to meditate, a practice I keep up to this day. I’ve always taken solace in books, but that year I read 75. I carved out sacred spaces for myself in art, next to Lake Superior, and in silence.Theology was not longer a part of my life, but spirituality was. It was the kind of spirituality that not only helped keep me grounded, but rooted as it was in mental illness, helped me develop radical empathy and love for other people. 

I did not know it at the time, but this was the start of my call to walk with people in dark places. I learned what profound social isolation and mental illness can do to a person and how necessary it is to have spiritual practices while experiencing it. I realized how embodied spiritual practices need to be in order to serve those of us whose bodies are rebelling against us.  

Catholicism left its fingerprints in my life. Some of those fingerprints remind me of why I am no longer Catholic. Others remind me that my work in the world is not finished, and that there is always room for the inbreaking of the sacred. Mental illness and life in a spiritual vacuum created places for that sacredness to break into life in terribly ordinary ways. I would not be the person I am today–I would not be called to chaplaincy or interested in spirituality without either of these influences on my life.  

Part B: Religious Horizons of the Self

In his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” Wendall Berry writes: “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” I have loved this poem for most of my adult life, and this final line is something that I carry in my heart. It is also the closest thing I have to a description of the sacred. To put it another way, the sacred is anything that helps me transcend myself and feel connected to (as we say as Unitarian Universalists), the interconnected web of being. 

I find access to the sacred primarily through nature. Silence and stillness, especially in the woods, helps me to rest the grace of the world. But so too does singing as part of our congregation, cooking a good meal for someone I love, and spending time with my animal companions. I believe that the moments of access to the sacred happens any time we manage to sublimate our egos (not in the Freudian sense, but in the sense of framing everything from our own perspective) and connect meaningfully with something more than ourselves. 

I am sorry to constantly be the socialist in the room screaming about our economic system (I find myself saying this sentence a lot), but our economic system is designed to keep us from finding anything sacred. More than that, it has designed itself as an idol, and we must all keep sacrificing ourselves on the unholy altar of capitalism and free markets to just exist in the world, without ever fully engaging with it or with one another. To this end, I struggle with the concepts of authenticity and vocation of ways to talk about human becoming. They have been subverted and bastardized by capitalism to the point where I no longer find them useful terms. Instead, I would like to propose a different construction of human becoming. One of Dorothy Day’s most famous quotes is about social isolation and community. “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.” I know that we are not all called to live in Catholic Worker Communities, but her point still stands. The cure for our economic system–even the cure for our isolation and disorientation from the sacred is in community. 

But we must be broader in our understanding of community. Community is not just our church or our neighborhood. It must involve an understanding of the Earth and our interconnectedness as part of that community. We do not only care for one another as part of our community. We must also care for the plants, animals, and insects that make up our ecosystems. 

Part of the reason I propose community as a better broad concept to discuss our interaction with the sacred is because it is not as individualistic as concepts like authenticity or vocation. These constructions, as I already noted, have been co-opted to the point where they propose highly individual solutions to communal problems. They also allow for us to have a very “Jesus Is my Copilot” construction of the sacred. The relationship becomes primarily about my relationship with Christ, my path to enlightenment, my experience of the sacred. This concentration on the self leads us to the kind of religious practices where we may listen attentively to the lessons of our religious communities and then go for coffee after service and gossip about other congregants. If this is where we end up, what good is our personal attunement to the sacred? 

In another poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front” Berry again orients us to a practical understanding of and relationship to the sacred. “Love the Lord. Love the world. [. . .] Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.

 Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.[. . .] Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Here, Berry not only ties together the ideas of resting in the world and community that I have proposed, but he also mentions a spiritual practice that I consider critical: radical joy. Berry talks about this as being “joyful though you have considered all the facts.” 

\ Radical joy is an aspect of the sacred, but it is also a spiritual practice that brings us to the sacred. My working definition of radical joy is joy in the face of adversity and challenge. It is a joy that is the opposite of despair. I am not, however, suggesting that we should face radical injustice with glee. Rather, it is finding joy in the midst of terrible circumstances. It is something like celebrating the birth of a child in the midst of grief, or finding beauty in a loon’s mating dance knowing that soon you’ll no longer see it because of climate change. Radical joy is akin to hope. But where hope allows for the possibility of a different outcome, joy allows for peace and acceptance in the moment. Radical joy also orients us back to community, and through community to the sacred. 

A personal anecdote about radical joy may be helpful in defining it. During the riots after George Floyd was murdered, Metro Transit was suspended and my partner and I were stuck at home with very few groceries. We do not own a car and there is not a grocery store within a walkable distance of our apartment. It was a small thing, but when we were barely sleeping and worried about white supremacists in our neighborhood (to say nothing of living with the constant drone of helicopters, curfews, and the National Guard patrolling our street) it was a problem that seemed insurmountable. We were thinking about using Instacart or Doordash and just sucking up the outrageous fees, when my partner posted something on Twitter. Within an hour two different Democratic Socialists dropped food off at our house. And it wasn’t just food, but food thoughtfully put together to take our specific diet into consideration. It was done with such joyfulness at being able to assist, and kindled joy in us during an extremely uncertain time. In turn, I joyfully contributed to mutual aid networks, as we had money but no mobility.  

Did those bags of groceries do anything to address systemic racism in the Minneapolis Police Department? No, or course not. But it helped us out during a time when everything was overwhelming and uncertain. It helped us realize that we were not alone and that while we could not do much about the riots, we could ensure that our apartment building was safe. We stayed awake watching for intentional fires lit on our street and kept tabs on our elderly neighbors. All of these things were sacred. 

The sacred and access to it is often framed as a highly personal experience. I do not contest this. We all interact with the sacred in different ways. However, if we do not consider community as the primary way of orienting ourselves to the sacred, if we do not constantly come back to it as a guidestar for our lives, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. What we need to access the sacred is in front of us: our beloved, inclusive communities and the world outside of our work. All we need to do is open our hearts and arms to it.

Part C: Seminary as Formation

My first semester in seminary was a rocky one. I was fired from my dream job three days before classes were supposed to start. I was certain I already knew everything my class in hermeneutics could teach me. My formation class was full of Christians and I was an atheist. How was I going to manage to say anything worthwhile in a place where I didn’t have the first thing in common with any of my peers? As the semester progressed I began to struggle for different reasons. I never resolved many of the emotions from my abortive attempt at a Th.M.. That graduate program was what finally pushed years of mental illness to a crisis point. I resolved the crisis, sure, but never went back and handled those memories again. How could I avoid them when I was reading the same theologians and discussing the same principles? 

Thankfully, the semester eventually evened out and now at the conclusion I find myself with a kind of clarity about some of my nascent humanist/atheist/Unitarian Universalist/generally confused human being systematic theology. It is the kind of clarity that feels almost like a religious experience and which I have only experienced a few times in my life. To put it in explicitly Christian terms, I feel the power of grace moving in my life once again. I am profoundly grateful. 

Formation, for me, will look a great deal like building my own systematic theology. What can I say, I am a Rahnerian theologian still. I have spent so long defining the sacred by what it isn’t and I finally feel ready to talk about what it is. My love and empathy for others is calling me to inter-religious chaplaincy. I hope to work in hospice, but know that I may not be the right fit for it. What I do know is that I want to be better able to articulate what the sacred is, what its place in our lives should be, and how our spiritual practices bring us closer to it. 

Formation must also include learning to love and respect more deeply Christian theologians. I’ve never been a Christopher Hitchens type, so I did not know the depth of the anger and resentment I carried toward Christians until coming to seminary. Meeting the people I have in this formation class has lifted the scales from my eyes. Christianity isn’t all molestation cover-ups and holier-than-thou megachurches. I think that I knew that in my heart, but my own anger was keeping me from that truth. Walking with the Christians in this formation class through this semester has been profoundly humbling and deeply inspiring.   

The third and fourth aspects of my formation are interrelated. The first is learning what feeds my own spirit and developing spiritual practices that rejuvenate me. I have a few tried and true spiritual practices: being in nature, attending UU services, and meditating have all brought me to this point. Yet I know that in the face of chaplaincy I will need more ways to keep me rooted. I will also need more portable practices. I can take a ten-day camping trip in August every year and find deep peace. But in a world which, to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, will always attempt to grind us into dust, I need practices that are a shortcut to the sacred. 

Finally, I want to learn how to be a calm and comforting presence to those who are experiencing deep pain. I suspect that I know how to do a little of this already and that not all (or even most of it) can be learned through seminary courses. I know that my CPE rotations will be helpful. More than the classes or the rotations, however, I have learned so much from my classmates during this first seminary course. I’ve learned some rather hard lessons in humility I am much better equipped to have conversations about matters of first concern with people across faiths now than I was a few months ago. I am learning a little more every day about how to approach matters of the sacred with humility and an open heart. 

I am struggling to understand seminary as formation. Admittedly, right now it seems like a series of hoops I have to jump through to get where I want to be. I’m also frustrated with the unreal amount of overlap. Between undergrad and my first graduate degree I’ve had seven Hebrew Scriptures classes. Seven. Do I really need to take another two? Juggling two classes and a demanding full-time job has been challenging, and I find that I do not even have the kind of community that comes with attending classes in person and being able to have conversations outside of the classroom. Honestly, much of my own thinking about God, the sacred, and grace came as a result of talking with my classmates about what I was reading, practicing, and thinking. That is the formation that I miss. 

I am trying to understand seminary as formation  in the same way that I am trying to make doing the dishes a spiritual practice. There are tasks in life that need to be fun but are not necessarily enjoyable. Doing the dishes is one. Writing weekly summaries of what I read to prove I did the reading are another. Yet both are a necessary part of the life that I live, so rather than find myself constantly frustrated or angry, I try to do them with a joyful heart or cultivate a sense of gratitude for some aspect of them. I am grateful that I have nourishing food to eat and a beloved with whom to share that food. I am pursuing what I actually believe may be my vocation and hope to do it for many years. I trust that the dishes have to be done, and so too, the weekly summaries.

There are readings that, when I am able to attend with my heart and my whole brain, certainly serve as formation. As I said in my last reflective essay, Audre Lorde manages to cut through all the garbage, especially in times when I am stressed or angry. So do theologians who view anger as not something to be suppressed or worked through, but as an impetus to do better theology. In another class we have been reading Dorothee Soelle’s introduction to theology, and I have her book Suffering on deck to read during break. Liberation theologians or womanist poets who offer a channel to bring anger to a productive flowering have profoundly influenced me. 

The act of writing in seminary has been such a gift. Particularly the kind of writing this class has encouraged from me. I am a former grad student and a professional grant writer by trade. I can push the paper button and produce an argument paper without really having to think too hard about it. I am lucky that way and the opportunity to flex those theological muscles is still appealing. (Admittedly, I take less joy in eviscerating what I see as faulty theology as I used to.) But what feeds me, what helps form me as a future chaplain is this: trying to articulate things that are, by their very nature, unable to be articulated. Sifting through my religious experiences and actually sitting down to decide what’s worth keeping and what can be lost is immeasurably valuable, and the time to do it is precious beyond all else. The ability to write about these things and have an audience to thoughtfully engage (even if it’s only one person) is pushing me intellectually and spiritually in ways I did not know I was missing. 

Once again, I find myself learning lessons about things I thought I already knew in the process of writing this paper. In writing my description of an interreligious practice I found myself doing the very thing the lecture I attended was about. In the process of writing this section of my final I find myself realizing that spiritual formation in seminary isn’t necessarily about the actual classes. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Ruth

 I've been thinking a lot about the Book of Ruth lately. 

Part of it is that we sing a version of Ruth's words to Naomi at church most weekends (and let me tell you, for a hymn it's an earworm). Part of it is that I remind myself of Ruth's words to Naomi when I think about David. There are probably a lot more "part of its" that I'm not ready to talk about.

But almost daily I find myself musing over Ruth's words. "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" 

* * *

I am spiritually exhausted, y'all. 

I don't know how else to talk about it. I am convinced that the world is going straight down the toilet. I expect the world to devolve into a Parable-of-the-Sower-dying-gasps-of-Capitalism hellscape in the next ten years. I know that aforementioned capitalism is grinding us all into pulp and that we cannot bring ourselves to imagine that there might be something else so there won't be. Inflation is making our already tight budget even tighter. I worry about climate change Every Single Day. I spend my life talking about how to provide healthcare to the homeless, jobs to the jobless, and basic human dignity to everyone and nothing has gotten any better and in many cases things have gotten worse. 

I was talking to my beloved last week about some of my more extreme end-times views a few weeks ago. How I'm teaching myself to identify medicinal and edible plants. My desire to learn to use a firearm. My almost fanatical obsession with water conservation that I can't impact (I'm looking at you, Western United States).

"I know, babe. I feel the same way."

"I am so tired," is all I can reply. 

* * *

I'm on the Amtrak back to Milwaukee. 

It's about a week before Christmas and I'm going to spend some time with my family. But I'm feeling a little . . . I'm not sure. I've left my beloved back at our apartment (he can't get the time off work) and the holidays don't feel like the holidays without him. 

So I've tuned into the livestream of the Unitarian Universalist church we've been attending for the last month. 

I love UU Church. 

I'm a little embarrassed by how much I love UU Church. I'm embarrassed by how quickly this community has found its way into my heart. I'm embarrassed by how much I look forward to services. I'm embarrassed by how much I need this place

This week, it's the sermon that gets me. My favorite minister is preaching and his words have managed to grab me more than once. Today he tells us "Everyone needs more than anyone has to give right now, but also, no one can fill those of your needs that you won't let show. I believe that asking each other for help is self love and answering honestly is self love and giving what we can is community love."

I embarrass myself by crying on the train. 

* * *

I want to have a heart like Ruth's. 

I don't want to feel like I have it alone.

Let me explain.

I am tired of being spiritually exhausted. All of the problems that exhaust me are too big for me to handle on my own. Truly, they are too big for even a dedicated community to have much of an impact on. But I don't have the money to run away from climate change and crime and desperation and even if I did I do not know that I would. Community love is the only way I can see out. 

Everyone needs more than anyone has to give right now

I am trying to have a heart like Ruth's. 

Instead of telling people that I don't have the spoons or the time or the interest, I am going to start asking how I can help them carry what they have to carry. I am going to remind myself that time alone in the woods is a spiritual practice and so is running an errand for our elderly neighbor and so is speaking truth to friends (and power). I am going to try to draw our family circle so wide that no one feels left out. 

I am going to have a heart like Ruth's. 

In the words of that favorite pastor: let it be so, and amen. 

Monday, April 4, 2022

Soft

I lost someone close to me this week. 

Not lost in they've died but lost in the "well, that was an unforgivable betrayal of my trust" kind of way. 

I've been through so many relationship implosions over the years that it took a little while for this one to hit me. I did all the automatic stuff that I do--blocked them from my phone and social media, put away the things they've given me until I'm less emotional, activated my support group. I thought to myself "Well, that was unexpected" and went on with my day. 

We all know where this is going. 

That evening, after I held it together all day I tried to pickle myself in bourbon (it takes less now than it used to). I got into a horrible fight with David. I cried at a bus stop. I self-harmed in a more intentional way and screamed with grief and sobbed for hours. I've said it before, but going through life with big feelings is a constant fight.

Friday night I lost that fight.

* * *

My favorite Mary Oliver poem is only four lines long. 

"The Uses of Sorrow"

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness. 

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift. 

* * * 

I have fallen a little in love with most of the people I have met and liked over the years. 

What can I say? I have a lot of feelings, sloppy boundaries, and a soft heart. 

Each time someone lets me down in a big way I tell myself that this is it. This is the time that I'm going to put up taller walls, keep people at an arm's length, stop calling that one friend who never wants to hang out. 

Then the next time I meet someone with the same obscure interest, the same favorite book, hell, just someone who looks cute and smiles at me I lose myself all over again. 

I am grateful to have such a loving, supportive partner in David. Every time I get excited about some new friend (or, frankly, crush) he's patient and kind. He gently reminds me that not everyone in the world is worth my time. I laugh and say "Yeah, but this person is."

He throws up metaphorical hands and I let myself be disappointed all over again. 

* * *

I am a walking trope: 

The person who walks around with ohmygodsomuchlovetogive and who gives it to all the wrong people and ohgodsomeonejustloveme

Kind of. 

I'm also the person who left her divorce with the determination to keep a soft heart and I've worked really fucking hard to keep it that way. I'm also a person who believes that the more love you let into your life, the more your love grows and reflects in the world. More than that, I believe--no, I know that loving people, even the ones who do not deserve it, has made me a better person.  

So what the fuck am I supposed to do? 

* * *

It isn't until Monday morning that I can really even begin to contemplate my most recent box full of darkness. 

I spend much of the weekend in an emotional and actual hangover, tinged with just a delightful soup├žon of self-recrimination and disgust. I manage to pull myself out of it long enough to spend some time with friends on Saturday and go to church on Sunday, but I make sure to make myself feel worse at every opportunity (saddest shoutout to people who use food as punishment, too).

There isn't anything special about Monday. I went outside and felt the ground under my feet and the sun on my face. I went to the park and walked the gravel paths. I observed the mallards, finally home for summer, as they fed and played. I saw a cardinal--a bird that always reminds me of David--and took a short video of its song with him later. 

The whole time I carried that box of darkness with me and thought about how fucking fragile we all are. How stupid and frustrating and maddening we can be when we're hurt and want to hurt someone else. And then I did what I always do, what I hope I will always continue to do. 

I reminded my heart to stay soft and went home.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Grief

 I have a print hanging in my bathroom that's held an outsized significance in my life for awhile. 

It's a quote from a Louise Erdrich book that I love. 

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will break you with its yearning. You have to love. you have to feel. It is the reason you are here on Earth. You are here to be swallowed up. 

Mostly it just sits there on the wall, placed inconveniently for anyone to really notice while they're peeing or washing their hands, but I know it's there. And occasionally I stop and read it and think of when I bought it and how my life has changed. Or I'll read it mindlessly while I brush my teeth. 

Sometimes, though, I read it and my heart breaks open. 

* * *

David and I have started going to church.

I can't remember how it happened. I know that we were both yearning for something. Community was a part of it. A lot of my friendships have changed dramatically during COVID and before COVID. But it was more than just looking for a beloved community for me. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" says Mary in one of my favorite bible passages. "My spirit rejoices in God, my savior."

God and I have not been on speaking terms since 2012, but my soul has been proclaiming something recently. 

So David and I have started going to church. We attend a Universalist Church not far from where we live. 

In graduate school, Unitarians were easy targets for derision because "They don't believe in anything." I made this argument as much as any of my peers, and what an arrogant, judgmental little shit I was. I didn't realize how badly people who didn't have my confidence in the One True Church still needed a place for spirituality, hope, and love. Now I find myself regularly attending Unitarian services. 

Who says the universe doesn't have a sense of humor?

Yesterday we had a Service of Remembrance. It was the first in-person one this community has had in over two years (everyone is asked to be vaccinated and masked for the entirety of the service, and we were in N95s, so don't get sassy). The service had some aspects that felt odd to a recovering Catholic (speaking your losses to a stone and dropping it in a bowl of water, profligately having conversations with your neighbors about loss mid-service) but weren't any odder than almost any Catholic ritual I could name. Near the end of the service there was a litany of the people we have lost in the past year, and the congregation lit a candle in remembrance of every person. 

I have never grieved communally. My beloved grandmother died in May of 2020 and I was stone faced throughout her entire service. When I came back to Minnesota I screamed with grief. I cried and retreated from David and held on to my grief like a weight. The worst of it passed. 

It always does. 

So when I found myself in the midst of a bunch of very earnest people speaking about loss so openly, I was terribly intimidated. Afterall, the only thing I'd lost was a beloved pet. Listening to people speak the names of their loved ones who had died made anything I've experienced in the past two year seem mild. 

At the end of the service, a little embarrassed, I went up the altar and lit a candle for my beloved kitty. And in the act of lighting and thinking her name, something odd happened. 

My heart broke open. 

* * *

We've lost so much in the past two years. 

Families and friendships. Pets. A civic society. Live theater and music. Jobs we loved. Time. Illusions. That teacher we really wanted our kid to experience. A sense of normalcy. Hugs and shared laughter and warmth. Maybe our conceptions of ourselves. 

I've lost a a grandmother I adored, a pet who got me through difficult times, getting to watch my adopted nieces and nephews grow, the choice about whether or not I'll be a parent, my sense of smell and taste, months to long COVID, a little bit of my sanity, the joy I used to take in my work, more things than I can name. 

And in the act of lighting that small taper candle for a cat who died in November, my heart breaks. 

It breaks and it breaks and it breaks. 

And then it's all there. All the complicated, overwhelming, messy feelings that I've been carrying with me for two long years now. 

Probably for longer than that, if I'm being honest.

Somehow, it's easier in this place. Perhaps it's the message of the day. That the kindness we hold for one another is the only thing that is left after grief. It might be that quote from my bathroom, rattling around in my head and reminding me that these complicated feelings are the reason I'm here. It could just be that it was a cathartic experience and my brain is hit with a wave of feel-good chemicals. 

What I think it is--no, what I believe it is--is that doing this together has somehow made things easier. That speaking our losses, whether to a stone or a neighbor, and lighting our candles for a person or a pet has made this act of grieving lighter. Grieving communally has created a place of compassion, empathy, and love that is so necessary and so lacking right now. 

As we leave I take David's hand and smile. "I'm glad we did that."

"Yeah, me too."

And my heart begins to mend. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

I Fall in Love Too Easily

When David slips into the shower with me I almost burst into tears. 

I've just been diagnosed with COVID-19 and it feels like four hours after the test results come back, all the symptoms show up at once. I'm so tired I feel like I might just collapse on the bottom of the tub. My stomach is roiling and I've been coughing so hard my lungs hurt. 

"Baby," he asks, concerned. "Are you okay?"

I wrap my arms around him and cry quietly into his shoulder. 

"I'm so much better now that you're here." 

* * *
"I don't know! It's not one of those things you just say to people!"

"That is literally the dumbest thing you have ever said."

"Why?"

"Because you aren't 16. Do you think if you say it to the wrong person it'll lose its meaning?"

"Yeah, kinda."

I roll my eyes so hard I can practically hear it. 

"Look at me. I got married to the wrong person. I still loved him. I still love David now. It's not like I wasted all my love on my ex."

"Yeah, but that's different."

"How?"

"It just is."

"You're an idiot."

"And you're a prig."

"Well, that's settled. Whose turn is it to pay?"
* * *
When I was eighteen, a close friend of mine lived, at least during the school week, with my family. 

As far as I remember it, she came home with me one night after school, stayed over, and just lived with my family off and on for awhile. I had to shared a room with my younger brother (sleeping on the bottom bunk, no less), but that was the worst part of it.

We did, or (didn't) do our homework together. When things went south with our boyfriends we stayed up for hours talking. I learned how to tell when she was sleep-walking and when my older brother found out that I forgot to tell Mom about her birthday, he deep-fried her some mushrooms. 

She didn't have the heart to tell him she hated mushrooms and Mom was so mad she could have whacked me with a wooden spoon. 

Years later I was telling a friend about that part of my childhood and he asked "Weren't you jealous?"

"Why would I be jealous?"

"That your parents loved her as much as they loved you."

I still think about that conversation. 

* * *
I have never had a problem falling in love.

I like to joke that my closest friends are people that I've pined for over the years who never materialized into friendships. I've had some issues falling out of love over the years (dear god, the amount of time I cried over my high school boyfriend), but the falling for someone has always been the easy part. 

I'm always shocked when friends (in their 30s, no less!) claim to be unable to say "I love you" to a new partner. 

What on Earth do you have to lose?

* * *
I don't see a lot of people during COVID-19 lockdowns. 

It's been crushing on everyone, I know, but I'm really struggling a lot now that cold weather has pushed us indoors and made seeing friends impossible. 

I have one or two that are in our bubble and a few I don't mind regularly videochatting with and while it's not the same, it always helps. 

The day after I manage to wrangle a visit or have a particularly good conversation or David and I connect in a deep way I do the same thing. I take a special red china mug down from the cabinet. I make a cup of hot cinnamon tea and drink it while reflecting on and giving thanks for all the love in my life. 

Call it prayer or magic or good luck, but the love in my life keeps growing. 

* * *

David and I have spent over 6,000 hours together in a 600 square foot apartment. 

I still love him. 

It's one of those things that slightly surprises me when I think about it. Falling in love has never been a problem. I am profligate in declaring my love. I'm just not terribly good at staying in love.

See: My marriage that fell apart after less than two years. 

I hate sharing space with anyone. I need long stretches alone to feel like a human being. The only things I've ever allowed to share a bed with me on a consistent basis are my cats. 

It's not just that I still love him, it's that I'm happy with him here. My life is better with him in it and my home feels more like home with him here. He is calm and kind and keeps me grounded. I'm learning how to disagree with someone you live with and not have it be a three-day fight. He is the only one I want to see when I find out I'm sick. 

What matters most, though, is the feeling that love isn't scarce. It isn't something to hold onto a guard jealously against other people. There's room for love to grow in this relationship. 

And that makes every day worth a cup of hot cinnamon tea.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

David

David and I have been dating for almost 18 months and making crispy tofu still eludes me. 

It's maddening. 

His current shifts have him working until late--8:00 or 8:30PM and I take a lot of pride in having something delicious on the table when he comes home. Eggplant parmesan, homemade root vegetable pot pie, stuffed squash and mashed potatoes--anything that gives me something to do in the evenings and makes it so he has something to look forward to after a long shift on a snowy evening. 

Tonight I've been trying to make a crispy tofu stir fry and the tofu turns out fine, I guess. But it's not what I wanted for him. 

It upsets me more than it should. 

* * *

When I'm feeling truthful, I'll admit I knew something was wrong in my last relationship. 

Of course I did. There were so many indications that my ex and I didn't belong together, that we weren't really compatible. I briefly thought about calling off our wedding about a month before it happened, but I felt like I was too far into it. 

I wasn't brave enough to admit that we were failing. 

I lived on comfort food during the years with my ex. Hotdish, pasta carbonara, anything that was a simple carb. Anything that was both comforting and that I didn't actually care how it turned out. 

Just thinking about my diet now makes me shudder and realize two things. 

I was deeply in love. 

I was profoundly unhappy. 

* * *
"Jesus, it's hot in here."

"Yeah, the air-conditioner has never been very good. Do you need anything?"

"Water?"

He gets out of bed and heads toward the kitchen. Before he gets there he doubles back and puts on a record.

"I think you'll like this."

He turns on an artist from his hometown--someone I've never heard before. I space out for much of the record in the way you do when you're happy and in love and in the moment. 

Then there's a lyric that catches me. It's funny how that happens, isn't it? 


This is the most content I've been in years. 

***
I've been hesitant to write too much about David. 

I wrote a lot about the ex and our relationship and I'm superstitious. I haven't wanted to jinx what I have. 

I've also spent a lot of time thinking about my marriage vs. my relationship with David. 

I'm not going to do yet another post-mortem of my marriage. My ex doesn't deserve that kind of thought. What I will say is that I feel like I have a partner in everything. I have someone who has my back and who loves me, even on our worst days. This is the most loved, supported, and . . .  I don't know, seen I've ever felt. 

I think a lot about that song he played me when we first started dating.

Never gonna be perfect, but I'm still gonna try. 
Closest thing I'll ever get is you by my side. 

We've been through such a ridiculous, maddening, infuriating year. Between COVID and layoffs and elections, I feel like there's so much that could have--should have gone wrong in a relatively new relationship. And we're still together. I'm still deeply in love and profoundly happy. 

I still give a shit about how the tofu turns out. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Magic

David wakes me up.

It's not an unusual thing. He's usually up by 5AM and comes in to kiss me goodbye before he leaves. Usually I'll wake up just enough to have a conversation with him I'll forget by the time my alarm goes off. Sometimes I'll say something insane and make him laugh before he leaves ("Why are you putting catheters in the cats?" was one of his favorites).

This morning somewhere between telling me about taking out the garbage and doing the laundry, my eyes drift open and I grab his hand.

"I was dreaming about magic," I tell him.

* * *
"I thought you always wanted, like, a billion kids."

An old acquaintance from college likes to throw this in my face whenever she sees me reacting to a baby crying in public or a toddler having a meltdown on public transit.

I'm never reacting for the reason she thinks. 

I've tried everything I can to get her to stop talking about it, to stop making the joke. There were lots of things I wanted in my early 20s and there were lots of things I thought I wanted in my early 20s.  This is a small hurt, but an old one, and I've learned how to deal with it.

Sometimes it's easier to bear someone's unthinking cruelty than explain why it's cruel.

* * *
When I was a kid I used to fall asleep pretending that I could do magic. 

I would imagine that I was living a giant treehouse and that I was a princess of the woods. On nights when I couldn't sleep I would imagine riding on my oversized wolf, followed by my size-shifting cat. We were adventuring out to find and destroy the Tomes of Black Magic, which were scattered throughout the mundane and magical worlds. I fought every kind of monster I could think of, but those confrontations were always physical or besting the monster using my intellect. Magic was always only used when I returned to the treehouse. 

Magic was about creating.

* * *
"What are you thinking about?" 

We're waiting for the number twenty-three on our way to a movie. I've been watching a little girl walking through the twilight with her father, puttering along next to him and singing to herself. 

"I just feel a little wistful." 

He sees where I'm looking. "Yeah?" 

I nod. "It's hard, knowing that it's an experience I'm never going to have. I was once watching some friends, the ones you met last week? I remember watching them playing with their daughter and realizing that I'd never feel what they were feeling." I pause. "And I know, I know that I'm making the right decision, but sometimes I want it so badly it feels physical." 

I stop, expecting some platitude about how sometimes correct decisions aren't easy, or that there's always time to change my mind, or any of a hundred other things a dozen different people have told me. 

He just squeezes my hand. "I know."

* * *
"Here, take this," David whispers, handing me his handkerchief. 

We're seeing a play by one of my favorite theatre companies in the area. Their stuff always destroys me. It's beautiful and moving and always makes me cry. This particular show is about magic and authenticity and love and has me sobbing, loudly, during the final five minutes. 

It's also, I think, about illusions. The lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves safe from reality. 

That's really what's making me cry.

* * *
David and I can't have kids. 

I suppose the more correct thing to say is that we can't have kids without a lot of expensive and invasive medical intervention that neither of us would want. 

I got a little weepy just writing that. 

Here's the thing. I don't know if I've ever seriously wanted a child. I agonized about it a lot in my late 20s. The logical decision, given my mental health history and income and a feelings about actually raising a child, is to not have one. It's a decision that I'm comfortable with about 90% of the time. 

I'm sure I don't have to explain the difference between making a decision and having it made for you. 

It's oddly devastating to know that we can't have something I was pretty sure I never wanted in the first place. David is the first person I would have ever considered having a baby with and it's a choice we'll never really be able to make. 

Which makes things complicated.

* * *
So here's the part where I'll be comparing motherhood and pregnancy to my feelings on magic and creation. Or having one of those uplifting moments in memoir writing where I realize that I can channel my creative impulses to writing or my work or volunteering or something. 

Yeah, no. 

Because the thing is that if suddenly ohmygodmagicisreallyreal I wouldn't magic myself a baby (I've read folklore, I know how that one ends). I also wouldn't magic myself into complete serenity about my choices and become a renowned writer. 

Well, maybe that last part. 

Now, at thirty-five instead of five I realize that magic isn't about creation. It isn't even about choice. It's about the illusion, the ability to convince yourself that you ever had any fucking option.

It's another in a series of grim but true revelations I've had in my mid-30s. But even that realization doesn't really change things. 

I still wake up dreaming of magic.