Make Good Art.

-Neil Gaiman

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. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Daddy

"Are you still writing?"

It's a question from my father, at the end of a long weekend. 

I'm startled. I never knew that he read my writing, much less cared if I was still doing it. He's always been a fairly practical man, so I tell him about how much money I'm making, what's in my IRA, and how I'm hoping to buy a house in the next year. 

"Um, no. I don't really have time for it with the new-ish job and the commute, you know?"

He nods, and goes back to watching television. 

* * *
I barely cry at my grandmother's funeral. 

It was last weekend, right in the midst of of COVID-19 insanity, and for good or ill I go back to Wisconsin for her funeral. 

I guess I won't know if it was the right decision until fourteen days from now, when I find out if any of us contracted COVID. I'm not going to justify going aside from saying that she was a towering figure in my life, a surrogate parent when mine couldn't be there, and that I was as responsible as I could be. 

Anyway, I barely cry. As the designated Emotional One in the family, I'm a little shocked by my own stoniness. My cousins cry. My brothers cry. Even my father cries. 

I get the church giggles. 

* * *
"My psychologist thinks I have PTSD."

I'm out for dinner with my then-boyfriend. Things have been bad for awhile now, but I'm about to make them a lot worse. 

"Oh really?"

"Yeah."

When I try to change the topic by saying something I don't know, neutral, he ignores it and stares pensively into his sushi. 

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Well, she thinks I have PTSD."

It takes me a minute to process this. I've spent years working in domestic and sexual violence, lived through a sexual assault, and have sat with people dear to me while they relive their own trauma. I don't want to be insensitive, but his life has been deeply, profoundly normal. I hold my breath, tense and worried about what he's going to tell me.  

He sighs.

"The trauma of never living up to my father's expectations of me."

"PTSD because you don't live up to your father's expectations of you?"

"Yeah."

"Isn't that just the human condition?"

"Well, I also told her I wanted access to medical grade marijuana for recreation." 

We break up a few weeks later. 

* * *
I have a complicated relationship with my father. 

I mean, everyone does, and many of us in the same way, right? Daddy (and you could do a whole psychoanalysis on my calling him "Daddy" at 35, but I don't fucking care or have the energy for it).

Sorry, let me recalibrate. 

Daddy taught me a lot. How to hit a baseball and dribble a basketball (neither well, but not because of him). He taught me how to fish and the importance of a good work ethic. He taught me to give back to my community and a lot about generosity. 

I love him so much it hurts. 

My father has also hurt me deeply over the years. I can't (won't?) come out to my immediate family because he's said awful things about gay people during my life. He believes that financial success is a matter of work ethic and can be deeply dismissive about my personal experiences. 

I still love him so much it hurts.

* * *
I have never lived up to my father's expectations of me. 

I think about it a lot. When I'm flirting with a pretty girl. When I'm voting for a Socialist. When I take the attitude of "I'd rather pay someone to repair it." 

It's what I think about when I make it through my grandmother's funeral dry-eyed.  

It's only later, after a small breakdown in the car on the way to Minnesota that I start to see thing a little differently. My dry eyes during the funeral weren't a shortcoming, but a bit of his Stoicism that I managed to hold on to. His tears were, perhaps, the tiniest expression of a same emotions that I often feel every fucking day. 

I think a lot about that, and a lot about the question he asked me about writing. And perhaps this whole post is just one more attempt to have him be proud of me, even though he'll never read it. I honestly don't know. 

But I hope he is. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Stillness


Be still he tells me.
His stillness
is blackbird songs.
Mine,
ambulance sirens.
He smells fresh bread breaking
and I,
Ammonia cleaner.
He feels our cat's reassuring purr.
I only her sharp claws.
Be still, he tells me.
I love him enough to try.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Purge

I'm doing the dishes and thinking a lot about barfing.

"No," my brain corrects me. "Not barfing. It's purging all that awful stuff you just put into you body."

That "awful stuff" includes some leftover mac and cheese and a piece of fried fish from last night's birthday dinner. I also ate a slice of leftover birthday cake and had a glass of wine.

It's disgusting. I'm disgusting.

I can't stop thinking about how good it would feel to get it all out of my body, quickrightthismoment before it gets digested.

I'm fantasizing about it as I write this.

* * *
I spent most of my late 20s blaming my upbringing for my OCD and this never-ending goddamn food fight. With some therapy and a lot of grace, I've managed to understand that genetics and really fucking bad luck are at least as important. And even if nurture has more credit then I'm giving it, how much can I actually blame my folks? They gave me a pretty good childhood. I can understand their own trauma and struggles with anxiety (even if they've never called it that). 

I still spend a lot of time trying to hack my own brain

Tonight I remind myself of All-or-Nothing thinking, and that body dysmorphia lies. I identify other cognitive dissonances. I talk to friends. I do small things that make me happy. I practice self-care as best as I can (tonight that involves a lot of petting my cats). 

I do okay. Better than some nights. Worse than others.

I still think about purging.

* * *
Once, a friend told me a story about how thin her sister got while she had a nasty cocaine habit. Later, I spent hours trying to figure out if I know someone who could hook me up. 

I know. 

What I don't know is if I'll ever get to place in recovery where I don't obsessively think about what I've consumed or the amount of exercise that I've done. The prospect of being able to recognize a cleanse or clean eating fad as immediately dangerous to my mental health seems impossible. The act of eating a piece of cake without crying about it later is so enormous it overwhelms me.

For now all I can do is accept the space that medication and therapy have given me to pause and consider the damage purging will do to my teeth and throat, recognize that getting dizzy from not eating isn't something to be proud of, and that, you know, picking up a coke habit to lose weight probably isn't a good idea.