Well hello there!
2015 has been just a downright terrible year for blogging. But it was to good purpose: the first half of 2015 was pretty much eaten up by completing my long-unfinished, long-dormant college degree. With final grades submitted and an “A+” (they give pluses now?!) in my last class, at this point I suppose I just wait for them to send me my diploma. I’m impatient, but I’m trying to get better at that.
The following has been written, thought over, worked on, and rewritten over the past week. I started it before I even started my final paper in that last class. It is long. It’s a little self-indulgent. And it’s something I very much need to do. I use the term “confession” not in a religious way at all – I seek no absolution here from anyone, and the main forgiveness I seek is my own. In fact I have already forgiven myself for all the unlovely stuff listed below, and more besides that is not for public record. But the act of publishing this here cements a last bit of truth that I hid from myself for far too long.
In the spring of 1997 I really did think I was going to graduate. I thought this without being thorough and careful and organized in my approach to school, but I did think it. So confident was I that I registered to graduate, and went to the bookstore and bought a gown and hood, and I dug out my old high school ring, too. My plannerās mind had advised, when I was choosing a high school ring in 1988, that it would be smart to get a 10K gold ring instead of āUltriumā or whatever, because the ring manufacturer offered a cash-for-gold buyback against your college ring. The day I graduated from high school, driving away from the Cap Centre with the boy I was almost but not quite not-in-love-with-anymore, I took off that gold ring and tossed it over my shoulder…but later, ever practical, I dug around in my backseat until I found it. I put it inside the small plastic bag it had come in, complete with the detailed printed sticker on it describing my order. In the spring of 1997, I managed to find that ring in that plastic bag that I had had for seven years, and I took it to the bookstore. āTrade-in valueā on my high school ring was something like $20 so I said the hell with it and kept the high school ring as a souvenir, and ordered a new (white gold) college ring. I started wearing it as soon as it came in.
Then I went in to have the graduation audit, and found out I wasnāt actually graduating, and basically threw my hands in the air and said āFuck all this, then.ā I failed all my classes that semester. I didnāt withdraw: I failed. I didnāt remember this, actually, until a few weeks ago when I checked my unofficial transcript online before my final graduation audit – there they were, four big olā āFā grades right there in Spring 1997 on my transcript. Nice.
Hereās the thing. I had the trappings. Iād bought the stuff. Iād told people – including my family – that I was actually done. And then I wasnāt. And so adding another lie to the pile of them Iād had going about my horrible undergraduate years, I…didnāt really say anything. I told my parents Iād decided that going to commencement would be ātoo boring.ā A friend of mine was having a graduation party for his girlfriend at the time, and was generously also allowing me to get in on that so I didnāt have to throw my own party, so I went to that and drank a lot and talked about school as little as humanly possible at what was ostensibly also my own graduation party.
None of this is particularly pretty, but nor is it the actual titular confession. For years, since I finally decided to be honest with myself and others about the way I slunk away from school without a degree, I have had this narrative: I thought I was done. I wasnāt. The internet economy was booming and I had friends who were getting jobs there, so I left school without a degree, got a job in the internet industry, bing-bang-bong, here I stand before you today etc. etc. etc.
But that narrative isnāt totally correct. I quit my old job, the security job at the City of Bowie where Iād worked almost my entire undergraduate career. I just up and quit. I didnāt have another job lined up. I quit in May and I didnāt start at Digex/Intermedia until late August or early September, I no longer quite recall. I went to a temp agency, and was surly about it, and did one shitty temp job for two weeks and got yelled at by the lady at the temp agency for ānot telling [her I] had a tongue piercing,ā which I didnāt, I had an eyebrow piercing, and I guess back then that was scandalous even if I was wearing it during the interview and she didnāt notice. But mostly my parents paid my rent and bills for a few months (though I did later pay them back). And that summer quickly sank into an ugly bank of failed memory. I wasnāt keeping a journal at the time, and I believe it was because I couldnāt actually stand to be that honest with myself. I hung out with friends. I drank a lot. Couple things I really remember from that summer, one night I had helped friends move into a new place and we sat around chatting/smoking/whatever for a long time then decided to go to Tracks. I was dressed like a grody frump because: moving. My friends, since it was their house, could shower and put on club clothes and makeup and look stunning, like they usually did, and I could look…like a frumpy chauffeur, which is how I usually felt. Iād helped them move, so that made me feel like I had some worth, but mostly I sat back and felt terrible. That was the night we found out Princess Diana had been killed in a car wreck, too. Something about it just felt horrible and off, the whole night. Sitting in a smoky Dennyās eating hash browns at 3 a.m. and talking about a dead princess. The other memory was going with friends to New Jersey to see Lilith Fair. Donāt ask me why we didnāt just see it locally, some artist or other was only going to be at the Jersey show so thatās the one we went to. One of the friends on this trip was actually a guy Iād been seeing off and on, I wanted so badly for something to work there but we had too much weird power-play shit going on and that summer? I had no money. I canāt remember for sure but he must have paid for my ticket and/or my part of the hotel room. I couldnāt afford that sort of thing and he was a pretty generous dude. So the trip, in my memory, was awful. It should have been fun, a weekend away with friends, but I remember it being terrible and I canāt remember why. Probably because he paid, and I felt beholden and powerless and oh probably ugly and unloved on top of it too, despite the fact that me-then probably couldnāt have successfully managed to love anyone or recognize love in return.
Right. So. Memories from the summer of 1997: few, far between, and kinda ugly. But I did get an interview, and then a job, and started my brief shining career in the early Internet industry, so by fall things were looking up.
That ring, though – that college ring I bought. Since I had bought it and started wearing it before I realized it was actually a lie, and since I didnāt own up to that lie, I kept wearing it. I wore lots of jewelry and Iāve always loved rings and worn them on several fingers, so it was easy enough to do. (Oh! One other positive thing from that summer of 1997: I pawned the high school ring and used the money to get my first tattoo. I was quite conscious of just how Tom-Waitsian that action was.) I used to sleep in my jewelry too (GAH how why!?!?), and when I got my Internet job I started working weird hours and eating weird foods at those hours and I gained a whole bunch of weight andā¦.the ring got stuck. The college ring, The Big Golden Lie as I never actually called it until just now, wasnāt coming off that finger. And it didnāt. Literally. For years it was stuck there.
The day it came off, HOORAAYYYY!! It wasnāt a surprise, Iād lost a little weight, I knew it would be something I might be able to do soon, it got a little looser…then a little more…then finally one day I went to town with cold water and soap and butter and whatever-the-hell and got it OFF. Once again, I tossed it away joyfully. Once again, I was too practical to simply toss away something that cost several hundred dollars. I scooped it back up and dumped it in a jewelry box.
Years passed. Iām not sure how many because I honestly canāt remember when the ring came off – 2001ish? 2002, maybe? Around then. It doesnāt matter. What matters is by some miracle I actually managed not to lose the damn thing. As my 40th birthday approached, in early 2012, I hatched a scheme. I dug out the ring and went to my jeweler in Ellicott City and I handed it over and said āThatās ten-karat white gold. What dāyou think we can melt it down into? Anything cool?ā He weighed the ring and got out some molds and some stones and we talked and picked over things and eventually I forked over another couple hundred dollars to melt down that particular failure.
That phrase, thatās my roommateās. Last week, the ring I ordered as an ACTUAL graduation present arrived, and I showed it to her and was talking about my ridiculous need for jewelry-related symbology. As I flapped my hand still bearing the melted-down college ringās small solitaire, which I wear nearly every day, she said, āI wish I could melt down my failures.ā And the really good response that I wish I had thought of right then but of course I didnāt, lāesprit de lāescalier, was āItās not about erasing that failure. Itās about transforming it.ā
The biggest lie that I told myself about that horrible spring and summer of 1997 was a denial of my own failure. By not admitting failure, I couldnāt actually let myself look at what caused the failure, to see maybe if there were some changes or adjustments I might consider making. Or perhaps if failure to achieve one goal might actually mean I should examine that particular goal more closely, see if it was still something I wanted. Or perhaps dig down to see why – or if – I ever really had wanted it.
All of this is a lot to say: In the summer of 1997 I was in a pretty unhappy place, and I was not 100% honest and cool with a lot of people I care about, but most of all I wasnāt 100% honest and cool with myself. Iāve stayed in touch with, or gotten back in touch with, probably most of the people I knew that summer, and it seems like weāre all cool. I wrote this because I had to admit how very great a disservice I did myself that summer.
At the beginning, I called this āself-indulgent.ā Well, yes. It is a personal blog. No one is obligated to read it, but I was obligated to write it. To myself. For myself. I donāt know if I didnāt keep a journal during that part of 1997 because I was depressed, or if I was depressed because I didnāt keep a journal. Both, intertwined, I expect. So with this long post, I promise you I havenāt been not-writing all this time, I have just been not-publishing. I am trying to be honest with myself even when itās difficult. And I fully intend to come back to this blog, now that I have some more time, and try to keep being honest with yāall. Oh and maybe have some fun!? That’d be cool. Thank you.
Itās been a while since I blogged – since February 22, in fact. Skipped my birthday in March. Even on Spring Break, I just didnāt do it. Iāve been tired – I have school, I have a lot of obligations, I have a lot of stuff Iām trying to figure out, so blogging just slumped to the bottom of the priority pile. I just didnāt give a fuck.
One of the most ridiculous navel-gazing things I could possibly do at this point is quote one of my own tweets at you, but thatās just what Iām going to do. Itās going towards my larger point. On the evening of April 22, I had to give my final oral presentation in Spanish for the semester – and, most likely, forever. In a little under two weeks I should be done with Spanish instruction for good and for all. My class is online so the presentation was as well, scheduled for 8 p.m. on the 22nd. I logged on right before 8:00 to see a message from my professor that her previous group was running over, lo siento mucho, our conference would start at 8:15. I yawned and fidgeted and eventually did my presentation and logged the hell off, taking to Twitter – where I had whiled away some time, waiting – to say the following: āOkay Spanish presentation done. Had I to do another, I would do an interpretive dance called āall the fucks I do not give.āā
Gonna be up front about it: I was pretty pleased with that one. So were the half-dozen or so followers who arenāt, like, bots promising more followers. I was done Giving A Fuck about Spanish. My āAā seemed pretty solid, even if I bobbled a bit in the last week or three of the semester I would surely pass and be Done With Spanish. Done with Giving A Fuck about Spanish class.
On Facebook, later that week, I had a desultory conversation with friends – caring, concerned friends, mostly friends from church, where we are socially active, caring, concerned – about how few fucks we had left to give. Maybe it had been a tired few weeks. Maybe it was something in the water. A mere week ago, all these caring concerned people were straight-up not giving any more fucks.
Oh I have had no idea what to say about Baltimore. Oh I have felt it is not my place to speak at all of Baltimore. Oh I have simply wanted to pass on what other, truer, brighter voices are saying about Baltimore and to simply keep quiet.
It occurred to me, then, that keeping quiet might be interpreted as not giving a fuck.
Nothing could be more far from the truth.
For ten years I lived in the suburbs of Baltimore. Both my father and my mother grew up in Baltimore. People I love still live in Baltimore. Though I now live within good-spitting-distance of D.C., and grew up closer to D.C. myself, and love D.C. Ā – boy howdy do I ever give a fuck about whatās happening in Baltimore.
If my silence for even one moment implies I donāt, then that is enough to write. To break out of the low-priority donāt-give-a-fuck-about-my-blog-right-now pattern Iāve been in for a few months.
I am a straight white cisgendered mostly-college-educated American woman. I have been born into the extreme privilege of being able to pick and choose, with great autonomy, precisely which fucks I choose to give.
Never in my lifetime has it ever been prohibited by law who I can love or choose to marry. I can choose, therefore, not to give a fuck about whether others around me can do the same. That is my straight privilege.
Never in my lifetime have I not been given a job, not been given an answer, not been given a fair chance because of the color of my skin. I can choose, therefore, not to give a fuck about whether others around me can do the same. That is (a tiny corner of) my white privilege.
Never in my lifetime have I been faced with the knowledge that I must marry a man in order to thrive, or survive. I can choose, therefore, not to give a fuck about whether others in other nations can do the same. That is (but small portion of) my American privilege, and my mostly-college-educated privilege as well. (The fact that I can do as well for myself as I have done without a college degree references my white privilege also, see above.)
Never in my lifetime, most especially since puberty, have I ever been faced with uncertainty that I would walk out my door and be mistaken for a gender with which I do not identify, regardless of what I choose to wear (dresses, skirts) or not wear (make-up, heels). I can choose, therefore, not to give a fuck about whether others around me can do the same. That is my cisgendered privilege.
Itās true, Iām a woman. I have faced, throughout my lifetime, judgements, undeserved consequences, threats, lower pay, outright dismissal of my personal, physical, moral, intellectual, and emotional worth on the basis of my womanhood alone. I do not have male privilege. I have to give a fuck about these things, because they have had – and can continue to have – a very real impact on my life.
It is exhausting, giving all these fucks. Somedays, it feels totally overwhelming, doesnāt it? And yet every time I think of setting one aside, if I think for even two seconds about setting Baltimore and its uprising aside, I am spending the currency of privilege. I am demonstrating – no, flaunting – a wealth I did nothing to earn. I was born with pockets full of the stuff, all these fucks I can so blithely choose not to spend. And what would I do with this unspent, unearned wealth? Hoard it like a miser? Swim around in it, like Scrooge McDuck? Spend it on myself?
There are times it is allowable, healthy, a huge boon to hold onto a few fucks. If I give away every last fuck I have to all these deserving others, and save none for myself, then I impoverish myself. I starve my spirit. There is nothing left for my own soul save whatever fucks others have to give for me…and there are a lot of people out there with less privilege than I have, who simply do not have the fucks to give. Part of the responsibility I have towards my wealth of privilege is thoughtful management. I must save a few fucks for myself. I cannot give any more out if they are all gone, after all.
Friends, this has been a fuck of a lot to get through, I know. I appreciate your patience and the couple of fucks youāve had to spare. All I can possibly ask, at this point, is for you to spend your fucks wisely – and give serious thought when you hit the point of ānot giving a fuck.ā Maybe youāve simply given too many and need to breathe deep and make sure youāre saving a few for yourself. Or maybe, just maybe, you have held onto your fucks for a little too long. Maybe itās time to give them, again.
Every month at my church, my friend Laura and I host a “Sharing Our Stories” evening with a new theme each month, which we attempt – with varying levels of success – to bring to bear on the issue of Reproductive Justice.
We met on on Friday, the 20th this month, just last night. The theme was “Our Bodies.” The essay I wrote to share turned out rather well, so I am sharing it here also.
I had my first mammogram in December of 2011, a few months before my 40th birthday. It was a tiny bit intimidating as a new medical experience, but it was a very efficient procedure, and a week afterward I got a little note in the mail saying everything was normal, I do not have dense breast tissue, my results would be forwarded to my referring physician – my gynecologist – and they would see me in a year. Perfect!
Then in December 2012, I had my second mammogram, and it was still quite efficient, but this time a week afterward I got a note in the mail saying they had found some…anomalies. Or perhaps the term was āirregularitiesā? Anyway: Something was up in my left breast, and they needed to take another look.
In December of 2012 I was in excellent shape and excellent health. I had made a lot of slow changes over a lot of years and for the first time in a long time (possibly ever) I liked my body. I was in fact beginning to learn to love my body. I felt like I was in a great place, mentally and physically and spiritually, as I was finishing the very first year of my 40s. I was going back to school. I was becoming active in my new church. Everything was going great.
And with all that, friends, even with all that…in that healthy place I was finally getting to…when the follow-up mammogram and ultrasound led the doctor to order a biopsy, the first thought that went through my head was:
āHoly shit, what the hell am I without my tits?!ā
In 2011 my book club read Barbara Ehrenreichās Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. It made a huge impression on me, possibly because confirmation bias showed me many things Iād suspected to be true all along. Particularly powerful was her more personal chapter on dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and the relentless, near-poisonous levels of āpositive thinkingā she was confronted with. Also striking were her stories of the infantilization of her diagnosis: a cancer center providing her with a ābreast cancer bear,ā a stuffed teddy bear with a pink ribbon, baskets sent by well-meaning well-wishers full of pink branded items and self-help books and āSave the Ta-Tasā bumper stickers.
You do NOT want to get me started on āSave the Ta-Tasā bumper stickers.
But I remembered my reaction to that book when I had my own reaction to my biopsy: Oh my God, I thought. DID I really think I was nothing without my breasts? Did I really?
Of course I didnāt. And mercifully, my biopsy showed nothing, and I am more or less back to regular boring mammograms (though that left breast does still occasionally show anomalies – an older friend of mine likes to call them the āgristly bitsā that show up in scan after scan).
But I was given real pause. The language we use surrounding womenās breasts, and the near-panicked societal reaction when we think about losing them to a disease, are worrying. It is wonderful how much better early detection is now for breast cancer, how much treatments have changed, how many prognoses – how many LIVES have been improved by research driven by those dollars pouring in from selling yea pink crap every October.
But but but. I have a condition, ulcerative colitis, that is treatable but not curable. I am very fortunate that there is a medicine that is effective for me and I have been in remission for many years (I have had UC for over 15 years). This condition means that colon cancer is, for me, essentially unavoidable. The only way I wonāt get colon cancer, basically, is to not live past 60, so quite frankly: sign me up for colon cancer. (It is mercifully easy to detect – and thus treat – Ā in early stages.) Colon cancer is a common cancer. It affects men and women, more and more of us the longer we live. But I am not seeing brown ribbons on car bumpers, is what Iām saying. There arenāt any āSave theā¦ā well. You know.
My breasts and their unlikely cancerous state (no history of breast cancer in either side of my family) are of a greater concern to society, clearly, than my colon and its inevitable cancer. Colon cancer isnāt sexy. Breasts are. Breasts are held up, prized, valued, gilded, worshiped, coveted, groped, grabbed, dreamed of, longed for, made a huge fuss of.
And this fetishization, this compartmentalization, this diminution of a cancer that yes does in fact also affect men – means that a smart, secure, self-assured 40-year-old had to have āoh shit my tits!!!ā as a first thought on hearing of a biopsy. What am I without these things you prize!?
When I was in college, I often ate at the food co-op, a hippie haven of cheap local vegetarian fare where if you didnāt have cash, you could work for an hour or two to earn your lunch. One day as I was buying a bagel and some soymilk, I noticed a Xerox of a photograph taped to the cash register. On it was a topless woman with one breast, her arms reaching out to both sides, her face wreathed in a beaming smile. In the place where her other breast had been, there was instead a beautiful tattoo of a spray of flowers, climbing up to her shoulder.
I thought to myself, āIf I ever lose a breast, I hope I can do something that strong and beautiful.ā
I still think that. After my own shock at my biopsy reaction, I try actively to remind myself that MY strength, MY beauty, my worth do not rest in my breasts or any one body part. This package is more than a package; the truth of me is not entirely contained here, but this package of parts makes a beautiful, strong whole: no matter what needs to get cut away.
MY BRAIN: Come on! Itās the 10th of February, we should start working on our annual Valentineās Day post!
MY HEART: I donāt wanna.
MY BRAIN: Oh come on. This is a tradition, now.
MY HEART: No one cares.
MY BRAIN: Now youāre just being purposefully defeatist. You have been doing this since 2008, you weird little niblet.
MY HEART: Niblet!?
MY BRAIN: Even if not a single other damn person out there wants to read your take on Valentineās Day this year, you should write it.
MY HEART: NIBLET?!?!
MY BRAIN: You need to.
MY HEART: Tell me why. No. First, tell me why you called me niblet, then tell me why I need to write it.
MY BRAIN: [….]
MY HEART: […..]
MY BRAIN: [heavy sigh] Look, fine, itās just a funny word, all right? And it got you to stop feeling sorry for yourself.
MY HEART: I WAS NEVER.
MY BRAIN: You totally were. Hello, Iām your brain, I am kinda all up in here with you whether you remember that or not. Iām not on a tether, trailing behind you, to be reeled in as needed.
MY HEART: Now thereās an idea I couldā¦
MY BRAIN: Not an option.
MY HEART: Surely youād like a little freedom, though? Out in the open air, sun on your…um…synapses andā¦
MY BRAIN: Youāre veering off topic. I called you niblet to get you to snap the fuck out of it.
MY HEART: Out of what?
MY BRAIN: The funk. The sorry-for-yourself funk you were in.
MY HEART: I was…oh, okay, youāre right. I was.
MY BRAIN: And I…wait, Iām right?
MY HEART: Yeah.
MY BRAIN: Could you repeat that again, clearly, into your iPhone for me?
MY HEART: No, youāre gonna have to treasure the memory for however long you can hold onto it.
MY BRAIN: Fine. So why were you in a funk?
MY HEART: [heavy sigh] Look. Okay. You said 2008, right?
MY BRAIN: Yep! Every year since then!
MY HEART: Not true. I skipped 2013. Last year, when I was writing, I went back to look for every year and there wasnāt one for 2013.
MY BRAIN: Thatās still six out of seven years. Youāve written some really nice things about different kinds of love, explored new ideas, faced fears, shared memoriesā¦
MY HEART: Right. I have. And this year I donāt wanna.
MY BRAIN: But why? Really. I want to know.
MY HEART: Itās the dumbest reason. Iām lonely.
MY BRAIN: Why is that …thatās not dumb!
MY HEART: It is. Iāve tried, for six out of seven years at least, to reclaim Valentineās Day. Not to let the overly cisgendered heteronormative Hallmark notion of a romantic holiday control my own sense of self, or self-worth. Iāve tried to stake a claim for different kinds of love. Different ideas about relationships. Most of all I have tried, at least inside myself if it didnāt always come through so well in my writing, to let myself off the hook of being told I ādeserve love.ā
MY BRAIN: Oh gods the D-word.
MY HEART: Look I know this is a soapbox youāve heard me clamber up on many times before. But Iām tired. Someone telling me I deserve love strikes more deeply than I can describe, strikes at how very long Iāve been single, sets up little echoes that say āDo I? Do I? Do I?ā over and over again. Those echoes are counter-balanced with āIf I do now, does that mean I havenāt for the past mumbletysomething years?ā How do I deserve love? Who decides? What is the rubric? On what am I being judged? Where am I found wanting? By whom?
MY BRAIN: Justā¦
MY HEART: What?
MY BRAIN: Itās okay.
MY HEART: What is?
MY BRAIN: Itās okay that youāre lonely. Itās okay that youāre sad.
MY HEART: Thanks, but – and I feel greedy even saying this – I need a little more than that.
MY BRAIN: What do you need?
MY HEART: I need to be lonely and sad and angry and hurt and scared AND I need to be happy and excited for the future and gorgeous and ready to embrace lots of ideas and amazing things…all that stuff I wrote all those other years, Iām still all that too. I hold all those ideas. I contain them. I think theyāre amazing and Iām proud of myself for articulating them. So I am all those things and those are great and letās give me a gold star and a check-mark and an A+ and a whatever else I would deserve if there were any rubric for just getting through stuff sometimes. Letās give me all that and just let me be lonely today. Okay?
MY BRAIN: Okay.
MY HEART: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
MY BRAIN: Youāre a pretty astounding lonely person, you know that?
MY HEART: Heh. Kinda, yeah.
MY BRAIN: [….]
MY HEART: [….]
MY BRAIN: Iām proud of you, niblet.
MY HEART: Iām coming up there with steel wool.
It didnāt take me long, once I moved to Silver Spring, to settle into a new morning walk routine. I change it up once in a while, but I tend to head into downtown more or less via the Whole Foods, then walk over to the Cameron/Spring St. garage, where I run/walk up the ramps, do a bunch of squats and stretches and stuff, and then jog down the stairs back out onto the streets to wend my way back home. I like heading for a garage because theyāre a little closed off from some of the worst weather elements.
After a few days of this I noticed that there was a woman I often saw in the garage. The first thing I noticed was her car, because she drives an older RAV-4 that looks exactly like the one my Mom drove for like a decade. There are always people in this garage in the morning because it is across the street from an LA Fitness club, and people park in the garage and trudge over to the gym.
The thing about most of those people is, they look miserable. Probably a lot of it is that itās very early – around 6 a.m. But this woman, who I regularly saw getting into or out of her RAV-4, always had a smile. Once in a while I saw her with another woman. After we saw each other a handful of times we started waving and saying āGood morning!ā to each other cheerily.
On Wednesday last week, I was running a little late. I didnāt get over to the garage until 6:15 or so. As I jogged up the third-level ramp, I saw a familiar car driving down toward me. She slowed down and I raised my hand to wave. She rolled her window down and stopped the car, waving but also beckoning. I unplugged my ear buds and pulled them out of my ears, so they dangled over the zipped-up collar of one of my three layers of coats.
I walked over to the car as I removed my ear buds, but sheād started talking already so I held up a finger, smiling and holding up the buds once they were out. āSorry, had to unplug!ā I said, reaching her car.
She said sheād just wanted to say hello, and we laughed over the fact that we saw each other so often in the same place. She explained that she was a personal trainer, who sometimes took her clients to the gym next door.
āOh, so thatās why I see you here with another woman sometimes, running and walking!ā I said.
āYes,ā she said, in a pleasant accent that I want to say sounded Trinidadian to me, but thatās a pretty uneducated guess, āSometimes I go to clientsā homes, sometimes we go on the track at the gym, and then walk over here afterward.ā
I explained that I was out here for exercise too, that I didnāt go to the gym but walked every morning. She started talking about how the important thing was to go do it at all, and she thought it was great I was motivated enough to be out on a cold morning, and asked me several questions in quick succession: how long had I been doing it, what got me started, that sort of thing.
I looked at her friendly face and made a quick calculation. I am very aware that people who know me (hi, the five people who still read my blog!) have heard me talk about weight loss and the saving power of exercise PLENTY, but whenever I consider bringing it up with a stranger I try to calculate how it will be received. I donāt want it to sound like bragging or showing off, but sometimes it is very germane to the conversation. It didnāt take long to decide that this woman would probably like what I had to say.
āIāve actually been doing this for years, and Iāve lost 110 pounds,ā I began, and before I could say another thing I was interrupted by her exclamation of happiness, her joyous near-laughter. When I added that I had worked my way off of Type II diabetes medications, I thought she might cry. We talked a little more, about how important it is to live in your body as an ally, not as a hostile force, to take responsibility to care for yourself, and how wonderful it can feel to do so.
At last she asked me my name, and I felt a bit foolish for not offering it sooner. I learned that her name was Patricia. It was time for Patricia to move on into her day, for me to move on into mine. Weād only talked for five minutes or so, but I felt invigorated and refreshed even beyond what exercise usually does for me.
As we were saying our goodbyes, Patricia said āBless youā several times. She expressed gratitude to me for sharing what Iād done, and I told her I thought that what she did to help others was wonderful too. Beaming happily at each other, we waved one last time and as she rolled up her window, she said, āGod bless you, Jen. Really.ā
And as she drove away, I said, āYou too!ā Sometimes I have real discomfort with saying things like ābless youā or āIāll pray for youā because they sound hollow or cliched. But I did want to offer some sort of blessing to Patricia, as if it could be half as amazing as the one she gave to me. The blessing of human connection, of finding an ally in a stranger. She told me I had made her day, but I am pretty sure Patricia made my week.
On January 7, 2014 I went ahead and posted a selfie as part of the ā#365feministselfieā project. I hadnāt started on the first. I knew I wouldnāt do it every day. But the more I thought about it the more I thought Iād like to give it a try.
Veronica Arreola kicked it off on her blog, but I read about it on Twitter. I remember all the fuss at the end of 2013, with āselfieā as the word of the year and the constant back and forth about whether they were good or bad. Because we still love that dualistic simplicity, donāt we?
I didnāt take my picture every day for a year. But I did take a LOT of pictures of myself. Sometimes it really felt ridiculous to keep posting them. (I participated primarily on Instagram and Twitter, though a few found their way to Facebook as well.) I wasnāt so much hamstrung by frustration with my appearance as I was with frustration over the sameness of my daily routine. I mean, donāt get me wrong, I love my daily routine. It makes me happy and comfortable and is good enough to keep me going on auto-pilot on those days when thatās all I can manage. But morning-walk selfies and office-selfies got real old, real fast. (I think I banned myself from office selfies sometime before we even reached mid-year.)
Selfies arenāt all good or bad, for me. Feeling confident in my appearance has been something Iāve struggled with for years, certainly. But in the last year or two Iāve struggled with something else. I feel better and more confident since losing so much weight of course – but I also feel far more attractive. I realize that plays into traditional notions of what is āexpectedā of women and that it shouldnāt be my concern, and that vanityā¦
SIGH. So I was value-judging myself for enjoying how I looked after doing a lot of work and losing a crap-ton of weight. Way to go, ME.
This isnāt a big end-of-2014 post, really. I write and reflect a lot during the year (home offline journal entry count for 2014: 102!) so doing some kind of public summation feels vaguely masturbatory.
Instead let me show you a bunch of pictures of myself! HA!
The biggest value of #365feministselfie to me, however, wasnāt increasing comfort with being proud of my appearance. It was the stories and pictures that cropped up every day with that hashtag. I made new friends, I laughed and cried, I cheered, I made judgments, I chided myself for making judgments and went back to just witnessing woman after woman feeling okay presenting herself to the world. (There was no gender restriction on the project whatsoever but statistically, the vast majority of participants identified as female.)
A couple years back – 2008, I think? – I was in a terrible community theater production of a terrible play called Big Bucks. I played the wife of the main character, Buck (see what theyā¦nevermind). In 2008 I was at sort of a midpoint on my weight-loss journey, down significantly from my top adult weight but still 60 or 70 pounds heavier than todayās fighting weight. One day during rehearsal, I was waiting behind one of the set doors for a cue, and the guy who played Buck had to walk past me to get to the other side of backstage. It was tight back there so I squished myself into that doorway as much as I possibly could, self-conscious. āItās all right, you arenāt THAT big!ā said my gruff and good-natured stage husband, thus making me want to curl the rest of the way into a fetal position. He really was an affable dude and meant it in a ādonāt be so hard on yourself!ā way but I took it the same way I take the reactions I sometimes get to being carded: āDamn, girl, you donāt look THAT old!ā
Anyway, in 2008 I was still battling with deep shame at the amount of space I took up in the world. I still donāt have a good or accurate sense of quite how much room my physical body takes up. But whatever happens to my physical stature, I donāt want to shrink like that ever again. The magic of #365feministselfie was, to me, all sorts of women saying āThis is me, taking up room in the world, because itās okay. In fact itās okay if I take up MORE room. Itās okay that I let you know that Iām here, and not hiding, and not ashamed.ā
It’s been an appallingly long time since I updated the blog. Sure, I moved. Sure, I had a semester of work to finish. Sure, the holidays. Sure…hey, I guess that’s why I haven’t updated.
Today my friend Laura and I were asked to share reflections on the theme of “bells” – she shared hers on her blog (see link above!) so I thought I would share mine.
It’s my intention to write here more in 2015. I’ve felt hamstrung by all the weighty topics in the news and on my mind, but I think there’s room for funny things as well. And ruminations. And just plain more sharing here. So let’s start with this silly story, which will actually be pretty familiar to folks who’ve known me a while. I’ve been telling it since 2001, after all.
Jingle Bell Cat
Throughout most of the ā80s and ā90s, my parents hosted an annual Christmas Tree Trimming party at our house in mid-December. We asked guests to bring an ornament for our tree, in the hopes that people would not arrive laden with cookies and fruitcakes and candies and other holiday treats. So year after year, weād welcome people and their ornaments with open arms…even though many of them still brought unwelcome snacks.
This meant a wide array of ornaments on our tree year after year: some we would change up, some were perpetual favorites, some seemed to get broken awfully quickly, and some achieved a permanent spot in the display.
In 1988 we received a small stuffed cat ornament. It was actually a toy from a McDonaldās Happy Meal – a tie-in with the Disney movie Oliver & Company (which I will admit Iāve never actually seen). The ornament came equipped with a little chip inside, so that if you gave Oliverās tummy a gentle squeeze, the chip would beep out a merry, tinny version of āJingle Bells.ā
Even though I hadnāt seen the movie, I sure do love cats – and so does everyone in my family, so the Oliver ornament made his way onto our Christmas tree year after year. We would dig him out of the box, press his tummy, let him play āJingle Bellsā and hang him on the tree.
When my dad retired, they decided to stop bothering with the tree-trimming party. It was nice, but it was a lot of work, and weād already broken or just plain thrown away more ornaments than could decorate a squadron of trees. In 2001, we had our first āfamily-onlyā tree-trimming in nearly 20 years.
When I had moved out of my parentsā house in the mid-90s, Iād taken a few ornaments that had been given specifically to me over the years, by my friends or family friends or relatives. That Christmas of 2001, we faced boxes and boxes of ornaments – many more than would fit on a single tree. So as we weeded through the ornaments, we made three piles: ones to keep, ones to discard, and ones that I or my brother and his family wanted to bring to our own trees.
Little Oliver came out of the box looking as lively and squish-able as he ever had. So of course I pressed his tummy, awaiting that merry, tinny version of āJingle Bells.ā
Instead, I got a terrific monotonal beeping, almost like a low hum but far, far more annoying. If you kept pressure on the chip inside the ornament, it might warble out a few notes – or at least change tone! – but left on its own, it just made consistent machine noise. It was funny at first. But it quickly became clear that the monotone was going to go on much longer than the time the chip would ordinarily take to play āJingle Bells,ā and the family was on the verge of throwing it out. Or taking a hammer to it.
āNo, no,ā I said, āIām curious now. I want to see how long it can beep.ā So I took the unquiet ornament and buried it inside my heavy coat pocket, under my mittens, hanging on the coat rack by the door. We couldnāt hear it when it was muffled over there, so we went about trimming the tree, joking about the old ornaments, sharing a meal and a warm cup of ciderā¦ And when we were all packing up and getting ready to leave, I went over to my coat and dug out the little cat ornament. Still beeping! My nephews, who at the time were 9 and 5 years old, thought this was the funniest thing in the WORLD. They couldnāt stop giggling, especially when I would squeeze tightly to the little chip inside the cat and it would beep out a few garbled notes from āJingle Bellsā before going back to the monotonal buzz. I promised them I would take the ornament home and report back on how long it took for the buzzing to stop.
I took the ornament home. I buried it deep in my t-shirt drawer. I would check it daily. My friends, that ornament buzzed without cease from that Sunday evening until the following Friday. When I dug it out on Friday to discover it had quieted, I must admit that for one mad moment, I thought of pressing Oliverās tummy again. But no. I restrained myself.
We learn a lot of how to be in the world from our parents, for good or ill. By 2001 I had my own little tree-trimming party tradition, though I didnāt ask for gifts of ornaments – just for my friendsā help with trimming the tree. My own party was that Saturday, the day after the ornament finally went silent.
When the first guests showed up, I simply had to tell the story. It was just too funny. Then a little bit later when we got out the ornaments to trim the tree, one of the guests asked me, āIs this the cat you were talking about?ā Unthinking, I said āYes, thatās him!ā
And this party guest, this supposed friend, picked up that little cat ornament and squeezed its tummy with gusto.
The little chip inside the catās tummy proceeded to play āJingle Bellsā perfectly, one time through, and then stop.
āHey,ā said the friend, āItās a Christmas miracle!ā
I looked at him and smiled and held out my hand. āHand it over,ā I said, taking it and hanging it back on the tree, where it hung quietly forevermore. Every year, he still does. I give him a squeeze each year for good measure, but that 26-year-old battery has beeped its last jingle.
Hilo, on the windward side of Hawaiāi, is āthe third wettest designated city in the United Statesā according to Wikipedia. Hilo overlooks Hilo Bay, situated between the flanks of Mauna Loa, an active volcano, and Mauna Kea, a dormant one. Two years ago, the day we visited Hilo certainly comprised the wettest day of our vacation in Hawaiāi. Having only a day, we boarded a tour bus and headed for Hawaiāi Volcanoes National Park, an uphill trip from Hilo through not less than five distinct microclimates.
Okay, thatās the book-report part over with. In the past few weeks Iāve thought about our tour guide to Kilauea in the national park atop the Big Island. Kilauea has been in the news again, erupting, an active lava flow threatening some populated areas.
I canāt remember our tour guideās name. A friendly, easy-going guy, he had moved to Hawaiāi over twenty years before, from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. One of the sorts of places where I imagine no one asks why heād think of relocating to Hawaiāi.
I wondered, though. I wondered why he chose Hilo. He described his house to us. Set in the lush vegetation of the rainforest microclimate, its walls needed to be regularly washed down with bleach to keep the flora and fauna from taking hold of the house. It was set on concrete footings, but not anchored to them, so that when the lava came, the house could easily be placed on a tractor-trailer and moved out of the way.
When the lava came. Not if.
No, after he shared he was from Wisconsin or possibly Minnesota, no one questioned his decision to come to Hawaiāi – but several of us questioned his decision to come to THIS part of Hawaiāi, to place himself in a situation of inevitable, unavoidable, impermanence. One of us actually asked – why? Why here? Why a mobile home with a bleach-bucket and the daily threat of lava flow?
I wish I could remember exactly what he said. In essence, though, his answer was, āThat is what I needed to do to be here.ā Why live in a bleach-box? Why fight every force of nature? Because when he saw that place the first time, he knew. He knew it was something he wanted well enough to ask the question, āWhat do I have to do to be here?ā
If that man asked āWhat do I have to do to be here?ā and heard the answers – be ready to move your house at a momentās notice, be ready to constantly battle plant life and animal life for the right to live in your space, be ready to lose it all if the truck breaks down and the house canāt be gotten out of the way – if he heard those answers and still wanted to be there more than anyplace else? Then I think I understand.
People talk about change a lot. Iāve made a few significant changes in my life and I get asked about them a lot and I never feel like I have the right answers. I know what MY answers are but I am never sure if that is actually what people are asking. I feel like they are asking me, sometimes, to tell them THEIR answers. Maybe I should ask a question back. āWhat do you have to do to be there?ā
There. The place youād rather be. Maybe not a literal place. Iād like to be on time for appointments regularly. Iād like to be more confident about some things. Iād like to go to graduate school which is sort of a place but is also a lot more than that.
Yesterday was Election Day and I know it didnāt go the way I would ideally have liked, or honestly even the way I rather realistically expected. And every Election Day some people wake up feeling like that. There is embittered talk, and snarky talk, and people vent and make legitimate points but mainly vent and also pout. I know, because Iāve done it. But after the fussing and the stretching and the realization-setting-in, I have tried to boil it down to: āThis world that I want. What do I have to do to be there?ā
This morning I read an online column by Parker J. Palmer, that contained this quote: āNo one who has stood for high values ā love, truth, justice ā has died being able to declare victory, once and for all.ā There is no perfect way to be in the world I want because my perfect world is not everyoneās. My perfect world is your idea of bleaching your house down for fun, maybe. And I cannot have the exact world I want because I have to share it with others who have different dreams, different ideas, and different goals. So right now my exercise is this: What do I have to do to be in the world I want? Not the ENTIRE world. My world. My immediate space. What can I do? The people I see day in and day out. The people I stand in line behind at the grocery store. The people I have seen today who were very pleased with how the election went. I donāt want to be in a world where I am full of bitterness and snark all the time. That was more or less 1995 – 2003 inclusive, for me, and Iām kinda done with it. It doesnāt work for me anymore. I want to do the work I have to do to be in a world I like waking up in each day.
Iām still thinking about that guy whose name I donāt remember, wondering if heās had to load his house up on his trailer and move out of the way of this lava flow yet. If not this one, then the next one, maybe. Thatās what he has to do to be there. Thatās how he knows itās his paradise.
Last night, Friday night, I was tired. It had been a long week. Workās busy, I had my mid-term exam in Spanish, I have some friends going through rough times I canāt actually help with, the move draws ever closer. So I was tired, and I wanted to go home, and chill out, and do nothing.
But I had baked a cake for our story-sharing night at church, and I had to go. And I had to go because itās my thing, itās partially my thing at least, a thing I try to do for the community each month to build up the conversation. And Iāve been tired before but Iāve always been glad to go.
So I went, and Iām so glad. Smaller groups, larger groups, cakes or no. Love is a thing I over-think. Actually I over-think most things but love is really up there on the list.
Showing up: thatās love.
Listening: thatās love.
Talking: thatās love.
Sharing: thatās love.
Impatience: thatās love too.
Itās probably easier to list what love isnāt. I came home last night renewed and grateful, grateful for the myriad ways there are to love in the world, and be in the world, and grateful I still let myself learn about new ones.
Then this morning I awoke to another side of love: loss. I am not here to eulogize my friend Dan who passed away this morning. Iām not qualified, itās too soon, and I just canāt right now.
We live and love and go through this over and over. And it is different every time. And it breaks our hearts every time. How do we go out and get our hearts broken so often?
The alternative is not to love at all. Not to live at all. May we all live richly, fully, amazingly while we can. Next weekend is DĆa de los Muertos. My request is that everyone remember and celebrate those dear to them who are no longer here. And yes, take a moment in gratitude of everyone who has ever touched you, ever loved you, ever been a friend to you.
Safest of journeys in strong light, my friend.
September 20, 2014
Dear Dad –
Can you believe itās been five years? Yeah, me either! I canāt believe itās been five years since we lost you. I canāt believe itās been five years of blog posts and I havenāt once resorted to an epistolary modelā¦until now.
A lot has gone on in the last five years. I know that you didnāt want me to cry or be too sad, but come on. You knew me pretty well. I was pretty sad when you left, and I have certainly shed my share of tears.
Recently I was talking with a friend about how you and Mom never really did understand what to do with me when I would cry. Like, you were concerned, and loving, and looked at me like I was a dear, sweet, beloved alien child who had somehow started leaking.
Speaking of calling crying āleaking,ā did you know we lost Robin Williams too? It sucked. I wish I believed in an anthropomorphic type of afterlife where you and Robin Williams could be up there laughing your asses off together, but Iām pretty sure thatās not the way it works. But I could certainly be wrong! God knows Iām wrong a lot!
Anyway, so Iāve cried a lot in the last five years. Sometimes because I was sad, sometimes because I was happy, sometimes because I was angry or confused, and sometimes simply out of sheer beauty or sheer joy. Often it was severalĀ of those things mixed up together.
I visit your grave usually once a year, usually on your birthday. Remember how I never knew what to do at graves? And Iād talk to you and Mom about it, when we would go to put flowers on Grandmaās grave? Where I wasnāt sure whether to pray or laugh or chat or what? Yeah, I still have no idea. I love the cemetery where youāre buried though. It makes sense to think of you there.
I keep thinking of stories from the past five years, Dad. Funny things and sad things. The bird that got stuck in the church during your funeral. Continued Christmas gag gifts and how I tried to figure out a way I could possibly leave one of those singing fish plaques on your grave. There are things Iāve wanted to tell you and ask you. I visited your grave once not on your birthday, but after the first Flower Communion I attended at my new UU church. I brought the flower that I got that day to your grave, because I needed to tell you about where my faith was taking me, and what I feel I need to do.
But why now? Why take up this letter-writing business when after all, Iāve just admitted a few paragraphs ago that I donāt believe in the type of afterlife where you could at all appreciate this sort of letter?
Well, Dad, a few reasons. For one thing, Iāve had the blog since before you passed away. I still have it, and it seemed important to me to mark this five-year anniversary. For another, to be honest, thereās something I struggle with. Iāve written about grief and mourning and about missing you. The grief is part of me now, every day. It is a part of the sum total of who I am.
But Dad, I have to tell you. I donāt miss you every day.
You hear that a lot, you know? āI miss [name of deceased loved one] every day.ā
I couldnāt tell you when the first day I didnāt miss you was. I was pretty aware, a few months after youād passed, that I had at that point gone longer without seeing you than I ever had in my life. That kind of sucked. And there have been plenty of times Iāve been reminded of you, or wished you were there to read a book or see a movie I thought you would enjoy. (Let me tell you RIGHT NOW though, Iām pretty glad you didnāt have to see them make these stupid Hobbit movies. Yeah: movies, plural. Donāt get me startedā¦) The familyās been through so much we would have been so happy to have you share with us, good and bad.
But I donāt miss you every day. And I need to talk about that because I think sometimes people get ideas of how their grief should be. They listen to the people who talk about missing so-and-so every day, or the ones who note how long they placed a certain type of flower on a grave, or maybe they drive past the monuments on highways to people killed in crashes long ago. Maybe sometimes people hear what other people do or feel in grief and they feel guilt because their own grief doesnāt work the same way.
I know youād agree with me that that isnāt right. Because I know that you wouldnāt WANT me to miss you every day. You would want a life of love and joy for me. I know this because you told me, and for that Iām so grateful. We got to have a lot of conversations when we knew your time was coming – on top of the ones weād had all along. Maybe sometimes people need to mourn in a different way because of conversations they do or do not get to have with their loved ones before the end. If you had died suddenly, perhaps I would miss you every day.
Iāve had a lot of pain and a lot of joy in the last five years, Dad. There have been many days Iāve missed you. And there have been times I have been grateful for the freedom of not having you here. Itās hard to say that. But we each make our break from the life we were raised to in our own way. We make our own life, our own path, our own way. Sometimes we run away from our families, or marry and make new ones in a traditional way, or act out against our parents, or simply move on and make chosen families in less traditional ways. Part of becoming fully me, fully myself, has been facilitated by your not being here. And while I love you, and while I carry the grief of your loss, that is a scar and no longer a wound.
Iāve written, Dad, about what a revelation itās been to look in the mirror and like what I see. I love who I am, scars and all. Itās not that I could never have learned to do that so well while you were here, Dad. Itās that this is the way it has happened, and this is who I am right now, and part of this woman I am is your loss. Part of this woman I am is more with your memory. There are things in my past I regret, things Iām ashamed of, things I am proud of, things I can barely remember. But to be here now they all matter. You matter immeasurably, Dad. You mattered for the 37 years of my life I was blessed to have you with me, you mattered for the 32 years you had before I showed up, and you will continue to matter so much for as long as I live.
But I donāt miss you every day. And I thought youād be happy to hear that.
I love you.
p.s. In the last five years Iāve gotten two more tattoos AND gotten my nose pierced. And I know how much you must love hearing THAT. Heh.