This Is My Story

***This story will make you uncomfortable, it sure does me. I am trying, in my own way, to end a stigma that has affected me for twenty years. In my own way, I am trying to #shoutmyabortion.***

I am fifteen, and a very scrawny one, at that. I have been dating a boy named Chris for about six months.

We met at the beginning of my freshman year, in debate class. Truth be told, I had a crush on his friend Steve, and, at debate tournaments, remember sharing conversations about oranges. “Did you ever think that the little sacs in an orange are like little tiny Capri Suns?” I did.

We started dating because my friend Becca told me, in the lunch line, that Chris had a crush on me. On our first date, we went to Barnes and Noble and chatted with our friend Jeff who worked at the Starbucks inside. We also perused the philosophy section, awkwardly talking. That summer, we convinced our parents that we were volunteering at the library so that we could spend every sunny day together, at the bottom of the hillside behind the Woodlands Pavilion. It was there that I realized I was so nervous about becoming sexual: that I thought the ins and outs of sex were so confusing and icky, I didn’t know what to do about it.

I was very tall, even then, and a late bloomer to boot. Chris and I used to treasure stolen moments on soccer fields, the bottoms of hillsides, and the backseat of his 280ZX. One night, on the jungle gym of the playground behind my house, we first had sex. I had never had a period, so didn’t think to worry. And then, over the next few months, still didn’t. We kept having sex in stolen moments, usually in the parking lots of the technology companies that decorated The Woodlands with cool night-lights. It was the stuff of high school romance: we would party with our friends in the trees that surrounded the Montessori School, or on the paths that wound around the faux lakes.

It was about four and a half months later that my mom began to worry that I hadn’t had a period yet. I was fifteen, and even to her, it seemed strange. So we went to the gynecologist, and I had the first oh-so intrusive exam of my life. Little did I know what would happen. A few minutes later, I was called into the doctor’s office, with my mom, and was told that I was pregnant, and in my second trimester.

What happened next was a blur of shame and confusion. My dad was out of town, as he always was. Chris, myself and our parents met at my house and sat in the fancy living room: the one that no one sat in. We were forced to write a pros and cons list of having a baby. Obviously, the cons won out.

Soon thereafter, Chris, myself, and both our moms went to a clinic off FM1960 and I walked past protesters telling me that I was a terrible person for doing what I was about to do. I remember sitting, and waiting, and being given medicine. I had to go home that night and wait, throwing my guts out all the evening through. I was experiencing what is now known as a partial birth abortion, later made illegal. The next day, we went back to that clinic and back through those lines of protesters, sat, waited, and then I went back with a few other women. I remember being shown a sonagram of the baby, and hoisted onto a table. Later that day, the moms took us to get cake at a Vietnamese bakery. I remember wondering: why are we eating cake? I was in a haze of medicine and confusion.

We went to counseling for six months, and even ran the evening day care at the United Way to “deal with it”. And then, we never spoke of it again. My dad came home from wherever he was, and life carried on. Or so I thought.

My mother never told my father, perhaps to protect me from his rage and his incoherent style of parenting that combined public praise with private punishment. I internalized this and realized that I had done something so terrible and so wrong as it had to be hidden, forever.

Years later, I wrote my mother about these feelings and she apologized saying that she felt she and my father hadn’t shown me enough love, and so I went out and found it with Chris. This isn’t true, and shows a simplistic and dismissive outlook on what family and love is. In fact, I felt such love with Chris, despite our age. I felt a sense of family with him and his family: something I didn’t have with my family of origin. The lack of family with my mother and father stemmed from an intense instability: my dad couldn’t function without anger and rage, and my mother just tried to hold it all together. When I went to Chris’ house, we watched movies and ate dinner, we went on family vacations and drank Kool Aid. We sat in the driveway and listened to Wu Tang Clan and talked about the world. We drove in that 280ZX and visited with friends. We were family. When I went home, it was cold and beautiful: so clean. It was without love: it was no one’s fault. My mother was living in a charade that she desperately hoped to maintain: one that looked like a married couple with two children. The reality of it was far darker, and none of us wanted to look at it. I was a child, and my mom was in denial.

For years, I have wondered where the shame comes from. I have been investigating the shame monster lately: he comes up when I am afraid or threatened, and I have put myself in situations where the shame monster transforms into a pain monster and all the shame becomes emotional or physical pain. This makes me feel at home, as if I know it, and its implications make sense. I am bad, therefore I should be hurt. It is a classic survivor of childhood abuse scenario: I search for another abuser. It is remarkable how easy they are to find. First was an insecure college boyfriend, then came a job working at a school where I was threatened by my students. Then came another abusive boyfriend, so like my father that I interchanged their names during fights. Then came moving to a dangerous city and an equally dangerous school. Then came respite, in Maine, and confusion. In Maine, I was close to my family and looked at their daily crazy life as normal. I began to think: maybe this is what all families are like? I realized: this isn’t so bad, they are getting better!

And then I left. I came to Austin last spring and found myself in a beautiful relationship with a truly loving man. We all know how this story ends up. I didn’t know how to handle what was happening: being challenged in a positive way, being loved, being appreciated. One night we got into a fight because he was feeling insecure about my new teaching job and my time away from him. He chose poorly: I recognize that. We got into a fight, found resolution, but the shame monster woke up. He perked up, like those goblins in The Labyrinth. He said, “here! There is food for me here!” I became insecure about that fight, and over-internalized its meaning. I gave it more weight than it needed. I talked about it in such a way to friends, friends who have long been too involved in my emotional decision making. I had planned a trip to Maine for a week before school started, and off I went.

During this trip, the same old same old happened. Three days of peace followed by…something. I don’t know what I did but it pissed my dad off. He yelled, I felt terrible. I called Cody on the phone, realizing that the situation wasn’t better….it was the same, only I had been away a while. I felt like shit, like dog shit. I hated my family situation. I walked with my mom to the beach, trying to get her to see clearly. She kept saying “I’m fine.” I left, again. I arrived in Austin in a white dress to my loving boyfriend, who had prepared a beautiful reception for me, and I thought, I am fine. The shame monster laughed. He knew better.

I decided I needed therapy because I was having a hard time understanding that one fight and school and being back in Austin. I verbalized this fear and Cody answered with fears of his own. I think he was afraid that if I went to therapy, I would break up with him. This was his stuff. Then I was struck in the gut by a surprise: I had to have my IUD removed because it was lodged in my uterus and cervix. The can of worms that was my shame associated with that abortion twenty years ago reared its ugly head. I had to go and have the one barrier against that fear happening again removed. I had to because of my health. Cody went with me and was loving and wonderful and took care of me for the two days that came afterwards. I remember not wanting him to leave: being afraid of it, even. Now I understand why.

The next few weeks were confusing. I was stressed out at school and also feeling shame, so much shame. So much fear: as if I couldn’t control how I was feeling. I was falling, deep, deep down. So far down I couldn’t see the bottom. I told him I couldn’t go to Thanksgiving. He became very upset. I went with him to get pizza on his way out of town and couldn’t stop crying in the parking lot. I was afraid but I didn’t know what of. He left and I went to a friend’s family’s house. During those two days, her father did what my father always does to me: criticized and judged, yelled and berated. I felt accosted, and I left. I called Cody and he was understanding. The shame monster laughed so loud, but I still couldn’t hear him clearly.

Time passed. It got worse. Cody broke up with me. I went to his house late at night. We got back together. We went camping for my birthday. I kept it all secret. I had booked a flight to Maine for Christmas and wanted so badly not to go, but went anyway. Three days later, my dad screamed at me for cooking a sausage in the kitchen. My mom blamed me for his anger. The shame monster stepped in. Cody picked me up, late in the evening of the 3rd of January. It was so late, and the airport was packed with Christmas travelers. He was not so happy at the idea of it all, and I internalized it and said: he doesn’t want me, he doesn’t love me, he is angry with me. Shame took the wheel.

Since then, I haven’t been able to relax. Every aspect of my life became taken over with shame. Shame that I couldn’t do “this”, that I was failing. I had a man who wanted to love me but I gave him every thing I had to tell him he didn’t, and that it was a bad idea. We went to Houston on Valentine’s weekend and it was fun, but I was avoidant and strange. The next week, I abandoned everything and went to Pittsburgh. He wouldn’t answer my texts and didn’t call. The Tuesday afterward, he broke up with me.

Someone told me a few weeks ago that I hadn’t hit bottom with my feelings yet, and that’s why I couldn’t identify them. When Cody broke up with me, and perhaps even a few days earlier, I approached bottom. I cut off my hair, and after that, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried and cried and cried. I cried at every moment, sparing only my students. When they left the room, I cried. At first I thought I was grieving Cody, and I was, but as my friend Barbara told me, I was also grieving myself. I wrote pages and pages, trying to decipher my feelings. I realized, after that conversation with Barbara, that I don’t think I have lost Cody, but that I lost myself. This is what I realized.

When I was 15 and an abortion, I took the stigma associated with it to heart. I internalized that I was bad. I did not deserve good. It was very simple. I went through relationships, and even got married in this methodology. I married a man who never challenged me, and therefore never had to face this. After my years of introspection in Maine, when I thought I was safe, I fell in love with Cody. Cody, despite his own faults, is a good man who loved me through and through. I didn’t trust this love, or my feelings. I talked about it too much, I doubted it. I lost it. The shame monster came in and said: you don’t deserve happiness!! How dare you even think that??? You are a fool, and an idiot, and if anyone sees you, they will know this to be true. Every relationship after this was affected by these beliefs. I never allowed anyone that close, every again, until Cody. In Cody, I believe in love and redemption. I felt family. I love him, and his son. I love everything about him, even his faults. There was no one else I wanted to be with, but yet, I felt like he would see me and leave me. He would see the badness in me and know it and leave. So I did everything I could to make him see it. And, despite never seeing the bad, he was overwhelmed by it and left.

When I made this realization, one that came after twenty years of internalization, denial, and repression, I couldn’t stop crying, and I still haven’t. The amount of regret that I feel, and the grief that I feel for that fifteen year old girl is almost unfathomable. I reached out to Chris, my high school boyfriend, and we talked at length about how fucked up it is that we haven’t talked about this in twenty years, and that it is the defining moment in both of our lives. He turned to drugs and avoidance: I just turned to avoidance and denial. I blamed myself and thought I didn’t deserve love. I couldn’t figure out why it was so hard for me until right now. Now I realize that that 15 year old girl felt so terrible about what had happened to her, that she had let down her family, was a bad girl, had done something so terrible she never deserved what EVERYONE deserves: compassion and love. During that moment, when I was 15, my mother never asked me how I was doing. She never hugged me and asked me if I was ok. This is not her fault: she was locked in her own prison, however, I was the child. I deserved love and compassion and help. And hope. However, I am angry with her, for compartmentalizing my own pain because it was easier for her.

So, over the last few days, I made some important decisions. One was to cut off contact with my family and with some friends who make me feel judged and untrustworthy of my own decisions. It is too easy for me to trust my own decision making processes to others: I think this is an affect of an abusive childhood. This has been the single most difficult decision of my life to date. The second was to not travel for at least one year, for I have used travel as an escape for too long. When things get hard or tricky, I leave for four or five days. This is something that Cody pointed out to me, and he was right. It is time to stay. Third was to go to therapy, twice a month.

My hopes for this time are multi-fold, and all involve forgiveness. Forgiveness of myself, for I was a little girl and had something so complicated and hard happen to me, I had no way to understand it. I needed love and hugs and time to talk. I want to forgive my family, but that will only happen with time and distance. I want to seek forgiveness from Cody, the first person I have truly loved in twenty years.

Last night, my two friends and I were in the desert. I painted a prayer to the baby I lost almost twenty years ago. I have never described her this way. I also wrote, on a rock, her name that Chris and I had invented all those years ago, her birth and death year, and this:

 

“You are forever loved, and so are we.”

Her spirit is buried beneath a mesquite tree, with a view of the arroyo and Mexico beyond. May God grant me the forgiveness I seek, and may the shame monster who has heretofore defined my emotional life, be starved of food. May he live in the shadows, never to return. May I be able to be honest.

We wear these lenses that through which we see life. I have wiped some shit off some of those lenses over the last few weeks. May I be able to continue to see clearly, and to live in love, with few distractions. May I find my way back to me and to love.

Thank you. I love you. Please forgive me.

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Be Honest

What a loaded phrase.

What a practice. Can we, any of us, be truly honest with ourselves and with others?

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” – Virginia Woolf

Lately, I have been trying this out: this idea of being myself. I now understand that who we are, or what is important to us, is shifting almost constantly and therefore, our expressions of such self will also shift and change. For most of my young life, I felt like I should portray myself in one way, and hide everything else. I think I learned this from my mother, and from growing up in an immigrant family where success means everything and feelings are swept under the rug, or into the corners of coat closets.

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I have some strange health problems, that probably started when I was sixteen. I inherited a strange genetic immunodeficiency disease, most likely from my father’s side, that is named gammaglobulinemia. It manifests in many ways, mostly in my predilection for infections and constant arthritic-like pain in my hands, wrists, and hips. During my senior year, I had to take a rest cure for almost six months, and spent my days watching movies and eating scrambled eggs, wondering what would happen. During that time, the illness expressed itself in its most intense form to date, but here and there, it pops up, as if to remind me of my own delicate nature. I forget, or shove away, my actual nature almost on a daily basis, as if putting forth a calm and strong and independent persona will chase away the inconsistencies, the weaknesses, the sadnesses, the things about myself that I am afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I chose to do something different. I chose to go to a good doctor and to talk to people about how I feel on a daily basis. It is a huge change for me: previous to this, only those closest to me knew about my feelings of being in my body. Very few people know that I experience chronic pain that limits the way my body moves and feels in space. I took a chance recently and spoke about it, and realized, just as a I realized last winter, when I shared my life story with close friends in Maine, that those who care about you don’t hate you when you express weakness, but rather, they see you as more human, more like them. Today I sat in the woodshop and talked about my friends with another friend and talked about how I have an autoimmune illness and that’s why I feel sensitive a lot and have been going to to doctor a lot since the fall. My friend sat there and asked me, “so…your bones hurt all the time?” And I explained it: how my wrists, hands and hips hurt constantly. He told me that it was strange that someone who works with her hands so much has so much pain, and I told him the truth, that activity is one of the only things that helps with it. He said, “well, I suppose you would have given up on it a long time ago if it was the other way around.” I smiled and said, “well, I wouldn’t have been able to give up on it.”

I supposed there are great risks in the opening of the heart. What happens if people lean into you too close and pierce it, sometimes not in an act of malicious vengeance but just peering too close-in? I spoke with a studio-mate the other day about divorce and its long-lasting implications, and about how I feel at peace with it all finally, as if it happened a long time ago, a time I can’t really fully identify with anymore. She told me that her divorce is still taking its toll, ten years later. So we agreed that all of us experience loss, grief, decisions and their implications, in different ways, and no way is wrong or right.

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I feel like being honest and opening my heart, perhaps for the first time, is a great form of risk-taking, but it conversely feels empowering and creates a sense of confidence that I don’t think I have felt before. It’s a feeling as if my old pair of LL Bean shearling boots are on my feet all the time and that my toes are safe and warm inside sheep-y softness. Of course, self-doubt remains. Questions are tossed in my mind that range from: will they like me? What is wrong with me? Why am I so odd?

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I suppose, here, at the age of 35, living in my beautiful little house in Austin, Texas, that I am finally identifying with my special-ness, something that I was afraid of because I grew up in such a way that taught me that expressing my nature was wrong. But now, in baby steps, I am seeing that, what other people have said to me for years, might be true. Maybe I am an okay person.

Two weeks ago, I was eating a goodbye breakfast at Magnolia with my friend Martha: she was moving to Houston in anticipation of moving to Washington, D.C. One day she will be an ambassador. Anyway, I ran into a friend who I hadn’t seen since I left Austin years ago. This friend and his wife and soon-to-be baby moved into my old house in Hyde Park after it worked out so that I could offer them that little place for the same rent that I had paid. They still live there, and he was very vocal at how thankful they are to have it. His daughter lives there, too. A tight fit in that small house with periwinkle kitchen walls and a veggie garden in the back.

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Age & Aging

The Dream Garden – A Glass Mosaic Mural by Maxfield Parrish & Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1915

I left Maine six days ago to start this journey across the country.  It feels so far away: like I am drifting. Me and my purple suitcase are attached together, detached from all other things. I feel as if I am floating through time and space, tethered only by the places in which I sleep at night, and the writings here and in my paper-and-pen journal.
As I have been traveling these last six days, I have realized a few things. The first is that I need stability and my own place to live. I moved out of my old house in the middle of May, and since then have been staying with friends and family or house sitting. At first, this was an adventure that I was ready for. I sold all my belongings save the 12 boxes of prized possessions, and was thrilled by feeling freer and lighter than I had for years. I still feel free and light but my understanding of what that means has changed from a relative position vis-a-vis possessions to desiring lightness inside my heart and mind. Part of that is the attempt to cultivate a sense of peace within myself that has nothing to do with objects: just being observant of the passing of time and place around me. However, it has come to my attention that I am ready to have keys again. I have no idea where I put my keys as it has been so many months since I have needed to use one. I am ready to settle into my winter house and create a little, temporary home there and reflect on the changing seasons and my new place.

Maxfield Parrish lived in rural Vermont in a beautiful house.

He loved theatre, and often staged beautiful plays at his home that starred his friends and family.

The next thing that I have been thinking about is age and aging. Lately, I have been feeling my age. I looked in the mirror yesterday and started making funny faces at myself, as usual, and noticed these large wrinkles that stretch across my forehead. Now, when I am not making funny faces, those wrinkles are invisible. But how often am I not making funny faces? I noticed the permanent wrinkle between my eyebrows. I noticed the grey hair that is everywhere now, especially since I haven’t colored my hair in four months. I notice the way I feel around younger people. I feel like I am counting my experiences with more importance. I feel like I am more contemplative than before, and that I am less likely to try to foist my opinion on to others. I feel like I have learned a lot but also have just lived through a lot. I feel tired and reflective, as if I am spending many hours of each day reaching and looking back into the parts of my life that have been neglected for a long time, trying to suss out meaning where I have usually neglected an analysis.

Louis Comfort Tiffany created new forms of glasswork for this mural. It is the largest glass mural in the world.

One of the things I keep coming back to is the experiential gulf between people. Someone you know and even love can be so similar in age to you but yet have not shared even a handful of the experiences that really carved out the person that you may be at the present moment. That isn’t to say that you can’t share experiences and learn from each other, but I think a sense of perspective may only be created through multiple experiences, good and bad, that provide you with an understanding of what is important, what is doable, what is a waste of time.

The Dream Garden – Detail

I turn 32 on this birthday, this Christmas Eve. When I think about my birthday this year, my dream is to spend it in my little house with a friend or two. I hope to have candles and lamps burning (I hate overhead light especially in the coziness of winter) and to drink a glass or two of wine. I hope that it snows, and that I can watch the snow falling and later, go walking in it when it is dark and everyone is asleep. I hope to walk down to the harbor and look out at the water, at the few boats that will remain in the water at the end of December, and walk home. I hope to have a cozy blanket on my couch and be able to stay there until Christmas is born the next morning. That is what I wish for, nothing more and nothing less.

I do not feel old, far from it. I feel very young most of the time and people tell me almost constantly that they are surprised that I am almost 32. I blame the hair dye, crazy outfits and desire to smile at everyone and everything. People often tell me that they notice my smile first. I count this as a win. When I say that, however, I realize that now I have been on the planet for 1/3 of the time I will get to be here, if I am very lucky. I plan to not leave till I am about 97, as long as I have all my faculties and can walk around and knit. Now that I know that I have been here for 1/3 of my life, and I look at all the experiences that I have had, the hardships endured, the beautiful things that I have seen and felt and appreciate every day, I feel older than some of the people who are around me.

The reality is that I lived life to the absolute fullest until about a month ago, when I decided to stop. When I say lived life to the fullest, I mean running around like the proverbial chicken with her head cut off, running from this to that. Pressured by a desire to succeed, I did. I succeeded, and I did not understand the meaning of the word no. I did everything I could all the time. And that, in a lot of ways, is a great thing. I know my capabilities and strengths and weaknesses and know now that I will always be ok; I will always be able to take care of myself. But I am tired. Tired, tired, tired. I have to stop rushing; there is no rush. All we have is time, granted it passes very quickly, but it is, really, all that we have. Time to stop and think, time to drink tea and eat soup, time to walk and listen to music, time to create beautiful things and tell people that we love having them around.

The Dream Garden – Detail

Since the age of 28, when this process of realization began, I have seen myself rush headlong into many things. I have seen myself make a decision that was absolutely critical to my happiness, despite the social rejection of that decision. I have seen myself take on everything that was thrown at me. I have seen myself adapt and change even when I shouldn’t have. I have seen myself dedicate my life to others while neglecting myself. I have seen myself run, run, run, desperately afraid that I would miss something, or something would miss me, if I didn’t. Desperately afraid that “it” wouldn’t happen, while not even knowing what “it” was.

The Curtis Center at 6th and Walnut in Philadelphia – Home to The Dream Garden

When I got shingles this summer and was forced to stop, I started thinking about age. I started thinking about all the things that I have done and wished I had done, and about all the things that I thought I would have had at this point. And then I realized, wherever you is, there you are. And all of a sudden, all the madness, the running around, began to slow down. The spinning began to slow and eventually stop. Friends helped me with this, helping me understand that I was still rushing around, still making plans where none needed to be made.

The Dream Garden was designed to inspire wonder at nature and a sense of solitude in the viewer.

This tour of my country is so beautiful because I get to see lots of people who I love, I get to do whatever I want to do in some of my favorite cities, and I get to spend some serious time thinking about this and other subjects. By the time I go home in a few weeks, hopefully I will be ready to stretch and unfurl this new me, the one that will be slow and dedicated instead of rushing around scared. The one who will spend time every morning appreciating instead of stressing. The one who will age gracefully, quietly. The one who will not look too far in the future for plans, but try to stay in the present and notice people, places, and things of beauty. I feel like this trip is my last for a while, because the task at hand is to practice being still for a while and watching the world by walking within it, instead of running, driving, and doing all the time.