Heart Shapes

I have been being a snoop today. I like being a snoop, and am one of those people who is guilty of looking in peoples’ medicine cabinets and awkwardly moving around homes at parties gazing intently at curios and especially, photographs.

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Brené Brown

 

This is what I did today; in the somewhat vain attempt at unpacking, I found myself snooping in one of Cody’s boxes that is full of old photo albums. Two baby books filled with sweet notes from his mother and photos in that classic 1970s sienna tone. The photos are of a blonde baby who looks remarkably like two of his nephews, Paul and Dominic. There is also a scrapbook of his first three years, filled with more photos and birthday cards. Then there are a few more photo albums. Two are of old family photos that range from baby Cody to teenage Cody, photos of his parents and grandparents. His mom had brown hair then, blonde now, cut in that poofy 70s/80s style that I think all of our moms wore. There are photos of his father cradling him as a newborn, in the exact same way that he later cradled his own son when River was born in 2004. In those photos, you actually couldn’t tell but for the age of the photographs that the man in the frame is his father and not Cody, for when River was born, Cody cut his hair short and clean in the same style as his father’s when he was born. Little Cody peeks out of photos, holding fish on fishing lines, dressed up in terrible Halloween costumes, sitting next to his father and mother and grandmother, posing on the trunk of a very old, silver Honda Civic. His father so young, and Cody so small: the family resemblance between the two is so strong. They share brows and shoulders, height and lankiness. Later, Teenage Cody begins to look as he does now: very tall, thin, with long-lashed eyes. Those long lashes show up in one photo from when he must have been about two.

There are also photo albums from later life, from when he moved to Austin in 1998. Cody out with friends, on the road to Albuquerque and Amarillo, and photos of the highways in between. Photos of him in Amsterdam with an old girlfriend who looks very sweet and very 90s in her baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. There is a photo of Cody from when he was building his first tattoo shop, when he was 25, and he looks almost exactly as he does today: glasses, beard and mustache, t-shirt, jeans, tattoos from tip to tail.

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Living with someone versus dating them and spending nights at each other’s houses is so different: all the cards are out on the table. All of each other’s strange little behaviors are on full display for each other to eke out over time; learn to tolerate, appreciate, and love. Cody puts a paper towel under the french press every morning while he makes coffee and it makes me crazy because it makes no sense. He apologizes almost constantly, seemingly just for moving around. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to do that. I wonder what things he notices about me that bug him, but he appreciates because they are mine, all the same.

In a set of the photographs, I saw the houses he lived in a tpwn in rural Louisiana, when he was learning to tattoo. There are photos of his first tattoo on an orange. There are photos of his Uncle and Aunt’s house, surrounded by potted plants and 5 gallon buckets of soil. This photo shows me why he collects so many plants and 5-gallon buckets of soil. This behavior of his ties back to the past, gives him some sense of continuity of time, perhaps. There is a photo of him in front of the school bus he lived in during his time in Louisiana, dressed up in the same leather coat he wears when it is cold, in front of a cook-fire. Cody loves cooking on an open fire. There are photos of his grandparents camp house in Center, Texas: an old, white trailer with a deck in the front. There are photos of the back porch with his mom and dad and grandmother. Little did I know that by looking at those photos on a quiet, rainy day in July (thanks be for the rain!) that I would learn so much about the man who I thought I knew the most about: the man who has become my best friend and my companion in this life.

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A few years ago, during the time when I was at the beginning of my “nervy b”, as I like to call it, I culled through hundreds of photos, scanning some and throwing away the rest. I used to have two photo albums but I don’t know where they are anymore. In some ways, during that time, I chose, albeit with a frame of mind that had a distinct lack of clarity, to literally throw out much of my past evidence. Today, I realized the sadness in that is that not that the things are gone, and neither the memories, but the signposts are no longer. Perhaps we hold on to objects not just because they are precious but because they help us re-establish that continuity of time in our own lives. Perhaps if I still had those photographs, I could remember better the times in my young life when I was friends with a boy named Eric, son of my mom’s best friend Pat. We used to do things all the time, dress up, ride horses, be really silly. Eric now has schizophrenia and lives in Florida: I wonder if he remembers anything from that time, at all?

I got rid of almost everything I owned, sold it to strangers and left it on a street in Philadelphia to be combed over by neighbors from countries near and far. I used to have a bag of my great-grandmother’s hand-made lace. Where is it now? Not that it matters much, really. I suppose I am mulling over my own rejection of my continuity of time. At that moment, in the years between 2012-2014, I was so ashamed of myself and my decisions that I threw all evidence of it away. No wedding photos, and all evidence of Steve is gone except a box from China his father once gave to me. Even my wedding ring is gone, and I stuffed my wedding dress into a trash can on the back porch of that house in Philadelphia.

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Here I am, today, in 2016, going through boxes of my own and of Cody’s, as we piece together a new life in a funky house in Dripping Springs, Texas. I grew really sad during my perusal of photographs today, realizing that whatever I had that was like these objects before me, I had destroyed in mad, sad intention. It’s true that my parents have a treasure trove of photographs, so I need not really worry about that specifically, but it’s like I am looking back at these last few years and wondering about putting together the events in a chain that makes sense and represents my memories. I suppose that is what this writing project is all about: a memoir, the establishment of the story after many years have passed.

I love Cody for many reasons, but one of the main ones is his ability to recognize his own painful life events and hold on the positives. He has a very good sense of perspective and being present. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. This morning I hung a bamboo shade of his on the window in the living room. It has a giant batik of butterflies on it, and it used to hang in the front window of his first tattoo shop on Burleson Road in south Austin. I remember staring at it during the hours of talking and tattooing that were the beginning of our long-standing friendship. And now it hangs in our house: the home we are building together, doing our best, muddling through, baring it all to each other, every day, and every night.

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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7th Grade Girls

7th grade girls are sweet and funny oddballs who change so much in nine months it’s almost bewildering. This year I have heard all range of things, like:

“Ms Blythe. I was fine until _____ destroyed my life!”

“Ms Blythe, why do you know everything?” answered with, “Because she’s secretly a goddess who has lived for thousands of years.”

“Ms Blythe – do you like me?” I answer, “yes of course I like you!” Answer, “no you don’t.”

“Ms Blythe, Ms. _____ hates us.” I answer, “no, she doesn’t hate you.”

If 6th graders are bundles of raw emotion and sweet happiness, transitioning into teenagerdom, then 7th graders are bundles of raw emotion, anxiety, confusion, tears, and absolutism, albeit momentary.

I have taught 7th graders for most of the years that I have taught. I think, in fact, there has only been one year that I haven’t taught them. My friend Jackie coined 7th grade “The Crying Year” because most of them, at some point, will break down crying, sometimes for no reason. One of my favorite memories of The Crying Year was one day, several years ago, when we were listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends while drawing botanical drawings of pinecones. I looked up and noticed a child had buried himself in a fortress of binders. I went over to him, knelt down, and asked if he was ok, to which he replied, “this music makes me so emotional”, in his strange, monotone voice. Later I coaxed him out from underneath the fortress by changing the music.

We just ended our year, my first year of teaching 7th grade girls, as opposed to boys and girls together. I also taught 6th grade girls, but as I said above, they are still bundles of light and joy and excitement. They scamper everywhere. 7th grade girls can be sullen, funny, energetic, silly, disrespectful, lazy, and philosophically challenging. This year, one asked my coworker if she wanted to always be a teacher. She answered yes, and the student asked, “don’t you have any aspirations?”

It is an adventure working with middle schoolers, but in a single-gender environment it is almost as if the daily emotional toil is concentrated and ever-brimming at the surface, apt to boil over. The dramas are similar to the infighting of a small town; alliances shifting and changing daily, for very small and insignificant reasons. It is as if 7th grade girls exist on an emotional see-saw, perpetually tipping the balance in the direction of interpersonal dramas for a day or a week, and then reverting the see-saw to equilibrium once more.

I learned this year that this is the year in which kids stop talking to their parents and they seem to grow an almost adult concept of not wanting to burden their parents with their thoughts and fears. They seem to not want to add stress to their parents’ lives (a mark of their growing maturity) but also desperately need people to listen to the contents of their worried minds. Perhaps this is why we all glommed on to our junior high school friends so intensely, but I cannot tell you the amount of times I said this year to different students: let yourself be a child for a while longer, and tell your parents you love them and need them.

On Thursday, when we all said goodbye and ushered them into cars and buses, there were many, many tears and marker-signed shirts and yearbooks with “H.A.G.S.” written all over the inside pages (Have A Great Summer). I giggled at them and hugged them, telling them they are fine as they are coming back to the school in a couple of months, but it was to no avail: “Ms Blythe! I love you so much. I am going to miss you!”

I am going to miss them, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Is A Field

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Rumi

 

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Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work

Doors open, and doors close. There is one door in my life that I seemingly have cared about over all others that occasionally peeks open, as if wedged outward upon its tight hinges and overly-secure lock. Light peeks out, love even, if only for a moment. And then, it inevitably closes, tightly, lips pursed, as if the opening never occurred. At this time in my life, it is the first time that I have felt that its closing is not my fault.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
Rumi

 

 

 

From Both Sides Now

It is a strange but comforting memory.

It is made of a wooden door with glass in the front, and squeaky stairs that go up, and then an old jukebox bathed in amber light, and lastly, an ice cream counter. It is a place in Galveston, a town about an hour south of Houston, where my family went together many times when I was a child.

There was a store there that sold imports, I think. It had wooden bins full of little things like beads. It had shelves on the walls with fabrics folded upon them. In this store, just after my grandfather died, I was wandering around and looked up to see a very white haired man in a button up, loose-fitting, short-sleeved shirt, wearing glasses and a camera hanging from his neck. It was my grandfather, and by the time I looked back at him, upon recognition, he had, of course, disappeared.

Galveston has a long, tall, cement wall that stretches along its seashore and was built to protect its citizens from damaging hurricanes, like the one in 1900. Some parts of it are painted with murals. Some parts of it are dotted with seashell shops, which sell lots of seashells not native to Texas at all, and many of those pretty shell chandelier-hanging lamp things. I always wanted one of those.

When we had the dog, Bear was his name, we would take him to the beach and he would run around. Once, my cousin Bruce came to visit from New Jersey, and he took Bear way out into the water. The dog panicked, and clawed Bruce’s back to bits trying to save himself in Bruce’s arms.

We used to stay in a beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula that belonged to our family’s lawyer. It was a brown house, made of wood, on stilts, and, at night, you could go out to the dunes with a flashlight and hunt ghost crabs. One visit, we discovered that the house had been robbed and things tossed about, as if in a storm. The two policemen who came demonstrated to us, flabbergasted, how they thought two people had gotten into a fight and thrown each other around. My parents didn’t agree with the theory, but I don’t remember ever staying there after that.

When I look back at time, and try to piece the story together, as I have been wont to do of late, I have been looking back to see when the family functioned well and when there was evidence of happiness and contentment. I think it ended just before my grandfather died, when my parents lost their house, their car, and many of their possessions. We moved into a small rental house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I lived in a tiny room, which I loved, and I had curtains around my bed. I used to sneak out of the huge window and go and walk in the park, later whilst smoking cigarettes.

Today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, a time I only remember because I was in a Texas History class at Knox Junior High School when it happened. My teacher was not a good teacher, but did have a slight obsession with Dan Fogelberg of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The only three things I remember from her class were Dan Fogelberg, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and learning a computer software that, I think, was some precursor to PowerPoint.

During that time, I have very few memories of my parents together or apart. I remember being alone a lot. I remember my brother playing with all the kids in the street all the time, and that once we had a massive, neighborhood-wide pinecone war. I remember doing my homework on a blanket in the front yard, and waving every day to the same lady in the same car. After a bit of time, she stopped and introduced herself. She was Irish and lived down the road a bit. I went to her house for tea. She became a great friend to me and we would talk and have tea; I remember she had a wonderful tea towel collection. I remember my mom coming to pick me up there one evening.

That time is shrouded, and soon after, we moved into another house, the one in which we lived when I graduated from high school. Come to think of it, that was the house with the large window from which I snuck out. All I remember of that time, in the house with the duck on the door, is darkness (it was a dark house). I remember my dad being in the bedroom all the time, and I remember not understanding why there was no one home and it was hard and dark, scary and confusing. I remember buying groceries for the family at the grocery store, and coming home to put them away. I remember doing laundry, and making sure my brother was all right. I remember getting into wearing vintage corduroy mens’ jackets. I remember catching the bus. I remember that sweet old neighbor, whose name I have forgotten.

 

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.

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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Stranger in a Strange Land

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In life come moments of clarity. This vision is only offered, not commanded. Your choice is to live in a state of grace or continue in normality. No blame. Fear can be an awesome obstacle when a time like this is presented. You will make great advancement and find your truth if you discharge fear and deconstruct your doubts. – the I Ching

The first tincture was of redwood and honey, I think, and the second was a spritz to the face that smelled like roasted poblano and brought me back to San Miguel de Allende’s dusty, windswept streets. In an instant it was changed to a murky, chocolate-flavored stuff that reminded me in some ways of coffee grounds. The last was a smear to the face of something golden from a large jug. This all happened during a story-circle for this month’s Pisces Full Moon: a circle of story-tellers and singers.

Moments of clarity and feelings of grounding have been hard to come by since my return to Austin; I feel like the place that I once called home is physically here, but everything is so different, including myself. Last night I saw old friends who didn’t even know I was back, and it made me realize that I haven’t truly been “living” here but continuing my attitude and behaviors of passing through, of being a drifter in one place or another. This is amplified now by still being separated from many of my belongings who still lie quietly in Maine, waiting for me to bring them here.

Last night’s theme was one of homecoming, and the first storyteller told a tale of being from Austin and just coming back after being a long time away in a very different place. Hers was the desert and mine was a northern island, but the feelings were the same. She said that a place becomes you, and I think she is right: I think I have even written here how I felt that life in Maine made you feel as if you were the environment that surrounded you: everything so interconnected, changeable, beautiful, mysteriously dark. Perhaps she felt the same away about her desert far away.

Homecoming is this idea full of levels of complication that start with the reality that you can never come home again: that home is different and so are its people. In my case, this city has transformed and swelled so that it seems like it is bursting at the seams, liable to just pour outward in a great torrent of people, cars, and buildings. This town, to me, always seemed a little sleepy and slow, not like Bar Harbor of course, but it was a nice feeling to feel at ease in a place all the time. And now the pace seems so fast that it seems likely to get swept up in it and carried along, without knowing which way you want to choose to go.

Is life so full of chapters? Apparently so.