Buoyancy: After the Void

There’s nothing like emerging from a vast, abysmal, months-long depressive period to make a girl feel brand new. Touched for the very first time, etc. Inside the void it’s tough to get excited about much, except maybe bedtime, happy hour, or just blacking out, if that’s more your thing. (No judgment here. It’s still a free country, sort of. A little bit.) Once it’s released its evil, voidy little grip, you’re left standing there, a sort of naked, baby-mouse Rip Van Winkle. You’ve got to remember how to do everything again. Once more, with feeling! But mostly–if you’re like me–you need to remember how to feel pleasure again, how to find joy in the small things around you, so that you can continue to be yourself. Otherwise there’s no point.

And so these are the things–trifling, perhaps; crucial, definitely–that are floating my boat, now that the boat is watertight and buoyant once more:

  • Super Better. From the website: “SuperBetter is a gameful way of living to be Stronger for life. Living gamefully means bringing the same psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games – such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination – to your real life.” It’s been acutely helpful to me. I admire the hell out of its creator, the brilliant Jane McGonigal.
  • Weleda Skin Food. Comme d’habitude, I am late to the party on this one, but became a certified believerafter two uses. I’m basically a lizard, and never is that more obvious than during the winter, or what passes for winter in Los Angeles. Also, as mentioned previously, I’ve been limping along like an eviscerated ghost for the last few months, not at my healthiest. What I’m trying to say is this stuff has revived my skin to the point where, while perhaps no one would mistake my dewy visage for that of a collagen-rich eighth-grader’s face, it made an immediate difference. And despite my frequent hand washing (after giving birth thirteen years ago I became the tiniest bit obsessive about germs), I don’t need to reapply Skin Food to my hands more than two or so times during the day, unlike the product I’d been swearing by for twenty years (!). It, uh, even makes the ends of my damaged hair shiny without making them greasy. And it smells like a massage.
  • Anemone by the Brian Jonestown Massacre. What is it about this song? The first time I heard it, I felt as though it were somehow coming from a place inside of me. It’s sad yet beautiful; affirming, yet narcotic. It’s good for what ails you, and good when nothing’s ailing you.
  • Palo Santo + Amyris perfume oil blend from For Strange Women. I keep a few sticks of Palo Santo at my desk, for sniffing. Honestly. I love the scent so much. So I was happy to see that my favorite perfumer has this two-oil blend that captures it perfectly, without being overwhelming (I’m absurdly sensitive to scent, so it’s a fine line between wonder and horror, always!). One sniff and I’m grounded.
  • These silly-ass, Pippi Longstocking looking rainboots. They make me smile. (I got them for a pittance from one of those online clearinghouse services.)

Of course, it’s not all things. Of course it isn’t. What has helped the most:

  • The friends who said things like, “Promise you’ll tell me if it starts getting worse, tell me. You can’t shock me,” and those who opened up to me about their own experiences with depression.
  • My dog.
  • My husband and son, the brightest stars in the universe.

Onward. And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Me, Too: Everything I Can Remember

A couple of days ago, Cindy Gallop tweeted this:

Men: your girlfriends haven’t told you. Your wives haven’t told you. Your daughters haven’t told you. Your female colleagues haven’t told you. Your female bosses haven’t told you. Your women friends haven’t told you. YOU HAVE NO IDEA.

She linked to this piece, in which Jessica Shortall lists all the instances throughout her life that she can remember in which men have shown her what’s expected of her as a woman. It’s not terribly different from my experience, or from that of any other woman I know. The details change, but the messaging is the same. Reading her story, I re-lived much of my own. And so I thought I’d add my voice.

This is only what I remember. Some of it I’d forgotten about before I began writing. There’s so much to sift through. Also, this doesn’t include the lifetime’s worth of public commentary, random groping, and that sort of thing. There’s so much that, frankly, it’s all a blur. “Damn, look at those titties!” “Nice ass!” “Hey girl, let me suck on your titties!” “Ooh, she’s fat but she’s cute.” “I didn’t touch you. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I’ll say, too, that unlike many of my friends and loved ones, I’ve not had to live with the trauma of rape.

So what this is, really, is a snapshot of a best-case scenario.

Age 5

My parents are on opposite work schedules so that one of them is always home with us. My father has me iron his shirts for work. He also tries to get me to cook meals for him and my younger brother. When I tell him that I don’t know how to cook and that I’m only five, he says, “You’re a woman.” I’ve already failed. I decide I’m never going to learn to cook so that I won’t be anyone’s slave.

Age 6

We’re in rural Mexico, visiting my grandfather. One afternoon, my father, a male cousin, my younger brother and I go out to a creek. It’s rough terrain, and it’s muddy and wonderful. The man whose land we’re on looks me over from head to foot. “Well. She’s certainly up for doing things like boys, isn’t she?” he remarks to my father. His disapproval is stark. I feel like a circus freak.

Age 7

My friend across the street has this uncle. Uncle Larry. When he visits, he insists on hugs and kisses from my friend, and then from me. I am deeply uncomfortable but I do it because I don’t want to cause a scene or make him look bad. The worst thing is to make a grown man look bad in front of other adults. You can’t do that, ever.

Age 8

The tenants in our rental house, two brothers in their late twenties, are angry with my father. So they call our house, and when I answer the phone one of them says, “Hi, sweetheart. Do you have hair on your pussy yet?”

Age 9

At a carnival, I’m excited to see bumper cars. I’ve always wanted to try them but never have. It’s only as I start bumping other cars in earnest and they all stop to stare at me that I realize I’m the only girl. The boys are laughing, saying, “She’s a man!”

Age 10

This is the age at which, on our yearly visits to Mexico, men on the street start staring at me and saying obscene things under their breath as I pass by, loud enough for only me to hear. This increases each year, until walking past men becomes nearly unbearable. And when there’s more than one man, they make it a party, one-upping each other. (I still, at age 43, dread walking past a group of men. I still feel like prey, regardless of the setting. Even walking up the steps at church, where the welcome team is often all men.)

This is also the age at which boys at school start snapping my (newly acquired) bra strap.

Age 11

The boy I like signs my yearbook with, in part, “And even though I make jokes about your weight, I still think you have a great body.”

Age 12

At a party, a much older cousin and I are talking about music and life and whatnot. He is drunk. He gazes at me across the table where we’re sitting, and says, “You know, if you weren’t my cousin, and if you weren’t only twelve, I could probably fall in love with you.”

Age 13

A group of boys in my junior high school decide, for reasons unknown to me still, to begin following me down the hall between classes, referring to me as “dirt” like it’s my name. I have no classes with any of them and have had almost no interaction with them. They do this as a group until a) I report one of them to the school for having an Israeli flag in his locker with swastikas drawn on it; and b) my father sees one of them at the bus stop and tells him to back off, “Or I’ll fucking kill you.”

Also that year, we have some work done on the house. A friend and I are hanging out within sight of the two middle-aged men doing the work. One of them says, leering in our direction, “I really like looking at nice things.” The other one answers, “Yeah, and not just looking, either!” They laugh uproariously.

Age 14

Another cousin, who’s in his late teens and fancies himself quite the ladies’ man, likes to tell me that I’m pretty but I need to lose weight.

Age 15

My first semester of high school, I start receiving letters delivered through the vents of my locker. Each one describes everything I did during my tennis class that day. Each one talks about how beautiful I am, and how the author wishes he had the courage to talk to me. When he finally builds up the courage, I begin dating him, because he’s paying attention to me and that means he must really care.

Age 16

Some seriously bad shit has gone down at my house. My mom and I have moved out. I buzz off most of my hair and remove everything even remotely feminine from my room. I feel so vulnerable that most nights, even at the height of summer, I cover my head with my sheets so that, following my fear-logic, if someone breaks in with intentions to harm me, they might think I’m a boy and leave me alone.

A few months later, I’m at a punk show and, as one does in such settings, I decide to go into the pit. It’s a fairly low-key one. I’m there about two minutes when some guy comes by and pokes a finger, hard, into my breast.

Age 17

Well, there’s this, first and foremost. But in the middle of all that, my English teacher, a bookish, pale, 49-year-old family man, a deacon at his conservative church in Orange County, begins staring at me during tests and wanting to talk to me all the time. I begin talking extensively about the teacher mentioned in the link above. One day the English teacher reads a love poem aloud, making extended eye contact with me during a few specific lines (the only one I still remember is something like, “If I could just achieve your love”). The bell rings just as he finishes reading it. As we exit, he says quietly, “I wrote that.”

The same man, one day when I’ve been working on a photo project late after school, corners me at my locker to ask what I’m doing there so late. I tell him there are “a lot of us” working in the photo lab for our final projects and that I’d better get back (there were two of us, plus a teacher, and no one was expecting me back). He says, pointedly, “Well, I should have known that if you were here late, it was either for Mr [Photo Teacher] or Mr [Teacher in linked article, whose name he turns into an audible sneer], your two faaaaaavorite teachers.” I get out of there as fast as I can.

Age 18

I go catch a movie with a man who’s very popular in the college-theater crowd I hang out with. He’s been friends with my boyfriend for years. Afterward, we go to his house to get dinner. His mood turns dark as he’s cooking, and he tells story after story about his ex-girlfriend, of whom I remind him, and her prodigious sexual talents. I’m uneasy, but he’s bawdy, fun, intelligent, and we’re all theater people, you know? We’re very frank about things. And I’m 18 and completely starstruck. After an uncomfortable dinner, he lies down on the couch as we keep talking. I start feeling like I should leave. When the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up, I realize I’m not actually being paranoid. I get my keys and very confidently say, “Well, I have to go.” He looks bitter and says good-bye, and after that night he stops showing up to our gatherings. I see him a year later in a bookstore, with his young godson, and he’s eager to get away from me.

Age 20

I work at a couple of different restaurants. At one, where I’m a waitress, male customers often snap their fingers at me to get my attention, or stare at my chest when they talk to me, or just blatantly look me up and down while ordering. At the other, where I’m a hostess, male customers sometimes lean into me, putting their arms over my shoulders while offering me a twenty to get them seated earlier.

Age 25

I meet up with a friend from work at a concert. After the show, we determine that she’s parked in the opposite direction from me, so we part ways. I end up walking in front of a group of very drunk frat boys, none of whom is less than six feet tall. They start talking about my outfit and about how I’m alone, and one of them starts stepping on the backs of my shoes. They all find this hilarious. They follow me until I step aside and pretend to look for something in my bag. I’m terrified they’ll wait. They don’t. I’m lucky.

Age 30

I’m working in a small, close-knit department at a conservative, global automotive corporation. In a staff meeting, I refer to something I did once at a different job. The VP says, “Is that the job where you danced around a pole?”

Age 31

At the same global automotive corporation, my department is hosting a conference attended by our associates all over the world. When I enter a room to get the attendees’ attention and direct them to where they need to be, one of the men from abroad glances at my chest and, smirking, says, “They ought to give you a little whip.”

Age 42

My company is running a two-day workshop for a large organization, and we’ve hired an extra consultant in a boots-on-the-ground kind of capacity. The consultant is an older white man. At breakfast the second day, one of the executives asks if he can join us. We say yes; he sits across from us and completely ignores me as he asks our consultant question after question about our business. When I break in to say that I’ve been with the company for years, he seems shocked to realize I’m there. He’s also not interested in my answers to his questions, and switches over to talking about sports and ignoring me.

Shortall’s article closes with the following, and now I’m closing with it because it’s perfectly expressed, and because without her piece I wouldn’t have written about my own experience:

None of this defines me. But if you think it hasn’t shaped me, hasn’t made me make rules for myself my whole life, hasn’t shaped how I view other women, and myself, and men…if you think it hasn’t shaped my ambitions (for good and for bad), or the way I vote, or what I see when I look in the mirror — I’m guessing you’re a man.

My whole life has been peppered with these things, gigantic and small, that have been sending me a very specific set of instructions about my place in the world. I’m exhausted by it. I’m lit up with rage about it. I’m resigned to it. I refuse to be resigned to it. I tell myself “not anymore.” I know this list will grow.

And these are just the ones that I remember.

Thank you, Jessica.

###

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This Tangle of Thorns

There was a boy.

There was always a boy. I saw things in people they couldn’t necessarily see themselves, and that included boys. This one was no different in that regard. I saw his need to be seen, despite his popularity. Despite the fact that no one at school was ambivalent about him. Everyone loved him. (Let’s call him J.)

I’d been ambivalent at first. More than that: for all of sophomore year and most of junior year, I’d found him irritating. He was so incredibly confident, for one. His clothes were sloppy. His hair was always slightly too long and messy. He was so nondescript that his deep belief in his value and importance as a human being seemed outrageous to me, somehow.

To be fair, it was a painful period of time for me. I was angry, scared, and deeply lonely. I lived in fear of answering the phone, because it was my father’s preferred method for tormenting me. He’d call when he knew I was alone, and would verbally rake me over the coals for the fact that my mother and I no longer lived with him, for the way I was allowed to be home alone (which had been fine, under his roof, for years before we’d left), for anything at all, even things he’d made up entirely.

I had friends. I was friendly with everyone. But it felt as though there was an extra dimension I was somehow subject to. Bad things happened to me, to my family, on a regular basis. Things that didn’t happen to other people, or in other families. Weird shit. Weird, tragic shit. I felt marked.

In the spring of my junior year I was writing a story for the school newspaper and someone suggested I talk to J for some quotes. J, that big, doofy, messy boy with the overzealous confidence. I don’t remember what else was going on in my life that day, but talking to him was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d just dyed my hair purple and was certain he would feel compelled to make some stupid joke about it.

And he did. And I stared at him silently until he turned red and started answering my questions. I wrote faster and faster as I listened. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was intelligent. He was a feminist. He knew what he was talking about. I looked up at him, and it seemed to me that I was transparent to him, that he could see everything I was and everything I’d ever thought. He nodded and smiled, and my face went hot. I left the interview in a daze, but I thought maybe he had, too. We’d surprised each other.

The following spring, I was short a class because of one I’d tested out of back in junior high. My counselor said I should add an elective course. And I thought of J.

***

He was surprised, and happy, I thought, to see me that first day of class. It was one of those easy electives — there were grades assigned, rather than a pass/fail option, but it required more work to flunk out than to ace it. What I’m saying is that there was lots of time to talk. And talk. And talk. It was so easy. We had so much in common, I couldn’t believe I’d spent all that time sneering at him in my head. We both loved the Doors, Cream, all that old shit. We talked philosophy, as one does, though he seemed annoyed when I pointed out his physical resemblance to Nietzsche. We both loved muscle cars — more old shit we had in common. We’d been to some of the same places in Europe. We loved the same places in Rome and London.

We talked all the time, and so much that I began to worry I was spending too much time with him in class. We were starting to get weird looks. But he didn’t seem worried. At some point we realized we each had the second class of the day in the next building over, so we started walking together, still talking. Always talking. It was the best part of my day. I felt seen. I felt appreciated. And it was so amazing that I couldn’t bring myself to think of what was happening in practical terms. Namely, that I was 17 and he was not only 42 years old, but my teacher. And married. With two kids, one of whom was a year older than me.

I told myself it was fine, that nothing weird was going on. I had started opening up to him about how much life sucked, and he was so encouraging, so kind, in an easy, uncomplicated way. J wasn’t a creep. He wasn’t sensitive or dramatic or any of the things you hear about in stories like this. He was kind of a pillar of the community, straightforward, from a working-class family. He didn’t have a stake in my life except as another adult who’d noticed I was an old soul, and was kinder than was strictly necessary. I’d run into those adults my entire life, and usually at school. This was no different.

Except that none of the others made me feel like my skin was on fire just by looking at me. Nor had they, at any point, begin to casually let their eyes travel over me with a gentleness and an ease that was intoxicating. I’d been raised in part by a man who, when he wasn’t pointedly ignoring me, was making sure I understood that I was never going to live up to his expectations. Now this other man, this grown man who was so smart, this incredibly sexy grown man who was at least twice as big as my father, was enchanted by me. And when I told him about why I was afraid to pick up the phone, he glowered. He told me I mattered. He listed the reasons why. The next day, he asked me quietly for my father’s business address.

“Just in case I need to go talk to him,” he said. He was dead serious. I tried to laugh but it didn’t feel right. He stared down into my eyes. “I won’t do anything unless you say it’s okay,” he said. “I promise.”

Women who were raised by fathers like mine will understand what happened to me when J said these things. The rest of you can perhaps imagine what it would be like for your favorite celebrity to show up at your door, proclaiming their love and promising you’ll never want for anything again, and also, by the way, they’ve figured out a way to achieve world peace. Oh, and things like paying taxes, washing dishes, and putting gas in the car are no longer necessary. And, like, maybe everything delicious is calorie-free now. You get the idea. I was loved. I was unstoppable. I was so, so hot for him.

But in this heady whirlwind of an environment, my need for him to remain flawless and non-pervy was non-negotiable. He had to be A Good Guy, because then I was safe. So I told myself I was imagining the way he looked at me. Sometimes I’d let myself believe, for a moment, that it was real, but the resulting nausea felt like the world growing dim again. This was all on my end, in my head. He was a nice man and I was…me. However fundamentally untrue my premise, it felt like the best of all possible worlds. I’d gotten used to feeling good, to feeling like I mattered.

So when I walked into class one day and he wouldn’t make eye contact, the ground fell away from under me. I tried over and over again to break through the wall he was holding around himself. He answered in as few words as possible and talked to all the other kids in class. Just not me. And while it felt like I’d been skinned alive, it was, at least, familiar territory for me. So it didn’t take me too long to go into destruction mode. I sat perfectly still in my seat, very obviously not working, and I stared at him until I saw him glance in my direction, out of the corner of his eye. Then I looked him up and down, slowly, intensely, over and over again. He looked startled— I saw him glance around the room as though looking for an escape— and then got up and went to the back of the room, to an area out of my line of sight.

A week later he was back and all was well again. But soon he tried again to cut me off. And again. And again. Each time was like dying for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do when the semester came to a close and I graduated. I was terrified. But he wrote me a beautiful message in my yearbook. And he showed up at my 18th birthday party, with his wife, who rightly hated my guts but somehow, by the time they left, had warmed up to me.

The next year my mom and I moved again, this time to the city where J lived. I was dating a boy I’d met in college theater, and he and I were walking around the neighborhood when J drove past, wife and kid in tow. I called out to him; he pulled over and we all had a lovely, bubbly chat. By the time they drove away, we had plans: he’d said that they would take us to a nearby Vietnamese place for lunch.

I thought, or tried to think, that we could make things normal somehow. I was just some dumb half-orphan kid and he had this great family and they were so nice: that was the line I fed myself. We went to lunch, and then to their house, and he showed us all the sculptures and paintings he’d done, and even took us into his bedroom to show us the ones on display in there, and that’s when I saw the daggers in his wife’s eyes. We left soon after that. “Call anytime!” he shouted as we drove away.

One of those nightmarish phone calls from my father came a few weeks later, and it was so bad that I don’t remember what it was about now; I only remember that I was frantic, that it was the middle of summer and hot as hell, that I was so out of my mind with panic that I closed and locked all the windows and doors and sat in the exact center of the apartment to rock back and forth. When I could speak, I called J. He was delighted to hear from me. I started telling him what had happened. And then I heard his wife scream. He dropped the phone and I could hear him yelling. Then his kid came on the line, his scratchy little voice saying, “My mom cut herself on a can of tuna. We have to take her to the hospital. My dad said to tell you. Bye.”

I was crushed. And totally alone again. That year I got an early Christmas card from them, in her writing, with a PS: “Sorry for getting J off the phone. I cut my finger and needed stitches!” I hated her so much. Why couldn’t she understand? Why was she lording it over me? Absurdly, we continued exchanging Christmas cards. Time moved on, even if I couldn’t. I needed him, I needed that world we’d built. I was incomplete without it. It was deeply embarrassing and totally ridiculous, but there was a gap in my being, in his 6’4″, 250-pound shape.

You can get used to anything, though. I went to school. I worked at a variety of shitty retail and restaurant jobs. I met the love of my life in 1996 and got engaged in 1997, four years after graduation. My father had made it clear he wouldn’t be walking me down the aisle and I felt reckless. Fuck it; I called J to tell him I’d be getting married. I’d just been soundly rejected, yet again, by the man who was supposed to love me more than any other. Nothing worse could come of this call, but it was possible something better could.

He was surprised, and happy, I thought, to hear from me. I told him my news, feeling suddenly shy about it, my stomach doing flip-flops. He congratulated me in his boisterous way, and it felt pretty good.

“So what does this guy do?” he asked.

I told him my fiance worked in a warehouse and was in film school. I thought he’d like that, because we used to talk all the time about creativity and art and how important both were.

“Film, huh? You know, you need someone who’s going to make money,” he said. He went on a tirade then, telling me that stability was the most important thing, scoffing about his brother-in-law, who was always trying to get famous from “his little poems” and made very little money. (I found it positively fascinating that all of this was coming from a teacher.)

I got off the phone as quickly as I could. He’d sounded feverish by the end of the conversation, signing off gruffly. I was stunned. He was jealous.

***

One of the shitty things about gaslighting and other forms of abuse is that you get really good at doubting yourself, and at hiding the truth from yourself. That was, of course, partly how everything had happened with J. At age 25 I found myself thinking about all of it, wondering what had really happened. Was it possible I’d misinterpreted things? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me like it had all happened in another lifetime, in a vacuum, underwater, in a language I no longer spoke. I couldn’t make sense of it.

So I went to find out. I felt strongly that his reaction to seeing me would tell me everything I needed to know. One Friday, I drove into the school at a quarter to three and went and stood in the hallway next to his room. He was doing that end-of-the-day, end-of-the-week chatter with the kids. Content. Comfortable. Then he glanced out of the open door and his smile faded. I waved. He got up, saying, “I’ll be right back.”

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you,” I said.

“Oh.” He stuck out his hand, offering it to me to shake. Once I’d graduated, we’d always hugged. I stared at his hand, and then at him, and then smirked and shook it.

He looked, uneasily, down the side of the hall that led to the main office.

“You know my daughter works here now, right?”

Why would I know that? I wondered.

“No,” I said. I hated her, too. She had him in her life.

“Yeah. She’s been working here for awhile.”

“That’s great,” I said.

The whole conversation lasted maybe five minutes, and it was all strange and painfully awkward. Finally he said he had to get back, and he stepped toward me with his arms out. Some instinct kicked in then, one I couldn’t explain, then or now, and I stepped back, slamming into the lockers behind me, hands flat against the metal. We stared at each other.

“Okay, well, it was good seeing you,” he said, in a very loud voice. “Keep writing! Take care!” All the kids turned to see who he was talking to. I waved and went down the hall. He came out a couple of minutes later, furtively looking to his right and then to his left, where I was, a few classrooms down. He looked at me for a moment and then went back inside.

Not long after that, I sent him a poem I’d written about that afternoon. About all of it, really. Everything. I stuck a post-it on it that said, May you never do to another young girl what you did to me. I mailed it to him at school with no return address.

Years went by. One day my husband and I stopped in at our local Trader Joe’s. I was hugely pregnant then, and I remember the air conditioning in the store felt great. We walked in, and there he was. J. Big and doofy as ever. He saw me, he saw my husband, and then he saw my belly. His face went blank. He walked out of the store.

I’m older now than he was then. I’m not angry with him anymore, but I am still baffled. Had he hit a rough patch at home? Was it nothing more than a mid-life crisis? I think he started out with the best of intentions; I really do. But an angry, needy, horny 17-year-old who’s too smart for her own good is a dangerous thing. My guess is that he quickly found himself out of his depth and then didn’t know how to make it stop. I’m not making excuses for him. The thing is, he never once laid a hand on me.

This situation fucked me up deeply, for a good number of years. But I honestly don’t think he meant to harm me. And I decided to stop harming myself by being angry.

This thing happened once. There was a boy.

There was always a boy.

###

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7 Lessons From About a Million Jobs

Because almost everything is interesting, because learning is the most interesting thing of all, and because I need health insurance in order to live, I’ve worked a lot of different jobs, in a lot of different sectors. Some people have seen this as a liability — “Oh,” they’ve said, for instance, their eyebrows rising to their hairlines, “You’ve had a lot of jobs,” in the manner that one might say, “You’ve had a lot of husbands.” Other people have said, “Wow! Tell me about your experience.” Listen, if there’s one thing that having had about a million jobs provides, it’s experience.

Experience: that’s the thing that either sinks us or makes us. And the line in between is razor thin. It comes down to two things: attitude, and a desire to be better. When I ask someone about their experiences, I’m less interested in the things that happened to them than I am in the ways they chose to react to and work with their circumstances, and in how those choices shaped the way they navigate through life. This is how I choose my mentors. I want to learn from ordinary people who found themselves in difficult situations, found a way through, and were better for it, rinse and repeat.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few great mentors, and to have experienced some pretty terrible situations, in my professional life. Together, they’ve taught me some solid lessons. The following are ones I use for navigation.

  1. Conflicts are almost never personal.
    They feel personal. Absolutely. But they’re not. What they’re really about: unmet expectations, existential crises, triggers. In most situations, there’s something the other person needs from you. If you can provide it, great. If you can’t provide it, say so. Be calm. Be respectful. This isn’t about you, this is about a stumbling block on your path to being better. Help yourself and the other person to move past it. Don’t hold a grudge. This isn’t about you, it’s about the work. No matter what drama someone else may try to drag into a situation, make sure that, for you, it’s always only ever about the work.
  2. When they are personal, they’re still not personal. 
    Maybe you’ve accidentally just cost the company $9,000 more than you meant to, because of an extra zero in an order of custom-made items you placed. Maybe there’s a typo on the cover of a magazine because you weren’t thorough enough. Whatever the case: it’s still not about you. It’s about the work. Figure out how to fix your process. Tell your boss about it.Improve the work. It’s about the work.
  3. Never complain.
    Complaining is the quickest way to signal to everyone that you’re an amateur. If you have a serious issue that needs addressing, take it up with the right people. Then be quiet about it. Tell your friends, your mom, your dog, sure — but at work? Once it’s been addressed, you’re done. Door closed. Onward.
  4. Never explain.
    Explaining makes you look indecisive, weak, or just plain silly. “I’m so sorry I’m late, I fell out of bed this morning and passed out, and when I woke up I realized I was out of gas, and at the gas station an armed robber came by and took all my money, so I had to call my friend to help, and — ” might be kind of cute, but for the most part, no one actually cares. They care that you’re healthy, present, and ready to work. Anything beyond that is your own business. A calm, “I apologize for being late. What time would you like for us to meet about the annual report?” is endlessly more palatable.
  5. Be confident.
    You were hired because someone believed you could do the job. Don’t send them the message that they were wrong. Ditch any fears you might have about making mistakes and just do the job. Better to be confident and bold and mess up once in awhile than to be the soul-sucking person who needs constant reassurance just to get the job done.
  6. Be yourself…to a point. 
    Your family and friends have to love you. (If they don’t, you can find ones who do.) Your colleagues do not, but they do have to be able to interact with you. Make it as pleasant for them as possible. Amp up your professionalism, play down your questionable tics. Actively decide who [your name here] is, professionally. Create your work persona so that it’s something you look forward to wearing, like a jacket you wouldn’t wear for a night out on the town, but would totally rock in a more buttoned-up setting. And by the way, this goes for very casual work environments as well.
  7. The ground is never stable — plan accordingly.
    Economies crash. Clients take the work in-house. New bosses sometimes show up and get rid of people. Stability is an illusion, and the sooner you’re okay with that, the better. Stay nimble. Always know what you do best, where you’re improving, and where you’ll never be any goodKnow how those skills (or lack thereof) translate into different organizations.Most of all, understand the value that you’re bringing with you everywhere you go, and don’t be coy about it. This is the work you do in the world.

It’s about the work. It’s about the work. It’s about the work.

You Know My Parents Are Gonna Be the Death of Us All

I kept asking myself when I’d become such a cranky old fuck. All these smiling young people in their twenties, trying to live their lives and find their way to some semblance of happiness in spite of the nothingness that’s been left them. The chatter was mostly polite, good-natured. Everyone being so nice to everyone else — who knows whom you might end up with, following the after party. A hookup, a new friend, a new boss, even?

And there I stood, sneering internally. Snorting in my heart, if you will. Deeply annoyed by this mass gathering of earnest, nice young things. This is the point at which I began asking When did you become such a cranky old fuck? What is wrong with you? What’s wrong with these kids being nice kids?

It took about thirty minutes, but I did get to the bottom of it. That is, in fact, a weirdly long time for this kind of bitchy, surface-level soul searching, but I was simultaneously sleep-deprived and overloaded with useful information (the first time the latter has ever happened at an industry conference!). A full brain and a lack of rest, and I’m dangerously slow. Anyway, I remembered, is the point: I’ve been cranky since birth! I’ve always snorted at the sight of large groups of earnest people wanting to be seen as professional, smart, cool — anything, really. Crowds of clean-cut kids have always held this power over me.

Give me a group of surly, disaffected youth in black, in tattered denim, in too much eyeliner, with weird haircuts any day, I thought. Give me the kids who know shit is broken and are making art anyway. The ones who are forging their own paths out of necessity, and clinging to their weird-ass identities because it’s all they have, and they’re determined not to give up.

Give me a group of surly, disaffected adults who–no, wait. Wait wait wait, I said to myself, looking around at these kids, with their IPAs and their perfect hair and tasteful eyeliner, their industry buzzwords and so much goddamned hope.

Give me the adults who were those surly, disaffected kids, who had to grow up to learn how to let the world in because it’s not always going to rip you to shreds, and when it does, it’s okay, you give your heart time to heal and reassemble. Because it will. The adults who have learned that shutting down for survival is fine, but if and when you do survive, opening back up for life becomes a necessity. The adults who love and protect from behind the scenes, who look out for the kids who need a simple smile or a compliment, a little conversation to keep the black dogs at bay.

Let me be that adult, I thought. 

I looked around again, the untz untz untz of the conference after-party unceasing, despite the lack of dancing — there was networking to be done, though soon it would no doubt spill out into the streets, into the bars and become something else altogether — and saw them with different, better eyes.

You kids are all right, I thought.

And it was all right.

It was all right.

[With apologies to Lou Reed.]

 

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No Todos Los Hombres

So I’m at the drugstore to pick up a couple of things, post-workday, post-workout, pre-shower, etc. As I’m crossing from one aisle into another, in my peripheral vision I see a man turn in my direction and say something. There’s no one else around right at that moment, but I ignore him and head to where I’m heading. A minute later he’s caught up with me. He’s about fifty, in work clothes, tired, Mexican. He says, in a voice too low and too personal for my liking, “¿Andaba de compras?” [“Were you shopping?”]

I stare at him. He’s holding what looks like two cans of body spray or something similar, and he smells like he’s been spraying both of them. Not wanting to engage in Spanish I say, loudly, “What?”

He blinks. “Ah…you…eh…shopping?” Before I can say anything he’s seen that I understood the English. “Ahora sí,” [“Oh, now,”] he says. I say, “Yes. I am shopping,” and continue to stare.

He starts trying to explain himself in English, but doesn’t have enough of it to do the job. There are indeterminate, languageless noises and somewhere in there I can make out the English word “price.” And after a minute he gestures to the cans. There are other people in the store he could have asked. Other, more obviously Spanish-speaking people. But he didn’t pick them. And here’s the thing: the mumblings about price? That’s not what he’s after. He’s lying. I don’t know what his ruse is, but it’s 100% shady. I can feel he’s lying like it’s something physical.

In white-girl mode, I say, “I don’t work here.” And stare at him until he starts to move away from me. As I move through the store, I see him tracking me. At one point he begins to try to approach me again, and then thinks better of it and turns away. I watch for him, peripherally and in the store mirrors, until I know he’s made his exit. And then I pay and go to my car with all senses on high alert. Because you never know. Women have been killed for less. And that’s our reality.

87 Different Ways

The tears that build but never crest. The unbearable sweetness of a child’s bedtime prayer, repeated some 55 years after the fact. The sensation of being entirely without skin, crumpled, spat upon — and its accompanying sense that one is making too much of things. Such drama, you know. The kitchen counters needing to be wiped, the floor swept, the laundry folded and put away. The car is out of gas. Don’t go outside with wet hair. The calloused feet, the cracks in the heels that develop when “oh, just a minute” turns into “never” and suddenly you’re just not taking care of yourself. You’re one of those women now, or you think you secretly always have been and it’s just now all the more obvious to the world, your age and your worry conspiring with this thing you’ve always been and now it’s not that you’re an intellectual or rebelling or artistic; now you’ve given up.

And so: the layered-face bedtime ritual, the viewing of tutorials, the studying of all the girls you used to be, and all the women you wanted to be, and the person who greets you in the mirror, sometimes welcome and other times despised, and all of them far too you to be entirely acceptable. Somehow you thought you’d age into an approximation of yourself sculpted by someone with a lighter touch.

It all comes by you so quickly now that you’ve given to relying on broad strokes. Is the main thing taken care of? The main thing at work, the main thing at home, the visible finger prints, the obvious spills, the lipstick bold, the ends of your hair the neatest part. An email gets out now and again with a typo, or (horror) addressed to the wrong person, but that’s easily explained with a giggle and the confession that a person with that name had lingered in your office door to ask a question as you typed.

You’re still five, and wanting a grown-up to help; you’re still twelve, and laughing at sophomoric boy jokes; you’re still sixteen and furious; you’re still nineteen and jaded. You’re thirty-nine, you’re forty, you’re forty-one, and every day your heart walks around on the outside of your body–this sweet, tender, hilarious kid you absolutely do not deserve and do everything in your power not to screw up too badly. You edit out the things that don’t matter, for him. You ignore the things that won’t keep building your nest, because that kid and his father have changed your life irrevocably for the better and you have no idea where this luck came from but you are finally old enough to understand how rare and how precious it is, and you will not fuck this thing up.

How to be a woman? You’ve done that longer than you were a girl, and you never knew how to be a girl the way it was expected of you. Now you know which costumes elicit which responses and what lines serve you best in what situations.

How to be a mother? How to walk that tightrope daily? Thank the stars this kid likes dialogue and came equipped with strong ideas. Thank the stars this kid speaks the same weird language you do, and the words you’re thinking of appear on his lips seconds later, and the feelings that overpowered him, you’ve taught him, the way no one taught you, how to wrestle to the ground, or at the very least how to sit in the room with them until they stop threatening to take over the sky. Thank the heavens you can tell, with the vision you can never quite explain, what he needs and how.

How to be a wife? Stick around. And keep your heart open. And choose it over and over again. And don’t leave.

What to do about the tears that won’t crest? Look at the world for what it is. Weep for an evening, until you need gallons of water, until you can’t see from the swelling and there are tiny burst blood vessels in your face. Don’t cover them up in the morning before work. Let people know by the way you look into their eyes that you understand how much things hurt. This is how you must live. This is the only way you can do it. And it’s taken so long to learn this, to know that you can be broken eighty-seven different ways in the span of two weeks and still come back to feed whoever needs to be fed, and be whole again in a few days, and to let it happen all over again, in eighty-seven different new ways.

Apotheca

We heal one another. We do it invisibly, and often. And mostly without even knowing it. How many times has this happened, over the course of a life? How often have I healed something in you with a look, a quiet word, a gesture in response to a situation completely unlike yet somehow perfectly parallel to yours?

I keep track of the times you’ve healed me. I keep a list of the ailments you’ve cured. The answers you’ve provided. The ways out I never could have devised.

What if all it takes is passing in front of a house, late at night, when its curtains are drawn tightly against the world? What if, in walking past, a sound occurs in the heart of the walker that only the person inside can hear, and the person inside finds herself realizing that all is forgiven?

It was a hunch. Something just came over me. I don’t know where the thought came from.

Was it? Did it? Don’t you?

The Smallest Gesture

Love, sometimes: like sending myself in the mail, naked and bulky. And when I arrive, if the reaction disappoints, no amending, no editing will fix me. I crumple and I burn with shame. Even if it was an honest misunderstanding. Forget it! Just forget it! It didn’t mean anything! That’s a lie. It means everything. But my fear, long ago planted in the soles of my feet, shoots up and takes over, and it wants to burn everything to the ground. It wants billowing black smoke and bare earth. It needs me to hide again.

Love scares me so deeply that sometimes I throw myself into the mailbox and mentally jump ahead to such a time as when the recipient will have forgotten about me, when I am collecting dust in a far corner of their memory, and I no longer have to carry the burden of loving them because they’ve let it all drain out, and it’s one less thing I have to fear.

Love burns so fiercely within me that sometimes I can’t sit too close to the person I love because I might accidentally fold right into them, merge with them, understand the ticking of their heart and the whispers in the swishing of their blood, and taste the inside of their mouth, become the dirt from the garden that’s under their nails. If this happened they would despise me. They would say She lacks boundaries or We’re not that close or She’s really weird. And I would combust, immediately and completely, at such a fast and high temperature as to disappear altogether.

Love is the only reason I breathe. It’s my deep sea diver’s helmet, it’s my astronaut gear. I send it out to my people, secretly, great big bubbles of it, every day, and wonder if they can feel it. I hope they can. I hope it makes them stronger and bolder while keeping them safer.

Love is what broke my heart from the very beginning. I offered my fierce, hot, sweet, childish love up without even thinking–this is me, I am yours–and met refusal.

Love is the thing I grew to confuse with lesser things, to ask from lesser beings, to take on the sly.

Love me, I said to the powerful man more than twice my age.
Love me, I said to the man who was married.
Love me, I said to the almost-rapist.

Love me, I said to the smallest gesture, and blew it up so it filled the sky.

Eventually it becomes clear that if someone loves you they aren’t worthy of your love. Eventually you realize that not-love is more important than love. But your heart keeps beating and love keeps bubbling up despite yourself.
Where does it come from? And why?

You can’t keep doing this.

You break yourself down and begin again.

Love is what I am made of. Love scares the shit out of me. Love is the thing that keeps me going. Love is what keeps the world spinning on its axis. Love is why I get out of bed. Love breaks my heart over and over again and I can’t stand it. I wish I didn’t love. I wish I couldn’t love. Love is the reason I exist.

I want to gather up all the love I feel for you and wrap you in it so you’re never cold.

I want to turn myself inside out so that you’ll see I mean it.

I want you never to doubt that you are loved beyond belief and beyond measure.

I want you to know this.