Write it out…

Not long ago I listened to a radio interview. This was one of those entertainment pieces, the kind of thing you listen to because it isn’t about politics, murder, or other such real-life nastiness. Asked to make sense of a recent experience, the guest offered the simplest of replies:

“It’s hard to say…I haven’t even written about it yet.”

This little gem caught my attention so much I didn’t really hear the rest of the interview. The details didn’t matter; what stood out was this tiny, piquant glimpse into how meaning gets made – the process of coming to terms with an experience. It also likely grabbed me because here’s someone else suggesting they have to write about something in order to make sense of themselves.

Admittedly it lands a little close to home because I’ve found myself trying to make sense of several things lately but lack the words to describe it. This blog has been the place where I write “randomly”, letting words fall out in order to see what’s rattling around in my head. But with recent events, that hasn’t happened. The words don’t seem to land on the page and continue floating around in space, morphing into other shapes or sometimes disappearing altogether.

This is your brain…if your brain were an egg talking to itself

I’ve guessed it’s because the events are happening too fast, too quick for my brain to fully pull together. Or maybe it’s not a brain thing – maybe the issue is that these things are all too visceral, too emotional, for the brain to catch them. There are feelings and motion, but sometimes the event demands a reaction and the brain just has to respond to what is there without having the luxury of making sense.

Curiously the events I’ve been thrust into lately are brain related in other ways – a relative expressing a high degree of neurocognitive disorder (that’s dementia to everyone else) and my own battle with migraines. The brains have gone on strike, it seems.

Attempting to reign mine in, we tried medication that resulted in me having a great deal of difficulty completing sentences. Try writing a book in that condition. Anomia (inability to remember the names of everyday objects) makes it kinda hard to complete a paragraph, or at least construct one who anyone other than the author can understand. I couldn’t even remember the word “anomia,” which meant when I tried explaining this to my employer, I sounded something like this:

“It’s sort of like you are coming up to what you know is supposed to be there but you can’t quite find it so you skip over it hoping you can come back around to it and it’ll slip into place, but it doesn’t really happen so you’re just left looking at this empty hole knowing something is supposed to be there but you’re the only person who knows what it is.”

And then your employer tells you to go home because they think you’re drunk. My brain had a great laugh at me that day. It also gave me a migraine.

The fact that I can write this suggests a change occurred; deciding the cure was worse than the problem, we discontinued that particular medicine. But this is a continued experiment – and gets into that euphamistic “lifestyle change” thing. I’d have loved it if taking a pill were the only thing one needed to do to conquer something like migraines. But as with most chronic health problems, the treatment isn’t a 45 second commercial promising bliss and small-print debilitating side-effects. It’s a long process of discovering what could work along with what doesn’t – which means learning a lot of what you thought was okay about how you live your life falls in the “doesn’t” category.

For the short time my brain was on holiday, I took a brief walk into my relative’s dementia land. I am not in any way claiming I had the experience of someone who is falling into a cognitive decline. What I am claiming is that as the medicine’s side-effects starting taking away my ability to think, react quickly, solve problems, and use words, I realized that the me I thought I knew was disappearing like a ghost. It was terrifying and I had no idea what was supposed to be in its place. An athlete who loses their leg, a painter who loses a hand – it is an experience of being confronted with our primal fear that without what we can do, we become no one.

I’d like to say that I plowed forward and found myself, but the truth is I called the doctor and said “I can’t handle this.” A 3-day migraine attack was better than disintegrating, and at least I know how to survive the migraine. So I don’t have a pithy answer for how to deal with that harsh look in the existential mirror. But I also don’t think there is a pithy answer – it is something that takes time to figure out, presuming it can be figured out.

When I sit with my relative, we have conversations that follow no chronological, or any-logical, order. The bedroom we sit in morphs into a type of Tardis as we travel across space and time:

“Are you here to help me pack?”
Where are you going?
“Ohio.”
When do you leave?
“Any moment now. We have to get on the plane.”
How long have you been here?
“I just got here.”
Why  are you going to Ohio?
“For work. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
I don’t have school right now.
“Did you pass all your classes?”

And on it goes…in the same sentence I am a working adult, a grade-schooler, a parent, a teenager. Dead relatives are resurrected, and last night’s baseball game is recalled play by play. My children’s names are forgotten.

I’m living in the sandwich of my generation, but I can’t tell you anything about how it tastes. No one really asks for this, but resentment seems pointless. How do you hold a grudge if the mistakes of the past no longer exist? The way you knew yourself in response to this person must also become someone else, because the person before you floats trans-dimensionally and you’re just trying to not get lost. There are many people living in this, and information exists to explain it. And yet, if you ask me to make sense of it all…

I haven’t even written about it yet.

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Wild horses…

This morning while having my head shoved in an MRI, I decided to rethink my life. After all, I wasn’t going anywhere for a while and I needed something to distract me from the panic crawling up my body, generated from watching too many sci-fi films where the person in the machine gets atomized or turned into a giant faceless evil glob. Why not make use of my idleness and sort out life’s problems.

That paragraph likely brings out the problem, but in case it isn’t obvious – one shouldn’t be discovering “me” time in a tube designed to identify potentially life-threatening conditions living in your head. While it is true that having an MRI to diagnose migraines is good practice, I am disturbed by needing to go through it at all. First is the fear that maybe there’s more going on in there than just migraines; second is the suspicion that these migraines are my mind’s claxon, signaling the brain’s meltdown because it can’t contain all this nuclear waste anymore. (Or maybe there’s no brain left at all, having scampered off in “take this job and shove it” style.)

Migraines began visiting me a little over 3 years ago. I’d had a couple when I was younger, but not like these. Now I get possessed-by-the-devil headaches, the kind that make me want to rip out my own eyes and set fire to anyone who makes noise. They’ll last for days and once gone, I have to take a few more days just to recover. The only joy comes from unexpected precursors springing up Harry Potter style, such as the time I was in a meeting and everything in the room turned yellow. The pain stops me freight train dead in my tracks. Shop’s closed, phone’s off, don’t leave a message.

Seeking treatment is a good thing, but I do wonder if the cure will take more than a pill. For much of my adult life, especially after having kids, I accepted the temporariness of stability. Basically, life changes in ways that it just will, and part of creating stability is learning to adapt to what is not known. Once you get to the point of predicting what you do, something in life will change, necessitating a new response. Try to force or control this process, and we often find ourselves tossed about in the tornadoes we never could anticipate. Maybe our problem is that we like to control what we don’t understand – and there is so very much we don’t understand.

catch me if you can

Recently, my life has been hit with new things – new job, new phase of life, new family circumstances…and I am just now figuring out that these are not temporary changes but permanent. That’s what I found myself figuring out while ignoring the jack-hammering noise of the MRI machine. What once made sense as a “transition” is no longer a transition – it has arrived, but I’m still treating it like it is going to go away. They are here and are forcing me to examine how I live my life and where I put my energy, which up until this point has been spent trying to wrangle this herd of wild horses.

I’m no horse-whisperer though (even though I think it would be cool to do that). But I think, in between the hums and bangs of the MRI, I have been trying to throw ropes around those mustangs to force them into a pen. It won’t work. I didn’t catch any in the first place, even though I convinced myself I had. Those horses have to run, buck, do what they’re going to do, and I need to stand still and learn to see the paths they make.

Ok someone who really knows horses might say that’s a stupid thing to do but I’m not really talking about horses, it’s a metaphor, deal with it.

Admittedly, I’m sad at the thought that these new paths may well take me away from things I once wanted. But I am not sure if that will be a loss since the endpoint of these new directions can’t be seen yet. I am hoping regardless that changing course reorients me towards what is meaningful, valuable. At the least I’m hoping it means a few less headaches. In the meantime, could someone get me out of this fucking machine before I jump out of my skin…

Stuck in the noetic with you…

Living in the moment sounds great until you’re forced into it. Knowing that a phone call, email, or text could arrive and flip the day upside down gets to be a bit draining. Experiences like these become fast reminders of why a little boring predictability is a good thing.

We often presume news out of the blue is a good thing. This likely expresses our fairytale tendency to Disney-fy life’s grimmer moments. We don’t talk about when news twists your head backward and proclaims, “nope, you aren’t really going in that direction after all.”

I’ve been pre-occupied with existence and meaning these days. Frankl talks about asking of life’s meaning is not the real question, but instead to recognize that life is questioning us. These days I wonder how that questioning changes when life is nearing the end – I am not responding as I live the rest of my life, but as I near the end of my days.

Ok, don’t panic, I’m not dying. Well, not today at least. Death isn’t looking at me, but it is hanging nearby watching another. Death stands in the corner, tapping a patient finger on its crossed arms. I’d offer it a cigarette, but that seems a little too cliche`. Maybe death prefers Swisher Sweets?

Life questions us. Death, on the other hand, doesn’t really entertain questions. It has a firm grasp on certainties. We’re the ones who futilely expect it to offer answers, platitudes mainly, and fall prey to creating the very frustration we seek to avoid. We circle it, plead, joke, make deals – and all the while it just carries on, knowing it can go wherever it pleases. We just wish it would clue us in on where that destination happens to be.

Not too long ago, I couldn’t tell if it was around. I’d catch a glimpse here and there but would lose sight of it. Maybe it left, or maybe Death is just a really good hide-and-seeker. Now it’s out in the open, making itself a regular fixture in the room like a skinny floor lamp or one of those 1980’s landscape paintings you’d buy out of a trunk from a roadside starving artist sale. You know it’s there, but you’ll scratch your eyes out if you have to look at it all day.

It’s funny though how much time we spend pretending it’s not there. But the truth is, you get to a point where you don’t want it to go away. It needs to be there because the person it’s staring at is slowly running out of ways to answer life’s questioning. Their stuttered half-truths reflect this teetering between question and answer, and you realize the answer that is coming is only meant for their ears.

How is it this person becomes a time traveler, visiting friends from past, present, and future, often at the same moment? I can’t see these people but they are there, conversing as though nothing has changed. These characters parade in and out of the room, and Death winks at each like an old flirt. Maybe Death prefers Gauloises after all.

I don’t know when this stage play will come to an end. I’ve been assured it will though, whether I’m there to see it or not. Oddly enough, I’m not angry at Death for these theatrics. They make their own absurd sense, and it’s the only thing Death will talk about with me anyway. Smoke away, Death, your lungs can take it. Mine, on the other hand, are waiting to take a deep breath…

On Chefs, Suicide, and Connection

(I wrote this a while ago with the thought of getting it published somewhere. That didn’t happen so here it is.)

Following news of the suicide of another high-profile figure, we have been flooded with stories related to suicide, depression, and mental health. Questions of why this happened, how it could be prevented, and what we should do next abound. These reactions are expected and necessary, but I find myself reaching for connection in the midst of my grief-induced loneliness.

I never met Bourdain personally. But I, like many others, was introduced to him through his work. He stood out, often referred to as the “bad boy” of celebrity chefs due to his brash, straight-talking persona. Yet it didn’t take too much effort to see behind the act. His shows and writing were filled with thoughtful reflection, insight, and personal accountability. He spoke the truth of what he saw even when that could have ended his career. But more importantly, he revealed his shortcomings and his errors, and allowed himself to be changed by what he learned. A raw curiosity, a desire to learn from mistakes, and putting himself out there for all to see is what drew me to him. Bourdain could do what many seasoned counselors can’t, and he inspired me to regularly step into that which I did not know.

As I look at the tributes and comments many have made, I can see how many people from all over the world are affected by this loss. Those who were closest to him request privacy, as they rightly should. Friends and acquaintances share stories with sadness tugging at their throats. But there are many people with stories like mine – people who never met him directly, never shared a drink or a handshake, and yet we feel as hollowed out by this experience as if we had lost our closest friend.

Is it so strange, though, to think we could be deeply affected by the presence of someone we did not physically meet? Is this feeling just the surface reaction to the shock of suicide, or is there something more to this? But perhaps the question to ask instead is, why shouldn’t we be affected by an inexplicable loss of someone who influenced our lives?

I wonder if our tendency to dismiss the grief associated with the loss of a public figure is rooted in a cultural stance driven by rugged individualism, the spirit that says one person can withstand anything. And yet, we easily forget that the one cannot stand without the many. While we look at our personal successes and failures, we tend to ignore the many people who came before us, those we needed to become who we are today. We can see the people we know directly, but we lose sight of those whose influence worked in the background, the many people we may have never met who helped shape our understanding of ourselves. Thus, when we lose someone who has shown us something about who we could be, of course it is devastating because we are left wondering who is left. But in a society that prizes the individual above all else, admitting our need for others gets redefined as a weakness instead of a strength.

Our social-media interaction style gives us the illusion that we are together, a mere Instagram away from the next person. The exposure someone like Bourdain gets means we have more access to the figures who influence us. It becomes possible to find people all over the world giving us a sense that we are not alone. Yet it also makes the divide greater because our posts, tweets, and shares are one-dimensional snapchats of ourselves, preventing us from engaging in the risk of vulnerability that is also required to be known and to know others. I am left knowing that Bourdain made an impact on my life, but our relationship will always be one-sided. His death confirms that there will never be a chance for me to know more.

Here we come to the tragedy of suicide, the act where only those who have done it truly understand it. We who remain can only get so close to making sense of it and usually have to settle with angry acceptance. We want to be able to prevent it, yet it is the fact that it has already happened that reveals our powerlessness.

I will make no claim regarding why Anthony Bourdain ended his life. He alone in that private moment knew the reason. Perhaps I refrain from speculation because in Bourdain I recognized a familiar interior struggle, the desire for authentic relationship shrouded by the angst of isolation. We fear that if someone knows the real us, they will leave us and we will be alone. Yet it is not perfection that breeds genuine relationship; the experience of being disappointed by another means we have shared our humanity. Imperfection becomes its own beauty because it is through our flaws where we find our common humanity. Our limitations create the need for each other.

Loss ironically reveals the significance of our connections. While we may need to accept that the physical person is gone, we seek the ways in which we can hold on to what mattered. Bourdain meant something to me, and I want that meaning to go on, to find a way to flourish. It is a way to keep those connections valuable, even though the person is no longer there.

I wonder if Anthony Bourdain had any idea about all the people who felt connected to him, who now see emptiness where he once stood. If he had known, would it have made a difference? Would I be writing about something else, hopefully something mundane, if he had been given a glimpse into how much we need his risk-taking, his plain-speaking, his mistakes, his foibles, and his passion – how much we simply need him?

I am tempted to provide comfort and say this will all get better. But that seems disingenuous to the memory of someone who easily called “bullshit” when he saw it. The truth is, this hurts; we will find few answers and more questions. We may want to say that if suicide can claim Bourdain, it can claim any of us, so why bother. But maybe this is what Bourdain has given us, a final demonstration of his own humanity so we can be affected by it. Instead of retreating from those we do not know, we can sit down, reach across a table, and share a meal. Maybe his absence can continue to remind us how we need each other’s presence, and it is the risk of being ourselves that leads to togetherness.

Good travels, Tony. I will miss you.

Diving into Parts Unknown

(https://www.instagram.com/anthonybourdain/?hl=en)

Dear Anthony Bourdain,

You’re gone. You already knew that, but I found out this morning. I am sad and angry, and I’m writing to you when it is too late. Maybe you have a way of knowing what is in my thoughts, or maybe you’re cosmic dust. Regardless, I’m writing down what I never had a chance to say and what you will never hear because this is the reality I am left with.

You never knew the impact you had on me. I “met” you through watching A Cook’s Tour, in the days long before you swam in Top Chef-style cash. Since then I have watched, read, listened to your words and found comfort – yes, comfort – in the brutal honesty you threw around. Why? Your version of honesty wasn’t about showing the ugliness of others. Instead, you invited us to look at the honesty of yourself, including all your uncertainties, unpleasantness, awkwardness, and absurdities.

That’s some beautiful shit, man.

I know a lot of people were drawn in by the “coolness” of hard-talking swagger (although I don’t think I ever saw you really swagger – people just think they saw you swagger). But it wasn’t the Ramones t-shirts and tattoos, the fountain of alcohol, or the reckless 4-wheel driving that made you stand out. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was fun and made for much more interesting TV than say, a meals-in-5-minutes cooking program. But it was your words that caught me, every time. You saw things and you said things, and many times you spoke what someone like me needs to hear.

You were excelling at the one thing so many people have such a hard time doing: you were living as yourself. And that means you irritated people, you ruffled feathers, you put your foot (as well as other things) in your mouth. But you didn’t stop there – you let us see how that affected you, how you made sense your fuck-ups, and how you learned so you could do better next time. And you did keep getting better – better at being you.

I need people who do this, who work to be only themselves. Most people try to be someone else. Even when the facade gets pulled away, many still try to get us to ignore the fact that they wear no clothes. Being someone else is easier; becoming yourself is the harder, less chosen path. Authenticity is difficult because it takes you into the parts truly unknown. The mirrors that flash up on that journey will sometimes reveal the nasty bits, especially when we would prefer to see greatness.

Which is why, when I encounter someone who by all reckoning shouldn’t be excelling the way you were, someone who knows their success is based on a pure second chance at life – I cling to them, because knowing someone else out there is embracing the struggle gives me some sense that I can struggle too.

I am angry at you, Anthony Bourdain (can I call you Tony, yet?). I am angry that you leave me with this, forcing me yet again to confront the existential dilemma of isolation and connection. The void you have left implies the tie I had, even though we never shared a face-to-face conversation.

I’m also angry that I have to listen to the multitude of platitudes expressed whenever someone dies in this way. I get that there are a lot of people who don’t know what to say. But eventually, you would think people would at least stop saying some of the dumb things. Are you in a better place? Who knows. I don’t even know if you would say a better place exists. Maybe you’re stuck in a perpetual line, waiting forever behind some guy trying to order a latte at McDonald’s. Did depression overtake you? Who cares. It is like suggesting this is all just a character flaw – oh look at poor tony – which really just becomes a great way to pretend the rest of us have no pain. And if depression did play a role in this – then fuck depression and everyone who thinks depression picks on a select few to inhabit. That’s bullshit all the way – especially when we live in a time when depression might be the healthiest response we’ve got to all the ridiculousness going on.

I don’t know why you did what you did. No one will ever have that answer, except you. I would like to think that if I could’ve done something to stop you, I would have, but I also know that sentiment is only meant to make me feel as though I have control over something like this.  I don’t. And in some ways, neither did you.

I’m sad, Anthony Bourdain. I’m hurt that I’m now left trying to make sense of this and I won’t have your poetic ranting to provide that beacon of light in the chaotic darkness. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia – you called it what it was and when it got crazier, you got louder. And in those moments I knew I wasn’t nuts because at least you saw it too.

I was inspired by you, Anthony Bourdain. There were several times I used clips from your shows in my courses. I didn’t use them to gross people out or show how “weird” other cultures can be, which is where a lot of travel/food shows gets it wrong. And that’s why your work wasn’t just a travel or food show – you were doing something that I have been encouraging my students to do for years. You moved outside of what is comfortable for you and tried to step into the world of someone else. Someone you may never truly understand but you will attempt to, even if it means making a fool of yourself. You could recognize that the repulsive to you was appetizing to someone else; you knew that it wasn’t the custom that was “backward” or uncivilized, but rather you were too clumsy to get it right. You embraced what you did not know, and you allowed yourself to be affected by the people you met.

You did what hundreds of highly educated, trained, even seasoned professionals in my line of work struggle with. Some can’t even begin to approach the kind of generosity and curiosity you demonstrated just by being you. Being yourself can make a difference, and you showed us that. Damn you for taking that away from us, from me. Damn you for making me face again just how bad we can be.

Look, now I’m ranting. Do you see what you bring out in me? Do you know how much I loved the fact that you bring this out in me? Do you know how much I will miss you bringing this out in me?

I’ll close my letter by telling you one more little thing. For about 10 years, I kept having a reoccurring dream where you would appear. I don’t know what it meant because I’m not that kind of therapist. Anyway, the only other person who knew about this dream was my husband, who laughed every time it happened, prompting me to convince him that it wasn’t a sex dream. Really, it wasn’t a sex dream (I’m not that kind of therapist either). But you would just show up, and we would talk, and laugh. And I woke up, and would feel better. You made a difference to me.

See you in my dreams, Tony. And you’d better have a fucking good story to tell.

Updates sprinkled with social justice…

Hey, check it out – it’s not a weird experimental writing blog post. Just a quick note to say I’m going to be changing the look and feel of this blog. Time for new and different things.

Clearly, I’ve been going weeks, or in some cases months, between posts. Life has been throwing a lot of — life! at me. Moves, job changes, and the regular evolution of family life have overwhelmed me. I declare myself exhausted, and simplification is in order. So, new site, new blog focus, new projects all to help this compass find its true north.

In the meantime, watch these cool things (social justice-themed public service announcements) my students made:

Busy business

It’s April and I’ve yet to make a proper post this 2018. “Life is busy” is too normal a state to be an excuse. Or wait, maybe the problem isn’t life is busy, but business is life…

There’s too much of both these days, too much business and too much life. Not enough time. Not enough of me in that limited time. I’ve always said I don’t need an assistant, I need a clone – someone who can carry on being me when I don’t want to. “But what if the clone is better than you?” Great! Let them carry on, I’ll lie on the couch and watch stupid reality tv shows about how people don’t clean while I drape my junk food wrappers over the carpet.

Work supports Life is supposed to be my mantra. Over the last few years, the balance between the two has slowly shifted to where work and life are running neck and neck for the lead position in a marathon I never signed up for in the first place. We talk about learning how to say “no”; I don’t think the problem now is that I take on too much, rather each area I attend to requires a lot of attention. This is the ‘middle career’ passage, where you now do know a great deal about how to do your work, and that means you have a great deal to do.

And my other job – you know, the one where I’m raising little people who keep turning into bigger people – that doesn’t get any easier. Ignore those lies, all the “it’ll all change when they learn how to…” When they learn how to what? Cease being people and turn into houseplants? Each shift, each developmental change brings a new set of adventures…and children’s independence doesn’t mean you worry less. Instead, you worry more – because you find out just how much you can’t do for them at all. The parent business evolves; my employees become shareholders and that means lots of board meetings full of conversation, complaints, and compromising.

I’m not really complaining about it, though. True, it’s not joyous; I do need to renegotiate my schedule. I have to consider the reality that my body is older and will go on strike when I force it to work overtime. My priorities have changed, and I’d like to think I’m mature enough to accept that many people won’t agree with whatever my priority list looks like unless it happens to match theirs. (Ok, I think I am mature enough to intellectually accept it, but I’m not mature enough keep from getting cranky when others get critical.) But more of what I do now reflects who I want to be as I do this work. And the lesson that has taken me a long time to learn is that who I am becoming continues on even when there is no work.

One of these days this work-life boat will steer towards a horizon composed of soft clouds and blue skies. But in the meantime, there will still be storms, sharks, an occasional talking volleyball, and hopefully a few stops on some gorgeous beaches. I like what I do, even though I sometimes hate my work.

This all reminds me of a conversation between my daughter and myself:

Me- “Do we have enough time to finish this?”

Her – “I’m fine, but for you, mom, every breath is an exercise of faith.”

Excuse me while I go lie down….

Having a Past…

December brings the end of the semester and the end of the year. Therefore, I’m usually doubled-over with reflection, neck twisting backward like an owl into the near and far past. This year has been piled high with change and my cup has runneth over about 378 times.

Brace yourself: I’m ready to not change. Not forever, but at least for a little while. Even just a couple days of sameness would be nice.

Odd that considering the past would bring me to this present point. Or not odd. I can’t tell yet. What does strike me is how the last semester has made me wonder what it means to even have a past. I suppose that means I’ve lived enough to have an experience of something called, “the Past,” but I couldn’t really say what all that is. Or was. Or what verb tense fits.

Three years ago the presence of a Past hit me when we moved across-country. But then I was more consumed by discovering how much familiarity I had lost and would need to rebuild. Those simple comforts like favorite hang-out spots, walking paths, even parking spots revealed their significance after they were gone. My brain’s security void demanded I fill it as quickly as possible with whatever substitute would come close. But like most incomplete gestalts, any puzzle piece that didn’t fit properly created more angst, not less. That first year became largely a balance between stability and chaos, with chaos winning out most of the time.  The awkward Present sometimes hit like an electrical shock, and I missed my Past.

They say you know yourself through the reflections of others; if this is true, then after I moved I was no-one, a foreign shoot sprouted up overnight which others couldn’t decide to prune or weed. I had to remind myself I existed before, that my Past had occurred. But I also got caught in the trap of proving my potential, a path that usually leads to disappointment. Eventually, I quit proving and decided to just be, which alleviated some of the identity pressure but left me still unsettled.

I realize moving again sounds like the opposite of what was needed to resolve this instability. But, in this case, diving once more unto the breach became the essential injection of sanity so desperately needed to breathe. And breath has come, bringing with it the luxury of introspection. Even though this last semester threw more curve balls at me than my two arms could ever hope to juggle, I could refocus on who this person is who makes a living from standing in front of a room and talking to people.

I wanted my Past to be seen, acknowledged, valued. I am not sure why, other than perhaps I thought I wouldn’t have much else to offer. Maybe I needed them to know that I wasn’t a “rookie.” But what does it matter if I am? Would that make me more susceptible to pranks? Will my stupid words sound stupider? Do my mismatched clothes look more ridiculous?

Now that the term is over, I realize the Past clung to certain vanities, like recognition or approval. But this is not to say the Past only lingers on perceived greatness. I do have a Past, and that is somewhat unnerving to admit. It includes success and failure, joy and pain; it includes the many faces I’ve had as I regenerate from one iteration of myself to the next. My Past has already taught me that I can be liked, feared, loved, hated, admired, criticised, ostracized, welcomed, respected, honored, ignored, and remembered. I suspect the Past wanted to be noticed to remind me I am human, which means I can be hurt. Ironically, this also means my Past wanted to defend myself, and that is not always a useful thing. Sometimes the dark is just the absence of light, not a nightmare.

flat900x900070f-u2What, then, is the purpose of the Past? It reminds me where I’ve been and thus where I could go, but its presence is not necessary for someone to know me in the Present. My psychodynamic brothers and sisters will argue that point, but my social constructionist crew will fist-pump the air. I am as I am, composed of all the “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey goo” that is unchanging while never staying the same. Relationships not only reflect the old but reverberate towards the new.

There is a kind of freedom in allowing myself to be no-one because I can also be anyone. The yet-to-be me is a work in progress. As I write that, I chuckle, because the truth of this statement is obvious. I’ve always been a work in progress, so why stop now?

(on a side note: here’s Dylan Moran’s – a comedian who’s “work in progress” is well worth seeing –  take on having a past…)

Rise…

Doubt has been following me for a while, it seems. I say that as though this is an unusual occurrence. It isn’t; doubt comes around regularly and usually has something important to say when it shows up. What strikes me is this version of doubt has been creeping around in the background, slowly rumbling into my belly without being noticed.

The last couple of years has been like running a marathon uphill – no, not uphill, up a mountain, a towering Everest that leaves one limping oxygen-deprived for the last three miles. I suffocated more than once, and I don’t really remember how I managed to breathe again. But I did, and it would seem that would be enough to restore confidence.

Yet here I am, realizing that my confidence is indeed, shaken. Daily living continues; breakfast is made, work is attended to, sleep appears (sometimes)…so it doesn’t seem as though doubt has been hanging around too much. Thus, I am surprised to notice that I am not as sure of myself as I have been before. I would like to tell myself that these hesitations are simply connected to being yet-again new, to learning the unknown, to meeting the unfamiliar. But I know intuitively there is more to it than that.

What catches me is how this feeling hisses in the background. I was expecting doubt to be as it had been before – loud, irritating, shouting in my face to sit down and be quiet. I suppose I have learned a thing or two about telling doubt to knock it off. Doubt doesn’t tantrum as it once did because there’s enough of me to know better.

So this lurking presence, this tone that hums like white noise, is mildly startling. I am not knocked off my feet or blown into submission. But I do hesitate, and I realize it is because I am fearful of steeling myself for criticism, rejection, abject humiliation.

I get the oddity of that phrase. I’m afraid to prepare myself. What it really means is I’m afraid of the possibility that situations could arise where I need to prepare myself. I wish it were an irrational fear, but the conditions of the kind of work I do mean other people’s opinions will be foisted upon you regularly.

It sounds rough – I’ve blogged about it before. If you write, you will face readers who hate your papers. If you talk, you will face an audience who hates your words. If you do something, someone will tell you it is wrong. If you do nothing, someone will point and laugh. I do accept this is what you sign up for if you’re going to do this work; of course, I also think this is sort of what happens if you’re going to live at all. I had to prepare myself long ago for the unkind gaze offered by so many ill-mannered critics, and I’ve even learned how to take some of that and learn from it.

But right now, the prospect of stepping into that again makes me want to go back to bed. And in truth, I don’t really think I’m walking into the same level of vitriol I lived in for the last couple of years, or any vitriol for that matter. I think I’m back living in “normal.”

Trauma has a way of making all your gauges run slightly askew. That’s what I’m figuring out now, that my meter is a little off. Doubt slinks around the way it usually would, and probably should, but the part of me that can usually recognize the extent of doubt’s threat is seeing a rattlesnake instead of a length of rope.

So fuck off, rope. Yep, I’ll make more mistakes, and someone will complain about something I’ve done or said. I will remind myself that “safe” ideas are also bland and often untrue. Eventually, confidence will show me that when I fall, I learn to pick myself up again.

Damn you, Batman.IMG_6644

#MeToo, too…

Returning after a few months away from the blogosphere to write a piece about sexual assault is not exactly “easing” one’s way back into the public sphere. I had been preparing to write about my recent cross-country move, throwing me into chaos and another round of saying goodbyes to many lovely people I didn’t get to know long enough. My heart and mind, shoved yet again into vats of existential loneliness, drifted to strange spaces in an attempt to grasp the need to be seen while accepting the inevitability of being misunderstood. Yup, I was going to write about that sort of thing, scary, prickly, ivory-tower navel-gazing which would become a long-form approach to saying, “I miss my friends.”

And then Harvey Weinstein happened.

Well, he didn’t really “happen.” He had been happening, to be more accurate. This time he had been found out, and society has shifted just enough to say, “this is bullshit.” Oh sure, there have been a few to speak on his behalf, and I’m sure he has a story. But instead of resorting to the typical headline excuses of, “he’s a sex addict” or “he’s just one person” or even “some men can’t help themselves,” more people, more influential people, are calling this out as the abuse and harassment that it is, and are placing Weinstein in a larger context of sexism and misogyny that, frankly, a whole bunch of us are just fed up with. The Hollywood story is not news – the undercurrent of powerful people (yes, many of whom are and have been men) exploiting more vulnerable and less powerful newcomers (yes, many of whom are women) for their own personal gratification is unfortunately not a new story at all. It is old, tired, repetitive, and disgusting, so much so that many accept this story as a cold hard truth of life. “Boys will be boys” has two meanings: the first excuses men as base creatures who simply “can’t help themselves,” and the second tells society that no woman can expect to be safe.

It’s a bullshit message from a bullshit tagline stemming from a bullshit narrative. Who would ever want a definition of self to be so narrow, so ridiculously limiting, so utterly reductionistic as to put you on par with the emotional and intellectual level of say, a jellyfish? “Well, you can’t really blame Roger, after all, he only knows how to be a blob and sting things.” Why would anyone ever want to go along with such a description?

Because the Weinsteins of the world want the power that comes with such a position. And the rest of the world want to believe that Weinsteins are rare. And most of us don’t want to think we are capable of abusing another human being.

But we are capable, and every time we look the other way we make it more possible for abuse, assault, and exploitation to occur. We find ways to dehumanize each other, to justify why our worth becomes more important than another’s. And soon enough we come up with remarkably stupid sayings, like “boys will be boys” to justify aberrant, hurtful, unjust behavior while simultaneously rendering victims invisible.

That invisibility is why right now there are thousands of people taking to social media to say, #MeToo. People (women and men) who have taken up a call to show just how widespread the problem of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation is. And spreading the message that this is not supposed to be a victim’s problem, but society and a perpetrator’s problem. You’re not supposed to stop abuse after it occurs – you’re supposed to create a new condition, a new social consciousness, that prevents people from buying into all those excuses that permit one to enact it. Questions like, “is ‘no’ ever a ‘yes'” get erased because society can recognize the absurdity of such a position, can recognize how our continued portrayal of sexual interaction as some perverted Tom and Jerry escapade resulting in Jerry adoring the fact that he’s been beheaded by the cat boxes everyone into inescapably demeaning corners.

I see something new in the current movement: more people, particularly men, who are also speaking up to say they do not support a discourse that promotes men’s superiority over women. Okay, on twitter that specific phrase hasn’t appeared but the message is there. Men expressing support for the many women who have shared #MeToo, men stating they don’t want men to be defined as overactive genitals, and men acknowledging the courage #MeToos’ have, which suggests an implicit understanding of just how unsupportive the culture is in accepting stories of abuse and assault.

And then there’s another piece, the one that rattles in me during all this…the idea that #MeToo can inadvertently have the effect of a double negative. Speaking up can be an act of freedom, of liberation; but for so many, not speaking up was also an act of courage, a path to survival that society tends to dismiss. Because we still place the responsibility on the victim to “prove” experiences of abuse, it is the victim who also becomes responsible to stop it. Thus someone who doesn’t “speak up” gets the added accusation of “going along,” or get their motives questioned for not coming forward sooner. These challenges support the misguided perception that rape and abuse are rare. Ironically though, if rape were truly rare, then shouldn’t just one occurrence of it be enough to set society into a rage, to get to the bottom of the problem and make sure it never happens again? Wouldn’t society ask the perpetrator, “why did you think this was ok?” “Why didn’t you stop?”

So – the movement also is becoming more mindful of how the pressure to speak up can actually put people back into a status of victimhood. “Speak up or you deserved it” can be the unintended push. Thus it is also a time to remember that the act of speaking up does not define one as a survivor. Surviving defines one as a survivor. Rape and abuse try to rob people of their personhood.  The fact that one is here, that one has persisted beyond the experience of rape is enough. “Surviving” doesn’t mean merely existing; it means the person who was forced into this experience remembers they are a person worth holding on to. And that person does not have to be sacrificed just so some others can finally get enlightened to the realities of sexual assault. The story of rape or abuse belongs to the person who experienced it; thus they have all the right in the world to tell it or not, in whatever form of their choosing. Rape does not have the power to take that from us.

Bravo to those who are pressing home the point that society needs to change. The message of the current movement matters. But really, what #MeToo should mean is: “I will actively work against supporting a culture that normalizes rape.”

#MeToo.