Baby Blue Dresser

On October 17, 1989, I was riding my bike home from my Clinical Psychology class at UC Davis, looking forward to watching the Bay Bridge World Series Game 3—San Francisco Giants vs. Oakland A’s—on TV with my boyfriend, when the earthquake struck. The Loma Prieta earthquake. I didn’t even feel it.
 
The 5:35 game hadn’t started when the quake hit at 5:04, and so the many TV cameras recording pre-game excitement at Candlestick Park actually televised the earthquake to millions of people. It would, in fact, become the first large earthquake ever to be broadcast live.
 
Right after the shaking some fans assembled at Candlestick let out a cheer believing it was a sign that the series battle between two teams from the same metropolitan area was now christened by unseen forces but when power went out, murmurs of confusion rippled and within minutes, players were gathering their family from the stands as people were told to leave the park. Only about half the fans were in their seats at the time of the quake and had there been any more seated, their weight on the structure would have made the concrete less able to retain its integrity.
 
The earthquake hadn’t been centered in San Francisco though. It had been centered in the Santa Cruz mountains, where our home was. Or where our home HAD been, before my parents’ separation a few months before. During my first year at college—‘88-‘89–things had somehow crumbled and I’d come home on weekends over the course of the year to see dad crying in the living room and intervened on his behalf only to be informed that I wasn’t welcome to come home if I couldn’t support my mom’s decision to divorce. Then that summer—of ‘89, months before the quake—dad moved out, and my mom went a bit bananas—obsessively making my 13 year old sister do the Ouija board— until one day, shit exploded and my sister ran off to the neighbors house where dad came to get her from and we didn’t see or talk to her again for almost a year. In the interim, mom moved out of the dome on Hazel Dell Road—the last place we’d all live as an intact family—and I moved my stuff to Davis to live with Steve, while Dad and my sister (and brother, who was in and out) were living in the Hazel Dell dome.
 
When the 6.9 magnitude quake hit, my sister was in the house but my dad was up the road, at the well which was over a hill and not visible from the house. The earthquake rocked our geodesic dome so violently that it slid off it’s foundation and made the deck which encircled the entire span of the home’s exterior break away from the house. Once it was over, dad ran towards the house and screamed at seeing it, knowing my sister was inside but in trying to get in to find her, discovered he couldn’t because the back door we always went through wouldn’t open anymore. Everything had shifted, and was twisted in different directions, so the door was still a rectangle, but the door frame was a rhomboid, and wouldn’t budge. My sister was fine having found a doorway to get into but stuff was everywhere, windows broken, the house cracked and a complete wreck. Dad and Alex left—having to obv move out—and Jeff squatted near the dome for a few days but left to go somewhere and after that the house sat there alone, dark, broken and eerie.
 
The divorce wasn’t yet final so one weekend soon after the quake, my mom, my moms friend Mary, myself and my boyfriend Steve went to see it and retrieve things of ours that might have been left behind, one example of which was our family pictures and baby books, which were still in the ruined house inside the drawer they’d always been in when we lived together.
 
The smell of the house is what I would remember most for years after. The refrigerator had been slammed forward, and tipped and door open, was laying on the counter. The food that had been inside had been flung out of the fridge and lay rotting. The odor of this rotten food was mixed with the smell of my sister’s smashed fish tank—gravel, broken glass, Angel fish on the floor of her bedroom—and her broken bottles of perfume, creating an aroma of rot, and fish, and perfume that bled into the carpet and the walls.
 
The floors were sloping and rising, and almost spongey—clearly not on solid ground—and the house groaned and creaked.
 
One surreal thing I saw that day besides the physical destruction of a home I’d loved was a baby blue chest of drawers that my parents had put under the deck of the house to store. It had been my younger brother’s changing table and then his dresser but put under the deck of the house when it wasn’t needed anymore. The shifting of the house had caused the deck (still mostly attached to the house) to land on top of the dresser, and when I took a picture, one ten inch deck joist is visible and denotes just how heavy the entire deck itself was even while this baby blue dresser held steady as if in a strength beyond rationality. I’ve forgotten much of the intense/scarring feelings from that time but am glad I listened to the feelings that day because now I have this picture as both an emblem of our family history as well as evidence of the surprising resilience of forgotten ordinariness.
 
In the end, the insurance company (my parents somehow had earthquake insurance) eventually decided to lift the existing damaged structure back up and onto the foundation rather than demolish and rebuild. Geodesic domes are known for being earthquake resistant and in some ways, that was accurate. The home is still there—visible on Google—but they named the driveway/road something specific and when they did the address of the house changed too.
 
[On a side note, after the house was fixed and my dad and sister were moving back in, a tow truck driver bringing my dad‘s beloved ‘57 Chevy (that didn’t run but was his dream project that we’d moved around to all our various cities for 20 years) up the hill to the dome, ended up somehow not setting his emergency brake(?) and after he got to the top of the hill, the truck started rolling backwards with the Chevy still on it and flipping over in the field, destroying the Chevy.
 
I ended up with those family pictures, and still have them. Mom had them for many years after the day we saw the dome but when I moved to Virginia and James and I bought 6348 Tisbury Drive, she asked if I would take them because I was at that point pretty geographically settled and she wasn’t. Fast forward multiple decades—about three—and I’d (accidentally) find out that some came to believe I had the pictures for Different reasons which I won’t detail here but which is indicative of the misunderstandings that often accompany broken families. I’m certainly not hoarding these pictures; much of that life honestly feels like it didn’t even happen. It’s now just bits and pieces, enmeshed in a larger much-more complex experience]

Some tears for the Ocean

I’ve never cried so hard as that day in 2007 when James drove his moving truck down the street.

He was moving from Utah to live with his office assistant/girlfriend and her son 2000 miles away just a few weeks after we’d told the girls we were divorcing.  A divorce which blindsided the girls and I; I didn’t even get a lawyer.  James and Sarah probably began their relationship during summer 2006 when we dug out our basement and I unknowingly insisted he stay with Sarah and her husband Ryan in Blacksburg, Virginia (location of the main office) rather than come home to the unpleasantness of our Utah bungalow.  “Just stay with Sarah and Ryan; its so gross here.”  Naturally, he didn’t reveal she and Ryan had separated.

But on that day he moved, James’ dad was here from Virginia, trying to right the error of James moving.  I said right there in front of Bob, “James, don’t move out there to her and come visit your girls; stay here and go visit her.”   I needed him here and so did the girls.   But he wasn’t listening, didn’t want to; Bob and I talking to him was like trying to reason with a sinking ship.

That very day, Livy lost her first tooth in a bowl of popcorn.   It landed in the large steel bowl then sunk to the bottom and Grandpa Bob and the girls and I searched for it but hanging out down there like a groupie with the whitish crumbs of popcorn, we could barely tell the difference between food and tooth.  But we finally did, celebrating then the victory of finding a lost treasure, in one of those moments that stands there like a trophy.  A stop-action moment More than the sum of its individual parts.

And when he and Grandpa drove off in James’ UHaul, I wasn’t ready.  I didn’t want to see what was going to happen.  Wanted to cover my eyes like in a scary movie, so that my brain didn’t invite in through my eyes what I didn’t want to become part of me.  Both girls chased the truck down the street.  Down Garfield Avenue, where they’d grown up.  Where we’d gotten our first puppy.  Where Livy’d come Home from the hospital, where they’d played with the neighbor kids, and started school.  Where they’d donned costumes in the cold of Utah Autumn to go get the big candy bars from Chuck and Dave’s house next door; where they’d bathed in the safety of familial surety.  And James noticed them running, and slowed his truck and pulled over at the end of our street—next to the orange house he’d eventually move into after the break up with Sarah—and got out of the drivers side to walk around the back of the truck to where Julia and Livy waited like angels on the sidewalk.

And as I was watching this play out from the slight distance of looking outside of myself and my children, there was this moment like at the end of a movie.   Where written into the story is a single epiphanic scene that makes everything pivot to where suddenly something in a character clicks.  To where inside James something about his tender dad looking for Livys tooth has shifted him to the core of his being and he “UNDERSTANDS” and gets out of the truck to hug his girls and decides he doesn’t want to ever stop.   

I’m watching this scene of my own family from my own porch, knowing that the arc of this story would then be to forgive him this fucking shitshow of lying/ dissociation if only he would hug his daughters and not get back in that truck and drive off.  He’d walk back to where I am and tell me he’s not moving, he can’t do that to them, he’ll live here, and fly back and forth to see Sarah.  I saw it all in a flash of “please, god.  Please.” Because that’s what “not being ready” does to you.  It makes you stand on your porch and, in Grief and desperation, make deals like a grifter.

But he didn’t.   James hugged them both quickly then walked back around the truck, got in and drove off.

And that night I cried with the force of a heartbreak I can’t describe, as if something in my body was already living the sense of rejection my girls would feel, and the way they’d blame themselves.  As if I could feel my 9 and 6 year old babies archetypal pain and simultaneously their potential idolization of Sarah—younger, thinner; flashy, uncomplicated, the unburdened “winner”.   

I Could feel that I’d have to let my young, vulnerable babies integrate into the lives of people who didn’t care about hurting them.   

I was living inside the normalization of cruelty.  And rolling myself into the fetal position on my bed that night, I convulsed from the grief and the unrecoverable knowledge that my most beloved connection to both this earth and my own soul might never be whole again.  And that maybe neither would I.

********

[Sometimes I don’t know why I write things.  Writing is therapeutic but I don’t reside with this specific grief anymore and I’ve got other fires to put out.   

But the other day, the six year old girl who lost her tooth the day her dad left sent me the writings attached to this post.   A heart-centered, emotional child from the beginning there have been many moments where I did not think it would be possible for her to remain on this planet.  Yet she now writes with a voice that is both herself and her heartache.  She writes with a voice that is both the ethereal and also the days she wanted to die.

So when I say I don’t know why I write, I think maybe it’s because I’m standing on my porch looking down the street, and not yet understanding that the grief I felt inside and consumed by was actually love patiently waiting for this very day]

*********

I’ve said goodbye to many things in my lifetime; many versions of myself and what I thought I needed to be and have in order to feel happy.

And of course I never wanted that day he moved to happen.   For many years, I felt stuck with memories and reverberations of it to where I even begged God to make the pain go away.  For the foes were real:  How can I bring up my girls to be caring and whole in a world where I’m normalizing cruelty?   In a world in which the immediate pain of rejection is their family?  Because events scar us, and we never feel healed.   That isn’t exaggeration; just look around.

But waiting on the porch with me that day was the wisdom of a universe.  A universe telling me that love won’t always look like a dad doing the right thing; sometimes love will look like a grandpa looking for a lost tooth or two sisters running after a truck together.  It’ll look like a mom in the fetal position and—as years pass—like an older sister letting her sleepless, anxious younger one sleep in her bed and like that same younger sister writing words that make their mom weep.

Because on that day I didn’t know that the stronger and most-loving version of our selves is a stranger until that’s who’s comforting us into sleep.  For the truth of all of this—of humanity; of the deep reckonings that emanate—is that we actually have no idea how fucking beautiful we even are until we’ve had to fight for one another.

 

And yes, there was still pain after that day, and will be again.  The world will pose as both farce and cruelty and people will not be what we want them to be.  But on that day, the universe told me that “ready” isn’t a point in time, it’s a state of being.  For things are not linear when placed inside the heart, and from agony comes caring to where we can’t truly see one without the other.  Because in the end, our tears baptize us into the love we are and have, and inside the heart, what looks like a sinking ship is merely one arc in a story about the ocean. 

Sunset on an old self

I’m in my car, sweaty after a day of working hard, and surrounded by a bunch of shit like a mobile hoarder with a windshield so cracked it’s a Rorschach blot. And it’s the night I start reclaiming my ankles from the bloat shit-eating (from lack of time) has attacked me with so I’m headed to some fruits and veggies to begin the process.

And as I pull into the Sugar House Whole Foods shopping center, Led Zeppelin talks to me of sex and texting that guy later and navigating my car around the corner of the parking lot, I see a family outside of Jamba Juice. Mom, dad, two kids, at a table, drinking their frozen juice together as the sun sets.

And I’m 13 years out from my divorce—my kids can’t even imagine I was ever married to their dad—yet while the two little Jamba Juice kids float around dad in his white shirt and crossed legs, leaning back in the chair as if owning all things, there we are. James and I. Taking part in this ritual of “quality time.” Going to Costco on the weekend, buying stuff we didn’t need, pretending we weren’t pretending, making every stupid little thing an event like we were just killing time. Enforcing planned interactions as if we’d forgotten how to be alive and normalizing incremental toxicity‘s—me sympathetically listening, wearing kid snot and no sleep, as he complains about his business dinner in France, etcetc—until I’m overweight and crying in the living room at 1 a.m., giving everything to smother emotional holes for the sake of some labels. “Husband”, “wife”, “married.” For the sake of a romantic dream some boring asshole made up as if it’s a holy symbol of stability to commit to 60 fucking years of trying to be the same.

And when you’re handed a bunch of shit from parents and magazines and TV, your loneliness feels like a personal flaw. Your fear is you not being brave enough.” Every unfulfilled need you speak up about is you being “too sensitive.” And blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks in white shirts have this world to themselves; charming the outside world because they know that shit sells. A dad as coiffed and overconfident as the patriarchy—unapologetically sucking oxygen out of a universe he doesn’t have to share—while mom long-steeped in her gender role as pacifist revolves around him like a planet dressed in clothes and calling him “honey.”

Thirteen years. Not long enough to forget that Mr. Coiffed then goes home to criticize every little thing that disturbs the sanctity of himself. Which ends up being the fish almondine I make for dinner and the girls’ happy squeals which are apparently way too loud for him to hear his Xbox.

And as I pass this family outside Jamba Juice, I see the past. I see the pain, the effort, how I never would’ve walked away and am so thankful he cheated and left.
For you don’t know life’s set up for salesmanship and brutality until you’re outside of what you bought. Until your stable family life, income, and sense of self-worth no longer rests upon making excuses for cruelty and narcissism.

Because marriage itself isn’t the sanctity of anything; the sanctity rests with the ideal to be better, more alive people because of it.

And as I sit in my car making my list, the sun looks like it’s resting. Like having Journeyed across our lives its holding position for one last look. Catching sight as it does of a 52 year old women who works too hard and sleeps too little—whose self-care is akin to a shot of whiskey while crying softly in a bathroom—in a filthy car with bloated ankles, blasting Led Zeppelin and 100% Life, and Panning out from a Jamba Juice scene to view a former self with a search light of the soul.

Realizing as she does that marriage doesn’t always make you more alive while you’re inside it; sometimes it makes you more alive in the parking lot of Whole Foods on a June evening long after. 

Yellowstone

And it was a shapeless voyage. Underplanned; underfunded. Like that time in my twenties when my boyfriend and I camped up and down the California coast. Freezing our asses off, we were whipped into submission by the frigid ocean wind, and—guided by no plan— moved east, north, then back toward the coast in a zig zag of unrepentant spontaneity. Landing once in a campground a few miles off I-5 that was so dusty it’s dirt never heard of rain and still yet was such a small fare to pay Life in order to feel free and unencumbered.

And the original Yellowstone vacation had to be scrapped because of a June blizzard, but somehow the girls, mom and I are there and it’s morning—June 15 2008 (Fathers Day)—when we’re stopped at the side of the road watching the grizzly bear eat the baby elk. The snow had melted into the pasture and the bears grey fur blew in imperceptible breeze, and as the tiny carcass (certainly still warm) became the backdrop for our first trip after daddy moved, Livy cried softly—“I bet the mommy elk is looking for her baby right now!”—in the tender, knowing way that would become her trademark.

Because on that day, my daughters and I bore the mark of unresolved grief. Where their dad cheated then moved to the opposite coast to live with his girlfriend and her young son, leaving myself, our two daughters, our pets, our life, threatening with lawyers if I contested our decree then bringing his girlfriend back to town a few months later—to hotel rooms they’d share with our girls—asking them, “why can’t you stop being selfish and just be happy for me?” They were 9 and 6. But he had his new family and the urgent need to justify his actions.

And I’d withstood the tears of my self and my girls from rejection that cuts the soul and had come face to face with truths we weren’t ready to handle, and watching that field, my little girls and I felt rooted to those truths. Stuck by the still-knife of temporal events which repeatedly wound us until we remain inside them, as if walking beside the ghost shadow of ourselves.

So on that day—on that slight hill, next to at least a hundred other spectators—I briefly joined Livy in wondering about that mama elk. About the world that Mama and I live in. Wondering how she can see and carry this. Wondering about the inherent indifference of it all and how we can find the strength to survive this world.

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[One of the great mysteries of existence rests with the moment of the “big bang.” If that event had obeyed the currently-accepted laws of our physical universe, the Big Bang would have created matter and anti-matter in equal amounts, a circumstance which should’ve been so condensed that matter and anti-matter would have annihilated one another, leaving only energy. But that’s not what happened.

And given enough time, it’s hard not to make everything the domain of the bittersweet. Impossible, really. I was walking through the grocery store writing this, thinking about how the struggle for my girls didn’t stop after that Yellowstone day or for years after yet ours is still such a beautiful story, now making the seemingly-disparate aspects of it connected as two conjoined truths.

For that there are tangible experiences of predation—bears eating babies, daddies creating emotional wounds—is the easy-reader version of a story. But the stars we look upon glow as matter conceived via a known improbability, and in so doing, pass on to us legends about who we are and the poignancy resting inside every tangible experience, as one aspect of truth forever looking for its other].

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The 1988 fires of Yellowstone twenty years before had made scars that settled into the landscape. In that 1988 summer, thirty-six percent of the park had burned, and trees fell like sticks on each other, resting now in 2008 as in permanent homage to the dignity of their past.

That fire year, new aspen groves—waning in the park before the fires—sprouted up miles from their burnt foremothers. The seeds for the shoots had been carried on wind and water and popped up only days after the fires, so to now—on our hasty sojourn through Yellowstone—they could grow proudly beside their ancestors like a lesson. As if Time is a benevolent gift which purposely withholds wisdom for a reason.

Standing near me, my mom—a pragmatist—lifted Julia in her arms to look at the bear. In 2000, the year Livy was born she’d told me that God never gives us more than we can handle. Julia—born in ‘98–had been challenging; hadn’t slept longer than two hours in her life, was colicky, every arriving tooth making her wail and sleepless, and James was constantly gone either physically or mentally, and I feared for what the second child could bring. Mom isn’t religious and neither am I, but in those simple times, “God never gives you more than you can handle” was enough. Yet now I stood with the knowing that it wasn’t enough, and never had been. Such words are inert— placeholders passing for lore–and shaped by hope into a feeling just good enough to persevere.

The park rangers were directing traffic overlooking the meadow, and I held Livy in my arms. I wanted everything for my babies. To feel loved and safe. Free, unencumbered. Wanted them whipped by ocean winds daring it to make them cold. Wanted their only miseries to be courtesy of choice and adventure.

And the 1988 aspen groves that had burned were direct clones of groves mammoths and camels had probably grazed on, And it reminded me of something I once read: that the pull of gravity from the sun is precisely what’s needed to keep our planet from flinging itself into the abyss. That for billions of years beyond placeholders, the sun has anchored us to the safety of our Earth as we eternally balance, falling always into the sun but forever missing.

And in the bright sunshine of a June day in 2008 that bear’s fur blew in the breeze, floating in air I didn’t even know was moving. Perhaps whispering to me about mysteries of Nature as Julia comforted Livy—“Maybe that bear also has babies it needs to feed”—among RVs and tripods and foreign languages.

And maybe there are moments that stand still on one point, as if Time can pivot and catch. When you’re standing on the earth in the sunshine with your daughters and also falling into the sun and forever missing.

Because in the absence of a deeper knowing, the power of our love must be taken on faith but when we shield one another from the emotional brutality of our darkest truths, we bear witness to pain as an infinite-love seeking the comfort of itself.

And so it was that my soft-hearted seven-year-old child–Livy, her eyes red from love for that elk family—was in my arms comforting her stuffed panda, and her older sister—Julia, then ten, surveying the adventure, calling us back into stronger selves —comforted us both.

And inside a tangible scene, we welcomed ourselves home to the surety of our deepest safety, growing from and into each other—free and unencumbered in our devotion—our love filling in the incompleteness of a burned landscape with groves of trees now in full bloom.

Abstracted clarity

Part 1 (2016): That moment when you’re exhausted—on your 17 hour workdays stretching out for weeks—but must run in to buy your catholes their Soulistic at Petco in Sugar House and they open a new register with “I can help the next customer in line over here on 3” and even though you are that next customer in line and the employees can see that you’re making a move to get over there, they still let someone else who wasn’t even in line snake your spot, and now you’re forced to wait for the moron who just bought a min-Pin puppy from some abusive factory farm (probably) and is letting the poor angel baby literally shake in fear in the middle of the checkout counter–not touching it/talking to it or comforting it at all; like its feelings are that of an irrelevant object rather than a baby newly away from its mom—while he signs up for a Petco Pals card; and in the process of this sight, you become triggered because nearly the EXACT SAME THING HAPPENED TO YOU AT THIS SAME SPOT NOT EVEN THREE DAYS AGO making you think “Why is my vibe making the world feel it can misunderstand and what THE HELL can I do to make it not do this?”

So as the Petco line forms behind you, you realize you’ve got no other choice but to go full Passive-Aggressive Zen Master, and rather than hurriedly placing your items on the counter while you’re waiting for sweet baby Min-Pins owner, you strategically use your cart to hold back the impatient lady behind you (who as she watched you, most likely assessed you’re the dumbest asshole ever), and wait until owner physically leaves the counter before–in slow motion–you calmly start placing your thirty small cans of cat food one

by

one

in tidy little coordinated stacks onto the counter.

Because, Petco, you little bitch: don’t tell me my worth by ignoring me. Don’t

communicate to me I should be okay with things taking forever and then expect me to hurry to get out of the way. We’re either okay with things taking forever or we’re not. So I hope you learned a valuable lesson today. Do NOT f*cking mess with my spot in line.

Part 2: I didn’t used to be that person slowly putting cans from my cart to the counter.

I used to be someone who almost-nearly defined myself by the “greater good”. For I was that person—listening, authentically caring; a helper—who knew the outer world was loud and impatient, of which it was important it become less so and in offering what I had to give—patience, unconditional kindness and understanding—I lived into an ideal where it wasn’t a personal sacrifice to be a maxed out, exhausted single parent being ignored by those privileged with doing whatever they want. It wasn’t a sacrifice because in not making waves, I was creating a more gentle world.

But the growth of the soul doesn’t ever look just one way. And to see my passive-aggressive Zen master at Petco as “who I am” neglects the journey which almost killed me I had to endure to get there.

For from gentleness, sometimes warriors must rise to demand that the world be gentle and this evolution to my healthier self began on a cold Fall morning in 2007. James (my kids dad)—had moved away from our girls to live in Virginia with his mistress, Sarah, and—excited to start being a stepmom—she came to Utah with him. Livy was petrified to go to school and Julia was so angry she was punching holes in the doors but James and Sarah were in love (at least for another year or so); I’d had to drop out of Westminster teaching program, was heartbroken for my babies—dealing with James’ “why can’t the girls just be happy for me?”—and asked James to please not bring her to pick up our traumatized kids at the house just 10 months before we’d all had a Christmas in but they were in love.

And on that day in 2007, Sarah got out of their rental car, moved around my driveway, and started climbing my front porch steps to ostensibly retrieve my two daughters—who she didn’t even know—for their first day together, as if we were all old friends.

And I remember so clearly.

For I gasped. I stood there in my house watching her, not knowing what to do.

Because on that cold morning the kids were still devastated as was I, and I was shocked. So shocked. At her big balls that I wasn’t prepared to deal with; she had also been married, had met me; she and James began their thing—I only found out because he was using our joint account to give her money—and she said she wouldn’t be with him unless he moved away from his little girls to be with her.

And now she’d done nothing to feel embarrassed by. Now, she grabbed the emotional falsity of the moment as if there was no amount of gentleness and no human feeling at all—including those of my precious babies—that could ever stand in the way of what she wanted.

And I wanted to flee; to run from this awful situation with this monster walking up my driveway. Next to my Chrysler Pacifica with The Little Mermaid in the CD player; upon concrete my girls learned to ride bikes in; that one step up towards the porch that was slightly taller.

But the truth of life is that it tells you who you are. It offers you things and within the deep fear and barrenness inside you, strikes your woundedness until you can do nothing else but look at it. And Sarah was showing me that you can be in despair, right at the edge of the cliff, asking “why not?” and there will be people behind you mindlessly saying “oh my god you’re so stupid.” For whether of heart or heart-less, the world is filled with the noise of its own self, and on some days—when you feel least prepared—coming up your steps, will be your Sarah.

For she was the world—not listening, not having to—behind me on the edge of the cliff saying “maybe you should”, and for a second that day, I gasped and wasn’t sure. Should I? What can I even do with this level of fucked up? Where do I go to feel safe from this cruelty?

And on that day she (and many others) taught me how to make space for my self—how to be okay with standing in line at Petco, micro-slowly putting cans on the counter in full irritation of all— for as she put her foot on the bottom step of my home—where I raised my babies, who were enduring unnecessary grief—I found something inside me that could answer those questions. And as if I’d always known, I ran across my living room, flew out the front door and stood, arms crossed over my chest at the top of the steps, looking down at Sarah in challenge as if my life depended on not letting her take one more step.

And suddenly the world was listening.

Part 3: My youngest daughter, Livy, is much like I used to be. Kind, always thinking of others, doing so automatically because their well-being is essentially her well-being. And I’m cognizant of it but she has her own journey and I want to give her the freedom to navigate into the spaces her soul needs without micro-managing. So we disagreed on the philosophy of putting the cans up slowly; she says you should always choose kindness because you never know what someone’s going through. And I hear that; I lived that; I get what she’s saying.

But that just can’t be it. It can’t be. Because people kill themselves because of the unkindness of the world and if I can speak up, if I can inform the world it’s not being gentle enough, shouldn’t I do that for those people? Who else is tasked with telling the world it needs to do better and show up for the ‘quiet kindness not making waves’?

But just the other day, I rushed into Petco during my (repeat of) horrible work stretch of 17 hour days and there I am again: waiting on a Petco Pal’s card. And as I’m waiting, I’m like “are you kidding me?” Because it’s like a comedy sketch now and it’s all so lovely and beautiful to be unconditionally kind when you’ve gotten a full nights sleep and don’t have a nail in your tire. But not all of us are hobby Petco consumerists; some of us are very tired people spending $700 on tires who haven’t washed their hair.

Yet as I stepped up briskly—still in adrenaline mode; wanting Petco to know I needed to hurry—I paused, and looked at the checker. She was young with dark hair; it might’ve been her first job; maybe she was even nervous, and I softened.

Because in that moment, suddenly I had the thought “who else but me?” and felt that right then, I was the world. I was the one tasked with listening. And in that moment, it was no longer enough to be heard without also showing up for whomever else of gentleness might be passing through. For there will be Sarah’s; they will walk up and push.

But there are also Livys, and Julia’s–my daughters–who painfully navigated that time to arrive as adults more caring and compassionate than they probably would’ve been otherwise.

And in the arc of a souls growth, so do we meet our selves again and again.

For at the end of “finding yourself” is the realization you can’t actually see who you are without the benefit of another’s vision, and as I left the store, I texted Livy to thank her, and teared up before pulling away in the fullness of understanding.

“All Apologies”: Finding the Meaning of Nirvana

The “I’m going to single-handedly save this marriage!” off-switch was pretty hard to find during our final years together.  (Maybe it was hidden under the super-hero cape I thought I was wearing).  My brain just couldn’t last a second, at the end of the marriage, without wondering what new and inventive way I could come up with to fix his unhappiness.  Because he was definitely unhappy; I knew that much.  He told me all the time by criticizing the meals I cooked, the food I bought, the way I cleaned the house, and handled the kids.  The gas I put in the car.  The way I watered the grass.  My ideas.  My existence (probably).  You name it.

I knew that it wasn’t the way I should be treated, so, initially, I stood up for myself.  I’d point out that he had unrealistic expectations and that he talked disrespectfully to me.  For a few months, I even stopped cooking altogether to teach him not to criticize my meals.

But my defiance didn’t last.  Mostly because I’m pathologically easygoing, and it was always so much work for me to fight over these things.   According to my aunt, I’m a Libra with Aquarius moon—in some sort of conjunction or something–which means that, apparently, I am astrologically programmed to be the most “Whatever” kind of person you’ll ever meet.   My view is that life’s just too freaking short to hold onto slights and grudges.   But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I needed to be able to do in order to see that a pattern was emerging.  A pattern of “he’s a verbally abusive, control freak.”

I also had another strike against me in that I was pathologically afraid of ending up like my parents–divorced, and perpetually angry.

So, at some random point, I must have “Whatever”-ed myself into giving up the fight for equality in my marriage, and, after that point, my whole focus turned into keeping him happy.   I listened to his complaints and tried to be “better.”  I became a different “me,” who supplicated for mercy and gave up her needs for the greater good, in which—somehow–his happiness became the “greatest good” I could think of.   I was rolling over like a dog and peeing all over myself to please him.  Which is a pretty strong tactic.  Since groveling is so attractive and all.    I did what I could do to change myself—insidiously—until finally the inevitable happened and he left to be unhappy somewhere else.

At the end, though, I was gasping for freedom from the thankless, impossible task I’d assigned myself, and an event from February 2007—right before he first mentioned the “D” word—has become emblematic of the near death experience I was assuredly headed for had the marriage continued.

It went like this:   my Dyson vacuum had pulled up some of the new Berber carpet that had just been installed in our remodeled basement.  I knew he would blame me, if he could, so I called the carpet place—in a panic—to tell them what had happened, and see if I had recourse (you know: to see if I could blame someone else).  I didn’t, because apparently you aren’t supposed to use rotating Dyson brushes on this carpeting; it was in the Dyson manual.  I told her that my husband was going to be so mad at me, and she was very apologetic and wished me luck before we hung up.  Thinking quickly, I grabbed my hot glue gun, gathered the pulled up strands of carpeting and tried to jimmy the carpet back into place.  It was near the futon, so he might not even notice.

A few minutes into my job, the carpet place called back.  I was in a hurry to finish the repair job before he got home—burning myself with the hot glue as I used a bamboo skewer to push the carpeting back into place–but I answered anyways.  It was the same woman, who sounded concerned and asked, “I just wanted to call back and make sure you were okay.”  It was weird to hear the worry in her voice, reflecting back to me the panic that had inflected my own.  Like a banner saying, “Game over, sweetie.  Hang up the cape.”

Which—I gotta say—was such a damned relief.   ‘Cause it was such a tiring charade.

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   Click for audio sample:           

                                       

                                          What else should I be,

                                          All apologies

This Nirvana song–All Apologies–reminds me of “it all.”  My marriage, and it’s suffocation.  My divorce, and the resultant tailspin.  But I’m not sure why.  I don’t even know what the famously-vague lyrics mean; they might seem obvious but their author–Kurt Cobain–was a complex guy and “obvious” wasn’t his thing.   I only know that every time I hear them—and see those words “All Apologies”–I think about the last few years, and my dedicated and regular probing of my marriage to test it for doneness.

                                       I take all the blame,                                                   

                                        aqua seafoam shame.

It was Nirvana’s song–soft, with chords leading to reflective thought, and orchestral strings juxtaposing against roughed-up vocals–but Kurt Cobain’s lyrics.  And no one can say what the lyrics mean.  I’ve looked it up.  Some say it’s Kurt’s goodbye before his suicide.  Some say it’s about his marriage to Courtney Love, and how he was upset at himself for getting her hooked on drugs.  But apparently the lyrics were written way before he met Love, and contemplated suicide.

So, what then?  When he says “All Apologies,” is he wanting to apologize for being a disappointment to someone?  Is he apologizing to his fans for not being who they want him to be?     Or, for being a disappointment to himself?    Or doubting the worth of himself as a new grunge superstar, and expressing remorse for the general, inexplicable feeling of malaise he couldn’t shake even though he had all of this external success?  As in: I’m sorry, people, you think I’m something so special, but I’m not.  I’m a normal, messed up guy.  And I’m sorry you’re fooling yourself by thinking otherwise.

Then these lyrics:

                                           Married…married…

                                           married…buried. 

What now?  Does he mean that marriage leads to the feeling of suffocation and being dead inside?   Seems unlikely, since years after the lyrics were written, he dedicated this song to his wife and young daughter. Or do these lines mean that the time span between married life, and death (being buried) will seem short.  And compressed.  Because marriage is entertaining.  And adventurous.  And distracting.   And as real as a dirt nap.  Is he confused, or calm?  Defiant or accepting?

 

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The lyrics trigger memories of that time with my ex.   And not just in the obvious way I could compare the two:   the suffocation of my self and my needs, and my apologetic stance mixing with the lyrics about apologies and acceptance of blame.   Or in a wishful thinking kind of way, in that wouldn’t it be Just-Like-So-Totally-Super-Awesome! to bond with Kurt Cobain over our similar life challenges.

Because all that sounds good and possible but feels false.  Because I can hear—or think I hear–Kurt’s active suffocation in the lyrics—but it’s suffocation at the hands of himself.   And I also hear contempt.  For taking himself too seriously.   For others taking him too seriously.  For allowing himself to indulgently overthink things and for audaciously trying to single-handedly decipher the complexity of the world, and emotions, and intention through song.

And I know that all the overthinking I’m doing trying to figure it all out–all the analysis of the meaning behind the lyrics–is BS.   ‘Cause I’m Gen X, and we share—Kurt and I—this mutually compatible, angst-ridden self-consciousness.   We share a need to ridicule ourselves because we hate the intentional seriousness of it all.   (We’re a bit jaded because we saw how “Free Love” and “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” morphed into BMW’s and second homes in Carmel).

Maybe the lyrics mean nothing.   ‘Cause Kurt isn’t anything like my bossy, control freak ex-husband.  He knew enough about life—and it’s temptations and humanity’s collective desire for “easy”–not to offer his fans—like me–clear demands on what to think and how to feel.   By making his lyrics so hard to interpret, he addresses the impossible complexity of life.  And somehow says it all without saying anything.     “Everything in life is open to interpretation depending on how deep in the muck you’re standing.”

And so, anyways, it’s BS.   My mental journey for what Kurt meant.   Because I’m aware that my efforts at finding “The Answer” to the riddle of what Kurt is trying to say belies an emotional neediness that–in marriages and in life–can never, ever be pacified.   And I know now that it’s best to part ways with the extreme desire for external validation long before you’re on your hands and knees frantically hot gluing carpet back together.

Each time I listen to this song, I eventually find myself in this same spot. In the murky waters that prevent easy “answers.”  At which point, I end up just enjoying the way the song makes me feel in the moment.  Free of definitive meaning.  Free from thinking any particular thing.  And wrapping up life lessons into convenient, labeled file folders.   Free to have my interpretations change as I change.   Free to pacify myself with “Whatever” once again.