the hazard of self-knowledge

One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).

After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.

I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.

Not everyone was a coward, though — there were many extraordinary selfless people

One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.

One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.

And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:

  • I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
  • But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.

One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.

Live and learn, and do better.

checking out

It’s time to save my own life. I’ve been here before and I’ll probably be here again, so it’s familiar terrain, but with a difference. I’m not actually depressed, although I cry a lot and had a quite terrifying experience on Christmas Day that you’ll read in tomorrow’s post. But the events in my country, combined with my son’s daily choice to be gone from our family, are truly overwhelming me.

Since I’m not depressed, intensifying treatment for depression — including hospitalization — isn’t the fix. I am of course continuing taking my medication, as I always will, but instead the fix for this extraordinary despair must be:

Checking out of Facebook. I will still participate in the secret groups I belong to, all of which nourish me. I will check the Events tab daily so I can be informed about the various protests and marches that I will participate in. I’ll still feed this blog to my Facebook blog page. But I won’t be looking at my feed, at all. Of course this means I’ll miss the personal things my friends post, but that’s a price I’ll have to pay and at the moment, it’s a necessary price. All but two of my friends share my political views, and my feed is also filled with real news sources, so there is just too much dosing of the poison for me to keep living, and I say that and hear that it sounds hyperbolic, but at this moment it isn’t.

Other social media I will keep are Instagram, which nourishes me, and Facebook Messenger, so friends can easily communicate with me. If you want my cell to text me, and you don’t have it, email me and I’ll give it to you. I don’t want to avoid my friends, or make personal communication impossible (or even difficult).

Upping the medicine. One-on-one time with friends who nourish me. More walks. More yoga. More reading. More music that lifts me. More art. More time in thought. More time creating things. A focus on creating a world for myself. A temporary suspension of working on my book, because the themes and experiences of my childhood and the person of the incoming president overlap too much. Fighting the fight, holding my hero John Lewis in my mind as the model of long-term, persistent fighting for what’s right.

I am not giving up the fight for what’s right, friends, even during this moment. Today I’m going to the local meetings of the National Poets’ Protest, a training session for non-violent action, and then the National Writers’ Protest. All I’m doing at this moment is stepping outside the flames so I can stay alive. I won’t be responding to your Facebook posts for a perhaps long time, but I am still with you.


tattoosOne of the tattoos on my spine is for the character that means courage — the third from the top. I’ve thought a lot about courage over my life. I got the tattoo out of some sense that I’d been courageous in my life, but when I chose it I hadn’t really thought as deeply about the idea as I did in the years after I got it.

Courage means doing something WHILE you are scared. If you aren’t scared, it doesn’t require courage. If you are filled with adrenalin and testosterone and you race into the fray filled with the belief that you’re going to prevail, that isn’t courage. That’s just being fired up. Courage is what it takes to put your hand out, your foot out, scared that you’ll be chopped down for it. Sometimes courage is quiet, sometimes it’s loud, but it’s not courage if you aren’t afraid you’ll lose big. It’s not courage if you might lose a buck or two, or take a punch. You can afford to lose a buck or two. A punch hurts for a little bit and then it’s done. I’ve taken punches, I know what I’m talking about.

I’ve had some courage in my life, I’ve put my hand and foot out in ways that could’ve gotten me killed, although those instances were just about staying alive — and I don’t discount them, but when it’s a life or death situation it’s a little different. But more often than I’d like, I have had a failure of courage. I’ve allowed my fear to swamp me. I’ve taken easy ways, ways that didn’t make me feel [at all] good about myself but they seemed do-able. I’m ashamed of myself for those choices, each and every one.

And I’ve spent my life afraid of men. It’s no mystery why, and it’s understandable. And I haven’t beaten myself up for it, even when I’ve wished I could be braver. I get it, I have every reason to be scared. It’s the rare woman who can’t find a reason to be scared. Men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them.

They rape us. They beat us. They murder us. They belittle us. They decide our fates. If we’re lucky, they “let” us decide things for ourselves.

The only good thing about the orange monster is that he just keeps pushing his horror out to the edge, farther and farther, and finally we come out of the shadows. Me too, someone did this to me. And to me. And to me. Men did this to me, too. And to me. Yes, and to me. And to me. I am afraid for my daughters, a man did this to me. And to me.

And so finally, finally, I find my courage. I want to live to the end of my natural days, however many they may be. I’d love to be 115 and just die in my sleep, that would be great. I would love to see my grandchildren have children. I’d love to be wrinkled old Pete, cackling and cussing and saying come here, let me kiss you, you sweet thing. I hope I get that chance.

But I am also done. I’m done hiding in the shadows in the hopes that no man hurts me again. I’m done hoping a man doesn’t hurt someone I love, or even another woman I don’t know, but I see it happen. I’m DONE. And I have the orange monster to thank for that, for shining a light on the country I live in, the vast numbers of people who think he’s just fine, and even worse, the vast numbers of people who don’t say a word. Their silence is every bit as complicit as the voices of those who think he’s great. If you haven’t said anything in the wake of the most recent terribleness, you are on the other side of the line from me. And fuck you.

I’m going to get self-defense training. I’m going to look men in the eye — not daring them, exactly, but not hiding from them. If I witness any woman anywhere getting any kind of harassment, no matter how “banal,” no matter how “joking,” no matter what, I’m the avenger. Women are not objects for your fun, fuck you. I can’t fight every single battle in the world, I have to pick and choose. I wish I could fight for black people, that’s a worthy fight. I wish I could fight for immigrants, they deserve to be fought for. I wish I could fight for poor people, for the mentally ill. I can’t fight for everyone. I’m one woman. I’m one older, pissed off woman, and I have to pick my battles.

I am a defender of women. And whatever comes of that, let it come.

on the misnomer of “mentally ill”

meBefore I say anything else, I’ll claim it: I deal with mental illness. I’m not embarrassed by that, or ashamed of it, and I don’t think it means I’m weak, or broken, or less-than anyone in the world. This simply is, in the same way that I am tall, I have blue eyes, and my smile is gummy. All that simply is. (That doesn’t mean I’ve always been accepting of and happy about those things, except the blue eyes, but they’re all true whether I am happy and accepting of them or not. They simply are true of me.)

But I do very much take issue with two things: the idea that this relates to weakness or brokenness, and the terminology. I assume this was first termed “mental” illness to contrast it with “physical” illness — as if those are discrete, non-overlapping islands of experience — but my own experience, and the experiences of others I know, relate more to a framing as an emotional or psychological illness. I’m not sure what bugs me so much about framing all these struggles as mental illness, exactly, but I do think it’s the apparent separation from physical, which is mystifying, and also that it just drifts too far away from the experience, which then means people are on the wrong track when they try to understand others.

If I told you I suffer with an emotional illness, what would you ask me? Are you sad? Are you anxious? Are you scared? Do you feel despair? Do you feel like it’s too hard? Those questions get right at the nub of it, don’t they? Yes, when my depression is with me again, I am sad, and scared, and I feel despair, and like it’s too hard. When I answer those questions you understand something about me. I could also tell you that my brain chemicals are wacky, but what do you do with that, exactly? That’s a potential treatment approach that a doctor might help me with, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything.

And then there are other kinds of emotional/psychological illness, some of which I also deal with but have learned to keep closer to my chest because they are too frequently misunderstood. I’m not being cagey about them, and again I don’t think they mean I am broken or weak or less-than anyone, but they require more careful language and much more careful listening (and frankly, it’s the more-careful listening that’s the biggest problem). I’m talking here about different kinds of psychosis, for example, some of which are transient, some of which are nevertheless understood by the person in the midst of the experience, and some of which are devastating and debilitating, like the real tragedy of schizophrenia. People are starting to talk more openly about psychosis, and if you don’t know her already, Elyn Saks is an extraordinary woman with schizophrenia that roared forward while she was a student at Yale. Her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, is exceptionally good at letting you see that illness from the inside, and her TED talk will leave you amazed. I saw her speak in NYC and with the rest of the audience, listened with my mouth open, in amazement.

But even more than my wish that these experiences were called “emotional illness” instead of “mental illnesses,” I wish they were conceptualized differently. They do not mean that we are broken. They do not mean that we are weak. They certainly don’t mean we are less than anyone else who does not have these experiences. Having these experiences simply means that we have these struggles, these painful experiences, these difficulties to deal with. Maybe they become so debilitating that it’s hard to keep a job, but much more often they simply mean that we suffer, and we too often feel all alone with that suffering. I hate that. I won’t draw the kinds of parallels that people usually draw with a physical illness (most often to diabetes or cancer, both of which people are also blamed for, at times….), but I will say that the suffering is real. If you know that someone you love is suffering and you dismiss it, well, you might want to examine that a little bit.

I do suffer. Partly I suffer even without emotional illness because I feel everything so intensely, and because I truly think that to live my life the best way I possibly can, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not here just to deeply experience the “happy” bits, and to shunt off all the rest as quickly as I can. I’m definitely not here to take the position that well, that doesn’t serve me so I won’t feel it. I think it all serves us, and deepens us, and allows us to grow and learn more about who we are. And so I suffer when my experience is painful. AND I suffer quite terribly from periodic and chronic depression, and sometimes from suicidality. AND I suffer from PTSD, which also includes some strange experiences I’ll write about one of these days. And you know what? Not only do I reject anyone’s notion that therefore I’m weak, I instead say (with a bit of a fuck-you attitude) that actually, I’m stronger than most people I know. I’m strong enough to go there. I’m strong enough to come back. I’m strong enough to stand there and look at it in the face. I’m strong enough to go from here to there:

Yep. Strong enough to go from there to there and back again, strong enough to endure and get richer, and sometimes just strong enough to survive it. Strong enough not to be broken by the pain and sorrow and struggle. It’s the opposite of weak to sit inside that suffering, man, and anyone who has ever been there will give a very loud AMEN to that.

Can I get an amen on that up in here?
Can I get an AMEN on that up in here?

Keller and Frank and modern times

kellerWhen I was a little girl, among the books I read were two that had a tremendous and long-lasting effect — the same books most little girls read: the biography of Helen Keller and Anne Frank’s diary. Both books asked me the same question:

What would you do?

What would I do if I faced the kind of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that Helen Keller faced? Would I have her grace, her perseverance, her will to help other people? Would I turn outwards, as she did, or would I turn inwards, clinging to the unfairness of my obstacles, insisting that no one had it as bad as I did, everyone else should help themselves, I have all I can do with my own stuff. Who would I be in the face of that level of difficulties? Of course I wanted to believe that I would eventually find my way to the kind of grace and courage that she did, and as I’ve gotten older, I think now I can say that it’s likely I would at least try. But younger me? I doubt it.

anne frankWhat would I do if people were being identified, marked, rounded up, taken away? What would I do if another Holocaust happened? What if I were married to someone in the hated group, would I join him so he didn’t have to be there alone, even if we were separated? Would I shelter or help escape those who were under threat? Would I do so if it meant I might be killed for it? Luckily, that danger seemed so unlikely that I could entertain the possibility without concern. Oh, yes, without a doubt I would. No doubt. As I was raising my kids, and bore those responsibilities, I came to a different conclusion, that I just couldn’t do such a thing because my obligation was primarily to my dear kids. And then there were many times I’ve said (and meant it when I said it), “No way I’d stick with a belief or opinion if my life were at stake! Renounce my religion? DUH! Of course, no brainer.” (Of course I’m also not a religious person, but I also thought that what I held in my heart would be the part that mattered anyway, and I couldn’t be forced to go against that.) I’d say whatever it took to save my life, though in all my thinking there was never someone else’s life at stake. Such a privileged little safe and easy fantasy.

Now, though, in this Trump hate-filled world that’s gathering around us — and not just here in the US, obviously, but all over the world — I’ve been returning to my thoughts. What would I do? There was a browser app that identified Jewish names on any web page, identifying them with triple parentheses around the last name. (((name))) I had been naively telling my husband that for once, at least, he wasn’t a member of the identified Other to be eliminated, at least this time the primary focus wasn’t on Jews. At least this time it was Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants of all kinds, women, the media (if they are at all real journalists), the judiciary now, brown people in general. Jews hadn’t shown up on the loudest lists, but when he told about that web app, vomit came into my throat immediately. Even if we succeed in not electing Trump, all his ignorant, hate-filled supporters are still here. All those sentiments, still here.

What would I do? If the times ask something of me, will I step up? We’ve all been memorializing Muhammad Ali for his courage and conviction in refusing the draft (a black Muslim, note). Will I step up? Will I be a person I can admire? If it comes to it, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine that it would, would I accompany my husband? Would I hide Muslims? Would I help brown people? Now that it’s not idle fantasy, at least in terms of a growing landscape of context and possibility, the question makes my heart race but I am pretty clear on what my answer would be.

I would.

memoir blah blah blah

memoirIt is the age of memoir and has been for quite a while. Some people are contemptuous of memoir (that always shocks me), even calling it an “absurdly bloated genre.” To blindly dismiss an entire genre is idiotic, as if they are all one thing. As an editor, I read a lot of memoirs and like any other genre, there is tremendous variability. I have a few favorite memoirs, many written by poets (Nick Flynn of course, and the one I am currently editing which I pray gets published). My other favorite memoir is a genre-buster — The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston. That book provided a metaphor for my life that I hadn’t had before, and helped me see myself in such a different way. As you know if you’ve been around these parts for long, it is the most important and transformative book in my life.

The best memoirs go beyond the specific details of the writer’s life to illuminate what it means to be a human being, living a life. (In my opinion.) When I read my favorite memoirs, I somehow understand my own life differently, or better, as in the case of Nick Flynn’s books. Or maybe I look at myself quite differently, understand the circumstances of my life in a new way. And to varying degrees, memoir can serve as a self-help book of the broadest kind: ah, this person went through by doing y, so maybe I can get through it too. They can inspire.

It’s the age of dramatic troubles memoirs too. Memoirs used to chronicle lives of adventure and privilege, and some still do . . . but these days it seems that so many memoirs focus on horrible childhoods, dire circumstances, horrific tragedy. Those can be self-indulgent but the best of them show readers the power and possibility of resilience, of transformation, of persistence. Stories of resilience can inspire readers to be stronger, braver in the face of their own troubles. I know that’s how those kinds of stories affect me. And of course those stories are not limited to the genre of memoir; excellent journalism and other kinds of non-fiction can do the same thing, as this piece in The Atlantic about the resilience of people and the society in Rwanda, 20 years after the horrific slaughter that lasted for 100 days and left 1 million dead. To read anything that shows the brilliance and courage and strength of real people can only be inspirational, in the best way. Not in a “do these 10 things and you will be happy” way, but in a deeply moving way. My god, human beings can be so courageous and creative.

My friend and former dissertation advisor Jamie recently told me that I am the poster child for resilience, and on this one I agree with him. I am resilient. If and when I complete my memoir, my goal is for it to be one of these tales of resilience, of survival, and of a variety of kinds of triumph anyway. Despite. But I need these booster shots of stories of others’ resilience. Every time I read a very good memoir that is a tale of resilience, I learn new ways of being strong in the face of life, I get a reminder of the strength of people, I find awe and respect in the everyday humanity of people. Sometimes I think, well, what else is there to do but survive and persist? and yet I know that not everyone does. I know that some people destroy themselves and/or others, some people are too damaged to recover, some people do not have the inner resources they need to keep going in a whole way. Would reading stories of resilience help these people? Some, maybe, and maybe those people are the ones with stores of resilience they’re just unaware of. I don’t know. It’s certainly not a cure-all, of course.

I am not so naive that I think just the right memoir could help everyone get through;  as I’ve said a number of times since I’ve been thinking about this, temperament just is and while you can push it around and affect the edges, you are who you are. Like the current conception of the influence of DNA, it sets the boundary conditions, and environment can move it around within those boundaries. But probably not outside them. If you are a person who sees primarily the dark, the trouble, you probably can’t transform yourself into a lighthearted optimist (and you probably don’t want to!). You can learn skills and ways of thinking and you can probably shift things around the easier topics, but we are who we are. I believe that. And I believe that we are who we are, right from the beginning. I look at little Oliver and wonder who he is in there. What his temperament is, because it’s already there. He seems to be laidback and chill, but he’s 2.5 weeks old so we haven’t truly seen him yet.

So when my memoir is completed, and assuming it is the kind of memoir I hope it will be instead of a self-indulgent “feel sorry for me” kind of piece, will the art and transformation of experience help someone, anyone? God I hope so. I hope it helps someone feel less alone, I hope it helps readers keep going through their own circumstances because they know others did, I hope it helps people understand themselves and their lives in some way. You hear people say this kind of thing, but when I think about it I get so choked up: Truly, if reading my memoir helped ONE PERSON in any way, I would feel like all the events of my life had a new kind of meaning. And even writing that sentence, I can’t see through the tears in my eyes.  xo

being in this world

Trey and Oliver (aka mini-Trey) getting some one-on-one time. Lots of love there.
Trey and Oliver (aka mini-Trey) getting some one-on-one time. Lots of love there.

We’ll all be catching up on sleep and back-to-the-real-worldness for the next few days; for Katie and Trey, the catching-up will take a whole lot longer. I think a person could get more rest on the median strip of a busy highway than in a hospital. I know that nurses are doing their jobs and I’m glad for it, but every little bit throughout the night they burst in and turn on lights and just start talking as if it’s the middle of the day — and when there is a new mom and a new baby, twice as many reasons to check in. My sweet Katie and Trey are so exhausted, when they get home and get to sleep more than 20 minutes without interruption it will be a tremendous help. If ever there was a floor where the patients ought to be interrupted as little as possible, it would be the maternity floor for heaven’s sake. Poor exhausted kids. I want to go to their house the day after they get home and just be there to tend to Oliver while they sleep sleep sleep, and I can hand Oliver in for a feeding and bring him quickly out and let them sleep sleep sleep some more. That would do more for them than anything else.

I’ve gotten a couple nights of sleep and finally, yesterday mid-morning, I started feeling like a regular human being hallelujah. You walk around in the world not even noticing that it’s a thing to be grateful for, feeling like a regular human being, until you hit the wall and would give anything to feel like that. So yay, getting enough rest to feel baseline!

Over the last couple of days I’ve had reason to think about one of my favorite subjects. There are different ways of seeing the world, of being in the world, on any topic. Unless it makes you utterly miserable or hurts others, it doesn’t matter one bit which way you go — you do what makes sense to you, what works for you. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just a different way of looking at or understanding the exact same thing. Different ways of being.

katie and oliver
sweet Katie and sweet Oliver (how could he be anything but sweet with those parents?)

The first thing that made me think about this came about — as it often does — when I watched my daughter Katie. This has been true for an incredibly long time with her. I remember thinking about this throughout our (her) year-long period of grief, through both her pregnancies, through both deliveries, and now through her post-partum period with Oliver. It didn’t just start then, but all these experiences left me in a kind of awe of her strength and solid power. Katie just does not complain. Through her pregnancies she had the normal troubles, sometimes to a great degree. Extraordinarily long morning sickness with Gracie (all 9 months, more or less); excruciating pelvic pain for months with Oliver. But you know, she just manages it and doesn’t complain. During her long labor and her recovery, no complaining. Not once. There’s something about Katie that blows me away, she endures what she needs to endure because she does, and she may mention it briefly in passing, or if asked, but that’s it. It’s just what she needs to do. I said this to her in the hospital and she kind of laughed and said Trey would disagree, but I’m right. Maybe she complains about little this or that, inconsequential things, but when it gets hard she goes quiet and does what she needs to do. She is deeply emotional, and in a complex way; it’s just that when the going gets tough, she pulls in, hunkers down, and does what she needs to do without any fanfare.

OR there’s my way, which is to pull the curtain aside and show the machinery. I talk about it, write about it, explore it and share it, and I have well thought-out reasons for that stance but I think it’s also just more my way, who I am. Still, I admire Katie’s way a lot, and find myself wanting to be more like her. Her way feels like strength and courage and solidity, to me. It isn’t that I think I whine, I don’t think I’m a whiny complainer, but it’s a different way of being, a different way of thinking about suffering and how to respond, and I admire her. Of course there are good and bad aspects to both — if you just suffer in silence and keep it all in, you might suffer more than you need to, you might get into a kind of trouble that would be avoided if others knew more about how you were feeling during difficult times. On the other side, if you talk or write a lot about the hard stuff, it might make it larger and more real in your mind and heart and become a greater concern than it would be if you just quietly let it ride. I share my troubles because they are true and real and I think we all have troubles and sometimes feel all alone with them, so perhaps my experience can help someone feel less alone. But gee, I admire Katie so much.

The second experience that made me think about it came on Saturday night when I had dinner with a friend and we were talking about the general subject of generosity of spirit. She is extraordinarily generous in spirit, and I believe I am, too. We both know people who keep mental balance sheets, people who [for whatever reason] are small in that way, as we see it. She and I give of ourselves because we just want to, it flowers out of who we are, and then we move on. You’ll never get a listing of What All I Have Done For You from either one of us. It’s no big deal, it is just who we are, like she has blond hair and I have brown hair, she is tiny and I am tall. Just who we are. We’ve both been in relationships with friends and family and lovers who were not like that at all. When a relationship is ending, that way of being in the world can really show itself. So we were talking about that contrast, and how hard it can eventually become to remain generous of spirit when the other person is clinging and taking taking taking. She and I might respond in kind, but not for long because it just feels so bad, it makes us feel worse. We’re human (boy are we) so we will lash out or whatever, but ick. Being that way feels awful to us.

Our conversation turned to how to interact with people who have that other kind of response. To keep being generous of spirit and letting go can make you feel like a chump, taken advantage of, even perhaps stupid. But what do you do? Do you behave for the world you want to live in, or the actual world? Her ongoing generosity is not at all going to modify (even a bit) the behavior of the one she’s dealing with. Nor would it for people who were in my life. It’s easy enough — and maybe a valid response — to withhold when dealing with tight-hearted people, and be generous otherwise. Maybe that’s smart. That’s living in the actual world. Or do you blossom yourself into the world in the belief that it does change things, it’s the only way things can change, even if you don’t see it in each and every person? This is a big question, applicable to all kinds of behaviors and ethics beyond generosity, though all kinds of things fall under the umbrella of ‘generosity’ if you think about it. Of course I fail much more often than I succeed, but I think I throw my chit in the “behave for the world I want to live in” bowl. I may get punked/chumped/lose on occasion and that will feel pretty crappy, but whatever, right? Those things happen anyway.

A sweet little family of three is supposed to go home today, and I’d give anything to watch from afar as they put their little boy in the car seat and drive him — carefully, so carefully — home. As they walk through their front door with their long-awaited child, as they greet their dogs who will surely be bewildered by the new member of the house. As they relax and feel so glad to be home, as they walk into their bedroom and place their little boy gently, so gently, into his bed. As they look at each other and feel the way their home has just changed. I’d love to see that, and I can easily remember every single one of those feelings (except the dogs, we had a sweet stray cat that Katie soon named “The Old Bad Kitty”), and the memory is the sweetest sweetest thing. Happy Monday, everyone, the last day of March. The first quarter of this year is ending, how fast it’s going. xo

grim beliefs

this guy knew a thing or two about suffering
this guy knew a thing or two about suffering

I’m returning again to a topic I’ve become focused on, and that’s the ways in which we are so wrong about things. Buddhism teaches that certainty is impossible and that clinging to certainty is the source of suffering. I must be heading toward enlightenment because I’m certain about fewer and fewer things, the older I get. One critical point in Buddhist thought is that  clinging to our own identities is a deep source of our suffering. Here’s a big east-west difference, right? Because what are we after: Self-discovery. Self-knowledge. Self-fulfillment. Self-this, self-that, self-the-other-thing.  We grow to think we know ourselves, the longer we live — and why shouldn’t we think that? By now we’ve had all that experience, we’ve lived with ourselves so long, we watched our sweet little selves grow and flourish, suffer and triumph, so who knows us better than we know our own selves?

HA! Ha, I say. I’ve written so many times about how wrong I have been about who I am (and I think it’s true for everyone, at least to some degree, it’s just a question of willingness to have self-doubt and openness to uncertainty. And it goes in both directions, thinking you’re worse than you are and thinking you’re better!). When I was in New York last week, Marc and I were talking about something, can’t remember what exactly, and I piped up with some belief about myself and then paused a second and said, “You know, even I know that’s not true.”

A dear woman I used to know called these grim beliefs. I don’t know where she came up with that phrase, whether it’s original to her or she read it elsewhere, but the moment she said it, little explosions went off in me. YES, grim beliefs, I know what that means instantly. Grim is the most perfect word. We clutch our little grim beliefs — about ourselves, maybe, or about others, or about the way life works, despite evidence to the contrary. Perhaps despite a LOT of evidence to the contrary. Last night (and earlier in the day) a beautiful friend expressed the wish that I never feel unwanted again. I felt like she was telling me a truth, and also caring for me. The way she said it, the very wholehearted and earnest way she said it to me, the serious look on her face, it kind of shook me. Why should I feel unwanted any longer? I shouldn’t! I have so very many people who love me and want me in their lives, and I have my marvelous children who love me and want me in their lives. I’m a wanted woman. 🙂 So what do I get from clutching my grim belief so very tightly? What do you get from clutching yours?

Well, the obvious thing get, anyway, is safety. The devil you know, you know? I’ll be safe with the grim belief that I’m unwanted, so I won’t be caught off guard when it becomes ‘true.’ Ha, it’s in my control, you can’t hurt me! I imagine that safety is the main thing we all get from clutching our grim beliefs. And there’s also the terrible possibility that we cause to happen the very thing we fear; by refusing to ever accept that I’m wanted, I push away the  person who wants me. How long can a person keep saying and showing, “I want you, I want you, I want you,” and get back “no you don’t, no you don’t, no you don’t” before he finally says OK. I give. You’re right. (Of course that just proves the point! SEE?! Told you. And so sad.)

wantedAnother thing that happens when we cling so tightly to our grim beliefs is that we miss seeing all the evidence to the contrary! And what a shame that is. By continuing to expect that I’m unwanted, and insisting so strongly that uh-huh, is too true, I’m dismissing all the glorious instances of people showing me, telling me, making it so plain that I am wanted. Just gloss right over them, dismiss them in my mind as exceptions, or untrustworthy, or temporary. (Hey, newsflash, me: everything is temporary.)

Perhaps you’re especially lucky and drift off to sleep at night wholly content with who you are, with your place in the world, with everything that’s important in life, and you in relationship to it. If that’s true, lucky you, and I mean that. Me, I have these little bad thoughts, little recriminations, little whispers, little wounds that leave me “knowing” something. Even something small, something I say without thinking — “I’m such a klutz.” If you ever say something about yourself in that tone of voice, I’d wager it’s a grim belief. I’m ready, I think, to take all those little grim beliefs I have and bring them into the light, test them, take a chance. Well, maybe not all of them, at least just yet.  I think I’ll start with this “unwanted” grim belief. It’s just a habit of thought — even know it’s not true. You’d be hard pressed to meet a luckier person than I am, in terms of having so much love all around me. It’s partly a habit of thought, and then it’s about taking a deep breath when the fear pokes me, taking a look around, and moving forward. Action. At some point it’s no longer an inside job.

Happy Wednesday, y’all. Love all around.

a made-up family

me sitting next to my sister, unseen here.

Yes, I know I talk about this a lot (the bane of those of us without families of our own behind us), but today I am thinking about sisters. There are many things I don’t know, like what it’s like to have a mother, but I do know what it’s like to have a sister. That’s a feeling I know very well, because I have one and we used to be very close when we were little girls. When we see each other once every decade or so now, oh-so-briefly, I touch that feeling of the deepest familiarity, of someone who really knows what it was like, of someone with shared memories (well, kind of; do we really share the same memories with anyone, ever?), of someone who isn’t temporary. So I do know that feeling, even though I don’t have or want a relationship with my real sister, at all or ever again.

And so I go through the world collecting ‘family.’ Fathers here and there, brothers here and there, sisters here and there. Never a mother, which is curious, because I long for a mother more than anything. But what do I really mean by this, that these people are my brothers and sisters? They’re friends, super friends, the deepest friends, yes. They’re friends who feel familiar to me in some way, as if they really are my born family. They’re friends whose loss would utterly devastate me, whose loss would leave such a huge hole I would have to tend and mourn it the rest of my life.

scaredBut here’s the secret about me, and it’s so well hidden even from myself, I only kind of know it theoretically. I don’t trust anyone but my kids. I love you, I’ll love you forever, and I believe you that you love me, but I will not be surprised when you abandon me. Nope, you won’t surprise me. It’s not that I sit around expecting you to do that, it’s not that I anticipate it specifically in some way, for some reason you’ve given me. But if or when it happens, I won’t be surprised, that’s all. My early life taught me that, and I think when it’s parents who do that to you, the primal relationship, the one you need most desperately when you are too little to care for yourself, I think the results just stick. I think they do. And maybe one reason they stick is because you have that early template of what love is like, so you stick with it, you form relationships that have that flavor, and so the expectation is reinforced. Over, and over, and over.

I am thinking about this today because of all my friends who I cherish and adore, and of the subset who feel like sisters to me, like SISTERS to me, there is one who has somehow slipped into a deep deep place that is qualitatively different. I’m not sure why; we are very much alike, but that’s true of so many of my friends. We think in similar ways, about similar things. When I am away from her for prolonged periods — which I am now, from all my friends given my back and forth between Austin and NYC — I ache from missing her. And yet somehow, although these things are true for all my dear friends who feel like sisters to me, she has become something different. When I realized it this morning, I became so scared. Even typing these words makes my hands shake and makes me cry. I think I want to trust her. Except for my kids, there is no one else I trust (well, Dixie — I trust Dixie without even a shrug or wonder, for some reason). If you are my real friend in the real world, please understand; this is about a broken thing in me, not about anything you have ever done, not about a way you are anything less than a wonderful friend to me. This is about a little, old, fragile place in me.

And so I sit here in dreadful fantasy; do I tell her any of this? Do I confide? What will it mean; if you know me, you’ll understand how crazy this next thing is — can I just call her and talk when I need help of any kind? (And that ‘can I’ is about me, not her, because she would always take my call, always.) This is challenging me really to let down MY guard and be open to her, to be willing to open my hands and let go the grim belief that she will betray or abandon me. And again, that grim belief is coming from me, not her. AAAGH it’s utterly terrifying.

I’ve written before about the lone panic attack I’ve had, partly because I think it was funny in a particular way. I was in graduate school, heading to campus, and that old Eagles song, Desperado, came on the radio (seriously? Desperado did it???). I was singing along automatically, not really thinking about it (don’t we all know those lyrics without even thinking about them?), instead, thinking about the experiment I was conducting at school, and when I sang the line, “You better let somebody love you / before it’s too late” I went into full-blown panic. Pounding racing heart, sweating palms, terror, pure terror. That’s right, I’d better let somebody love me before it’s all over. I really need to do that to be fully human. And there are so very many people who love me, I know that, I’m richer than most in that way. I open my arms to your feelings, I open my arms to your joy and your need, and yet I keep my own need away from you. You might try to help me but I won’t let you, if it will put you out in some tangible way. I’ll take your words, I’ll take your affection, and happily! I’ll get nourishment from them. But I won’t reach out and say, “I am in trouble. Can you help me?” And isn’t that really how we love each other? Isn’t that really how love matters? Love is a verb, as Leo Buscaglia once said. It’s all sweet and lovey-dovey when times are good and we’re lavishing affection on each other. But it feels so good to be there for my friends, I love them so much. I always feel deep gratitude when one of them lets me in to her need, asks me specifically for something. I feel lucky, then. And yet I pull up the drawbridge and won’t give them the same opportunity, the chance to feel good because they get to be there for me.

AAAGH it’s utterly terrifying. Utterly terrifying. And that means I need to face it and do it. My real friends, in real life, I am sorry I keep myself locked away from you like this. I am just so scared, even though you are so very good to me.

waiting for rescue

So there I was, just watching (for the dozenth time) the lip synch-off between Jimmy Fallon and John Krasinski — oh, you didn’t see it yet? Well here, and thanks so much to Becci for sharing it first:

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sigh. seriously.
sigh. seriously.

Hilarious, right? On the dozenth(ish) watching, I was finally able to watch without laughing so hysterically and I noticed the lyrics to that Katy Perry song. I don’t know her music at all, only know her by sight, and don’t have much of an opinion about her. But there was something in the lyric, all wide-eyed, about him waking her up, waking up something inside her, and I know I’ve heard that kind of thing before. “There I was, and then he woke me up,” that general idea. And you know, it kind of pissed me off. And then I thought about another one, the one about “the love of a good woman” transforming a wayward or lost man. In a way you might see these as the same, one about her and one about him, even if both focused kind of pointedly on the woman.

But they’re not the same thing, and there aren’t corresponding ones in the other direction. Have you ever heard a man talk about being “woken up” by a woman, as if he were nothing but potential and needed her to get him going? There isn’t a phrase about “the love of a good man” transforming a wayward or lost woman, although obviously it does happen, and maybe you can think of examples. But it doesn’t exist as an idea, a sense of it being the responsibility of the man to love in a good enough way, to be a good enough man with enough love to transform that lost woman. I have known women in relationships with troubled men, who took on a sense of failure over that “love of a good woman” idea when his troubles sank him.

sanctuaryI’ve waited around to be rescued. I have. I’ve treaded water, kicking my legs as fast as I could, hoping that he would save me, or he would. I’ve clung to pant legs thinking I could save, thinking he would wake me up. I’ve sought sanctuary here and there, carrying Quasimodo’s plea in my heart, and this morning I realized that Quasimodo’s sanctuary killed him! It betrayed him. He sought it, he pleaded, he was willing to take whatever punishment he had to take to pay for that sanctuary, and it was so so bad for him. If I am to wake up, I have to wake myself up. If I am to be saved, I must save myself. If I am to be rescued, I have to rescue myself. I may not have to do it all by myself, but I do have to do it myself. It just took me so so long to get this, and the troubles of last fall and winter forced me to see. Maybe young women are raised just knowing this, maybe I was just in that generation that was too heavily influenced by pre-feminist mothers, and maybe I had too many other factors going on too, and maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe it’s good enough that life is long and I finally started understanding this.

This post came about because of a silly Katy Perry lyric, but also this gorgeous poem called I Say Yes to All of It, by Kelly Letky:

everything that was broken yesterday
remains that way today

i have fixed what i can and the rest
is the life i have chosen

or sunk into
shoulder high

and i’ve yet to flail my hands

i am still
and silent

i was listening for something
for the longest time

and then i forgot how to speak

this isn’t mud i wallow in
but rather
the exquisite change pain of life

i no longer wait to be rescued

there are stars
or rain on my face

or blinding blue skies

crows chatter on the line
i used to talk through

there is a bluebird just now
warbling a love song

there is earth pressed tight
against my heart

winter ate me whole
and spring will spit me back out

this clay will all turn to dust
and my feet are already


I think she wrote the poem about me, which is a good trick since we’ve never met. It’s glib and easy to say “I no longer wait to be rescued,” and for me, the truth is a little messier since I know any rescuing is mine to do but I have so many fears and wonder how I could manage in some cases, all by myself, There’s space for helping that doesn’t go all the way to rescue, so I’m thinking through these overlapping ideas. A time may come when I need help — maybe even a lot of help — but I get to wake myself up all on my own.


beautiful womanwisdomcourage
beautiful woman

The third tattoo down my spine represents courage. (Beautiful woman post here, wisdom post here.) The characters are kanji and there are a lot of ways to express the different shadings and meanings of words. This combination of characters means something like courageous energy.  This version is the most spiritual. This is the essence of bravery from deep within your being. This is the mental state of being brave versus actual brave behavior. You’d more likely use this to say, “She is very courageous” than “She fought courageously in the battle.”

I chose this word for my back with a bit of trepidation, for a number of reasons. First, it was one of those loose words whose meanings I didn’t understand. I thought about it a long time and my definition of it means doing something while being terrified. I think courage and bravery are often assumed to mean that somehow the courageous person is immune to fear, that she just stands up in the heart of the battle and charges. But if that were true, why would that be courage? That would be something else, I think. My sense is that it’s only courage if you’re terrified and do it anyway. Then you have called on your courage. The second reason I chose it with uncertainty is that I wasn’t sure I’d ever been really courageous when I was growing up — what else was I to do when I was facing the things I faced? All there was to do was to grab the gun out of his hand when she pushed him and run far away with it. All there was to do was try and find a place to hide and sleep for the night. What else was there to do? People can do nearly anything when they have to, and it’s more about an automatic ‘save your life’ response than something that stemmed from courage.

But the reason I finally chose it and placed it so high on my spine was that it took so much courage to have my children. I’d heard my whole life “Never have kids, they ruin your life.” It was my mother’s favorite, favorite thing to say to us. She would lean down into our faces, her face twisted with hatred and her jaw clenched, and sneer those words at us. Of all the lessons she taught me, that was the clearest.

And I come from such a long, long, long line of terrible people. On my father’s side they’re all vicious alcoholics who torture their families, beat them, and then shoot themselves in the head. My dad, his dad, his dad, his dad. That’s a pretty long line. On my mother’s side, her grandfather sold his 14-year-old daughter to a mean old man for the price of a horse. He was cruel and people described him as evil. I never met him, mercifully. She had been abandoned by her Comanche mother and her father was in jail — her uncle (my Big Daddy) adopted her, but her adopted mother was cruel enough that my mother ran away with my father when she was 17, to get away.

I had been trying since my late teenage years to find a doctor who would sterilize me. I thought there was no way in the world I could raise kids without damaging them, I wasn’t nearly strong enough. All I knew was what not to do, I had no idea what love looked like, what it felt like. Doctors would just smile and pat me on the head, practically, and say “now now, you’ll change your mind.” I would cry and find another doctor, and ask. Then another, then another.

When I learned I was pregnant with Katie, I was absolutely, totally terrified. Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod. My father was viciously, constantly drunk and terrorizing me, while talking about all the things he was going to do with Gussie, his name for the baby I carried. Ohmygod ohmygod I cannot let him ever be alone with my baby for even half a minute ohmygod ohmygod what will I do. Terror. How can the baby survive me and him? Then, when I was 5 months pregnant, he killed himself. One problem down, but my poor little baby was still stuck with me. I had an idea in my mind of myself standing solidly still, like a wall, and all those generations of horror crashing against my back and stopping. Stopping with me. Was I strong enough?

Giving birth to my precious, precious daughter was without a doubt the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. I was absolutely terrified, for years. Every single day I faced myself in battle and some nights I was bloodied and bruised from the fight. Mister Rogers came to my rescue one day and the battle became a little easier, but even today I feel like I just have no idea what I’m doing, how to be a loving mother, how to do the right thing. Even today I feel like my knee jerks the bad way and if I’m not careful, ….. if I’m not careful, ….

But in honor of my wonderful, wonderful children who loved this:

* * *
This week became very difficult and I’ve mostly been wailing and crying. I’d held out hope that somehow my husband and I would be able to figure things out, but he told me very plainly that it is over and he hopes to find someone else. I am picking pieces of salt out of my eyelashes from all the tears and my chest feels like I’ve been crushed. Something almost magical happened yesterday and I will write about that next time.

Happy Friday, y’all.

good thing of the day: the right book at the right moment.