Friday, December 7, 2018

The Longest Night

In my last post, I wrote briefly about the holiday classic, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Today I would like to discuss another film, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Watching Christmas movies has always been a particular type of pleasure for me - as a child, I was permitted to view them either in Advent or on days I stayed home sick from school. These films provided comfort and inspired a sense of anticipation; through their imagery and music I felt the pull of ritual, both secular and religious.

Charlie Brown was, and still is, one of my favorites. But with this film comes a certain complexity, a troubling vulnerability, because I can't separate it from its Christian overtones.

And that makes me uncomfortable, because I've left the church behind.

Right now, I'm wrapped up in a fuzzy bathrobe, a thick blanket, and I've plugged in the tiny colored lights on the Christmas tree, and I've got choral music playing on the radio. Antique glass ornaments are scattered, resting in silver dishes, and I've placed gold leaves and pine cones on every surface. The trappings of Christmas are evident, evoking that familiar comfort and anticipation. In a few weeks, I'll be heading up north to spend the holiday with my in-laws, and I can't wait to laugh with them, to read books to my niece and nephews, to share conversation with my wonderful sister in law. After that, it's back home to celebrate Christmas with my family - a fire in the fireplace, good food, spending precious time with my sister.

So I have plenty of secular pleasures, and I am incredibly grateful for them. But I can't help but feel that something is missing, even as I reject it. Now that I have fully separated myself from the church, I feel a longing for that simplicity - that foundation of faith.

In "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the conflicted Charlie feels that same longing for something bigger, and he finds it in Linus's monologue, a reading from the Bible. Through that passage, Charlie can center himself in the mystery of Christmas, his mundane and shallow worries falling away.

But what is there for us - for we who have left the church? Is there room for us in that mystery?

I haven't figured that out, yet. And it pains me.

Last year, on Christmas eve, I felt the sorrow that came from my first Christmas without my father. I didn't know how to mourn him, not at all, but my desire for the sacred was wrapped up in the fact that I missed him. My father, the organist and choir director, the gateway to the divine. As I wanted him back in my life, I wanted that childlike faith - I wanted to be little again. I wanted to be Charlie Brown, re-initiated in ritual, finding joy despite an existential depression. That night, after a pleasant gathering of board games and desserts, I went back to my room and played choral music and longed for the stillness of my youth.

I was missing my father, but I felt I was missing, even more, my belief.

But I don't believe any more. Or maybe I do, and I just don't know how.

I have many good memories of the church, but I have just as many bad ones. I can't deny the hypocrisy, the ugliness hidden behind gold-stitched vestments, the gossip and cattiness, the misogyny. I cannot cover up the sins of an institution which values secrecy, which covers up abuses. And you might ask, what do these things have to do with God, but if we are taught that God comes only to the faithful - if our faith demands complicity - then we are encouraged to believe in our priests, not just our deity. And I can't do that. I've known too many priests.

But where does that leave me? I long for the church; I revile it.

So I must go dig down into a new truth. What is it about my belief that I miss?

Maybe Charlie Brown found contentment through a recitation of verse, but I think it was his community which brought him joy. It was the joining together of disparate voices, the outpouring of acceptance and affection. A shallow reading of the film places Christianity as the center of a vulnerable heart; maybe the true message is about something simpler and something deeper.

In recovery, we learn that isolation is a key element in addiction. That we need community and support. Churches can provide that, and maybe that's what I long for - not scripture, not dogma, but togetherness. It was the loneliness, last Christmas eve, which shook me. It was the fact that so much of my family was gone. And in that loneliness I found it difficult to enjoy the community of my new family - I was Charlie Brown, putting quarters in an old tin can, asking for answers when they were, after all, right in front of him.

I don't know if it will ever be easy for me, an orphan in my disbelief. My loneliness is a habit. I learned it very young, and the church filled that hole for a while - when I served on the altar I was a part of a ritualistic whole. Sacred music, still an intrinsic part of my life, operates in the interplay of different voices, striving together to make something bigger than they can alone.

When it comes to the story of Christ's birth, I'm not entirely sure how I fit in. I neither believe or disbelieve. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't - the myth is a good jumping off point, perhaps, for an exploration of the divine within each of us. The possibility of the impossible. And maybe it's a story about being alone and then being supported by a community, shepherds and angels and kings. The innocence of animals and the smell of sweet hay. Maybe it's about an inherent human need, sparked by the miraculous, for unity in our longest and darkest nights.

Maybe that miracle is available to all of us, whether or not we believe. Maybe we can have faith not in God but in ourselves.

Charlie found his happiness in his community, with or without God.  And I hope, now, in some of our darkest times, that we can all discover the humanity in each of us, that we can recognize in others that spark, a life force and a longing.

I don't need the church, but I do need togetherness.

Maybe we are all lonely, deep inside, buried in the broken places. But maybe we don't have to be alone.

Monday, December 3, 2018


Perhaps our greatest gifts are the ones which scare us the most.

I've just returned from therapy. My homework from last session was to write out an account of the things which were worrying me; my therapist, J, was quite surprised to hear I had forty pages of narrative prose and poetry. What can I say? Give a writer an assignment with a due date and you may get more than you bargained for.

I read J a few lines of the index - yes, my therapy document is indexed. And to my delight, he actually seemed interested. Quite a few passages detailed how no one could possibly be intrigued by my ramblings, so it was a bit of a shock to learn that someone might want to hear what I have to say.

I have a complex relationship with my writing. J would call that an excuse, and it is - my lack of confidence serves as a barrier between me and my work, and far too often I let my fear of failure get in the way of the activity about which I am passionate. There are many moments when I want to write, but many more moments when I refrain from writing because I'm scared of producing something sub-par. And so I get away with procrastination because I blame my insecurities.

In my school years, I garnered some positive attention for my writing, and yet at home there was a voice which always had something negative to say. I learned I was a good writer, but not good enough. I wanted approval from the powerful people in my life, but any approval came with a price. The more successful I became the more I was criticized.

And writing is a vulnerable act. In typing out my thoughts, I expose the shadows inside my brain. Certainly on this blog I tend not to shy away from difficult topics, from the illnesses which some might not want to face. I keep coming back to the thought that it's ugly - the noise in my head, the way I speak honestly, my flaws, my anxieties. To be sick in public is an almost radical act.

J suggested that I might use my writing to help others. That by writing out the challenges I live with, detailing a complicated childhood, exposing my fears, I enter into a dialogue with my readers. That dialectic - defining and discussing intimate truths - might both assist readers in their journeys and unearth further truths for my own evolution.

As a child I felt that so much of me was in service to others. I remember learning how to mix cocktails, how to fire off bitter witticisms, how to flatter, how to cajole. Coming to terms with a new kind of service - water in a waterwheel, a self-sustaining act - may be the key to undoing my trauma.

Service can be a large part of recovery; service is only possible if we understand how to serve ourselves.

And the best way to serve myself, the ultimate renewable resource, is to write. Sometimes what I come up with ends up on the rubbish heap, phrases and allusions broken into shards and scattered like glass in the road. And that has to be okay, because I think that sometimes, if I'm lucky, my words might do someone else some good. The bitterness and gall of portions of my past, as hard as it can be to live with, can inform my cherished medium of communication. How many adults can remember being unwanted? How many still struggle? How many need someone to talk to, or need someone to speak for them if they cannot?

I'm not going to publish my gigantic therapy document of doom any time soon. But in it, the seeds of a greater calling germinate, the beginnings of something larger. My passion, purpose, and profession might be borne of my ability to be ugly in honesty. To be open, to be occasionally raw.

I'll close this (deeply navel-gazing) post with a poem. Its topic is both neglect and a resulting anorexia, but I'm beginning to think that there's a positive message, too - it's a poem about hunger, but maybe it's also a poem about the need within all of us to find a sustaining mission. To find what fuels us. It's really hard, I can't deny that. But I'm beginning to think it's worth doing.


The old hunger never goes away.
The ravenous self-beast
Is there, always, tempting
You with mouth-watering
Hatred, with the clawing
Of the belly, with headaches
And foul breath, hooves
Scratching at the dirt
And ready to charge.
The beast will be fed -
On starvation, on excesses,
On rich food, on sunlight.
It will feast with its gaping
Maw, masticating the deprivation
Of youth, of poverty, of need.
You feed yourself.

The hunger remains.  

This poem lives in ugliness, in a space we want to escape, and yet today it makes me ask -

How can we quell the hunger in others? 
And in so doing, how might we feed ourselves?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Forward Only

How does each generation live up to its promise?

I'm a lucky woman in that I have close relationships with multiple generations of women. My grandmother was born in '26, my mother in '59; I followed in '86 and my sister came along in 2000. I've had many conversations, both mundane and in-depth, with each of these family members, and coming away from our discourse I am struck by the differences between not our numerical ages but our cultural gestalts.

So much progress has been made in my grandmother's lifetime. Looking back at everything that happened in our country over the past 90 years, I'm in awe of everything she has witnessed. Grandmere still keeps abreast of current events, an active observer, an engaged listener.

My mother, too, was a part of huge cultural shifts - she's a staunch feminist, and her understanding of politics and social justice has evolved and grown, and continues to deepen. Her first daughter - that's me - has pushed and pushed boundaries, asking questions, rebelling in tiny ways, forcing more than a few issues. My conversations with my mother are some of my greatest gifts.

And my life has been a product of a specific time period, too. I came out as bisexual in high school, when there was even less understanding of anything other than the binary of hetero- and homosexuality, but I felt safe enough to do so. What was missing was any understanding or exploration of gender, and I feel that my generation in its emerging maturity is now able to deconstruct that binary.

My sister's generation, from what I can observe, is even more compassionate, engaged, questioning. Through my sister I have been in my mother's place, learning more and more about topics which were off-limits when I was a kid. I'm so impressed by the openness of my sister's classmates, friends, contemporaries, and I find that their complexity opens doors for me. I never got to consider my gender, even though my teen idols were those who challenged gender entirely. I never got to ask why I liked the performative trappings of gender while having no particular innate concept of what kind of human being I was.

But there are other topics, too, which have needed deconstruction, which have begged for critical thought. Some of those topics seem small, some large, and all of them are weaved into our cultural consciousness. And it's those little things which have been itching in the back of my brain - things which seem obvious to me, born in '86, but which manage to challenge an established status quo.

Discipline, specifically spanking, is one of those topics. And, unfortunately, it widens the divide between older and newer generations.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, clearly and definitively, that physical discipline was bad for children, I felt that it was entirely obvious. An "of course," rather than any kind of shock. I've known my whole life that harming a child for any reason is just plain wrong. Would you hit an adult? Would you even call them names, berate them, use emotional forms of punishment? Of course not. And children are even more vulnerable than adults; it is our duty to protect them.

My mother's generation grew up with parents who didn't consider that obvious, for whom spanking was a normal way to discipline a child. Her mission with me was to do better, to work harder at being an understanding parent; in the parlance of special education, my mother strove to respond to me, not to react. But I see friction, now, between people my age who are young parents and parents who didn't know any better. There's a defensiveness - a fear, I think, that those who used spanking are being called bad parents.

Similarly, I think there is a strong reaction in some to young women who demand the same respect as men. Who demand a better life; who advocate for themselves. Many women of earlier generations lived with the expectation that they sublimate their desires to their husband's wishes and requirements. From little things, like having dinner on the table at the right time, to big things, like bearing children, many women didn't have a choice. And I think, if those lives and experiences are questioned, it might make those women uncomfortable. It might make them feel unheard and disrespected. 

Some of our elders might be deeply uncomfortable with the kind of pride both my generation, and in a greater way, my sister's generation, feel free to display. When I was eighteen I went to my first Baltimore Pride and I felt nervous, giddy, and delighted, a joyful laugh at the back of my throat; when I went with my sister this year I noticed all of the families, kids in strollers, moms, dads, teenagers in bright colors and glitter. Our culture is shifting - we are more able to be out and proud - and perhaps that might appear off-putting, vulgar, frightening.

The secrets held in those quiet lives of years past are being confronted by today's openness. And that's scary. We talk about the bad stuff in hopes it might get better; other women might not have had that choice.

We have been listening, talking, learning, and that exploration is going to continue. Even I, still a young woman, find myself confused by a lot of the terminology which exists as obvious for my sister's generation. I didn't know until recently that the word for me is pansexual; it doesn't make that much of a difference at this point, but I think it makes a big difference if young people can find words with which they identify. I didn't have the knowledge, didn't have the benefit of new information - and that doesn't scare me. It makes me happy that the world is getting better.

And when it comes to other things, harmful things like spanking - I would hope that our combined reaction might be, thank goodness, we know better, now. Even if it happened to us, even if it happened to our parents, we have been told that there are better ways to raise children. And what a miracle it is, to evolve, to learn more, to make each generation happier than that which came before.

And for women like me, for people like my sister - what a joy that we can stand up and become something other than a lifestyle accessory for someone else. Does this invalidate our parents' or grandparents' marriages? No! And I would never attempt to criticize the necessary choices that other woman have had to make. But our openness - too often seen as selfishness - means that our relationships with others and our identities within ourselves will be richer. Might be more joyful. We might be working towards a more equitable world. We might say no, sometimes, and that might make our yeses even more powerful.

There's a sense of ugliness which comes with independence. We've been taught to value others even to our own detriment. We've been taught to keep quiet about who we are, lest we offend, and we've been taught to respect our parents' methods even if they have harmed us. It's a culture of silence and a culture of secrets; it's not dissimilar from the way I dress up, the performative feminine, to hide my mental illnesses or my chronic pain.

I'll leave you here with a silly image, one suited for the holiday season. In 1964, the Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was released. Beyond Mrs. Claus trying to fatten up her skinny Santa, beyond the silver and gold, it was a deeply subversive film. It was a movie about people who didn't fit in, who were innately different no matter how much the world wanted them to submit, to assimilate. Rudolph is physically other, and Hermey is drawn to an unacceptable career - one might even say, lifestyle.

We see the film through a modern lens, now - it's obvious to us that "Rudolph" is a work of fiction designed to challenge discrimination and bigotry. But that message has been bubbling away, near to boiling over, since 1964, and it's a gift that so many of us can now openly identify with the misfits. Can identify with a demand to be recognized. Can identify with the beauty within all people. With kindness. With compassion.

I don't know what the world will look like for my niece and nephews, for the children of my sister's contemporaries. I think it will get even better - I think it will live up to the promise of all the things we wish for, now. And I want to keep improving, to keep questioning, and I think that whatever new words or concepts or identities emerge will help me become a more complete person. And that evolution won't negate my life, just as our modern understanding of parenting doesn't harm our parents or grandparents, just as a new word for who I am doesn't erase who I've been, just as my dedication to intersectional feminism doesn't erase my mother's early experiences with an emerging political consciousness.

We are designed to move forward, only. And I can't wait to see what comes next.   

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Invisible Woman

When I was twelve, I couldn't get out of bed.

It wasn't depression - though that was on its way - but it was the beginning of chronic pain. Upon waking, my back was stiff, a grinding, twisting feeling at the base of my spine. Sitting up was agony, and I still remember my mom hugging me as I tried to rise and get ready for school. She was probably as terrified as I was - watching your child in pain is a parent's nightmare.

I went through many tests - it was the first time my blood was drawn, and I had x-rays, doctor consults. And they couldn't find anything. All of my bones were where they were supposed to be, all of my blood work normal. And, for the first - and definitely not the last - time, I was told by a medical professional that this debilitating pain was all in my head. That I was making it up.

I was unlucky enough to experience early what many, if not most, women go through at some point in their lives; my very real medical concerns were brushed off. The following years were marked by this callous indifference - I can't tell you how many times I've been told that what was wrong with me was entirely fictional.

The reasons to ignore my illness increased as I got older. I'm mentally ill, so of course, any pain I might have must be psychological. I was overweight, so my chronic digestive problems, neurological problems, even hair and skin problems, were assumed to be weight-related. When I first talked to a doctor about what I knew was a gluten sensitivity, she told me to take vitamins and eat more vegetables. When I got a concussion, the neurologist was so helpful, so understanding, until he accessed my medical history and concluded that my pain was due to anxiety.

I've waited for hours in urgent care facilities, only to be treated with irritation and condescension. I've been laughed at. Imagine what that feels like - to have something going wrong with your body, to be scared, to be derided. And I know I'm not alone in this.

Women are treated appallingly in the doctor's office. Double that if you're overweight, and triple it if you're mentally ill. No one takes us seriously, and we're just as likely to be accused of prescription-seeking behavior as hysteria.

I felt this, by comparison, when I recently went to urgent care for a sinus infection. I'm thin again. I was in and out, given a course of antibiotics, within 20 minutes. What a privilege it was! My smaller body made me more credible and more important. Two years ago, when I went in with a concussion, I was there for so long, basically ignored, and sent home with the suggestion that I might take Advil.

So - my back pain. It started when I was twelve. And no one, no one thought to consider the fact that I was entering womanhood. Last year, my primary care physician told me to adjust my posture and never followed up with me, my pain brushed off yet again. And almost 20 years from those scary mornings in middle school, I've finally been diagnosed with endometriosis.

Endo has been observed in girls under ten years old. It's the cause of significant chronic pain in a significant percentage of women. There are very few courses of treatment - either continuous birth control or surgery. And it can cause infertility, which matters to me not at all, but I can't help but think - I went un-diagnosed for 20 years, and what if I had been trying to get pregnant? Would I have received care? Maybe I would have - maybe adequate healthcare for women is focused on childbearing. Maybe we're more valuable if we're the vessel for someone else.

I'm facing the rest of my life with chronic pain. The last course of treatment I attempted caused my mood to plummet, a side effect of birth control that nobody seems to care about. I'm hopeful, more than I ever have been, because at least now I have a doctor in my corner, a woman who listened to my concerns and, in what feels like a miracle, actually believed me. And I do wonder if I was believed because I weigh less. I wonder if I was taken seriously because I did all the research ahead of time, because I stayed calm and collected, because I didn't disclose my mental health status. I thank the universe for this wonderful gift of being taken seriously, because I know what it's like, I have 20 years of experiences of being told "it's all in your head."

About a third of my life is spent sitting on a heating pad, now, and popping Advil, and researching homeopathic analgesics. It's not the worst, because I have another privilege - I don't go to an office, I don't run after kiddos anymore, I don't need to interact with others. But looking at the types of pain which come with female bodies, looking at how we're treated by those people we should be able to trust the most - it makes me wonder how much other women suffer in their daily lives.

Income lost. A lack of confidence, a lack of respect. The grin and bear it method of capitalism. Problems with fertility, a sense of personal failure. Little girls who hurt and who learn too early that the world doesn't care. My mentally ill sisters, my overweight sisters - and let's not forget women who face even more barriers in the doctor's office, like ethnicity and gender identity.

Bodies are tricky and they don't always do what they should, but medical care shouldn't be this hard and doctors should do what they've sworn to do. We shouldn't have to spend all of our time doing the research about our pain - sometimes learning more about illness than our doctors might know - in hopes that we might be heard. We are not less valid because we have reproductive systems. We should not be seen as vessels, as objects, as hysterical. We shouldn't have to lose weight just to prove we are worthy of care; we shouldn't have to keep quiet about our other illnesses to get respect. 

I lay in bed last night, that grinding pain taking root in my left hip, my pelvis, my thighs, and I thought, what would my life be like if I had been diagnosed 20 years ago?

No girl should have to grow up like that. No woman should have to ask that question.   

We know what it's like to be invisible.

All we want is to be seen.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

To be True

My new fall tradition seems to be doing things in advance.

Last year around this time I was hard at work on my novel, and inspired by the final scene - taking place on Christmas day - I made big pots of sauerkraut and cranberry sauce. It was well before Thanksgiving and certainly ages before Christmas, and yet I felt the need to eat my favorite holiday foods.

I woke up this morning with no meal plan for the week - and I just finished popping sauerkraut, cranberry, and mashed potatoes in the crock pots. Leftovers are definitely in my future. And, of course, I put Christmas choral music on as soon as I poured my first cup of coffee. Once I got in the car it was Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, all the way to the grocery.

In the months after Halloween we are inundated with Christmas advertisements, decorations, music - and we are often drowned in a backlash of commentary, by the frustration of those who don't want to rush things. And there's a significant problem with assuming that Christmas is central to American life - in a diverse culture, it is wrong to focus entirely on a Christian holiday.

But for me - a former churchgoer, a woman of ambivalent spirituality, and too frequently a stickler to protocol - I'm finished with waiting.

Too often the holidays don't live up to the hype. Halloween serves as the top of a hill; I find myself strapped to a sled and careening down into the canyon of Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a busy time and it goes so quickly, so many people to see, so many meals to eat, so many smiles and nods and hugs. The few days surrounding Christmas go by in a blur until I'm down in the valley of fatigue, my sled wedged in a crevasse.

And I can't help but feel that life is like that too. We race forward, pushing towards the next deadline, the next event, birthdays, weddings, funerals, friends made, family lost. As we get older our experiences grow, each day feeling shorter and making up a smaller and smaller percentage of our lives. If we're lucky, we mature, and we realize the value of every moment - it's not the things you do which form your life, but the person you are.

I used to think that I had to reserve certain tasks for certain times, or that I had to follow specific rules in order to function in my family, my society. For years I wanted things that I didn't reach for - now, still at the beginning of my life, I'm asking myself what has held me back. I know that if all I worry about is adhering to other people's expectations I will miss the opportunities which are afforded those who dare to be themselves. I've been afraid of making waves or making a mistake; I've been afraid of getting a second set of piercings in my ears, or a tattoo, or saying no.

And I'm aware that I was taught a set of values - no, not values, but rules - which dictated everything from the books I was allowed to read to the appropriate day to hang up my Christmas lights.

Our lives are so small, and in their insignificance they are as expansive as the universe. 

We have a brief time here - but since our internal lives are all we can perceive, our experiences are our entire spiritual existence, and they are vast. Our senses are limited and yet they are how we find meaning - there is a world in the smell of cranberry sauce, in the memory of crystalline snow, in the soft wool of a coat, in the sugar and salt of pecan pie.

And it is because we are both so small and so large that our actions are meaningless and terribly important. Rules are useless - kindness is without price. Authenticity with others is the only way forward because it brings us back into ourselves.

I've been lucky enough to have a close friend in my life who listens to Christmas music whenever she feels like it. At first that blew my mind - to flagrantly defy the protocol - and then I realized how honest it was, to advocate for oneself. To follow the heart. To be true, to be happy.

That friendship has encouraged me to do the same.

So I've got holiday food simmering away, Christmas music all through the house, and I'm thinking a lot about the things which hold me back and those things I wish to leave behind. I'm thinking about how small my life is - an amalgamation of values and objects and my fair share of neuroses - and how big my soul is, mostly made of love. Because my days are nothing, my moments are everything. And all I need to focus on is how to be kind, how to be compassionate, how to be authentic.

I'll make sauerkraut and remember Christmas in Bolton Hill, the fat flakes of snow falling on the holly tree, cooking with my Grandmere in the kitchen, laughing as my Grandpere presided over the table with a joke and a boyish grin. 

I'll eat cranberry sauce and remember that I was small, that I called it cannedberry sauce when it popped out of the tin, that my mother was so young as she worked hard to feed me.

I'll listen to choral music and remember my father's lucky red socks, the smell of incense too thick, the giggles of choristers at two in the morning, a race with my Dad to the first chocolate doughnut in the rectory, the taste of pink Tokay and the rice paper host.

I'll write about all these experiences, knowing that they are so precious to me, so heavy in my mind, so weightless in their insignificance.

And I'll do all of that whenever the heck I feel like it.

Life is too short to wait.

Life is too long to waste.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Learning how to Talk

What would America be like if we actually lived up to our values?

This is a question I've been mulling over for quite some time - and all the more this year, as I have been lucky enough to visit three other countries. And throughout those visits I have noticed both differences and similarities - I've seen the benefits of socialized healthcare, gun control, and I've seen the legacy of imperialism and racism. 

Australia bears the burden of near genocide, as does New Zealand, as does Canada - so similar to what white settlers did in America. I can't pretend that countries in the British Commonwealth are any less guilty than we are, and I can't just ignore the bleak reality of life for Indigenous peoples. My desire to appreciate life abroad shouldn't obscure the history of the countries I visit.

But there were many aspects of my travels that I did appreciate - not just because I was on vacation, but because I was escaping the depressing discourse of America. I escaped my bubble of suburban security, and I escaped the disturbing hatred of politicians and conservative zealots. I found myself in not only new places but in a new state of mind. 

And in each of those places I heard many different languages. To me that was incredibly beautiful - perhaps to other Americans that would be perceived as a threat.

Growing up, I was always taught that America was the great melting pot, that we were proudly made up of immigrants from all over the world. I was taught that one of our greatest values was pluralism. We were supposed to embrace our classmates for our differences; we were charged to view our country as multi-cultural, with many religions and customs and languages. And what could be better? How else could we overcome the dark past of America, the shame of genocide and slavery and bigotry? That was our lesson; that was our duty. 

But too much of America is segregated - by race, by religion, and by language. 

Ottawa is right across the river from French Canada, and every person we met began a conversation with "Hello, Bonjour." There was no question of adhering to one language, and everything from street signs to menus to tourist attraction pamphlets was in French and English. I remembered that many of the signs I saw in Sydney were in both English and Mandarin Chinese, and I thought about strolling through museums in New Zealand, reading signs in English and Maori. The simple expectation that multiple languages were in use and that they had value cast into stark relief the sameness of my life in Columbia. And how much of America is still caught up in English only? How many videos have we seen, stories have we heard, where angry white people demand that others speak English? 

What are we so afraid of?

Have we really rejected that great American promise, pluralism?

In each of these three countries I tried to imagine my country embracing our most common secondary language, Spanish. I think there are places which do this, and there are more signs and warnings and commercials in Spanish than before. And yet how many of us appreciate, admire, aspire to learn the most important language in America today? How often do we accept that Spanish is both in use and of extraordinary value? Certainly in my neighborhood there are many Spanish speakers, but still, our culture is stuck in an English-only mire, a xenophobic muck. 

On Hilton Head Island, a place I visit often to see my family, there is a significant Spanish-speaking population. And yet the segregation of the island discourages productive cultural exchange. Latinx workers are seen as just that, workers, and other. Whiteness consoles itself, locked behind security gates, cozy on the golf course, confident in its supremacy. 

I can't help but wonder if that supremacy might be dismantled, if only a little bit, by a plurality of language. If we can appreciate that there is more than one language being spoken - if we can accept how important language is to everyone - maybe we can begin to see how beautiful our differences are. Perhaps we could be gently jolted out of our myopia. Differences would cease to be threatening, if only by a commonality of experience. 

And, of course, if we were expected to be bilingual - if our two required language classes in high school were replaced by a foreign language requirement from pre-kindergarten through college - our view of the world would be expanded all the more. We, in ourselves, would be plural. We could cease to be just one thing. 

I think that language is a tool for compassion, and I think compassion is our greatest and most challenging mission, especially right now. The raging and raving minority of this country which elected Donald Trump is devoid of compassion for anyone outside of their linguistic and cultural bubble - a combination of stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty which has become the American hallmark. These people are just one thing - their whiteness, faux-Christianity, nationalism, conservatism, are neatly capped off with a red hat and a feral grin. They feel no need to be anything else. And maybe if they had been raised from infancy to speak Spanish, with the same appreciation and respect they had for English, they wouldn't hate those other from themselves. Maybe they wouldn't be so angry. 

Maybe they wouldn't be so scared.

I hardly pity those people and I struggle to have compassion for them, failing in my duty to have compassion for all. And yet my heart aches for the Americans they could be. I feel almost broken by a narrow-minded adhesion to one set of values, one viewpoint, one way of living - I want more for everyone, and I truly believe that we would be happier through inclusion, through pluralism. Speaking more than one language could never undo what this country has done in the past, but I can hope that being bilingual, to any degree, could change the way we view the world, ourselves, our neighbors.

Language is the most powerful tool that I know. Certainly the writing on this blog operates in full faith that words have meaning, impact, ripples in a pond. Language is how we relate to others and how we perceive the universe. Language is saying I'm sorry, and I'm grateful, and I love you. We should be able to say those things as often as possible. We shouldn't fear saying them, hearing them, with different words. 

I'll leave you with this - last night, while I was watching television, a commercial came on for some cable service or other, and my mind stuttered for a moment, shocked out of sameness, because the commercial was in both English and Spanish. Every single actor could speak or understand both. It was, despite the blatant grab for profit, beautiful. So I must believe, I have to have faith, that we are headed in the right direction. Our country is changing despite a lack of compassion on the intolerant right - I think that by the end of my lifetime I'll be surrounded by more than one language, here, in my home, in my neighborhood, in America.

That change is perhaps what scares conservatives and whips them into a curdling froth of anger. But they can't stop it. Pluralism won't let them. 

And along with my personal quest for compassion, I think I'd better brush up on my Spanish. 


Thursday, September 20, 2018


There are good days and there are bad days, and for all of my life I've tried to make the bad days look good.

When you're little and things are off at home - when there are secrets to be kept, unstable adults to be managed, abuse to be endured - you learn how to make everything appear pleasant; you learn how to hide. It's a difficult lesson to unlearn, because your whole life is based on a fundamental dishonesty, and you've never had the crucial childhood experience of valuing truth. When other kids are owning up to their childish misdeeds, when your teachers encourage integrity, when you should be building an indelible identity, you're working on the daily task of making everything okay. You struggle and strive to maintain a facade because you know that somehow, if people see what's going on, your world will fall apart, and it will be your fault.

And when you grow up - when the legacy of all those lies eats away at you from the inside - you don't really know how to be a person. How to tell the truth. How to stick up for yourself. The lies poison you even as you smile and assure others that everything is fine.

I'm turning 32 this year, and in a few days I'm also reaching two years of sobriety. A lot of my growing up has happened in these past two years, because active drinking was just another way to hide. I'd mix my craft cocktails and smile and count down the seconds until I wasn't thinking about the lies anymore. Near the end of my alcohol use I'd pour my five o'clock Sazerac - because I stuck firm to my rules of when and what I was allowed to drink - and I would think, I don't even want to remember my name. And that habit was just an extension of the habits I learned when I was small. No one knew that alcohol was becoming a problem for me, just like no one knew that there wasn't enough food in the house, or that I didn't always have clean clothes, or that my first small glass of beer was poured by a parent when I was under ten years old. 

In these two years, I've had to face a lot about myself and a lot about the things that happened when I was young. It's been a constant dialogue between the person I want to be and the helpless person I was. I've unlearned so many bad habits, and I've made so much progress, but the urge to make everything look good has remained. That was my first lesson. That was my lodestone, the structure of my existence. 

I've spent a lot of time asking myself what my calling is in life. I don't have a normal job, so how do I justify myself? How do I describe what I do? And what I've come back to, again and again, is that I feel called to be honest about my struggles with mental illness. I've hoped that by telling my story I could help someone else, or a handful of someones. I've tried to speak plainly about depression, mania, disordered eating - I've tried to communicate my normal so that others might feel less alone. 

But I find myself bumping up against that fundamental dishonesty, because I still live my life as if everything is just fine. Nothing to see but a polished veneer, nothing to be worried about as I dazzle and deflect. Most of the time I get away with it, but I know down to my toes that I can't continue. My life is so beautiful in many respects, but if I don't deal with the hard stuff, the ugly stuff - if I don't admit to myself and to others that I have bad days - I am sober in name only. I am constitutionally incapable of being honest. 

When I was small I never learned that there was both value and joy in speaking honestly. I never understood that I might get help if I asked for it. I learned, instead, that I could make adults smile if I were clever and well dressed - I learned that a cutting joke or a vintage gown could distract from the bitterness at home. And I went home, and I drank, and I spun out the evenings in music and conversation, and I came to understand that things weren't too bitter if the vodka was cold enough.  

While my father passed from life into death - while I could have, should have felt the pain and sorrow of his illness and of those long irrevocable martini afternoons - I grit my teeth and layered on makeup and didn't let anyone see me cry. I didn't let anyone see I was angry. And I'm still recovering from that denial - I'm tired all the time, world-weary and sore. 

As I approach my two year soberversary, I know I have to let go of that tightfisted control over what other people might see. I know I must ask for help when I need it, and that I must set limits to preserve my mental health, and that I cannot simply fake it until I fall apart. And if my calling in life is really to be honest - if I want to speak my truth and help people who are too scared to speak their own - I must actually live up to that ideal.   

Dishonesty is its own sickness and its own addiction. If you can fool others, it whispers, you can fool yourself.   

So here I am, almost two years sober, and I've been ground down like a river rock and worn smooth like sea glass. I've been blessed in so many ways, and I'm also quietly angry a lot of the time; my anxiety is a significant issue and I get traumatic flashbacks in the bathtub. On days when I can't get past the bad things I struggle to write, paint, play an instrument; on good days I am aware of just how lucky I am. And I worry, rather too much, about making other people uncomfortable - I worry about awkward conversations, or denial from people I love, or rage and resentment as I set limits and stand up for myself - but I'm going to funnel all of my ambition into this new pursuit, honesty. I think it may help others; I know it will help me.

I need to learn this new lesson, the first lesson and the most important - 

Always tell the truth. Even when it's hard. Even if it hurts.

It might not look good. But eventually, life will get so much better.         

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Day

I didn't go back to school today.

When I was in the sixth grade I developed my first lesson plan. I came from a family of teachers, and I was passionate about Shakespeare, and I imagined explaining iambic pentameter as a heartbeat, the iamb and the I am. I held that lesson plan close to me for a long time - as I got older I wanted to be an actress, a singer, even a housewife - but in my mind I felt the inevitable pull of education.

It seemed like destiny. It seemed the simplest answer to the question, "What do you do?"

I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, both those within my family and those at school. My fourth grade teacher - the inspiration for my Shakespearean lesson - gave me a passion for language, for storytelling, for literature. My middle school drama and music teachers recognized the value of me, the odd and angry girl in the corner, and my eighth grade English teacher encouraged my creative writing and made me feel like my imagination was worth something more than escapism and dreams.

My high school French teacher was probably the most gifted educator I have ever met. He taught in the guise of various characters, all identical brothers with vastly different personalities (one even on the run from the police) - and in between laughter and puzzlement and warm affection for this strange, strange man, I discovered I had learned French, almost effortlessly. 

I've had acting teachers who told their own fantastical stories, who required my vulnerability and who called me on my nonsense. I've had philosophy professors who taught me just how limited I am - challenging, demanding, thrilling. My writing professors stripped away my pretensions; my anthropology professors made me question what it means to be human. And as the child of teachers I've been keenly aware of this incredible gift - passing on knowledge. There is no higher calling.

And it is not for me.

That's probably the hardest lesson I've ever had to learn. In some ways it has broken my heart.

I didn't go back to school today. I know what that first day feels like - for about five minutes everything is fresh and new and exciting and terrifying, and then you settle in for the long haul, nine months of perseverance. Old behaviors crop up and new behaviors blossom, habits to be unlearned, home life hurts tucked away for a few hours, if at all. Each child is a knot of complexity; every kid has baggage. The teachers certainly do. And in all of that the goal - passing on not only knowledge but love and support and a capacity for survival - must be achieved.

I never was able to see it as a job. I think maybe there are some teachers who can go in and be unmoved - who have an impermeable membrane, a concrete-hard wall, a barricade against all of that childhood complexity. I didn't have that barrier - teaching seemed more like a spiritual calling than a way to make a paycheck. I was entrenched.

What the kids felt, I felt, too. Simply being around that many people every day was like being in a panicked crowd, each person wearing a different offensive perfume, jumping, shouting, crying; I overloaded. My sensitivity was what made me good at my job - I think teachers do need to understand their students, to respect their needs - and yet I had a surplus, my heart too tender.

It's hard to know where that tenderness intersects with my own fragility as someone with chronic illnesses. That's the tricky bit I'm still working on - in every aspect of my life. And having any illness throws into question what life might be like if one were entirely healthy. In other words - am I not meant to teach, or am I incapable of teaching?

Part of my daily work is coming to terms. I am in many ways entirely capable, and yet I know there are things which are a lot harder for me than for others. Being around people can be quite challenging - just as in a classroom setting, I pick up on the emotions of others wherever I go. It's like carrying a load of other people's suitcases, stuffed with the things they won't admit to themselves. And there have been in the past year many high pain days, pain being another invisible burden, something you can't and do not want to share with others.

I still think that teaching is probably the best thing a person can do, and I think there are probably more lesson plans in me, saved up and stored away. But in coming to terms with my life - not as I thought it would be, but as it truly is - I have realized that, perhaps, this higher calling is not meant for me.   

And there are lots of things I can do - from making killer crab cakes to playing the piano to hostessing and singing and telling the occasional joke. I love my family, take care of my husband, and if my life is altered by illness it isn't ruined. 

If there is anything I could teach, on this first day of school, it would be a lesson that we have all, at some point, needed to learn - which is that we are valid, valuable people, with paths we cannot predict. Lives shift and change, some dreams are dashed and some hopes fulfilled, and each step we take is a testament to our success, to our survival. We make mistakes and we get our hearts broken and nothing about our lives has to adhere to rules others have set for us or that we have imagined for ourselves. Your first job isn't your last. Your college major won't necessarily be your profession. Your twelve-year-old self doesn't get to dictate the rest of your life. And if there are bumps in the road - illness, tragedy, obligations - you must be gentle with yourself. You must know that every morning you wake up you have already won.

I hope that everybody out there on the front lines - the teachers, administrators, students, parents - had a great first day, and that it felt fresh and new and sparkling. I hope that it was a day full of promise. And I raise a mug of coffee to the tender-hearted teachers, the madcap geniuses, the literary nerds, the questioners, the dreamers, the people who make a difference. Thank you for all that you do.

My heart is with you. Rock on.    


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Miscarriage of Justice

I've been holding on to this one for a long time - I haven't been sure that it was something I felt safe discussing. But we are all going to need to take more risks, now and in the future, so I'm going to lay myself bare.

A long time ago, I had a miscarriage.

I was young and I was stupid and I skipped a couple pills, and I didn't know what had happened until it was over. The experience was traumatic - it was immediately very clear what was going on - and in my own, typical, make-it-look-good fashion, I disposed of the evidence, washed the sheets, and moved on with my life.

I think a lot about that moment, and I think about what I would have done if I had been more aware. I can tell you, right now and without a doubt, I would have gotten an abortion, and I would have done it with a great sigh of relief. I would have made an appointment - an investment in my future - and kept it, and I would have had the exact same life I have now.

Nothing would have changed - though maybe I would feel a sense of pride in making a necessary decision.

I used to be so ashamed of that moment - though now I don't really know why. I wrote stories about it in my intermediate fiction classes, and I cried about it at two in the morning after too many martinis, and in none of that did I think that I had ever, actually wanted a baby. My childless life has always been a blessing. I had to dispense with the gendered baggage first - had to go against what all women are taught, that being a mother is the best work we could ever do - but saying out loud that I don't want kids feels incredible.

And I think about me, a long time ago, and all the things which were going to happen in my future. I think about academic achievements, and making friends, and having the time to make mango-curry truffles at midnight; I think about my sobriety, about not continuing cycles, about changing careers. I think about all the hours I spend with my husband, how we are both big kids who like to watch Star Trek and debate the meaning of the universe and get on an airplane whenever we want.

I think about me, a long time ago, and I think about how utterly necessary an abortion would have been, and I think, dear God, every woman should have that choice.

Our futures are sacred, and they are a right, and these are our choices and no one else's.

I've read the news - Kennedy resigning, Roe at risk, the world breaking into jagged pieces - and I'm sitting here in my writing chair, and I'm thinking about what could happen. I'm thinking of myself, of novels unwritten, of a high-risk pregnancy, of death - and I'm thinking about other women, their futures, their hopes. Women who don't want children, or who do but not yet; women who wanted this baby, for whom things have gone horribly wrong; women who make a choice to share joy and pleasure and other women who survive violence.

I'm thinking about our grandmothers, our great grandmothers, all the women dead in childbirth or bound by biology and love and marital obligation and no other choices.

Women marginalized. Women desperate.

Women butchered.

What came out of me was not a life, and even if it had for a few moments held the seeds of life, that life was not more important than my own. I matter - all women matter. We are not incubators, and our pleasure is no sin. We know that if forced-birthers truly cared about stopping abortion, they'd hand out birth control on every street corner. They'd end rape culture. They'd vote for universal healthcare. They would be liberal.

But they'd rather see us punished - and in that they reveal themselves, because, of course, they see a child as punishment. They call a potential life sacred, and then use children as manacles to imprison, to bind. They have no real love in their hearts - not for those children, and certainly not for any woman.

I don't know our way forward - I really don't know what to do. Maybe this will make the rest of us wake up and say, no more, even though atrocities are already being committed and our eyes should be wide open and God, I hope it's not too late. Maybe we'll have to protest; maybe we'll have to riot.

It comes back to me, sometimes, that moment when I was young. A few skipped pills - because I was careless the way young people are, immortal in my own mind, thrilling at freedom - and there was a whole future there, a future unspooled, words unwritten, friends unmade, a body burdened, a spirit subdued. Events played out and I didn't have to make the choice.

But I would have. And I would have been damned proud.

No woman should be denied her future. The road is uncertain and the days are dark, but I will not yield in this. I will not give up.

Will you?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Depression: on the Inside and on the Outside

I spoke in a recent post about the highs of bipolar disorder. Today I'd like to talk about the lows.

When I was a teenager, I reported to my therapist at the time that I was viewing the world through a glass wall. I could see through it, and speak loudly enough to be heard, and yet there was a sense of isolation - my actions, my life, were meaningless, because I could not truly interact with my peers.

This is a pretty common description of depression, and along with it came fatigue, insomnia, lack of interest in daily activities, moving in a fog of strangeness. I discovered later that most of my depression was mixed in with mania - I used to say that I was really excited about being depressed. An odd statement, and yet the fringes of psychosis present in my sadness meant I operated in a heightened awareness, a skewed perception, like a jolt of lightning splitting a charcoal sky. 

Depression can creep up on you, and if you've lived with it for a long time you may not know what it is like to feel normal. When the darkness begins to crawl in, it can be hard to notice - the lows are a part of your identity, and they aren't particularly alarming, at first. 

Right now, the outside world threatens my internal world. Every morning I make coffee and drink too much of it - and before I begin my daily work I read the news. I can't let myself become immune to what is going on, and I can't ignore it in favor of my privileged comfort, so I follow the backwards progress of politics. Half a pot of coffee, or four shots of espresso, or a full French press, and the news. 

And the news is terrible.

It seems selfish to couch that in terms of my own mental health. I suffer no real-life repercussions of policy, and my life is pretty darn nice - as usual, I ask myself why I should have the right to complain. I lose interest in my housekeeping, in my writing, in my art, despite the time and ability to do all of it, and I guilt myself; how dare I feel this way? 

But I think most of us, even those without mental illnesses, feel this way. 

As this administration dissembles and blunders and commits human rights violations, we must continue our lives. And as we continue, the nastiness grows, unabated, like a grim soundtrack in a horror film. Everything feels bitter and filthy - we live not only with the crimes being perpetrated by our government today but with knowledge of those same crimes throughout the history of this country. Brick by brick, a glass wall is erected before us all; we are joined in anger and yet isolated in our own experiences of shock, betrayal, hopelessness. 

I experienced the highs, described here, and now, inevitably, I feel the lows. My mind swings like a pendulum - no longer erratic, wild, but still inexorable. And that motion, the back and forth, is made so much worse by current events. I begin my day reading the news - little wonder that my mind swings slowly, turgid with sorrow, toward deepening lows. 

Unlike every other post, I find it difficult to summon a positive message. That is the insidiousness of depression - half a pot of coffee and not a darn thing to say. 

The metaphor continues. I am passionate about writing, and art, and music, just as so many of us are passionate about equality, justice, love - but those things seem out of reach. Hope begins to wane, for our country, for our futures, for our loved ones and for ourselves. Anxiety is our companion, too; I know that I view each day with trepidation, wondering what horror may be unveiled next. Our coping mechanisms are stretched, threadbare. Some people drink alcohol with grim smiles of momentary relief. I, sober after fifteen years of drinking, clutch my beloved mugs from the renaissance festival, spilling caffeine down my chest in those uncoordinated moments when I somehow miss my mouth. 

If there is hope to be had - at least for me - it is that in taking some action I begin to chip away at the glass wall. Sitting here, still in my nightgown and writing this post, my dulled mind begins to wake, senses sharpened. The old advice about putting one foot in front of the other applies - the only way we can move forward is by taking small steps. I often equate the idea of self-care with bubble baths and manicures (which are admittedly both on my list for the day) but I think it goes deeper than that. I think that to care for ourselves we must do things that are hard. Therapy isn't easy, nor is working toward social justice. And if you've been dealing with chronic illnesses for your whole life, sometimes the most basic things are the hardest of all.

I know how lucky I am. I have a solid grasp on life when before I clung to it desperately from my fingernails. But I think that my awareness of my disorders makes me more aware of the sickness in this country. My internal highs and lows are external - bipolar may be the key word for America, mood swings, psychosis, an illness difficult to manage. I can't help looking at what's happening and recognizing it as something I have experienced in my own mind; we live in a dark world, somewhere bizarre and twisted, a place which shouldn't be reality. I am fortunate enough to see my bipolar disorder as a blessing - the challenge I was meant to face in this life - but if our country is bipolar, it is not being treated. It runs rampant. 

And that affects me. I can't deny it. Even as I live a medicated life, and even as I work towards continued good health, a sickness grows which I cannot manage.

Step by step - next up is doing the dishes and washing the sheets. I'll take my bath and do my makeup, and then I'll work on my art. I know that all of that is possible because of the incremental step of working on my writing. One foot, two feet, and keep walking.

But if you too are feeling that you are brought low - if you cannot, right at this moment, take those first steps - please know that you are not alone. We are all in this difficult time together. We can knock down the glass wall, even if it cuts us.     

We cannot survive in isolation. And if we want to come up from the depth of the lows, we must do it holding hands. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

When You Were Small

Imagine you are small.

Everyone, even the most cold-hearted among us, was a child, once. Each of us holds memories of what it felt like to be young - to be new in this world. We remember the first moments of love and the first moments of pain, the comfort of a soft blanket, the agony of a skinned knee, the shyness of new friendships, the longing for an embrace.

I remember lying in bed with my dad - I was about two years old - while my mother showered in the bathroom, my face pressed against the wall and feeling the vibrations of water cascading over her hair, my father's face with its red beard as he smiled at me. I was safe; I was content.

I remember the day when my parents decided to get divorced, not because I understood the conversation which had taken place, but because I saw my mother crying, and I was helpless in the face of her grief.

All of those memories live inside of me; childhood memories live in all of us and inform the people we become. I will always love the sound of running water, and I will always feel hot sunshine and remember the golden afternoon light on my mother's hair as she cried. I will always love them both, in pain and in joy, and that love will remain in me for all of my life.

If we are defined by anything it is by our memories and how we cope with them. Abuse, affection; loneliness, love; despair and deep contentment. Studying post-traumatic stress reveals how fundamental recollection is to our identities - to have traumatic memories is to relive them. To be unable to escape in panic, to be dizzy with trauma we cannot erase. Those memories become a core part of who we are, and without proper care - therapy, medication, self-analysis - we may not emerge from their shadow.

Imagine you are small.

Imagine your mother, father, grandparents - imagine the people you love most in the world and the only people you truly know - suddenly ripped from you. Imagine being four, or two, or eight months old, with all the helplessness of your small body and your developing brain, and imagine what it would feel like to be alone. To be jostled and nameless and unloved, to be imprisoned with other unloved children. To be hot, hungry, dirty. To be confused, to not know how to speak, to be denied what all children need - touch.

To be locked in a cage.

We were all children, once.

How do we permit this kind of suffering?

We learn everything we know about human emotion by the time we are five years old. Much of that growth happens before we are three. And so much of that education happens through the touch of loved ones; so much of our development comes from human attachment. We learn from the people who are charged with our care - we know how to love and how to self-soothe because of the roles our guardians play in our lives.

I've watched my brother- and sister-in-law raise their children, and I've been continually impressed by how happy those children are. They know they are safe, and loved, and cared for; they know their creativity and individuality are protected and encouraged; their every day routine is built on a foundation of security and respect. Having worked with small children, knowing how delicate early development can be, I watch my niece and nephews with incredible joy and gratitude.

And it galls me, it is agonizing, that right now there are children - human beings - who are not given the opportunity for the same happiness. It is stolen from them, and that kind of denial is without doubt a form of torture.

These small people are going to grow up some day, and they will hold within them the trauma of their detainment, their separation from their parents, their hunger, their pain. For the rest of their lives they will live and relive these cruelties. They have no security, no rights, no love. They cannot yet speak and advocate for themselves. They are untouched by the gentle hands of their families. As they mature, they will experience post-traumatic stress, mental illness, even physical maladies - because we are allowing them to be tortured. By our government. By our representatives. By our votes, our inaction, our American and nationalistic cruelty.

I've often thought that in order to support the current President, one would have to be stupid, selfish, or cruel. Stupid, to believe the administration's lies; selfish, to not care about the suffering of others; cruel, to revel in that suffering. I've seen in the past weeks the joy of conservatives as they lock up children, as those children are irrevocably harmed. I've seen the apathy when it is brown children who suffer. I've seen massive stupidity as the administration scrambles to justify or deny its atrocities and as those lies are believed.

Imagine you are small.

You don't care about politics, you don't understand why people hate you, you don't know why this is happening, and you don't know where your mother is.

Imagine that these are your first memories of the world. Who will you become? How will you ever feel safe? How will you heal and re-learn what it means to be loved? How will you cope with being an abused child? The abuse may end, but the legacy of being abused will be in you forever.

We have allowed this. On our watch - in our names. Children are being tortured, their sense of self stripped bare, their futures stolen.

We were all children, once. And while our childhoods have ended, we must remember what it felt like - because the cure to stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty is and always has been enlightenment, empathy, and compassion.

Imagine, now, that you are an adult - the kind of adult you needed when you were young.

Protect these children the way you needed to be protected. Speak for small people who cannot speak for themselves. Be loving, be kind, be safe.

And fight. Because childhood is worth fighting for. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bipolar One - Split in Two

For the past twelve years, I have thought of myself as a before and an after.

When I was nineteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I made a list of symptoms, describing my behaviors as if to prove that yes, something was wrong with me. I read them aloud to a psychiatrist, and her diagnosis was quick and clear: bipolar one. 

I am one of the lucky few who found the right medication right away. I've been taking the same stuff for twelve years, and I've had ups and downs, minor adjustments, but the maintenance of my illness has remained essentially the same. When I was drinking the medication was less effective - psych meds and alcohol should not mix! - but now that I'm sober I feel the full force of stabilization, of serenity. 

As I've progressed in those twelve years, I've pushed away the Alice who was before. I remembered my erratic moods, my impulsive behavior, the crawling shadows in my brain, and I felt both relief that I had changed and a fear of who I had been. The meds made me gain weight, and the weight became a symbol of this "after" Alice. I was cocooned in a physical manifestation of a rejection of my former self. 

Now, having lost all of the weight, I find myself closer to the before. I pull on clothes from 2005, 2001, and they fit - and I can't help but remember the way I felt when I was younger. I celebrate this body, feeling proud, elated, grateful; even so, I fear it. 

We live in our bodies. They have memories - they live through us.

In terms of my mental illness, I tend to go through three year cycles. Every three years I feel the ghost of mania - it feels like the lingering smell of smoke and stale beer, a whisper of music you heard when you were young - and it has less power over me, now, but I'm able to trace those cycles back to the year I was born. It has always been in me. And I'm due - I've been aware of it for months - and it comes in concert with my weight loss, my struggle with body dysmorphia, a burst of creativity, my father's death. All of the ingredients are there, bubbling away like the beef stew my dad made the last night I lived at home.

My illness is chronic, and despite the mercurial nature of bipolar disorder, it is predictable. I know its inner workings. I understand it, more and more as I get older.

It scares me, sometimes - not because I do anything frightening, but because I've so thoroughly judged the "before" Alice. Because I felt I had to reject her. Because maybe I convinced myself that there really was something wrong with me - diagnosis as condemnation.

I'm so open about my mental illness, and I speak and write about it with supposed compassion and acceptance. I want to be supportive of others, to share my stories in hopes that other people who struggle might feel comforted by the fact that they aren't alone. At the same time, I think I've been swayed by the judgments of mental illness which are both common and extraordinarily harmful. I've taken on a mantle of wrongness - my brain works differently, and that must make me a bad person. I can only hope to assimilate by denying my neurodivergence. 

I want to be like other people, I guess. I cower from the Alice before, casting her as the villain, the angry goddess, the wicked witch. And now that I have her body again, now that my three years are up, now that my dad is gone and I'm sorting through the memories of our relationship, I face her in the mirror and feel genuine fear.

I keep playing through the same memory of my father. It was a perfect Baltimore spring day, 2005, sharp and ripe with the smell of concrete and pear blossoms, and I invited my gaming group over for cookies and cocktails. We sat in the back garden, eating raw dough out of the bowl, drinking triple sec out of antique glassware, and my dad was playing jazz on the kitchen speakers. He was laying slate, stolen from a church renovation, in our little flower bed, and he asked my friends to shatter it into smaller pieces. He turned up the volume, and four teenage boys danced over the stone, totally ridiculous - and my dad was beaming, and I was a little drunk, and the spring air blew through me like a kiss, and I was thin and sweet and madness and joy. 

That's the before Alice. The scary one. The bad one. And nothing ever feels like that any more.

And maybe I want it to. Maybe I'm tired of hiding from myself. 

If there's a lesson to be learned, here, it must be that I have to accept my mental illness in a new way. I can't just think of myself as a before and an after - I have to merge the two selves and reject my fear. I wasn't a bad person - though I made some decidedly bad decisions - just because I was unmedicated. I wasn't bad because I was thin, because I had an eating disorder. There wasn't anything wrong with me - I'm ill, surely and forever, but I'm not a person to revile. 

I can't hate such an essential part of myself. I can't push my heart away.

Managing chronic illness can feel like a fight against your own body, your own brain. Some days are really good, and you can almost feel normal, and some days are really hard, and you know you are not. I'm never going to be normal - I hope I can turn that into a good thing. Because I want to remember.

I want to remember the afternoons in the back garden. I want to mourn my father while recalling the fragile beauty of Baltimore in spring. I want the tissue paper tenderness, the honey-ripe, the skirling dizziness, the smell of smoke and bruised pear blossoms. I want to lick the bowl and have it all. 

I want to be finished with the before and the after. 

I want to be Alice, now.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Reflections on the Antipodes

My husband and I recently vacationed in Australia and New Zealand, and along with the stunning beauty of the landscape, the diversity of wildlife, and the omnipresent and thoroughly delicious passion fruit gelato, I enjoyed three blissful weeks without a lingering sense of dread.

Vacation is synonymous with relaxation - the whole goal is to take a break from normal life, to sit back, enjoy time without work, deadlines, demands. So it should be no surprise that being on a once in a lifetime adventure would engender calmness and delight; that was, after all, the point.

And yet what I noticed most, about three days into our tip, was that a burden had begun to lift - a burden I hadn't known I was carrying.

I had awoken from a nightmare - but no, that's not quite right.

I was in a three week dream. Because the life we live here, so close to Washington, D.C. - the life I had to come back to - is our waking reality, and anything else is a brief moment of bliss.

I had many conversations with other travelers and with Australian and New Zealand citizens, and inevitably I found a sense from them of pride in their home countries and utter shock at my own. On our bus tour to Hobbiton and the Waitomo glow worm caves, our driver spoke at length about the national values of New Zealand - equality, transparency, fairness. I couldn't help but notice the contrast to my country's current values - oppression, occlusion, and I've-got-mine. 

One woman - freshly washed in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef - told me that she was afraid to come to the U.S., that on her last visit she had witnessed violence and racial epithets shouted in the streets. She told me that, even so, when she vacationed in Japan right before the 2016 election she assured her hosts that Americans couldn't, wouldn't be so stupid as to elect our current monster in chief. She faced them on that Wednesday, shame-faced and betrayed.

A young woman on the train to Kuranda, a mountain village home to an artists' commune, discussed with me the inequity and insanity in America as well as the encroaching xenophobia in her homeland, the United Kingdom. I found in her the same worries that I had felt as Donald Trump stumped in speeches glorifying himself, whiteness, maleness, hatred, violence - and yet when she spoke of Scotland she was so proud of its beauty and kindness and liberalism. She had hope.    

Having that burden lifted from my shoulders - feeling the muscles relax, feeling safe, feeling clean air in my lungs - was such an incredible gift. And it alerted me to the pain we are all in, every day, here in this broken homeland. I've seen and heard such ugliness and such bitterness, and it repulses me, and yet it has almost become a white noise, a soundtrack, the heartbeat of our every day lives.

My husband and I went to see a movie in Canberra, and for the first time in years, I didn't consider what I would do if someone pulled out a gun and started shooting. If you roll your eyes, here, at what sounds like hyperbole, only remember that my fear is based in events which have already occurred. Which are on their way to being forgotten, as there have been so many others.

I'm not saying, in any way, that Australia and New Zealand are perfect. Indeed, they have their own histories of atrocities - in Canberra, I saw an exhibit of portraits of Aboriginal Australians with disabilities, many of those caused or exacerbated or flat out ignored by their government. Their stories were reminders of injustice and documentation of their dignity. And in New Zealand, I learned that the native Maori were almost wiped out by white colonizers. None of this is surprising to any American with sense - it is always the people of color who suffer. This is what we do, we who occupy. We are cruel.

And cruelty is the theme, here - it is our bread, it is our wine, it is the American sacrament. 

Our president is cruel, as are his advisers. Our congress is cruel, as are so many of our citizens. We live in a world of state sanctioned executions, persecution, and enslavement through our justice and prison systems. And we live with this, every day, and we wonder why everything hurts all the time. 

And we continue. 

The refrain I hear from friends and family is this - why, why is no one doing anything? Why can't this be stopped? What nonsense are we expected to accept, and why do we accept it? No answer is adequate. And lets be honest - I live in a pretty cushy bubble of whiteness - most of what is wrong with this country is not going to happen to me or to my family. Yes, if things continue, I may well be royally screwed - mentally and chronically ill, queer, female - but for now I pass as the "great" Donald Trump is talking about. I look in the mirror and I know damned well that I have the face of the oppressor. 

And I have a responsibility, too. Because silence is another form of cruelty.

Having just come back from a part of the world where my dread need not exist, and having observed injustice there, and having found a few selfish breaths of calm, I have an obligation to return to my home and speak up. It is uncomfortable, I think, for many people, because we have accepted this white noise of hatred for so long - after all, the current political situation began not a few years ago but a few hundred years ago. I have encountered push-back from people I love when I stubbornly stick to my values, when I insist again and again that we must examine the shaky foundation upon which this country is built. It is an ugly mirror to gaze into, especially for women like me - white, educated, liberal. It requires so much work; it requires deprogramming. 

I wish everyone had the resources and will to take a vacation like I did, because the mirror there is clearer. Broadening our horizons, I think, is the key to a deeper understanding of what our world should be. Most people aren't lucky enough to get that opportunity. I hope that we learn, if we cannot leave, to listen to the voices which are so often silenced. There is incredible value in putting aside our pride, being quiet, and actively listening. When we see statues torn down we must ask ourselves why and seek from those taking action their reason. When we see protesters in the streets we must, if we cannot yet join, silence our own voices and attend to those who demand to be heard. And when we feel in ourselves a move, a shift, a deepening of compassion, perhaps then we can have a voice to speak to others like us who have not yet gazed in their mirrors.

I had a wonderful trip. I drank far too much ginger beer, ate far too much gelato, and got a bit of a sunburn. I visited five cities, stayed in seven different hotel rooms, and I took about a million pictures, and I kissed my husband on the other side of the planet. And along with all of that joy I came back with a pain in that hollow place below my heart. It aches, still. It feels like the first time I fell in love, ten years old, too young and wondering if there was any hope.

I've got to keep putting in the work - listening as hard as I can, developing my compassion, speaking my truth even if others aren't ready to hear it. I hope I can share some of that process with you, even when I falter, even when I fail. I can't bring Australia here, nor New Zealand, nor the calm dream state of a better world. But I can be honest. 

And God knows our country needs a little honesty right now.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

In the Aftermath: the American Legacy

In America, we simply do not value human life.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - our country is built on genocide. It's built on the persecution and annihilation of American Indians. It's built by the labor of slaves and the industry of mass incarceration. It's build on the subjugation of women, women afraid for their lives and careers, women who, until recently, couldn't speak out about their abuse.

America is built on poverty and on segregation. White Americans take their children out of local schools - instead of investing in our education system and therefore bringing about much needed change, they shield their children from black and brown peers. And those students continue to live in abject poverty, their schools without heat, their bellies without food, their communities ravaged by constant violence. In America we do not value every child, only our own.

America is built on selfishness and consumerism. Nothing is more important to us than our own safety, our own bank accounts, our own place in an economic and racial caste system. We hate taxes, hate the idea of socialized medicine, hate the idea of helping the poorest among us, even as they starve and suffer. And we clamor for guns, holding up the constitution, willing to sacrifice children on the altar of our right to bear arms.

America, this America, hasn't valued human life since its inception. It is built on death. It is drenched in blood.

So why, now, are we shocked - why do we offer thoughts and prayers - when another school shooting shows us the ugliness of our society? That ugliness has always been there. It is where we live.

I cannot comprehend this country's willingness to offer up children to this feckless god of selfish individualism.

A part of my job as a paraeducator in a public elementary school was helping children during lockdown drills. I worked in special education, and it was imperative that I kept my students calm and quiet while we locked the doors, turned off the lights, sat silently in a corner of the room, away from the windows. I remember very clearly the last drill I helped facilitate - I looked at all those tiny first grade faces and imagined the worst. Would I stand to defend them? Would I shield them with my body? Would anything really help to stop a madman with an assault rifle?

Who would these children be, if they were permitted by this cruel and callous world to grow up? All of those students had limitless potential. All of them deserved life, a happy life, a life of kindness and compassion and joy.

And our country simply does not care. Not about them, not about the murdered babies at Sandy Hook, not about the teens killed yesterday Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, not about any of the children in the 18 school shootings in 2018 alone, not about the young people for whom violence is a part of their daily lives. 

Many Americans do care - don't get me wrong. There is mourning, and there is grief. In the aftermath of this most recent shooting, I've seen many people speaking to our need for adequate gun control. I've witnessed newscasters and politicians and regular citizens break down in sorrow. But that individual and collective grief stands in strife against the innate American selfishness, the denial of our national sins, the whitewashing of history, the willingness to refuse our culpability for genocide and persecution.

Our country is built on a faulty foundation, and it crumbles every day.

I want to believe that things will change. Surely we can take our cue from other countries who have restricted access to firearms. We can look to Australia, perhaps, and their reaction to a mass shooting - they did not want that horror to happen again, and they took action. We can acknowledge that America leads the world - when it comes to gun violence and mass incarceration - and say, no. Enough. This is not acceptable. This is not what we want for our children.

But to do that is to cure the fundamental illness of our country, and I'm not sure if we are ready. If it can be done.

We must abandon selfishness - the very selfishness which allows citizens to purchase firearms. The selfishness which makes some schools better than others. The selfishness of privilege, of corporate tax breaks, of private health insurance companies, of gerrymandering, of conservatism. Of ignoring the long term consequences of slavery. Of prioritizing the individual over the whole.

Too many children have died.

When will we open our eyes and say, no more? 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In Remission

I don't see myself when I look in the mirror.

Twenty years ago, I began middle school, and the flaws I had always seen in myself began to grow, change, manifest. As a child I had always perceived my thighs as too thick - I was at a healthy weight, and yet I felt like I was bigger than all the other girls. When I entered middle school, with all its awkwardness and emerging hormones, my thighs, in my mind, became enormous. I compared myself to my classmates - thin girls who were good at field hockey and lacrosse and climbing the social hierarchy - and felt ugly.

I stopped eating. It was so easy, and it felt wonderful.

Part of my intentional starvation was a reaction to a mental process I could not control - bipolar disorder often strikes during puberty - and part was due to food insecurity and my as yet undiagnosed gluten and dairy intolerances. Food made me sick, and the food my family could afford - pasta, pizza, the occasional treat of Chinese food - made me sicker. As a kid I ate dry cereal out of the box, not knowing that wheat was harming me, enjoying the sugar rush even as my stomach hurt.

It turns out that many people with undiagnosed food intolerances develop disordered eating. After all - who would want to eat when everything makes you sick?

So I stopped eating pizza. Couldn't eat pie crusts, or bagels, or lovely whole wheat toast, dripping with melted butter. I narrowed down what I allowed myself to consume, and then I found that eating very little rewarded a pleasure center in my brain. My stomach didn't hurt any more - and my thighs were getting smaller.

These self-imposed limitations went hand in hand with my insecurities. I knew that I would never be good at any kind of sport - I am probably the least coordinated person on the planet - but I thought I could mold my body into something acceptable, something the popular girls whom I resented and worshiped would envy. I received compliments, and the worried questioning from my parents was nothing compared to the feeling of a thin body, a regimented mind, a controlled psyche.

I was anorexic. It hurts to type that, as if the world will judge me, as if I shouldn't share the method by which I stayed tiny and beautiful and invisible.

An eating disorder is like cancer - you're never cured, but in remission. Since those first moments when I discovered the pleasure of self-denial, the twenty years which followed were full of recoveries and relapses. I gained weight, and I lost it, over and over.

I think that's a familiar story for a lot of women. Diets and meal plans and protein shakes are thrust upon us, and images of perfectly airbrushed actresses show us what we should look like and what we never will. Even if a woman never enters a full-blown eating disorder, she may still slip easily into disordered eating. Our emotional relationship with food is often unhealthy, and we tell ourselves we can control our little corner of the universe if we eat low fat yogurt, or sugar free desserts, or baked and bland chicken breasts. Women are never allowed to enjoy a nice cream sauce, a slice of chocolate cake, even a basket of French fries, without guilt. To be a woman with visible fat is to be rejected by society.

I've had visible fat. I've been what we call thick women - curvy. And it wasn't that long ago - last March I was a size sixteen. Today I am a size six - because of grief, because of dietary changes, because of a need for control.

Being "curvy" was an important part of my life. My medications caused weight gain, and my love for craft beer and bar food didn't help. I allowed myself all the foods I had rejected - I ate potato chips, ice cream, cookies, foods I had insisted I simply didn't like. And even though I was far from the beauty standard of television and magazines, I was forced, by my weight, to see my inherent beauty. I learned how to feel pretty - I had to. To see myself as overweight and therefore (in my mind) ugly would have shattered me.

And now, at size six, I look in the mirror and can't see a darned thing.

Often co-morbid with eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder is a condition in which one perceives and is distressed by some flaw in appearance. For those with eating disorders, that can translate into an obsession with body fat and weight. And for me, it means that I cannot honestly see myself. When I was 118 pounds, I told my mother that I was Rubenesque. I really looked at my skinny frame and thought I was gigantic.

This has been the most lasting symptom of my former anorexia - I am not obsessed with body fat, but I am an unreliable narrator in my own story. No matter my weight, no matter my measurements, I cannot truly see myself. I am always twelve years old, learning how to restrict my food, and I am always 27, eating whatever I pleased. I don't know how to break through the cloud of falsehoods - when I see pictures of myself, I am shocked.

And yet the years of being overweight have helped me immensely, because even if I can't catch a glimpse of my body in the mirror, I see my face, and I feel beautiful.

I have a lifetime of work ahead of me. My diet will always be restricted - I am healthier now that I am gluten-free, dairy-free, and sober - but I can enjoy many foods and eat my fair share. But growing older, growing up, demands constant self-evaluation, critique, and love. In order to achieve contentment, I must dismantle old systems of perception and judgement.

I have to practice looking in the mirror. It's not vanity - I have to learn how to see myself. It may take my whole life - but now, at 31, I am happy, healthy, and strong.

I am up for the challenge.