Object Impermanence

The world is the totality of facts, not things.  

Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

 

When we are first born the world is an unfathomable mystery. We emerge from a dark, warm home, barely larger than ourselves, into a reality that is incomprehensible—it is too vast, and we have not yet developed the capacity to sense it. For all the light, color, and shadow of this new world, our newborn eyes can not yet find meaning. Life was knowable and now it is chaos.

Within a matter of weeks we learn to identify objects from the riot of sight. A teddy bear, for example. This soft and furry lump is separate from the things underneath it, next to it, and behind it, and is something singular that we may reach for or hold. We may even clutch it tightly, and this seems to be possession. 

But there is still deep mystery in the object. Where did it come from? What causes it to appear? Where did it go? These are unanswerable to our brand new brain. And at this stage, if that teddy bear is taken and hidden—say, under a table and out of our sight—it’s existence seems to have ceased. It is, simply, gone.

Eventually we learn that objects continue to exist even when we are no longer able to perceive them. The teddy bear may be out of sight, but we understand that it’s there, under the table, extant. In just a matter of months this understanding is established, and the world begins to become comprehensible. It is the foundation upon which a lifetime of understanding is built.

The world unfolded to me, one mystery at a time, in the rooms and halls of my childhood home. While I was no longer held in the warm, quiet cradle of her belly, I learned that if I cried she would cradle me in her arms and comfort me. If I couldn’t see the soft and furry lump that I loved to hold, I learned it was waiting somewhere to be found, often where I slept. That there were words for these things and people around me: mom, teddy bear, mirror, book, brother, bed. I learned that not everything I loved in the house was mine to have. That things which are beautiful to look at can hurt to touch, but that my mother and my home would keep me safe. I learned that books should always be read at bedtime, cooking was a tangible form of love, love was abundant, and mom was always there. That no matter how old I became or how long I was away, walking in that front door would always smell the same. 

I remember laying in bed the night before I left for college, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “This is the last night that this house is my home. I’ll come back for vacations, but from now on it will be a place that I am visiting.” College, graduate school, and a gig-based career that took me around the country and across the seas meant that since that night I’ve lived in 18 different places. With so much change, the only constants in my life were the earliest ones: mom is always there, the teddy bear still exists, sitting on my childhood bed, and walking in the front door of my childhood home always smells the same.

Things began to come apart when my mother became ill—she’d managed to thrive with her alcoholism and keep it hidden for decades, but it caught up to her eventually. She changed from a constant source of comfort and love to a woman made cruel, possessed. When I cried, she would not comfort. Love was withheld. And then she died. The first world I knew, and earliest of my truths, gone. It was unfathomable. 

We have maxims to help make sense of the loss of a life: “although the person is gone, their spirit lives on in our hearts.” Since she died I’ve been working to find where it is inside me that my mother lives. At first she was an absentee tenant, but after two years she’d begun to settle into some quiet corners in a way I found comforting and constant. Things were beginning to make some kind of sense again. Mom was, once again, always there. And so were the teddy bear on the bed and the smell of coming home. 

Until they weren’t. I got a phone call that there had been an accident. My home—it’s walls that once held my whole world—went up in flames in a matter of minutes after a candle tipped over, igniting a sheet on a bed. The the people got out, the dog did not, and the house, and everything in it, was gone. 

My childhood home had burned to the ground.

I cannot explain the strangeness of seeing it the next day, still smoldering. There was some roof, not many walls, sections of floor, remnants of plates, books, chairs, beds, but mostly mounds of shapeless black rubble. All of it burned—most things past recognition, all beyond salvation. The structure itself damaged so irreparably that even the foundation needed to be demolished. Where for 42 years stood a home, now nothing but a charred black hole.

When my mother died people had so many words of comfort to offer. But when the house burned, all people could offer was shock and sorrow. Losing a house to fire is not a universal experience. We do not have maxims for the loss of things, let alone the dizzying loss of everything.

Every thing. The teddy bear is gone, as is the bed it sat on, and the floor beneath it. There is no front door to walk in, and that place which is no longer the house smells like woodsmoke, melted plastic, chemicals, and ash. 

My childhood home does not have a spirit or the intangible essence of a singular person. It was a collection of objects that were, and now are…not. The not-ness of the objects so impossible to comprehend. 

“It’s just stuff,” I’ve told people countless times, “it can be replaced.” Thank goodness nobody told me that home is where the heart it; I would have punched them.

When I was old enough to move from crib to bed, my father built a wooden frame for a twin sized mattress. My bed sat in the corner atop four milk crates. In my adolescence the bed was moved to a different wall, still in its wooden frame built by my father’s hands, but resting now atop white drawers. Old mattress, new sheets. After I’d moved out for good, a new mattress in the same wooden frame atop its drawers. New mattress, old sheets. After my mother died, a brand new double mattress in a brand new wrought-iron frame. New sheets too. Dad cut up the wood from the old frame and made sandwich boards that he painted charcoal black and which I turned into signs for my wedding. After we were married I painted black over the gold letters and made new signs with different gold names for another person’s wedding. I loaded those pieces of my once-bed into the trunk of another’s car and watched them drive away.

I wonder when exactly it was that my childhood bed ceased to exist. When it was moved from one wall to another? When I got new sheets? When the mattress was replaced? When the new bed arrived? When the wooden frame was cut up and painted black? When the new bed was blackened by the fire? 

I wonder if that bed has, in fact, ceased to exist. Are those pieces of the original wooden frame still sitting somewhere, unburned, painted the same flat black as the now burned house? Are they tucked into an attic, the corner of a garage, or perhaps at a dump, being bulldozed under a shapeless mound of rubble?

I wonder where my home went. If the reality of an object exists even outside of our ability to perceive it, what does that mean when an object is destroyed? Has it truly been destroyed? Or is our ability to perceive it that which has been destroyed? Was my home a unique collection of objects, or is the idea of Home the thing that gave it it’s meaning? 

For years now I have found deep meaning from visiting historically significant sites. The Colosseum. Stonhenge. An iron-age fort on a hilltop in Scotland. The Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation. The Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans. A restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, where George Washington had a meal in 1791 and where a recreation of Nat Fuller’s reconciliation feast was held in 2015. All places that have filled me with a sense of mystery and wonder at their meaningfulness. 

The first time I felt profoundly connected to human history was at the Acropolis in Athens when I was 25. My sandal slipped on the stones underfoot. At first annoyed, I realized that they were so smooth and shiny from over 2,000 years of footsteps. I thought of the sandaled feet of Roman senators walking over these same stones. The beginning of Western civilization was here, beneath my feet, and I could draw a direct line through history from those senators atop that hill to my birth, half a world away. I looked around for someone to share the moment with. Nobody on the hilltop was speaking a language that I even recognized, and so I pulled out my cellphone, calculating what time it was in California. I called home.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” I gushed. “At the Acropolis, looking up at the Parthenon.” 

“Oh, how incredible,” she gasped.

A place so full of history and meaning that I had to share it with my mother, standing in the kitchen, half a world away.

And now I survey the burial site of my childhood home. A place with no historical significance except my own. And I don’t have a mom to call when I’m standing there.  And I don’t really understand what the world means now that it’s gone.

 

 

 

 

Hope hurts.

I’ve been hearing some version of “Just hang in there, things will get better and stop being hard soon!” so many times in the last 2 years that I’ve stopped believing it. “What if this is just what life is like now?” I often wonder.

Which leaves me in a bit of predicament. I’ve experienced enough loss and disappointment and Bad Things That Are Not My Fault And Are Out of My Control lately that I am having a hard time being as present for happiness and joy as I’d like. To wit:

The first time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was elated. The kind of excitement and happiness that gives you butterflies, has you dancing alone in the kitchen, and flushes you with enough adrenaline that you have trouble sleeping. I was so excited that even the few weeks of morning all day sickness felt like an adventure that I was 100% willing to endure because of the vast hope flowering within me. And then I miscarried that pregnancy.

The second time I had a positive pregnancy test, I felt numb. “Oh,” I thought “Well, I guess it’s too early to be excited.” So I wasn’t excited. And then I was depressed about the fact that I wasn’t excited. Women all over the world get to be excited about their pregnancies, but I was no longer one of them. That experience had been taken from me. And that felt like shit. And then three days later I miscarried that pregnancy.

The third time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was surprised by a small twinge of excitement. A little seed of hope. “I’ve got a present for you,” I told my husband, and I showed him the test. “Oh,” he said casually, “well, I guess we’ll wait and see if it’s worth getting excited about.” My heart dropped a bit, but I knew he was right. Over the next few weeks, each time I told a close friend that I was pregnant they gushed, “OMG congrats! Are you so excited?!?” and I had to admit that neither my husband nor I were particularly excited, and were in fact feeling rather guarded. At that admission, one of my dearest friends said “I know you’re so worried that this pregnancy won’t work out…but what if it does? I don’t want you to have missed all the fun things things about the beginning of your pregnancy.“ And I realized she was right.

I’ve been hurt by people in my past, and yet I’ve never stopped cultivating new relationships because of the fear that someone new might hurt me. I am devastated every time a beloved pet grows old and dies, and yet that doesn’t mean I’m going to put my current dog up for adoption and never have a pet dog again. I’ve had milk that’s gone bad (shudder), and yet I still have a carton of goat milk in my fridge as I type this! So why was I refusing to let myself be excited about this pregnancy because of the fear it might not work out?

And so I decided to give in to the joy and the hope.

And then the following week, I miscarried that pregnancy.

Well, shit.

Just today, I got some good news related to work. And instead of bringing me excitement and joy, it made me feel overwhelmed, frightened, and anxious, because I just don’t trust good news at the moment. “No news is good news” has never felt like a truer maxim. And yet…I am full of hopes and wishes. I hope I get this job. I hope I get pregnant. I hope I am able to find a home that feels like I could live there forever. I hope, I hope, I hope for all manner of things that are outside of my control. It’s awful. Those hopes feel like naked, vulnerable, tendril-like extensions of my heart sent out into a room full of mouse traps, jackhammers, and stampeding rabid elephants with explosive diarrhea.

How do I do this? How do I remain open to joy and hope, and yet protect myself from the looming specter of pain?

I think the answer is that protecting myself from pain is the wrong goal (and not just because it’s impossible). Increasingly, the way I’ve been getting through the pain has been by focusing on the present moment. My initial reaction to bad news tends to be a mind that races, thinking of all of the ramifications of the bad news, the ways that it will impact the future, and what I will have to endure next, and then after that, and then after that, and then…before I know it I am overcome with anxiety and existential depression about what has happened.

Instead of spiraling into the despair of what this event means in the long term, simply focusing on “I feel so sad right now,” or “this is terribly painful and disappointing,” and just sitting with those emotions is incredibly helpful. I cannot predict how an an event will affect my future. I can sit with and honor how an event made me feel—which is a moment I am able to move on from. It deescalates an event from existential horror that I am caught in, to the feelings I am feeling right now, which ebb and flow.

I think really practicing this will also help me believe that I am allowed to feel hope and joy, and not worry about the many “what-ifs” and things that could go wrong. The next time I receive good news and react with fear, my intention is to ask myself “Am I just afraid that something bad might happen?” And if the answer is yes, then to try to release the fear, and to take joy in the present moment.

I will try to trust that things will work out, or that they won’t, regardless of whether I worry. I will try to trust that I will get through it, however difficult or painful it may feel. I will try to feel unmitigated hope, even if it only lasts for a moment.

I will try.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

The “Bad Memories” Fallacy*

*Note: there will be footnotes. 

There’s a big mistake almost everyone makes when it comes to comforting people who are going through a hard time. I’ve made it. You’ve probably made it–probably more than once–without ever meaning to or realizing it.

Here’s the scenario: you are are worried about a friend, family member, or colleague that has recently gone through/is going through something really awful. You think “I’d like to reach out and offer my support.” But then you follow that thought with “Oh, but I don’t want to stir up any bad memories for them, so I probably just shouldn’t say anything.”

First of all, I am happy to say that I have good news for you. If you’ve ever had this thought, it means that you are a kind person who is concerned with the wellbeing of others, and that you care enough to want to help and not make things harder for someone having a hard time. And that is admirable.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking often results in the opposite effect, and makes people who are already having a hard time feel even worse. Avoiding talking to a person about something that has disrupted their life in a big way–even when it’s well-intentioned and coming from a place of care–results in further isolation, loneliness, and emotional pain for the one who is suffering.**

Speaking from personal experience, when truly painful and upsetting things happened to me, I was, on some level, never not thinking about it. I have not have a single day go by recently during which I forgot that my mom died, that my friend died, or that I had a miscarriage. It’s always there, even when I’m not actively thinking about it. And when someone approaches me and brings it up with the intention of offering comfort and support, my emotional reaction is almost*** always “Oh thank goodness, I get to say  all these things I’m feeling out loud and have them acknowledged, what a relief.” Never ever not once has my reaction been “What are you talking about? My mom didn’t die, she’s at home right now…wait, oh god, it’s all coming back to me…I had it all wrong, she did die…oh dear god no…why…Why?…Why did you say this!?!?! THIS HAS BROUGHT UP HORRIBLE MEMORIES FOR ME THAT I’D TUCKED AWAY LIKE A SQUIRREL HIDING NUTS FOR THE WINTER AND NOW I CAN NO LONGER ESCAPE THE AWFUL REALITY BECAUSE OF YOU!!!

Okay, so now you’re thinking that you’d like to stop falling prey to the Bad Memories Fallacy (™ pending) and start offering words support to someone that you care about who needs them. You might now be having a few different reactions to the thought of this undertaking. You might be thinking, “I am great face-to-face with folks and always know what to say!” or maybe, “Oh god I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, but I want to say something and please dear god don’t make me do it in person. Or on the phone.” So here’s a handy-dandy list of suggestions to fit a range of strengths and preferred methods of communication:

  • Schedule a phone call or hang-out with the person and then say something like, “Hey, I know something’s been going on and I’m worried about you. I’d be happy to be a listening ear, or just to provide some distraction. Whatever you need in this moment.”
  • Approach the person during a private or quiet moment in your workday and offer a simple, “I just wanted to say that I heard about [insert what happened] and that I’m so very sorry. You’re in my thoughts.” And if you’re feeling extra capable and fancy you can add a, “If you’d ever like to talk about it, I’d be happy to listen.”
  • Send a card to their home or leave on one their desk, on their door, etc. This option has a bonus: you don’t even have to know what to say because you can buy a card that already says it for you. There are lots of sympathy cards that are really well written and great. I myself have deployed the sympathy card option on many occasions to great effect. Added bonus: cards can be kept, and re-read whenever needed (I have a stash of particularly meaningful sympathy cards that I re-read when I’m feeling blue).
  • Send the person an email, Facebook message, DM on any other platform, or text. There are people who will tell you that it is inappropriate to express these kinds of things via electronic communication. Those people are wrong (and probably say things like, “Kids these days!”). Reach out with a message or text that says something like, “Hey, you’ve been in my thoughts so much lately, and I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me and that I’m here for you if you need anything.” Getting texts like those have, at times, been a life-line when I felt like I was drowning.
  • Still overwhelmed by the idea of making words of any kind to express your feelings? A small token, like some flowers, a gift certificate to a bar they like or for a luxury service, a little piece of art or poetry that made you think of them, or even a mini muffin is a fabulous offering. You can add a card that says “Thinking of you” or just has a heart drawn on it if you want. Or you can even give it anonymously! No matter what, I promise you that it will be appreciated and that you will have a positive impact on their day.****

What I’m trying to say is, no matter how you express your concern and your care and condolences, express them. It doesn’t matter if you know what to say, or if you feel awkward, or out of your depth, or afraid of making things worse. And I guarantee that you won’t be bringing up Bad Memories™ because they are not memories. They are just that person’s reality. And that person could use a little love and support. Couldn’t we all?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

**Before I go any further, I need to put in a big caveat: not all people are the same. And I’m sure that somewhere there is someone for whom the best and most loving care and attention would be to ignore whatever has happened to them and to carry on like everything is normal. But it is my experience that these people are in the vast minority. In fact, I’ve never met them. (Which doesn’t mean that they don’t exist! It takes all kinds.)

***Yes, there are moments when having an emotional moment and crying with someone aren’t preferable. For example, I would not welcome the “Heeeeey, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. How are you doing?” right before, say, walking on stage to present a slide deck to a thousand investors or something. It’s important to pick an appropriate time to offer condolence (or, more accurately, to avoid doing it at an inappropriate time.)

****Okay so there’s one instance in which I can’t actually promise this: if you are super creepy and/or give a gift that’s overly extravagant or otherwise inappropriate and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Giving someone a bar of chocolate or a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers with a, “You’re in my thoughts” note? Lovely. Buying them a Tiffany’s diamond necklace or a new refrigerator with a, “This reminded me of your sadness” note? Confusing and weird. If you wonder whether your gift is a good idea, jut run it by a couple other people. If they look at you with confusion and horror, get thee to a therapist immediately.

…I’ve Been Here Before

grief map

I didn’t make this chart, and I don’t know who did, and I can’t find a higher-res version of it, but it’s very funny/accurate.

Before I experienced any kind of deep grief I’d read and heard things like “grief isn’t linear,” or “grief is cyclical” and thought “Yup, oh yeah, that definitely makes total sense.” But I had no idea what that actually meant or felt like until began to live it.

My previous journeys with emotional hardship tracked along a path that I thought was non-linear because sometimes there were set-backs, and at times I felt like a failure who’d made no progress. Problems which required years of self-examination, therapy, and patience. Moments when I found myself beating myself up because I’d gotten into the same emotional situation once again, goddamit. I read things like “grief isn’t linear” and thought “Yeah obviously, neither is anything hard, amiright?!”

However what I didn’t realize was that the “two steps forward, one step back” process that I’d experienced is still linear progression–even when you’ve taken that one step back, you can still see the path you’re on, still keep moving towards getting over that ex, making better job choices, or learning not to keep tasty snacks in the house.

But I am here to tell you that when people say “grief is not linear” that THEY ARE NOT FUCKING KIDDING AROUND. I entered into my grief thinking that would be a progression–that I’d move through something like the 5 stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and emerge on the other side back to a slightly older and wiser version of my old self. Turns out? HAHA, JOKE WAS IS ON ME!!

My first inkling that things were not going to go as I expected was a couple of months in when I’d moved through some denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and was thinking “Yes, I can get through this, I can overcome!” when all of a sudden WHAM I was back in denial. Or bargaining. Or any other incremental “step” on the way to “Acceptance” or “Loss Adjustment.” And I was confused as hell. “But I already went through this,” I thought, “why am I feeling this again when I’ve already processed it?” If you’ve been through something similar, then I know what you’re thinking: that it’s hilarious and adorable that I thought I’d already “processed” those feelings and was therefore beyond them.

In addition, my usual tool bag of emotional intelligence, self-awareness/self-analysis, and clear communication skills had exactly zero effect on my feelings of grief. I was flummoxed. This was the first time in many years that I was unable to distance myself from the feelings or to contextualize or compartmentalize them in a way that made them easier to manage. I actually said the words “I feel like I should be smarter than this” out loud to my husband. Meaning, I felt ashamed that I was not at all in control of my emotions, and that I was feeling very strong emotions that made no logical sense.

I have never been so intellectually humbled as I have been by my grief. Sure, I find the science of black holes so hard to grok that I mostly just don’t try, but I have faith that there is a system (invariably involving lots and lots of complex maths) that exists to explain them to any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to take the time needed to understand. But grief is different: I don’t think that it makes sense, or can be explained. The closest I can come to an explanation is that my puny brain is unable to actually understand the loss of life on a emotional level, resulting in a phenomenon which follows no logic (or complex maths) at all, and that seems to involve every emotion that has ever been felt in the history of mankind, and that no amount of therapy, or self-help book reading, or even blogging, is ever going to change that.

Do I “understand” that my mom died? Yes, of course I do. I understand that she is gone and never coming back, and that all life ends with death, and that she lives on in my memories of her and in the lives that she touched, and that death is indeed the most natural thing in the world. But does this “knowledge” prevent me from falling to my knees in tears while putting laundry away because I suddenly miss her with a longing so intense that I feel like I might vomit? Or sobbing while driving remembering a particularly awful moment of her suffering as she was dying in the hospital? Or feeling deep rage that her death was so senseless and tragic? Or wishing her death hadn’t happened? No. No, it does not. I both understand and do not understand what has happened. I have both accepted it and not accepted it. Statements which are both perfectly reasonable and yet make no sense at all. (But I tell you, from what I understand about Zen Buddists, those folks seem to have this sort of dual thinking pretty well figured, and seem to me to be pretty cool cats.)

The only things I can assuredly say that I have learned about grief are that 1. It is very complex and is a different process for every person who ever experiences it (and is different for different loses, even within the same person) and 2. That there is no way to understand it, control it, out-smart it, analyze it away, or bypass it, and that the only thing I can do is to accept my complete lack of control in the face of it.

Which is why when a person I know experiences a loss that will result in profound grief, after expressing my condolences and love, the next thing I tell them is “And even when things get real weird, remember that you are not crazy.” Because boy howdy, does that get hard to remember.

So why does grief keep resulting in emotions revisiting us like some fucked up mashup of Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol? It seems to be (in my limited experience) that it continues to bring things back around again and again in order to reach deeper levels of healing each time you revisit them. Perhaps rather than thinking of grief as a linear progression it’s more helpful to think of it as an ascending spiral, that goes through the same territory many times as it travels to resolution. Or as a scribble map like the one at the beginning of this post, which starts at one end and follows a path to the resolution that is so convoluted that it cannot be traced or understood.

Then again, I’m actually not convinced that there is any such thing as resolution when it comes to grief. A notion which seems both perfectly logical, and remarkably absurd. Ask me again in 50 years and see what I say.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

No One Told Me I’d Be A Little Bit Terrible…At Everything

I could write a whole list of the Things No One Told Me About Grief (in fact, it may become an ongoing series of posts.) But the one I want to focus on for this post is how grieving has affected my ability to feel competent. Period. And I’m not just talking about feeling competent in the face of highly complex logical reasoning and/or emotionally stressful situations (although that has doubtless been affected). I’m also talking about, like, feeling competent about putting on pants.

I am a person who has always prided myself at being hyper-competent. I’m an incredibly independent natural leader, and a quick learner with high standards. Give me a job, and I will do it to the best of my abilities simply for the sake of pride in a job well done. However. Since my mom died, and then the subsequent losses and trauma that occurred (mom died, childhood friend died, three miscarriages and a major injury, plus some other stuff) I just kind of suck at…everything. Here is a partial list of things that I used to be amazing at but which I’m pretty sucky at right now:

  • Being on time (hooooooboy this is a big one for me. Being “on time” used to mean arriving, fully prepped, half an hour early. Now being “on time” means anything that’s less than 10 minutes late and with pants on.)
  • Feeding myself and my husband (gotten a lot suckier at making sure the grocery shopping is done and that we’ve got ample food to stay alive in the house)
  • Putting on clothes that aren’t sweatpants (I’ve actually just given in to this one and adjusted my wardrobe to embrace what I’m calling the “Sweatpant Lifestyle.”)
  • Being social (everything from just talking to people at a bar, to running into an acquaintance on the street, to throwing a party, now requires a billion times more physical and emotional energy)
  • Not breaking things (I have lost track of how many glass jars and bowls I have broken in the kitchen…in the last 3 weeks)
  • Being consistent (how many weeks has it been since I published the last blog post? Lolz I don’t even know)
  • Remembering things (scheduling? Phone numbers? Names? What day of the week it is? Who you are? Yeah, sorry, no idea.)
  • Putting clothes on, period. (there was one day a few weeks after my mom died that I was trying to put a shirt on but I couldn’t because I literally forgot how to do it. For clarity: I forogt. How to put on. A shirt.)
  • Keeping the house organized and tidy (I am a person who is House Proud, which Google defines as being “attentive to, or preoccupied with, the care and appearance of one’s home.” Preoccupied with? Sounds judgy. But unless you are a super duper best friend…you are not allowed to see my house when it’s less that immaculately clean.)

Not only did I used to be  amazing at these things, but I identified as a person who was amazing at them. Needless to say, this has all been a profound lesson in humility and loss of ego.

In some ways, I feel like a different person than I was in December of 2015, before the shit started to continuously stream through the fan at an unrelenting pace. And I’m not sure if my current state of reduced capacity is temporary, or if it’s the new normal. (I assume folks feel similarly after having a baby, when the “you” that you used to recognize has faded into obscurity, and you wonder if you’ll ever be that person again). I’m trying to accept my current suckiness with grace, and  stop judging myself for it–I am trying to view it with patience and humor.

But one day when I was feeling a particularly ashamed about the fact that I was wearing the same sweatpants I’d been wearing for the last 5 days, and I was running late to meet somebody because I was sweeping up the glass I’d broken, and I was crying with frustration and berating myself for being so horribly incompetent, I had a moment of clarity; after the tantrum of shame passed I thought “You know, I might be fucking up a lot of things that I used to find effortless, but I’ve also gotten really good at some things I used to struggle with.”

Here is a partial list of things that I used to be pretty sucky at but which I’m amazing at right now:

  • Saying “no” to things that I don’t want to do
  • Asking for help when I need it
  • Being present for friends who are going through some Rough Shit
  • Having difficult conversations
  • Initiating difficult conversations
  • Watching awesome British television
  • Finding humor in even the darkest situations
  • Slowing down to really enjoy a beautiful moment
  • Thinking about death
  • Talking about death
  • Thinking about my own death and the deaths of those nearest and dearest to me in a way that is not terrifying or awful, but is actually okay
  • Communicating clearly and honestly with others about my emotional state
  • Going to bed early (Okay fine, I’ve always been good at this one, but I’m extra super good at it right now.)

So while I’ve had to let go of feeling like a person who Does Everything Well, I’ve also grown in some rather profound ways. Would I go back to the old, more competent me? Well, yes insofar as that me was ignorant to the pain of profound grief. But if I’m really honest; no. I think the experience and emotional intelligence I’ve gained is more meaningful than being able to juggle my schedule, get places on time, and dress myself well. I think that for all my new flaws, inconsistencies, and mistakes, that the new me is actually a better version of myself.

Umm, okay wow. To be completely honest, this is not where I thought this post was going. When I started writing this my only intent was to write a humorous and honest piece about how much I feel like I am failing at basic tasks right now. (“Me! I’m such an idiot, amiright?”) I am surprised to have arrived at a completely different conclusion—that I’ve actually changed for the better, on a post that I set out to simply write about my incompetence. Well…shit. You learn something new every day.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

For Those Who Don’t Know What to Do: I Feel You.

Since publishing this blog (last night), so many people have contacted me to say that they really connect with what I’m writing about, and relate to my experience. The amount of encouragement and support in the last 24 hours has been amazing and overwhelming, in fact. I have heard many different versions of “I cry all the time, thank you for talking about this.”

But I also want to reach out to readers who don’t share my penchant for crying multiple times a day, who aren’t comfortable with tears, and who perhaps are at a loss or feel uncomfortable when they see that someone is visibly sad. Does this sound like you? I want to reach out to these readers because in many ways, I used to be you.

Allow me a brief anecdote. I was raised by an introverted mother who was extremely private about her feelings and emotions. I watched her witness people in emotional distress, and react by respecting their privacy and dignity, and giving them space. Because this was the model I grew up with, it is how I learned to react when I found myself in similar situations. Then one day, in my early twenties, before I became an emotional ninja, I was at a sing-along screening of West Side Story with a group of friends from college. One of our friends had recently lost her longtime boyfriend to a tragic accident, and was still reeling from it. I was seated next to her, and during the scene when (SPOILER ALERT) Maria is weeping over Tony’s dead body, I felt her begin to shake, and heard her sniffle, and knew that she was crying. And what did I do?

I froze. I thought “I have never experienced anything like what she’s going through right now, so I won’t intrude on her emotions or insult her experience by trying to give comfort,” and I pretended like it wasn’t happening. So I just sat there, knowing she was crying and ignoring it, for the remainder of the movie. And then when the movie finished and the lights came up, I turned to her and made chit-chat and ignored her swollen and tear-stained face, and made my way out to the parking lot.

And then driving home I felt super shitty about what I’d done.

At this point, I realized “I don’t think that was the right way to handle that situation, I don’t like how I reacted.” But I didn’t have any frame of reference for any other way to handle that situation. I felt stuck and confused.

Fast forward a couple of years to a workshop I attended. One of the women (C) who was leading the workshop had just lost a parent, and was still raw and emotional. At one point while presenting during the first day, she was triggered and began to cry. Hard. The other woman leading the workshop (E) wordlessly took over, and another woman (A) who was there to help out took the grieving C outside into the hallway. While E gracefully took over the presentation, we could hear C’s cries in the hallway intensify into sobs, and then wails. Eventually the women moved farther away, and we could no longer hear C’s distress. Then, a little while later, C and A came back to the room, dripping wet, covered in mud, laughing and hugging. When C had began wailing, A had led her outside and into a rainstorm, taken their shoes and socks off, and run with her through a muddy field. C ran through the rain, wailing and crying, until the wave of grief receded, and she was done. And when she was finished, A brought her back to the workshop.

“Holy shit,” I thought “that is how I want to be. That is the kind of friend I want to be. That is how I’d like to be able to react when someone near me is going through some deep shit, whether I’ve been through it myself or not.” What I’d just witnessed was someone being deeply present with another person’s intense grief, seeing it, validating it, being with it, and giving it space to be.

It was a clear turning point in my life towards becoming a more present, open, and available friend person. It was also the first moment in my adult life when I began to realize that personalities are not fixed, and that we can make changes in our behavior to better reflect our values and beliefs. But for most of us, before we can do that, we need see examples of the kind of person we wish to become.

If you find yourself struggling or feeling incredibly uncomfortable in the face of others’ sadness, grief, and suffering, I hope to be able to offer understanding, support, and practical advice. And don’t worry, you certainly don’t need to share my desire to be able to run screaming through a rainstorm with a wailing woman to be able to help someone you care about when they’re upset. You can just learn a few simple questions and statements that are very helpful, and keep it simple as that. Check out my upcoming piece on Dos and Don’ts for when someone in your vicinity is having a rough time, or read my personal anecdotes as a way to begin to understand what others are experiencing when they’re hearing bad news, venting after a rough day, or just sobbing in the cheese aisle at the Berkeley Bowl.

For those of you who feel awkward, uncomfortable, or confused when someone is crying: I see you. I feel you. I used to be you. And it’s okay. We’re all in it together.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

The Question I’ve Been Avoiding

Lately, there’s one question that I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding. It’s enough to keep me away from parties and social functions, and turning the other way when I see someone I know coming down the street. I dread it. I try to come up with distractions or jokes or just my own questions to avoid being asked. I’ve gotten quite adept at preemptively asking lots of questions and steering the conversation away from the Dreaded Question, which is:

“So how are you, what’s been going on with you lately?”

When someone makes it past my defenses and I am asked the Dreaded Question, my general response is to smile, pause, take a breath, and then ask “How honestly do you want me to answer that?” That reaction alone generally takes folks aback, because it’s not the expected “I’m fine! Things are great. How are you?” Then depending on their response, they get one of 3 answers to the Dreaded Question:

  1. “It’s actually a long story. We should catch up some time.” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and avoid making plans to catch up.)
  2. “Well, I’ve had a really intense year with a lot of emotional upheaval, but there have been a lot of really wonderful things too and I’m doing really well overall. How are you?” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and give more details if they ask direct questions.)
  3. They get the truth.

For those who get answer #3, there is always a brief silence when I am finished, followed by a heartfelt “Oh my god Kat, that is…that is so much. I’m so sorry. But you sound like you’re handling it all like a champ” (see this blog post about hearing that last comment often). And I hear the shock and concern in their voice…and imagine pity and revulsion.

And I do not wish to be pitied or reviled, and so in answering the Dreaded Question honestly, I tend to highlight the Positive Things, share a few of the Things I’ve Learned, and add a couple of Humorous Anecdotes. And I’ll be darned, it works! But sometimes it makes me feel like I’m performing a version of myself, rather than just having an honest conversation about the last year.

The biggest relief is when someone hears what I have to say and interjects as some point with “I know exactly what you’re feeling, I went through something just like that myself” so that I can just look them in the eye, drop the act, say “Oh, so you know,” and then give them a big, wordless hug.

I’m not sure what the answer is to all this. Just get comfortable being dishonest and answering “I’m fine! How are you?” Trust people to be able to handle the truth? Just keep staying home and avoiding people forever? In any case, I’ll probably write about how it plays out.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

 

Fragility and Resiliency

Every time I take a ridiculous Buzzfeed quiz (Who would play your best friend in the movie version of your life?  Which Ryan Gosling character is your soulmate? Are you actually a hipster?*) and it asks, “Which word from the following list best describes you?” my immediate reaction is always “This is stupid. No one can be described in one word.” And then, invariably, I scroll down the list and select “Independent.”

It’s a personality trait that I inherited from my mother, but also one that I actively cultivate, and that I value in others. I take great pride in being very capable, competent, and self-sufficient.

So when I was in my therapists’ office** and she observed “You are extraordinarily sensitive and fragile” my immediate reaction was “TAKE THAT BACK I AM NOT FRAGILE I AM INDEPENDENT HEAR ME ROAR.” I was actually taken aback that she described me as fragile.

Me!? Fragile!??!??? But I drove myself to college by myself and insisted I move in on my own, with no help from my parents! And I am super organized and smart! And I moved to a foreign country by myself to work there for 4 months! And I’ve gotten through super hard breakups with grace and dignity! And I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations! And I’ve done solo road trips and camped all by myself! And I’m a super reliable and strong friend! And I can change a flat tire, and fix things around the house, and and and…oh right, one can do all these things and still be fragile.

The first step was admitting that I was fragile. “Who am I kidding?” I finally sobbed one day “I’m practically a hothouse lily!” *** The next was realizing that fragility is not a weakness or character deficiency.

And yet I still felt confused about admitting my fragility, because I’m a person who weathers chaos, emergencies****, and extreme upheaval quite well. “Wow, you’re handling this like a champ” and “You are so strong” are things I hear often. So how does that square with being fragile?

What I ultimately realized is that personalities, like everything else, are extremely complex. And that seemingly contradictory traits can exist within one person. And that the trait that allows me to weather all the things that life throws my way is my resiliency.

“Resilient” has replaced “Independent” as the adjective that I most identify with, and am most proud of. I am able to be fragile, sensitive, vulnerable, emotional, and yet stable and reliable because of it. It is a trait that, again, I think I’ve always had, but one that I now put thought and energy into cultivating and strengthening.

Part of it is just my brain chemistry that gravitates towards joy and happiness, but one of the most important emotional skills I’ve developed as an adult is asking myself “What can I do right now to make myself feel better in this moment?” during times of distress. Sometimes it’s going to bed at 7pm. Sometimes it’s initiating a difficult conversation that I’ve been putting off. Sometimes it’s binge-watching The Great British Bake Off.***** Or getting a hug from my husband. Or making hot chocolate. Or ordering pizza or snuggling the dogs, or getting my taxes done. The practice of asking that question and then listening to and honoring the answer over and over has created a deep sense of trust within myself that I will always take care of myself.

So at this point, I know that I am sensitive, emotional, and yes, fragile. And yet I am not afraid of loss, pain, and difficulty, because I know that I will take good care of myself, land on my feet, and be better and stronger for it.******

Until next time, with fragility and resiliency,

The Cry Babe

 

 

 

*Lupita Nyong’o, Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, No.

**Every human being should be required to be in therapy for at least 6 months of their life.

***I could be mistaken, but I believe this particular meltdown was brought on by the fact that I had multiple rashes due to my incredibly sensitive skin, but my skin just felt like a metaphor for my entire personhood in that moment.

****Like the time a lady collapsed in front of me in the produce section at the Berkeley Bowl. Time slowed down, and I moved her shopping cart out of the way, knelt by here side, and immediately began checking her vitals. When I looked up there was another woman on the other side doing these exact same things. “Are you a doctor?” she asked. “No, I’m an actor.” To which she responded, confusedly “Well…you could have fooled me. You’re doing all the right things.” I backed off and let the doctor take over, then ended up driving the woman who had collapsed to the emergency room. (But not before paying for my groceries and buying her a magazine, because there is usually a long wait at the emergency room.)

*****There is nothing that binge-watching The Great British Bake Off doesn’t make more bearable.

******After crying for hours, obviously.

You know what sucks? Miscarriage.

I recently added two big things to the list of major emotional milestones I’ve gone through in the last year: my first pregnancy, and my first miscarriage.

As these things sometimes go, I miscarried 4 days before my father’s birthday. 5 days before the one year anniversary of my mom’s death. And 6 days before Valentine’s day, which would have been the day we had our first ultrasound to see a heartbeat. While it wasn’t precisely the worst timing possible…it was close.

There were 17 days when I knew I was pregnant, then a interminable night of bleeding and cramping where I was terrified I was miscarrying, then a day and a half when I was hoping that I was overreacting, and then the doctor’s appointment where it was confirmed that I was, indeed, no longer pregnant.

I told my father I was pregnant about 5 minutes after seeing the big blue + on the pregnancy test–he’s a retired OB/GYN and is a great insider to have on your pregnancy team. I told my close friends the week after finding out–my math was “Do I need this person to know if I have a miscarriage?” More than half my friends who have children have had miscarriages. 3 days before I miscarried we told my in-laws that I was pregnant, and there was laughter and hugs and tears. The day before I miscarried we had told a handful of people: a brother, a grandma, an aunt and uncle, some close family friends. That night, it happened, and the next morning I called my dad and told him, expecting his usual calm and reassuring bedside manner. Instead, he cried.

Then was the administering of the pills that would help my body release the no-longer-a-fetus from my uterus, and the waiting for the chills, and severe cramping, and bleeding. There was a second dose of pills the following day, and then another ultrasound a couple days later to show that yes, the no-longer-a-fetus was no longer in my uterus.

That was almost 4 weeks ago. And, as it turns out, the fun isn’t over yet. My body has been very slow to let go of being pregnant, and my hormone levels have remained high enough for me to get a positive result from a pregnancy test (which resulted in a very confused few days) and I have had more ultrasounds and blood tests than you can shake a stick at. Who knew *not* having a baby would be so complicated, cost so much, and take so long?

And right now I simply waiting. Waiting for my hormone levels to drop enough that I will begin to ovulate again, and we can give it another go and hope for the best.

One of the things that struck me most about this experience was that it was not as devastating as I thought it would be. It was very sad, and there was about a week when I barely got off the couch and didn’t leave the house, but it wasn’t a horrible sadness. Just a quiet disappointment. In a way there was almost a small measure of relief of “Oh, this thing that I was so terrified was going to happen has happened, and I am going to be alright.” Maybe it’s because it was still so early in the pregnancy (just a day shy of 7 weeks) that I hadn’t seen an ultrasound or heard a heartbeat or begun to feel like it was real. But probably mostly because I have so many friends with happy, healthy babies, who also had miscarriages.

And that leads me to the most remarkable thing of all about this experience. My husband and I have told many people about the miscarriage–many more than we told about the pregnancy in the first place. When people have asked “Hey, how are you?” we’ve been largely transparent about what’s happening and how we are doing. And the percentage of people who responded to the news of our miscarriage with either “Oh, we had a miscarriage too, before our first was born” or “My mom had a miscarriage before she got pregnant with me” was easily over 75%. The vast majority of people we spoke to had either had a miscarriage or had talked to their mom about hers.

So if most of us have gone through this or know someone who has, why don’t we talk about it more often? When I told one friend she responded with “You know, most women have miscarriages, which is why people generally don’t tell people about their pregnancy early on.” And I was deeply confused by this statement–most people have this experience, so we don’t talk about it? That seems so backwards to me. I understand (from experience) that telling people “Oh, just kidding, we’re not having a baby” really sucks, but to me, that doesn’t mean that we should all stick with the norm and keep pregnancies a secret until past the first trimester. Who are we protecting by hiding our failed pregnancies? And wouldn’t we all be better prepared for the likelihood of miscarrying ourselves if we heard more about how often it happens?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

My body, her body.

I looked down at the back of my right hand, smooth but for a stipple of bumps from a rash across two knuckles. For a moment the image of my own hand was overlaid with that of hers–age spotted, papery, with large blooms of bruises caused by the liver damage. My hand like dough: soft and buttery. Her hand like a leaf: shaky and brittle.

I look at my left hand and the rings on my finger, and I remember the picture in her wedding album of her hand placed over my father’s on their wedding day. That hand, exactly like my own.. The skin glowing. I touch my hand wishing it was hers.

Then I am back in the hospital with her.

When she was in the hospital dying, I would take her through her physical therapy exercises. She wouldn’t do it for anyone but the therapist and me. “Now press your knee into my hand,” I’d softly encourage.

“That’s it, you’re doing so well.”

“Only 8 more to go.”

“You’ll be kicking field goals before you know it!”

My false bravado made her laugh, and a few times we got her shakily to her feet, but she never walked again. I think about the days she spent helping me to stand on wobbly feet, to walk, to run.

I brushed her teeth. Her mouth produced so little saliva that food would be lodged in her teeth like clay. At my urging she would tip her face up to me, open her mouth, and wait. I held her jaw with light fingertips, talked soothingly, helped her to rinse and spit into the small plastic basin I brought to her chin. My father brushed my teeth every night when I was young, and hummed “Sweet Georgia Brown” each time. I hummed this while I brushed her teeth, looking over at him with a small smile.

The stress and fear of watching her die made me begin to lose weight, and I felt like I was disappearing with her.

I looked down at her wasted, emaciated body. Those thighs once just like mine. Those same feet that I have. The collar bones: the same. After a few years of alienation and hurt and distance, the sense of identifying with her, of oneness, came crashing back in an instant. This body created me, I lived there, I was made from her. My body was her body; it is in so many ways her body borne again.

She hadn’t trimmed her toenails in months, some of them grown curved over and back into her skin. I bought a manicure kit and massaged, trimmed, and filed them. When I slipped and cut a piece of her skin next to the big toe nail, my heart leapt into my throat. How could I be so careless? But when I looked up at her she hadn’t felt it at all, and the wound drew almost no blood. It was then that I understood how close we were to the end.

Everything brittle, everything broken, all hard edges and bones, veins too exposed, bruises, needle pokes, skin torn from the softest pressure, shrunken, decayed, rough, frightening.

But her hair. My father combed it every morning for her, in a style more like his own than what she’d worn all her life. But on the rare days that it needed attention in the afternoons when I arrived, I’d skip the comb and use my fingers, and it was as soft as mine–softer still because there was less of it and it had become finer. I’d run my hands through that hair for the softness of it, the way it felt like her.

I sit here now and run my fingers over the back of my hand, see that young newlywed’s hand, and I am touching her.