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.

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

 

 

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.

 

You’re Crying in Public: Now What?

None of us enjoy bursting into tears (or just having tears slide silently down our cheeks, unbidden) in situations that feel inappropriate or awkward. And yet for a person who cries, it is a scenario that is sometimes unavoidable. Some examples of places I have found myself unable to keep from crying that felt inappropriate:

  • In the cheese isle of a gourmet grocery store, because I had enjoyed buying cheese there with the man I broke up with 5 months prior
  • In front of a group of 5 year olds, because they “Weren’t taking Aladdin rehearsal seriously”
  • At work at a summer camp, because one of our campers, a 3rd grade boy with a twin sister, died tragically the day before
  • At the chiropractor’s office, because I was in so much pain, and he was an asshole who was telling me that failing to treat my misaligned back by seeing him for 12 sessions (which I couldn’t afford) could result in my death
  • SOBBING in a movie theater, after the credits for “Captain Philip” have finished, and the lights are on, and the employees are trying to sweep up popcorn because, as I kept repeating to my date: “It’s so complicated, there are no easy solutions!!!”
  • In front of a group of high school students I was teaching, because I was sad that my mom died
  • At a bar, because my husband and I saw a homeless kitten on the way there.
  • Checking people in to a yoga class because I was sad that my mom died
  • Silently sobbing in the back room of a tax office I worked at because my mom died.
  • In the radiology lobby of Kaiser, where I was waiting to get a “I had a miscarriage” ultrasound
  • Buying shampoo at CVS because I was sad that my mom died.

The list goes on and on (and on), but you get the idea. The reasons may be completely stupid or profound, but the result is the same: you are crying when you really don’t want to be crying. You are horrified, and would like to make it stop, and yet that just makes the crying happen more. Sometimes also with snot running down your face.

In the aftermath of my mom’s death in February of 2016 I’ve been in this situation so many times that I’ve (almost) become comfortable with it. At the very least, I have accepted that it is a part of life. And here are some strategies that I have found helpful:

1. Leave. I’ve left in the middle of yoga classes. I’ve abandoned shopping carts in grocery stores. I’ve just quietly excused myself and left the room. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to quickly get yourself somewhere that you feel less awkward crying. Just go. No need to explain yourself (because you’ll probably just burst into tears AT the person). You can always tell them later that you had to step out for personal reasons.

2.If you can’t leave, don’t try to fight it. The more I try to resist crying, the worse it gets, and the longer it drags on (and sometimes results in that AWFUL sound that is a cross between a ragged gasp and a snort that results from trying to hold back sobs and that is roughly the same volume as a sonic boom). So if I feel those tears building up in a place that is awkward and I cannot leave, I just accept that it’s happening, cry some cries, and then move on.

3. Warn those around you that crying might happen. This one is a biggie and, frankly, my personal favorite. I’m a big fan of transparency and disclosure. There are some days when I wake up knowing that I will not get through the day without multiple cry-fests, and that I will have no control over when they happen. On those days, I give my students, friends, or co-workers some version of the following heads-up:

            Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m having a really emotional day. I’m fine and everything is okay, but you’ll probably see me cry at some point. And I want to assure you that if that happens you don’t need to do anything to fix it. 

And then, when the inevitable crying happens, I once again reassure them that I am okay, and continue to work/teach/hang out. And when I do that, something magical happens: people stop caring about the fact that I am crying, because they see that it is not a problem that they need to fix. They see that I am just a person, and that having visible emotions doesn’t interfere with me going about my day or being competent at what I do.

4. Phone a friend. Do this literally or figuratively. If you are alone, call someone that you can talk to through the episode. The time I was crying in the cheese isle, I called one of my very best friends who had been roommates with me and my ex boyfriend, and told her about my emotional breakdown at the sight of dill havarti (it was his favorite!). Walking down the street with my husband in downtown San Francisco one day, I had a panic attack because the sight of a man’s leg injury brought on flash-backs of my mother’s emaciated body in the hospital when she was dying. I tapped on my husband’s shoulder and managed to squeak out that I needed a minute, and we stopped walking, stepped out of the way of other pedestrians, and he just hugged me for a few minutes while I calmed down. If you are by yourself and you cannot hug or call someone, put on music that is familiar and comforting to you, find something nice to look at nearby, or just buy yourself a hot chocolate. These are not suggestions intended to help you avoid crying, but rather to provide comfort and support, so you can feel the feelings, cry the cries, and then move on.

While these tactics have been incredibly helpful to me, I’m sure they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. Do you have a go-to trick for when you start crying in public? I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

Kinds of Cry

What are some reasons a person might cry?*

*…okay by “a person” I mean me, and by “might” I mean “an exhaustive list of reasons I already have…today.”

Let’s be honest. Not all cries are equal. Crying because you got fired feels very different than crying because you’ve been dumped, feels very different still from crying (sobbing) because you’re on your period and you’re wearing a maxi dress and your husband wants to go for a walk but the shoes you’re wearing look stupid with your dress and you think you look like a Peanuts character. (That 3rd one is universal, right? Just me? Okay.) So in my quest to examine and normalize crying, I thought that a good place to start would be to list the different reasons there are for crying. In generating the list I noticed some things. Meet me at the bottom to hear more about that.

  • Shame
  • Grief
  • Heartbreak
  • Physical Pain
  • Surprise
  • Vulnerability
  • Sadness (see also: Grief and Loss)
  • Happiness
  • Laughter
  • Loss (see also: Grief)
  • Beauty
  • Humility
  • Hormonal cry
  • Sex: Pain (see also: Physical Pain)
  • Sex: Orgasm (see also: Vulnerability, Surprise, Release, and Awe/Overwhelm)
  • Confusion (see also: Shame)
  • Embarrassment (see also: Shame)
  • Art (see also: Awe/Overwhelm, Beauty, Surprise, Vulnerability, Nostalgia)
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Exhaustion
  • Empathy (see also: everything else on this list)
  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Betrayal
  • Jealousy (see also: Shame)
  • Anxiety
  • Hang Over (see also: Physical Pain and Hunger)
  • Release
  • Relief
  • You Hear a Song (see also: Art)
  • Awe/Overwhelm
  • Nostalgia (see also: Grief, Loss, and Heartbreak)
  • Injustice (see also: Anger, Frustration, Disappointment, and Empathy)
  • Loss of Control (see also: Fear and Shame)
  • Cutting an onion
  • Dust in your eyes
  • Hayfever
  • Because something is SO FLUFFEH
  • I don’t know, I just am!
  • Because you’re still asking me this question (*quiet sobs*) (see also: Frustration)

Okay. That was a long list, and I’m sure there are things that I left out. Now on to some of the things I noticed.

Looking at this list I am struck by 1. How long it is, and 2. That emotions that are seemingly opposite are nevertheless both on the same list. For example, Sadness and Happiness. Anxiety and Relief. Disappointment and Benedict Cumberbatch (okay, so that last one isn’t on the list, but is definitely the opposite of Disappointment.). That tells me that I can cry for lots of different reasons, and that those reasons can be seemingly contradictory.

As I was listing these reasons, I also noticed that to me, many of them seemed to be related, or even to be sub-sets of one another (hence the “see also”s after some of the reasons.) This tells me that a reason I am crying often isn’t one single reason, but rather a combination of many, inter-connected reasons.

And something that surprised me about writing this list was that it brought up a big question: All of these reasons make me cry. So what is it like to feel these things for someone who doesn’t cry? That’s something I’m excited to explore in future posts.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe