Bigger When I Go

My mother was SMALL when we scattered her on the ground. I didn’t expect that. Logically, it makes sense—when broken down to its scientific components, our mass is smaller when we become ash. But I hadn’t considered it until I held her in my hands, until I scattered her in the dirt around the tree that will become her. Lilac; her favorite.

There’s so much I don’t know, still, may never know. I have so many questions, about life, family, the people she left behind that I never even got to know. I want to know who I am, where I came from, every detail she was never courageous enough to tell me, nor I courageous enough to ask. Where is my brother? Why is my biological father a complete and total jackass (and what created THAT union)? Where did my mother come from, truly? Why did she leave college? For me? I thought I’d come to terms with never knowing the answers fully, but I’m not so sure now.

I want more in my life. I always have I think.

My grandma was so proud of me for moving to the Big City, becoming a New Yorker. My mother too. I feel like everyone was. And I did a lot while I was here, but none of it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a Good Writer. I wanted to leave something of myself behind. now I’m ready to move home because, let’s be real, I’m not a New Yorker at heart and the pandemic made it clear that I never was. But what did I come here for? What was my takeaway? A sad book. A handful of really good published essays? More animal knowledge than I know what to do with?

Is that failing? That I came here to the city and would walk away with nothing that I thought I’d bring? It doesn’t feel like failing. But it doesn’t feel like succeeding either. I don’t know what it is.

When I die, in hopefully many, MANY, MANY years, what impact will I leave on the world? What have I done, really, to leave my mark? Because that answer can’t be nothing.

I need to be bigger when I go.

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On Death

Monday morning, I arrived at work at the vet clinic to find a dead cat.

Not one of the two clinic cats, thank goodness. Though every life is precious. This was one of the cats who had come to us to board for a while, along with her sibling. And she was not the sibling we thought would pass away in our care. But life is funny that way. 18 years old, it was her time to go. Past that time, if we’re being real. But I knew she was gone the moment I looked through the kennel door. I didn’t have to touch her to know she was cold, didn’t have to watch the the vet tech pull her out and rapidly realize it was several hours too late to assist her. There was nothing in her eyes at all.

I found myself judging the owner. Everyone at work was doing it. We had told the owner not a month before that there was zero quality of life for either cat, but they opted to go on a trip instead. I judged them, hardcore, and I stopped every day to pet their partially paralyzed cat and her sibling. More than once, the words drifted around the clinic that this owner had left their cats with us to die so that they wouldn’t have to make that hard choice.I used to be petrified of anything related to death, of dead people, animals, creatures big and small. My first week, maybe day two or three of my training, I got up from my desk and walked into the back to the largest dead dog I had ever seen splayed across the tile floor. Freshly dead, they told me, the doctor had performed an at home euthanasia and brought the dog back to the clinic, but it was too big to be on one of the tables so instead waited for pickup on the floor. I thought in that moment that I’d hate my new job, that I would never want to come back. But when I looked down at that dog, I saw peace. Walking away crying for that dog felt like quite the accomplishment. In crying, I was admitting something.

I have spent my entire life in fear of death. I came home late from work one night maybe 15 years ago to find my goldfish floating as a u-shape near the top of his tank, so I called my then-boyfriend to scoop him out for me. When my cat died during high school, I couldn’t look at the body. When my grandma’s dog, Max, died, I had to cover the body in three different blankets so I wouldn’t feel him inside as I picked him to take him away. I cried for none of them. I am not huge on crying; I never have been.

Somehow now, as a more mature adult, I can touch death. I have learned to make plaster paw prints, to talk parents through options when it’s their fur child’s time. Negotiating the specifics of death comes much easier to me now that it ever did before. I can say the right words and make the right choices and it doesn’t bother me in the same ways. All this to say, I didn’t always make the right choices when it comes death. And I have no right to judge the choices of others.

This little piece is nothing that I thought it would be when I started, but I suppose that sometimes we don’t need to be anything more than what we are.

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On Being Chosen Last for Kickball

When I was in grade school, there was this program called DARE. It was the district’s anti-drug measure. I’m not sure how effective putting a group of tiny humans together for physical activity actually is at combatting drugs, especially when said tiny humans use it to bully each other.

You see, I was never picked first. Most of the time, I wasn’t picked at all. The activity supervisor would have to insert me into the team. Nobody wanted to deal with me.

Towards the end of the school year in, I think, fourth grade (maybe third? My memory in these aspects fails me because school was bully-hell), I was standing on the raised stage of our fake gym area and teams were getting picked once again for kickball. I watched kid after kid get picked, some I definitely knew were not as good as me. (Not that I was great. But I could kick!). As the numbers dwindled, I made myself a promise. If I didn’t get picked this time, I would walk out of the activity and go play on the swings.

This is a bigger deal than it sounds like to an adult. Walking out risked getting in trouble, something I never did for fear of what would happen when I got home. Walking out meant detention, meant losing teachers favor. Meant breaking the rules, another thing I never did. Meant losing all those things that made child-me me.

To no one’s surprise, I did not get picked. To everyone’s surprise, I did walk out. The girl who always did precisely what she was supposed to walked right on down to the empty playground and sat on the swing for a whole thirty seconds before I was personally escorted to detention by the activity monitor. I remember having so many things I wanted to say to them during that walk. How I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Did I smell? Was it my off-brand clothes? Did they know what things were like at home?

Why was I never picked??? For anything???

But I said nothing. I took my entire week of detention (seems extreme for going out to swing but okay then) without a word of explanation, because I didn’t see the point.

Fast forward 25 years to adulthood, and my first time in a while with actual in person coworkers. One of my coworkers that I enjoy as a human is moving away, and apparently there is a party to which a select few of the staff were not invited. Guess what? I am one of the select few, and it’s definitely not a club I am enjoying being a part of. I dedicated too much space in my head during my sleep-free night last night to figuring out why. It’s not a seniority thing. The others excluded have been there much longer. And honestly, I’m nice to everyone. Even the ones I don’t necessarily like. I go out of my way to find things they like that we have in common. I smile at people (when my mask is off anyway) and leave them fun colorful post it’s and try to help them out whenever I can, even when it’s not my job to do so.

Yet I didn’t get invited to the party. I did everything right, even got myself a damn raise way before I was supposed to just by being me, but yet that me is not good enough somehow.

And it boggles my mind, because it feels like kickball all over again, and there MUST be something wrong with me that I’m never getting picked. I didn’t even realize I wanted to go until I wasn’t asked. Would I have gone? I’m not even sure. The point is that I don’t even get the chance to think about it.

So today I miss everything about working with dogs. I miss that I didn’t have to people as much in person. I miss my best friends (the dogs). And I miss that the dogs always, ALWAYS chose me. Without fail, without question. Whenever I came in, I was the center of their world. Not having that feeling anymore has left a gaping hole in me. Because these people don’t choose me. They’d be just fine if I didn’t even work with them. I don’t do cliques. And I don’t do bullies. I’ve spent too much of my life in that world.

I feel like I’m ten years old again, and I do not like it one little bit. But now I have to put my big girl pants on, get my Starbucks, go to work, and pretend like I like them all.

Cheers.

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On Being Me

In first grade, I got a Totally Hair Barbie for Christmas from my grandma. She was the best Barbie I owned, with brunette hair all the way down to her toes. After holiday break, I brought her to school, and I remember sitting at my little kid desk combing her precious long locks as she sat in my lap during snack time. Did I enjoying combing my own hair? Nah, not so much. But I did enjoy combing hers. So much so that the girl in the desk next to me who lived on my street, the one I’d been secretly hoping to befriend, noticed my joy.

“What’re you hiding?” She pointed towards my lap.

I wasn’t hiding the Barbie, per say. It was snack time, and I was allowed to have her out. But did I want to share her? No. Then I thought about it harder. Did I want this girl to be my friend? Yes. Yes I did. I brought the still-to-be-named Barbie out and plopped her on the desk, where I continued gently pulling the comb through her hair as it spilled across the wood.

“Oh, she’s pretty.” Leaning closer to my desk, she reached for the doll. “Can I try?”

Mind you, this was the girl who had snapped my strawberry crayon in half at the beginning of the school year. Why I wanted her to be my friend is largely beyond the scope of my adult brain. I should have known better, but I passed her the Barbie anyway. “Careful combing her hair. Don’t tangle it.” My own fine hair tangled all the time and it hurt. Couldn’t have Barbie feeling the same.

After a minute of dragging the comb through Barbie’s hair, the girl grew obviously bored and held the doll up for a closer inspection. She clutched the long locks around her fist and swung the Barbie, then let her drop back down to the desk. I tried not to yell at her; I definitely knew better. But then she said, “I think Barbie needs a hair cut.”

Now the whole point of the Totally Hair Barbie was her hair. Totally Hair—hair all the way to the butt. Cut her hair off, and what was left? Just…Barbie. I was against this proposed hair cut with every fiber of my being, but instead of voicing my dissent, I instead whispered, “Okay.”

I really really wanted this neighbor to be my friend.

I wanted it so badly that I watched her hack off Totally Hair Barbie’s lustrous locks in a really terrible asymmetrical bob without uttering a single complaint. I wanted it so badly that when questioned later as to what had happened to my brand new Barbie, I said I’d done it myself. And I took the punishment for it myself.

Eventually, my neighbor did become a friend. Adult-me realizes that this girl was more trouble than she was worth, but child-me just wanted someone to walk to school with, maybe hang out with to escape my own house. I gave this girl what she wanted, and then she liked me and became my friend. It was that simple.

Since the revelation that I struggle with codependency (CODA), I have tried to fit the whole concept into a box. I like to put things into tidy boxes—makes them easier to deal with. But I’ve been batting this around with my therapist since we started talking three years ago, and I’m finally just beginning to understand that maybe it doesn’t all fit in one box. Maybe not every single aspect of codependency applies to me. Perhaps the time I let my potential friend do a hack job on Barbie’s locks was the most innocent of my CODA origin examples.

My therapist said it best, actually:

“Maybe that is something you write about how abuse does this to a person too that this is what you are left with also – some sick parting gift for making mistakes that all children make but having [adults] that made you pay for it instead of being patient and teaching you…It was like you never had any other choice in life ever but to people please and now that you want to find your own self, you find yourself not wanting to disappoint those who actually love you and care about you. it’s like you don’t know how to differentiate.”

I wrote about this in the beginning of my book, but I didn’t fully understand what I was writing then. So let’s put it here:

When I was five years old, my grandmother’s boss gave me a pink My Little Pony Paradise for Christmas. I was too little at the time to realize what an expensive toy this was, simply choosing to love it for all of its sparkling pink pony hospitality. The dream house stood around two feet tall, with one main section and two eaves that folded out when I wanted to see all the rooms and closed to make it look like an actual house. Each of the side sections had four rooms—two on the top floor and two on the bottom—while the main section was just composed of two long rooms, one on each floor. There was the bathroom of course, which contained a rose pink claw foot tub for the ponies to bath in, a vanity for them to groom in, and a sink for them to wash their hooves, like all good ponies did after going to the bathroom. There were two sitting rooms, the contents of which rearranged daily depending upon what I most fancied. The house came with a plethora of pink televisions, chairs, couches, tables, and loveseats, all similar in shade to the bathtub, that I moved at will without stopping to consider how silly it was to think that a pony could sit in a chair. I still had my imagination then; the world was still moldable. There was the kitchen, which was comprised of an entire wall of counters, a small pink fridge, a pink sink, and a pink stove; right next to the kitchen was the dining room, which just a table and a lamp. The ponies did not sit to eat, because who had time for that? The other three rooms were all bedrooms. They had beds inside big enough for ponies to lay on, four hooves to the wind, as well as dressers and lamps. One even had a bookcase. All in pink, of course, because ponies only got furniture in pink. It didn’t occur to me then that my boy ponies may not have approved of all the pink—I wasn’t of the age yet where I had learned that gender was societally assigned.

Scattered all over the dreamhouse were the pony accessories. Every pony came with something, and these came in many different colors, from white to green to blue to pink. Pony clothes, pony shoes, pony hairbrushes, pony dishes. Ponies needed a lot to live in their dreamhouse, almost as much as I needed.

I steadily accrued ponies for most of the year. My favorite pony was Butterfly; I got her for my sixth birthday. She had purple bows on her little green butt, not butterflies, but the name seemed to suit her somehow. She fit in well with all the other My Little Ponies: Spike, with his hunter green hair that I crafted into a Mohawk with my purple safety scissors; Princess Lillian, who had a golden tiara tattoo around her forehead courtesy of my magic markers and a sparkling gray and white main so long it wrapped around her hooves; Daffodil, who sported sloppy flowers on her legs handpainted with my silver nail polish; Skyhopper, Elizabeth, and many more. I was always original with my name choices, and I took my time getting to know each and every pony. I cared very deeply for them.

One pony was bigger than all of the others. I named him Phillip. He was several inches taller than the others, some sort of blue giant super pony, and as such he frequently took the role of boss towards the female ponies. He was Princess Lillian’s boyfriend, as she was the tallest and most beautiful of all the ponies; he kept her tightly to him. Butterfly was Princess Lillian’s daughter, and Phillip’s property by association.

Phillip had a short temper fuse. He would blow up over the smallest of things, sometimes lashing out at Princess Lillian. It was Butterfly, however, who was his favorite victim. She would frequently find herself in dangerous situations with Phillip—hanging from the edge of my bed by her tail or mane; falling through the gap between my mattress and headboard, or pinned beneath his hooves in one of the many dream house bedrooms. Every once in a while, Princess Lillian would rescue Butterfly. But more often than not, she didn’t—Princess Lillian much preferred to sit in the background and watch, hiding behind her mane of glittering hair, her abnormally large eyes open and staring. Sometimes Phillip would give Princess Lillian things—money, food, presents—for his time with Butterfly. Butterfly was nothing more than a commodity, an object, a lesson which she would carry well into her adult years.

Book-writer me understands the concept of play therapy/psychology and what I wrote here. This section is actually one of my favorite parts of my book, and I will forever remember the response of the first writer’s group that workshopped it. But what about what I didn’t write?

When Phillip asked something of Butterfly, she did it. If he wanted to pull her hair, she offered it him. If he wanted to play bad games in the bedroom, she let him. If he said jump, she said how high. Butterfly was a pony pleaser to the extreme, and it kept her alive and in a relative place of safety.

If it wasn’t clear, she’s me. I am Butterfly. And I learned to people please pretty much from birth. If I was quiet, people might leave me alone. If I cooked, if I cleaned, if I did the right things, it could mean a day without being hurt. Doing what other people wanted of me helped me to be safe. I learned this behavior in the most extreme of situations, and it bled into every aspect of my life.

Major life decisions are forever paralyzing. Friend changes, job changes, life changes. I struggle to make a decision without thinking of the other party. I never learned to put myself first. I learned that my wants and needs don’t matter. I learned to be a chameleon and pretend to be the person who best fit a given situation. My therapist and I were talking about who *I* really am this week, and I realized that I don’t know. I have an idea, for sure. But to just answer that question right off the cuff without someone to give me the answer? Holy crap.

I’m told that I can change these behaviors built by 30 plus years of learning, but it also feels like a monumental task. Like I’m too old, like I can’t start over that way. I’ve started with the smallest of things: Do I want to take a new job? It became a yes/no line chart in my head but honestly, it’s the best choice for ME. Choice number two. Do I want to write about these things? Yes. Yes I do.

I was indeed left with a “sick parting gift” to quote my therapist. It has never felt like I had any choice but to please people, even in my most innocuous relationships. But in a way, this is a true gift as well. I listen very well; I can read people better than almost anyone I know.

I learn. And I adapt.

I think the biggest thing with me and the CODA behaviors is that I’ve felt alone in them. I felt like it was something broken inside me, something deeply defective and wrong. And yes, while something may be broken, it wasn’t broken by any fault of my own. It only took me this many years to figure that out. But now that I have, doesn’t that make each new day an opportunity?

Maybe I don’t have to be Butterfly anymore. Maybe I can just be…me.

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Let’s Talk About Babies

My internal baby factory has been taking hits from all sides this year: friends having babies, my impending 37th birthday, societal expectations that I marry and reproduce (or just reproduce somehow miraculously), and possible early menopause. The biological clock is ticking. Plus the me pressure. Always the me pressure. My therapist coined that term, not me.

When I was 25, I lost a baby almost at full term. Stillborn, no explanation. Babies die, and I know that better than many. I’ve learned to not be fully excited about upcoming babies until they are physically here in their mother’s arms—but I have also learned to keep that concern to myself, because it’s the right thing to do. I am a statistic. A low statistic. But a statistic. It’s changed the way I think about the world.

My therapist and I have been conversing lately about babies. Makes sense. My son would have been 11 years old this past Friday. I picture him a lot. Carter. We didn’t name him until we held his body. It was my now-ex husband who wanted to wait—I wanted to name him Jace, a name I fully attribute to The Mortal Instruments debuting while I was pregnant. My ex wanted to name him Carter, and my ex won. I was too preoccupied holding a baby that would never cry, and honestly, I didn’t hate the name.

At 11 years old, he’d be in…fifth grade. In a pandemic. In the state of Wisconsin, which largely doesn’t seem to care as much about said pandemic as other parts of the country. He would be tall for his age, I think. Light brown hair, hazel eyes. When he was younger I pictured him in suspenders, but now I see a boy with torn, grass-stained blue jeans, a kid that likes to play sports but also likes to draw—dragons, wyvern, and all types of fantasy creature. He likes to read comic books more than regular books, but has a special love for Harry Potter. He’s on safety patrol, looking forward to the annual Wisconsin Dells trip come end of the year (we won’t tell him that’s cancelled on account of Covid!) And he goes to Sunday School and loves God, because that is what he is supposed to do.

If I had an eleven year old, I would possibly still be married, in a marriage that was never right for me for a myriad of reasons, and I would possibly still be in a church that wasn’t right for me. Because those are the things that were expected of me. Those are the things that I was supposed to do. I have always done what I was supposed to do.

What I was supposed to do didn’t work out. It feels like trying to fit myself into the box of every expectation to ever exist NEVER works out. And yet, for some reason, I keep putting myself back into boxes. I’m supposed to find a relationship. I’m supposed to have kids. I’m supposed to have a stable career. I’m supposed to, supposed to, supposed to. What do I WANT?

Ever since Carter died, I think I’ve felt like I HAD to have another baby. That feeling started from outside sources, a conversation had by the pool Memorial Day weekend right after we lost him. When were we going to try again? We were going to try again, right? It was God’s will that we try again as soon as possible. Those words brought to you by my then mother-in-law. Of course, my sister-in-law was already pregnant with her first by then, and I was just a failure. After the divorce, a much-necessary occurrence, I told myself maybe babies would happen for me in a different way. They haven’t. Is that okay? My mother-in-law’s words ring in my head, and my love and desire for Carter hangs there too.

A revelation occurred to me this year, courtesy of many hours spent messaging with my therapist. I’m not sure I actually want a baby. Do I want Carter? Yes, absolutely. But I am well aware that’s never going to happen. My therapist asked me to think about why I want a baby and honestly…I don’t know. None of the reasons I’ve come up with have come from inside of ME. Another baby wouldn’t replace Carter; he can’t be replaced. And just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I HAVE to have a baby. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I just don’t know what I want. Perhaps I’ve never really known before what *I* want.

I guess that this, our year 2021, is the year in which I figure out all the things I actually want. Whether those wants contain babies remains to be seen, but I do definitely need to reevaluate where I am in my life.

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When the Dream is Just a Commodity (Or, Let’s Talk About Sex)

Even though I never had a family example of a normal, healthy marriage, I knew pretty much from the get-go that something was wrong with mine. We were en route to Canada for our honeymoon and we went through the McDonalds drive thru. I ordered a quarter pounder with cheese, but I don’t remember what he ordered. What I do remember is when he turned to me with the strangest look in his eye.

“That’s all the money you get to spend on food today.”

I didn’t understand what I’d done. After all, he’d ordered McDonalds too. But I did understand the look in his eye–it was one I’d seen repeatedly growing up, and it meant that there was an expectation present that I somehow had not fulfilled. When he ordered dinner for himself, I got nothing. I was a failure. And in my relationship, I thought the failure traced back to sex.

Sex has always been…sex to me. A bad word. Dirty. Something that people take from each other without giving anything in return. I know it’s referred to as making love in the movies, but it’s never been about love for me. And honestly, I’ve never understood it beyond the base of what I learned from childhood–big men exert power over little women and tell them not to cry or they’ll be sorry. A month before the wedding, I saw the gynecologist for the first time to get birth control. I was quite honest with her, a rarity for me, and I laid out that I worried I would never have any intimate feelings because of the abuse I’d been through as a kid. I told the doctor I felt damaged, broken. I’d heard the religious metaphor of the bruised fruit one too many times by then, and I was certain that what was taken from me when I was younger would never be returned. How would I satisfy my soon-to-be husband if I felt…nothing? And he was definitely needy. It started early in our relationship, in the dark basement den of his parents home on the couch to the side of their enormous tv; he would take a blanket and cover us up, no matter the weather, so his hand could sneak into my pants outside his family’s notice. Pleasure never came from this secret we held between us. His fingers hurt against my skin. They’d wander, struggling to find the right place and never locating it. Sometimes he’d dig into my labia under that blanket like he was holding it hostage. My parts for his; my happiness for his. If I think about it hard enough, I can still feel his fingernails grating against me.

He asked me one night why I never touched him back, oblivious of his family sitting right there watching the movies with us, but I didn’t have an answer that satisfied him. I could never satisfy him. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to save myself until we were married, whatever parts of me were left that could be saved.

The gynecologist addressed none of my concerns. “All women are nervous before their first time,” she told me, a slight laugh escaping her lips. “You’re young and healthy and beautiful, and you will certainly satisfy him. You’ll orgasm too.” It wouldn’t be my first time. She hadn’t listened to a word I’d said.

Our honeymoon commenced immediately after the reception, at the fanciest room in the Knight’s Inn, so that we could, as he put it, commence with the sex festivities prior to the long drive to Canada. We took that fancy room with a giant Jacuzzi tub, and we absolutely could not wait to get our clothes off–him for the whole “finally gonna consummate our relationship for real!” aspect, and me for the fancy tub. Sex won.

That night was my first actual, consensual sex, but I remember so little of it. Nothing of the actual act, not really, but many of the surrounding details. My dress was white; his mother bought it the week before when we were together at the mall. It had a zipper that ran from my neck past my butt, and she joked it would be easy for him to get me out of–I cringed. His shirt was blue, and his jeans were the fancy not-denim kind. He made me unbutton them and slide them down his legs. He made me take everything off. I did what he said because I thought it’s what I was supposed to do. Sex had never been about love, but rather an act, a commodity, an arrangement. The sheets were scratchy, cheap hotel sheets, no pattern, but my underwear had brightly colored flowers–I had neglected to wear anything sexy for the special moment. He told me I moved wrong and to just lay there, so that’s what I did. I found out years later he had learned what to do via porn. I’d learned via childhood. So in retrospect, the request made sense.

The jacuzzi was amazing. It was shiny white and big enough for two people. There were two faucets and eight jets, four on each person’s side. An army of different soaps and bath salts and bubble baths lined the wall in a coordinating rainbow of pastel colors. I chose the bubble bath that smelled like strawberries without asking his permission, and I tipped the bottle over under the open tap. The tub filled quickly; the bubbles covered my naked body. I had to encourage him to get in; he seemed afraid of the water. When I teased him, his cheeks turned rose pink and he slipped into the tub in a huff. I bent down to the bubbles and they smelled like the hard strawberry candies I used to steal off the counter when I was a kid. I slipped down within their grasp until I was buried up to my mouth. I knew the instant we came out, he would want more sex, and I did not want to come out. He told me that I smelled like a fruity pebble and tried to nuzzle me up and out of the tub. The faucets made me think of Niagara Falls. But I did come out eventually, and I did try.

The man who married us said prior, and I remember verbatim because it felt so important at the time, that he would “never marry a couple that would end in divorce,” so we had to stay together forever to keep his record spotless. To me, sex had been an opportunity to make up something that I’d lost. To him, sex was nothing more than a commodity, a prize to be taken.

I had dreamed of a special experience to erase all the bad ones. He had dreamed of fucking a porn star.

As we sat in the McDonalds drive-thru though, I knew I hadn’t played that part. I hadn’t been good enough. But I swore to myself in that moment that I would learn.

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Payphone

I am going to where I last remember seeing a payphone, a route I know well. The library. Books are my home and always have been. But I get there, and the phone isn’t in its corner under the tree. I spin, confused, but I keep walking. I don’t want to know what will happen if I stop moving.

His stain is on my t-shirt. I pull my coat closer around me, trying to hide the dumb baby cartoon shirt and its accompanying mess as I start to run. Faster, faster. My sneakers smack against freshly fallen snow, but I’m too cold to even recognize my once favorite weather, my fingers freezing as I stumble my way through the buttons. My jacket is not meant for this weather, but I didn’t have time to find a better one. It shouldn’t have even been my job.

I’m only 11 years old. I am 11 years old and my sneakers still have velcro and my shirt has my favorite cartoon and my hair hasn’t been washed in a week. But none of it matters.

I’m completely drenched, rain, snow, everything wet, by the time I find a laundry place. No one is inside, thank god, though several machines spin and whirl at top volume. Where’s the phone where’s the phone where’s the phone, there. In the corner. I am a different kind of scared. Calling will change everything. Everything.

I stand beside the phone, staring down at my jacket. At the buttons I didn’t do properly because I’d done them on the run. I had to do everything properly. Everything. But this time I had to fasten on the run, my fingers slipping on the buttons as I bolted. I watched myself in the glass casing around the phone as I fumbled with the buttons and tried not to panic. They have to be right; they have to be right; they have to be right.

I could go back. Already the idea is pulling at me. I should go back.

I finally fix the buttons. I still feel panicked, like I need to tear out my hair. So I reach up and I pull out a few pieces. Normally it helps, but I still don’t feel any better.

What if I told her? I could tell her. What had happened. What he’d done. But what if she doesn’t believe me? Worse, what if she tells me to just deal with it? Because that’s what I should do–deal with it. I should be able to deal with it.

I’d been scared so I’d said yes, and now I’d bled for it. 

Had I been saying yes to everything?

To giving up everything?

To having it taken like this?

I don’t know.

I don’t know anything.

I do know some things. I know that he was big and I wasn’t, strong and I wasn’t. I know that he wanted to make me scared, that he did make me scared, that I wasn’t supposed to be scared and would get in so much trouble.

I’m so scared.

I fumble in the pocket of my coat for quarters and pump them into the coin slot on the payphone. My fingers tremble as I pluck out the number I memorized back in third grade that my teacher gave to me and told me to never give to anyone else. I try to tell myself that this isn’t a betrayal, that I’m protecting myself, that it’s okay to not do what I’ve been taught because maybe what I’ve been taught wasn’t the right thing.

The phone rings and rings and rings and just when I get ready to hang up, I hear her say hello. The words send me crashing to reality so quickly I can barely focus on the picture I built in my head as the rings chimed–me living with her family and her kids in their perfect house with their perfect life.

She says hello again, asks who it is, while a man talks to her in the background. I didn’t even think that there’d be a man there. I couldn’t live there. I wouldn’t fit in. I could never be…ordinary.

I mess everything I touch up, and I don’t want to mess her up too. I claim wrong number. And then I hang up the phone and disappear back into the cold.

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Headspace (Not the Meditation App)

Let me just start off with the statement that this has not been a great week, for a lot of reasons. Not that that is an excuse for anything that is about to come out of my mouth—just don’t say you weren’t warned. I’ve stared at this screen for hours, trying to decide how to say what I want to say. Or if I even can.

When I was in elementary school, I think fourth grade, I wrote my first book. I actually still have it, this 8.5×11 masterpiece hole punched and bound with blue and yellow yarn called Dare to Dreamer. Yes, Dreamer. And yes, that was supposed to be Dream. I clearly paid attention to my work even back then. But I digress. This story, written and illustrated by me, was about a girl named Kris (I took the spelling from my then-favorite video game) who wanted to play baseball with boys. (Ten year old me was apparently ALSO about smashing the patriarchy??) In order to join their team, the boys put Kris through this bizarre initiation that somehow ended up with her falling off a bridge and dying. (And we wonder how I ended up in the “special” program…)

When I was in sixth grade, my mother had a boyfriend who owned a computer. And that was the greatest thing ever to me, at least in the moments he allowed me to use it. I had my very own folder, and I wrote stuff. It never occurred to me he would read it, that my mother would read it. That I was wrong and dumb and stupid to write the things I had written.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote my next book. An actual real, full length, non-fiction, what I now know to be memoir. That I have never shared with a single soul. Ever. It’s called The Rest of Us, a nod to the under-appreciated tv show “Freaks and Geeks,” and it is, quite literally, about what high school was like for “the rest of us.” I talked about problems at home, with my mother, her boyfriends. I wrote about how I knew I needed help and struggled to ask for it. I wrote about the beginnings of my eating disorder, and the weird religious woman who tried to “cure” it. This was the first successful NaNoWriMo I did. It was not the last.

When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a short story that got the end of the year school literary magazine censored. Literally, as the magazine went to press, they had to halt everything and rip my story from the bindings. The advisor slipped me a copy with the story still inside, and it is my understanding that all files the school had were destroyed. I have the only copy.

I didn’t write for a long time after that. Not for real. I had said everything I needed to say. Occasionally I’d pump out a short story or something, effortlessly. My teachers loved me and my writing. One even wrote me an end of the year letter that I still treasure to this day about how my words will always be my words. (He said it much better, and it is in a frame on my wall. He’ll never know how much it means to me, unless, of course, he reads this. I’m not sure I’ve ever even thanked him.)

And then I REALLY didn’t write for a long time. I did NaNoWriMo every year, and won every year except one. But they are largely craptastic manuscripts when I go back to them. No one wants to read them. I don’t even want to read them. I had a gift; I lost the gift. I spent ten years doing bogus other things.

And THEN I went to college.

I stumbled around my first year thinking I was a great fiction writer. Truthfully, I was. I ran circles around my first creative writing class, including a girl I called out in my draft notes for plagiarizing. I thought to myself, oh hey, I could be a writer again. So I became one. I battled my way through undergrad, ten years later than “normal,” working on two degrees and a LOT of personal baggage. I discovered creative nonfiction, in a wonderful class taught by a wonderful professor, with a lot of wonderful writers. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I found a voice that had been kept from me for so long. I started this blog. I kept UP with this blog. I got followers that made my future agent proud. I wrote an entire book, a REALLY real one, that I am embarrassed to share with ANYONE for what was done to it.

Then grad school happened.

When I was in grad school, I let all of the voice I had found get taken away. I remember a few weeks after I earned my MFA sitting in a coffee/wine shop with the editor of a magazine who had offered to give me personal feedback on a draft—and she really hated what she read. It was stiff, she told me. And I don’t even remember the rest of the feedback, but I grabbed for another essay I had recently published, one I’d written at the beginning of my grad school journey, before I broke. It was the same essay really, same topic. But it was ME. She took it, and she read it right in front of me while sipping wine. Clear as day, I remember the moment when she set down her iPad, still open to the publication, and said to me, “This. This is your voice.” I knew grad school had been bad for me in a lot of words, but it wasn’t until that moment in that cafe that I realized how much I was broken. By the voices that told me again and again I wasn’t good enough, but then wanted to tote me around as their prized poodle when my manuscripts were great (after rewriting them of course). That told me I couldn’t give feedback to people properly because anything I told another writer would always be colored by my own experiences but then wanted to dump every struggling thesis writer in my lap. It broke me.

It. BROKE. Me.

Honestly? I’m not sure I’ve ever found that voice again, never in the same way. Writing has become something that is stiff and up in my head and marred by my overarching life fear of being dumb. Instead of being a writer who walks and trains dogs, I became a walker/trainer who writes sometimes kinda maybe when she wants which isn’t often. I let it all go, the books, the drafts, the essays. I’ve published only twice (soon to be thrice though) since grad school, and they’re things I wrote before. When I knew who writer me was.

I don’t know who writer me is anymore.

I don’t even know that she is still here. Hell, with Covid, half the time I’m not even sure DOG worker me is still here.

And if she’s not, with as big a part of me as she was, do I even know anything at all?

If you’ve gotten this far, thank you. If you’re a writer and you want to leave advice, I will definitely take it. And with that, I bid you adieu.

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In Which a Contemporary YA Novel Teaches Major Life Lessons

I just finished a book. Nothing unusual, if you know me; I generally read at least one a week. But This Will Be Funny Someday, by Katie Henry, struck a weird chord with me in that I’ve never read about a main character so positively codependent. Mind you, the author never identifies the protagonist as codependent (CODA). But holy crap, she most definitely is!!! I found myself checking all sorts of boxes as I went along, drawing parallels between myself and this fictional high school student:

1) In a relationship with a boy who is emotionally and borderline physically abusive because she feels like she needs to take care of him when no one else will.

2) Allows other people to talk over her in conversations because their thoughts are more important than hers and therefore obviously right.

3) Gives away the true parts of herself in order to display the parts of herself that she thinks people around her want to see, whether those parts are real or not.

4) Does not allow herself to take up any space for fear of making other people mad or upset.

Me, with my therapist (Lisa) of nearly three years after our third time reading The Four Agreements: “Oh no, none of this applies to me, I am most definitely not CODA.” None of that book will ever make sense to me. I am much too black and white.

Me, upon digging into and then finishing this young adult contemporary fiction novel: “Oh….Sorry, Lisa.” Because this book makes sense in a gray way that The Four Agreements never hit for me.

1) I stayed with my ex for YEARS because I thought I could fix him.

2) I actually don’t tend to voice my opinions very often, because if everyone else is right I must automatically be wrong, right? I don’t like making black and white statements, even though I myself am very black and white, because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or provoke an argument.

3) I honestly am not sure who I am. And I’m learning from Lisa that that’s okay, that I’ll figure it out at some point. But I’ve spent so much of my life doing for others and constructing myself the way I thought they needed me to be that when asked who *I* need me to be, I am generally at a complete loss.

4) I feel like 4 and 2 are the same thing here, but also not? If someone hurts my feelings, I don’t tell them. I eat it. Because it must be me who was wrong, right? I don’t have a right to have hurt feelings. I don’t have a right to be anything at all but who they need me to be. Hell, I apologize to people who run into ME on the sidewalk. Like I don’t even have a right to walk down the street???

The Covid pandemic has been a great lesson to me in that it has helped me learn quite a few things about myself and my life. First being that absolutely none of my relationships are what I thought they were. The people I thought most important and the people I thought least important in my life have both moved into shades of gray. I actually don’t have many in person relationships like I did when I lived back home, so there’s not much to miss in that regard. But even in my online relationships, the things I thought most important simply…aren’t. In that knowledge, I’ve made some new friends during the pandemic, but I’ve also lost some. And I guess that has to be okay.

Second, I thought that my work was everything, but it’s not. It barely exists anymore. And I gave everything to my clients (still do, to those that are left), despite the time and space that I needed/need. I used work to hide, and now I don’t generally have that barrier because…work does not exist.

Third, I failed at graduate school socialization because, not only did my program suck (it absolutely positively did, and I’m sure I’ve blogged on that at some point), but so did I. I let grad school take my voice as a writer and turn it into someone I didn’t even know, and I didn’t stand up for it. And then I couldn’t even make friends because everyone was so different than I was used to, so open, that I didn’t know how to function within their circles.

Fourth, I am always telling myself that I can’t do things. That I need to say less. Be less. Take up less space. That everyone else goes first and I come last. That I can’t be who I really am because I’ll lose people. But in the end, the only thing that’s really lost is me, and the people I’ve lost quite simply weren’t worth my time anyway.

This is not me saying I know how to fix this, by any stretch of the imagination. Just me saying that I’ve played so many different roles and worn so many different hats for so long that I don’t know which is right, that this story about a fictional girl made me realize that I do want to find me again. Wherever that might be.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

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The Dream House

When I was ten or eleven, I wanted a Barbie Dream House more than anything. If you were a kid in the 90s, you know the one. It was big and pink and just this perfect mansion example of a life I would never have as an adult. But my Barbies could have it. I was a wrecking ball of determination; I clipped the ads from the toy book, pasted them everywhere I could think of, and made loud dramatic comments from my corner of our tiny apartment about how my Barbies had nowhere to live. I even included it in my list to Santa. I already knew that my mother was Santa by that point, having located the presents hidden in her closet a year or two before wrapped in “The Santa Paper.” But I dared to dream anyway.

I wasn’t quite old enough to realize that a Barbie Dream House wasn’t something we could afford. I knew that we were different than the couple friends I’d managed to make, that our apartment wasn’t as nice as their houses and that I didn’t have the same toys. I knew that my friends had moms and dads. I knew that my mother was gone all of the time, in more ways than one. But I decided that the dream house was one thing that I could have that everyone else did. (Did everyone else have it though? Because I don’t think I ever played Barbies with friends so who knows why my twisted kid brain thought this.)

When Christmas came, there was a indeed a very large box under our Tigger “tree,” and I could barely contain myself as I ripped into it. A dream house?? Finally?? The first glimpse of pink poked through…and it was a house, but not a dream house. It was something else, a generic brand I didn’t remember. I was sad for a moment, but then forgot as we put it together. It was just as tall, and had MORE rooms than the dream house, which didn’t even seem possible. And sure, the Barbies had to sit in those rooms because the ceilings were too low to stand up in. And sure, some of the plastic wasn’t the most stable. But gosh, I loved that house. To literal death, as I recall. I loved it so hard that it essentially disintegrated from old age.

All this to say, I think my mother did the best she could given our circumstances, and she loved me the best way she knew how.

I’m 36 years old now. 36, it’s November 24th, and my mother has been dead a month. My feelings about that are long and twisted and too many to tell. A little angry, because the hospice worker saw fit to tell me she was violating privacy laws telling me my mother’s condition had deteriorated because my mother told her NOT to tell me; more angry that they told me she passed in a VOICEMAIL. Scared, because I’m going to die at some point, at right now it looks like I’ll have no money to my name or family to speak of in terms of marriage or kids; more scared, because who will take care of me when I die? (I know how much this costs now. It will only cost more by the time it’s my time, hopefully many many years from now). Frustrated, because Wisconsin has dumb legal rules about death and all its friends; more frustrated because of Covid and the fact that I can’t have the memorial service that she wanted right now.

Furious, because I found my sperm donor of a father this year and he wants nothing to do with my existence. I looked him up on Facebook, and he has another family and…doesn’t seem like someone I want to know? But he should WANT to know me. There’s an expectation there and he has failed.

Lonely, because all of my friends live in Wisconsin and I’m in Manhattan. Good thing I was already skilled at video chatting before Covid.

Lost, because my career is absolute shit amid Covid. I’ve been working to build things up on the dog training side, and now we’re heading for another shutdown.

I have all these complicated feelings, yet I’m thinking about a dollhouse? For the last month, I’ve continually been thinking “write about the dollhouse. Why write about anything else?” The dollhouse? It wasn’t what I thought. And 2020? It definitely hasn’t been what I thought. I guess these ideas play better in the sandbox together than I thought.

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