Monthly Archives: June 2013

On Unicorns (And Grad School)

“A unicorn is someone who knows they’re magical and isn’t afraid to show it.”

I would give anything to have certainty one hundred percent of the time.  It’s strange, really.  On the nights when I have a drink in me and I’ve been working really hard on my writing…well, those are the nights when I worry the most about grad school.  I worry that I’m not good enough; I worry that I won’t get in.  I write every single day.  If you’re here, reading, then you know that.  Some days, I write about nothing.  Like this.  But I write.  And I try.  So hard.

I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as much as I want to go to grad school.  I want that concrete confirmation that I can be truly awesome at something.  I’m a good writer.  I know that.  But I want to great.  I want to make a difference; I want to leave a mark.  I need this win to finish my story.  I need a happy ending.

I often wonder what I will end up doing with an English degree.  Will I be able to hack it and make enough money with my writing?  Or will I end up back at the bottom of the barrel in retail living out someone else’s desires?

I want to be magical.  Gosh.  I want to be a bloody unicorn.  If I was a unicorn, I would know without a doubt that I was going the right way.

Grad school seems quite far away right now, but the closer it gets, the scarier it becomes.

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Major Life Lessons Learned in English 266

The greatest life lessons I learn come from school.

In my life before school, I learned that I was not supposed to think for myself.  My thoughts were not my own.  I let my ideas whither away into nothing.  I was not supposed to have my own opinions.  I was supposed to go along with the crowd; I couldn’t be my own person.  It wasn’t okay to have a wrong answer.  These messages came from everywhere around me, and this conditioned philosophy made school very difficult for me.  I didn’t know how to speak up; I had a very difficult time if I was not certain that there was a correct answer.  I was always the first to raise my hand if I was certain I was correct.  The thing about being in a creative field is that there really isn’t one, correct, answer.  There’s no wrong answers either.  There’s just what you think.  Of all of the things I’ve learned in school, this was the hardest concept that I had to grasp. 

Last semester, I took the first course that posed any sort of a challenge for me academically.  It was a course in literary analysis, the gateway course to my degree.  As I started tackling the readings and the beginning coursework, I got it in my head that I was perhaps not cut out to be an English major.  We were supposed to read and interpret and have our own ideas about what we were reading…and there was no correct answer.  I tried though, valiantly.  And then we got to Lacan and his psychoanalytic theories, and it blew my brain.  I read the words that he had written about the mirror stage, and the phallus, and I got them on a basic level.  But in my head I was stuck on the idea that I had to please this professor, that I had to figure out what she wanted and what the right answers were—and THAT was WAY too hard, because, like I said…no right answers.  I was drowning.  So I asked her for help. 

I distinctly remember the conversation we had standing in her office, just two weeks or so into the class.  I essentially told her that I didn’t get it.  And really, I did.  I had my thoughts and ideas.  But I wanted to be successful, I wanted her to tell me what to think.  Her response?  “Well, what do you think?”  I couldn’t get over the idea that there was no wrong answer.  As I tried to articulate what I thought Lacan was saying, the only thing running through my head was that she would think badly of me if I was wrong.  

As it turned out, she didn’t think badly of me at all.  She thought I had a firm grasp on things.  She said I “sounded smart.”  I took that to mean I was going in the right direction.  I went off on my own and finished that day’s assignment. 

My thinking started to change.  After that, I started raising my hand more.  I started trying to say how I really felt about things.  This isn’t to say I didn’t still freak out about it upon occasion; learning to how to be my own person was one of the hardest things I had ever done.  It wasn’t just academic for me.  It applied to my outside life as well.  I was mending all of the mental and emotional processes that had previously been broken.  

As happens with all upswings, there is always a downswing.  Mine came in the form of our final class presentations.  I was not only expected to form an argument that was completely my own, but I was expected to articulate that argument in front of a group of professors and my peers and alumni…that was a lot to take in.  Of course, it was for a grade.  I couldn’t just not do it.  I never in my life wanted to take an F more than I wanted to take that one, even though I had never had an F before.  I completely panicked.  There would be people.  Looking at me.  Judging me.  Judging my paper.  Judging my thoughts.  And those people were allowed (and encouraged) to ask questions, which I would have to answer on the spot.  My paper, which was an extension of me, was going to be up for debate.  Because I was so close to the work, to the ideas, I knew that it would feel personal.  They were my thoughts.  And I had to share them.  

That was a rough one for me considering that the whole idea of having my own thoughts was a completely new concept.  There were multiple emails exchanged between myself and this professor.  She did her best to reassure me.  My advisor worked with me on how to answer questions if people posed them to me—she told me to just get up there and do what I had to do and get my A.  She told me to believe in myself.  But I was still completely freaked out.  Believing in myself was not a solid concept at that point in my life. 

I dressed up the day of my presentation.  It’s a thing that I do, when I’m scared out of my mind.  I put on nice clothes.  I think my logic behind it is that if I look pretty and appear like I can handle myself, I will be able to handle myself.  So I wore leggings, and an old dress, and I took the advice of my advisor and did what I had to do.  I believed in myself.  I believed in my thoughts.  As I started talking, I kept my hands below the podium edge so people wouldn’t see them shaking.  I played with my feet behind the podium, stepping in and out of my shoes.  I followed the words on the page with a pen.  (I still do that, and I’ve now given several of these presentations.)  But as I was speaking, it started to come easier.  No one was outright screaming that my argument was invalid.  No one was laughing at me.  I don’t remember all of the nightmarish things I thought might happen, but none of them did. 

I gave that presentation, and it was awesome.  I fielded all of the questions that were asked of me, even the curveball question from my professor herself.  I learned something about myself that day, and not in the academic sense.  I learned that it’s okay to speak up.  It’s okay to be my own person.  It’s okay to have my own thoughts, and to say what I want to say.  I learned that I was still strong and very, very capable, despite the things I had previously learned.  Giving that presentation broke all of the previous conditioning that I had experienced.  

The presentation assignment was given to us to give us experience in sharing papers in the event that we were ever asked to share our work at a conference.  But it was so much more than that for me.  It showed me that I was still a person.  I had things to contribute to life, both academic and not.

It taught me how to be proud of myself.   

Who knew that it was possible to draw major, life changing lessons from an English course?

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To My Future Children

To my future children…You are nothing more than a glimmer now.  A blink, perhaps.  An idea that may or may not ever come to fruition.  But I can picture you.  I can see myself holding you, loving you.  I don’t know that you will ever actually come to be, but I can imagine life if you did.

I have many notions on the thought of me having you in the future.  First and foremost, there’s the obvious statement of my age.  I am almost thirty.  I am running out of time.  I want things now that I didn’t want before.  I want to finish a graduate degree.  I want to move, to travel.  I want to experience things I missed out on during that hunk of my twenties that is buried and gone.  But I want you too.  Can I have both?  Is it okay for me to want something else first?  Do I have time?  I don’t know if I can have a relationship, a family, and have these other things.  These are questions that can’t be answered.  

Having you means having a relationship.  Do I want a relationship?  This is a question that is too complicated to answer in its entirety.  Do I need a relationship?  Absolutely not.  I want kids, but I don’t necessarily want a relationship.  I want to be my own person.  But it takes two to tango, so to speak.  So to have you, I’d have to be okay in a relationship.  I’d have to find a relationship.  And these things, like everything else, take time.

 To be pregnant again would be, for lack of a better word, weird.  Instead of counting the days until you arrived, I would be counting the days until I could get you out of me safely.  This would make the entire experience completely different.  Every missed kick, every not felt movement, every mental twinge would be a catastrophe.  I wouldn’t want to plan for you.  I wouldn’t want to name you.  I would struggle to get baby things.  Instead of looking at the ultrasound to see if you were a boy or a girl, I would look to see if your heart was still beating.  I would struggle to put one foot in front of the other until the day that I could hold you, alive.  I would constantly wait for something to go wrong.  Because things do go wrong, and it happens without warning.  And the ever present question:  what if something did go wrong?  Again?  I would have trouble believing that you would ever actually come; I would have trouble believing that you would be okay.

There wouldn’t be another baby shower.  There wouldn’t be another “first baby.”  Do-overs are not something that really exist.  I will never have another shot at my first child.  You will always be second.

We would both miss out on so much.

Would I want you to fill the hole of what was lost, or would I want you for you?  Logically, I know that nothing can ever fill that hole.  You would be entirely separate.  Would I have trouble making that distinction?  I have no way to answer that question.  I’d like to think I would love you on your own.  I already love you, and you don’t exist.  But really, honestly, there’s no way to know. 

For a long time after Carter died, I wanted nothing else but to become a mother.  I still want that.  But I want other things too.  And, as always happens when I am brutally confronted with the fact that he is no longer here, I find myself having to reevaluate my choices.  I can not have everything; no one can.  My quality world, my ideal self, involves having you.  I’d like to think I would be a good mother to you.  I would give you everything.  You should know that.  But there’s the issue of time.  There is never enough of it.

I’d like to think I would have been a good mother to Carter.  But I didn’t get much chance there.  I didn’t get any choice at all.  But I would have given him everything.  You should know that too.

I want a family.  But perhaps I need to accept that that will never come to be.  Maybe there are some things we don’t get another shot at. 

So, to my future children.  I’m sorry that I can’t be more for you.  I’m sorry that I can’t guarantee you a chance.  I’m sorry that you might always exist as nothing more than an idea in the back of my heart. 

To my future children, and to Carter…I love you, always.

Psychic Vampirism

I’ve become fascinated with the term psychic vampirism.  Psychic vampirism is a instinctual aspect of human behavior and operate under the idea that all humans are biological creatures that have basic physical needs of hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, activity, comfort, and energy.  A psychic vampire is a person who satisfies their need for these things by taking them from other people without consideration for that other person’s needs or wants.  I had an acquaintance this week tell me that she has attracted psychic vampires for her entire life; that’s a gift that nobody wants to have.

 

Unfortunately, I believe that I possess it as well.

 

In simple terms, I attract people and relationships who are bad for me.  It isn’t that I want to do it.  I don’t go out and SEARCH for these things.  But I’m like a magnet, and I don’t know how to turn that off.

 

My first recorded (remembered) example:

 

When I was a kid, I was horribly socially awkward.  (Still am most days.)  There was this boy in middle school named Jason.  If it was possible at that age to have an arch-nemesis, he was mine.  He tormented me mercilessly all three years of middle school and I hated him for it.  The most vivid memory that springs to mind was in seventh grade.  I had Mrs. Dobbs for Language Arts, (what we adults call English), and we were reading Hatchet.  Because I hated almost everyone at school during that time, I ate lunch in her room a lot to avoid the cafeteria.  (This is a process I would repeat the following year as well.)  I had finished Hatchet long before everybody else, and she kept giving me new and different things to read. During this particular lunch hour, I was reading Bridge to Terebithia.  I really liked it, and continued reading it all the way out of her room and down the hallway as I was walking.  At some point in that hallway, Jason came out of nowhere and started squirting shampoo all over me, yelling that I’d be prettier if I could just do something with my hair once in a while.  I cried for the book, but not for me.  

 

I will not bore you with all of the pain of middle school.  We’ve all had it.  We all know.  But know there are many more examples.

 

Fast forward to the next example:

 

High school.  I had this amazing friend.  At least, I thought she was amazing.  Quite possibly because she was the first one I had had for any massive duration of time.  But I let her use me.  I let her cheat off my homework and copy my answers.  Sometimes I did the homework for her.  I listened to her stories, and I smiled and nodded in all the right places.  I did whatever she wanted.  But when my road got rough, we essentially parted ways.  That was better for all.

 

Fast forward again:

 

My first boyfriend.  Senior year.  He lasted all of…well, not long.  I suppose boyfriend is even a strong term for him…Let’s call him instead my first dating relationship.  His name was Chad.  I met him on a blind date that I agreed to go on with a “friend” of mine, who was only allowed to go on a date with her boyfriend if it was a group thing and I went along.  And so I did, because that was my thing.  She and her boyfriend ditched us and left us alone at the bowling alley.  We drove home, and when he asked me out again, I said yes.  Why the heck not?  We went on a few dates; most of them were to shoot-em-up cop movies and the like.  When prom came around a month or so later, it seemed natural to ask him.  What was unnatural was that I paid for it.  ALL of it.  The tickets, his tux, my dress, the boat dinner that sucked, and the after party.  We made it through the dinner and about an hour of prom.  He wouldn’t dance with me.  He wouldn’t talk to my friends.  And then he slipped something into my drink.  At which point I made him take me home.  That was the end of that.

 

Fast forward again:

 

My marriage.  Enough said.

 

Where does this come from, this…just…letting other people suck the life out of us?  At what point do some people go from being children who make good decisions to children who fail to make any decisions for themselves at all?  Why do we think that we are only okay when we are serving somebody else?

 

Why did I think this?  Why did I close off my personal self to the world for so long and let other people feed off of it?  Why didn’t I put a stop to it sooner?  Is it possible to gain back the things that I’ve lost?

 

I’m not sure that there are any easy answers to these questions, or that there are any answers period.  I believe that conquering this phenomenon has to do with being fully aware—of myself, of others, of even the simplest day to day interactions.  I think it has to do with being me and not caring what anybody else thinks, with writing what I want and saying what I want and doing things for myself instead of always asking what other people want.  This doesn’t mean I need to be selfish all the time; it means that I need to find a healthy balance between my own needs and wants and those of others.  

 

And with that statement, I believe I have an answer to the question of why.  It happens when a person thinks that need somebody else to fulfill them, that they need to be in some sort of relationship in order to be a whole person.  When that happens, the desperation behind it attracts the most unsightly of people; it attracts the vampires.

 

This, here, is me saying that I’m not going to play this game anymore.  That I’m going to do things for me.  That I don’t need a relationship to be happy.  

 

I create my own happiness.

 

Screw you, psychic vampires.  My needs win.

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An Exposition of Death

He smells of death.  Not the “rotting in the ground” type of death, but rather the “impending cloak of doom” type of death.  What happened wasn’t his fault.  You can tell he doesn’t understand as he stares off into the yard through his sealed doggy door with a slap-happy smile on his face, a single stream of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth.  The eyes that stare at you only project love:  love for people, and love for you specifically.

His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him.  He desires to be a part of the real world again.

You know that won’t happen, because this is it for him.  

Death row–there is no going back.

 *

“People think that pitbulls are bad.  And they’re really not.  It’s all in how they’re raised.  A lot of people just make awful assumptions.”

Jenny fingers the silver wire of one of the animal shelter’s many dog cages, her hands traversing up and down the triangles but not really seeming to feel anything.  I watch while looking down, unsure of where my eyes should actually be.  On him?  On her?  On nothing at all?

“You don’t hear about all of the good dogs, the good pits, that are out there.  You only hear about the bad ones, the ones that fight, the ones that get into trouble.  Pits are such devoted dogs.  And they’re so smart.  They’ll do anything for you, if you just ask.  But they need to be trained right.  I wish the shelter could find people to do that.”

I nod quietly, unsure of what to say.  

“So, you know the pet expo?  We brought some dogs there last weekend.”

I’m not sure that I do.  But as she speaks, I quickly realize that she’s going to take me there.

You look around the room.  The pet expo is busy; lots of people, lots of pets.  This really shouldn’t surprise you.  It’s a pet expo, so it’s expected that pets will be there.

Graham is ready.  Sitting.  His tail swishes back and forth behind him, sweeping the ground silently and showing that he is ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice.  The first person who comes to them will be greeted and licked into happy oblivion.  

The dog next to him is ready too, but in a different way.  You remember Nosey, from previous outings.  He strains against his leash, stretching his handler’s arm out like that character from The Fantastic Four movies.  Where Graham is waiting for people to come to him, Nosey is out and about in everybody’s business.  

Graham hates this, you can tell.  He wants attention, and he’s trying to be patient.  But people won’t come close to him because they don’t want to come by Nosey.  He’s too pushy.  They will never find a forever home this way.

Nosey is ruining everything.

“We send a lot of these dogs to foster homes for whatever reason.  Like, if we want them to get more social with people or dogs, or just get some love or whatever.”  Jenny sticks her fingers through the holes of the cage, despite the big red sign that says she shouldn’t.  I watch as the tail action increases, swishing back and forth behind him.  I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth:  Love, love, love, love, LOVE!

“We do a lot of handling when we work.  I’ve worked a lot with this dog.  Sweetest dog ever.”  She points into the cage.  “This handler named Tim took a dog, Nosey, home with him.  They had this dog for a while, but nobody checked on exactly what they were doing with him.  He had a lot of problems.”

 *

You watch as the man on the other end of the leash chokes Nosey back.  Graham’s handler takes him a few steps away and makes him sit again.  Graham follows every command like a champ, and his tail swishes back and forth in anticipation of what’s to come.  

Nosey growls at a passing dog.  Someone yells at the man to take him home, he doesn’t belong there.  Not when he’s aggressing towards other dogs.  You imagine that Graham is laughing.  If Nosey goes away, Graham will be adopted.  Of this, you and Graham are both sure.  The man says no, Nosey can handle it, he can handle it.  You watch.  You aren’t sure that he can handle it. 

It looks bad on the shelter, someone tells him once no one is watching.  Nosey obviously doesn’t want to be here.  You agree.  But your two cents don’t belong in this situation, so you remain silent.  The handler insists on staying, insists the dog is fine.

Graham eyes Nosey as he strains again against the handler.  You can see the wheels turning in Graham’s head.  Why can’t Nosey just sit down already?  Why can’t he be nice?  Didn’t his mother ever tell him that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar?  Doesn’t he want to be petted?  ‘Cause Graham wants to be petted.  Very much.

His tail swishes back and forth, back and forth.  

He waits.

You wait.

 *

“Nosey had a lot of problems.  Like, he would act aggressively towards other dogs.  Not biting aggressively.  But aggressive.  Growling.  Personal space.  Very reactive.”  Jenny looks at Graham.  He waits for her to open the cage door, to come inside, but she can’t.  It’s apparent that he doesn’t understand this when he pushes his snout up against the wire again and again.  His tail swishes back and forth behind him as her fingers graze his nose.

“Nosey jumps up, and gets over aggressive and just….not good with people or dogs.  But he was getting better….”  

Graham sticks his tongue through the wire and attempts to lick Jenny’s fingers.  She doesn’t pull away.

She loves Graham, and Graham loves her.  I can tell.

 *

Nosey’s bark is booming, and echoes over the sounds and excitement of the Expo Center.  You watch and see the exact moment when Graham can’t take it anymore.  He’s still sitting, his tail still going back and forth, but he lets out one single bark.  

As you watch, Nosey turns and hauls his handler right back over to Graham.  Nosey is barking.  Graham barks again.  He’s mad; he doesn’t understand.  This is as plain to you as day.  You wonder why the handler doesn’t see it.

Nosey barks.  Repeatedly.

Graham barks.

You hold your breath.  

And suddenly Nosey latches on to Graham and they are rolling back and forth on the floor of the expo center.  They are latched on each other, growling and snapping and biting.  The sound of jaws snapping and spittle flying fills the air.  You can see that Nosey has Graham by the neck and that he has absolutely no intention of letting him go.  You are frozen, but other people are scrambling.  What to do, what to do?  Iron pitbull jaws.  The handler sticks his hand right in between the dogs.  Everything seems to freeze.  You want to smack your forehead with your hand.  It’s all completely asinine.

 *

“Tim, in his infinite wisdom, decided to stick his hand in between the dogs to try and break them up.  What kind of moron sticks their hand in between two fighting dogs?”

I would really like to know the answer to that question.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as I reach out and pet his nose myself, even though I’m not supposed to either.  It seems that he would like to know the answer to this question too.

Unfreeze.  The handler is missing his thumb.  From the tip to the first knuckle.  It’s just….gone.  You watch in horror as the blood seems to go everywhere.  The dogs are separated.  Nosey is in a cage, Graham is in a cage.  How did they get there?

Panic.

The handler is bleeding.

God.  That’s a lot of blood.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth, back and forth, but it’s different now.  His head is down; his eyes aren’t looking out.  He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s afraid.  You can see he wants reassurance.  He wants someone to pet him.  To love him.  He’s shaking in the cage.  

Nobody but you is paying him any attention.

The handler screams, over and over.  He’s sitting on the floor, holding his hand.  People are swarming everywhere like bees on a hive.  Someone wraps his hand in a towel, while someone else helpfully suggests that they see if the dog spit out the finger.  

The crowd around the booth deepens as people gawk at the man missing his thumb.

God.  That’s a lot of blood.

 *

Jenny is an excellent storyteller.  I shake my head, trying to clear the images out of my mind.

“When a dog bites someone, it gets placed in this quarantine.”  Jenny trails her hand along the big red sign that hangs from the cage, the sign that states the bite quarantine restrictions.  She still doesn’t seem to really see it.  “It gets a permanent black mark on its doggy record.  Now it’s an animal that bites.  Nosey had bit before, but Graham had never bit anyone.  He was so sweet.”    

I am struck by her use of the past tense as I watch her, at a loss again as to what to say.  “What happens to them?”

“Well, they could get put down.  It depends on whether they have bitten before, how reactive they are in the quarantine area, if there’s any available no-dog homes for them to go to.  ‘Cause once they’ve bitten, they can’t really be adopted to a home with other dogs in good conscience.  You know what I mean?”

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as he sits otherwise perfectly still in the middle of the cage.  His nose grazes the bars and his head tilts to the side as he studies us, still not understanding why we don’t open the door.  I wish that I could explain it to him.

“Graham bit back.  So now he has the black mark.  They both might end up being put to sleep.  And it’s hard to see.  It makes me really sad.  I hate to think about a good dog being put down just because it got in a bad situation.”

After a moment of silence, she turns to go.  Graham stands up, his tail cutting the air as it swishes side to side.  I can almost hear his voice:  You’re leaving?  You didn’t come in!  You didn’t play!  Come onnnnnn, I wanna play!”

“Thanks for letting me vent.”

As she walks away, I stay for a moment and watch.  Graham sinks to the floor of the cage and lies with his head between his two front paws.  He desires to be a part of the real world again, but maybe he is beginning to realize that this probably won’t happen for him.

He thinks she doesn’t love him anymore.  There’s no way to explain it to him.  He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s probably going to die.  And he has no idea why.

I wish it wouldn’t happen, but I accept that it probably will.  I wish that I could just let him out, just let him run away.  But I can’t.

This is it for him.  

Death row.

There is no going back.

His tail stops.

Graduation (Excerpt)

(These are the highlights-best parts-of a short piece I wrote.)

*

The phrase “swan song” is used to refer to the final effort or performance given by a person just before death.  It’s based off the Ancient Greek belief that swans remain silent for most of their lifetime, only vocalizing in the moment before death to sing a beautiful song.

This concept makes death seem beautiful.  In dying, the swan sings a gorgeous song that it couldn’t sing while living.  

What they don’t tell you is that the swan sings this beautiful song as the result of air escaping their body when their lungs deflate.

In reality, it’s not a beautiful concept at all.  Death is agony.

*

Nicole faded.  It wasn’t sudden; it was a gradual process.  And just like she wanted, no one seemed to notice.

Her bones were the first thing to go.  Low estrogen levels and calcium left her with osteoporosis—an affliction normally found in old people.  She wasn’t even nineteen, and her bones were collapsing.

Next was her heart.  Her body was starving.  Blood flow was reduced, her blood pressure was lowered, and her heart muscle started losing size.  She became anemic.

Her organs began giving up.  Her liver failed; her kidneys shut off.  What was the point anymore when the person in charge of the body didn’t care?

Her brain was the last thing to go.  She was alone in her apartment one day, and she had a seizure.  She never got back up.  No one knew for two days.

I didn’t know any of these details until after she was gone.  

Nicole died alone.  And maybe that was how she wanted it.  That’s the battle of the disease, the battle of anorexia.  You fight it alone.

You lose.  Alone.

*

Honestly, if her mother hadn’t called me, I may not have even known what happened.  Nicole had left a note for me, with my name and phone number on the front.  She must have known that the end was coming.  Perhaps she welcomed it.  We have no way to know, really, but I can make assumptions from the note that she left me.

It was only two words:  Don’t. Fade.

*

I had never been to a funeral for someone I knew before. Nicole’s parents had asked me to speak.  Sadly, they thought I was one of the people who knew her best.

The lid to the casket was open for the viewing.  It shouldn’t have been.

Nicole’s skin was so paper thin that it was almost translucent.  Her cheek bones were clearly visible, as was her collarbone above the neckline of the dress she wore.  There was nothing left to her; she was completely devoid of fat, empty.  She spoke a strong message, even though she would never use words again. My hand drifted into the casket and stroked her face, then came back to touch my own.  Bones sticking out. Matching.  Fading.

I sat down on the ground right next to the coffin, crying.  She was gone.  She had faded away, and no one had even known.  I realized that I, too, was dying. I was fading, and suddenly I didn’t want to fade anymore.  Suddenly I wanted to be alive.

Someone moved me to a pew.  The words I had wanted to say were scribbled on an index card and shoved into my bra.  I pulled the cards out, rubbing the creases in the paper.  The words didn’t seem fitting now; I couldn’t read about what a lovely person she had been, what a lovely life she had led.  It was a lie.  Anorexia had taken her life.  It was neither beautiful, nor lovely.  It was agony.

I took a pencil from next to the hymnal under my pew and scribbled out a poem on the back of one of my index cards.  These were the words I would go on to read:

whisper once or twice / a song / upon an ear that has no being / words that fall, apart from humanity / a war internally / taken to the stars / a pain felt only in the heart / the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //

breathe in once or twice / a drop / of life left to sustain / air that causes the tornado within / bones that stick out / in agony / betraying the falsity of the mask / pain lying underneath / in the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //

trust once or twice / a soul / holding on without reason / at least one that we see / “the less that’s left to me,” i say, / “the less there is to hurt.” / pain caused by two human hands / during the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //

search once or twice / for a speck / a reason to hold on / a reason for reason / a new life at eighteen; the past is in the past / though beautiful swans never forget, / we move steadily forward / and the beautiful swan sings her beautiful song / pray not to fade away— / pray to stay ///

Looking back now, I don’t think I wrote the poem for her so much as I wrote it for myself.

 *

I know that there’s a great debate even now over whether or not anorexia is a conscious choice.  Does the anorexic wake up one morning and just decide they’re not going to eat?  There’s no real answer to that; it isn’t simple enough to sum it up in that way.  I believe that anorexia starts as one thing and then gradually evolves into something else.  We start out trying to control the one thing that we know we can; we end simply trying to sing our swan song and take a final bow.  There is no cure; there is only living with it.

I think often about all of the things that Nicole missed.  Perhaps if she had lived, she would be married right now to a wonderful husband.  They would live in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a lawn the brightest green possible.  I suppose they would have a dog.  Or maybe two.  Their three children, two girls and a boy each two years apart, would be perfect.  They would be dancers, or athletes, or writers, or whatever they wanted to be—they would be free to make their own choices.  Nicole wouldn’t let them be boxed in by society.  She would encourage them to find their own way, but she would be there for them if and when they needed her to be.  

She could have had the ideal life.  But she didn’t.  She faded.

And when I think about that, when I think about her, I wonder if that was necessarily a bad thing.  Because me?  I chose recovery, and I had the ideal life.  And that life isn’t bright at all.  It’s dark, it’s cold, and it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be when you’re looking at it from the outside.

In moments like that where I remember all of these things, I question my choice to stay.  Perhaps Nicole may have had the right idea after all; maybe it was easier to fade than to stick around and get hurt again and again.  So why stay?

I stay because to give up is to let them win.  I stay because I don’t have any other choice.  I stay because I want to be better, and because I want to believe that something better will come for me.  

I stay because I touched death.  Really touched it.  And I realized that death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either.  Nothing is as good as we make it out to be.  So maybe, just maybe, we need to find our own way.  

I wish Nicole had seen that.

 

An Irreversible Process

I’m a firm believer that the human brain can only handle so much at a time before it shuts down.  When someone dies, their loved ones spend a lot of time answering questions.  After a while, you get sick of answering them and start picking random things just so people will leave you alone.  The woman in the funeral home was the last straw for me after my son’s death.  It wasn’t that she was rude; in fact, she was quite the opposite.  It was that there was much too much she needed to know, just as there was too much that I needed to know.  

When someone dies, there are no easy answers.

Her name was Cori.  She was waiting for us when we walked into the lobby of the funeral home.  My mother in law shook her hand, and Cori seemed to somewhat know the situation from a conversation they had had via telephone, beyond my awareness.  The four of us walked into a tiny room off of the lobby and she began asking questions.  

My son’s entire life fit on a single form; it was the form she would use to draft the obituary.  She asked if we would be willing to wait while she typed up the obituary so that we could proofread it before she sent it out.  I didn’t answer, but the husband did.  I stared out the window at a bird fluttering about in the bush.  I wondered briefly what would happen if he suddenly tried to fly inside, if he ran into the window and fell to the ground.  And died.  

Where do we go when we die?

Did we want our son to be cremated?  

No, cremation is forever; cremation happens by fire.  I didn’t know if my son had suffered pain in his death, but I did not want him to suffer in his afterlife.  I didn’t want my son to burn.  Someone was pushing a clipboard towards me.  I looked down.  It was an acknowledgement that cremation was permanent.  I hadn’t agreed to that, I never said he should be burned, I never said…

Cremation is a permanent state of being; an irreversible process.

The husband signed the form.  So I signed the form as well.  I had no choice.

Irreversible.  As in never coming back.

Cori gave me an enormous binder.  Flip through it, she told me.  See if there was anything I might want to put him in.  Like he was a puppy or a kitten.  Like he was a deceased pet I would bury in the backyard.  The photographs were nice, but I couldn’t tell just by looking at them.  I couldn’t decide where his ashes would go best.  I couldn’t decide where he should spend the rest of time.  I pushed back from the table and wandered into the showroom.  There were coffins everywhere.  Cori was talking; I left her behind.  

In a smaller room at the back of the showroom, there was a room with wall to wall shelving.  On the shelves there were different kinds of urns.  Cori drifted in, explaining the differences between the urns.  The large ones were obviously for adult remains.  But the smaller a person was at the time of their death, the less mass they took up.  Obviously, babies are quite small, she said.  There were special urns for them, but she plucked something else from the shelf and held it out to me. 

I didn’t see the difference.  The urns for babies were small.  This urn was small.  But this one was special, she said.  Decorated.  It was for cases where siblings or other family may want to divide up the remains of their dead so that they could each take a piece home.  It was morbid, the idea that people would want to split up their dead.  But obviously it happened.  It had been done before if there was a market for it.

How did I choose where my son would spend forever?  What makes one urn better than another?  I spotted one that I thought I might like, if it was possible to like such a thing.  It was a tiny bronze one with a red satin case shaped like a heart.  The urn rested in a small niche inside, and the heart could be closed around it.  Like a jewelry box.

If it was on a shelf, you would never know there was a dead person inside it.  You wouldn’t know it contained all that was left of my son.

We went back out to the room and filled out the order forms for the urn and its accompanying red heart case.  A second woman appeared with the first draft of the obituary.  The husband passed the typewritten page to me.  I was the writer, he said, so I should look at it.  I gave the paper a once over and passed it back, not seeing anything I felt should be changed.  I didn’t really see it at all.  I took a sip from my mini water bottle, watching as everyone else in the room finalized the details without my input.  Watching as they finalized his death—a permanent, irreversible process.

 

*

 

Grabbing one more chair from the kitchen area, I dragged it down into the basement to finish my row.  There were more than enough chairs for everybody, and after verifying they were in perfect little rows across the family room, I grabbed boxes of Kleenex from the closet and shoved one under each row of chairs.  Kleenex and tidy rows of seating—it reminded me of church.  

I sank deep into the couch cushions.  Not having a memorial service would make the entire situation even more sad, but in a way, to me, it was sad either way.  I had trouble grasping the point of it all.  My son hadn’t really lived to anyone but me, and here we were making all of these people come down for a service for someone who hadn’t really lived at all.  I couldn’t fully wrap my brain around that.  

The doorbell rang upstairs, and I heard footsteps overhead as someone went to answer it.  Two more flower arrangements had arrived; one was from the music department at our church, and one was from the church itself.  I could never understand why people sent flowers when someone had died.  Flowers are fragile; flowers die quickly.  Why would people at a funeral want to be reminded of that?

People drifted in after the flowers, filling up the chairs in groups of two and three.  I sat in a chair at the front of the room, next to the husband.  There were eighteen people there, including the pastor.  The service seemed to drag on forever, but in reality it didn’t last for more than twenty minutes or so.  I tried very industriously to not cry, even when the people around me started to lose it.  I buried my face in the husband’s shoulder and tried not to listen to the other people crying.  I tried not to listen them talk about my son.  About his death.  About “God’s master plan.”

An irreversible process.

 

*

 

Life is much more manageable when it can be streamlined and stuffed into tiny little boxes…filed away where they never have to be sorted through or looked at again.   When my son died, everyone kept telling me how strong I was.  In my head, silently, I laughed at them.  People kept saying that it was so sad because we were such good people.  Because I was such a good person.  But what made us different from anybody else?  What made us more or less deserving?  Absolutely nothing.  I think people say those things because they lack anything else to say.

He came, and he was beautiful.  The most beautiful baby I had ever seen, though I suppose everybody says that about their child.  He was mine, and he was gone.  He was dead.

An irreversible process.

 

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On Crayons and Renting Out My Brain

Don’t rent space for free in your head.

 

This is perhaps the most important thing that has ever been said to me.  No, not perhaps.  It IS the single most important thing that has ever been said to me.  The inside of my head is a strange place…I view the world in a different way than most.  Everything is very loud and bright, and everything has significance and stays with me.  Even the smallest things.  But the largest things tend to take me completely over.  

 

I do a lot of things in my life.  I teach.  I tutor.  I take ALL the classes.  I’m doing research studies.  I’m getting into advocacy.  I like to keep busy.   Add in the past?  My brain becomes a 120 count crayon box flooded with Jello.  It isn’t that crayons are bad, per say.  But nobody wants a brain that consists of a million different melted colors all blending together.  That isn’t fun for anybody.  

 

I like to write.  Writing for me is like pulling the plug on my brain; when I’m not writing lately, things build up inside me and contaminate my day to day life. 

 

To me, not renting out space in my head is not letting others things take it over.  It means that I am the only one who gets to choose what I think about, or what I don’t.  And living, at least truly living, means kicking out everything and everyone negative and focusing on the here and now, the moment that I am currently in.  

 

Don’t rent space for free in your head.

 

So.  Important.  Hopefully I remember it in the future.

 

And that’s all for today’s free writing.  Stay tuned for tomorrow’s episode. 

My Thoughts on Online Courses (Rough Draft)

To Whom It May Concern:

 

I am currently a third year student with senior standing; I am a double major in English and Psychology.  Most semesters, I carry an 18 to 21 credit load, and my current GPA is 3.89.  I truthfully enjoy going to class, and getting the opportunity to learn new things.  As a student, I find the current push for online courses and degrees to be distressing.  

 

Over the course of my undergraduate career, I have taken two courses online.  Both were through the Psychology department.  I have never been a fan of taking classes online, but I selected both of these courses because I needed them for my degree, they fit into my schedule, and they were the only options available to me at the time in which I needed them.  The professor was very good, but I believe he would have been even better in person.  I do not believe I took much away from either course, though I did achieve an A in both.  

 

In my opinion, there is a common misconception that online classes take less of a student’s time.  This simply isn’t true.  A student seeking to truly learn not only has to read their textbook, (occasionally multiple times for comprehension as there is no accompanying lecture), and they must keep up on discussion forums and due dates as well as regular homework assignments.  They have to make flashcards and study notes as they would for a regular class.  Many students don’t have the time to do this, or choose not to put in the level of time and dedication that truly learning from an online course requires.  Online courses make it much easier for students to procrastinate, and they also allow students to fudge on coursework.  On the screen, it is very clear what is and is not expected as well as what material does and does not need to be known.  In many online courses, speaking from personal experience, it is possible to learn only what you need to in order to do well and no more.  Online courses give exams online, which is not an adequate way to measure student comprehension of the material.  These exams allow for students to use both their notes and their textbooks, despite instructions to the contrary, and an especially quick student can look things up in the book while taking the test and avoid note-taking altogether.  Some professors set time limits in an effort to avoid this, but not all of them.  When a student is juggling many other classes, a job, and a life outside of campus, it is much more conducive to take the easy way out.  

 

When in the classroom environment, there is a greater motivational factor for the students to go above and beyond what they need to do in order to pass a class.  We have some amazing professors on our campus who possess the ability to bring out the best in their students by allowing them to discuss and debate challenging material and grow as both people and thinkers.  By getting us to talk and process information amongst ourselves, we learn to think for ourselves and form their our own opinions.  This is when we truly begin to learn.  There is no mode for this discussion to happen in an online class format.  While the professors of these online courses are still amazing, they have a greatly decreased chance of inspiring true learning within their students than they would in an in-person environment.  

 

I am not stating that all online courses are bad.  Online courses are great for the responsible, self-sufficient, independent students.  However, there is much more to be gained from meeting in a classroom, face to face.  

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

 

The Wall

You are alone.  This is not unusual.

You sit on the sidelines.  You wait.  You watch.

The place is loud, bright.  Colorful.  There is a green light in the ceiling across from the stool you have dropped into.  It twists and turns, shooting different beams of light randomly across the dance floor.  The strobes give you a headache, and you ponder another shot.  But you’re responsible.  Driving.  Unfortunately, the less you drink, the more apparent the wall is.  It’s always there now, between you and the rest of the world.  You’re different.

Maybe you were always different?

You feel sorry for the woman at the door, trapped inside her little box with her ID machine and her cash box.  She wants to be out on the floor, this is blatantly obvious.  But they hide her in a box no bigger than a closet.

People are dancing.  You don’t get it; you don’t see the appeal.  You have never liked to dance.  You do, however, like to people watch.  So your friends dance, and you watch.  Watching makes you happy.

You wish you could be that free.  But instead, you are suspicious.

You pick out two men in the crowd that you “should” keep an eye on.  One wears a green polo, the other a gray t-shirt.  They circle the edge of the dance floor, watching those moving around on the inside.  Predatory.

You watch the stage, the people who go in and out and up and down.  You think about what you learned in gender psych; you think about the movies you watched.  You realize that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t do that–you couldn’t go up there.  And in the same moment, you realize that you’re okay with that.

Green shirt wanders the outskirts.  He grinds up against a woman who doesn’t seem to know him, but she doesn’t look like she minds.  You would mind, definitely.  You don’t get how she could be so comfortable with a stranger.  They pull each other up onto the stage and dance in front of everyone.  

The dance looks like the electric slide.  You’re impressed that you recognize it.  But there’s some weird footwork happening that secretly amuses you.  It isn’t the version that you know how to do.  Your friend is next to you, and you share your amusement.  You both laugh.

Gray shirt hops over the counter and heads behind you, towards the DJ booth.  And then his hand on your back, sliding down, down.  Your head snaps around, your nerves are on alert, but he disappears.

You sit for a while.  You watch for him.  No one knows.

You’re alone again.

You hide in the bathroom for a couple of minutes.  You’re fine.  You come back out.

You realize that you’re an impostor.  You act like you’re more present than you actually are.  But in reality, there’s that wall.  Still.  Always.  You become confidant that you don’t fit.

And so you smile.  Because that’s what people do.

You’re such a faker.