Tag Archives: fear

The Quiet Game

I started playing the quiet game when I was really young. I remember this one way I used to play where I would ride my bike up and down the sidewalk in front of my grandma’s apartment building and pretend the bike was a horse. The handlebars were the reins; the seat was the saddle. I’d had my first taste of riding real horses that summer I think, and I was greatly disappointed I couldn’t ride them every single day. So I made it work with what I had.

The point of the quiet game was, obviously, to be quiet. It was a silent purple and pink horse, probably a unicorn based off my knowledge of my obsessions at that age. I was a silent rider.

There were other variations of the quiet game. Sometimes I made up imaginary friends as I lay on my bed with hands on my chest and my eyes closed in the posture of a corpse, characters with awful lives that I would then write stories about. Sometimes I played the organ with headphones in and mouthed the words to songs. Most of the time I just read books.

I taught myself to talk when necessary, and it was hard because I wanted to talk all the time back then. But it wasn’t always right. That was a painful lesson to learn. There were some things not meant to be spoken out loud. I had to swallow them. I had to be quiet.

The quiet game proved useful in adulthood. Our marriage counselor told us to “never let the sun set” on our anger, so every night my then-husband would spend his traditional twenty minutes in the bathroom doing skincare and teeth cleaning before getting into bed and waiting, quietly. He too played the quiet game, only he played it differently. He played with expectations. I played for protection.

“I’m sorry,” I told him automatically, every single night. I knew what he wanted. I knew what would happen if I didn’t say it.

“Good,” he would smile, nodding his approval as we clasped hands resting on the mattress between us. The same routine every night before bed.

I never knew though what I was saying sorry for. I just knew that I was. Sorry. Or rather, that I was supposed to be.

I went to that other place in my head, to that little girl riding the bike-pony, that little girl playing organ and mouthing the words while everyone slept, that little girl who dreamed up fictional characters just to solve someone’s problems, even if those problems were only on the page and not in real life. I became that woman who would do anything to be quiet and I stayed her, because I had so damn much to say and none of it could ever be said.

There was so much I never said to him, so much that wasn’t appropriate to speak out loud, not then. Why was I always the one to say sorry? Why did he never apologize? What exactly was it that I was so sorry for, every night? Why was I automatically less than he was? Why did he claim so hard to follow The Bible in public but yet he never prayed a single time in private the entire duration of our marriage? How could he claim to be ruling me, controlling me, biblically when he never, ever prayed? What kind of person was he?

What kind of person was I for staying quiet, for playing the game, for never saying a word?

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Damaged Fruit

One of my only high school friends post-RED was a girl named Jennifer. We had more in common than I had with most people—for instance, we both liked superhero movies. And dogs. And…that was about it. I liked staying at her house because it made me feel normal, so I was perfectly happy to do whatever as long as we could hang.

She met a guy one day at the farmers market. He had a generic name that escapes me now, so we’ll call him Chuck. Jennifer wasn’t allowed to date, but she really wanted to get to know Chuck better. We were lying on her bed on our stomachs one night watching Ironman, and she said “Chuck has a friend named Chad. We could all, like, go to the movies or something and then it wouldn’t be a date but, like, a group?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Have you met this guy?”

“I mean,” she shrugged, “Chuck is fun? So Chad is too. Probably.”

I agreed to go to a movie with them the next day, my friend and her definitely not-boyfriend and his best friend. They picked us up in a big blue pickup truck, and what struck me first was how old they were. I was barely 17, but Chad was easily in his late 20s. Chuck had on a hat; I couldn’t get a read on him easily. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t actually going to a movie, but to dinner and bowling where we could separate and Chuck and Jennifer could do their own thing. Chad and I had been brought along as an excuse.

“Bye guys,” Chad said nonchalantly as they disappeared into the shadows. He sat across from me at our table in the bowling alley and fingered a french fry. “What now?”

I shrugged and tentatively reached for a fry from the basket, dunked it in ketchup. “I guess we could…bowl?”

“I hate bowling.”

“Me too,” he admitted. He took a long drink of his beer. “You want some?”

I nodded and took the green bottle from his outstretched hand. I held the liquid in my mouth for a second, the nasty weight of its flavor staining my tongue, before I swallowed it in one gulp.

“First beer?” he laughed.

I shook my head. No. It wasn’t. He wasn’t the first man to give me alcohol. I heard Jennifer laughing in the distance and I looked up to see her and Chuck attached at the lips in the farthest darkest lane of the bowling alley. He picked her up and sprung her around and then kissed her again.

“Do you wanna go outside?” The beer bottle made a hollow sound as he deposited it on the table.

“And do what?”

Chad tossed his head slightly so his greasy brown hair would get out of his face. “Sit in the truck? You don’t seem like you’re having much fun here.”

I wasn’t. “I guess?” I let him take my hand and lead me out to the parking lot, leaving the garbage all over our abandoned table.

He opened the tailgate of the truck and boosted me up before climbing in after me. “It’s a pretty night, huh?”

“Pretty?” I raised an eyebrow, but his lips were on mine before I could follow up the tease. I shifted slightly so my shoulder pushed against his chest, and we broke apart. “Hey now.”

“Too fast?”

I pictured Jennifer in the bowling alley being spung around, held, kissed. “Too slow.” I grabbed Chad’s shirt and steered him back towards me; my lips found his, tentatively at first and then more certain. Harder. I let him shove his tongue in my mouth but didn’t reciprocate, waited, analyzed, tried to find my opening. Lost in thought, I didn’t realize he was spinning me to be against the back window of the cab until I was trapped there and he was unbuttoning his pants. I broke my lips off his. “Stop.”

He kept going, his pants open, his state of readiness clearly visible.

“STOP,” I cried, louder, shoving him away.

“What? What happened?” He tried again to kiss me, but I turned my head and his lips glanced against my cheek. I pushed him off and struggled to my knees. “What the actual fuck?” He wrestled his pants back up. “Wait are you CRYING? What the fuck?”

I fumbled with the tailgate before giving up and hopping over to the ground. I touched my cheek. I was crying. When had I started doing that? I never cried. He was just another man, right? Right?

“Come on,” he called from above me, “what the fuck is this? Let’s just try again or something, don’t be dumb.”

I pulled my sweater tighter around me and walked across the parking lot, turned onto the dark country highway and walked along the shoulder back to Jennifer’s house, to my car. He didn’t follow. I cried quietly, the only sound the gravel I kicked up with my shoes. I can’t, I thought. I won’t ever be able to. I’m the damaged fucking peach and I need to go back to my god damn tree.

That was the last time Jennifer and I really hung out.

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The Bite

I can still feel the dog’s teeth hooked into my calf, can still hear the sound of huffed breathing through his snout intermingled with the weirdest most inhuman growling I’d ever been privy too, can still smell blood. It doesn’t smell like you’d think. When I close my eyes, I remember what it felt like, that moment when I realized that he wasn’t letting go, when I realized that this job I had only just realized was so truly important to me could actually kill me.

I remember the sound his head made when I hit it with the fridge door, the clunk of skull against metal as he reset and grabbed my boot. I remember the blood that trickled down, that still stains my right boot two months later, remember the rip up the jeans leg of the pants I had just purchased two days before.

I remember going back in, after, to see the dog’s tail wagging, but the instant I moved, his eyes regressed back into whatever aggressive mode had overtaken him. He’d forgotten me. I slammed the door on him; I tried to forget him.

I can’t.

He has left me afraid.

I remember thinking why me, back then. I think it now. Why did I move across the country, why did I come all this way into this job that I loved only to be scared of it? And I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, for lack of a more creative expression, but people don’t get what it’s like to default to a state of fear. To see a dog running at me with its teeth out and automatically assume it’s going to eat my face. I would have been different, before. I would have turned my back, dropped into a neutral position, taken that possible nip on my fingers when I offered my hand. But everything is different now. I am different now. Now? I freeze. And dogs sense that. They seize on it. I’ve had more bites in the last two months than I have had in nearly four years.

I can clearly label them, the squares that make up the quilt that is my fear, and I use them to hide behind so I don’t have to make myself be better.

I see a knife against my throat in the backseat of a car, feel a seatbelt in my back, smell the scent of garlic, feel the winter cold on my naked lower half as this man I hate presses hard against me; this is every time a man gets too close on the sidewalk, on the train, every time a man even looks at me strangely. I feel less than for being afraid.

I see my dead son, any time I try to get close to someone, because I know that eventually everything ends. Everyone dies, and we go in a fridge, and that is the end of that. I fear relationships, so I treasure the ones I do have.

And I see this dog, this damn stupid dog, at a time in my life when I thought I conquered all the things. When I thought I was not afraid.

I’ve been challenged to publicly demolish my fears, to tell myself that one bad event doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, doesn’t mean I deserved all the events, doesn’t mean I should be afraid. I think I owe this dog a thank you, honestly, that I need to look at what happened as a reminder that I can actually handle a lot of bullshit. Because name a major traumatic event, and I’ve probably survived it. And I can survive more. I can survive divorce and child death and abuse and rape and I can survive being mauled by a dog because I am absolutely more than all of these things.

So the next time a dog runs at me, or a man sits weirdly close to me and leers creepily, or someone I know has a baby, I will make a choice–a choice to not be afraid, a choice to remember that my personal quilt actually makes me better, stronger. I know I won’t always be successful at this. But I will try. And that’s enough.

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The Stain

My students were a rowdy bunch, a consequence of teaching drama–and not a bad one, just one that tried the patience sometimes. Especially when I had to drive them places. The youngest was eating pomegranate seeds that Thursday night that resembled reddish purple unpopped popcorn kernels. It became a fun game to squeeze them between his second finger and his thumb so that the juice would drip out into his mouth, sometimes missing and gracing his chin, his coat, my car seats. Pomegranate juice seemed small in comparison to the rotting pumpkin I’d once kept in my car trunk for over a year, but it bothered me for some reason–which is how I found myself in the garbage the next day, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the backseat of my car with Lysol wipes and hoping the dumb stain would come out, but knowing it was already set.

It’s funny, really, how quickly stains work sometimes. They hit the fabric and it’s sink or swim; either in or out. And if it’s in, god pity that fabric. The fabric didn’t ask to be stained. It didn’t ask for that pomegranate juice to spread slowly and mingle in with the gray threads. And yet there it was, a stain I hadn’t gotten to fast enough because I’d been driving that had now permeated and completely altered the makeup of my backseat. I thought about replacing the fabric, or buying covers for the seats. I never did.

I asked him, once. What I’d done to make him hate me so much. He told me I was a stain, that I had brought my blackness in and ruined everything. When he bled me there, when he ripped me apart in that backseat, the pomegranate stain was the least of my concerns. There it was, this bigger, darker stain, and I stared at the pomegranate blotch and it stared back at me and I felt the change within me, the volta, as I ripped apart and came together. His stain bled into the fabric that made me me, and I came out different as it permeated and completely altered my being.

There was a bigger stain now, darker, one I had no hope of ever erasing. The game then became living with, managing, the stain. I had to live with the stain, as you do, because there would be no replacing, no covering, no changing. You can’t reverse when it’s your true self that’s stained. But you can grow. Grow, and change, and own the stain and make it a part of you. Find others with the stain, stand together, make a union and be strong until it’s not a stain at all, but just a thing that is carried.

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Let’s Talk About Matt Lauer

My roommate walks a dog in a building in Chelsea. Monday night, a woman was trying to come in the service entrance and she got attacked when the doorman didn’t open the door fast enough. The response of one of the other doormen was something along the lines of “well, women should take self defense classes and carry pepper spray,” a go-to that seems much too common. In my head, I’m thinking “well, okay. So a woman gets attacked because she didn’t take self defense classes or carry pepper spray?” I took self defense classes. I carried pepper spray (and still do). I got attacked.

It seems so simple to me. Why, instead of telling woman to find means to protect themselves that don’t necessarily work, don’t we just tell men to stop attacking women? I’ve been going round and round in my head on this all week. It’s not rocket science to me. It’s not hard. DO. NOT. ATTACK. WOMEN.

And then I woke up this morning to a flurry of news notifications on my phone: Matt Lauer got fired from The Today Show after sexual harassment allegations. According to Buzzfeed, Lauer had a button wired in his office that would lock the door without him having to get up. (Whatcha doing that for, Matt?) The New York Post and CNN both report that Lauer “behaved inappropriately” while covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. The New York Times discusses Lauer summoning a colleague to his office and having sex with her, which she didn’t decline out of fear for her job. And Variety lists a slew of Lauer’s offenses, including a sex toy he gave a coworker as a gift along with a note that told her how much he wanted to use it.

I tried to think about what I would say about this whole thing; I’ve been considering the issue since the Weinstein story broke. Because sexual harassment/assault is not a new issue, nor is it a secret that I feel passionately about the issue. I’ve said a lot about it, and I will continue to say a lot about it. But it’s on a new level now; not because these people, from Weinstein to Lauer, are “celebrities,” but because of the spotlight their status puts on the issue. Society should not care more just because these men are celebrities. Yet, it does. So much more notice has been taken.

In the midst of my pondering, I stumbled on a friend’s Facebook post; she seemed sad, so I clicked through the screenshots she had posted, which made me sad. And then mad. Here are some of the highlights from the comments section, used with her permission:

“What happened to calling 911 when you are violated??? Not waiting years??!!!”

“It’s an incident hat allegedly happened 20 years ago. Women can explain they fear for their jobs and … that’s why they never come forward but … if you are going to sell your dignity for a job, if you aren’t going to stand up for yourself or someone else out of fear then you are part responsible for the conduct continuing … Matt Lauer should have the benefit of the doubt here, and I feel as though it’s the trendy thing and he’s now being made an example of.”

“Women are human beings, so it would follow that they are more than capable of committing terribly unethical acts for the sake of self interest. There’s no statistic to cite here about a ratio of honest vs. dishonest accusations.”

Allow me to soap box for a moment? (Who am I kidding? It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.)

If someone is holding a knife to my throat, nope, I’m not going to call 911. I’d like to live, thanks. Will I call after? Maybe? I might be too afraid, for myself, for what might happen. For what people will think of me when they know. Hell, I don’t discuss what happened to me outside my working manuscript in anything but vague tones because I am afraid of what will happen when he finds it. Cause let’s be real, he will find it. And since when is rape trendy? Rape isn’t trendy, thank you very much. Please name me one victim who stands up and says “YES PLEASE RAPE ME.” You can’t? Didn’t think so. The recent roster of accusations is not a trend at all, but rather an outpouring of hope–the more women who realize it is okay to stand up and say “this is not okay,” the more women will be paying attention, and the less these sorts of things will happen. THIS is a trend that we want to have; a trend where the responsibility is on the attacker to not attack! And really…why would someone lie about being raped? I understand that it happens (anywhere from two to ten percent); however, cases based on a lie rarely make it to any substantial stage of prosecution. It takes a “special” person to spin that kind of lie, and I do not mean that in a good way. Why draw that kind of negative attention on yourself? What would even be the point? And why, when the percentage of false accusers is so small, does society just default to “the woman is lying” before considering that statistically, she’s probably not?

Cry me a river that Lauer lost his job today. It sounds like he deserved it, like the allegations had enough proof behind them to warrant immediate action. I’m sure lots of people loved him, but that doesn’t change the things he did. People are so angry about it, so filled with hate towards these women, and I don’t understand them–nor do I desire to do so.

Lauer getting fired seems to be the tipping point for a lot of people in both directions–men stop attacking women versus women stop getting attacked–but the fact of the matter is, the overarching issue isn’t about Lauer at all. It’s about the fact that scared woman suffered something 20 years ago and finally had the courage to come forward because of ALL THE OTHER WOMEN who also came forward. Yup, it’s a lot of women, and, to quote the social media multitude, “it’s too many.” Women everywhere are standing up, together, and they’re telling everyone who’ll listen that this is not okay. And it’s NOT. It’s not okay for men to use a position of authority to coerce women into sex. It’s not okay for men to slip drugs into a woman’s drink at a bar or a party, to grab a woman in an alley, to throw a woman in the back seat of a car, or in anyway put a woman in a position where she is expected to have sex without consent.

Imma gonna say it again: This. Is. Not. Okay.

So let’s talk about Lauer. But let’s talk about Lauer for the right reasons. Before you take the time to cry outrage over the fire of a beloved tv news icon, take the time to consider what it really means. A vote for undoing this termination is a vote for redoing silence. And NO ONE should have to be silent. Everyone deserves their chance to be heard.

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The Difficult Miracle of Being Human

She knew she was pregnant before the stick said she was pregnant. It wasn’t fetal movement or anything like that, because no baby moves that early. It was more of a feeling, a sense of being together with someone, finally, in a way she had never been together with the husband.

She did not tell the husband. Not right away. She waited until it was “safe,” until there was “less chance to lose it,” and then she peed on a stick to confirm the beautiful thing she already knew so that she could take that stick and tap it against the doorframe of his office while waiting for him to notice her. He turned around, removed his all-encompassing soundman headphones, and flashed her a quick eye roll that he completely intended her to see. “What is it?” 

The husband did not like to be disturbed, but clearly he hadn’t seen the stick. She waved it a little closer, a little closer. Still nothing. The husband moved to turn his chair around. “I’m pregnant,” she blurted, just to get him to stop, pay attention. It wasn’t how she’d planned to tell him.

“Are we ready for that? A baby?” His words were fast, sharp. To the point. He wanted to get back to work. 

“Who’s ever ready for a baby?” The stick hung limply in her hand, unseen. Wasn’t he supposed to want to see it, to celebrate? At least, that’s what she had thought, hoped would happen. She shoved the stick into her pajama pants pocket, because what else was she supposed to do with it? 

“It won’t fix things. With you. Us.”

It was always her that had to change, never him. But she wouldn’t dare say that out loud. “Don’t call the baby an It; the baby can hear you.” 

The husband didn’t respond.

When the husband turned around to go back to work, she went back into the bathroom and cried. She didn’t need him. She had a baby now. Or she would, in several months.

She did what she thought she was supposed to in the months following. She went to the doctor, let him confirm what the stick had already confirmed. She took vitamins. She read websites: What size was the baby today? What was developing? Growing? Changing? Did they have fingernails yet? Or rather, would she feel them if they did? She thought about what weird things; she pictured the baby clawing her insides as they waited impatiently to come out and meet her. 

She wanted to start registering for baby things. She convinced the husband to let her find out the sex so that she could pick better items. It was a boy! She thought the husband would be more excited to have a boy, but the husband didn’t respond. She took the 3D ultrasound picture, with it’s grainy whites and browns, snapped a picture with her own phone, and sent it to everyone she had ever known. She showed the registries to the husband that night while they watched tv, the show on display was meaningless in comparison to the excitement of picking her child’s future. Bottles, pajamas, toys, diapers, a crib, a stroller, she registered for anything and everything that any site told her a baby would need while the husband sat next to her, supposedly helping but really somewhere else. “Winnie the Pooh,” he scoffed at one point, “isn’t that a little young?” 

She had always loved that cuddly yellow bear, and the husband certainly hadn’t helped her pick things out. “What would you rather ask for?”

The husband didn’t respond.

She worked hard, saving money for when the baby came and she would need to take off. The husband stayed home, or worked at the church, or did whatever sound career thing it was he did with his day. She came home after ten, twelve hour days and made him dinner, cleaned. He told her she didn’t do enough, so she threw a potholder at him and called him an asshole.

The husband didn’t respond. 

She pictured life after the birth of their son, and how she wished and hoped it would change, when she really knew that nothing would change at all. That she would work a 50-plus hour work week and then have to take care of a baby at the end of the day. She said nothing to the husband. It would do no good. She kept plugging along; she kept getting ready. She cleaned the backseat of her car to get ready for the carseat. 

It came time for the baby shower, a mixture of cakes and presents and balloons—cute green and blue-for-boy balloons that she loved but couldn’t bring home in case the cats decided to eat them and then died from choking on string. She asked the husband to help bring home gifts; they lived up a steep flight of stairs and she didn’t want to carry everything. 

The husband didn’t respond. 

So she did it herself. She carried each and every thing up the stairs, and then she took a nap with the cats on the couch while a Lifetime movie played on the tv. A few weeks, just a few weeks, she would meet him. And everything would change then, when her son was born.

And just a short time later, at 37 weeks, when she called the husband to tell him the baby’s heart was no longer beating, well, he didn’t respond then either. 

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“Me” vs. Me

Three weeks ago, I was given the assignment to write two essays by Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving rapidly approaches—what are we, two weeks out now?—and if you think I’ve written essays, or even started essays, I’m going to laugh in your face. No, really. Open the window. You’ll hear me.

I’ve been in a weird head space. Call it the blahs, call it writers block, call it massive life regret; call it what you will. But I’m not writing. Someone important to me told me I was throwing a tantrum, that I needed to get out and try to publish the way I did when I was in undergrad, the way I stopped doing when I hit grad school. Did my uber expensive masters degree break me of doing the thing I love?

I started evaluating how I got here, to this place, to this weird balance of writer and dog trainer and New Yorker. I opened up my undergrad paper files, to the very first paper I ever wrote. It was an introduction for an English Lit class. I didn’t know how to write papers back then, not really, but I definitely knew how to write about myself. I knew what I wanted then:

“In all honesty, what I want is to become a writer. I like words. I am one of the few who can use a semi-colon properly; I have been writing practically since I knew how to form words. I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, the exercise of writing a 50,000 plus word novel in 30 days, just for fun. the last three years that I’ve done this, I’ve done it while working a 50 hour work week. Between writing an average of 2700 words a day and carrying my regular work load, there wasn’t a lot of time left for sleeping! I am very particular about every word that comes out of me, whether it be an ordinary conversation paper or the next great novel. there’s a small part of me that is uncertain whether the words i write are any good. However, there is a larger part of me that is beginning to realize that I actually do have a talent for this.”

It’s ironic that now, what, six years later, I have less confidence in my work than I did before I embarked on this journey. I see my friends and acquaintances with equally expensive degrees not using them more than they are, and I find myself wondering once again what the damn point was. To be clear, because I don’t want to sound like I’m taking a giant piss on my life, I am very happy where I am. I have some great relationships here, with people and dogs. I have a job I adore. I just … don’t write things. I have a super expensive degree that I paid *insert unspecified ridiculously embarrassing amount of debt here* for and it feels silly. I didn’t even do NaNoWriMo this year, and when I realized that, I promised myself I’d write in my journal every day, at least for November. Then I promptly left my apartment for a week and forgot my journal on my headboard shelf. So much for that idea.

In my prior writer years, when I was really on the ball and doing the writerly things I was supposed to do, I used to hassle my friend N about not making time in her life to write. I’ve since apologized, at least five times. I haven’t submitted an essay for publication in at least a year. I haven’t made the required edits that will make my thesis a book. I reached this great point in my writing where I had learned how to really articulate myself and my story and do it well, and I just STOPPED.

Why.

I wonder if, perhaps, I am afraid of what it means to go further. If I have broken every barrier I was comfortable breaking (and some I wasn’t) and that now I can go no further because I can never associate my story with myself in a greater public sense, with the people who were in it. If, for, as much as I tote around that I can speak, I can do these things, I can be this person who these things happened to and be more than her at the same time, that I really can’t—because to be more here means to be more back there. No more pen name; no more bottom shelf paperback. No more cloak of invisibility.

No more “me.” Just … me.

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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On Seeing

I had to write an author’s note this week for my best piece ever as I prepare for its publication. No, really, it is the best thing I will ever write. I needed an author’s note that would do it justice, but I’ve never written an author’s note before. I convinced myself I didn’t know how. I asked a friend for help, but she pointed out to me that she can’t always answer my questions. I’ve been thinking about this since our text conversation, and I still can’t reconcile myself with the person that she sees me to be. A successful writer? What?? Funny, because one of my responses to her was to “see the person I see in her.” That’s me though; I can’t see the me that other people see. So I get it when I see it in someone else. No matter how many times I publish, no matter how much I write, I’m not going to see myself as a writer. I’m always going to doubt myself, always going to see the times I’m not writing and not successful before I see the times I am.

I don’t think I see me.

So who do I see?

I see round cheeks that my short hair accentuates. I see chubby thighs. I see more declined publications than accepted. A bottom shelf book, a tiny room, zero friends, a job I can’t keep up with, and a sick cat I can’t afford to pay for.

I see a girl who’s scared to try a good school and scared to apply to phD programs because no matter what happens, she is certain they will not work out. Or, more accurately, that she will not work out. A girl who does not know what she is doing.

The people in my life don’t see these things in me, which makes me feel like I’m missing something.

So what don’t I see? I mean, if I was a observer coming in blind, with no knowledge of me at all?

My hair is pretty damn cute. I have calf muscles like nobody’s business. I have more publications than others who have been writing longer. I’m moving soon to a larger place. I’m good at my job, and I like puppies. And my cat is doing well.

See, I can beat up on myself all I want. But that doesn’t make me the person that I think I am. It doesn’t make me underqualified for a phD program or unable to survive a dissertation committee.

When I was back in Wisconsin, I wrote every day. I was a writing then. I was an English major, but, for all intents and purposes, I was English literature. Now I am a creative writing graduate student, and I am lucky to find moments like these at the very end of my day where I can scribble a few incredibly lame words down. I carry around a notebook in the backpack I bring dog walking, but I rarely have time to remember to pull it out. My day is dog dog maybe eat dog dog dog dog dog etc.

I do not feel like a writer. That’s a running theme this week, but it’s the truth. I do not feel like a writer, but it doesn’t mean I’m not one.

After two rounds of heavy struggle bus edits, contract renegotiations, and a myriad of things I don’t understand or know that I did correctly, and I’ll have a shiny new large publication next week. I have survived criticism, rewrites, and editing sadness. Whether I think I know what I’m doing, whether I legitimately know what I’m doing, I’m probably a writer. I might see the bad, but there’s a lot of good there too.

I wrote an author’s note. It’s probably not the best author’s note to ever grace this magazine’s pages, but I did do it. There you have it.

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On Being a Writer

My first ever writing workshop was easily one of the worst experiences I have had as a writer. I didn’t know how to respond to my classmates’ commentary, nor was I allowed to respond. That’s how it works it writing workshops. You sit and you take it, just like I sat and I took garbage for years from people in my life—I was never allowed an opinion or a voice. Not being able to respond is not something that inspires confidence within. I went into that workshop actually liking something I had written, for the first time ever. But no one else did. It brought me right back to that place, that place of not being good enough.

The piece all started with a dog. I interviewed an animal shelter worker who told me an incredibly interesting tale about a dog she had fallen in love with that was about to be euthanized unfairly. I decided that the best way to tell the story was to use both first and second person, alternating between the two in different crots to help create a profile of the doomed dog. I emailed the professor before the workshop:

“I’m really nervous about workshopping it because it’s SO totally different from any piece I’ve ever written.  It’s essentially done at this point, so I might as well go ahead and put it up.  But I find that I keep tinkering and moving things around.  I’m not sure why I like the second person, but I do.  It allows me to put myself in a situation I wasn’t actually in while still remaining removed.  Switching tenses allows me to show where I’m actually IN the scene.  If that makes sense.  I’m excited to see what you think.  I hope it doesn’t suck.”

She wrote back:

“I’m excited to see what it looks like!”

Then I got to class.

The class did not like the different points of view. They called them terrible and disastrous. The nail that hurt the most was the comment, “This literally killed the piece for me.” I thought that the piece was beautiful, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that. To keep my mouth shut, I wrote in my notebook while people were talking.  What is truly amazing to me, looking back at that notebook now, is how the quality of my writing slowly degraded over the course of the twenty minute session.  I started out putting a positive spin on comments that were said to try and make myself feel better.  Then I moved into just plain writing was said, and after that I started adding in my own little phrases to what people were saying.

“Your lack of transitions is horrible.  Grr.  You’re an idiot.”

“The tense shifting doesn’t work; you need to come up with a better mode of transition because you’re weird and nobody gets where you were going with it.”

“You (using it) is obnoxious.  Get rid of it.”

“*sad face*  Why did you think this was a good idea?”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  I have three pages of commentary that I wrote down, and they stopped being useful comments after page one.  Where people really were saying the transitions were horrible, I started adding in the little voice in the back of my brain that turned it into a direct insult of me personally.  I take criticism much too seriously; I hear everything as a direct insult.  I thought that I was getting better at it, and I signed up for the first workshop because I thought that I could take it.  But I couldn’t.  And by the time I was allowed to talk, I was broken.  That wasn’t all the fault of the class; it was partially mine as well.  I left in tears.

The professor emailed me within the hour:

“Your profile was awesome. I should have defended what I knew to be amazing about it more to the rest of the class. I tried to lead them into understanding. It failed.

The thing is, I’m asking all of you to take risks, and as writers, you may be better at taking risks than at interpreting the risks of others as readers. I think that was the case today–I think that for both you and for [the other student] no one seemed to give the benefit of the doubt.

This is the first one though. I’ll be better next time, now that I know a bit more about what I’m dealing with.

What’s ironic is that because your piece was such a strong piece, I wanted to make sure (if I could) that you went second–because I felt that if you went first, and we were nothing but praise, [the other student] might feel embarrassed or sad in comparison when we didn’t give him as much as we gave you.

I’ve made several people read this piece because I’ve thought it worth sharing. It makes me want to go get that dog! And if you could make [someone] feel bad for the dog, you are doing something right. You do not need to change the point of view.”

I replied later and asked the professor how to take things less personally, to which she responded: “I don’t know how…You shouldn’t feel judged by people who weren’t able to meet the piece where it is. It’s like when you send stuff away; some people like it, some people don’t. I think “rejection” letters never get easier to handle.”

Over the course of that class, the only real workshop I had before graduate school, I got better at being workshopped. At handling the criticism. At separating myself from both the negative and the positive. I started understanding that while the work is mine, and because it’s memoir, it’s me in a way, it also isn’t me. It’s my work.

I got to graduate school and I promptly forgot this lesson. I prepared a gender profile piece, outside of my chosen and comfortable memoir genre, for my first workshop. I finished it, and certain it sucked, I instead submitted a memoir piece that I had prepared for the second workshop. The memoir piece was good, and I knew it. The reviews I got were strong. Though it was definitely a scary topic to approach with a group of near strangers, and took quite a bit of bravery to admit the topic on my part, I knew that it was my writing at its best. I played it safe with my submission, and saved the gender profile for the second workshop.

That workshop was this week. As I had already recognized, the gender piece had problems. My struggle to protect a source who wanted to remain anonymous left the piece with generalizations and vagueness throughout. My usual scene work just simply wasn’t there, because I wasn’t sure how to deploy those scenes in a piece meant to be more factual. Worst of all, I tried so hard to put all of the interviews and research together that I forgot about my old friend, passive voice. The difference between this workshop and my first ever was that the piece really wasn’t me at my best, and the criticism I got (minus one not so nice comment) was constructive. But I still left in tears. I had never submitted a piece for people to read before that I didn’t know on some internal level was good. While the gender piece is good, it has definite flaws. However, I have learned a good lesson from it.

I’m too emotionally attached to my writing. That is why a lot of my writing does not get shared. I hear the critique and I put it on myself. I wrote the piece, so I own the blame? Right? Right, in a way. Writing is about fixing, about revising. I’m the writer, so I own the blame, but I also own the power to fix what is wrong, what is broken. A critique isn’t a personal attack on me. (At least, it shouldn’t be). It’s a suggestion for improvement, it’s a way to make my writing better. And it’s a thing that I need to suck it up and deal with if I’m going to be a writer.

And I’m going to be a writer.

I could be good. Hell, I could be great if I could just let myself BE. It is incredibly difficult for me to step outside of my writer box, let alone my person box. Critiques make me doubt myself, and I can’t let that happen. I want to be able to trust my work, and myself. Trust that I can take a work I have begun and make it better. I want to be a writer, and to be one, I need to pick myself up, dust myself off, and be ready to fall back down on my ass. Because I will. A lot.

Bring on the stunt bag.

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