Tag Archives: identity

We All Make Mistakes

I can still remember when Corey and Topanga broke up. I’m guessing many from my generation can. Boy Meets World; TGIF; quality thank goodness it’s Friday television programming. Topanga was crying; her family was moving to Pittsburgh, away from her childhood sweetheart, and what was the point in continuing a relationship when they couldn’t be together?
I had middle school play practice the next morning. Eighth grade, so it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So and so had kissed so and so. So and so had gone to the movie with a bunch of so and sos, all of whom shall remain nameless I remember so vividly though because it was the start of something for me–my friends were talking about real boys, and I was talking about Corey and Topanga breaking up as if they were real people, because, in a way, they were. 
I’ve written stories in my head for as long as I can remember, intending to inscribe them for the masses but never being motivated enough to publicize my fiction. Samantha and Rebeckah were (are; let’s be real, I still write them in my head as I fall asleep) my favorites. Both had terrible lives marked by notable happy endings, followed by more terrible, followed by more happy. Every bad is met with its match in good. And in my stories, they always met a boy, and that boy was what saved them. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that meeting a boy would save me too. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step one: Evaluate all possible choices. 

Step two: Evaluate all possible outcomes. 
*
It was hot in the church on the afternoon of June 2nd, a few years after I graduated high school. I sat in a pew, my annoyance marked with my traditional silent eyeroll that I hid from B with my then-long bangs. Just a few more things, they kept telling us. Just a few more, then we could go. It turned out wedding rehearsals were harder than they looked. It was a bunch of go here, do this thing, do that thing, go there, sit. Move. Wait. 
We were poor, so our after-rehearsal dinner consisted of a bunch of meat thrown on the grill on the backyard deck by B’s dad, who had left the rehearsal early to commence the cooking festivities. So far as we knew, everything was fine. Until the phone call: “So everything is fine.” Nothing is fine that starts with that phrase. “There’s just been a small fire on the deck.”
It was another event in a string of events that shaped a loud and clear broadcast stating it was wrong to marry B. We lost our church, our free catering, our pastor, our wedding counselor, all in the weeks before the wedding. But we kept plunging ahead. Or rather, I kept plunging ahead, because I wanted the happy ending I knew existed. I thought. I knew it was a mistake. I made it anyway. This one mistake set in motion many other events, many other mistakes, much more unhappiness. I kept thinking that I had done the thing I was supposed to–I had gotten married–and that this would be the thing to save me because it was always the boy that would save the girl.
That night, after the dinner, I sat on my bed, my last time without B in my apartment, and I painted my toenails with sparkly silver nail polish while my good friend sat across from me and told me not to do it. Not to go through with it. Not to marry B. But I did it anyway because I thought I was supposed to. Girl meets boy; girl marries boy; girl produces many children and stays home to take care of the family for all eternity. I wanted to do the right thing. 
But I made a mistake; my life was none of these things. When everything disintegrated, despite looking for someone else to save me, I had to be the one to save myself. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step three: Choose what you think is the expected outcome, the one that everyone else wants. 
*
I know this great dog who shall remain nameless, since that’s how the rescue game is played. She came to the rescue with her mother and two sisters from a backyard breeder in New Jersey that saw what was amazing inside the mommy dog and used it to make himself money (it’s no wonder I wanted to adopt the mommy dog then…). This puppy was my first real placement of a dog I loved. I drove her to the house, I dropped her there. I celebrated when she stayed, and I lived for the picture and video updates and the times I got to visit in an era of my life when I wasn’t seeing many rescues doing well. When so many dogs would act out or bite or never leave and sit Saturday after Saturday not finding a home, it was nice to be reminded that good homes did exist, that all dogs have good inside somewhere, and that they all have a place, like we all have a place. But then this dog made one mistake, and she came back to the rescue. Her return was the right thing for everyone, but right or not didn’t make it suck any less for any of us. The mistake was too colossal, too all-encompassing, to come back from, a permanent black mark on an otherwise impeccable record, and a black mark of the biggest sort. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step four: Do that thing that everyone else wants. 

Step five: Watch the results and know that you’re screwed. 
*
I think it was pack instinct that drove this dog to do the thing she did. “I must protect the pack, because the pack protects me/because the pack loves me/because the pack has brought me my happy and I must return the favor.” It’s impossible to know for sure though. But what I do know, both from my own life and the lives of those around me, is that we make the biggest mistakes trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We make the biggest mistakes when we’re genuinely trying to be the best we can be. It doesn’t make us bad; it doesn’t make us unworthy; it just means that we have not found our place yet because we haven’t learned to define ourselves outside of other people’s expectations. 
Doesn’t this make us all just like dogs? We want to please so badly sometimes without a thought to the consequences that we plunge headlong into situations we can’t come back from. If you stick to the norms, follow the expected commands to their given outcomes, and don’t step out of line, everything will be fine. Right?
*
How to make a mistake:
Step six: Do not repeat; learn from the thing you’ve done. 
*
Queue the after-hiatus Boy Meets World Cory-without-Topanga episode that ended with Topanga outside the door in the rain, her hand pressed to the glass and her long brown hair slicked against her skin as she declared she was moving back to live with her aunt and would be together with Corey forever. I wish all decisions ended so happily. I am too old, have wasted too much time, to make the wrong ones. Writing stories, living with and in characters, does nothing when they always have a happy ending, because those endings do not exist through others–and it’s a mistake to believe they do. We write our own stories. We make mistakes we can’t take back. We live. We learn. 

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You Can’t Sit With Us (Rough Draft)

When I was in seventh grade, the big project of the final quarter was to create a magazine. We’re not talking crayon doodles on construction paper bound with yarn here; we’re talking an actual magazine. The project stretched across all subjects. In English/Language Arts, we learned about writing articles and essays. In math, we were given Monopoly money to use for purchasing articles from authors, designing the layout, printing, advertising, etc. In social studies, we practiced analyzing current events that we could write about, and in art, we practiced drawing, both on paper and on the computer, as well as worked with layout. They wanted us to be well rounded, educated, individuals. The idea was that we would help each other; we would use the fake currency to buy articles, art, and other things for our magazine.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the project. I think the magazine layout board I turned in on the last day, when we all presented our projects, was neon pink? It may have been green. But at any rate, it was done. The articles on it? They were all mine. The art? That was mine too. When it had come time to buy things for my magazine, no one would sell to me. No one would buy from me.

I can’t say I was surprised.

*

A few weeks ago, I read about a dog named Hank. Hank was happily living with his family in Ireland, enjoying snuggles, squeaky toys, and long joyful walks, when the government seized him because he “looked like a pitbull.” They cited their local “dangerous animals law,” coining Hank as dangerous simply because of his looks. A simple Google search makes it obvious that Hank is anything but dangerous (unless you’re a stuffed toy!). Hank was a victim of his breed, his label. He’s not even listed as a pitbull—on paper, he is a lab mix.

Hank’s story has a happy ending. His owners went to bat with him, and after several weeks apart while Hank was quarantined in a shelter, he was reunited with his owners and they’re a family again.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many dogs.

*

Middle school was pretty much the worst. Things went along fine, and I did pretty well socially, all things considered, until about fourth grade or so. Fourth grade was the year that practically the entire school got head lice, myself included. Rumors circulated that I had started the head lice epidemic (I had not), and I tried to discourage those rumors by saying that I hadn’t had lice at all (I had), and that my itchy head had been from an allergic reaction to shampoo. After that, not only was I the head lice queen, I was also a liar—the entire school was at lunch the day the school nurse marched me out of the building to meet mother to get my lice treatment. Everybody knew.

The cafeteria each day was a nightmare. I would take my tray on the days I got hot lunch, or my little brown bag on the days I carried something from home, and stand on the outskirts of everything, staring. Wondering where to sit. Dreading going to my so called friends’ table and finally hearing “You can’t sit with us.” I was constantly waiting for the day when they would see me the same way that everybody else did, for the day when there would be no more chair for me at the table. I elected to lunch in my English teacher’s room each day so that I could read rather than negotiate middle school politics and try to be something I wasn’t.

*

BSL, or breed specific legislation, is a set of laws that restrict and/or ban certain dogs because of their appearance, or because they’re commonly thought to be a “dangerous” breed. Breed restrictions can require owners to muzzle their dog in public, spay or neuter, contain them in a kennel, keep a leash of specific length or material, maintain liability insurance, and post vicious dog tags and signs on both their property and the dog itself. Breed bans are even worse. A breed ban will mandate that all dogs of the specified breed have to be removed from the area. After the “by-when” date on the ban, any dog not removed can be killed by animal control.

These laws simply look at the dog as they are on the outside, without consideration for things like the way they were raised, trained, and handled by their owner. These laws do not look at the actual behavior of the dog in question, rather, they look at what they imagine that dog to be, the worst case scenario.

BSL has a lot of issues. For one, it’s prejudice. There is no such thing as a bad dog. Bad owners? Yes. A dog is the result of how it is raised. Dogs want nothing more than they want to please their people. BSL does nothing to improve safety; it punishes people who are responsible dog owners and does nothing to hold irresponsible owners responsible. It requires that each and every dog have a label, a breed, something is pretty much impossible to do accurately. Dogs that are targeted become more desirable to irresponsible people simply because of the bullseye on their back. Dogs of any breed can be great dogs. Dogs of any breed can be dangerous dogs. BSL is the worst. I don’t understand it.

And yet, I do.

*

High school was better for me. There were still people who dropped the usual insults—“Her cats pee on stuff,” “She smells like fish,” “Her clothes come from Walmart,” but I was old enough to better know how to deal with it. My haircuts when I got them weren’t cutting edge. My sneakers actually came from Kmart. I didn’t do brand names. I didn’t mind. I liked who I was, but the world told me not to.

I was in an acapella group with (I think) seven other people. They never wanted me to be part of the circle, and I struggled to stick up for myself even though I was just as good a singer as the rest of them. It was such a little thing, but so telling. I let them circle by the piano; I let them whisper about me. I always stayed slightly behind.

*

We have to talk about Lennox. Hearing his story was the first time I really became aware of BSL. It was 2010, I believe. Lennox, a lab/bulldog mix was five years old and happily living with a family in Belfast. (The same area where Hank is from…hmmm….). Lennox did nothing wrong; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with a head that made him look like a “pitbull type.” The government went so far as to measure the size of his snout in order to declare him a pitbull, and then they seized him and sentenced him to die. His family fought for two years to get him back, to save him, or even to send him to America where dogs who look like pitbulls are allowed. But when all of their appeals expired, Lennox was put to sleep.

Lennox, the bulldog/lab mix, was put to sleep because he LOOKED like something else. Lennox, the family dog, a child’s pet. A good boy. Dead.

*

I walk a dog now named Tubs. I see almost every day. She’s grown a lot since I first started walking her. In the beginning, we couldn’t even walk in the direction of the dog park without Tubs displaying crazy aggressive antics. Tubs was never socialized with other dogs, so they were a terrifying prospect. Now though, after over a year of training and love and many, many walks, Tubs can walk by a dog on the path in the park and not care. That dog will never come over to her. She will never be friends with it. But the dog can exist and not be scary.

Tubs is a pocket pitbull. She is the sweetest pitbull with humans and wants nothing more than to sit in your lap and cover your face in slobbery kisses. But when we’re walking on the street, people move out of the way as we come close. They cross the street. They avoid her, just because of her breed. Because of what she looks like. And if she barks at another dog, it’s all over. “Look at the pitbull,” they say. “She’s so mean.” No. She’s not.

I’m convinced that, like Tubs, the world set me up to be in the place I ended up. Christianity told me that I had to be married. My social education told me that I would never be married because no one would love me because of how I looked and who I wanted to love. I learned to shut up, be quiet, do what I was told.

I ended up in a adult relationship that clearly didn’t fit me. I came away more demolished than I came in. But I don’t think I would change it. Trying to fit the mold made me realize that the mold isn’t real, that it’s a cat eternally chasing a tail it will never catch. I had to be in the mold to break the mold, and I wonder if that’s not my job here as a writer—to break the mold. To show there is no normal. To dismantle our own human forms of BSL.

I was bullied as a kid, and I let that define a lot of who I was for a long time. I’m a lot of things, but I’m more than what you see when you look. I still don’t wear brand names, but that doesn’t make me bad. I like it this way. I don’t always brush my hair, but I walk dogs all day and there’s really no point. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to live and have a little fun. I don’t talk a lot, but I want to make what I say matter. I’ve been hurt, but it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been raped, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. The world says I should look a certain way, that I should be broken. I say differently.

As I try to find more ways to write about my life, I’m realizing that I am more than my surface appearance. And so is Tubs. And so is Hank. And so was Lennox.

So let’s end all BSL, okay? Both the human and the dog forms.

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Welcome to After the MFA

Honestly? I never thought about life after the MFA. It was a means to an end, and getting in was a goal to get me through a time in my life that I didn’t know how to muddle through on my own.

I remember the first conversation I had about graduate school:

  • Me: Tell me what to do to get into grad school.
  • T: Well, start by looking up programs. Figure out what you need, what you want, who will pay you. Don’t go if they don’t pay you.

I started looking in an almost passive manner. And then, after everything went to hell, I became more manic about it.

  • Me: (paraphrased) I need a thing. I have a hole and I need to fill it.
  • T: You can take time off if you want; the choice is yours. I’m behind you whatever you decide.
  • Me: (paraphrased) I need a thing.
  • T: Research graduate schools, and report back what you find.

So I did. Her advice worked. I was rejected by some schools; I was accepted by others. I read the books of all of the advisors of my possible programs, and I settled on The New School. I had all of these grand plans of what it would be like to be a writer after the MFA.

  1. write book
  2. publish book
  3. have glamorous writer job

After the MFA is none of these things.

  1. I’m a dog walker/trainer. As previously established, I love this and I’m great at it, but it’s not what I thought I’d do. I’m okay with it, and I’ll keep doing it, because it works great with writing. But, again. Not what I thought I’d do.
  2. I wrote a book. It’s being read by people. But, as my past endeavors have taught me, it’s not good enough. And it’s not ready. It will be soon though. Actually, I lied; it’s pretty great.
  3. Publish? Under my real name? Say WHAT? Publishing has the following issues:
    1. The book is all true.
    2. I still haven’t settled on the pen name issue.
    3. He’s out there, today.

It’s here, this thing in my life I never accounted for, this thing I knew would happen someday but I didn’t let myself think about. Grad school was a means to an end, but now it’s done.

Getting my MFA bought me time. Question is, was it enough to break away? Did I buy myself enough time; have I become the person that I want to be apart from him? I am 32 years old. Do I know who I am now, at least enough to be that person? My person?

Are my words enough? My book? Am I invisible? I want to be. Do I want to be?

Question: Am I enough?

Answer: Who we are is what comes out when things go bad. You can’t tell anything about a person when things are great. You only really know someone when everything’s gone to hell.

Answer: I have to be.

Welcome to after the MFA.

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Why the Arts Deserve Funding (Rough Draft)

Why is my college awesome?  Why is my degree important?  Why is the English field important?  Heck, why are the arts important?  And why should we fund them?  I find myself struggling with the answers to these questions.  Sure, I know the canned responses.  Writing is a popular skill these days; companies want a person on their staff who can write well.  Arts people are good communicators.  They get people and they know how to get through to them.  They can take complex ideas and process them in a well-articulated way.  They are artists, editors, keepers of history and providers of the written word.

But do I fit into any of those categories?  I’m not really one who fits in a box, at least not anymore.  And that is what Parkside has done for me.  It isn’t just some tiny nothing school in the middle of the woods.  (And I know I’m not supposed to say that, but I’m trying to prove a point.)  Parkside has amazing students and activities, and the College of the Arts and Humanities is especially amazing.  The professors know their stuff and are able to convey lessons that are applicable both inside and out of the classroom.  I have taken things away from every single class I’ve had.  I have not only learned about the literature canon and the history of more authors than I have time to mention, but I have learned about myself in the process.

In my life before college, I was taught that it was wrong to think for myself.  My thoughts weren’t my own, and I let my idea wither away into nothing.  These messages came from everywhere in my life, and this conditioning made school very difficult for me in the beginning.  I didn’t know how to speak up; I had a very difficult time if I wasn’t absolutely positive I had the correct answer.  The thing about being in a creative field is that there really isn’t one correct answer.  There’s not really a wrong answer either.  An opinion, a thought on a text, cannot be wrong.  There’s only what you think.

Our college has what is referred to as a gateway course to the English major:  Literary Analysis.  As I dove into the work at the start of the course, it became apparent that I was supposed to read the assignments and have my own thoughts about them.  It was then I thought I wasn’t cut out for the land of English.  There wasn’t one correct answer.  By the time we got to Lacan around the fourth week of the course, it completely blew my brain.  I read the words and I understood them, but my head was stuck on figuring out what the right answers were.  I couldn’t let this idea go.  So I asked the professor for help.  I distinctly remember the conversation we had while I was standing in her office that day.  I told her that I didn’t get it, but 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?”

It was my worst nightmare; I was stuck.  I wanted the right answer.  I didn’t want to think.  I didn’t want to be wrong.  As I tried to articulate what I thought Lacan might have been trying to illustrate, the only thing running through my head was that she would think badly of me if I was wrong.  But as it turned out, she didn’t think badly of me at all.  She said I “sounded smart.”  I took that to mean I was going in the right direction.  After that, my thinking started to change.  I offered more opinions in class.  I was learning how to be my own person.  It was never purely academic for me.  It applied to my outside life as well.

The ultimate challenge 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 would have to share them.  I would have to let myself be exposed.

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 was terrified the day of the presentation.  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.  I could live outside of the box and be okay.

It taught me how to be proud of myself.   This program literally saved me.  And while I owe my professors so, so much, from the lessons they have taught me, I’ve been able to change myself.

So go ahead.  Ask me again.  Why is Parkside awesome?  Why is the English department amazing?  Why do the arts deserve more funding?  Why?  Because I am standing in front of a group of people speaking today when this never would have been possible in the past.  Because I can speak now, because I can share these words with you and not be afraid.  Because I am not the only one.  There are more people out there who are like me.  There are more people who need to find themselves, as I found myself.  I have found a place where my people are, where I fit in.  Where I can be a good student and have the answers even if they aren’t necessarily right.  Where I can show up every day, good or bad, and be accepted just the way I am.  By being at Parkside and working my butt off for my degree, I have found a purpose in my life where I previously thought I had none.  Being a writer is who I am.  Other people deserve the same opportunity that I have had to find themselves.

If you’re looking for an arts program to fund, it should be ours.  More money buys more professors who know their stuff and helps to keep the dedicated professors we already have in our department.  More money funds more events that draw more people.  Our facilities are top-notch, the best in the area, and we need to fill them with more people.  We need to come up with ways to introduce people to the arts in a way that makes them fall in love again.

More money helps more students like me become the people they are supposed to be.  To find the words.  So help us.  Help us to grow; help us to spread the word, to spread the arts.  Help us to become an even better undergrad program than we already are.

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