We Have Problems

Define rape. Now differentiate it from sexual assault.

Define sexual assault. Now differentiate it from sexual harassment.

Define sexual harassment. Now differentiate it from flirting

You now know one of the problems we have.

Even “uggos” and “fatties” are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and raped. Actually, I was sexually assaulted more times when I was heavier than I have at a smaller size, though that might be a numbers game: I was fat for longer than I’ve been less fat.

Did you catch that?

I’ve been sexually assaulted more than once.

More than twice.

More than three times.

I think the count is five times.

I was not raped, so everyone can calm down (I guess, but I’ll have more to say about that later). Two times strangers masturbated next to me in a movie theater and reached for me and leaned in to me as they did it. That IS sexual assault. The first time I didn’t even know what was happening, so he faced no consequences. The second time, I moved seats but did nothing more.

One time I was fondled from behind on a public transit escalator. He got his hand in there real good. That IS sexual assault. At first, I thought it was someone innocently but rudely mishandling their umbrella. When I realized what was happening, I only glared at him.

One time a man on the subway tried to stroke my leg as he masturbated. That IS sexual assault. This was the most recent incident, and I felt strong enough to say loud enough for the whole subway car to hear, “excuse me!” I shamed the man off the subway.

The first time, when I was 12, a boy grabbed my butt after verbally harassing me. He also cupped his hands on my mouth and breathed on me, not like a kiss. That was the only time I held the guy accountable to more than shame. He was a preacher’s kid, so in addition to the school’s punishment, daddy made him call me to apologize, at which time he denied doing anything to my face/mouth… like grabbing my butt and saying nasty things was acceptable gross behavior, but something else wasn’t. The worst part is that I thought the boy was cute, which is probably why he chose to target me in the first place.

ALL of these are sexual assaults, so when women ask if a stranger grabbing their boobs “counts” as sexual assault, I get irate. I will not make trauma a competition, but I do understand the violation of rape is more private than some types of sexual assault; and as far as sexual assaults go, I do consider mine minor. The fact remains that any kind of sexual assault is an invasion of personal space, often body parts associated with sex, ans is worthy of note. Women should not worry if the way their personal space was invaded “counts” as sexual assault. It’s not a point of comparison that we’re raising. It’s a point of WHY THE FUCK DOES THIS HAPPEN SO OFTEN?

You see another one of our many problems.

I’ve asked myself why I didn’t hold the men who assaulted me accountable for their actions. Some of it was the sheer shock that it happened in the first place. Some of it was not knowing how to find the man after the fact, when I thought about doing something. Some of it is simply the fact that I was raised in a society that objectifies women and tells us over and over that we are not allowed to take up space in the world, to have an opinion (much less voice it), to stand up for ourselves against men. I’m ashamed of myself for the four times I did nothing. I think too many women live their lives assuming that kind of thing “just happens” and assume there isn’t anything they can do about it.

Problem #3.

Sexual harassment is an even grayer area because it relies a lot on perception and can be anywhere from comments that can be easily shrugged off to behaviors that make people feel physically threatened without being physically touched. I myself have been guilty of sexual harassment that I’ve chalked up to humor. I don’t want to become a comedy nazi, living in a world where people call foul at any off-color remark, so it’s hard to know where the hard and soft lines are when it comes to what we say.

You guessed it, another problem.

Furthermore, when it comes to sexual harassment, I can understand why many men are so confused. While society is delivering damaging messages to women, it’s also sending mixed information to men.  We talk about dating and courtship using words like “game” and hunt.” Well, “game” is problematic because it presumes that there is a set of KNOWN rules, which we all know are not clear and are not universal. It also implies that there is a winner and a loser, a victor and a defeated party. “Hunting” implies predator and prey, and in the animal world, that usually ends in death, not sex. Moreover, we talk about “the chase” and “playing hard to get.” I hear you, guys, when you say, “So am I supposed to be persistent and prove to her I’m really interested or am I an asshole for mentioning that she looks nice?” Would John Cusack’s character in Say Anything standing outside a bedroom window with a boom box held aloft still be romantic in today’s mixed up world? Or would that be something to call the cops about?  It can’t be easy when you think about how much money the 50 Shades franchise has taken in – yes, it was all consensual and contractual, but the idea seems to be that women want a man who takes control when it comes to sex. (And then I hear Beyonce singing, “I’ma LET you be the boss of me” … it’s about a completely conscious release of control, not the control being TAKEN from you without your consent, understanding, acknowledgement).

Yet another problem.

I don’t know that I have viable solutions, but I think the first step is acknowledging each person as a human being, not something else (like an object for your pleasure, whether that is your visual pleasure or your sexual pleasure). I think another step in that same direction is equally valuing each human being’s rights to his/her personal space. Men and women are entitled to take up the same amount of space in the world, to speak at the same volume for the same length, to have control over who touches them and who does not, and in what ways they are touched. That sounds really simple, but apparently it’s not.

Men need to stop saying “I have a daughter, a mother, a sister” when they condemn the behavior of other men. I appreciate the public condemnation, but re-frame the way you think of women. We deserve to be treated with respect not because we’re sisters, daughters, mothers, but, like I said above, because we are HUMAN BEINGS.

Like I said, we have problems.

 

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Existentialism 101

It could be because the handful of Advil has finely coalesced with the NyQuil to bring me out of the cloud of head congestion I’ve been in for days, but I feel relatively okay right now. It might pass. Hopefully it won’t.

Existentialism is a philosophical response to the chaos some thinkers saw in the world in the early twentieth century.  Everything they thought they knew was crumbling around them, so they figured, “hey, maybe it’s all meaningless!” The key to living as an existentialist and not going completely insane, in my opinion, is to do precisely what the existentialists intended: make it matter for yourself, knowing that you’ve made it up and that everyone else has too.

I don’t know if I’m an existentialist, but I certainly understand the idea of needing to make something meaningful because the very foundation you thought you were standing on is eroding beneath you. I do think there are some universal laws. I don’t think all the choices people make are valid – I’m a judgmental bitch, and I hold myself and others to high standards. But I also think that there’s something to be said for recognizing that “the rules” that society has are often arbitrary, so why follow them? Everyone has a different version of what is good, what is valuable, how to put the world in some kind of order.

In the time I’ve been quiet, which has been too long in my own judgment, I’ve been thinking about what makes me happy. What are the things that I want in life to make it matter, to make sense of the world?

One point I’ve come clear on is that I do want to teach. I love working with young people. I love helping young people understand what they read, how they think. I love guiding young people to new ideas. There is an infinite hope in working with young people. Maybe I can’t personally make the world a better place, but maybe through working with the next generation, I can help shape the new world. I recognize the tension in that statement too – the humility to know I can’t make change but the arrogance to think I can influence people who might be able to. It’s a weird kind of power, I know. I don’t abuse it or take it for granted, I don’t think.

I also know that I believe education should let young people question everything. I value analytical thought, so if you come up with more questions than answers, I’m happy. Unfortunately, as I gain clarity about the fact that I do want to teach, I am also sure that New York City public schools do not foster the kind of education I believe in. This isn’t really news to me, but it was a point driven home a week ago when I substitute taught a test prep class. NYC students in eighth grade have the option to take a high school entrance test called the SHSAT. It’s very much like the SAT, and it allows students some choice in where they go to high school. The top scorers are offered seats at specialized high schools, so they can choose where they go. It’s a lot like college admissions, which is daunting. The test is stupid though, as are the prep classes. It’s not about critical thought and creative problem solving. It prepares kids to be little test taking robots in competition with each other.

Part of what I’ve been struggling with is my beliefs about education. I have always thought a solid public education is fundamental to democracy. As a student growing up in one of the best funded counties in the country, I benefited in countless ways from public education. As a teacher, though, I see that my experience as a student was probably an anomaly. The system is not designed to meet children’s needs. It’s a machine. I’ve railed at it before, but something finally broke in me this year. Now that I’m sorting through the pieces, I know I’m too subversive to ever become a leader within the current system. I don’t want to walk away though. That’s why it’s been hard to figure out what I’m doing with myself.

For the time being, it means I’m going to set my sights on international teaching, which is what I thought I should be doing, but I needed time away from a classroom to truly see that.

Another puzzle piece of happiness I’ve managed to figure out recently is that I like having a pet. I took my cat to my mom’s because I’m going to be traveling for a while, and I’ve been without him in my apartment for less than three days. I don’t like it, especially because I’ve been sick and wanted to cuddle. I like having animals around. They’re calming and entertaining. They’re easier to deal with than people too. And it’s nice to be needed.

So, existentialism 101 – what makes it matter: teaching and animals. It’s a start to bringing order to my chaos.

How’d You Meet?

(Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the massacre in Vegas. Yeah, I’m listening to Tom Petty’s greatest hits. But I can’t put any of it down in a way that makes any sense, so I won’t even try.)

It’s one of the first questions you have to answer if you’re seeing someone new. If you’re getting married, you better be ready to tell the story ad nauseam.  Sometimes it’s phrased differently: how do you know each other?

It used to be that saying you met someone online was a black mark against you. Now, most people shrug when they say they met on Match, OKCupid, or Tinder. In fact, a lot of people ask themselves how people even meet one another without using the internet. Apparently generations before us figured it out because here we are, right?

People will even ask the question about your friends, not your love interest or partner-to-be. What if you can’t remember? What if it’s not an exciting story?

Here’s how I met some people:

Sunday School… I don’t even remember anything we said to each other the first time, but we were all always in the same class because we are the same age. We learned how to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed by heart. We had Tuesday confirmation classes together.

Church choir… my mom couldn’t drive me because she wasn’t home from work yet, so your whole family adopted me one night a week.

Church hallway… you know my mom and she trained you to come up to me and say who you were because I don’t see very well. I then learned to identify you by your perfume.

Class at school… most likely I needed to borrow a pencil or whiteout. You are now one of my closest friends (and in the case of both the pencil and the whiteout, you have North African heritage).

John Mayer message boards… I had money. You had a car. We went to concerts. My mom did NOT think it was safe, but when I kept coming home in one piece, she got over it.

The dorm… we were placed together randomly as roommates and THANK GOD we kinda like each other. You lived across/down the hall, downstairs. You were probably into music or psychology, so we had something to talk about.

The cafeteria… elementary school, middle school, high school, college… You were nice enough to let me sit with you. You probably laughed when I said something funny.

Traveling… We were the only ones from our neck of the woods on the work trip, so we bonded. I didn’t like anyone else in the group because they were obnoxious, so we ate (and likely drank!)  together. Study abroad counts here, even if it also counts as dorm, cafeteria, and class.

Through a friend/family member… someone who I already thought was cool gave you pre-approval, so I gave you a shot.

Work/work-related conference/training… we happened to be paid by the same organization and spent at least eight hours a day together. We may secretly hate each other, but in the name of ‘professionalism’ we were decent to one another or avoid each other (if possible). If we get along, we probably went to lunch or happy hour and learned we’re pretty cool. Maybe we gelled because everyone else seemed batshit crazy and we needed to laugh about the insanity. Maybe I was the one teacher you felt like you could talk to and we’ve kept on talking now that you’re out of the unreality that is high school.

There are far more random ways to meet people too. The other day, I needed to buy kitty litter. It was $8.99, and I wanted to pay with credit card. The store clerk said they’d only take a card for a purchase over $10, which is bullshit. I blinked at her. The guy behind me said he’d add his one item (a coffee drink) to my tab and then give me cash for it. It was a good solution. We aren’t getting married though. I’m not sure I’d recognize him if I saw him again. But it goes to show you.

The baristas at coffee shops I frequent know me by my drink. All they need to ask is if I want it hot or iced. We might chat about life, weather, music, apartments, roommates while they prepare my drink. We don’t hang out outside of this brief daily interaction, but we could is what I’m saying.

So today I was talking to a friend’s sister and she told me a story that I want so very much to be the “how we met” story for someone, if not her.

There was a first responder cookout in the apartment complex she lives in, so she went down to have some grub and admire the beauty of firemen (I assume.) She had some chicken chili and a few beers I imagine. She then took the elevator back up to her apartment. One of the first responders was riding with her when her digestive track decided the chicken wasn’t agreeing with her and she let loose a horrible burp, bordering on a gag-possibly-vomit situation. In the elevator. With the (in my version HOT) first responder. He very attentively asked if she was okay, if she had a history of indigestion, if she needed help. If it were me, I’d be a mix of mortified and ready with a witty response. I likely would have wanted to evaporate into the air. I might have even gotten out of the elevator before my intended floor to escape the guy’s concern, regardless of how nice he was being.

That’s all there is to the story, but my fictionalized version, which I told her immediately, ends with “and now we’re married.” Not only would that be a fantastic story to tell about how you met someone, but also if a guy sticks around after you burp-puke, he’s a keeper. Gents, we ladies do have all normal bodily functions like you, so don’t get weird when we burp or fart! (I’m not saying we should all lead with our most deadly flatulence, but let’s not deny it either.)

You really don’t need the internet to meet people, but there’s no problem if you use it to meet people. There’s no judgment here, just an awareness that there are still and have always been myriad ways to meet other human beings. The French president met his wife when she was his teacher, but she has a great figure, so I’m sure no one thinks twice about it. (Why can’t you tell a woman she has a great figure?… ugh. Again, I won’t even try.)

Universal Themes

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification for English teachers of adolescents includes a four part portfolio and a six part test. The portfolio documents stuff you should already do in the classroom if you’re any good. The test is short essays on six topics, three of which are pedagogical, three of which are subject specific. You have exactly half an hour to read and answer the question for each topic. And it’s on a computer with a countdown clock in the corner, so it’s a bit like diffusing a bomb, or at least it felt that way while I was floundering to write something that made  sense. Good job me because I got my National Board Certification on my first try, hitting the top of the NYC DOE teaching pay scale before I turned 30. Yeah, topped out before 30… I’ll come back to this idea in a minute.

One of the subject specific topics was something called “universal themes.” The general idea is that most literature conveys similar messages, that any number of pieces can be sharing the same or very similar truth. It’s been a while, but I think it gave a passage and I had to come up with something else that had a similar theme. I used a John Mayer song, as you do. The fact that it was a subject specific test was funny to me because the definition of “theme” comes into question in English departments I’ve been a member of. So has the definition of “Thesis.” You’d think these two words that make up a huge part of what we English teachers teach would have a common definition. Well, they don’t. They’ve caused discussions that revealed me to be a judgmental bitch (read: discussions during which I sorted my smart colleagues from the dumb ones). I don’t think it should be hard, though, as teachers of language, to understand that, while “theme” may have alternative definitions in other contexts, in the context of literature, it only means “author’s message, stated as a complete sentence.”

That means a theme of a novel can never be “Revenge” or “family.” Those are not complete sentences. Nor is “The importance of family.” These are single words or fragments and are, therefore, motifs – recurring ideas in the piece of literature. They are an inroad to theme, but not the theme itself. To get from a motif to a theme, you have to ask “What about revenge?” It’s not always easy to answer, but it’s the way to get to a theme. And no two people will state a theme exactly the same way. Often, themes may seem a little cliche, but I think that’s what the idea of “universal themes” was playing on – many, many writers are trying to tell us the same thing, so when we get the message, we discover that it’s not a new thought; rather a thought expressed to us through a different story. Ah, how literature can make the world both smaller and larger at the same time! This is part of why I loved doing independent reading choices with students because eventually they discover that even a story from a place or time they’ve never imagined can resonate with them here and now.

In non-literature contexts, theme could mean something less specific, but when talking or writing about literature, it’s the author’s message stated as a complete sentence. Except a lot of people disagree with me about that. You might think that all the teachers at one school could agree, for the students’ benefit, on a departmental definition; however, I’ve worked in large schools where the English department is at least 20 people, many of whom are opinionated, some of whom enjoy the sound of their own voice. So even if we should, for the sanity of our students moving from one English classroom to another, nail down a departmental definition of theme, we never really did. Ditto thesis. These poor kids! How can they know how to answer an essay prompt “What is the theme and how does the author convey it?” if they don’t know how the teacher they’re writing for defines theme? And worse, if the teacher (or state test, as the case is in New York) doesn’t even use the word theme, instead dumbs it down with the vague words “controlling idea?”

So we don’t know what the hell a theme is, much less a universal theme. Except that I like my definition, so use it to understand all that came to mind while I was walking this morning.

I was thinking about universal themes in what I’ve read in the last few weeks. There was Hunger by Roxane Gay, then another memoir called Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Next was Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms.

One, among many, themes of Gay’s memoir is “The world cannot tolerate people of a larger size. It does not know what to do with them except criticize.” Well, this theme feels universal because it goes beyond fat people. Animal Planet now has a show to “makeover” your too fat pet! The theme is universal because it extends even to the animal word. Of course, the not-so-subtle subtext of the show is that you are a horrible person for letting your pet get fat. Just like you are a horrible person for letting yourself get fat. Ugh. I didn’t watch the show, only saw commercials for it. It made me angry. Of course I have my own hang ups about fat, but I also grew up with a fat cat who I loved endlessly. And I wouldn’t have put him on a diet for anything! He was the best cuddle buddy ever.

Hillbilly Elegy had many themes, some of which were very close to home because I definitely have some hillbilly in my family tree. There were a lot of contradictory ideas that Vance was trying to reconcile in his memoir. I am familiar with many of them, and that was one of the most prominent themes: the contradictions we learn in our upbringing are repeated generationally, but eventually they have to be identified, investigated, and reconciled in order to break the cycle.

As for Pratchett, well… one of my dear friends and her family love his novels, and this was my first foray into his world. I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to get it. I think I understood enough to enjoy it and understand its appeal. One theme of Men at Arms is all too universal this morning with the news of what happened in Las Vegas: a gonne (Pratchett’s word for gun) can cause a person to feel s/he has the power of a god and turn him into a murderer, even against his better judgement.

Around mile 3 of today’s walk (which was about an hour ago) I had some wonderful thread that tied all of this together in a neat, whole … thing. Now that I’ve come home and actually set it down not on paper but in cyberspace, I’m not totally sure what that thread was. Maybe it’ll come back to me. If not, at least I know another universal theme in my life is true: you have to pace yourself because if you get to the top too soon, there’s nowhere else to go. This is true in the novel Corner Shop by Roopa Farooki wherein a Bangladeshi boy dreams of success as a footballer in the EPL. My own life shows the theme because I hit the top of the pay scale a few months shy of my 30th birthday and now at 35, I need a change of direction.

Hindsight and Foresight

I know exactly where chapter 3 is headed, chapter 4 as well. But I’m angry at myself for not having written them yet. Today I took the important step of re-reading what I’ve written, but I’d run out of time to write the continuation by that point. I’m developing self-discipline, but it’s slow going.

My vision continues beyond chapter 4, but I haven’t gotten so far as to decide how the whole thing ends. Which connects nicely to the thoughts that kept me up last night and have returned now that it’s time to start winding down for today.  Looking ahead, looking behind, not knowing the end.

I know exactly why I started to think about Carson last night. It makes sense in the way that “history repeats itself” makes sense. It also makes NO sense because I won’t explain it as well as I explain anything else in my life. Because I’m STILL worried about people’s judgments of things I did when I was 17 – like what the fuck? It was a lifetime ago. No one, except for my fragile ego, cares. But if I keep making the same mistakes, it’s not that long ago. The feelings of stupidity renew themselves. Every time I tell myself “This time it’s different because _______ ” fill in the blank. And each time it is a little bit different. The specifics of where I messed up are slightly different, indicating minimal progress on my part.

Anyway, I was thinking about Carson and the mix CD he made me that he wrapped in “application for time off” paperwork from his place of business. He knew I hated my job. He knew I loved music. He knew how to talk to me, how to reach me, even if with just a single ray of light sneaking through the tiny cracks in my walls. Carson was an amazing human being who I knew was amazing, but I didn’t recognize that he honestly thought that I was also amazing, that I was worth his time and energy. I look at it now and facepalm repeatedly because Carson should have been a booster shot for my self-esteem. And I wouldn’t let him be. I didn’t even see it. I didn’t see that he wanted to really know me. I wasn’t a curiosity to him. I wasn’t a punchline. I wasn’t an afterthought. But I had so much armor on against the whole world that I didn’t know what was going on, much less how to process it. He paid attention when I thought no guy would ever bother. And he not only paid attention, he paid very close attention. And he wasn’t just observing. He granted my silly wishes. But I was too closed off to understand that kindness from a guy was a real thing.

I don’t think I realized what I learned from Carson until well after a few others came along to chisel at the tiny cracks he made in my walls, my stubborn armor. Others have approached the task in a similar manner – I do love music, a well-timed joke about lube, and obscure movie references. Each time I’ve believed a little sooner – but still too late – that I am not a curiosity, a punchline, an afterthought. I might not be a long-term lover, but I am a person of interest. I try to be a little less guarded, a little more honest about why I built my walls in the first place. But it’s hard. And it takes a shit ton of patience on all sides.

Hindsight is 20/20, and for all my emphasis on foresight when my friends get into relationships that have red flags all over them, I’m terrible at letting the lessons I learned last time (or the time before or the time before that) fully inform what I do this time. Even as I write about someone who I knew when I was 22, I know there are fresher examples that demonstrate my glacially slow growth. Maybe that’s why I won’t explain as thoroughly as anything else – because my fragile ego knows it’s not just mistakes from when I was 17 or 22 or 24 or 27 – it’s hindsight that tells me foresight isn’t going to be worth much because I’m on some kind of low self-esteem hamster wheel.

Jabes Branderham, Seventy Times Seven

I think trigger warnings are bullshit, but I know triggers are all too real. I know my triggers well, but that doesn’t mean I always avoid them. It also doesn’t mean I can always control how dark and low I get once they’re pulled. This week, I was down for almost three days. I rationalize it by telling myself that my spin was exacerbated by hormones, so I’m not beating myself up about it. Not too much because I’m trying to forgive myself for sins long ago.

There was a lot of drama and trauma in my life before I even turned ten. Some of it was external, but a lot of it was internal. I was out of control as a young child. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, let’s say around age three for the purposes of setting a scene. I don’t remember everything I did or why, but the stuff I do remember weighs me down with unbearable guilt if I let it. “Tantrum” doesn’t begin to label my behavior. For reasons I still don’t totally understand, I would scream, throw things, hit, kick, punch, scratch people, turn anything into a weapon and use it to destroy anything or anyone. I would spew as much vile hatred as I knew, and I knew a lot of words very early. I would tear clothing and jewelry off my mom when she tried to subdue me. I would try anything I could to physically hurt my brother. If I couldn’t hurt a person, I’d try to break things around me. When I got older, I sometimes tried to hurt myself, or in the process of trying to damage everything around me I would hurt myself. I was completely destructive. Spanking didn’t work. I often told whoever hit me that it felt good. Washing my mouth out with soap didn’t work. I bit the soap and told whoever fed it to me that it tasted good. Locking me in my room didn’t work because I’d just break the furniture. My mom tried to deal with me by pulling my hands so my arms were around my chest and she was holding my hands behind my back, kind of like I was hugging myself. Of course that left my legs and head free to kick and head butt. You might be thinking how much damage could a child that age really do, and yeah, I was three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine when I would do these things, but I was also big for my age, smart for my age, and for lack of a more detailed description, possessed by the devil. I made life hell for my mom and my older brother.

My older brother… That’s what triggered me this week. He must’ve been terrified. He was always bigger and smarter, but my dad put the fear of God in him that if he ever laid a hand on me, even in self defense, his life would be over. Sometimes I wonder if it would’ve been better, if I would have learned fear if my brother had fought back. He didn’t, but he could’ve, and he’s always been stronger, so he could have done major harm to me. Instead he would go to his room and I’d rage at his door with my hands, my feed, sometimes even knives. I don’t know how he did it. I probably would’ve tried to kill someone like me, but he never did. And that terror was compounded by the fact that my mom would spend an inordinate amount of time trying to deal with me instead of being a good parent to him. So not only did I take away his feeling of safety, I also took away his feeling of being loved and protected.

Even when I was getting help, getting more control of myself, and trying to understand why I acted that way, my brother and I still fought. We fought all the time about everything. He was mean in the way that all big brothers are mean – “Do you know who sings this song?” When I’d answer, he’d say, “Good, keep it that way!” to tell me to shut up. – He wouldn’t let me play with him at times. As we got older, he knew my weaknesses and he could eviscerate me with a few sentences, and did. Often. It made me feel like shit, but parts of me still believe I deserved it. I don’t know why he didn’t ever pretend I was dead. I mean, I know he didn’t try to kill me because he was scared of what my dad would do to him and I’m sure he knew it was wrong. But as an older brother, he could have cut me out of his life at any point once he wasn’t living at home anymore. He never did. We haven’t been that close as adults, but he has never disowned me, never shunned me.

I’ve spent a great deal of time working on my relationship with my mom, trying to make amends for the terror, the hell I inflicted. She’s the one I’ve cried on when I begged for forgiveness, when I hated myself for the chaos I’d caused in our home. She’s the one I’ve striven to pay my penance to, the one I’ve tried to make it right with. She has shown me more about how forgiveness works than anyone. She never gave up on me, even when she wanted to. Even when it probably would have been better to send me to one of the many disciplinary “schools” she threatened me with. She is my example of what God’s forgiveness is like. One of the disciples asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive someone for sinning against him, and Jesus said “seventy times seven.” Four hundred and ninety times you have to forgive someone. Except the lesson was that your forgiveness, like God’s, should be infinite, without limit, freely given even if it’s not asked for. My mom showed me that forgiveness over and over again. She has been instrumental in helping me forgive myself.

I’ve tried to talk to my brother about how I acted, but it was at a time when he wasn’t able to talk to me about it. He told me to forget about it because it was in the past. I can excuse myself in some ways because I was a child and I didn’t entirely know what I was doing, and I certainly didn’t always know why.  I think he can do the same. But I realized last night as I wasn’t sleeping and I was thinking about why I’d been so down the last few days that I haven’t forgiven myself for what I did to him. While I think I’ve forgiven myself for what I did to my mom, and I know she has forgiven me, I haven’t let go of what I did to my brother. It’s a guilty weight I still carry even though it doesn’t come to my conscious on a daily basis.

Forgiveness, true forgiveness, seventy times seven forgiveness that is freely given is hard to come by. More often, forgiveness has to be sought. If someone has wronged me, I want that person to acknowledge that s/he has wronged me, specifically. I want him/her to apologize for it so I believe s/he is genuinely sorry for it. Then the process of forgiveness can begin, not before. I can’t let it go unless the person seems contrite. It’s a huge sticking point for me. It’s why I have tried to tell my mom and brother how sorry I am for what I did, even if I didn’t do any of what I did intentionally. But God urges us to divine forgiveness, a forgiveness that requires nothing of the person who has done us wrong. I feel like that’s what my mom shows me over and over again. I have expressed my remorse and tried to do penance, but even if I hadn’t, she already forgave me. That’s what God does.

That doesn’t make the guilt go away. Nor does it repair the relationship. That’s why God is an example to strive toward, not a blank check to do shitty things to each other. In chapter three of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood freaks the fuck out at the 491st sin Jabes Branderham preaches about. One too many, and he snaps. Jesus did give us a limit when he did the multiplication. We are only human after all. We can be stretched to our limits and we can break each other’s patience and ability to forgive.

I know I stretched my brother past his limits. I know I did not show him enough contrition. He may have forgiven me, but I have not forgiven myself. I punish myself for what I did to him, what I did to my mom, in many unconscious ways. I’ve punished myself for a long time without knowing it. A lot of what I’ve done, the choices I’ve made, has been to make amends to the whole world for what I did to my mom and brother. I’m hard on myself not just because it’s in my genetic make up to be a harsh self-critic and push myself to be better, but also because I feel like I have to make it up to the whole world. I have to earn the forgiveness I won’t freely give myself. I have to punish myself because my brother never did, God never did, my mom never really did. And I do. I punish myself all the time. I beat myself up. I tear myself down. I don’t let myself feel the love around me. I refuse help because I think I’ve taken up enough time and energy out of the world and now I should only be putting time and energy back. Feeling guilty and not forgiving myself are not the only reasons I make unhealthy choices, but they are a substantial part of why I am so hard on myself.

But hating myself, punishing myself, feeling guilty don’t do any good. I can’t undo anything I did before the time I was ten years old. Life isn’t a scale on which I can weigh all the good things I’ve done since I was ten against the bad things I did before that and have it come out in favor of “Laura is good.” I don’t make my brother feel any safer in his life now or any better about his childhood by being horrible to myself. I don’t show him I’m sorry by making myself miserable without even knowing I’m doing it. I’m not showing my mom how much her forgiveness means to me by continuing to feel guilty when she has let it go. None of us will ever forget, but living like it’s still happening, dragging it with me, even subconsciously, doesn’t do anyone any good. Thinking that every person in my life now will hold me accountable for what I did then only poisons new relationships when I’m trying to leach the poison about of the existing ones.

So last night, if only for the night, I released myself. I forgave myself. I let it go. I’ll have to do it seventy times seven more times. And then seventy times seven again. Even if I can’t do it because I am human, I have to strive for the example God set and forgive myself freely. I have to forgive myself for everything, not just what I think I’ve done my penance for or what I think my mother has forgiven. I have to let it all go and know that it has shaped me, but it doesn’t have to define me. And when something triggers the guilt, I have to remember the forgiveness.

Marketable Skills

This may turn in to a poem later, but I decided that I should write something because I didn’t yesterday. Yesterday I tried a new walking route, and clearly only one productive thing can happen per day this week.

So I had to break out the tool box because the knob on my bathroom door came off. It got me thinking of this list of things.

Pop a lock with a credit card

Know the difference between a flat head and Phillips head

Dry wall/sheet rock – measure twice, cut once

Explain any biblical allusion in literature

Know what word you want to use that you don’t know or have forgotten

Have at least three different ways of saying the exact same thing

Recognize celebrity voices within milliseconds

Make a mean sandwich, 30 at a time

Name that song, title and artist, after only hearing a measure or two

Laugh at myself

 

Fashion is DANGER

If you don’t know the song this entry takes its title from, check it out here because Flight of the Conchords are worth your time.

I bought a sweater from J. Jill. It arrived in the mail today. I love it; however, I don’t feel worthy of its cuteness. It’s stylish. I am not. I have no personal “look” to speak of. In college, I bitched to a friend that I had to get all dressed up for a family thing. Her reply was, “What is dressed up to you, jeans and a t-shirt?” Okay, well, college is a weird time during which you don’t really have to leave your pajamas if you live on campus, which I did all four years. I do know what it means to get dressed up and can do it every now and again, but there’s no overarching theme to my wardrobe. There never has been. I’m all about comfort over style. And this sweater is not only stylish, it is also very comfortable. And I am not worthy of it.

Which makes me think of all the other things that the media tells me I’m not worthy of for various reasons. When did people start caring about the length and thickness of eyelashes? Was it before or after they started to worry about how white their teeth were? My teeth and eyelashes don’t measure up, so I must be a hideous beast. BUT the sweater came in tall sizes, so maybe I’m not doing everything wrong?!

Speaking of advertising, my mom and I have been tracking a trend. Owls in commercials. Mom has a bone spur, so she was fairly inactive when I was home. We watched a lot of MONK, as you do. We observed that an owl is the spokes animal for an allergy medication (xyzal?… wise-all rhymes with, so use an owl… I guess that’s the logic.) Then there’s Trip Advisor. Then we saw one for a different allergy medicine (that one’s name didn’t register in my brain, so YOU FAIL advertising executives!) Since coming back to NYC, I’ve seen an owl advertising glasses and an online university (WGU). That’s five different products or services being represented by an owl. I may even be forgetting one that mom and I saw. Who is doing PR for owls? They are crushing it right now. But it made me wonder because owls are symbolic of wisdom and another societal trend is to de-intellectualize everything and call anyone who values intelligence an “elite.” So while we’re being brainwashed by owl advertising, we’re also rejecting the idea the owl symbolizes (or has symbolized throughout the ages). I don’t get it!

Another ad I really REALLY don’t get, and also find deeply disturbing, like give-me-bad-dreams upsetting, is for a product I can’t identify because I’m so afraid of the … mascot? Is that even the right word? It’s called a puppy monkey baby. It has the head of a pug or bulldog, the body and arms of a monkey (presumably at least, based on the words and the amount of hair) and the butt and legs of a diaper-wearing baby. The… thing… busts through the door of some dudes’ apartment and dances around before waltzing down a hallway. Like I said, I’m not totally sure what it’s selling because it scares me so much that my brain stops working when I see it.

So maybe I shouldn’t worry about my personal style or being worthy of the cute sweater. Maybe I should continue to do whatever I want in terms of my clothing, beauty, and hygiene. Maybe ignoring any and all media messaging is impossible but admirable. Maybe I’m going to go buy every product and service represented by an owl.

Or maybe I’ll just wear the cute sweater and feel like I’m cute for a few hours of my life.

A Thousand Ways to Die

Yesterday I wrote, but it was in a journal while I hung out in the Union Square Barnes & Noble cafe and listened to other people who were doing the same. Being out and about during the day is going to be an anthropological study, so there’s that to look forward to.

I had two doctors’ appointments back to back. For some reason, the older I’ve gotten, the more magical doctors’ appointments have become because one always turns into more. These two were no exception. Tuesday’s sprouted another (which I think will sprout yet another when I call to schedule it) and Wednesday’s sprouted two more. It might surprise you at this point to hear that both doctors told me everything is totally fine with me. I’m smart enough to know they aren’t lying. They are trying their professional and personal best to make sure everything remains okay, and for that I am grateful.

I’ve had a strange relationship with death my whole life. It’s not that I’ve been obsessed with it or constantly afraid of it. I think I understood from an early age that death was real and could happen any time. When I was young, I’m pretty sure I thought I’d die of skin cancer. I knew I should put on sunscreen all the time, but I didn’t. I got burn after burn. I’m not even sure if mom tried to scare me by telling me about skin cancer – I don’t remember her using fear to parent ever actually. She did that with my older brother by putting a rubber snake in his doorway so he would stay in bed, and to this day he’s terrified of snakes. The guilt is something she still lives with even though it happened 35 years ago. Anyway, regardless of where the idea came from, I assumed I’d die of skin cancer and that was that. There was an outside possibility that I’d go in a horrible bike accident, but I’d been over the handle bars a few times and lived to tell about it, so skin cancer seemed more likely.

Then I got hit by a car for the first time. Okay, maybe “tapped” is a better verb. The car made contact with my body while we were both in motion, so call that what you will. I was riding my bike home from a volunteer counselor-in-training gig for a summer program at the local elementary school. It was about a mile from home. I was 14. I’d gone farther on my bike at 11 or 12 for a summer music program, violin strapped to my back and all, so this didn’t seem like a big deal. It had been raining in the morning, but it had cleared by the time I was going home, so the rain poncho I’d worn while I rode in was safely tucked into my backpack. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, even though I had one somewhere. The big white car was turning right on red and didn’t look to see that I was in the crosswalk. I, being legally blind, couldn’t tell that the driver was looking at oncoming cars from the left instead of anyone who was crossing WITH THE LIGHT to his right. Boom. When I was on the ground, looking up, I first realized that I wasn’t dead, head cracked open in the road, because my backpack had flopped up and cradled my head. I don’t know that the impact without that would have killed me, but I’m very pleased I didn’t have to find out. I then felt metal on my lips and instantaneously realized it was my bike lock key, which was on a white string around my neck. It had flipped up into my face as I fell. Assessing these two pieces of information made me realize I was okay enough to think, so next I thought, “WHAT THE FUCK, YOU ASS HOLE. I HAD THE RIGHT OF WAY!” to the driver. Third thought, friends. I don’t waste time! I assess the damage and then RAGE!

The driver and others on the road got out to help me. My bike was toast because one of his front tires had run over my front tire. I had an impact wound on my left shin that was starting to bleed, but nothing else seemed wrong. The driver, an old man for an old car, offered to drive me home, but I didn’t trust his skills with an automobile. And I was pissed at him for HITTING ME WITH HIS CAR. Home was still a mile away, but I was pissed enough to walk through any pain and drag my bike with me. Of course, the pain set in faster than I expected. I tried to stop in all the churches I passed because I trusted a church to have a phone so I could call my mom. She was a trustworthy driver. She had never hit me with her car (even though she very much wanted to more than I few times, I’m sure). No luck, which also made my angry. The church I went to was always open, so what was wrong with these places? I finally got home and threw my bike down on the side walk. I went into the house, yelling what had happened, and then jumped up on the kitchen counter to extend my now totally bloody and swollen leg. Then and only then did I cry.

Harrowing, but not life threatening. It did teach me how easy it is with my vision to miss something. I figured I would definitely die in some kind of car accident because of that incident.

A year and a half later, I was approaching my 16th birthday, and I was miserable. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I was in therapy and on meds, but everything was horrible. It was my sophomore year of high school, and nothing was going the way it was “supposed to.” (“Supposed to” being some of the most dangerous words in the English language). I took matters into my own hands and overdosed on three different medications. In the back of my mind I knew it wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew I wouldn’t die even though I wanted to. Obviously I was right. The morning after, I threw the note I’d written at my mom and yelled, “I guess I can’t do anything right!” In total shock, mom said I could stay home from school that day and left for work. She didn’t stay. When she got her head about her again, she came home and took me to the ER. They didn’t pump my stomach, but they fed me charcoal. And by the time I was puking it back up, I was crying and apologizing for being so stupid and selfish. But you can’t try to kill yourself and then just go home. I had to be put in the psych ward of the local hospital. Now, the local hospital is an extraordinary facility… except for their psych ward. They also don’t have a separate place for children and adults, so at a week shy of my 16th birthday, I was in with (mostly) men in there forties and fifties. The only thing my three nights there accomplished was to scare the shit out of me enough to make me never ever want to attempt suicide again.

There is a whole mess of stuff I could say about that particular incident, but for the purpose of this entry’s focus, I will conclude by saying it changed my relationship to death. If I’d had any kind of fear of death before, it was completely gone now. I’d forced myself to look mortality in the eye, so I was no longer scared of it. I no longer actively sought my own death like I had in the misery leading me to overdose, but at the same time, I didn’t fear it. I recognized it for what it is: an inevitable part of life. Also, it showed me the love and support I wasn’t allowing myself to feel, a huge portion of which came from my church family, so in a weird way, it reaffirmed my faith in God and all He promises us about what comes after this life.

Then I got hit by a New York City taxicab when I was 21. Okay, “clipped” might be a better word. But again, it made contact with my body while we were both in motion, so there’s really no way to get around it. It was my fault this time because I was scurrying across Broadway against the solid don’t walk light. I had fewer injuries, but a prized pair of Mary Janes lost its life to the velocity of the cab. Of course, it was almost seven years to the day of my other car collision, so in addition to thinking I’d be killed by a car, I also thought I’d happen either in seven years’ time or, working with half-lives, in three and a half years. I’m happy to say I have NOT been hit, tapped, or clipped by a car since, so I was wrong about the timing, but I’m still a little convinced that it’ll be a car that does me in.

I say again, I’m not obsessed with death. This isn’t something I sit around thinking about. It just so happens that my magically multiplying doctors’ appointments made me think about it.

I was confronted with mortality again when mom had an atypical heart attach when I was 26. That’s a long story for another time (and the basis for a novel I’m slowly figuring out).

The next time I thought I might die is chronicled in my short-lived weight loss surgery blog that I linked to in my first entry. The initial surgery to put the Lap Band in went perfectly. It was about 10 months later when I couldn’t eat or drink anything without immediately throwing it back up that I had a big problem. I didn’t think I was at death’s door, but I didn’t know what to make of having to have a revision surgery. I also felt terrible, like I’d done it to myself, because the surgery was to correct me choosing to put a foreign object into my body. And there’s always the risk of not waking up from anesthesia. The doctor who’d done the original surgery is in NYC, but I was in NoVA at the time, so that made me anxious too. Luckily, the doctor in NoVA was a very handsome man in his late 30s who had an excellent bedside manner and wasn’t afraid of a lawsuit, so he reached out many times and held my hand when he saw I was getting scared about test results and next steps. I came out of it all fine. (and wrote the cute doctor a thank you note for how wonderfully he’d dealt with my anxiety.)

13 months later, I WANTED to go play in traffic and get hit by a car because I was in so much pain. That was my gall bladder. The ER I went to that night was not cool, not cool at all. Fortunately and unfortunately, I was so sick that they couldn’t operate on me, and I found out my weight loss surgeon could perform my gall bladder removal. Hooray! I trust her completely, so she can cut me open whenever. In the ER though, while they were doing tests, I honestly didn’t know what was wrong with me and wondered if it was severe enough to kill me. Judgmentally, I also wondered if the doctors and nurses there were incompetent enough to accidentally kill me. In my defense, they didn’t listen to anything I said about my medical history and how I was feeling. They didn’t give a shit that I told them information that would have saved a lot of time, resources, and money. And when they were satisfied with the empirical evidence they’d extracted and analyzed at 8 am (the same information that I told them when I went in at 11:30 the night before) they didn’t give a shit about managing my pain while I waited for more tests or being gentle with me during the new battery of tests.

Only a few months after my gall bladder, the biggie smacked me in the face. Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mom died of breast cancer that metastasized into bone and brain cancer. While we fought tooth and nail to keep mom alive, I was also confronted with the reality that this could be genetic. I could have a very clear picture of what’s really truly going to kill me. It’s not skin cancer. It’s not a car. It’s not myself. It’s not abdominal pain from a slipped Lap Band or a gall bladder infection. It’s breast cancer.

In 2014, after mom had gotten through the worst of it, I started (slowly) taking care of myself again. By that I mean I went back to the OB/GYN for the first time in about five years. Yeah, I know. It’s called an annual, not a “whenever I decide to go.” Hearing my medical history and my family history prompted the doctor to suggest I talk to a breast surgeon, the person who would potentially run the genetic testing on me and who would definitely do baseline monogramming. My best friend was in the middle of her own fight with breast cancer at the time – the same order and level of treatment my mom needed but with fewer complications because she is much younger and healthier than mom was when she went in to her hell. Anyway, I was on the fence about testing. It turned out I didn’t have to worry about it after all because the breast surgeon’s receptionists never found my referral, so I let it go.

Well, you guessed it. One of my appointments this week was the OB/GYN, and now that I’m 35, she very much wants me to at least have a conversation with the breast surgeon to talk about what my best options are from a preventative standpoint. Like I said, everything is fine now, and she wants it to stay that way. There’s also no rush because my mom and grandma were diagnosed in their 60s. I am less on the fence about getting the genetic testing now. My instinct says, “don’t bother, just live.” The vain part of me says, “Hey, if they can reconstruct your boobs with fat from other places on your body, that kinda kills two birds with one stone!” (Because if I test positive, the next step would likely be a full mastectomy to remove all breast tissue, like Angelina Jolie did a while back). Does insurance even cover the test though? So many unknowns.

But it got me thinking about death, not in a macabre, depressed way. Just in the kind of flippant way I’ve outlined my life history with death here. Like anything in life, if you can’t laugh about it, it’s probably going to end up killing you. So, HA HA DEATH! I’m sure you’re coming, and I thought you’d be a car for a long time, but if you’re going to be breast cancer, then that’s fine too.

The First Day of the Rest of My Life

I kind of hate the expression “it’s the first day of the rest of your life” because that’s true of every day. I find people misuse it. But it’s true today as everyone – at least everyone in my orbit – goes back to school. Most of my friends are teachers, but many of those who are not have kids who started school today.

Not me. Though I slept as poorly last night and woke as early this morning as if I was going to work, I didn’t. I also didn’t stretch and walk, but I did get coffee and eavesdrop on a cute conversation between a little kid and his mom as I was coming home. I did chores around the house before showering and going to a doctor’s appointment. I ate lunch while channel surfing. Then I read while the cat snuggled with me on the couch.

It is surreal. In late June, when I was walking away, it didn’t feel real either. I guessed that today it would feel more real. It’s more real now than it was then, but there’s something still dreamy about it. I’m not worried about making copies or decorating my classroom or sweating in a building with no AC. I’m not trying to negotiate drawer space with a roommate. I’m not scanning my rosters to see if I know any of my students already, hoping I do because it means I have fewer names to learn – even if it’s a kid I never wanted to see again, that’s one less name. I know without a doubt I would have done all those things today if I went back, so it’s very real that I didn’t do any of them.

Over the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about the other things I’m not doing right now that I would be doing my first day back. I’m relieved by most of it, but there were a few things that struck me as things I have taken for granted as I’ve moved through my teaching career.

The first is that most of my friends are teachers. A lot of the socializing I do during the school year is with colleagues who have become friends. It occurred to me that I might meet non-teachers while I’m not teaching! I might have energy later in the day to see my non-teacher friends more often.  I can also deepen my relationships with friends from work if we keep up with each other because, while I will get the scoop on what I’m missing, we can expand our conversations beyond the insanity of the school machine.  I’ll also discover whether or not I’m a total shut-in without the socialization working provides.

I also thought about the kids I worry about, the ones who I won’t see in the halls, the ones who won’t come to see me after school.  I won’t get to help any students with their college application essays. I’ve done that every single year of my career since student teaching, and while it’s a headache to read some of the drivel they think colleges will be interested in, it is also delightful to do one on one tutoring and watch a kid have a breakthrough about how to show something about him/herself in a new way. It’s been one of the most fulfilling parts of my job because it is so immediately applicable for the students. It’s a concrete contribution to their futures. I thought about the kids who struggled to find their place, the ones who hated everything about school except my class. They won’t get to pop in to my classroom after school and have a minute to decompress, and I won’t get to commiserate with them and tell them to hang in there.

The last thing I thought about is what I tell people I do for a living.  When I was in NoVA at church with mom, everyone I ran into asked when I go back to school. I didn’t hesitate to say I’M NOT, but I then struggled to say what I AM doing. Similarly, when you meet new people, they ask “what do you do?” I don’t want to put people off by having a snarky response (even though a huge part of me wants to challenge people to explain why that’s a conversational convention), so what will I say? “Teacher” has been my identity for a long time. If I say that to someone I meet mid-day or late night now, s/he might wonder why I’m not in school or in bed resting up for tomorrow. I can always say I’m on sabbatical because I essentially am, despite what the DOE calls it. I can say I’m a writer maybe. I haven’t decided yet, but it falls into the list of things I’ve taken for granted in years past.

As the reality of my time-out, gap year, walk about settles over me, I’m sure I’ll have myriad emotions. The first pay period when the direct deposit doesn’t hit my bank account will probably drive it all home, starting with a panic attack.

Freedom is the strongest grounding factor to this new reality. I can do anything, whatever I want. I just have to decide what that is, be okay if it changes, and get to it.

But if today is the FIRST day of the rest of my life, does that mean tomorrow is the second? And isn’t first the worst, second the best, and third… the one with the hairy chest?