Rachel V. Stankowski considered herself, among other things, a writer. Primarily due to the positive stigmas that accompanied the label, but also because it seemed to excuse some of her more major eccentricities, vanity included.
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The island in the Mediterranean, you’re wondering?
Yep, that’s the one.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, I ended the night by arguing with a 5-year-old about the necessity of a bath anytime there is a pronounced streak in your underoos at the end of the day. A good scrubbing, a quick bedtime story, and then I hunted for my tiny scissors.
Why tiny scissors?
Glad you asked. It’s safer to trim the poop-caked fur around your dog’s butt hole with tiny scissors. Rounded tips, of course.
An awful lot of poop at the end of an already very long day. And while the poop certainly wasn’t awesome, particularly juxtaposed with Mallorca, someone had to deal with my poop once upon a time and will again one day. Right now, I’m creating balance, a universe in which I’ll get the hand I need when I need it. Because I found my mitten the other day and I’m more sure than ever that that’s the way it works.
One of my very favorite things to do when I was little was go to school with my Grandma Rita. She was a kindergarten teacher and I spent tons of time in her classroom when I was little. (And Grandma Roz’s classroom too — she was the art teacher!)
I very distinctly remember walking to school with my Grandma Rita one snowy winter day. There were big flakes falling and I saw a gray scarf tied to a sign and thought it was odd. I asked my grandma what it was doing there — why would someone tie a scarf to a sign like that? My grandma didn’t need anymore than a glance to explain it to me.
Someone probably lost the scarf, somewhere nearby, and whoever found it tied it to the sign hoping that they’d walk by again.
And then she stopped. Looked again. Because the scarf tied to that sign was HER scarf!
I remember feeling absolutely floored. Amazed even. I wondered how many times my grandma might have found something lost to someone else and displayed it for them to find, only to be rewarded with the return of her very own scarf. I remember feeling so happy that I had asked, for being the reason my grandma took a look at that scarf and realized it was hers.
I think about that day often, particularly at this time of year. I’ve displayed tiny hats on parking lot posts and gloves on window sills. And I see it even more often than I do it myself. I think of my grandma and that day every time.
So imagine my delight at finding this:
That is MY mitten. My beautiful, cream colored, handmade, alpaca mitten. It was lost for two days and I was sure it was gone for good. I thought I must have dropped it somewhere between my car and office, but I’d checked the hallways, the parking lot, the area in and around my car, and it was no where to be found.
Two days later, I was headed to the pediatrician with my own little one and there it was. Propped against a bronze bust in the lobby of the building in which I must have dropped it after a meeting earlier in the week. And I had the opportunity to say, like once upon a time my grandma said to me, “That’s MINE!”
The delight! I can’t even explain it! We talked about the kindness of the stranger who picked my mitten up off the ground and left it there for me to find. We talked about my gratitude. We talked about why it’s worth it to take the time.
I wonder if it left a memory like mine.
Legend has it that I once upon a time terrorized my parents with feces. Though it seems out of character, I’ve been told that I’d remove full diapers and smear the contents on the walls in anger once upon a long, long while ago. So a stripe in the underwear, some tiny scissors and a couple of diaper wipes? Not so bad, really. And worth it. Because someone will take care of me again. A scarf tied to a sign. A mitten propped against a bust. Kindness, care, it comes back. In little ways and big. One of many things I want to pass on.
Right about now, in the very early morning of this particular January 14th, I’m in the process of turning 34. It’s kind of hard to believe that there will be cake and singing in my honor much later today because this year, my birthday feels so insignificant. And it kind of is, in the grand scheme of things. But then again… it is the first time I’ve celebrated my birthday as a mom myself. And perhaps that makes it a pretty big deal after all.
I didn’t become a mom in the same way my mom did 34 years ago today, when she received the greatest gift of all (meeeee!), but I recently became a mom nonetheless. And I enter this, my 34th year, surprisingly grateful for the rocky road that led me here. (Note to self: add rocky road to grocery list.)
I don’t really believe in silver linings anymore, but I do believe that there is meaning in suffering and, in the end, I feel proud of the way my heart has grown over the last six years of infertility and loss. I’d be lying if I said I’d choose to do it all over again, if it were a choice at all, but I do find myself grateful now for how it prepared Seth and me to say the biggest yes of our lives.
Perhaps someday I’ll be in the position to share the whole fascinating story with you, but for now, the legally acceptable, but obnoxiously vague version is as follows:
Shortly before Labor Day, Seth and I received an out-of-the-blue phone call about becoming foster parents. Not a vague do-you-wanna-think-about-this kind of call, but rather a here’s-the-sitch-are-you-in-or-out type deal. I cried (naturally) and Seth logic-ed (of course) and we talked and thought and asked questions and ultimately had to listen to the nearly deafening “YES”-es our hearts were screaming. So with a definitive answer and a few other minor things (completing a metric ton of paperwork, opening our pasts and present up to a rather thorough investigation, begging non-relatives to write nice things about us, bumming Sunday morning fingerprints from the Marshfield Police Department, rearranging every cupboard and closet in the house, completing several hours of online training, etc.), we obtained our foster care license and became first time parents to a walking, talking ray of sunshine.
I’ve wondered so many times over the past six years if everything we went through to try to get pregnant had been worth it – worth the time, expense, pain, stress. And I always had to convince myself of yes, thinking that the only way to know was to have tried. But I don’t have to convince myself of anything anymore. It was definitely worth it, if only because without having gone through all of that, I may never have found myself in a position to say yes to this. And this – being a mom to the most amazing little soul – is worth anything and everything.
One of our favorite books at the moment is My New Mom & Me by Renata Galindo. I particularly love the end – “Mom is learning how to be my mom and I am learning how to be mom’s kid.” It’s an exciting time for our family as we figure it out together. So this year, whether we’re turning 34, 37, or 6, it’s going to be a good one! I sincerely hope you enjoy it too!
When Seth and I lost our baby two years ago, my fairy godmother (Aunt Susan, you’ve heard lots about her and even once from her before) booked a funky loft in Minneapolis for a weekend and we met up to drink wine and tea, talk and talk and talk some more, eat out and window shop, walk all the miles, and cry. To heal, really. I needed that weekend and it remains one of my most distinct and important memories from that very difficult time.
One of the (many, many) things we talked about was how rare life changing moments really are. We often express consternation regarding tough decisions as a “fork in the road” — one direction or the other. While that’s not necessarily untrue, there are very few times when you can’t get yourself back to the other path by blazing a trail through the woods or, failing that, turning around and heading back to the fork.
I think the first time I truly understood that, the impermanence of the big things that seem like Forever Things was as I looked for employment after grad school. There was this pervasive and toxic idea floating around, in my head and in the halls, that leaving academia was permanent and irreversible. Only one of my professors had the nerve to voice that concern to my face – there’s no coming back to academia, he said.
Perhaps as an equal-and-opposite reaction, or perhaps just because I’d finally had it, I somehow found the nerve to boldly retort:
So, you’re telling me that if two years from now, I’m miserable and realize I made a huge mistake and desperately wanted to come back to the bench, you wouldn’t take me on as a post-doc, knowing everything I can do? And if not, you don’t think Ann or Alison would?
A head nod in response. Acknowledgement of a point well made. And it was. Even most really big decisions can be undone, someway, somehow, with time and patience and perseverance and the willingness to change, maybe even backtrack a bit if necessary.
Even so, the rare, permanent, life-changing moments do indeed exist. Miscarriage was one of them. And since that time and my conversation with Susan, I think about that concept often – how permanent is this? It’s a valuable perspective.
I don’t mean to say that we should take reversal lightly. Certainly not. Just that it’s ok to let go a little bit when something feels agonizing or unbearable. Even the pain of miscarriage, life-changing though it was, is malleable. I feel it changing shape inside me all the time.
So while the things that are truly life-changing are rare.. the moments that can significantly and drastically alter our worldview? Not so much. And in this season, I’m learning to pay attention to them.
Do you remember when I showed you a gruesome picture of an inside out raccoon hanging from an apple tree in my neighbor’s backyard with the intention of describing depression? If so, I’m sure you understood from my tone my general distaste for the whole neighbor situation. Other neighbors had said some things, my dog never took to them, so many dead animals, and the distinct pellet holes discovered in our siding this past spring all kind of conspired to paint a not-so-positive picture of these people in my mind and my heart. Little things, like the invitation to pick apples right from the tree last fall, helped a bit, but as for closeness? I didn’t see it coming and I didn’t really mind.
But in just a moment, your worldview can change.
I came home from work early this afternoon so that Seth and I could head north for a Vonck family wedding in God’s Country – come 3 pm and it’s Marquette, here we come! But we had some things to do around the house first, including transferring our old grill to my in-laws’ vehicle for transport to my sister-in-law’s sweet deck in St. Croix Falls. The aforementioned (and more detailed than necessary) task completed, we headed to the backyard to inspect the “grass” filling in the spots dug up for our recent addition of drainage tile (hint: it’s 100% weeds – sigh – but at least there aren’t any more puddles!), and as we headed back to the front, our neighbor John discretely waved us over.
After saying goodbye to Seth’s parents in the driveway, we headed around the house once again and walked toward John’s small, beckoning wave. We weren’t exchanging pleasantries across the lot line or sharing words about the weather. We were receiving news. John’s 93-year-old mother had suffered a series of disabling strokes shortly after being released from the hospital for fluid accumulation in her lungs and legs. She’d been offered warfarin at discharge to reduce the risk for stroke, but had made a clear choice at that time. About what she was willing to sacrifice in terms of quality for the sake of longevity. And she’d repeated herself to her son in a variety of different ways and in no uncertain terms. Quality over quantity. She was ready and the intravenous fluids keeping her alive were removed to avoid prolonging her suffering without any hope for improvement.
We stood somewhere between our two backyards for a long time that afternoon as John recounted years of caring for his mother and described her gracious, giving, stoic character. He told us about the incredible compassion of the physicians he talked to and all the others providing care to his mother, and his family, in the hospital — nurses, technicians, food service staff, chaplains, and volunteers. Many of the same themes were repeated over and over, but none so often, or so accompanied by the threat of tears as the central question – did I do the right thing?
Here is a man agonizing over an irreversible decision. A true pivotal point. Seth and I listened intently, murmuring our so-sorries and of-course-you-dids. But he still hurt and we couldn’t do anything for him but listen. And we did. For a long while. The story and the questions and the murmurs over and over again. He needed good neighbors and we were as good as we knew how to be. Even though maybe on the inside I was reeling at the sensitivity and compassion and gentleness of this man I saw in a completely from-the-other-side-of-the-lot-line way for the past five years.
It was a rare and genuine life altering moment for him. It became a far less rare moment of change in worldview for me.
So, my neighbor loves to hunt and makes interesting decisions about which types of neighborhood wildlife he likes to feed vs. shoot. He has a neighbor (i.e. me) who can’t seem to stop her dog from barking and sweats excessively while mowing the lawn. I also have a neighbor going through a rough time and he has a neighbor willing to listen and say a small prayer for Antoinette Marie and her family.
Our lives don’t dramatically change in sudden and irreversible ways all that often. The decisions that cause us intense periods of stress and anxiety are rarely as permanent, or perhaps even as important, as they appear. But misconceptions, preconceived notions, and limited capacity for insight can change in an instant if we’re open to it.
John’s mother will pass away soon and he made the gut wrenching decisions to remove the support keeping her alive. Though destroyed in this moment, he holds fast to the knowledge that not only is he ultimately reducing her suffering, but that he is also respecting her wishes. In a moment, my life was altered by the absence of a heartbeat on the ultrasound monitor. But I can perhaps see in John’s moment a potential for a worldview in which I remember that, tiny though she was, I would have done quite literally anything to prevent my baby from suffering. Perhaps for both of us, that means letting go.
Many moons again, I very seriously did not want children. I had a vision of my life that included a big city, well-tailored clothes and sky-high heels, perhaps appearances on Saturday Night Live — most likely as a host.
Delusions of grandeur I suppose.
But I came down out of the clouds and dove head first into science.
I had a new vision of my life. Long hours in the lab, strokes of pure brilliance that led to world-changing discoveries. Maybe making SNL only as a weekend update, a joke about how someone so pretty ended up being a surprise genius.
Guest star for one sketch, but only as my busy and important schedule allows.
Clearly not cured — delusions still present.
I don’t think I ever said most of those things out loud, but we all dream, don’t we?
There are some things I did say out loud though.
While in my first delusion — no children. I didn’t want them. I wouldn’t have time for them and I had never felt maternal in the slightest. My sister would be the one to have 2.5 babies, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence. My high rise, luxury apartment building would be no place for a crib.
By the time I’d made it to the second delusion, I could see myself actually getting married and maybe having a family. But as a selfless world-saver, who was I to bring my own child into the world when there were so many others that needed love? No, I’d adopt. Maybe from a third world country. That’s what I’d do. It’d fit with the image. And no one could tell me it wasn’t a good thing to do.
And there was a point, on a day where I’m sure that I was trying to impress someone, that I know I said it out loud. That someday, I’d adopt because there are just so many children in this world that need love and I’d undoubtedly be in the position to give it to them.
In the years immediately following, I thought relatively little about that incredibly vain comment. I was too busy slogging my way through grad school. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about that slog was that it thoroughly cured me of my aforementioned delusions for two reasons. First, I tried living in DC, the big city of my first high-heeled fantasies and found it to be a poor fit for my real-life personality. I’m a midwestern girl through and through and after a year or two on the east coast, I knew I’d be back near the Great Lakes before too long. And second, after six years of 24/7/365 hard work and intense scrutiny, normalcy was all I actually wanted — a job that felt meaningful without requiring hand-cuffs to anything round the clock.
I found all that and more happiness than I had imagined, even in my wildest delusions, in moving to Marshfield, in marrying Seth. And then we tried to do the next bit… the baby carriage. And I fully recognized the arrogance of my earlier comments, in thinking that I ever even had a choice.
It’s taken on a whole new meaning now, as we accept defeat and think about what comes next. Adoption is not necessarily off the table, but it’s certainly not a Right Now thing and it’s also not as simple as going to the baby store and picking out a baby. There’s an awful lot more to it than that and perhaps more than anything, it’s not about saving anyone but myself, my husband’s and my dream of having children. What better to exemplify the difference between 20ish and 33?
The reason I bring it up again, especially because it’s mortifying to admit the things I thought about once upon a time, and even worse to cop to the horrifyingly arrogant things that I said, is because the universe seems to be hammering it home to me at the moment. It’s this lecture from others that I most dread, and yet the phrase I most often hear — there are so many children out there that need love, you know!
YES! I do know. In fact, I know it so well that I said it myself more than a decade ago, like I knew what it meant.
Now, it actually makes me angry. Oh really… if there are so many kids that needout there that need love, then why don’t youadopt? What makes you so special that you get to have biological children, the regular way? Are you going to give me the $40,000+ and make sure a family picks me, considers me worthy, helps me to get through that agony and sits with me as I worry that a birth-mother might change her mind? Are you going to walk with me as I explain the concept that looks to any adopted child like not being wanted? And if they are a different color than me, are you going to make sure your children are sensitive to that or do I have to make sure that mine is extra-resilient?
Why do you get to assume, now that I cannot have children of my own, that the unloved children of the world have somehow become my responsibility?
That’s really the crux of it. That because the choice is gone, there is now a responsibility instead. That in trying as hard as we did in the first place, we somehow signed a contract that leaves us bound to the notion of children by any means — because so many children need love.
And consequent to that sense of responsibility shirked… comes the guilt.
I mean, there are a lot of children that need love and I do want children. I do have a lot of love to give. Is it, then, my responsibility? Is it the right way forward? Should we even have the right to think about it? Or is it simply a given that we ought to accept and move forward with.
Fortunately, my rational, 33-year-old mind, can bring me back to reality… and the creeping arrogance recognizable even in these considerations of responsibility. The fact of the matter is, no matter how much love I have to give, I will never be any child’s savior. To assume that motherhood via fostering and/or adoption is something I should do, or the right thing, the logical next step, or really anything other than a privilege and the ultimate fulfillment of love and family, is not ok.
Yes, there are a lot of children in this world, with families and without, that need love. But more than that, children deserve real love. They deserve to be wanted, to be dreamt about, to be wishes fulfilled. Not responsibilities to be met, logical next steps, pet projects, or consolation prizes. So until we are in the right place, heart, mind, and soul, I won’t stop being angry over that little lecture. And I won’t commit to the next step, no matter how logical it may seem to anyone else.
One of the most interesting things about infertility to me has been the way it has forced us to make decisions intentionally. There’s nothing wrong with having sex, getting pregnant, and raising children. But at a certain point in that process, nothing’s going to stop the train — and the train is a big one, a looooong one, an expensive and noisy and time-consuming, loud, and messy one. There’s little time to think, prepare, or even react. You just do. Or at least, I imagine that’s what it’s like.
When the train isn’t coming, you suddenly have a thousand different choices about how to get from point A to point B. Starting with, is point B even the destination you want? Have you considered C? What about D? Maybe even just staying put? Perhaps a train’s not even the best way to get there. Maybe a flight would be better — but can you afford first class or should you go economy, and potentially go more than once? Would it be worthwhile to rent a car first, see how far you can get that way before deciding on something more pricey? Perhaps you could rent or buy transportation from someone else? This metaphor is getting out of control… but I think you can see my point.
When things don’t “just happen,” it all becomes rather complex and you are forced to stand there on the platform and consider all the alternatives, with nothing but time to do so. Maybe even running head-first toward 9 3/4 once or twice, just to check and see if that’s an option.
Of course, standing there, you understand that there are many children who need love… but are you the right person to give it to them? Genuinely and as deserved? Another decision, one that takes time and discernment. Not lectures, not logic.
Mother’s Day is an interesting holiday in my shoes. I have an excellent mom, a really amazing mother-in-law, a sister and sister-in-law that are mothers to 2 whole nieces and 2 more half-baked babes on the way, a kick ass grandma and another kick ass grandma-in-law. So, legitimately, I have a lot to celebrate.
But, what about me and motherhood? How do I think about that?
Am I a mom? Was I?
Lots of people in positions similar to the one I currently occupy — GXP0, in medical terms, where X can is any whole number greater than or equal to 1 — might say yes.
Personally, I am G1P0 — pregnant once with no pregnancies reaching viable gestational age. Because I miscarried. And I do not say yes, for me. I say no.
No judgment on anyone who believes otherwise. It’s necessarily personal.
I’m honestly not saying this out of a sense of self-deprecation or even self-pity. This is a legitimate no. I do not feel as though I have ever been a mother and truly do not want to be celebrated as such. In fact, to do so only makes me feel worse — simultaneously a fraud and a failure. I never really knew what it was like to be a mom and I did not succeed in bringing life, or even the possibility of life, into this world. Anyone can imagine motherhood, and that’s all that I ever did.
Yes, it’s true that I would love to be a mother. Very much. It’s also true that I think I could be a good one. In fact, in a lot of ways, I’m quite good at caring for and supporting others. I can clean up vomit without flinching and I’ve done so on a number of occasions. But that’s not the same as motherhood and Mother’s Day is not a day for me. I don’t expect you or anyone else to worry about me on this day either. I mean that.
Is it hard? Most definitely. But as with most things that are hard these days — bumps and announcements, ultrasounds and smash cakes — it is not about me. And it’s certainly not my job, nor my desire, to take the joy away from others on account of my own pain.
So this Mother’s Day, please do celebrate yourself and the mothers in your life. Grieve with the mamas you know who have lost little ones, help them know that they are loved and their sweet angels are remembered. But also know that not everyone considers themselves a mother or needs to be told that they are – we’ll have other days, this one isn’t ours.
I was up north in Minocqua a month or so ago and chatting with a colleague I don’t see terribly often. Somehow, the topic turned to Harry Potter. I’m honesty not sure how. I swear I’d fess up if I recalled steering the conversation that direction, but I really don’t remember doing that. Regardless, we were talking about Harry Potter and the aforementioned colleague, Peter, told me about Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. A weekly podcast that takes you through the Harry Potter series, chapter by chapter, reading and discussing each through the lens of a specific theme and using various traditional spiritual practices to relate the reading and those themes to the world and our own lie.
I’d actually never listened to a podcast before, but audiobooks have completely changed my running experience, so it seemed like something I could get behind. Two things first…
I had to figure out how to listen to a podcast. It was a little bit of a process that made me feel o-l-d and required that I admit to more than one person that I didn’t even know how to start, but I got there. The little purple Podcast icon is now on my iphone home page and I’ve got all of the Book 1 podcasts loaded.
This felt like something I really didn’t want to do alone, but taking a children’s book that seriously isn’t something you can ask just anyone to do. Fortunately, I knew exactly who I wanted to do it with. Unfortunately… anxiety. And that brings me to the real meat of this story: Nicole. Yes, I did just call my friend meat. And she is a woman. Two strikes against this post already.
Nicole and I were both chemistry majors at Michigan Tech. I can count on one hand (literally) the other female chemistry majors I knew while I was there — Beth, Amanda, Shannon. And because other women were so few and far between in my classes, on campus, in the dorms, there was really something special about the bonds I forged with them while there. There was a familiarity, a safety, a kinship with those women that may or may not have been unique to Michigan Tech, but was definitely unique in my life to that point and I sincerely value those relationships.
I loved (and still love, honesty) those women. But I was desperately shy around Nicole while we were still in Houghton. She had this gorgeous, unruly, curly black hair that she wore with absolute abandon, while I was still busy working my way out of the over-gelled, wet poodle, ramen noodle look. She wore rocker jeans and funky t-shirts and chucks with everything. I never went anywhere or wore anything without a white, crew neck, men’s t-shirt underneath. She spoke up for what she believed in in class and on campus. I was busy trying to quietly figure out what I even believed in enough to speak up about. I put Nicole on a high pedestal and convinced myself I couldn’t reach her there.
Fortunately, Facebook emerged on the college scene circa 2005 and I was far more comfortable with virtual friendship than I was with the in-person kind. Nicole and I, like many other college classmates, became friends on Facebook and stayed that way after graduation as we went our separate ways — interstate moves, jobs and grad schools, marriages and more new states, quietly noting one another in our evolving Facebook feeds. So many times, though, there was overlap. Overlap in likes and dislikes, feelings about life milestones or political happenings, appreciation for four-legged creatures with fur and science, science, science. Curls and books. David Bowie and JK Rowling. It was too much to ignore, so we didn’t.
Nicole, from her pedestal on high, took the first big step when she sent me her actual phone number — allowing us to step outside of the Facebook world into the real one. And it was up to me to invite her, via that very real phone number, to do Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with me. I took a page out of Nicole’s Big Book of Bravery and did it. She said yes.
The first podcast was a revelation. The two moderators (hosts? what do you call a podcast star???) talked about spirituality and what it meant to view something as a sacred text – to love a work, feel at home with it, and to intentionally spend time with the words and their meaning in the context of our own lives. People have done this with a variety of texts for ages and ages – the bible, for example. So why not Harry Potter?
Why not, indeed?
I was enamored instantly and the week-long conversation that 30 minute podcast and single chapter of reading sparked between Nicole and I fed me in an incredibly profound way over that first week. We talked, also, at length about how quickly we wanted to go. The biggest part of me wanted to RUN, to devour it, take as much in as quickly as I possibly could. But a deeper, more rational part of me, convinced me that to savor it would be better. And as I listened to the second podcast on a walk with my pup in the sunshine this afternoon, I was so grateful for that decision. What I heard again moved my heart. I cannot wait to sit down with my book this evening and really reflect, using a version of the spiritual practice of lectio divina to fully engage with the text and my friend.
I learned in that first week that I am committed to authenticity. But as I think about this week’s theme of loneliness, I understand how terrified I was of authenticity for much of my life. I set myself up for loneliness by spending a lot of energy trying to fit in and worrying that I wouldn’t, rather than engaging others authentically and finding meaning in the relationships that resulted. That started to change in college to some extent, and even more so in graduate school, but only now is it something that I would consider intentional.
Perhaps that’s why now is exactly the right time for me to discover a real relationship with Nicole. Any sooner and I may have felt the need to purchase a pair of chucks, but she’d have seen right through it and I’d have blown everything. Or maybe not. But seriously, this woman rocks and now is definitely a good time!
I feel the concept of having “thin skin” is on the border of metaphor and simile.
I’ve been running a lot lately (not metaphorically, very actually) and the skin on the back of my ankles/heels is legitimately thin at present. Any time anything at all touches them — a sock, the sheets, my other foot — it hurts like crazy and even bandaids and copious amounts of neosporin (the kind with pain relief) isn’t helping. The only things that seems to help is toughing it out until the nerve endings go numb and from there, I’m good until I stop moving again.
Perhaps not an ideal strategy, but as with metaphorical thin skin, we can’t always (in fact, usually can’t) just stop whatever we’re doing for a good cry. Such is life.
This past week was like the for me, all over. Not just my heels. I just felt so raw and every little thing stung. Words in emails and off-the-cuff remarks, whether intended to be sharp or not, felt painful. And I struggled mightily to get through a couple of those days. Admittedly, in the dark before bed, at least one did end in tears. I couldn’t help them from coming.
By Thursday evening, I wasn’t sure I could handle one more (perceived) insult, and when Friday morning rolled around, only the promise of a weekend in eight hours got me out of bed. By 11:00 am, I was in the thick of self-pity when my weekly meeting with a close colleague came around.
It had been a stressful week, with work and otherwise, and I shared that with Tammy. In response, she shared with me the wisdom of another mutual friend. She said that long ago, when she said something similar, this friend would, without sympathy, look at her and ask, “And where exactly are you in your cycle?”
I had to laugh at myself then. I was feeling especially raw, but in reality, this past week wasn’t actually different than any other.
Sometimes I fall into this myth of mental health that if I’m doing ok, then everything should always feel ok. That true mental health is 100% happy 100% of the time.
Some weeks will be up and some weeks will be down. Sometimes I will feel raw and sometimes I will feel invincible. Good mental health, perhaps, is being able to feel both the ups and the downs and knowing that it’s all temporary. No one feeling lasts forever, nor does it exist in isolation.
In fact, in the absence of any down, would any up really feel as good? And to be able to feel sadness, grief, hurt and pain, only makes us human.
A few weeks ago, an email went out to everyone in my building at work with an important warning.
SUBJECT: Bear Near McMillian and Oak
MESSAGE: We were just informed that there is a bear near the corner of McMillian and Oak. Please refrain from walking near that area today as the city ordinance is trying to capture the bear and potential cubs.
Right. Avoid the corner with the bears, a block from our building. I smiled to myself — how is this my life? How did I end up in a corner of the world in which Betsy DeVos might actually have a point?
I didn’t feel unsafe, just avoided the area for a few days… limited my runs to the other side of McMillian.
Until a few days later when the Marshfield Police Department made an important announcement on Facebook.
The 1500 block of N Hume Ave… in the field about a block from our house. Runs re-routed once again. No letting Curls out alone after dark. Empty pizza boxes left in the garage until garbage day. Again, I did not feel particularly unsafe.
It’s interesting, though, that a real live bear, a hungry, just-woken-up-from-hibernation-only-to-find-its-not-really-Spring-yet-in-Wisconsin bear, really did not concern me. Bears are kind of a fact of life around here. And waking up hungry in early Spring is what bears do. It’s not terribly hard to avoid being its food. Avoid the general vicinity, don’t fill your outdoor bird feeders or garbage cans with tasty treats, and you’ll be fine.
It’s so simple… when it’s a real live bear.
But when it’s metaphorical? When the beast lives only in your mind? Then what? Then it seems far less simple.
The work email, the Facebook post, they reminded me of a walk with my aunt through a seedy area of Minneapolis back in October of 2015, shortly after I miscarried and she arranged a weekend getaway for us, saved my life.
We ventured out on foot from our lofty Airbnb in search of good food, unique shops, and a place to get a pedicure. We walked and walked and walked, ending up in a place that didn’t feel quite right. A dangerous neighborhood, perhaps. We certainly didn’t belong. We walked quickly, eyes straight ahead, and took a left into a safer neighborhood as quickly as possible.
We did stop for a pedicure, best described as unforgettable, right on the border between the two neighborhoods, safe and unsafe… and then walked on, leaving the dangerous space behind us in favor of Mexican food and more wine in the loft apartment. At some point along the way, maybe on the walk, perhaps over the wine, my aunt shared with me her own experiences with dangerous neighborhoods — dangerous neighborhoods of the mind.
I loved the metaphor. It was instantly familiar. Dark streets that suck you in, horrific thoughts lurking in shadowed doorways. Roads that lead to dead ends, that feel inescapable. Twists and turns in which a person can lose their way, lose their self.
How often have I ended up in a dark space like that? Unable to stop the thoughts, to prevent further escalation, to prevent the snowball from growing as it rolls down a very steep hill.
The mind as a city with unique neighborhoods, characterized by the nature of our thoughts. Yes.
I often spend time meandering carelessly through my mind, failing to use past experiences and mental maps to avoid the dangerous areas. I find myself in those places over and over again, let them suck me in, and get lost. Self-pity, body negativity, grief, jealousy — if I don’t turn back immediately, it can take a long while to get back to safety.
While I’ve always found comfort in metaphor, perhaps this would be a good time to find solution in reality. The neighborhoods in my mind, after all, can’t be all that different from the city of Marshfield. An unpredictable bear wandering the town on occasion — easily avoided, all things considered.
I can heed the warnings, the sightings of potential danger. I can keep the garbage inside until it’s safe to take it out, to get rid of it once and for all. And, if it’s not a bear, something more vaguely unsettling, I can call my aunt and ask her to walk beside me until I’m in a safe space again. A pedicure and bottle of wine to relax on the other side.
Imagine with me for a moment that things had worked out as I thought they would…
April 13, 2016 would have been a big day. The day we welcomed our sweet babe into the world. New life in the spring, pink and perfect.
But I mourned last April instead.
Imagine again, another year in that perfect world…
April 13, 2017 would have been another big one – a first birthday. Chubby cheeks and bouncy blonde curls. A big, open mouthed smile and frosting everywhere. Sugar and sprinkles and tiny little fingers.
No sprinkles, though. No frosting. No fingers, no smile.
Another April gone by, same as the last.
Two roads diverged in the wood that day, the day there was no heartbeat. And I didn’t get to choose which one I took. It was chosen for me.
I did choose to walk, though. Forward, always forward.
It’s natural to look back. To sometimes get caught up in the waves of grief that come unexpectedly. Is it natural, also, to imagine the same distance along the other road? To wonder what it would have looked like had I been able to turn right instead of left at the fork? I don’t know. But I do imagine it, I wonder. Sometimes. Not always. But especially on April 13th. Another year gone by, an imagined point on that other road.
There is no baby. There is no first birthday. There is no other me. Only this grief, a depression that seems to set in this time of year. The flowers bloom, the sun sticks around longer and longer, and yet I struggle to get out of bed. A little harder, just for a while.
Then the imaginary party fades. And I keep walking forward, always diverging from the road I couldn’t take.
I just finished two books, almost simultaneously. I’ve always got several (4 or so) going at any given time — 2 fiction for devouring (one with my eyes, one with my ears) and a couple non-fiction on a slow simmer in the background for when the mood is right. Because my eyes are so much faster than my ears, it’s unusual that I’ll finish two up around the same time, but this time I did. And this was one of those times where an interesting theme emerged and made me think.
I spent the entire day on Saturday (very literally) finishing up the sixth installment of the Green Rider series. My friend Jess got me hooked in grad school, which was all good because there were already three books out at the time and I got to read them in rapid succession. I’ve had to wait years between each of the others though, so when I finally get my hands on the next one, I basically have to check out of life for a bit to soak it all in.
I’ll spare you the details… ok, actually, I’ll spare me the details because it’s pretty much hardcore fantasy and a description would likely scream NERD… but suffice it to say that a major theme of this most recent book was a journey that required a witness.
I didn’t really think much of that theme until this afternoon when it appeared once again. The book I finished on my post-work, full-sun (!!!) run was the third in a series recommended to me by a fellow audiobook lover — the Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I’m still early in the series (there are 17 books!), but I fell in love with the bizarre yet brilliant Special Agent Pendergast right away and love that the books bring back some, but not all, characters and settings from the previous book each time. It’s super fun and they’re a great listen for my runs. I was hoofing it up a big hill (Mount McMillan as my friend Amy would say) this afternoon listening to the epilogue of The Cabinet of Curiosities when Pendergast brought this book’s (surviving) sidekicks to a barely marked grave in a public cemetery north of New York City to burn the secret to prolonged life… an event of historical import so great that it couldn’t be done alone, it needed a witness.
The book ended shortly thereafter, but that word — witness — stuck with me. It tickled something in the back of my mind and fueled my thoughts for the rest of my (blessedly downhill) run home.
I wrote about another book and its use of the phrase “benevolent witness” a couple years ago the first time Seth and I went through IVF. It was something of an explanation for why I am like I am with all the words. And I liked, and still agree with, that post upon re-reading. But it didn’t quite capture what I thought about this afternoon. In that moment, I knew I needed a benevolent witness — someone to really see me and be kind anyway. But it wasn’t so much about kindness today.
I came home and did what any hard-hitting writer-type would do: research.
Google search: can i get a witness
Done and done.
So, it was Marvin Gaye all those years ago who, with a kick ass song (with so-bad-they’re-good dance moves from the crowd, at least in this video), coined the phrase.
Mistreated by a lady love, Marvin Gaye wanted a witness to the unfairness of it all. For someone else to see the truth.
There’s something inherently comforting about knowing that someone else has really seen you in any given situation. Served as witness to joy or pain, bravery or fear, success or unfairness. Regardless of the role a witness ultimately plays in a situation, to know that someone was there validates us in a way nothing else can. Our minds can play tricks, our emotions can wreak havoc, but a witness is stolid — a witness stands by you and says this is real, you are real, you matter, you experienced…
But why on Women Rock Wednesday?
Because Women have so often born witness to the biggest and smallest moments of my life. They still do.
The more I mull it over, the more I find myself believing that there’s something experiential about being a woman in the world that lends itself well to women serving as witnesses for each other. Even when we didn’t share a physical or temporal moment, there are so many familiar stories that, when recounted, end with a common refrain: “I can’t believe I thought it was just me!!”
Most of us have bled through our shorts/pants/pajamas at some point in our lives. Most of us have felt badly about our bodies. We’ve been patronized. We’ve struggled with sexuality, fertility, family planning, femininity (too fast, too slow, too much, not enough). We’ve all spent our lives walking a line between being nice and being firm. These are things that, at least in the culture I know, are nearly universal. And we can serve as witnesses for each other in these ways and so many others.
It can be tempting to isolate, particularly in moments of shame or pain. But to have a witness is to receive validation (or maybe even a dose of reality should we have contorted something painful into something worse than it really is), to share the burden, to recognize the universality of our experiences in a way that removes our ability to truly isolate ourselves from the world. Women can do that for each other. Should and do do that for each other. And for that, I’m so grateful.