Normal-Shmormal

Meeting with a new therapist is a bit like going on a first date–exciting, full of potential but hella unnerving. I’ve always been hell-bent on impressing my therapists with my great insight and wisdom. Which can make for an awkward therapist first-date.

Typically, I wait until I’m dangling on the precipice of a dramatic, jagged emotional abyss before I make a therapy appointment. I always think–against all odds–I can get all bootstrappy and handle it (whatever it is) on my own.

This particular time, just over a decade ago, it was infertility, crippling anxiety, and the sheer terror of navigating the full human range of emotions totally sober. So, you know, at least I was bringing a lot of material to work with.

I like to be prepared.

But even then, with all pressure and pain making it difficult to even breathe, I spent the first therapy session trying to convince the new therapist that I was completely normal.

How do I know about my unconscious master-plan to convince her of my expert level normalcy? Because she told me. Gently. She was a soft-talker. A careful question asker. I thought her overly-conciliatory tone and her constant encouraging affirmations were going to drive me bananas. Instead, they gave me a soft place to land.

She saved me from myself.

And she started by unravelling this whole “normal” bit.

From the time I was 8 years old, I’d been convinced that I was a complete weirdo freak. And that no one would love me if they really knew me. And, also, that I was completely irredeemable.

This made for a super-fun inner voice. The life of the party, really.

But this woman patiently listened and pulled at threads that seemed like they were attached to a different psychic sweater entirely, and yet… by the end… that restricting, suffocating sweater of “normalcy” lay destroyed at my feet.

It was like magic. But it wasn’t. It was hard work that her unwavering kindness and belief that I deserved better–even when I didn’t agree with her–made possible.

She pops into my mind sometimes when I’m doing yoga.

It’s okay if that seems weird. I’m not really caught up on the normal thing anymore.

And it always happens when I’m doing a heart-opening pose.

Yoga has been part of my path on and off since the darkest days of my active alcoholism. It was my toe-hold for the long, winding journey of pulling myself out of that hell. Those first yoga poses I learned allowed me to reconnect spirit to body, after a 6 month blackout (those 6 months really are totally lost to me, except for fragments here and there. And those fragments, honestly, I’d rather forget).

What finally pushed me into making that first, awkward therapy appointment with Dr. Soft-Talker was a heart-opening pose. I was doing yoga alone in a room, eyes glued to a video (I hadn’t quite tamped down my perfectionistic tendencies at that point. Progress not perfection, y’all). The soothing, rhythmic voice moved me into a pose that pushed my chest forward. Show the world your heart, he suggested from the screen of my laptop.

HELL no.

I physically couldn’t do it. I could not push my chest forward. I could not show anyone anything. Because there was so much ugliness, so much I hated inside. The fear was absolutely breath-snatching.

I sat down and cried at the sheer hopelessness of it all.

I found myself in the therapist’s office just a little while later. Being awkward. Totally avoid showing her my heart at all costs. She found it anyway. She was pretty damn good at her job.

And now, when I do heart-opening poses, which are some of my favorites, I can feel the love (for myself, humanity, the universe) open me to all the magic and beauty and tenderness in the world. And I feel such deep gratitude to this woman who believed that normal was bullshit and that I deserved more.

It’s been a process. Just like getting sober, healing and living a big, beautiful authentic life is a journey. Sometimes I’m good at it. Sometimes not so much. But I hang on to the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I build on them. And I keep trying.

New day. New try.

Namaste, y’all.

The Miraculous Power of Shutting Up

I did a very smart thing about 6 years or so ago: I started listening

Not very revolutionary, right?

Except, holy shit at the things you can learn if you just stop talking long enough.

Here’s the thing: encountering feminism in college gave me the mistaken impression I had license to talk all the damn time. I was tired of my desires and ideas being marginalized–I’d grown up in a super-conservative space in which women were fully expected to take a backseat to their husbands and all that bullshit. And, maybe, I didn’t do a very thorough examination of feminism (I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just claiming center stage. Actually, center stage isn’t really so much even a thing…). I just heard what I wanted/needed to hear in that moment (the message to claim my voice) and ran with it.

In some ways, that served me. In other, long-term ways, my voice ultimately got all kinds of in the way of my ability to hear other people’s experience.

The first time I caught a whiff of intersectional feminism (a phrase coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which examines overlapping systems of oppression, like being a person of color AND a woman) was when I took a head-over-heels-smitten deep dive into Alice Walker’s work in college. But, truth be told, when you aren’t ready for ideas, they just kind of slide off your psyche. And I totally wasn’t ready. The good news is that those ideas don’t just slide off into the abyss. They stick around, marinading in your brain until you are, in fact, struck down by the sheer magnitude of the truth of them one day, seemingly out of the blue.

For me, a woman with roots in Georgia and Alabama among people who were served by the social status quo of racism, I was afraid to take a serious look at my own internalized racism. Easier to just proclaim racism as “bad,”assure myself I’d never done anything (overtly) racist and carry on. I wasn’t hurting anyone, so I was a good person.

Right?

I think about that self (a little smug, but definitely full of fear and 100% lacking in understanding about the complexities and pervasiveness of institutionalized racism), and I want to shake her. Hard.

But that was my journey. And anything else just isn’t the truth. 

When unarmed black men started dying at alarming rates (or, more accurately, when cell phone video made it harder to deny that unarmed black men were dying at alarming rates), I started paying attention. And, once you see–really see–with your heart what is happening, when you witness the ravages in racism as real lives lost, real suffering, real and sometimes deadly inequity, you cannot unsee it. 

And it brings grief. So much grief. 

You can get overwhelmed by the grief. But let’s call that what it is: a cop-out. Because, y’all, there is so much work to be done. 

It’s instructive here to just grab a glimpse of what it looks like to people of color, who’ve been doing the grueling work of liberation and the uber-frustrating, often futile work of just getting white people to listen, when white folks jump into a shame/self-loathing cycle (which is mainly just a way to avoid actually doing anything). This excerpt is from a piece that appeared in The Root aptly entitled “Four Emails White People Send to Black People When Black People Talk or Write about Racism:”

I’m so fucking tired of White people and being a White person. We are so fucking awful. I hate myself. I hate my white skin and my even whiter than my white skin teeth . . . .Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and I just want to peel my skin off like an orange, taking each layer of whiteness off and tossing it in the trash with the rest of the fucking garbage. Actually, since oranges are covered in white pith after you peel them, that analogy doesn’t quite work. I guess bananas and apples and pears don’t either. Shit, have you ever realized how disgustingly white most fruit is when you peel the outer layers off? Goddamn there’s no end to this shit. Fuck racism, fuck white people, fuck whiteness, and fuck fruit.

Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas

While it’s true that sometimes if feel like there is no end to this shit, getting all fuck fruit on the systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States isn’t gonna work. Why? Because it completely lacks action. It centers whiteness and how “bad” we feel.

Feeling bad never changed anything. In fact, it’s a pretty clear path to self-pity and self-loathing.

Not helpful.

But one simple suggestion from Glennon Doyle a few years ago pulled me out of that fuck fruit cycle. She suggested that folks follow at least one person on social media that was different from them in some way. That’s it. Totally doable.

Rather arbitrarily I picked Ijeoma Oluo and Ally Henny. Seriously good choices that I deserve no credit for.

Here’s what these two women of color have offered this white girl: the ability to see the world from a different lived experience, deeper insights into the subtle ways of racism, and access to knowledge that I now don’t have to ask the black folks in my life for.

Because literally one of the last things your black co-worker, black neighbor, black friend wants to do is answer your questions about racism.

Totally not kidding on that.

If you have questions, if you’re having trouble envisioning how our culture looks stripped of the privilege of whiteness or if you want to know what you (as a white person) can do to make things better, ask the interwebs. Use Google. I hear its a pretty good search engine. Follow folks on IG or Facebook.

But remember that, to learn anything, you have to be willing to listen. Not justify. Not speculate. Not excuse. Not enable. Just listen.

It will break your heart. That much is true. But then you’ll know. And then you can move into action. Because make no mistake: racism a white folks’ problem. And now, NOW, is the time to fix it.

Flashlights & Love

Our first Valentine’s Day together, Simon got me a flashlight.

Oh, he got me some red roses, too. But the flashlight was the main present. He wanted me to be prepared, just in case. This is his way, laying a path and making way for my independence, nurturing my strength. But I didn’t know that then. How odd, I thought. Then I promptly commenced to lamenting that he wasn’t more romantic.

I grew up on a steady diet of rom-coms. Still love them. But the way of the men in these movies is to completely miss the fact that they have a good thing going. To dismiss or overlook all that is good, strong, quirky about the women who love them–then to come careening back into their lives, when it’s a breath away from being too late–with some grand gesture to prove their love, to acknowledge the worth and value of the woman who has loved them all along.

I mean, when it’s put that way it kind of sounds like some bullshit, right?!

So, no, I didn’t understand the way of a man who would give me a flashlight.

I have, in fact, gotten a few big, romantic gestures over the years. Some of them not necessarily because they are what he would’ve chosen, left to his own druthers.

The proposal, for instance.

He got down on one knee in the middle of a bar on a weekend night to ask me to marry him (yes, we got engaged in a bar. We were 100% always in a bar at that point in our lives. But also, the music festival we’d planned to spend the weekend at had devolved into a mud bath of sorts, so–in his defense–the bar was Plan B.)

That may not seem like much. But it was pre-transition. He spent so much time trying not to be seen–at all–that the idea that he’d drop to one knee in the middle of a crowd of people, that he’d consciously draw attention to himself in order to bring me joy, well that’s quite a gift.

Now, I know how to appreciate those gifts, to savor them, to realize the sacrifice they take on his part. The love is in the sacrifice, not in the gesture, it turns out.

In addition to my rom-com, big gesture version of love, I also came equipped with the idea that people who love each other never fight.

Goodgodamighty.

I’ve been disabused of this idea about a thousand times over. Simon and I are as different as they come–I’m pineapple on pizza. He’s pepperoni. We see the world from such vastly different persepectives that, if we argree on something immediately–without discussion and endless cycles of negotiation–we know that that thing is foretold by the Universe. Plain and simple.

That’s how we picked up and moved from one side of southeast Atlanta to the other after two years and one day. I came to him with this crazy idea that I tried to pass off as a whim, so I could start softly and build a case later after the initial no.

And he said yes. Right away. Which is how I knew, for certain, that a move to East Atlanta was right and good and ordained by the Universe. When we both want something at the exact same time, it becomes magical, driven, possible.

Because somehow he sees through my restlessness, my (slight) tendencies to want things my way (because isn’t that really the only way?!), down deeper into what I really need. And those are the things he jumps behind. The ideas that will help me, and ultimately our whole little family, flourish.

So, yeah, he’s flashlights instead of grand gestures. But flashlights, they light your way. They give you confidence to explore. They make you feel, simultaneously, safe and strong.

But his biggest gift to me–his grandest gesture to date–is that little bookstore that I own, the one that brings me such unabashed joy. I brought the idea to him, just sure he was going to tell me I was off my rocker. We’d just moved (again). I’d finally started making some real money with a writing business I’d spent several years building up. And yet, here was this little idea that had taken hold…

And he saw it, right away. He saw that this was it for me. This was what lit me up. He asked questions that helped me sort out my vision for the store. He cheerleaded. He designed logos and websites. He carried boxes. And he told me he was proud of me, that he believed in this. That he believed in me.

That is the person I married, although I there was no way to know all this at the time. But 14 years later, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t trade that flashlight for all the romantic gestures in the world.

Love Doesn’t Need That Mess

I sat cross-legged on the floor, near enough to the other kids to look like part of the group. But, while they fidgeted and whispered, my attention remained rapt. Other kids felt mysterious to me; I never really got what they wanted me to say or do. Like maybe other kids had some sort of instruction manual, but mine–even though it should only have taken 4-6 weeks for delivery–was lost forever & now I was just going to wing it.

So far, it wasn’t going particularly well.

But adults: I knew how to be in their presence, knew what the expected responses were. In short: adults were easier. So I paid more attention to them.

So, now I sat dutifully on the tightly woven carpet of a Sunday school classroom, staring up at our teacher. It was just kind of in my nature to be bizarrely well behaved (and also, my mother’d put the fear of God in me about misbehaving in church). But also, even though I was only 7 or so, the kind of church we attended had already started drilling down on the “getting saved” bit.

Fires of hell? No, thank you. I was sure gonna pay attention to how to avoid all that mess.

But now, suddenly, the teacher started talking about dreams and waking up in the middle of the night. My ears pricked forward. Because I couldn’t ever remember a time I didn’t wake up with my heart frozen in terror, my feet pounding the floor to my parents’ bedroom before I even registered my first real, waking thought.

Maybe I’d get some solid advice on how to not be scared. Because adults know things, right? Or at least at that point I thought they did. (Now I know better.) Adults always seemed to have some secret key to universal knowledge that would magically unlock all the answers and make the world make sense. I could not wait to be one of them. An adult with answers. That was my aspirational goal. At 7.

Although I can’t remember this part super clearly, I’m pretty sure the teacher opened this whole conversation with the “Satan is tricky” motif. Fair enough. A universal antagonist.

But in these stories, Satan was always trying to get in. Actively. Not in a dual nature, we all have good-and-evil inside, choose wisely sort of way. Like in a monster who breathes sulfur, who can morph and change and trick you, so you always have to be on guard to fight as a warrior for Christ sort of way.

Let’s just be clear: that’s some scary shit.

But this man is going to tell me how to keep Satan at bay. At least I hope so. Because now I’m really scared.

“If you ever wake up in the middle of the night,” he continues on (and this should sound like a ghost story, but for all the world it doesn’t. It sounds more like practical advice, like how to escape your house in the case of fire), “and you see a loved one who has died standing in your room (here I thought of my great-grandmother, because she was literally the only person I knew who’d died at that point) and that loved one calls to you, do not go to them. It may actually be a demon calling you to them. Satan will try to get at you whatever way he can. He’ll even use the memory of people you love who have died.”

What. the. actual. fuck?!?

For years afterward–years–I was afraid I’d wake up in the middle of the night to see the visage of my great-grandmother bathed in moonlight beckoning me to her. And what if I wasn’t strong enough to resist? What if I was lured to her and spent eternity with the fires of hell raging around me because I’d made a mistake?

That’s a damn big ‘what if’ for a kid to carry around.

Not until I was an adult did I see clearly that fear is simply a way to rule over and control people. Love, real love, has nothing to do with fear. Love doesn’t need that mess. Not at all.

I wish I could go back and tell that 7 year old that the Universe is full of love for her. That she can find all the peace she needs right inside her own heart. And that one day, she’ll have no idea what God is–not at all. And that not-knowing will feel like such a gift, full of possibility and light.

But I’ll settle for telling a little bit of her story. Because that’s healing in its own right, too.

How Does She Manage This Stuff?

When I arrive back home from my daily sojourn to deliver books, Jane meets me in the kitchen to regale me with tales from her day. Or to stand there repeatedly asking what we’re having for dinner. Either way.

Earlier this week, she proudly announced that she’d struck a deal with her father wherein he was renting a twin mattress for the office from her.

If you don’t live in this family, I’m sure that could be confusing as hell, so I’ll break it down real quick: Simon snores. Like a chainsaw. We’ve tried various remedies and fixes. And still. Because I am not some sort of demigod, I cannot sleep through that blessed racket. We finally landed on a compromise in which we go to bed together and then, when it’s all Chainsaw City up in here, I wake him and he migrates to a lovely little set-up in the office.

It took me years to admit to myself that our marriage would not dissolve like Kool-aid powder in water if we slept in separate spaces. And that I have to have good sleep to function. And that the desire to smother him with a pillow would be a hell of a lot less if it didn’t sound like I was sleeping in a construction zone.

He ordered a new mattress for the office. He deserves optimal sleep, too. But shipping was going to take a few days, so he asked Jane if he could borrow the twin mattress on her loft (where she isn’t even sleeping right now). For a couple days until his nifty new hybrid spring/memory foam mattress arrived.

Earlier during this endless quarantine, Jane discovered the joy in rearranging her room on the daily. She also likes to ask if she can have pretty much anything her father or I could actually lay claim to in this house. What do I mean? Well. she asked me if she could have the master bedroom the other day. I kid you not.

A few weeks ago, she asked if she could move Couch Bed from the office into her room. Couch Bed is precisely what it sounds like: a squishy & utilitarian little Transformer that flips up to be a couch during the day & a bed at night. Nifty.

Obviously, we aren’t using it for guests right now (hello, pandemic), so sure. Why not?

Now Jane’s got her own pseudo-apartment in our house. A couch during the day. A loft with a desk for reading and “working.” A flipped down queen-size bed at night. She even has a waiting area, where she suggested I could sit on a bean bad, read a magazine, and wait to speak to her.

Good Lord.

Back to the mattress…

When Simon asked her to borrow it, she hemmed and hawed. I rolled my eyes so far back in my head they almost got stuck there. Because (FOR REAL, GIRL) share. But I let it be.

And I come home and now she’s a mattress landlord.

To be fair, Simon offered to pay her to borrow said mattress. And Jane is a shrewd money manager. She’s always saving to buy something. I don’t doubt that, if she’d had access to the stock market, she would’ve had an impressive portfolio to concern herself with when the pandemic hit. But, alas, she’s NINE, so her chief concern is how to squeeze her parents for more cash.

When Simon asked her what a fair price would be, she suggested $10 a day.

He countered with a much more reasonable $3 per day rate.

She deliberated for a while. Until he reminded her that, if she waited too long, Mommy would come home and just take the mattress and move it to the office. And she’d get nothing.

It’s so good to be really seen by your people, you know? Because hell yes, that’s what I would’ve done.

So, Jane’s relaying this tale rather nonchalantly, and she says, “So, I get 8 dollars for lending him the mattress until Friday. It was supposed to by $9.” Here she shrugs, wrinkles up her little nose, and says, “I don’t know what happened there.”

Oh, girl, I don’t know what happened there, either.

Grace in the Oddest Places

I was sitting on the floor, sandwich wrapper splayed out flat in front of me. The lettuce shreds fought a valiant fight, but most of them now lay helter skelter across the paper spilling onto the floor, discarded sandwich scrapnel. I dug under a tomato to get to the last remaining piece of cheese, pressed into the bread by the weight of the sandwich so that it left a triangle indentation when I pulled it up.

“That’s what I like about you,” she said, looking at me earnestly and grinning. “You always pull the cheese off when you’re done with your sandwich, instead of the meat.” She beamed. She was a vegetarian. Had been for years already. She bought me the sandwich with her meal plan points, which she had to blow through by the end of the semester. It’s hard to eat that many sandwiches by yourself apparently.

I felt a flood of warmth pulse through my chest. It wasn’t about the cheese, although it was true that cheese was my favorite mode of sustenance. It was that she’d seen me, just for a second. She’d noticed some small, seemingly insignificant thing about me–and she liked it. And, even more miraculous, I could let her like it, without that cold, tight fear starting in my heart and seeping slowly down into my fingertips.

Maybe, just maybe, I even wanted her to see me.

I was drawn to her like breath. My heart was laid bare every time I was near her, even if she didn’t know it yet. Who has words for that at 18 years old?

That kind of belonging, without condition, lush with love and acceptance, when you’ve been fighting an internal war that’s left you emotionally bedraggled and just about half-dead… well, it’s a gift. It’s grace.

And sure, the first time she ever told me she cared may have been over a piece of cheese. But, my god, the sheer magic of finding the person who calls you out of yourself and into the world when you were sure, so sure, that at your core you were destined to be alone and misunderstood forever (18 is full of BIG feelings, and absolutes, and existential drama)…

Her seeing gave me solid footing. It felt like hope. It made things possible and expansive and intoxicatingly joyful.

That piece of cheese broke open the whole world for me.

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

Seriously. Just Let Go.

I’m a well-documented recovering control freak. I love nothing more than a well-worn pattern, a comfortable sense of expectation. Spontaneity? Sure, as long as it’s carefully planned.

Just BEING is something I’ve been trying to perfect for a while now. (See what I did there? Because being is about the moment… and you can’t perfect… You get it. Right?) It is the simplest concept. And I find it unbelievably difficult.

As always, Jane has been instructive in this endeavor. The kid gets so damn far ahead of herself. We’ll be watching a movie together (one of her most favorite things) and she’ll be all: “You know what think we should do next Thursday?”

What the actual hell?!

So we’re constantly reminding her to stay where her feet are. I tease her all the time that she’s terrible at being. But I’m super clear where she gets it from. And I know I need the reminder as much as she does.

My need to plan and to control is fed by a deep fear of letting go.

I thought about having Let Go tattooed on the inside of my forearm. That’s the extent of my suckage at this particular endeavor. I need a constant reminder that I literally cannot avoid.

I do not come from a people who readily embrace the life/death/life cycle in relationships, ideas, identity. One of the boogeymen in my childhood was the idea that some event (shadowy, scary, full of doom) would happen and things would never be the same. They’d be ruined.

It’s taken 44 years, but I’m finally bringing to truly embrace the idea that nothing is ever the same.

Everything is temporary.

This whole concept used to horrify me. It somehow undermines my sense of justice that even things that are “good” and “right” can shift, change, and die deaths that–even thought they might be painful–are the beginning of something new.

Not being able to let go–clutching ideas and identity so tightly they become wrung out, lifeless–seriously impedes my ability to see clearly. It sticks people (myself included) in itty bitty boxes where they either begin to shrivel or begin building a wall so that I can’t see that they’re quietly dismantling the box all together.

Holding on tightly to something that’s ready to die (perceptions, beliefs, relationships) doesn’t stop the death. A tiny death that’s meant to be is going to happen with or without my blessing. But holding on means being cut myself off from the living, thrumming life force that allows great change and growth. That promises possibility instead of decay.

But if I let go, what will be left?

What if letting go allows the Universe to unfurl great magic on my behalf? What it gives people room to wake up to the beauty inside themselves and show me the things they’ve secreted away until they were safe enough to create?

What if letting go allows life to BE?

(You know you were thinking it anyway.)