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.)

It’s Funny. And It’s Not.

When quarantine feels a little too weighty for me–when the stark gravity of living in a horror-filmesque world puts me right on the razor’s edge of true terror–I pause and think how much worse it would be if I was still drinking.

And it always makes me laugh.

Because holy mother of pearl, I was an absolute disaster. And my choices were–at best–highly questionable. The idea of trying to navigate a pandemic that calls for near social isolation, or at the very least not getting all up on people and actually wearing a mask on your face (not like dangling from an ear or around your neck), would’ve just been impossible.

Take my exuberance, strip it of all common sense, and there you have it: me, drunk.

You get a hug! And you get a hug! I don’t know you? Nevermind. Let’s hug!

All that’s assuming I ever made it out of the house. But more likely, it’d be circling in a wicked shame funnel over here: Drink too much. Text people ill-advised things I don’t remember. Be hungover. Despair. Rinse. Repeat.

If this sounds like a shitty coping mechanism, it was. And it’s only funny to me because it’s over. As a friend pointed out sometime during my first year of sobriety (which is hard y’all. So hard), I never have to be that person again.

When I see the memes and quips about drinking to deal with your kids (or your pets or your existential angst) during quarantine. I cringe. Because I know people are for real doing that. And when you’re in that place–of despair and addiction and shame–it seems like there’s nothing else to do. Coping, when you’ve been trying to avoid coping this whole time by doing the backstroke in a fish-bowl-sized margarita (one with Swedish Fish, of course), seems truly impossible.

So, no, quarantine doesn’t make me want to drink. When I quit, I scratched drinking off my menu of coping mechanisms (it was the only thing on the menu at the time, so that made things a little tricky). But I do often think about the things that made me want to drink. Because, while the pull toward oblivion via cocktail might not be there, the desire to skirt uncomfortable, troublesome emotion is very real.

But so is my resolution to work through that shit.

The driving emotion in my drinking was shame. On a deep, cellular level, I believed there was something so wrong with me, so broken & ugly, that if anyone ever saw it, they would reject me outright. I carried this feeling with me all. the. time. I could never be comfortable, because as soon as I allowed myself a deep breath, my inner critic (who is loud and fucking obnoxious) would start in on all the ways in which I was truly hideous.

I had a boyfriend and a best friend at the time. I couldn’t let either get close to me. I shook violently when he touched me and threw up when I even thought about being alone with her.

I was 16 years old. I felt totally alone. And crazy. And irredeemable.

Until I drank.

And then all that bullshit faded away. I drank to feel comforted. To feel whole. And to finally be able to connect with other people.

I drank for relief.

Sometimes, now, when I don’t want to get up in the fives to give myself time to do the psychic & spiritual work that keeps me sober, I think about that raw and broken 16 year old.

When I run up against a resentment I don’t want to let go, that I’d prefer to let fester so I can shore up my righteous indignation, I remember her.

It’s hard, remembering her. Just calling her to mind brings that burning shame to the center of my chest. And an intense desire to flee.

She still makes me cry.

But she also reminds me that there’s still work to be done. Hell, there’s always work to be done. And I honor her and her pain–and help her finally heal–by doing the work.

Even when it’s messy.

Especially when it’s messy.

High Horses

I’ve got a long history of martyrdom. Not in the heroic, up-in-flames kind, either. Nope. Just the kind that chooses misery and suffers (mostly) silently for it.

What the hell, right?

It’s a bit murky, even for me. But I think it goes something like this: If I choose to do something that I don’t want to do–that nigh on makes miserable–for the “good” of someone else, well that must be righteous suffering. And I’m like moth to the flame with righteousness (or moral superiority. Same same).

Bluntly: misery makes me feel good about myself.

Kind of.

But not really.

Because I’m still, well, miserable.

Obviously a conundrum.

My penchant for martyrdom isn’t a conscious choice. I don’t wake up and excitedly lay out my martyr outfit for the day. Sometimes it starts with something as simple as not speaking my mind…

I own a small indie bookstore that’s been closed to the public since March 15th. For the past 2 months, I’ve been a one-woman book delivery service. Which, truly, has brought me more happiness than I could’ve imagined. It’s allowed me to form relationships with some of my customers (through email, text, and carefully socially distanced chatting) that might have taken years to create otherwise. And the unmitigated joy that people show over a book left on their front porch… well, it gives me hope for the future of the store but also for the goodness and cohesiveness of Atlantans.

I recently had to put some limits on where I deliver books. Metro Atlanta covers a lot of territory. And it isn’t cost or time effective for me to drive 10 miles to deliver a book that sold for $6.50 (especially since I refuse to use the highway, which I swear is Satan’s playground, so that 10 miles can take at least half an hour to cover). So, I set a 6 mile rule. Free delivery within 6 miles of the store.

I swear, the day after I established said rule, I got an order from just outside the 6 mile radius. Like 6.6 miles. I sighed a little bit. But instead of reaching out, I was going to hop on my little martyr horse and ride out to deliver the books. I didn’t want to. I felt resentful. But I was going to do it anyway. And not because I thought she’d cancel the order if I didn’t deliver them. But because I’d be doing her “good,” even if she didn’t realize it. Even if there was really no need.

Then I saw a note on the order, which clearly indicated that she’d be happy to come fetch the books.

And still I wavered. I could just take them to her, I sighed inwardly. (Foot in the stirrup.) It really wasn’t that big of a deal. (Horse mounted.) I was just taking up the reins when my email dinged.

And there she was again, telling me that she’d be happy to come get the books.

This time, I clearly saw the Universe nudging me toward a more fulfilling (less emotionally, shall we say, trying…) career that was more bookseller, less martyr.

So I agreed. I let her come get the books.

And the world did not end. I did not feel morally inferior because I’d let this chance for (unsubstantiated) righteousness slip away.

I felt relieved. And seen. And respected. Because I’d chosen to be honest about what I wanted and needed.

If you’re thinking “Wait. This is the end of the story? That’s IT?!?”, well then perhaps you’ve not encountered the seductiveness of climbing up on your high horse and riding off to save the day (when it didn’t need saving at all). And that’s okay. We’ve all got our thing.

But, for me, seeing this pattern and choosing something different–that’s huge. And as my high horse grazes in happier pastures, I think we’ll both be better off for the insight.