Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interlude: The Ticking

Another week with my kids is winding to a close and ahead of me lies another week alone. This last week has brought about some internal shifts, some of which lead me to some interesting theories on what might be contributing to why I am uncomfortable being alone in the first place. It will involve me being a bit vulnerable in the face of someone I’m not prepared to be vulnerable in front of, but I’m not really comfortable with any of this, am I? I’m not comfortable with Ben leaving, I’m not comfortable with being alone, I’m not comfortable with the things I’m pushing myself to do. Being comfortable hasn’t ever helped me a whole lot. Nothing of substance or beauty in my life has been born of mediocrity; they all took rabid acts of faith and courage. There is a lesson in that, I suppose.

I often wonder what is so bad about me that I am afraid, or disgusted, to be alone with myself. There is plenty in here to be ashamed of – I never went to college, I come from a poor white trash family, I’ve been beaten and abused in every sense of the word and that can lead a person to feel as tattered, worn and useless as an old rag. However, I know that there is something about me that is worth something too, so I’ve never been too sure of why I can’t appreciate that value for what it is in myself as I would if another person with those same flaws and attributes were standing before me. Well, I think I may have triggered an occurrence that can lead me to the origin of my dislike.  

I tried to make a friend, recently. I don’t do that often, really. Most people come into my life and I escort them out as quickly as a fat kid taking on an oiled slip and slide. I don’t have the easiest time trusting people, and I think it’s because I know most people don’t stay. I never really picked it apart beyond that. I knew there was something about me that was too rough around the edges for people to stay around, I guess I let the idea roll off my heart pretty quickly with the rationalization that not many people want to be friends with the uneducated white trash girl with tattoos who used to do a lot of speed.  I’m sure that there is a part of you that is thinking, “But that is obviously not the girl that is writing here now. You can’t be uneducated trash, you speak clearly and concisely, you love and care for your children, you are obviously a smart person who is trying to put her life in the right.” And those things are all true. But I’m online, and my identity is veiled by the wall that is the computer monitor. I am safe tucked away back here, being this faceless person. These words on the page are the innermost, vulnerable me. The me that is very much scared, and hurting, and broken and desperate. Out there? Out there in the world I am a different kind of human being entirely. 

I used to think that the differences in who I appear to be, and who I am, were simply adaptations to my environment but I realize now that that isn’t entirely accurate. Most people will only ever know who I am “out there”. The social butterfly, the girl that makes you laugh and says over-the-top things and drinks too much and listens to loud, hard music and gets in fights at bars and flirts shamelessly and just generally kicks life’s ass. This is the girl who, when given lemons by life, tracks life down and tells it where to put it’s goddamn motherfucking lemons and somehow manages to get her money back even though life has a strict no return policy. Most people really, really like this girl. And why not? She’s fun, she’s crazy, you don’t have to take anything seriously, if you date her you get to have all this fun crazy sex, and if you don’t date her you still get to go along for the ride. 

The only problem is that she is just the armor.  She is there to hide the girl inside that is very much the scared, hurting, broken and desperate girl on these pages. That girl inside is real, whether you want her to be or not. She is in there, and she navigates this ship more than most people can ever really know. She is the core of who I am. I don’t mind that; I don’t mind being vulnerable or letting people see that I’ve been bruised a bit by the life I’ve lived. The only problem, I guess, is that most other people do.

Everyone wants to date the pretty, fun, crazy girl. Until she lets you in, and you have to see the parts of her that are dark, and sad, and damaged, because those parts aren’t easy and fun. Those parts are serious, and real, and make you think and feel and most people don’t want to think or feel about anything beyond the end of their noses. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say “Most people are inherently selfish because they don’t want to hear about my daddy issues.” What I’m saying is that most people have enough of their own damage, they don’t want to know about mine. The people who are in my life, and continue to be in my life, are those that can face that kind of darkness, who have an intimate knowledge of it from their own journeys, and having walked that path themselves can say, “I get it.” They aren’t afraid to look at the dark, they don’t run from or shy away from it. They don’t live their lives to be IN it, but they have the courage to know there is a time and place for it in all lives.

There are the people who want to hear about what movie I went and saw, and what bands I like, and how drunk I got last weekend, and then there are the people who want to know what makes you tick, because they are so intrigued by what makes THEM tick. Because they can step back and recognize that all life is, in the end, is the ticking.

So I’m trying to be friends with this person, and I don’t think they want to be friends with me. This person knows the armor of me that is so much fun, and I thought I could see glimpses of what made them tick, and that perhaps we shared some ticking in common, and so I tried to show them a bit of what’s under the armor. But every time I lift the chain mail they vanish, and resurface much later to steer the conversation away from the ticking. I’ve begun to distance them, and am putting the full suit of armor back on, and in the midst of that was when it hit me. While trying to tell myself that this silly, unsubstantial person on the internet really meant nothing at all and I shouldn’t take it as a rejection, I realized: it is a rejection. And that’s the core of it.

When I am alone, there is no armor. I can’t amuse myself with humor and self-deprecation. Who laughs at their own jokes? Who smiles at the sight of their own smile, who can create witty banter when they’re alone? Who is the life of a party of one? My armored self is useless when I’m alone, which leaves nothing but the ticking. It’s not that I’m afraid to face the darkness alone, it’s not that I’m afraid to walk the path through myself. I’m a writer, we are nothing if not introspective, the path through my own heart and mind are well worn and familiar. I realized that every time I have allowed someone under the armor who then said, “But this isn’t FUN. Put this away and bring back out the FUN Jennifer” who I am at my most real and vulnerable has been rejected. Every acquaintance I have tried to make a friend has reconfirmed the idea to me that there is no value in what makes me tick, because no one is interested in knowing it. 

I don’t want to be alone because I am sick of knowing what makes me tick. It’s like a metronome in an empty room. I don’t want to hear it anymore. Having real conversations about things that hurt us, or scare us, or about love or beauty or art or feeling – they’re not FUN. I have been trained time and time again through a series of rejections of those things that are intimate and real that if I’m not going to be fun, I shouldn’t even BE. Alone, it will just be me and that metronome of my heart, beating out of my chest like a drum sounding a call to no one. What a terrible, wonderful darkness that would be.

I want to believe that if I learn to peel away the armor when I’m alone, and let the ticking lay bare, perhaps I won’t need the armor someday, and people can take or leave me as they please without it hurting so. Perhaps I will love the sound of my own heart beating so much, that I won’t hurt if no one else wants to hear it, like a song I never teach another soul the words to. Does it make the lyrics or harmony any less beautiful if they only fall upon my ears? I don’t know the answer to that. I just know I still want to believe that intimacy and raw human connection are noble pursuits. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Step Two: The Coffee Shop

My intention was to fill my weekend alone with steps for the Project. I was going to hit the coffee store, and walk around Greenlake on the beautiful, sunny Saturday, then on Sunday I was going to look into taking the train or bus somewhere, just to get a feel for riding alone. I was full of ambition because for some reason Ben’s ghost had stopped so frequently haunting my thoughts. I think doing the 4th of July on my own made a difference. I could feel myself healing a bit. I was proud of the progress my heart was making.

As quickly as my strength seemed to increase, on Friday night as I sat alone it just as quickly vanished. I was up until 3 a.m. keeping the voices at bay that seemed so eager to remind me of what a hopeless, unlovable mess I was. I squeezed my eyes shut and buried my head in my pillow on the couch and though I couldn’t cry my heart beat hard like my chest was as hollow as a drum. Sleep came slow and struggling. 

Saturday I lay in bed until almost 1. I couldn’t bring myself to get up. I didn’t want to face my house, the sunshine, my reflection in the mirror.  I knew I was supposed to get up and take one of my steps but every move I made my body groaned with missing Ben. How productive would I be in this frame of mind? How much progress could I make? Wouldn’t I just go and sit and wallow in my loneliness? Eventually I made it to the couch, but I didn’t move. I ate junk food, I watched T.V. and I sat under a blanket, trying to ignore the shard of sunshine and blue skies I could see peeping through the crack between my living room curtains. I laid here, frozen by my depression. All. Damn. Day. I went to sleep at that oh-so familiar time of 3:30 a.m. and I woke up only 5 hours later. 

When I woke up, I groaned at being awake. I hated it. I hated waking up alone again, I hated the quiet, I hated that my stomach was growling which meant I was going to have to get up and go to the trouble of putting food in it. I got up none-the-less. I ate breakfast, I took a shower, I put on my clothes. All things that I shouldn’t be writing in a blog about but they were all very small victories for me at this point and I celebrate them as such. I grabbed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and set out into the daylight for the next step.
There’s a good-sized Starbucks that just opened near my house and this seemed a good opportunity to check it out. When I arrived it was empty of all but one customer. The cushy leather chairs and ample sofa were all free so I ordered my drink (I’m a true Seattleite, and I was a Starbucks girl myself once, so my sunny day drink is an iced grande half-caff toffee nut whole milk no whip light ice mocha. Say that 3 times fast) and got comfortable. As I settled in, I became a little disappointed that there weren’t more people there. My goal, I guess, was to test my comfort zone by being alone amidst a lot of people. I absolutely rue that thought process now.

I was only there about 20 minutes, just long enough to become really at ease, when the door opened and a man walked in that was so beautiful my mouth gaped open. I was sitting near to and across from the door, so naturally he had a point blank view of my ogling. I quickly clamped my jaw shut and jammed my face in the book but the damage was done. I felt him watch me out of the corner of my eye as he waited for his drink. I looked up and made the briefest of eye contact with him before I hurriedly turned back to my book and he pretended to be looking at the ceiling or floor or some silly thing. His order was called. Grande soy chai tea extra foamy latte. The store was empty now, every chair, every table was free. Out of them all, he sat in the cushy chair next to the couch I was curled up on and opened his book. He had dirty blonde hair and those blue eyes that weaken my knees. He was wearing Chuck Taylor’s and a plaid button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I buried my nose deeper in my book and reread the same line 4 times before it would sink in.

When Ben came around, I hadn’t seen him in years. My heart had seemed to wilt and fade in my marriage, and my next long term relationship (after my marriage, but before Ben) was after months of false start relationships that left me unimpressed and detached. When I got into that middle relationship, I barely felt anything at all, but I had truly begun to believe perhaps I didn’t feel sparks anymore. I hadn’t felt head over heels in love since I had first gotten together with my husband, back when I was only 20. I thought perhaps being “head over heels” was something you only did when you were very young. Perhaps it was unrealistic of me to think I would feel that way again. Perhaps I had been hurt, and disillusioned, and abandoned so many many times that I wasn’t capable of trusting someone enough to let myself feel that way. Perhaps I should work at just finding someone that I thought was fun, and compatible on most levels with me, and call it good. Perhaps this was growing up. 

Meeting with Ben after those many years, the feeling was absolute, immediate and utterly overwhelming. I was terrified. I told him I was terrified. I begged him to leave me be if he meant to do what he always did with women: get bored, get detached, and leave. He insisted he had changed and he seemed to have. Despite the way my heels flew so quickly over my head, I forced myself to remain detached from Ben. I reminded myself that he always had one foot out the door. That despite what my friends told me, someday his fear would over take him and he’d be gone. For all the times he told me he loved me, and cared for me and brought me into his life, I could not, would not, allow myself to believe he would stay. It was too dangerous to commit my heart to all this completely, to be intimately vulnerable on every level. We had our bumps in the road here and there, days when he spoke the words out loud that he was afraid. I saw him struggling to let me in, which was so against everything he had ever taught himself. A week after a particularly rocky spell in which I was sure he was about to run, he sat beside me on the couch and mentioned almost in passing that he would never break up with me. We had been together over a year at this point, and had our struggles. He said I was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and he wasn’t going anywhere. A couple of days later, he texted me something similar, telling me that I was perfect for him, why would he ever purposely mess this up?  That night I wrote a journal entry entitled “In Which I FINALLY Feel Secure with Ben”. I was finally at a point when I felt like I could relax, that he was mine and he meant to follow this through. Despite the chips and cracks in my surface, he saw my value, he knew my worth, and he loved me. I was home, and I could stay here. 

3 weeks later Ben left.

The man in the chair at Starbucks had a book too. I jumped as though kismet itself had screamed just then into my ear as I saw that he was reading a very well worn copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. By Tom Robbins. My favorite novel.  My eyes lingered on his book and hands for too long because he looked up and smiled and caught my eye again. I lifted my book again, but it was too late. 

“That looks pretty new.” He said. 


“Your book. It looks new. Have you read the series before?”

“Oh, no. I love the movies, I was afraid reading the books would ruin them.” I didn’t smile. I looked back to my book. My stomach was fluttering in that way that would usually make me smile coyly, bat my eyes, and tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. The feeling of my stomach fluttering made me feel out of control. My heart sank. I heard him laugh.

“I can understand that. I’m a big fan of the movies, too. Are you excited for the new one coming out?” He had put his book down in his lap, so when I looked up from my book he was giving all of his attention to me. His eyes were warm, and he looked a little nervous. I felt my chest tighten and my face flushed. My body reacted in that warm, drawn way that a woman reacts to a man. I hesitated. 

“Yes. Yah, it looks good.” I was speaking very quietly now. I felt like I was being rude. This feeling of getting attention from this man, though… it made me panic. The idea of liking him terrified me on a deep, primal level. I couldn’t even breathe. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. I heard a voice in my head explode, “NO!” and it wasn’t about the project, and it wasn’t about keeping myself from doing something I had told myself I wouldn’t do. It was absolute terror of caring. I could see down the tunnel of my “relationship” with this man whose name I didn’t know to holding his hand and laughing and cuddling on the couch and sleeping beside him and I could see that moment he fucking walked away and left me standing there more broken than I already am. In a flash, in an instant, I saw it all. I closed my book, scooped up my purse, and he watched me awkwardly as I ran out of that coffee shop and into my car. I left my coffee, like Cinderella’s slipper as I went. I drove away, deciding to try a different Starbucks in a different town about 20 minutes away. My hands and legs were trembling and when I hit the highway I broke down into tears. 

By the time Ben had come around I was so cynical about my heart. Why had I been such a fool to believe that he would be different? Why I had I let him in? Into my life, into my children’s lives? Why had I ignored all the ways I am broken and fucked up and believed that I could actually maintain a happy relationship? Why did I think anyone was capable of knowing me, and understanding me, and being okay with what they found? Why do I keep telling myself I am worth a damn?! 

I pulled up to the next Starbucks none-the-less. I wiped my face and steeling my determination I got out of that fucking car and I went in the coffee shop. I ordered another goddamn coffee and I found a comfortable chair and I sat in it. I know my face was red, and swollen from crying, but I didn’t care. I didn’t stop to look at the people around me. I’m sure I looked desperate and strange. I ordered a Chai latte this time, extra foamy. For a moment it reminded me of the snowboarding trip I had taken that winter with Ben. I had gotten hurt pretty badly and sat alone in the lodge drinking the same latte. We had gone with his sister. I miss her. I miss believing that someday she, and all of his sisters and nieces and nephew, would be my family. But this is neither here nor there. The memory was there for but a moment, then gone. 

I began to read again, and as any good book does, I was pulled in and the worries of my own life washed clean from the slate of my mind. I drank my Chai and lingered. Eventually my shoulders slumped a little less, I began to look around at the other faces in the shop. I watched the people filter in and out. I watched a couple sit at a table, not speaking to each other, their eyes wandering along the walls but not passing more than a word or two. I tried to decide if what was between them was a cold distance, or a comfortable silence. I considered that when Ben and I were together in restaurants and coffee shops, there was always talking, sharing, joking, laughing. Our silences were just gentle, natural pauses in our banter. I considered also, that now I was going to be sculpting and developing a very different kind of balance between silence and conversation with myself. I was going to have to learn how to listen to what was going on inside my own head. To listen to my gut and instincts again. To rebuild the walls I may have been foolish to tear back down.
In the end, it was relaxing to be reading alone in my coffee shop. As much as the memories were present, I knew I didn’t have to struggle anymore. Yes, I don’t have that wonderful feeling I had when I felt like I was home, but I also don’t have to struggle and wonder and second guess and walk on egg shells, wondering if I’m worth loving. The only person I have to worry about loving me right now is me. 

Boyfriends and husbands, even our friends, will leave us in the end. Not to be too dark here, but in the end, we are alone. Boyfriends and husbands leave you or die, friends get boyfriends or have babies and suddenly they drop off the face of the earth. You only have yourself at the end of the day, so the most valuable thing we can do for ourselves is assure that the one thing that is always with us – US – is at its best. Ultimately, our own personal integrity is all we have. I can’t remember the last time I really focused on cultivating that.
It was only the coffee shop, and it was a small step, but I took it on my own, and that made all the difference.

Forward, forward, ever forward.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Interlude: 3:30 a.m.

When my son was born, I was only 22 years old. Looking back on it, in many ways I was just a baby myself. Sure, I’d been living on my own for about 7 years by then, so I was probably a little more mature than a lot of women my age, but looking back on it 10 years later its even hard to call what I was then a “woman”. My life was still being sorted out, and my future was still this ambiguous mountain shrouded in fog. Things were very confusing as I was learning to navigate how I would raise myself while I raised this other person, and the task was daunting. The sleepless nights wore on me as I descended into a haze of naps and feedings and diaper changes. Still, the time of day that was my favorite by far was 3:30 a.m. Littleman always woke up at 3:30 a.m. for a feeding those first few months. I would lift him from his crib and change him before walking him out to the living room and sitting on the couch to feed him. 3:30 a.m. is probably the quietest time in the world. No one is yet leaving for work, no one is yet returning from it, the darkness is still upon us and the birds are quiet in the treetops. A silence lies as a still blanket over the night, wrapping the world up tight in its calm. Here in the living room, enveloped in the quiet, it was just me and my son. I didn’t need to share him with anyone else, there was no one and nothing to detract his attention away from me. We would watch each other lovingly, learning who we were and what our new roles were going to be, his hand grasping my finger, his eyes scanning my face in the light cast by the lamp in his nursery across the hall. He would drift to sleep and I would hold him there in my arms a little longer, smelling his hair and kissing his forehead before slipping him back into his crib.

For the last 2 months I have had to fall asleep on my couch with the television on. I usually put in a movie – at first Lord of the Rings, but lately Definitely, Maybe. I curl up on my couch under a blanket and I watch the light cast from the television dance across the hardwood floor, and I hear the gentle murmur of the voices and music, and as the Ambien or exhaustion take hold I fall asleep there. Every night I wake up at 3:30 a.m., for some reason that only body or my brain knows, and I go to my bed. By then the DVD has been repeating the title menu soundtrack for a while, and my mind has shut down for the most part. I can usually slip, still clothed, between my sheets and fall asleep fairly quickly. These last 2 weeks, that has not been the case. I wake at 3:30 a.m. and I turn off the TV and I am somehow more aware of it that my house has fallen still. The darkness is around me but it feels distant and cold. The sound of my feet on the floor is loud now and the stillness of my home echoes with the same aching I feel in my chest. We are empty. I climb into bed and I stare at the wall. I remember that last night I spent with Ben, and his feet touching mine, and the smell of his pillow and his neck. I fall asleep with my fists clenched tight, burying my face to hide my hurt from the ascending daylight. 

This was the first 4th of July since I was 15 years old that I wasn’t in a relationship. It isn’t really a part of the project because I had my kids with me and so it wasn’t within the scope of the rule (Do It Alone), but I set upon it as such nonetheless. Beers, barbecues and explosions have always been set pretty comfortably by my mind into the “boy” category, like many girls might categorize mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, changing the oil, or killing a spider. I had never dealt with this stuff. If I hadn’t had my kids, I probably would have just put in some earplugs and fallen asleep on the couch as if it were any other day. Having them with me meant I needed to step up to the plate and make it a good day for them, so I put on my game face and braved the unfamiliar terrain. 

I’m happy to say I did pretty well. I attended a great barbecue with old friends and lots of other kids. My friends Bryan and Tara were running a fireworks stand so I got an amazing deal and Bryan was happy to walk me down the aisles and point out which fireworks did what, and what was and wasn’t a bang worth the buck. I made a fruit salad. Things went really well, and it was great to laugh with my friends and smell the barbecue and watch the sparklers waving in the dark. It was when the mortars – the big, beautiful fireworks that Bryan and Tara had brought from the stand – came out that I even remembered I was alone. I wasn’t alone, really. I was surrounded by people that love me, and make me laugh, and I had my kids there, and there was life and laughter and music and conversation all around me. But as the fireworks burst in the sky above me, and I lifted my face to see them, I suddenly remembered Ben. My thoughts were painted by the memory of my last 4th of July and the way his handsome face had been illuminated by the lights, the way they shone in his blue eyes like the moon on the ocean. I could hear nothing, I could feel nothing, I just looked down at the ground and shook my head. Wherever he is right now, I thought, whatever he’s doing, he doesn’t feel like this. 

When I came home last night, I tucked my babies into bed and I sat on the edge of my couch with my head in my hands. I remembered a line from an Eagles song I once loved, “You never thought you’d be alone this far down the line, and I know what’s been on your mind: You’re afraid it’s all been wasted time.” What am I doing? How am I 32 years old and still growing up? 

I went to bed and stared at the wall. I asked myself “What do we do now, self?” and the answer was, “The project, I guess.” I went to sleep and woke up at 3:30 a.m. The house was quiet and still. I thought of Ben.