Tolstoy Abridged

…she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.

-Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

It is funny the lengths to which we will go, the things we will withstand, when we think we need something or someone… most likely someone. Things are an achievable goal. People are moving targets of emotion. In most relationships, but not all, there is some bit of lopsidedness to it. Not everyone finds that marriage, that friendship, that boss in which esteem and respect are equal to one another.

And yet we go on, trying to please and tolerating others’ behaviors as if they are normal in order to learn their particular brand of dysfunction. As Leo Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No family is immune to it- to fit in, we adjust our expectations from the ways we were raised to the way they were… because equality is about compromise, and need is ingratiating ourselves, sublimating the parts of us that are completely different so “we’re on the same page.”

I didn’t learn this from my biological family. I learned it over years and years of emotional abuse. Early and often I changed my behavior so that I didn’t rock the boat, and walked on eggshells, afraid to be myself… because when I was, it was a signal to me that I wasn’t needed anymore. Agreement meant love; disagreement meant “I just don’t know what to do with you. I can’t win, so I’ll just leave.”

Appeasement was the name of the game, and we all do it, but some less than others. Take, for instance, your work phone voice and the voice you use when you’re just shooting the shit with your friends. If “the customer is always right,” sometimes that means swallowing words that need to be said and aren’t… mostly things like “you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Customer service is the only profession I know in which trying not to fake your own death so you don’t have to go to work is a daily struggle…. because people won’t unload on the others they’re mad at, but they have no problem treating the clerk at Target or the waiter at Jaleo like that. They think it’s impersonal, having no idea how deep their words cut… because hey, they’ll never see you again.

And that’s where they’re wrong. They need you. It’s not like they’re going to abandon going to Target or Jaleo, and they’ll see you again whether you want to see them or not. As soon as they walk in the door, you remember their “kick the dog” syndrome and try desperately to find someone else to help them.

But sometimes you’re stuck, and it’s a crapshoot as to whether they’ll remember and apologize.

This same behavior happens in relationships. We’re mad about something else, and unload on the people we love the most, because we know their softest spots. Unsurprisingly, they also retreat, and if the words cut deeply enough, and apology isn’t necessary, because they won’t hear it, anyway.

Because sometimes the emotional abuse is given, rather than received… especially if that’s what’s been modeled for you long enough. Others tiptoe around you, so that you don’t pick up your toys and go home… the exact scenario you were trying to avoid with someone else. You watch as they change their behavior around you, rarely self-aware enough to know they’re doing it, because you’re doing the same thing… your own egocentricity in the way… both saying to each other “please don’t leave me. I am broken and I know it, I just don’t know how to fix it.” Just not with words.

But that’s what happens with fully-functioning adults. As a child and an adult in any kind of relationship, the balance of power is off to an enormous degree… and any perceived anger is all their fault. There is nothing within them that says “this person is treating me unfairly and I need to stand up for myself.” This is because when the child tries to stand up for themselves, it leads to witholding of affection and long, drawn-out silences in which the child takes on the “I have to fix everything” mentality. Instead of another adult compromising themselves into your crazy as you adopt theirs, children cannot begin to comprehend what they’ve done wrong.

And often, this is the root of the problem with adults who also think that every slight is their fault. You don’t get away from it, there’s no relief until you can take back your own power… and it never, ever happens in an instant. It is a lifelong process of examining why you think the way you think, because even when you think you’ve made progress, you’ll fall back into old patterns because they are so ingrained. It is a lifetime of two steps forward, and between one and four steps back. Just like one is never cured of addiction, one is never cured of codependency.

Adulthood modeled badly for children leads to future adults that cannot trust their own intuition, often relying on other people they perceive as just as damaged as they are because they know they can take a healthy person and destroy them. Sometimes it’s a good thing to share experiences, as my friend Donna calls “compatible wounds.” At others, it’s one awful pattern feeding the other with no end in sight, because neither one is aware of just how much they’re doing to excoriate good memories.

The eternal rub, the thing that makes both of you bleed, is that when you’re saying awful words to each other, it’s really just a cover-up as to how you feel about yourself. If you think you’re worthless, that’s how you’ll treat others. You don’t really think that about the other person, you’re expressing your own disgust at yourself, and it comes across as rage and anxiety… words coming out of your mouth before you even have a chance to connect consequences. If someone has treated you that way, why would you? It’s “what you’re supposed to do” in an argument. For two people abused as children, these are fights that are designed to cut both people off at the knees, mutually assured destruction in which both parties have trouble standing back up.

The craziness continues because you’re so afraid of getting “crazy spatter” on healthy people… or at least, the people we view as such… not really taking in that everyone is fighting a battle of some sort. These days, I tend to believe that there are no healthy people, only healthy actions… and, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, “I don’t know of any story of self-enlightenment that doesn’t begin with getting tired of your own bullshit.” I had to decide to get healthy. I had to decide it was time to, in the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “put away childish things.” However, just like deciding to come out as GLBT, you don’t do it once… you do it every day. I can’t just decide once. I will die having to make these decisions.

If Need accommodates cruelty, it is a choice to step away from it…. not once, but each and every day. I would amend that statement to say that Need only accommodates cruelty when it is based in lopsided affection, when you think you need something not meant for you. Healthy need is interdependence, not wishing and hoping someone will finally realize what you have to offer… because pro tip… they won’t. Users that make it impossible to please them will only move on to someone else when they realize they can’t get adoration from you anymore. They’ll just lovebomb someone else until they’re so wrapped up in the lovebombing that they can’t understand why it would go away, and what they did to deserve it.

“Putting away childish things” is the realization that you know exactly what you did. You took those childhood behaviors and carried them into adulthood, where they no longer serve you… but again, it’s not a realization that happens once, but every time you interact with others. You have to ask yourself if you are really happy and healthy, or in the company of others, whether everyone is just unhappy in their own way. You have to stand up and say………….

I’m not going to get into the ring with Tolstoy. – Ernest Hemingway

Meditation on the Tenth Doctor

I sometimes wish I had a TARDIS that would be willing to let me cross my own timeline. Every time I think about the loss of Dana, Argo, and my mother, I hear the Tenth Doctor say, “fixed point in time. I am SO sorry.” I have to believe that losing everything is what is meant to propel me into greatness, but so far, I have seen no evidence. Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant write in Option B about post-traumatic growth, and except for blogging every day and trying to put my emotions out into the universe (which I hope is helping someone), I have done nothing except fold into myself in fear.

Fear of crowds, fear of friends, fear of going to church after the one time I LOST it. You’d think I’d be willing to forego my fear of my friends, but sometimes it becomes so awkward it’s onomatopoetic. Sometimes it’s that they say things I don’t want to hear. Sometimes I’m just uncomfortable for no valid reason except it sometimes seems as if my mother has just died, and she didn’t. It’s been months, but I have flashbacks all the time that seem incredibly real. Fear of church is natural. My mother was a church musician her whole life, and every time I go in, no matter what church it is, I panic with an intensity I’ve never felt before. I can see her at the piano or organ bench. I can see her in the alto section. I can’t stop the pain and anxiety, so I avoid it altogether. My choir wants me back, and I can’t seem to explain well why it’s not a good idea. I thought that it would make me feel better to be a soprano in tribute to all the work my mother has done.

Well, not so much.

I have always been anxious around huge crowds, hiding behind Dana, and then my friends once we divorced. I went to a party last Friday, and I had a lot of fun. I had drinks for the first time in months, which served two purposes. The first is that it acted as social lubricant so I could actually be funny. The second is that it kept me from feeling guilty that I was having fun at all. Mourning people that close to me makes me feel like I am not deserving of fun.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I deserve.

I lost my mother through absolutely no fault of my own, but I can’t say the same for Argo and Dana. It is an uphill battle to forgive myself for all the sin and cortisol I felt coursing through my body, because now I can’t apologize enough, I can’t achieve enough, I can’t send enough gifts that make it all better. I thought that words didn’t matter without changed behavior, and as it turns out, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference either way.

I wish I could stop caring. It’s been three, almost four years with no relief… not that I haven’t tried, but in the meantime, those two years have been a shitshow of enormous proportions. I haven’t had time to really stop caring about anything, even if they “deserve it.” By that I mean that I am not angry, I am just sad, because it’s appropriate to let go of people you want to show up for that don’t want to show up for you.

Toward the end, every single time that Argo showed up for me, I felt like she wouldn’t give me the benefit of the doubt. She’d take one phrase out of an e-mail and blow it up into enormous proportions… the last communique re: we’ll never be normal and then cutting off all contact when it brought up some feelings of past shame for me and asking her why she thought that a phrase like that wouldn’t come across to me as “we’ll never move on.” I think she thought it was going to start another fight, when in reality I was breathing through those words like labor, exhaling anxiety and inhaling both peace and “now what do I do?” Part of it is that when I said that, she wouldn’t work it through like I’d hoped. Part of it was that I never meant to “poke the bear,” and even more shame rained down on my head.

And yet another part is that it would have been so damn easy to fuck off from e-mail and have a conversation in real time, so that we could actually see the other one “e-mote.” There’s such a difference between a) writing something into the ether and waiting with baited breath for a response and b) hearing what the other person says and being able to say in real time, “that’s not what I meant. I meant THIS.” I truly, honestly believe that if we’d ever taken the time to see each other’s responses, our whole deal with each other could have been cleared up in less than 15 minutes with some active listening.

But, despite how busy either one of us is, you make time in your lives for the people you want to see. For her, I am not one of those people. For me, I have nearly constant distress, brought on by a whole host of other factors, that words like “always” and “never” make it into the conversation. I am not “always” and “never” anything… and I am betting neither is she. We’re both complicated in our own ways, probably what made us attracted to each other in the first place. And I do not mean romance, I mean magnets that click together instead of repelling each other… that came much later.

Again, what I wouldn’t give to be able to go back in time.

I’d like to tell her what’s going on in my life, I’d like her XOs of support, I’d like the normalcy that came with me thinking she hung the stars and being the moon for her. More than talking, I’d like to go back to the days of listening. If I had everything to do over, I’d listen more and talk less. I’d breathe through her anger at me rather than “clicking off safe” and returning it full force. I am a believer in grace, and I didn’t offer her much… and when I did, she couldn’t believe in it, anyway.

The reason this is hitting me so hard after all this time is that if I hadn’t been such a “judgmental dickhead,” I’d be able to express grief and joy in equal measure. I’d still be able to have a full range of emotions in front of her when I really need that safe space to be able to say everything I won’t publish here. There is something therapeutic about pen pals, especially those who have no bearing on your daily life and can look objectively at what you’re saying because they don’t have a horse in the race. It cannot be equated to attending therapy, because you’re not talking to a trained professional. But you do get that friend whose advice is not tainted with taking anyone else’s side, because they don’t know them….. and don’t care. They’re not there for them. They’re there for you.

Most of all, she never met my mother.

My contribution is that I’ve never met anyone in her life, either… and I’d step in front of a bus for her if it meant she was safe… the same way I’d react for anyone in my family… because before our blowout, I definitely considered her as such. When truth and honesty traveled our chord in both directions, there were deep and lasting feelings on both sides of the equation. The rub is that it seems to have been a lot easier for her to disengage than it will ever be for me, because hold on…. I have to overthink about it. I am not willing to say it WAS easier, only that it came across to me as such. Perhaps her grief is only in her private moments to which I am not involved, and shouldn’t be. I have to believe that there is grief on her end, because she doesn’t take anything lightly, not even me.

I wish that it WAS easy for me. It would open my life up and make room for other things, and it is happening slowly but surely. But when I feel bad about something, I am inconsolable. When I met Argo, it was winning the lottery, and ended with consolation prizes akin to a 1972 Amana side-by-side refrigerator freezer (bonus points if you get the movie reference).

Again, I believe that this entry is all about displaced grief, because Argo is alive and my mother isn’t. It’s easier to focus on my grief because with my mother, there is no chance in heaven or hell that she’ll respond. I feel, in some ways, the same way about Argo… with the exception of the smallest hope imaginable, like a candle that’s at the end of its wick and the flame is so small it is barely there. With my mother, the candle has already been snuffed with the bell end of the candle lighter I used to carry as an acolyte.

The trick is how to change all of this post-trauma into something with boundaries in which I can live. Right now, there are none. I can’t compartmentalize, because nothing keeps me busy enough to forget, even for a moment. But this is not a journey I can take with Argo, only about her. I would be mortified to learn that she was still reading, and relieved at the same time, if that makes any sense at all. My words are just the rambling I’m feeling at the moment, and not representative of all of me. I have more depth than this… no, really. But sometimes I’d like her to know that I remember her with such clarity… that even after all this time, I wish her nothing but the best in her pursuit of happiness… that I pray she is happy, healthy, and alive with possibility.

As I have said, her kindnesses are written in marble, and her anger is written in sand… the rain having already washed it away… or at the very least, pushed it out of reach. I feel the same about my own anger… that working through all of this has nothing to do with how I feel about her personally, but delving into the past to create a future that does not include all the mistakes I made…. to know them is to keep them from happening again.

Maybe that’s post-traumatic growth in and of itself, and I am selling myself short- with the exception of being able to write about Dana in a way that truly lets go. I forgive her, but I do not forget. She told me to my face that I’d never amount to anything AND that she thought I had the ability to lead millions. I cannot reconcile those things, and they are words I can compartmentalize, because the former reinforced my opinion of myself, and the latter was just a WTF? moment… one of these things is not like the other. I stuff my feelings about Dana down so deep that I can’t access them except in small bursts, because I can’t take more than that. The buttons on my clothes hold in my feelings where she is concerned, because she is the river deep inside me where I refuse to drown… because I could, easily. I could wreck my whole life based on her opinion, because she was the most important person in my life. When she took my own insecurities and beat me with them, it destroyed a piece of me I’ll never get back… it has torched my ability to trust the new people that come into my life… because if I am vulnerable with them, whose to say they won’t pick up on those same hot buttons and push them? Everyone is wonderful in the beginning.

It leaves me asking myself how I can trust Argo without trusting Dana, given that both fights were just as terrible emotionally? My answer for this is that Dana saw what was right in front of her, and Argo saw what could be. She believed in me as a writer, one of the first to do so… to recognize that writing WAS a real job… that staring out the window is hard work for someone like me, and though I look lazy on the outside, am running a marathon at the cellular level… backbreaking emotional work that does not quit, not ever.

Outside of Argo, my marriage began to unravel as I became a writer, especially as I got more and more popular. One of our last conversations (the one regarding me being able to lead millions) was just as much about jealousy as anything else. In retrospect, it must have felt good to her to knock me down a peg… but she’ll never know how badly she burned the whole board. In this way, and this way only, I felt as if I’d grown past her. When I wanted to do more and be more, she was out.

Argo already had the type job where she WAS doing more and being more, so I wasn’t a threat to her. She was excited for me, that I was embarking on something she thought only I could do…. or at the very least, was rarified air. As much as it terrified and saddened me, leaving Dana’s choice shitty phrases behind and grabbing on to Argo’s belief was what I needed at the time.

But here is the rub for all bloggers everywhere. Unless you are writing something impersonal, like a blog for a business, it starts off with new readers thinking you’re amazing… then they get to know you and think you can write all things accurately except where they’re concerned. It is an immediate, face-cracking fall from grace…. when in reality, I am only telling my part of the story and would love to hear the other one. There are three sides to every story- yours, mine, and the objective Truth, which is usually somewhere in the middle.

With communication gaffes, it’s usually because people will not acknowledge Truth. We can both be wrong, and we can both be right. No one has a lock on what really happened, only our perceptions of it. People mistake perceptions for reality all the time… when Truth is the chasm between offended people.

Perhaps it is this displaced grief that is allowing me to think differently about everything in my life, because as much as I might wish for it, I can’t cross my own timeline.

Father’s Day 2017

If I have it, and you need it, it’s yours.

-My father, David M. Lanagan

Whenever I fall, my dad is there to pick me up. The first thing he said when Dana and I announced that we were getting a divorce and not planning on reconciliation was, “what’s next, Mrs. Landingham?” I didn’t really know, but I did know that it gave me strength at a time when I could really use it. My whole world was upside down, and it was emotional shorthand for “let’s not look in the rearview mirror.” He knows that it’s my process to think and rethink everything to the point of exhaustion, and that one phrase, repeated over and over in The West Wing, had the desired effect. I started thinking about what I wanted my life to look like, and let myself off the hook (for the time being) of wishing for what had been.

When he started the conversation about moving to DC, he said, “do you really want to remain in Houston?” At first, I didn’t know where that was going to lead… but as we ate breakfast in the Avalon Diner at The Fountains in Stafford, Texas, I told him that I absolutely adored my friends and family, but Houston itself didn’t really speak to me. After having lived in Portland so long, I missed the ever-present green spaces, and places to hike that weren’t man-made due to the concrete-jungle flatness. Houston is a lot of things, even beautiful in its own way, but my heart just didn’t live there in terms of setting. I am a Virgo, tied to the land… but I never realized how much I liked to be outside until I lived in a place where it wasn’t 90 degrees most of the time…. and 60 degrees on the inside as overcompensation. DC gets just as hot, but not as long. By the time we were ready to pay out, I could already feel the snow blowing against my cheeks.

DC had been on my own 3-5 year plan because Dana’s parents are older than mine. We figured it would be a good idea to move home eventually so that we could be a part of their lives while we still had them (the irony of my mother dying is not lost on me). We’d spend a few years in Houston, and try to get jobs in DC so we would have guaranteed income once we got there. Dana was going to be a teacher, so she could work anywhere. There’s an IT corridor in Northern Virginia and if I couldn’t find a job right away, I could always cook or wait tables until that perfect salary came along.

My dad, knowing how much I loved DC and how much I wanted to go back, jump started the process by saying “I will support you until you find what you need. Just go.” So, I packed up my clothes and rented a furnished room, while, for the first few weeks at least, little boxes of the “if it fits, it ships” variety arrived every day. We called it “moving $11 at a time.”

It’s always been that way. Every time I’ve needed something, my dad has just handed it over. It just says so much about him and the way he approaches life, because he doesn’t just do this for me. He does this for the rest of my family and his friends, as well.

When I was in high school, the girl that bullied me every day got her horn stolen, so he told her that she could borrow his… the one he’d played since he was in high school himself. The bullying got worse after that, but in retrospect I think it was because she was embarrassed that she could never repay such a gift.

I feel that way often. I wish I could publish a best-selling anthology or novel, win the lottery, get a job that pays me far more than I’m worth… whatever. Anything to be able to repay the gifts that I’ve been given over the years… and not in a way that makes things equal. Something to show my dad that his investments in me haven’t been lost… that believing in me wasn’t a raw deal.

I know for certain that if the tables were turned, that I had money and he didn’t, I’d do exactly the same thing he does for me. What is mine would be his… and even if he never found himself in that position, it would still be a dream to shower him with cars and houses and bling-bling. I can’t show my gratitude the way I want, the way he deserves, so I spend a lot of time hoping that what I can do is enough. It doesn’t have anything to do with him; it is all about me and how I’d like to be able to treat him to something he’d never buy for himself.

What he can’t buy for himself is memories.

Shortly before Lindsay was born, in May of 1983, Return of the Jedi arrived on the big screen. I don’t remember any of the movie, but I do remember the lights going down and feeling incredibly special because we were on our own… the last father-daughter date before he was wrapped up in taking care of a six-year-old AND a newborn… but it was more than that. Shortly after Lindsay was born, Hurricane Alicia hit Galveston hard, and while my mom, Lindsay, and I went to NE Texas to be with our grandparents, my father was one of the few people allowed to remain on the island with his clergy pass. He weathered the storm by helping others… the way he weathers any storm, really.

As I got older, I got my own kid-sized clergy pass. I went to weddings where he officiated, I went with him on visits to families whose loved ones had just died, I went to funeral homes and cemeteries. Because Mom was so tired because of the insane schedule of a baby/toddler, I became his de facto company. He never talked down to me, because by the time I started talking, I was way past the cutesy voice you use with a child. A lot of the time, I had just as good a vocabulary as those around me. We’d laugh and joke while rolling around the city, and I often answered his bag phone while he was driving. I was an excellent secretary with a preacher’s kid phone voice… probably the same one I use in customer service, now. Very few people ever knew it was me, because I was determined to sound like a grown-up… so most of the time they thought it was my mother.

Life as a preacher’s kid makes you grow up fast, especially the larger the church because more and more eyes are on you. My dad always made room for me just to be me, another thing for which I’m eternally grateful. It was hard to constantly be held to a higher standard than the rest of my friends, and not by my parents… by theirs.

I’ve also seen him handle so much tragedy with grace. When I was in fourth grade, the fifth grade class went on a swimming trip with the principal and a few teachers. One of the girls thought swimming looked easy, and jumped in. The principal almost had her, which made the situation even more tragic for him when she drowned and they recovered the body later. My dad helped the entire community through their unimaginable grief. I was grieving, too, because even though I didn’t know the girl who drowned, she was the daughter of my favorite third grade teacher. Even while dealing with sadness on every front, I felt safer knowing my dad was in charge.

When I was in 7th grade, my dad let a parihioner move in with us who was taking chemo treatments at M.D. Anderson. We all took care of her, but it was my dad who showed me just how far he would go to help, and why it matters. It always matters.

When I was in tenth grade, one of the kids in the youth group lost his father while on a saltwater fishing expedition, and my dad carried the family through their tears, as well.

Helping people with his prayers and presence led to his next move when I was in 12th grade. He thought he could help people more with medicine, and embarked on a lifelong dream. He sacrificed going to medical school because he thought it would take too much time away from Lindsay and me, working his way up from EMT I to Paramedic II and apprenticing under my stepmother to learn as much about rheumatology as he possibly could… and because he was a Paramedic, he’s the only one you want to go to when you need a shot or an IV.

In the evenings, he let me practice on an orange until I could use a butterfly needle and when it came time to practice on real skin, offered his own arm. It was brave, but not nearly as brave as teaching me to drive.

My favorite memory in that arena is that I’d just gotten my learner’s permit when we had to go and visit my grandparents. It was just us in the car, and my dad was exhausted. He reasoned that you only had to have a licensed driver in the front seat- it said nothing about being awake. So, off I went, “Driving Mr. David” the five and a half hours from Houston to Lone Star.

It was amazing, because for once, I was taking care of him.

There’s No Present Like the Time

Dear Lindsay,

This year we both face our first birthdays without Mom, and I’m sorry I let you down. Big sisters are supposed to do the really hard stuff first and tell their younger sisters about it so they don’t have it quite so rough. I’m so sorry that because of the way the calendar falls, the tables have turned. I can’t imagine what it’s like to celebrate the day Mom did all the work when she’s not there to enjoy it. I am here to listen to you vent, but I am sorry that I can offer no words of support that would equal what you must be feeling.

But I can tell you that when Mom told me she was pregnant with you, it was the happiest day of my life next to meeting you for the first time. I was too young to understand exactly what “pregnant” meant, so Mom and I spent my bedtimes reading books on “the birds and the bees,” and what it would look like to be an older sister. I wasn’t there for your actual birth, but I remember Mom telling me that she was so surprised that her obstetrician, Dr. Ritter, stayed in her room with her all night, the first to see your seven pound, nine ounce glory.

Our age difference is larger than a lot of siblings I know. I may have not had the specifics down pat, but I did know that our family was getting a new little person… one in which I was old enough to learn to take care of, making sure that your bottles were just the right temperature and your diapers always fresh. Just so you feel safe about this, it was all under adult supervision.

My first real memory of you is dad picking me up so that I could see you through the nursery glass at Methodist Hospital… and then everything fades until a few months later. You were sleeping soundly, and I sneaked into your room and put a teddy bear under your arm.

By then, we were living on Galveston, and I remember that every time we went to the beach, you would approach the water cautiously, and as the waves rolled in, you would run away from them, yelling “don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” After the crash, there you went, running back into the water just enough for it to lap over your toes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I started kindergarten the September after you were born, and I remember you and Mom coming to pick me up every day at Parker. It was the highlight of my day to see you in your Muppet Babies leotard and tights, complete with headband just like Jane Fonda.

After that, my memory goes to Baybrook Mall, where we had an airbrushed sweatshirt made for you that said “HYPERWOMAN” in a jittery font. You wore it until it was in rags, because it was you. Getting you to be still in any capacity was (and is) beyond my capabilities. But when you made the choice to sit still with me and actually talk, it meant more, because I knew how much effort it was taking on your part.

The next thing that comes to mind is the chicken pox story.

You got what you called “the chicken pops,” and Mom made a cake that had a little blonde girl with red hots all over it and invited all the kids who hadn’t had it yet for a party, because their parents were eager to get it over with, too. I admired your strength, because it was the worst case I’d ever seen. You had them both externally and internally, the most uncomfortable being down your throat. But did that stop you? Nooooo…….. You were the life of the party.

Come to think of it, you are the life of every party.

Taller, more muscle mass, and faster than I’ll ever be is the inspiration that gets me out of bed in the morning. My younger sister is someone (I have) to look up to. Not only is your career inspiring, I’ve always been a little bit mad that you can reach the top shelf and I can’t.

But despite that “anger,” I’ll always jump in. I will never forget going on our cruise when you were three and I was nine. We were sitting on the ledge of a saltwater pool, right beside a sign that said “four feet deep.” You fell over backwards like a SCUBA diver, and I have never moved so fast. I jumped in without thinking. The water was so deep that I thought I might drown trying to get you to safety, not having had the clarity to think, “ok, I’ve got her. NOW what do I do?” We were so close to the edge that I swam under you, your diaper pressing against the top of my head, and kicked my legs to propel you upward. You popped up on the deck like some sort of magic trick (oh, hey, look…. flying baby) as I tilted my head and set you down. My neck hurt from the strain, but that was sort of the good part. It burned that memory into my brain, saving it for a time in my life that those years are slipping away.

Mom & Dad will never know how much danger we were actually in, because they weren’t there… but the superhuman strength of seeing your sister in danger is limitless. I will always be the tiger in your corner, claws sharpened, because now Mom will never be there. I can’t replace your loss, but I am always here to help.

I hope you know it’s a strength that will last a lifetime. I will always jump in, I will always protect you, I will always bite the ankles of your enemies… no matter the personal cost. This is because just by being around you, I become a better me.

Again, I’m so sorry that of all the things I didn’t do before you, going through this is one of them. I wish I had more to offer you than words on “paper” and a piece of my heart. It’s not much, but it comes from a completely unique store.

Love,
Leslie

Craft

Last night’s dinner with Pri-Diddy was relaxing and just what I needed. Oh, how we laughed. It was good to get back into the normal swing of things. For instance, I found a really cheap parking garage next to the Metro that’s WAY less expensive than Lyft, and because we were meeting at 5:30, I can’t think of a less desirable place to be than searching for a parking place in Dupont Circle during rush traffic/Happy Hour. It was nice to have someone to “drive” me into the city, and I played games on my phone until I got there. Just for kicks, I looked up the route from Silver Spring to Dupont by car, and in addition to time to find parking, the route at that hour said anywhere from 28 to 58 minutes. This is partly because of traffic, and partly because the speed limit on 16th Ave. is mostly 25.

Going anywhere inside the Beltway during rush hour is a nightmare, because there are no freeway exits where I’m located that would drop me off where I need to be…. and yes, for those who don’t live here, I am talking about THAT 16th Ave… the one that when you arrive at Pennsylvania, you see a large, white house with many dubious occupants.

I don’t want to publish my exact address, but what I will tell you is that I’m a few blocks inside the Beltway between University and Colesville. Getting across the river into Arlington/Alexandria or toward Baltimore is easy.

Driving into the city would take away my sanity without my incredible lists of podcasts and the Bluetooth connected to my phone, so that I can talk to my family unimpeded. I don’t tend to listen to music because I’d rather have my brain engaged. It keeps me from road rage (not that I ever really had it to begin with), because there are often moments in which I like traffic because I want to finish a story. I have lots and lots of driveway moments.

And though I don’t drive it that often, I like being stuck in traffic on 395 between the Pentagon and the city, because it is breathtaking. You see every monument on the way in, and traffic is just an excuse to gawk at that beauty. I also enjoy the Baltimore/Washington and George Washington Parkways, because they are both beautiful- green space everywhere and, on GW, the thrill of passing Langley.

Now, I don’t know the difference between the George H.W. Bush campus and the one in McClean (or perhaps they’re the same thing and the road I’m looking at takes you to McClean, but I do know that on one of my favorite TV shows, Covert Affairs (on Amazon Prime now), Annie Walker works at GHWB, and she drives this little red Volkswagen that reminds me of my own little “spy car,” Eggsy (named after the main character in Kingsmen: The Secret Service… also because she looks like an egg). I think I’ve said this before, but every time I pass the entrance to Langley, I hear Austin Powers’ voice saying, your spy car’s a Yaris?

I don’t have any desire to work there. First of all, they’d never hire me, anyway. There are two main reasons I wouldn’t be able to get in, neither of them bad for a civillian, but not up to snuff when you’re talking about working for the government. I’d tell you what they were, because they’re not secrets of which I’m ashamed, just better saved for an in-person conversation rather than blasting it all over the world.

However, if there’s one thing I know I’d be good at (with the exception of only being able to speak English [and REALLY bad Spanish]), it’s interrogation. For all of my life, I’ve been one of those people you can sit down for a conversation and let the other person get up later not having realized the sheer amount of information I’ve been able to gather.

I know the questions that get people talking, because what do people like to talk about more than anything else?

Themselves.

I can’t see myself in a room with HVTs (High Value Targets) and having to do shit to them to make them talk. I am better at a party or a dinner in which I disappear with one person at a time, creating intimacy that makes people spill. It’s a game I don’t even know I’m running, because I am genuinely curious about people and want to know them, know their stories, their backgrounds, what makes them tick… but you don’t get that information without being willing to be vulnerable about yourself, either.

With my friends, I will spill as much information as they do. We are on equal ground. If I was actually in a position with the FBI or CIA, I’d be poring over alibis to be able to be vulnerable as someone else… spilling their details rather than my own.

But it is a fantasy, because I know where I really belong… outside of all the danger, outside of all the intrigue, outside the Beltway, period… unless my government job was the same thing I’d be doing for a private IT company.

I’m just a geek and a writer. I can live out my fantasies through fiction while my day job is tame and relatively uninteresting.

I’d rather fly under the radar than be a part of it. My great uncle worked for the C and DIA before I was born (or shortly afterward). I would have loved to hear his stories, but he was high enough up that he couldn’t have told me anything, anyway. Now that he’s been dead for 40 years, I might be able to get a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) casefile on him, hoping that his ops are declassified now. It would be great to have snippets for my fiction that echo my real family. But what I think I would get is a few sentences and a lot of black sharpie.

But there is a cost… and that is possibly finding out more shit than I would ever want to know. Would it make me a stronger writer, or wrap me uplike a burrito in fear?

Supposedly, he died in a coup in Africa… but the jury is still out on whether that’s what actually happened, or whether he disappeared off the grid like a Man in Black… putting on the last suit he’d ever wear. In my mind, he could have been Agent F…. he didn’t die, he just went home.

By now, there is probably a star on a wall for him somewhere… another thing that goes through my mind as I’m driving toward Alexandria, because GW Parkway is the shortest path.

Escaping into this fantasy world is one of the things that lifts me out of my grief, and I’ll take anything that will do it. Yes, it’s dark, but at the same time, all-encompassing, like a novel taking place in real time… If I could get away with it, though, I’d want to write a biography, because I am much better at writing in first person than trying to create a fictional world. I’ve proven that to myself over and over. I don’t want to give up on trying to learn to write fiction, but I’m not there yet.

Part of the reason I’ve started so many novels without fleshing them out is that I get stuck quickly with plot holes and transitions. This will change over time as I get more and more experience at it, but right now I am not confident enough in my abilities.

The parts that stick with me are the character analyses, because I can imagine a person, but not the environment where they live. I am trying to read more fiction these days, but the reason I haven’t in the past is that I tend to pick up other writers’ voices quickly, and the fiction I write down sounds like the last writer I just read instead of me.

When I first started with Clever Title Goes Here, my ideas were all my own, but the style echoed Ernie Hsuing, Heather Armstrong, Mrs. Kennedy, and all the other popular blogs I devoured on a daily basis. Clever Title doesn’t exist anymore- it’s a link to the Wayback Machine, where you can look at my old entries as archives. I owned the domain from 2003-2015, and the entries are still there, but the comments aren’t always because the links to them are broken. The only one I lost that really meant a lot to me was from Wil Wheaton. I was talking about a singing audition and feeling amazing about it afterward, saying that it felt like flying. He replied that it was the same for him after an acting audition.

I didn’t have a very thick skin in those days, and after a few comments from my friends, torched the entire thing… an impetuous, grave mistake because there were so few daily bloggers that I became very popular, very quickly… as evidenced by Wil Wheaton knowing my work.

I met Wil at Powell’s Books when he came to read snippets from Just a Geek. I introduced myself as Leslie from Clever Title Goes Here, and he smiled, then wrote in my copy, “To Leslie… Clever Inscription Goes Here. Love, Wil.” I can’t think about what might have happened if I’d kept my blog going from 2003 until now, because getting into the blogging crowd before everyone was doing it was paramount to real success.

In writing fiction, I don’t want to fill someone else’s shoes. I brought my own.

So,for now, the idea of “bringing my own shoes” exists in this space alone. In most cases, I’m doing okay work, with a few outstanding entries. That is mostly because I don’t work on them as craft. It’s a brain dump, unedited, all stream-of-consciousness all the time. Even my article on marriage took about 15 minutes to write, and it is the one thing I’ve done that’s consistently been shared all over the world, because I wrote about something so universal that anyone whose ever been married and read it have had the same comments, boiled down to #me #same.

Sometimes I imagine what I’d be able to do if I really put some thought into all this, but then I think, “nah.” My blog works for me because of everything it isn’t. It’s not for anyone else but me, being able to look back over my past and see with glaring clarity all the flaws and failures I need to fix, as well as the great moments along the way. If I took the time to worry about craft, I’d get stuck in Virgo perfectionism, and I’d never publish anything… Editing gnaws away at my courage until I think “it’s not good enough,” and the thousand or so words that I’ve written get erased with one CTL-A and one backspace.

I just try to tell my truth, which isn’t anyone else’s… something that’s gotten me a lot of kudos and a lot of anger all at the same time, as if I have a problem with someone calling me out on my own bullshit.

I don’t.

People are free to disagree with me all the time, and I appreciate comment threads that do so. This is because I appreciate people who are willing to see all the things I don’t…. the part of the story I don’t know, because it’s not mine… it’s theirs. It’s not my job to tell their stories, and it’s not their job to tell mine. I am responsible for my words, but not their responses… but I do take them in as valid, because all emotions are. It’s a clinical separation, a step back to hear people without internalizing it into the fear of never saying anything ever again… the reason I torched Clever Title to begin with.

What I didn’t know then that I do now is that writing on the Internet is like getting a tattoo on the face. I didn’t know that even if I torched everything on my own server, a cached version like The Wayback Machine even existed. There’s nothing I will ever be able to do that erases past mistakes. The only topic I am not willing to publish is how I’m doing at work. The term “Dooced” is so popular that it was even a question on Jeopardy! For those of you who’ve been reading Heather Armstrong since the beginning, who didn’t love her take on the Asian Database Administrator, et al?

I have to believe, though, that getting fired is what launched her into this higher plane, that the worst thing became the best over time. That being said, I’m brave, but not THAT brave… and I believe that Heather intended to teach all bloggers from her mistakes, and I’ve taken them to heart.

Although this entry from The Bloggess about work is my absolute favorite of all time, bar none. It was written in 2008, and still makes me fall out laughing, because had I been sitting next to her, I wouldn’t have been able to hold it together, either… like looking through the Methodist hymnal as a kid during the service and finding out that one of the composers/lyricists was named P.P. Bliss.

Now, had I been on the committee who put the hymnal together, I would have suggested we just go with Phillip, because I’m betting I’m not the only kid who’s ever had tears running down her face trying not to cackle in church… and then, knowing it was inappropriate to laugh while I was supposed to be paying attention, almost asphyxiating because I couldn’t pull myself back together.

It was absolutely as funny as some of the things Pri-Diddy and I joked about last night… but those are unprintable. 😛

Small Victories

The interview with the Blackboard recruiter went well enough that my resume is being passed on to the hiring manager. This is because I stayed up all night trying to prepare, because there are so many things I’ve forgotten in the last six months. I reviewed everything I could possibly think of that might be asked, and the most helpful was going to Blackboard listservs hosted at universities that use it. If they required a user name and password, I just moved on. Enough were open that I was able to learn a lot in 21 hours and two minutes. It’s actually not that different from WebCT, the LMS (learning management system) I helped set up at University of Houston. WebCT was bought out by Blackboard, so some of the same technologies still exist. This is a more technical position than I’m used to, so I’m hoping that if I don’t get this job, I’ll be considered for another position in the customer service department. I’m not afraid of working on the backend, but I’m also much better on the phone with inexperienced users. As I put in every cover letter, I am great at translating “geek to English.”

In any case, I’m not going to give up on Blackboard. I’m going to give this opportunity everything I’ve got, and keep applying until I annoy them enough to hire me for something. I am too talented at academic technology to let this opportunity (or any others with the company) slip through my fingers. I’ve also applied at lots of universities who have distance education programs, because generally full-time positions come with tuition waivers. I’d really like to end up at Howard, because I could go straight through the last of my undergrad into the MDiv program, which is my ultimate goal, anyway. However, I cannot tell if my resume is being ignored, or if it’s just a case of university bureaucracy. Getting hired at University of Houston was no small feat, but once I got there, I was promoted every year. It was getting my foot in the door that was the hard part.

I’ve also applied to schools that would be out of my league in terms of trying to get in, but with tuition waivers from working there, I could bypass the application process. I’ve sent resumes to both Georgetown and American, and have considered James Madison, UVa, and Tech. The only reason I’ve considered them without actually applying is that I’m still debating on whether I’d want to move out of the DC area. It’s not like it’s far… maybe a couple of hours, but enough to take me out of where I really want to be. For instance, I can’t take the Metro. I’m also a little gunshy about moving to a place I’ve never been. The whole idea of living in DC was that I’ve lived here before. It wasn’t a stretch to come back, getting into my normal routines here & expanding my friendship circle.

I wish I lived a little closer to Alexandria, where most of my friends are, but Silver Spring has been so good to me that I can’t imagine leaving, even just to go across the river.

The shooting that happened yesterday (in the Del Rey neighborhood of Alexandria) rattled me, because it happened where my friends, Thomas, Autumn, and Dan, and my cousin, Nathan, all live. Dan actually heard it happen, and thought it was fireworks.

There was a neighborhood walk last night called “Hate is Not Welcome Here,” which was heartening because it shows that when violence happens, we will not back down. We will show up with our non-violent responses and try to make a difference.

I so admire people who have jobs and children and other enormous responsibilities that still go the extra mile to put themselves out there in terms of political activism. I am slowly easing myself into getting back into the swing of things, but I’m not there yet. DC will be ready when I am. There are marches all the time, if not every day… we have to believe that resistance is not futile.

In a lot of ways, I am ashamed of the way I’ve handled myself since my mother died, because I did not expect to fold into myself as hardcore as I did. I knew that I would be sad for the rest of my life, but I didn’t expect to absolutely lose my snot. I didn’t expect my whole life to crater into nothing as at first, I could not get out of bed, and I am still reticent to leave my house. Applying for jobs is busywork which still allows my mind to wander while I’m doing it. I know that there is no right and wrong way to grieve, and I shouldn’t beat myself up so hard, but I don’t think I’ve ever been good at not beating myself up. I’ve shamed myself for moving out of Houston, I’ve shamed myself for not spending more time with my mother while I was in Houston, and I’ve really shamed myself for counting on the fact that my mother would live so much longer than she did.

My mother and I were not close for a lot of my life, having pushed each other away because we didn’t really understand one another. Therefore, my grief and guilt is centered around the loss of the future I didn’t get, because we made a lot of progress in a very short time, especially when she came to DC alone and we had so much time to ourselves to rekindle our relationship. She didn’t get a hotel room, she stayed with me, and slept in my bed for the first time in probably 35 years. I was still in deep grief over losing Dana, and those few nights with my mom lying next to me were the best sleep I’d gotten in ages.

In retrospect, thinking about these things has rendered me a zombie, walking through life here… but not present. I am slowly trying to change these things about myself, and each victory, no matter how small, is glorious because it was so hard won. For instance, I slept well and made coffee this morning. I am excited to see Pri-Diddy this evening. I am excited about going to Dan’s game night tomorrow. Excitement is not an emotion I’ve felt a whole lot lately, because excitement requires energy.

Most of the time, I feel like my “get up and go just got up and left.”

Yesterday, I treated myself to a haircut and relaxed into the woman’s hands as she washed my hair… possibly the first time I’ve been touched in weeks. It was a simple thing, but so important. Another victory to add to my list.

Another thing I have noticed is that in my writing, I can turn nearly any entry into talking about grief. No matter what topic I start with, it invariably whittles down into “God, I am so sad.” But that is my life right now. Everything does come down to that. There’s no one I wanted to call more after my interview than my mother… so, even though I don’t believe that she’s watching me, I talked to her, anyway. Just because you don’t get a response means your words are less important.

But not getting a response is just one more thing I have to get used to- along with the many other things that are different now.

But hey… I made coffee today.

The Interview

When I woke up and looked at my phone yesterday, it didn’t say “Carolyn Baker’s birthday is today.” It said, “you have a notification from Carolyn Baker.” I nearly jumped out of my skin. Of course it was the birthday thing, but the wording set me off. From the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, I was in full-on panic mode. I took my psych meds, including Klonopin for anxiety, but grief this deep is not something that psych meds can touch… the relief is that I wasn’t feeling the physical effects that anxiety brings, such as shortness of breath, brain and heart race, cortisol pulsing through my body so that I am feeling like a wet cat backed into a corner, claws extended.

My original plan for my mother and Dana’s birthday was to go to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house, because that’s the trip that my mother and I had planned for this summer. I was about to get into the shower when I got a call from my sister that my dad had a heart attack. That was my official “fuck this shit” moment. I waffled between dropping everything and driving down to Houston so that I would have my car once I got there… and getting into bed, possibly under it. My dad and sister chatted with me on Google Hangouts so that I could see that my dad was okay, and told me not to come. So, I did what any self-respecting depressed person would do… I got into bed and alternated between staring at the ceiling, overthinking about it, and zoning out to videos on my laptop (I started Orange is the New Black, because I found out last season that if I didn’t watch it butt-quick, there were going to be spoilers on Facebook that I didn’t want to see… for instance, I found out through an AD that Samira Wiley had gotten a new job…).

I would overthink and overworry until I couldn’t take it anymore, then take a break, then overthink and overworry some more.

My dad has now been given the all-clear, and will possibly go home from the hospital today.

In other news, I’ve got a job interview with Blackboard tomorrow for a Client Support Engineer position. I am very excited about this possibility, because I have been in academic technology for a large part of my career. Digital pedagogy is a passion of mine, and I love Sherry Turkle, the premier expert in the field. She does a great job of advocating for online education, but balancing it with in-person conversation. She personifies an Anne Lamott quote which is that “almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” I have made it a goal in life to meet her, and I can’t imagine she doesn’t come to DC once in a while for book readings, etc. I will just make it a point not to yell at her or give her a hug while harboring an infection… things which I lovingly refer to as “dumbass attacks.”

I am so tired of hearing bad news that tears came to my eyes when the Blackboard recruiter e-mailed me. It was just for a short phone interview, but it’s the first step toward achieving a major goal. When I wrote him back to tell him of my availability, you cannot imagine how hard it was not to say “oh dear God you cannot imagine how much I needed this today my mother died my grandmother died my father had a heart attack and I am one step away from crawling under my bed.” There’s no punctuation because in my head it was a huge run-on sentence with no breath whatsoever.

I need this job. I really need this job. While it will be nice to get paid for something I love, it has been hell on earth not to have any distractions at all from thinking about everything that’s been going on since October. The one saving grace about having that time to myself is that I really dug deep into my feelings and dealt with them right away. I read a story in the news that Prince Harry is just now getting counseling over Princess Diana’s death, having stuffed it down for 20 years.

I have been able to sit in deep grief since it happened, so that going forward, it will be a more shallow well of pain. When you lose a parent, grief never goes away… it just changes. I’ve been amazed at how much it has changed just in the last few months. Progress is happening, albeit slowly, but every journey begins slowly until there’s a little momentum behind it. I feel that the regular routine of having somewhere to be every day is that inertia. Maybe I’ll be able to laugh a little more and cry a little less. Maybe going out into public won’t be so scary. Being on a team again sounds like a hug from Jesus.

I also don’t know what the salary range is for the position, but if it’s anywhere close to what I’ve made in the past, I’ll be able to go back to school shortly. The possibly of working for Blackboard and going to school on Blackboard is hilarious to me… the haha for my day. I have to savor them, because of course in deep grief you don’t get all that many.

I am also going to dinner with Pri Diddy on Thursday and possibly to a Game Night at Dan’s this weekend. Look at me! I have plans for leaving the house TWICE!

I ask for your prayers, and if you are not a God person, your presence tomorrow at 11:00 AM… and by presence, I do not want you to show up at my house. 😛 Hold space for me, keep me in your mind, send positive energy, say your own special kind of black magic prayer. I’ll take it.

And now I have to let you go. I only have 21 hours and two minutes to get ready.