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Sometime last fall, in the space between knowing my life would change and that change beginning, I started to read Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Ouiser’s recommendations never steer me wrong. You can trust them as well. I savored this collection of essays. Reading for a few days in a row before turning to another book as the mood struck me, but always returning to dip back into the space and sound of the writing. Abdurraqib writes about a wide variety of music, by weaving his story into the experience of listing or attending a concert. He uses those stories to reveal the contemporary moment in a way that made me pay closer attention to the music filling my world. Everyone should buy the book, even if you only read “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America.”
There are so many tools that are made for my hands.
But the tide smashes all my best laid plans to sand.Neko Case – Night Still Comes
In the final pages of the book, Abdurraqib elegizes 2016. A year that many of us individually, and as a nation, struggled to survive. To think about what happened in the country in 2016, I have to carefully untangle each event – each death, each killing, each mass shooting – from the death of my marriage. For me, 2016 is an endless coordination, getting my ex-husband to help, alerting his family, talking with doctors, finding someone to care for the animals as I constantly drove from Bemidji to Fargo and back each Saturday from January – March, bringing him home, returning him to another hospital, and starting the cycle over. Navigating 2016 took every tool at my disposal, and, at every turn, each plan I made smashed against the reality that my marriage was over.
Abdurraqib’s elegy for 2016 takes a different approach. Describing his response to the horrific Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Abdurraqib recounts how the sounds of children riding their bikes reminds him that it is in the small moments of joy that we regain our strength to return to the fight.
And, as I think about 2016, I remember the phone calls. Long talks with friends and family full of tears and laughter. I remember the unexpected care packages. I remember the happy hours spent eating fried foods and deepening new friendships. I remember learning to accept the help offered. And, I realize how each of these moments renewed my strength. The cleansing tears shed with friends. The laughter at a macabe joke, because … what else can you do? The warmth brought by a smile and an invitation to lunch. The joy – large and small – made it possible for me to make it through the night I feared for my safety, for me to pick up the pieces as each plan failed, for me to know without a doubt when it was time to let go.
I do it for the joy it bringsAni DiFranco ~ Joyful Girl
‘Cause I’m a joyful girl
‘Cause the world owes me nothing
And we owe each other the world
Abdurraqib concludes, “Joy, in this way, can be a weapon–that which carries us forward when we have been beaten back for days, or moths, or years.” And I remember how beaten down I felt in the years leading up to 2016. How alone I felt trudging from one crisis to the next just trying desperately to hold it together, to make sure I could provide for my family. Yes, there were moments of joy in those years, friendships made, but I remember how my smile rarely reached my eyes, and my guard never fully came down. In 2016, joy became my weapon. It carried me forward each time an event beat me down. Joy also became the weapon of my recovery. It flooded my life in the fall of 2016: the house full of friends at the birthday party I threw for myself, the renewal of old friendships, the long mornings and afternoons on the deck, the comfort of the dogs and cat as we settled into our new normal. The joy in those moments, big and small, salving my wounds, healing me, and carrying me forward.
My status as a fan of Sandra Bullock movies shouldn’t surpise anyone at this point. For me, and I am pretty sure for many Gen X women, Bullock embodies the “woman facing hardship gets her happy ending” trope. Yes. She has done more, and better, but there is a magic, charm, and relatability to Bullock that make Practical Magic, Hope Floats, 28 Days, Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, and even Miss Congeniality go to comfort movies for so many of us.
Sure, I may have watched my share of Hallmark movies, but when I really want to dream about love, I watch Practical Magic. Dreaming about Sally Owens conjuring a man she thought couldn’t exist and magic bringing him to her at just the point when she needed him, makes it feel possible that the the man I think doesn’t exist is out there and will show up at just the right time.
Practical Magic may be the movie I watch when I need something to make me believe in love again. Hope Floats is the movie I watch when I need to remind myself that the world will right itself, and that regardless of where I am from or what has happened to me, life will right itself. I will get through. Life is long; rise up, as my tattoo reminds me.
Birdie Calvert/Pruitt’s life spectacularly crashes, burns and she must return home to recover and rebuild herself. So much happens here it is a feel good movies for nearly every situation, as long as you like your inspiration to come while tears well in your eyes. For me, the hope in this movie, the message that floats above all the others isn’t about the patient and deep love waiting for Birdie when she is ready. The hope is in the way her relationship with her mother changes over time.
Ramona Calvert tries to teach her daughter is one of gratitude. At the beginning of the movie, worn down by her experiences, all Birdie can see is the way life has let her down. In contrast, Ramona embraces the joy in her life, and her most repeated line – and the lessson to Birdie – is that “Her cup runneth over,” meaning her life is full of blessings, even in hardship.
I have my moments, and I swear every time I face unpacking from a move, a part of me feels like Birdie Pruitt moving home. In the last six years, I’ve moved across the country, divorced, moved back, accepted a new job with a formidable learning curve, moved again, and find myself in a completely new region. In that time, I have also learned who I am, how to love myself, and how to accept what I deserve.
Each day, as I walk Moshe around the neighborhood, as I pass through the gates and drive into work watching the sunrise over the Potomac, my heart fills and all I can think about is how my cup runneth over. As much as I am grateful and love my life, I still long.
I don’t often talk about this, but I am still searching for a partner. Contemporary dating is a very unique and special kind of soul crushing endeavor. On one hand the options are seemingly endless (just keep swiping); yet, on the other, every swipe leaves you feeling more an more alone. For the last two years, the first item on in the Must Have portion of my Conditions list has been Love. Last year, amongst all the dating, I fell deeply in love with myself for the first time. I have no idea how this year will turn out yet. As Valentine’s Day approaches, I can tell you I do not feel very hopeful about romantic love. Yet … my cup still runneth over.
In all honesty, my life is full of love. Girlfriends from high school to those I made in moving here, have called, sent me cards, or gifts. Each gesture reminds me of just how much love I already have in my life. These women see me. They know my best, worst, and just how far I have come. They teach me how to celebrate myself; and, by showing me their love, they teach me what to expect from someone who claims to love me.
I may not have found my Aidan Quinn or Harry Connick Jr. just yet; until I do, I will hold on to the way my girlfriends make me feel. Because, for each card here, there are at least 2 – 3 more who have show their love in other ways. I carry this with me always. My cup runneth over; and, my girlfriends set the bar for how to love me.
Much like the summer of 2017, when my experience in the House of Plagues forced me to move twice within a month. The last six months of 2018 unexpectedly involved two moves.
In July, I left my beloved, neat, little bungalow with the red door and moved in with a colleague to be closer to work. A great idea at the time, it saved me some money and meant that I could walk to work.
Something else happened in July, though, something that would make this move short – lived and change the direction of … well, everything. On July 12th, I submitted an application for a job that sounded like someone had been listening to everything I said I wanted from my career. Had I not been moving a thousand miles an hour trying to work, pack, have a life, and put together this application, I might have thought a little harder about it all. I may even have talked myself out of applying, but I didn’t.
When, as I unpacked all my stuff into my room and closets in the new house, I learned I’d made it to the first round of interviews, I was amazed and so excited. I went to the website and downloaded one of the pictures from their carousel and made it the desktop background on my new laptop. The interview day came and went. A video interview from my office to theirs, it felt like it went well. A few of my answers felt unfocused, but I made them laugh a few times, so I hoped that would even things out.
As the weeks passed and I didn’t hear about the expected second round of interviews, I started to lose hope. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to work on that beautiful campus next to that river. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t heard about a second interview, because they’d decided to offer me the job based on the first interview! But, yes, dear readers, that is exactly what happened!
Okay. Seriously. From here on out, you cannot complain about the amount of exclamation points, because you cannot underestimate my level of shock, awe, and excitement. Yes, this job represents nearly everything I wanted in my career. It also represents a dramatic shift in location. It requires me to move to a major metropolitan area. Something I never thought I would do, but I am completely on board with and cannot wait to do! (Okay, the rent prices did give me pause, but life will definitely be worth it!)
In January, after setting “foundations” as my word for the year, a dear friend told me I needed to be “foundationally brave.” I took her advice to heart all year. “Foundationally Brave” post-it notes resided on my mirror, on the edge of my monitor at work. The reminder was always there as I considered what I wanted my life to be. Yet, in January, I could never have conceived of where this phrase would take me.
Once again, I downsized, shed about 1/4 of what I had left, or acquired, since the last move. I packed up all my stuff, and this time movers came to take it away. Tomorrow morning all the living things, and last little bits will head off on the five hour trip to our new home.
We will get to ring in the New Year, in our new space, and then wait for the rest of our stuff to get there. On Monday, January 6, 2020. My new life will really begin, when I report for my first day of work. In addition to adapting to this new environment and learning the ropes, I know there is at least one major project waiting for me; and, through all the changes, all the moving hassles, all the unknowns, the stress is mitigated by my excitement. I cannot wait to start this new life!
I’m not making any promises about how and when I will post around here, but I do intend to chronicle all these changes. Right now, I’ve kept things vague, just because I am not sure exactly how I want to talk about them yet. I will figure it out as I go, and I, honestly, cannot wait to take you all with me!
One of my biggest problems with academia is that breaks are so rarely breaks. Even for those who do not have administrative work to contend with, the break so sorely needed to recover from the previous semester is too often spent preparing for the upcoming semester. Winter break is particularly problematic in this way. Anytime stolen to relax and recover from the exhaustion of the semester is tainted by the knowledge that I should be prepping and planning for the new semester.
This year at the beginning of this break I was forced into a little down time by scheduling an outpatient surgery just after I turned in final grades. Dr. Lawyer came down the night before to take care of me on the day of surgery. We had a lovely evening talking and she reminded me of some advice I gave her this summer. She’d suffered heat stroke and was dealing with recovering from this brain injury. We visited shortly after her injury and as we walked around town and she apologized for her weakness and disorientation. She had felt up to walking around when we left her house, but now she felt weak and unsure of herself. Having dealt with my own brain injury, I told her to stop apologizing and to stop being so hard on herself for not recovering faster.
I explained a significant aspect of my own recovery that was hard to see, but helped me learn to be kind to myself about many aspects of my life post-stroke. The brain is very malleable. After an injury it accepts the new situation as normal and begins to chart its new pathways. I remember that, once I had been transferred to my rehab floor, I felt completely normal, like I should be fine. Yes. Some things took longer than normal and things had changed, but essentially I felt ready to get back to my old life. Coming home from the hospital I could look back and see, “Oh, right, I was not normal. I needed that time in the hospital to recover.” Again felt “back to normal.” I didn’t feel like I needed the two months off before the next semester; and I certainly felt ready to return to teaching in January. I made it through that semester, feeling fine and going about my business. Yet once I continued to actually recover, I could see that I hadn’t been fully back to normal.
I explained to Dr. Lawyer, “You are going to feel recovered. You are going to feel like you should be, or are, back to normal. But then, in a few months or a year, you are going to reach another point in recovery where you can look back and say, “Oh, I thought I was recovered, but I wasn’t.” This is important to hold onto, especially for those of us who tend to push too hard and take on too much, because it is so easy to start to berate ourselves for slowing down, to push ourselves too hard too fast to recover and be done with it. To move on. Though I couldn’t articulate it exactly in the moment, my point for Dr. Lawyer was that recovery from her brain injury would be ongoing.
When she reminded me of this conversation, I was a little surprised. I’d forgotten I told her about that. As I close out this year and look back at where I was this time last year, I’ve been reminded how it isn’t just physical recoveries that are incremental and ongoing. At this time last year, and I am pretty sure at various points over the last couple of years, I thought I was done. I’d recovered and moved on from my marriage. I was my new self. Yet, each time I look back, I realize I have recovered more. Realize that I should have been kinder to myself along the way, because I wasn’t done. I was still healing and needed to take it slow.
As I move into the new year, I know I will lose sight of this again. I will push myself and I will get frustrated when I feel like I am not making the progress I think I should. I haven’t settled on my conditions for the year, but my word for the upcoming year is foundation. As I work to establish and strengthen the base of my relationships, my finances, my health, my self, it is good to remember that this recovery is ongoing.
If you are at all familiar with the musical Carousel, please forgive me for putting that song in your head. If you aren’t the linked video is a special peak into musicals circa 1956. Watch it, if you can. Also, take comfort in the fact that, due to a bit part in our high school production of said show, it is going to take me at least a week to get it out of my own brain. In my last entry, I inadvertently set forth a challenge that the rest of June would have to work to live up to the first day. Apparently, the challenge was accepted in all the best ways!
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Look, too often the days that are often supposed to be significant end up being not. Yesterday though .. yesterday was the First of June. Maybe not a national holiday, maybe not even the official first day of summer, but it was the first of the month and, man, the rest of June will have some living up to do!
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Explaining my absence is probably the first order of business. As I mentioned before the end of spring semester is its own beast. Like the end of any other term it is hectic and stressful, but there is some additional dark magic at work in academy during the month of April. Every demand on your time, report to write, email to send, meeting to attend adds some kind of exponential weight and stress. Additionally this year as I trudged through April, I suddenly felt the significance of everything that has happened to me in the last two years. In many ways the stress, my mood, and my general exhaustion mirrored the way I felt as I finished my dissertation and approached graduation.
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In A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit discusses the captivity narratives of the early American colonizers Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Jemison, and others. She is concerned with the captives who adapted, who created and stayed in the homes and lives they made inside these new cultures. She talks about the psychological and cultural metamorphoses that these transitions required. And, she discusses the way we perform these metamorphoses all the time. We grow, we change, without necessarily noticing.
“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”
This slow and incremental, every day change she calls a psychological metamorphosis. The captives she describes as having to go through a cultural metamorphoses, which she describes as “something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life.” The caterpillar doesn’t just magically reform into a butterfly, its body must first disintegrate, decay to feed the emerging creature. Solnit says “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.” In this book about getting lost, about losing oneself, I see Solnit’s point about the total transformation necessary to adapt so wholly to a new culture that you can’t return to your old one.
My desks always start out neat, organized, a clear space to work. As that work progresses the piles of things in progress develop, bills to pay, tax documents to be filed, books to be referenced or read, mementos pile up. The pink beanie baby bear a secret admirer gave me before I left my Haggen’s job. The stuffed lamb a dear friend gave me to keep me company during my hospital stay. Pictures I discovered going through my memory shoe boxes. These days three selves stare back at me from those pictures; and I am all of them and none of them.
A card the friend made for me, “The Three Faces of Brandy Brown (Seductress, Seductee, Seduced).” Two of the pictures cannibalized, probably by the ex-DH for one of his last minute birthday projects where sentimentality was supposed to make up for the lack of forethought. The picture of me, the Seductress, the only one remaining. Me hugging a good friend, chin to my shoulder, grinning, looking at the camera as if I’m daring it to try capturing all of me. The moment I thought I had emerged, newly formed, newly named, newly married and ready to unfurl my painted wings.
The photo-booth roll of Ouiser and I on a conference trip to San Francisco: our sunglasses on, laughing, having such a good time. I can’t remember if this would have been before or after our encounter with the Bushman, the street performer, or the one footed pigeon I named Percy. That was a very full day. In the third picture down we are both have our sunglasses up and are captured mid-laugh, and I honestly don’t know that there is a happier picture of me anywhere. This is the moment before, before the decay. Before grad school began the deconstruction and reformation of herself. Before the stroke. Before the unraveling.
Finally, the oldest. The snap shot of me at nine, though even then I looked old for my age, standing up from a picnic table, looking back over my shoulder as my Grandma Nina looks at me. My hair pulled tightly into a pony tail. My bangs the perfect length. I don’t remember the event or where the picture is taken, nothing seems familiar. I remember the shorts set I am wearing being one of my favorites, and that this was probably one of the last times I was able to wear it before outgrowing it. I know I kept the picture partly because of the amazing tan I have. I spend all of my Western Washington high school summers chasing this tan.
Judging from the timing, this picture was probably taken at some kind of going away event before we moved west. Maybe that explains my expression, the sadness in my eyes, though I don’t think that is it exactly. That girl has no idea where she will end up, no idea how far away from that tiny northern Minnesota town she will travel literally and figuratively. All that girl has ever known is growing up in a trailer, then a cabin, finally a house in town, parents who scraped by, aunts, uncles, and cousins babysitting, hotdishes to make meals stretch(tuna noodle, spam, and wild rice), and never really fitting in. Always being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart. She doesn’t know that this is beginning of a period of decay and withdrawal. She doesn’t know this is where her family changes. This is where she will say goodbye to grandparents, where Aunts, uncles, and cousins will become strangers, where her home will become an awkward place, an outgrown garment.
However, it is also where she will learn to move, to grow, to re-build that family wherever she is at. It is where being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart are the things that will sustain her. They are the things that will get her out of that west coast version of the Minnesota town. The things that will make her a reader, teach her how to make friends, and help her survive this move and all the rest. Every way that she didn’t fit will help her survive her marriage and divorce, help her earn her Ph.D., and give her the courage to face every new thing: illness, job, town, house. She may have outgrown that northern Minnesota life, but with every metamorphosis she steps further into the life that does fit. A life in which she is no longer too much and always enough.
A consistent theme throughout my post-divorce writing is the joy, revelation, and tension between the past and the present. The granola post probably captures the idea, and the joy of it, most clearly. The tension and the revelation are, I think, more diffuse. In my experience, they sneak up on me; the moments of the most joy and revelation in the present made more so by their inevitable contrast to the past. Moving through this past weekend, chronicling it with pictures that deliberately avoid faces, recovering from the bouts of laughter that left me breathless, I planned a joyful, celebratory post about the impromptu first party in my home, about old friendships, about bringing together old and new friends. Perhaps this post is still that, there is still joy and celebration, but all of that now exists in the contrast.
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My goal for my house has never been to have a particular look or style. Sure I have a weakness for mission style furniture and dark woods, but beyond that my tastes are fairly eclectic. Generally, it is good because randomly collecting hand me down pieces from friends and family is pretty much the only way I get furniture. The goal for my house has always been a feeling. From the first time to now, there isn’t a time when I have walked into Dr. Phoenix’s house without immediately feeling at peace and at home. In fact, it is her house and that feeling which started me thinking about welcome as much as it was the scholarly work in graduate school. It is the idea of welcome and the feeling I have in Dr. Phoenix’s home that I try to create as I pull together my new house. My scholarly work tells me that in order for me to create that sense of welcome for someone else I must first feel welcomed and at home in my own space. While it certainly isn’t all there yet, since I moved in back in August I have been trying to turn this house that I love into a home.
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