The Catharsis of Making it Worse
In general my approach to the challenges life throws my way is put my head down and just keep moving forward. “The only way out is through it” has been my guiding principle since before I could articulate it. The difficulty with this approach is that it requires some pretty hefty armour and deflection. A lot of my energy is used up putting off tears until later. Unfortunately, then when I get to “later” it is often difficult to let myself feel the feeling and get those tears out. I need a catalyst, at least this is my explanation for why, when I feel the most depressed and out of sorts, my first instinct is to find the music, movie, or book that is going to depress me the furthest.
Going through my first major break up I listed to the Jayhawks’, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, non-stop for a good two weeks. The Hours is my go to, “I need a good cry movie.” The ex-husband used to joke about hiding all the sharp objects whenever I suggest I needed to watch it. Even now, when I have gotten a lot better about practicing vulnerability and letting myself feel those feelings, when I am at my lowest it will typically show in the music I’m listening and the films I am watching.
Lori McKenna is the current sound track to my heartbreak. Pandora’s algorithm put her into my Neko Case station and there wasn’t a song from Bittertown or her earlier albums, that didn’t capture what it felt like to live through those last years of my marriage. These days I take it as a good sign that during my daily commute concerts in the car, I often find myself skipping the tracks I felt most deeply during those years, like “If You Ask,” “Swallows Me Whole,” or “If He Tried.” The strength, joy, tenderness, and struggle I have in this new life requires something different. Elvis Costello, Soundgarden, Neko Case, and the songs that Ouiser, who is the Queen of all mix-tapes, put on my divorce albums.
Film wise well, it is no secret that I have been binging on Hallmark Channel stuff this year. It started with “The Good Witch” and “When Calls the Heart” binges on Netflix while my cable was paused. When the cable turned back on, I descended into the cozy mystery movies, desperately wishing I could be Aurora Teagarden; and by the Christmas in July event, when I needed every escape I could find from the House of Plagues, I knew I had a problem. Not only was Hallmark practically the only channel I watched, I’d started to dissect and analyze the films. Good dialogue, but no chemistry between the leads. Chemistry between the leads, but nothing can make up for the ridiculousness of this plot. To this day I give myself a pat on the back for refusing to watch anything that involves someone secretly falling for royalty. (What? Even I have my standards!)
This holiday season the number of people watching Hallmark channel movies to escape the reality of this horrible, rotten, no good year is great enough that a number of think pieces have circulated, and SNL even did a great skit about the movies. (Yes, Canadian Handsome is a thing.) Last week, though, hanging out with friends and new acquaintances from my adopted neighborhood, I was surprised when someone admitted they also watch Hallmark movies, and justified it by saying, “Sometimes you need something to turn the day around.” Beers were involved in this particular hang out session, so who knows what exactly was said, but it was something to that effect. My surprise wasn’t actually that someone else at the table was also watching, and recording, Hallmark movies. We all need an escape every now and then. I have often characterized my watching of Hallmark movies as blatant escapism, fluff for a brain that just doesn’t want to think about things anymore, in that moment my surprise, however, was that I realized escapism wasn’t the only thing I wanted from these movies.
In what I am coming to realize happens more often than not when a large group of friends, some married some divorced, get together, someone inevitably asks, “Would you do it (fall in love / get married) again?” My fellow Hallmark aficionado replied quickly with, “Yes. Absolutely. I still believe in it.” I deflected my answer and shifted the conversation. At this point, just beginning year two and barely dipping my toes in the dating pool, I want to believe, but I am not sure I do. I want the romance I see in the Hallmark movies, and that is my escape, but it is also the thing that will undoes me. My current favorite Christmas movie is the Mistletoe Inn. There are a lot of stupid reasons it is my favorite, but one is a moment when after a brief snow ball fight, David Alpay and Alicia Witt end up in a snow bank. They look longingly at each other for a few seconds, and then he reaches over and pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. It is a mid-movie scene, which means the moment is broken and nothing happens. That gesture though, I physically long for it, and I want to believe it will happen again. Every few weeks, when driving home from work I find myself running my own fingers through my hair a little more than normal and singing along with a little more feeling to the pre-divorce songs, I know I need a romance fix and it is going to be a Hallmark movie night.
Those nights, though, they start out soothing, but most often end differently. The romance fix also bursts the bubble, forces me to confront the emotions I’ve been putting off. On at least one, I shut the tv off mid-movie, cleaned the kitchen, and went to bed. Single life is so glamorous. As I have already said, this season is hard. Part of what makes it hard is the reflection, the thinking back about what was, while also trying to imagine a future. Trying to remember the story my ex-husband and I prized, the one of fated meetings, and an elopement that seemed to come straight out of a Hallmark movie. Trying to believe that someday, hopefully not in a snowbank, someone will reach over and tuck my hair behind my ear, or let their hand keep moving and run their fingers all the way through it. This morning, as I tried to figure out my Hallmark movie phase beyond the escapism, beyond the way they hold out a glittery and idealized image of romance, I realized that in a way the Hallmark movies are my old pattern. When I am low, or craving something, find the thing that is going to make it worse. The glittery, ideal, storybook romance isn’t just aspirational it is reflective. It reflects what I thought I had, and makes me see what was never really there.
One of Lori McKenna songs that I cherished pre-divorce, “Don’t Tell Her,” illustrates this even better. In the song there is a line, “I can’t stand the thought of anyone knowing me the way you do.” Pre-divorce this line represented all the time I’d put into my marriage, all the history, and captured the way I couldn’t imagine finding that with anyone else. What I can see now, as this year forces me to reflect on everything, is that my ex-husband never knew me that way. The Hallmark movies, where people know the perfect gifts to give, the perfect things to say, and the perfect moments to reveal their feelings, they also make me confront the reality that what I thought was deep love and connection didn’t end up that way. That if it is true my ex-husband never really knew me the way I wanted him to, then it is also true that I never knew him the way he needed me to.
“Would I do it again?”
“Do I really still believe?”
I want to say, “Yes. Absolutely.” I just don’t know that I can, yet. Maybe after a few more Hallmark movies, I will.