Ralph or jack? That’s the choice, isn’t it? Am I going to allow the current ideological savagery dictate who I am or am I going to attempt maintain a sense of civility? Once I realized that we, as a society, are going through a Lord of the Flies phase, it really simplified both my thoughts and my feelings.
Okay. So we’ve crashed on the metaphorical island with no adult supervision. We have a choice here. Do we ride it out and keep our heads as we work on concrete solutions to a multitude of very real and immediate problems or do we avoid the real trouble and allow ourselves to be ripped asunder because of an imaginary monster in the woods? In challenging times, do we choose to embrace the best or the worst within?
It is the lies we sold ourselves in order to justify our anger and rationalize our fear that got us into this mess in the first place. All Republicans are stupid and racist. All Democrats are whiney, heathen elitist. Gun owners don’t care about children. Those in favor of gun laws don’t care about children. Snowflake. Commies. Trumptards. Repukelicans. The most extreme among us have been shouting from the rafters. It would be laughable if suddenly people weren’t listening and validating these voices with action and reaction. I mean, if you can’t be a Ralph, shoot for a Simon or Piggie. Granted, things didn’t end well for them in the book but at least they went out with some freaking self-respect.
As a society, we have faced far more challenging times than this. To not recognize that is to spit in the face of all who bled to get us where we are today; all who have been fighting the good fight behind the scenes, quietly. It is not the worst of times, just the loudest. Still, if we do not get it together, we are going to have a self-fulfilling prophecy on our hands.
Change happens slowly, but it happens. Sure, we have a long way to go but by God look honestly at how far we’ve come. Are we going to let fear and anger and groupthink destroy in a decade the progress it has taken centuries to build by allowing ourselves to be convinced that anyone who has a different opinion is the enemy? If it is that easy to tap into our basest nature, then we are in real trouble. It is called “divide and conquer” for a reason. So I choose to be a Ralph. And to all the hysterics who seem hellbent on lowering the level of our discourse by hiding behind online anonymity while name-calling and blindly reposting bullshit that furthers this nonsense: Sucks to your ass-mar.
I have made my fair share of mistakes in life. Maybe more than my fair share. Self destructive behaviors, unintentional manipulations in order to get desired results. I justified these choices by telling myself I was on the side of right when I couldn’t see beyond myself in order to know what “right” even was. I couldn’t be honest with others because I couldn’t be honest with myself. I smiled and people pleased in order to get the validation and approval that I so desperately needed and barreled my way through existence without pausing to reflect; to consider that perhaps someone who doesn’t have any answers should not behave as if she knows all. So yes. I’ve made many mistakes. I know that. I OWN it, because if I don’t look honestly at where I’ve been and what I’ve learned then I will have no vision for where I’m going. If I don’t acknowledge and accept where I was wrong, I won’t have an appreciation for when I grow as a person and am less wrong less often. And really, that’s a solid goal; to make less mistakes and learn more from the ones I do make. And by mistakes, I do not mean “choices other people wouldn’t make”. I don’t have to be comfortable in another person’s skin or look at another person’s face in the mirror.
Everyone comes to the table with their own perspective and experiences. One person’s wrong is another person’s right. Perception makes black and white thinking far too simple an answer outside of the broadest of situations. Most moments are in the land of grey. The fact that I’m aware of that makes it easier to empathize and keeps me humble enough to remember that I’m better off working through my own choices than picking apart those of others. After all, no one has appointed me the professor of what is right and that,in and of itself, is freeing.
I know enough to know that I don’t know enough and there is plenty of room for growth. I may not enjoy making mistakes, but I don’t fear them anymore. In life, we are all on a learning curve. Maya Angelou said it best: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I used to think courage was the opposite of fear, that it shouted its bravery through clenched fists of bulletproof strength and unquestioning certainty. It was a little girl’s flawed concept of a nuanced trait that whispers more often than shouts. It’s taken me a lifetime to realize that courage can never exist without fear. They are unlikely partners; educators that work hand in hand in teaching us how to be better, more empathetic human beings.
Having spent the majority of my life unsuccessfully running and hiding and escaping from a thousand forms of self centered fear, I feel I’ve earned my doctorate in what not to do. Do not consider cheap vodka an adequate replacement for a board certified therapist. Do not take hyper-critical peoples’ opinions as facts. Do not compare yourself to others. Do not attempt live up to a false idea of what you “should be” at the cost of who you are. Honestly, I could write an entire book on what not to do. There aren’t many wrong decisions that I haven’t tried. By some miracle, I survived them all and even managed to learn a little along the way.
Life is trial and error and you don’t know what you don’t know. What I didn’t know was that fear was the driving force behind my every decision, reaction, and emotion. Had you asked me fifteen years ago what motivated me, I would have said love. I would have believed it. And it’s true, there was love, passion, hope, empathy, strength within me but it was so buried by fear that I couldn’t access them or apply them to my life with any degree of success. Having positive characteristics without the ability to use them is as bad as not having them at all. Maybe worse.
I had to learn to accept fear in order to walk through it. What scared me? Oh, everything. Life, people, success, failure, pain. I lived in the land of “what ifs” and “yeah buts”, pointlessly striving for some skewed vision of what should be rather than seeing what actually is. I feared reality because some broken, dark corner of my psyche was convinced that I was born damaged goods and everyone knew it; that somehow I was less worthy than others. I felt that way and ignored the fact that I felt that way long enough to become the person I feared I was. I took a deep dive down a very dark hole and I am lucky I made it out. A lot of people don’t.
Life on the other side of my self imposed cage is much much better. Nothing owns me; not my anxiety, not my flaws, not my addictions. I don’t bother with “should be’s” today because I choose not to set my bar to imaginary standards and that, in and of itself, is incredibly freeing. I still have plenty of fear. That’s ok. Courage isn’t about emotions, it’s about the choices. Every one of us has an incredible capacity for good and bad, creativity and destruction, hurting and healing within us. We are more than the sum total of our mistakes and fears. Courage is choosing to use the best of what is inside me to enrich life for myself and others and forgiving myself when I can’t always succeed in doing so. Courage whispers. Fear shouts. I am not always brave, not by a long shot, but I will never again be a coward. Today, that is good enough.
I painted a picture; bright colors muted by shadows and lines and layers. Abstract art, where I don’t have to fear coloring outside the lines and mistakes only add dimensions. I paint love and pain and hope and confusion and fear. Trial and error. Water colors and oils and acrylics.
I painted a picture. Filled a blank canvas with my heart and soul and stepped back to admire my screaming insides splattered in blues, reds, purples, black; swirling lines over colors that melt into one another and I smiled to myself. I created. I expressed. That’s a more adequate word for what I do.
Sometimes words fail me, and the thoughts and the emotions race around my mind and heart, swelling to a crescendo that threatens to drown me if I don’t find a way to let them escape. What I can’t paint with words on a page, I’ve learned to with brushes on a canvas.
I painted a picture. I tuned out the yelling. Another shooting. We need more guns! We need less guns! Each side making the tragedy about them and their goddamn opinions, taking the human element out of the equation. As if these acts of violence weren’t a symptom of a complex underlying disease; the festering of the dark side of the human condition. Anger begets anger. There is a voice that panders to every opinion, further entrenching people in this groupthink; in this world where everyone is a bully and the bar has been lowered to the mud and no one can discuss anything honestly because those who disagree are the enemy. It’s stupid and silly and sad and dangerous. I keep looking for the grown ups who will calm this all down and I’m scared because they seem to have disappeared as we head at breakneck speed toward the inevitable grand scale calamity brought about by our collective egos. I don’t know what to do about any of that, so I paint a picture and choose to create. I talk with some addicts and choose to help. I hug an elderly woman and choose to heal. I write this piece and choose to express. I love deeply and choose to be open. I listened to music and choose to rock. I read a book and choose to learn. I watch comedies and choose to laugh. I choose not to feed the beast. This is the best I can do.
It’s four in the morning; that weirdly silent time on a quiet night. In the daylight, with it’s harsh noises and exuberant colors awash by the sun, quietness can be a welcome respite from an over anxious world. In the light, those still, soft moments cushion the edges of life with soft downy thoughts full of possibilities and hope. In the darkness, the mind is different.
The night holds its own haunting beauty. Quiet on top of quiet in the world when most are dreaming. The landscape both in front of me and in my mind is very different in the shadows and at four in the morning, sometimes the shadows have teeth. Sometimes the stillness is lonely and my mind drifts down paths better left alone. And there is really nothing that can be done about it. Attempting to ignore my mind’s ghostly whispers at four in the morning is every bit as effective as telling a curious ten year old to not push a big red button. So I ride it out.
I read somewhere that the sign of a rational mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it. I take great peace in that when my traitor brain decides to have a house party with all of my fears and insecurities. I’m just entertaining obnoxious guests for an evening. They damn sure aren’t moving in.
I have an idea! Let’s count all the people you’ve known and loved in recovery and as a caregiver who have died. Let’s not. You are so far behind where you should be in life. Maybe. But I’m not where I was either. Working the graveyard shift is going to give you a fat ass. Just more of me to love. You’re going to fail. Definitely. A lot. Major, epic fails. There is so much I want to do and explore in this life that failure is a statistical certainty. I accept that. I’m okay with it. I’m not afraid of failure because I’ve learned the most from my biggest mistakes. You are too much and not enough at the same time. I don’t even know what that one means…and I realized, as my mind decided to be a total ass for no fathomable reason, that there was nothing it could throw at me that would stick. Even at this hour, underneath the utterly predictable and surface level fear was the deeper awareness that I am comfortable in my own skin and am incredibly happy with every aspect of my life that matters. Mine has not been the smoothest of paths and I have certainly not been the most graceful of hikers, but I like to think I’ve learned from it all. I refuse to spit in the face of my happiest moments by fearing the loss of them.
It may be hard to remember that at 4:00AM, but at 5:00 AM the very best and bravest reminders of this truth begin to wake up and it is no longer quiet on the hall. Once again, it’s time to get to get back to the work that brings such purpose to my life. As dawn broke and the day ended for me as it began for others, I said a silent prayer of thanks that, for now anyway, the night whispers had empowered me with moments of clarity rather than embittered me with self pity and fear and when I clocked out, I did so with a smile and confidence.
“Toilet tanks. Toilet tanks. Toilet tanks.”, I muttered under my breath as if repeating it would make them suddenly materialize in front of me. This was the third…the THIRD trip to a hardware store today and this time I was flying solo. There was no way around it. The love of my life was in the middle of putting in the new toilet. We had hoped that the tank from the disassembled old toilet would fit the base of the new one we ended up buying. No such luck. So there I was, sweaty, disheveled, braless, wearing a T-shirt with a gigantic pair of scissors made of human legs that I inherited from my cousin the hairstylist, running aimlessly among ceiling fans, tools, pipes and various other sundries muttering “toilet tanks” as I sought to complete the task at hand. There was no time for panic. David had to get to work. I had to work that night and my only working toilet was completely dismantled. We were in crunch time.
Well, it couldn’t be as bad as the last time we attempted to solve a plumbing issue together. Last year, in my old apartment, we decided to change the tower in the toilet. It seemed like a simple enough task, until we realized that there was no shut off valve for the water. Nothing says “bad idea” like a face full of toilet water shooting uncontrollably from a wall. This was different. This was not a matter of overestimating our combined do-it-yourself capabilities. Due to a broken toilet brush and an ineffective 25 foot plumbers snake, this was a do or die situation.
TOILET TANKS! Finally! I puzzled over how exactly I was going to get it down from the shelf. It was within reach, but after the series of unfortunate calamities that marked the day, all I could imagine was standing over shattered porcelain shards littering the floor after an ungodly crash. We didn’t have a broken toilet fund for one toilet let alone two. Better to ask for help beforehand than wish I had afterwards. So I stopped the first unoccupied customer service rep I could find. He was annoyed that I interrupted his intense staring contest with a bin of plastic tubing.
“I’m helping another customer.”, he grumbled without breaking his death stare at the offending bin of tubing. Oh, ARE YOU, Mr. Home Depot man?! You think I can’t handle this on my own? Well, I don’t NEED your assistance. I can troubleshoot better than you. Look at you. You can’t even get the better of a bin of tubes. You know what? I spent the better part of the day with my hand in a toilet. Bra or no bra, I can handle this. Jerk…on the inside. Out loud, I just smiled and said, “No worries. I’m sure I can pull the toilet tank down from the shelf myself. I like a challenge. Life’s an adventure, right?” And headed back to the toilet tanks. It seemed the idea of a sweaty woman with questionable sanity accidentally destroying merchandise that he would have to clean up and explain later was enough to get him moving. This is not to imply that women in general do not belong in hardware stores. I know many who feel perfectly at home there. I just don’t happen to be one of them and I was more than ready to make my escape.
I came home, overly proud of myself for getting the right toilet tank, to find that David had the toilet mostly installed. Together we successfully finished the job. Suddenly the entire terrifying dismembered toilet bowl debacle became an example of overcoming what seemed like an impossible situation against all odds. Nothing says love like coming together for emergency do-it-yourself plumbing adventures. The lesson here? There are valuable moments to be celebrated even when your day is in the crapper.
Behind my eyes, tangled thoughts paint beautiful and tragic scenes in my mind, flashing and sprinting by so quickly that they vanish before I can catch hold. Snapshot imagery of dark and light; silky ribbons of interwoven ideas and fragments of dreams, technicolor tumbleweeds echoing in the endless hollows of my psyche.
Before my eyes, I see articles specifically written to assure people that they are correct in being outraged about whatever it is that is outraging them intermixed with pictures of puppies and food and kids. I see people speaking of God and hate disguised as righteousness in the same breath. I see blame, as if pointing out the flaws in others alleviates all responsibility to look at oneself. Seven ways to keep your man. Are you dating a narcissist? How to know if you’re the victim of sexual harassment? Take this quiz. Take this survey. Buy this product for a tighter ass and then your life will be perfect. Do this. Say this. Feel this. Think this. It’s us or them.
And as I process the nonstop assault of what I am
supposed to know and who I am supposed to be and how I am supposed to feel…my brain freezes. Does. Not. Compute. Program not found. Sensory overload as the screaming anger from without crashes into the constant flow of interconnected thoughts within. My nights are days and my days are nights and as I navigate this strange new world full of noise and silence, I write. I chronicle the experiences within me as I explore the world outside. I express and create and put pen to paper as I decide what is worth keeping and what needs to go. Sometimes the words flow faster than my dancing flashing thoughts and I am able to catch the fleeting moments of truth; the raw honesty within.
I find my courage in writing because I first must face myself in order to share myself and I share myself because greater people than I have shared themselves with me. Kurt and Aldous; Beverly and Madeline and Lucy, C.S, and Henry and Ralph and James and Stephen…friends I’ve never met but friends nonetheless. And there are so many more who’s writing has left a fingerprint on my soul and in whose books I found myself. These loyal friends have been with me my entire life. They’ve inspired me to try, however short I may fall, to reach others as they have reached me. To remind people that life has a rhythm and vibrancy and realness that transcends the madness and that there is beauty and love to be found in even the darkest of times.
And in writing I find grace…the incredible satisfaction of finding the exact right word to fit an intangible emotion. The ability to find the light; the relief of letting those tangled thoughts escape from the abstract notions flitting through my mind to the concrete reality on the screen. And my stories are your stories. Yours to laugh or cry with. Yours to ponder. Yours to realize that you are not alone.
In writing I discover myself as I go. It is where I make sense of a world that often enough does not make the least bit of sense to me on the surface level. It is where I dig to find sanity and authenticity. It has taught me to look closer and find the truth beneath the noise.
We are in that special time when the past converges with the future as last year is put to to rest and the next one rises. This is the time when most reflect and project; resolutions and promises and wistful thoughts of the year in review. I’ve written my way through another trip around the sun. It has been full of love and strangeness, challenges and whimsy, acceptance of others and acceptance of myself and I’ve done my best to authentically chronicle my way through it. I have no doubt that the new year will be full of moments to explore and express. For now, in this in between time where past present and future all come together, I wanted to capture the moment in words and share it with you. A very happy past from which to learn, present in which to celebrate and future in which to explore to all. Thank you for walking…reading with me.