Looking Forward

Bourdain and Spade’s suicides have left their their loved ones grappling with tremendous loss; one that ripples through our collective consciousness. I’m feeling the grief, but thankful that it has generated conversations and insights like this:

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong.”

along with the challenge to be honest about our own personal struggles.

The very few people close to me know that I have struggled with debilitating depression and anxiety most of my life—topped by a generous helping of PTSD for the last 20 years. Some have guessed at it. But, thanks to all of the energy I put into giving off the appearance of being okay, most find it surprising. I guess I was doing a pretty good job at something!

But I’m not okay, and I haven’t been. Because of the many years I lived in active fear that my attacker would return to kill me, I experienced an especially nasty, brain-altering aspect of PTSD—the inability to imagine a future for myself. Although I don’t idealize suicide, when I’m at my darkest, I lack the desire to live. Nothing feels like it matters. Or ever will. I feel like a failure, a fraud, and a a hopelessly crippled human being. I am telegraphed these messages all day, every day, by The Voice.

The Voice was also the source of the only notion that ever really made me feel like actually ending my life: that there was simply no place in the world for me, and never would be. That, because I couldn’t engage in a typical work routine and produce, traveling in the orbits that “normal” people occupied, I had no future. That, because most people didn’t understand the nature of this illness, and because I had a hard time getting close enough to help them understand, I would not have the meaningful relationships that make life worth living. It was easier to become more and more alone, to sink further into dysfunction.

I have lived in this isolation and darkness most of the last five years because I didn’t want anyone to see or be burdened by the desperate, howling agony that spontaneously arose within me with increasing frequency—until the spaces between, the reprieves, were the anomaly.

I’ve started to reach out now, to ask for what I need and trust that those who offer support and encouragement do so because they are really willing (and able) to help. I’m trying to believe that it’s ok to lean on them a little, without feeling like a burden. I’m admitting my failings, limitations, and fears. I’m also daring to indulge in something that is truly unfamiliar: imagining the future. Imagining what I want out of it for myself, for my loved ones. What kind of partner I want to attract. What kind of person I want to become. I can see a few vague shapes in the crystal ball. Nothing clear yet. But, for now, being able to see anything at all is enough to keep me going.

And it’s enough to prove to me that The Voice is full of shit.

Attempts at Monogamy

Mourning Doves
mate for life.
We have a pair
that returns to our courtyard
each Spring.
The thing is
they’re kind of stupid
fluttering clumsily about
for most of the season
falling off awnings
stutter-cooing as they try to hump
while their tiny eggs
splatter
on walkways.

I wonder
how they manage to stay alive
and like to think they fare better
in the wild.

But I can’t imagine
how.

Helena No. 2: Part II

The day after I spoke with Rosemary, I got caught up in new student orientation–500 incoming freshmen and their families (all filled with questions and excitement) streaming onto campus.

I was finally able to look Jean up on Monday. As Rosemary suspected, she was deceased. But her passing was not recent. We had the date of her death listed in 1965—exaclty 15 years after their graduation. And I could see that Jean was 36 when she died, only two months younger than I am now. There was no other information available in our system.

My heart was heavy at the thought of having to deliver this news, when the phone rang. It was Rosemary.

Without thinking how it might sound to an 88-year-old stranger, I blurted out No way! You’re psychic. 

She’d heard that before.

My sadness was gone, replaced by the mutual curiosity that sprang up. We talked about Jean, trying to suss out more clues. They also went to high school together, in South Pasadena. And she remembered the name of a husband.

Then she told me about her own marriage right out of college. She and Fred were wed on a Friday, had their honeymoon over the weekend, and went back to work on Monday.

I said, That’s not much of a honeymoon!

Well, she replied, The next 40 years were a honeymoon, so that’s alright.

That’s when I started crying (for the second time that day), while my cubicle neighbor politely pretended not to notice.

Rosemary was pregnant with their first child when she and Fred had to move into the still-desolate 1950’s San Fernando Valley so he could take a branch manager position at a new Bank of America location.

He felt terrible, she said. He kept apologizing. There wasn’t anything there! It was all orange groves and black widow spiders.

And they didn’t have a penny. But like many others who were a product of the Depression, she knew how to be resourceful. She said, Oh, the women in the family had taught us lots of things to help. Like what? Well, when the sheets got worn in the middle, we’d cut ’em in half and sew the edges back together, and we’d have a new sheet!

Brilliant, I told her.

She said, I don’t know about that. But it wasn’t too bad, once you got used to sleeping with the seam down the middle.

I love ideas like this. And she’s got plenty more, she tells me. Ideas for what to do with bone marrow. I cut in, eager to show my appreciation—And then you use the rest for stock!

Rosemary laughs, That’s right! Maybe we should write a book.

This was all surprising to hear from an older alum—typically a population that I think of as well-heeled. But she had been through her share of adversity. Three children living, one lost. Widowed. Then the stroke. And then a fall that shattered half her body and took nearly a year to recover from. But she’s no delicate flower; never was. Started the first ladies football team at the college in 1949; they trained with the male players for weeks. But the night of the big game, they found that the men’s helmets were too large, kept falling over their eyes, and then it started pouring rain, and someone ran out with wool blankets to cover the girls, and they piled into a couple of jeeps and got a ride back to the Gamma house.

Gamma house. That’s where she remembered Jean best. About 5’7″, slim and athletic. A bit mysterious.

She just wants to know what happened. It eats at her not knowing. She wants to update the High School alumni page with an obituary (most of them just have obituaries now), because without one it’s like you’ve simply been forgotten—and Jean shouldn’t be forgotten.

She said, I don’t know why this is such a fixation. It’s one of those questionless answers, I guess, and explained:

It’s funny, when you live as long as I have, you find that the answers sometimes come first—all these answers to questions you never knew you had. Or really, you haven’t had yet. You just have to go on long enough for the questions to become clear.

I told her that I’d be happy to help her solve the mystery, if she could bear with me a little longer while I researched in my free time.

And she said that’d be fine. I’m not sure what he has planned for me, but I know he isn’t finished with me yet. She promised to stick around long enough for me to find the answers (or the questions, whichever came first).

Get Up Every Morning

Today was great. I woke up hella Mortality Hungover but wound up strangely life-affirmed.

First things first: RIP Gene Wilder. Also, to the Gen X kids like me whose childhood is finally dead, let’s take this discussion offline and talk about why growing up took so damn long (we will be screening Stranger Things and serving New York Seltzer).

When I left work yesterday, I was crushed. By everything. Everyone I love will die. Everything ends. Every icon is mortal. Fallible. In your great Fairytale, the Prince sometimes has 4 wives (3 of whom are not Gilda Radner).

I had myself a good cry (like, a really good one, with a towel over my face and everything) and then I had a hot epsom salt and lavender oil bath. I stayed perfectly sober. I stretched and rubbed out the muscles in my back that have been causing tremendous pain for the last week or so. And then I went to bed.

I woke up still feeling flat. Just, sort of like a steamrolled cartoon character. But then Carole King’s annoying ass was singing in my head, telling me that I’ve got to get up and show the world all the love in my heart. And I heard Willy Wonka and Mr. Rogers chiming in, and Jim Henson was just standing in the back with Kermit the Frog draped over his hand.

So I got up. And took my shower. And drove to work, which is mercifully close to home (and filled with many people that I enjoy seeing each day).

And I was thankful that I could face this life without feeling it was entirely hopeless.

(I also talked to Rosemary and it was incredible, but that is a post for tomorrow. The short version: Jane is deceased. But we are alive.)

Helena No. 2

There are a lot of things I adore about my current day job at a small liberal arts college near my home in Northeast Los Angeles. Like the exceptionally beautiful campus, the dedicated staff, and the secret vending machine that still sells sodas for just $1.00. I treasure the architecture and the history. But more than anything, I enjoy getting to interact with Alums–specifically the “50 Year Club” (those who graduated 50+ years ago).

There’s a great paradox in the demeanor of seniors–you’d think that, as our time runs out, we’d be in a greater hurry. But if you’ve ever stood in line behind a blue-haired lady at the post office, you know the opposite is true. They spin their yarns while buying the stamps they could just as easily purchase from a kiosk in the hallway. Are they lonely? Bored? Hoping to share what they know with as many as possible?

I’m not sure.

But today, I took one such call.

It was about fifteen minutes. At first, I was annoyed. I had tasks to complete, just wanted to know what she needed. But she was in no rush.

This alum (I’ll call her Rosemary) was hoping to find out whether one of her classmates (I’ll call her Jane) was deceased. Those are, sadly, some of the most common inquiries we receive. As we chatted, Rosemary told me about her ideas for 50 Year Club memorabilia (a money clip, a bracelet charm, or a tie pin–do people still use those, she wondered?) and about her life. Four years ago, at 84, she’d suffered a stroke. I could hear it as she spoke, lips heavy on one side. But she recovered (as well as could be expected), and now she is developing the Alumni website for her class. Yes, she emails. But please don’t sign her up for those pain-in-the-ass newsletters. Only tell her if Jane is living or dead, so she can update the attendee list for next year’s reunion.

Because I listened, she was happy. Rosemary asked my name towards the end of the call.

Helena?

She’d only known one other Helena in her life.

In Minnesota, when she was a girl, there was a young woman–a French woman–she knew, called Helena. During the 1930’s, Helena had her own job. In a department store. At the cosmetics counter! And what a sophisticated woman she was. Rosemary still recalls the smell of perfume, the glamour wafting about Helena.

I said, I’m happy to be in such company.

I said, You made my day.

Tomorrow, first thing, I’ll look up the classmate she inquired about. There is only a small bit of pertinent data: DECEASED=Yes/No. I hope that I’ll have happy news for Rosemary. But, if I don’t, I’ll still write back and let her know that I’m glad she called.

You Are Never Ready

So I kept waiting to be “ready” with each potential post–to master the nuance, to perfect the wording, to simply be prepared to share more with you. PRO TIP: That day will never come. Those entries are wilting in my journal, the bloom fallen.

Instead, I commit to share what someone has kindly called the “raw” state of my writing and thought with you–as it is. My plan is to scan these each right from the actual journal, but for now I will just share what I can. Better to start imperfectly than never begin at all.

 

DINNERTIME

I listen to
the forks and knives
of normalcy
outside my window
welcoming one another
to the table
and talking about their day.
My reality
is solitary metal
dragged across
ancient china.
Nails grating
on the chalkboard
of harmony.
But my truth
is silent
still
waiting
to be heard.

 

 

“A” for Effort

A Teachable Moment

That Autumn we covered miles together
crossing invisible lines in the dark
between New Mexico and Texas
Mississippi and Tennessee.

You taught me things
I should have learned long ago
but never did.
A truer version of America’s Evolution
filled with exploitation
revolution
and pain.
Finally
making History
something I could relate to.

In exchange for these lessons,
I stayed late.
Much longer than I should have.
To pound the dusty erasers
wipe her name from the blackboard
and sharpen pencils
(each day aiming for perfection
but putting too fine a point on them
every time).

Then without warning
you confiscated my laugh,
keeping it locked
in your bottom desk drawer
until well after Winter and Spring had passed.

By the time I was dismissed
I’d forgotten all about it.
You were just gone
and it was just there
sitting in my chair
stiff from disuse.

So I took it home
and practiced all Summer
until it was better than before.

Next Fall
I hope
things will be different.

1995

I wrote this a little after my 16th birthday. I wish I could go back in time and teach this girl how to feel better about herself. But I guess I sort of did. If you were similarly lost at some point, Past and Present Helena send this poem and a lot of love to that kid.

 

Who’re You Callin’ Kid? 

I am
remembering the fanatic outside.
She held a sign
calling me a cold-blooded murderer.
Maybe she’s right
and I could be wrong.
Some things
are easier to make sense of
than others.
I may be a killer
but I’m not a fiend.
If there’s a heart in me
I know it’s been broke.
If there’s a god somewhere
I hope we don’t meet.
I’ve gotten so worn
from being run through the wringer—
is it for better or worse?
You tell me
since I don’t know.
Rethinking that
keep it to yourself
because I don’t care.
They say I’m a kid
but I don’t think so
because when you’re sleepwalking
through a nightmare
it’s hard to remember
Innocence
and Mirth
or that there was ever a child
inside.
I may be a phoenix
but I’m still not beautiful.
I may be the wild card
but your hand’s still jack shit.
I may be a girl
or a woman
or a cold-blooded killer—
but whatever I am
I’m not a kid.

Beans, beans, good for your heart.

I promise I still have lots of angry love/hate poems about boys, but for now I wanted to share one on the topic I had not been able to address in my work before.

As for the post title, I know there is a long-running “magical fruit” vs. “good for your heart” debate, and this is just one opinion. The important thing is that we can all agree that we will soon be ready for a whole new meal, thanks to beans.
Magic

the night
has long been my enemy.
darkness never silent enough.

each sound
is the man with the knife
come back to finish what he started
and dreams are torture chambers
filled with blood
that wake me sweating
into every fresh sheet,
screaming pillow-deep.

when I drove away
from the underpass
I cried
no and no and no
like denial might undo
the hours of captivity.
like no could revoke reality.

I drew his face in my journal
so I’d remember it for police
but then I hated him there
looking up at me
each time I tried to turn the page.

so I tore it out.

but the jagged edge was worse.
its teeth ate all my words.

and after the hypnotist said
she couldn’t make me forget
I found a good deal on amnesia.

the only catch
was in the fine print:
to forget him
I had to forget myself.

my laughter
color
poetry—
I signed away
for a handful of beans
which I then buried
and nurtured with care:
they were watered with whiskey,
kept out of full sun,
their soil enriched with the futility
of endeavors abandoned
before they’d begun.

and I guess it half-worked
because 13 years later
I hardly knew my own name
but when I saw the photo lineup
I remembered his face
just the same.

I fell upon my patch of dirt
and cried into the earth.

It was only then
pouring pain earnestly forward
giving the seeds what
they were owed—
a torrent of tears
I’d kept in since 17—
that something blossomed
gently

very gently

saying
please
and thank you

goodbye
and hello