I leave the house too late and drive aggressively to make up time. It’s 11:16 am and class begins in minutes. I whip into a spot, park and dig for change. The sun warms me as I gather my things, get out and slip the silver coins into the slot. I jog up the stairs to the studio, flip-flops thwapping. My bags slip off my shoulders into the crease of my arm. I juggle my keys, water, sunglasses. Others seem to saunter in with minimal belongings and ease. I wonder why I always travel like a sherpa, prepared for many Maybes.
Once in the studio, the heat and humidity of the last class greet me. The scent of sweat hangs in the air. I find an empty metal hook and hang my things. I enter the room.
I find a spot and unroll my yoga mat. My mental chatter clanks about:
Why is there so much fuzz on my mat
and when will I be able to do a handstand
and my frizzy hair is in my face
and of course NOW I remember the things I was supposed to do that I didn’t
and back fat
and schedule the doctors appointments
and buy snacks for the thing
and oh the painful interaction with the kids
And. And. And. And. And.
The thoughts, while predictable, are irksome.
When I was younger, I thought A Perfect Life was an achievable station. I honestly believed that if I could just do it right, and find the right partner, career, pants, and exercise, I could unlock the code. Life would be easy. That the moment would arrive when everything was aligned and stress-free. It’s a compelling, albiet maddening, belief.
I step onto my mat. I never know quite what to expect. Sometimes it’s a magic carpet that whisks me away and others it’s a fun house with distorted mirrors and maniacal laughter.
I fold forward, tie up my hair and feel the stretch of my hamstrings. Sharp inhale. I breathe. I try to nod to the pinging thoughts and tell myself that they are normal. That I am normal.
Class begins. The lights are low. The dimness allows me to begin focusing on my breath while I try to quiet the negatives–my critiques of my physical imperfections, my wavering self-esteem, or the CouldaShouldaWouldas.
You’ve made it to your mat, given yourself an hour to reconnect with your breath. My yoga teacher curates this space for us. His quiet wisdom permeates as he supports us and our practice with quiet encouragement, guidance and acceptance. He welcomes us exactly as we are. A stark brick wall holds our space to the right. A sparse light fixture is affixed to the bricks, a bare filament glowing within. I often focus on this as I attempt to Be Where I Am and breathe.
A yoga practice constantly evolves. When I first started, I learned the basic poses. After I gained that elementary understanding, I would work so hard to get into new poses. And when I accomplished that, I would realize in order to hold the pose that I also held my breath. I am fairly certain that breath-holding is the exact opposite of yoga. I realized how much I needed to learn about breathing. Funny, isn’t it? Breathing is our first task after making our way into the world. But here I was, learning to breathe. Or, maybe better stated, I was UNlearning to breathe. I needed to stop holding it–breath doesn’t need to be held. It needs to be received and expelled, accepted and let go.
Each student comes to class with bags full of their own life, bringing all of their emotion with them. Grief. Joy. Blah. Hunger. Contentment. Energy. Anger. Over-caffeination. Exhaustion. Excitement.
Each time I arrive, I am self-involved. I am my own axis in my own world. During the course of a practice, a shift occurs. The low lights blur the edges between our lives, between me and them. Our breath softens the stark edges of separateness. As we flow through our class, we morph into a living, breathing unit. Like twilight where daytime and nighttime coexist, the edges of our oneness smudge into a collective WE.
I go into down-dog and my eyes flicker open. A woman with a beautifully athletic body practices several rows away. I envy her svelte stomach, her smooth back, her grace. I am immediately angry. I am pissed at my belly fat and back bulge. I am pissed about my spreading ass. Damn french fries and diet coke and red wine and chocolate. And chin hairs. Damn gravity.
Jagged fragments of past hurts tumble into unkempt piles at my pale feet, an unresolved jumble of swollen puzzle pieces. A shameful pang sears as I remember how I handled my anger, or how I was too sensitive, or too certain.
A pose becomes too hard. I sink into child’s pose to rest.
I remember when I was learning how to do crow pose. In crow, or Bakasana, you squat low to the ground and place your hands firmly on your mat. You then bend your arms and place your knees on the backs of your arms, on your triceps. When done correctly, you lean forward and balance on your arms. Your feet suspend in the air and you hold the pose. My initial attempts were clumsy, at best. I tettered. I tottered. I fell, usually back onto my feet. One time I fell forward and my head firmly hit the hardwood floor. And it hurt. An Ouch, That HURT escaped my lips. Then, a giggle because somehow falling on my head struck me as funny, as did the fact that I spoke out loud in yoga practice.
Not until I put these words to paper did I realize that this all took place with acceptance–without judgment or my usual attachment to perfectionism. Each time Bakasana was a part of my practice, I’d try again. One of my big toes would leave the mat, the other big toe would leave the mat and I’d get the pose for a half second. Enough. Each half second built and then, one day, I held crow pose. Or maybe, it held me.
I flow through my practice. An essay idea saunters down through the clanging in my head, tempting me with a glimpse at a first sentence. That creative rush flushes my brain, swilling like smoke and whiskey, whispering promises of tomorrow. It’ll be epic. Powerful. BRILLIANT. I fall hard for these first words. But when I later try to capture them, they’re illusive; that sexy sentence is unwilling to commit.
A fellow yogi practices next to me and exhales a contented sigh, and I imagine a smile tugging at her mouth’s corners. Her exhale reminds me that in this space, 37 other lives are being lived, thoughts are being thought, bodies are being judged, worths are being questioned. My yoga teacher often says that by being connected to our own breath, we give others around us more strength, more sustenance.
Her exhale encourages my breath to take charge, stoking and building. I allow it to chart my course.
The beginning strains of Mumford & Sons Awake My Soul fill the space,
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
I unspool into half-moon. My foot grounds to the earth while I hold hands with the sun, my head stretches west to the Rockies, my other foot reaches east to the Atlantic.Then, I feel
The nothingness. The everything. The being. Not back there, not yesterday, not tomorrow or this evening. Now.
How is it that this moment holds such a paradox–simultaneously holding everything and nothing? I started out controlling my breath and then my breath takes charge and in so doing, allows me to let go.
I’ve become a compass and my breath is my true north.
I continue riding the fire and flow into revolving half twist. My hand anchors to the ground and tributaries of sweat stream down my arms, around my biceps. My arm is a land of its own, salt mines and follicles. My breath sweeps me away and back to the moment and suddenly, I am once again whole.
I am invincible. STRONG. Powerful beyond measure. I am the Fabulous Tattooed Woman who Says Dig when I tell her I enjoyed practicing next to her and that her body art inspired me. I am the Woman Who Just Gave Birth, with young toddlers underfoot, round with life and breasts heavy with milk. I am the Woman Who Shuffles aimlessly, ragged skirt over ripped pants, shoes two sizes too big, her eyes two empty pools. I am a Mother, cleaved in two as she mourns the loss of her son, her grief haunting every moment. I am the Artist Living and Working in a loft in Brooklyn, rough-hewn hard wood floors at her feet, vast, pebbly canvases stretching before her. In each hand she holds a huge paint brush, thick with vivid color. Her slight arms are instruments of the world.
I head home, the sunroof open. Wind and sun whips about the car. I have the urge to lie down in the grass to feel the slight tug of the earth’s spin and the curve of her belly. Instead, I begin to tend, once again, to the particulars of my life. The blinds to be hung. Screen time limits to be set. Judgments. Groceries to purchase and dust bunny colonies to evict. The ToDos, the hard stuff, the good stuff. But because of my time on my mat, communing with my breath and the breath of those with whom I practice, I have shifted.
I turn this thought over in my mind: such a thin, porous membrane separates each of us and everything. When I begin to see hard lines separating me from others, my yoga practice reminds me to try to see oneness. I struggle. I’m an asshole. I forget. I react. I’m still human, but I am reminded that a breath has the power not only to give sustenance and life, but acceptance.
This life. It’s a hard, sad, glorious ride.
These edges of life are softened by breath. I use the earth to ground and then she allows me to rebound and shine brightly. She holds a space for all of it, all of us, all of me.
I am a part of it all. This life. This living. One breath. One light. One.
Really, you’re quite impressive.
The way you attempt to take down legions of innocent people, pawns in your dangerous game.
And the way you reinvent yourself? I mean, really. Sometimes you knock people down with tsunami force and other times you lurk about. Sometimes you arrive when it makes sense, when one of us would think we’d be depressed; others, you descend slowly, Just Because!, like a fucked-up little greeting card. You remind me of a superbug, ever-changing to keep yourself alive.
I’ve been talking to people–lots of people–and you know what? We’re onto you. We’re tired of you pushing us down into the dark depths as you float effortlessly along. We’re tired of you taking over our thoughts and telling your compelling lies– when we try to sleep, when we’ve finally made it to savasana , when we’re dicing the onions, when we’re making that funny putting-on-mascara face, when we’re talking to friends, when we’re riding the bus, when we’re on a conference call, when our thoughts are a skipping record of doubt. We’re tired of you making us compare ourselves to everyone else. We’re tired of being tired. We’re tired of you belittling our contributions.
Even though you throw equal parts shame and self-loathing at your victims, and even though you attempt to mute us with your promises that no one could ever love us if they knew the depth of our suffering, we’re NOT going to be quiet.
Nope. No fucking way.
My children, and my life as their mother, are what brought me to my writing practice. When they stopped being young kiddos, I decided that their private lives were theirs, not fodder for my writing. And while I wouldn’t change this decision, it’s tough because I’m still their mother, I’m still trying to figure it all out, and I still want to write our stories. While each kid is unique and faces their own challenges, there’s so much universality in this experience.
Parenting a 12-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy provides ample fodder that can unify parents everywhere. I could share my story, you could share yours, we could all nod in recognition at the parental struggles and heart aches we all endure. We’d all feel more normal together.
So many of us are out there, doing our best. Mothers, fathers, care givers. We try, try and try again. We breathe. We mess up. We step in it and hopefully, fess up, and try yet again.
Parenting is HARD. I wonder if, when I was pregnant, someone had tried to explain the pain, joy, frustration, love, redirection, strategizing, and hand-wringing, if I’d have been able to hear it.
“Some days will be a real be a shit show, Denise.”
“Some days, you’ll lose it and scream.”
“Other days, you’ll walk a bit taller because you didn’t lose your shit when you were clearly handed an embossed invitation to Lose Your Shit.”
“Some days, you’ll cry. Hard.”
“Some days, you’ll get into heated debates about how Cheezits do not constitute a healthy, quick lunch.”
“Some days, your kid will hurt so much and as a result, you’ll hurt so much. You’ll worry and wish you had a working magic wand that could banish their pain. But then you’ll realize that you wouldn’t. Because that pain creates their best opportunities to grow.”
“Some moments you will look at your child in awe and a velvety rush will spread through your heart and chest and you’ll try your damndest to etch all of it– the curve of their forehead, the scent of their damp hair, the cadence of their voice, the feel of their body curving into yours–into your permanent memory. But you won’t be able to. You’ll remember the essence of it but the exact feelings and emotions will flee, just like their childhood.”
“Some days you’ll be blown away by the audacity of the words your children dare to let leave their lips.”
“Some days you’ll be certain you are absolutely the least qualified person to be a parent.”
“Some days your children will slay you with their insights, their compassion, their light.”
“Some days you will need to just shut up and listen.”
“Some days, only one word will explain this long, strange trip: hormones.”
Those rough days? I carry them in my hips, shoulders and mind. I squirrel away all the frustration and bury it deep within. Neglect allows it to flourish, growing in knots, tightness and shattered patience. Lately, the one thing that keeps me grounded is my yoga practice. I unroll my mat and hope to find myself.
When I first started my practice, I was truly a beginner. Each Sanskrit phrase was an unidentifiable string of letters which left me searching over my sweaty shoulder, squinting in the muted light, looking for someone who knew what Ukatasana or Side Archer were. I was a foreigner traveling in a strange land. I used their bodies as maps, to place my arms, my legs. I often held my breath. These strangers were warm, unknowing guides on my journey.
I walk into the yoga studio and pad across the warm hardwood floor to my favorite spot, closest to the exposed brick wall. The light peeks in from behind the blinds. Other students are there preparing to practice. I unroll my mat and my thoughts ping about. I begin to unpack my limbs and breath. I stretch.
My teacher greets us. He asks us to take a pose and we all meet there, together in a sacred space but alone. The room holds the sounds of popping joints, moving bodies and adjustments. Some exhales. Low music plays and the warmth begins to build. We breathe. My breath is taught and terse. He welcomes us to acknowledge the gift we’ve given ourselves, this gift of an hour to reconnect to our breath. To explore our edges on the mat so we can accept the inevitable edges off the mat.
I lift my hips into Down Dog. I smugly think of my own edges. Maybe I’ll find some extra breath here. Some extra patience.
Now that I’ve practiced for awhile, I have a basic understanding of the Sanskrit and my body often knows the way. I can close my eyes and allow my breath to map my course. I still have so much to learn–and I know now that I will always be a beginner. So much calm to gain. Strength to gain. Grounding to gain. And in order to achieve it, I must show up on my black mat and begin again and again and again.
After practice, we roll our mats and step out of the studio and into the vestibule. The lights and our voices are low. Yogis shuffle by. We stand in our sweaty clothes, in our bare feet, with wet tendrils of hair matted to our foreheads, and we talk. Those who were once physical guides when I started my practice have become much more.
We are absent the usual trappings of life and stand somewhat exposed. We share. Truths about how challenging raising children can be. Truths about how we meet our Edge on our mats and how we then practice breathing through the edges off of our mats. How we fail and begin again. How we all struggle. Our souls seem to mingle in that open space and in each other, we see ourselves.
Two beautiful, powerful words that ground me and allow me to exhale. A hand reached out; a nod to the humanity of our shared parental experience. My friends’ stories provide sustenance on the long road. I’m not the only one who doesn’t have all the answers. I’m not the only one. There’s so much comfort in knowing you’re not alone.
Each day I’m a beginner. Each time I show up to my mat, I’m learning a new pose, or pushing to a new level and still finding edges, each and every time. I’m failing each time. I’m trying each time. Each morning, I’m meeting a new iteration of my children, and they me. We’re pushing to a new level. As my sage yogi said in class this week, we are always figuring out how much to push and how much to let go. Every time. Just as I was a beginner when my children were born, I’m a beginner once again. Each day unfolds and I practice. Pushing and letting go.
Shortly after we’d decked the halls, Abby and Henry were talking about how the holidays make them happy. Henry then extrapolated, twinkly lights reflecting on his thoughtful face, that it made everyone happier.
I explained that I didn’t think it made everyone happier. That it may make some people a bit sad. A notion, I knew, that would sound clunky and foreign to him.
As I sip my morning coffee, I look at my window and see the rain raining and the grey sky lounging just over my tree tops. I think about the holidays and about the beliefs I hold about The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Even though I know better, I still get swept up in the belief that it’s all glowy and dewy and sparkly and fun. HAPPY. And then, I’m disappointed when it’s not all that way because of course, it can’t all be that way.
Depression and anxiety don’t have a calendar. They’re don’t respect holidays or birthdays or special occasions. They don’t take vacations (unless, of course, they’re climbing into my suitcase).
Wait, maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe, MAYBE, they DO have a calendar, stealthily planning and organizing guerrilla tactics to attack when they’re least expected.
Oooh, Christmas Eve. She won’t see us coming then. We’ll weasel around the tree like the Grinch and steal her happiness. Or…WAIT! What about a New Year’s Eve ambush? When she’s surrounded by bright, warm smiles, Auld Lang Syne and people she loves?
When everything, on paper, is happy. When all the damn ducks are in a row, when the gifts are wrapped, Nat King Cole is swooning on the Pandora station and a candle flickers on the kitchen island. When a warm meal sits on the table and family gathers and then our bellies are full and the Christmas tree glows.
THAT’S when it strikes. And you know what’s awesome? That depression and anxiety, those ardent fuckers, bring their BFF Judgey McJudge Judge with them. She swoops in bringing self-recrimination, criticism and loathing.
Seriously? You’re sad NOW? What the hell? I mean, look at all you have to be happy about. Remember the warm candle and the twinkling lights? Hello!?!?
This pressure that I apply to both myself and this season is absurd. My expectations, the holiday hype, the shoulds and my snarky monologue make me feel pushed from the outside in and the inside out. I suspect I’m not alone.
The other night, I was sad. Not despondent, but melancholy. I was just home from a festive, fun party. Yet, I was a bit forlorn. For no reason. I was agitated and pissy. Was it the beginning of depression? Or just a sad day? Good questions but ones I cannot answer. That’s the pickle of this disease–sometimes, when you’ve lived with it for long enough, you’re not sure. I view my life through my own lens, and it’s tough to know if it’s me or the depression focusing the dials.
Like smokey anticipation sitting just atop the whiskey, the darkness has companions. Gritty, charcoal swills deep within the snow. A sense of otherness. Maybe it’s the shadow of the retreated light. Or maybe it’s a shroud, a tent, an escape, a gateway to something else. Or, perhaps, darkness is a season unto itself.
So, after the party, I found myself lying on my bedroom floor, staring out the window. Twilight fell. Dusk dimmed my room. Legs and arms stretched. Trees stretched just outside. I settled into my emotions. Sad. Melancholy. Agitated. I named them. Had a little Meet & Greet. Hello, ardent fuckers. I stretched a bit more. And breathed.
In that quiet moment, I allowed myself to feel. I gave the yuck and the melancholy and the ardent fuckers time and space. Then I got up and moved on. I’m still a bit amazed. But this is another iteration on my journey, of the lesson I learn again and again (and again and again): I am practicing. The more light I bring to these dark corners lessens the reigning power of Depression, Anxiety and Judgey McJudge Judge.
I know that the dark provides a platform on which the light can shine. A fissure in the charcoal clouds and then a spike of brilliant sun. I’m paying attention to their meeting places: the blurred line between night and dawn and the necessity of each. Small flickers of compassion. A bit of light amidst the dark. A twinkle on a dark winter’s night.
I really wish, sometimes, that I couldn’t write with personal authority on the topics.
But since I can (and shit howdy can I), I feel I must. Each time someone who suffers from mental illness talks about it, I believe it breathes air into further conversation, understanding and leads to a general softening.
We’ve made a lot of progress. When I reflect upon those that suffered in past decades, I am grateful for the medical (I’m looking at you, Zoloft and Xanax) and societal advances. While I am grateful for those, I still see oodles of room for change and progress.
Last week, depression nudged its way in. I was low. The sun shone brightly. The temperatures soared in the high 70s. I was otherwise healthy and strong. Except that I wasn’t. I was depressed. It pounded through my veins. It weighted decisions, even the smallest that seemed like they should be so easy to lift. My ToDo list loomed. It took my patience and my sense of humor hostage. I did yoga. I ran. I did yoga. I ran. I stretched. I breathed. I took my meds. And I was still depressed.
My usual arsenal of Feel Goods didn’t. Not at all. Like a superbug, my depression and anxiety were outsmarting my most ardent (and vetted!) attempts to keep it at bay.*
Hey, how are you?
My gosh how I both yearn to answer this question honestly and yearn to have a different answer. Do I respond with, Shitty, actually. I’m depressed with a heaping side of anxiety and it totally sucks. ??? And I could then sing my famous rendition of Every party has a pooper that’s why you invited me, Party Pooper, Party Pooper!
It’s a fast way to suck the air right out of a conversation. (I feel it important for me to note here that I have dear family and friends with whom I can and do discuss my challenges, just as they discuss theirs with me.) But what if, just like one may share prognosis and diagnosis of other, more socially acceptable health ailments, what if those that are depressed could do the same?
I’d like to try.
We’ve made a lot of progress as a society and that’s good, but we’ve a far way to go. We don’t have a social construct for discussing mental illness. We, the depressed/anxious/MentalIllnessSuffering people, don’t have experience saying it and we, the people, don’t have experience responding to such disclosures. I don’t blame Us, I just want to find a gentler way, one that involves heart-felt listening. A hug. A check-in.
It’s never easy, is it? I think of all the times throughout my life when I would like to rescript my responses to assorted disclosures from friends. The taste of leather still lingers in my memories from my own foot-in-mouth experiences. But the only way I’ve gotten better at responding is through practice. I still mess up. I still keep trying.
Many don’t know what to say and when the fear of Saying the Wrong Thing sluices through our thoughts, many say nothing. My friend, Lisa Adams, wrote about this on her blog, during her illness with metastatic breast cancer. While each of us is an individual and we all need varying forms of support, I believe the macro level take-away is this: love.
One summer, three years ago, I had a call-back on my mammogram (and have been called back three times since). The scrub-clad nurses assured me when I was in for my initial screening that many times, women are called back in for additional imaging. So when I got the call-back, I tried to be calm. I breathed my way through the days leading to the second appointment, through the second mammogram, and furiously flipped through the pages of People as I waited while they read my new films.
Then, the calm nurse came and said that I needed to have even more imaging. An ultrasound. In the soft-lit room, I laid back and the paper crinkled and I remembered the last time I had an ultrasound, under much more cheerful circumstances. I remembered hearing Abby’s rapid heart beat, and then Henry’s. I tried to remember that sub-aquatic sound of in utero heart beats. I tried to not think I had cancer. It wasn’t working.
The nurse said she would review these images with the doctor and come back to let me know if I needed any more tests. I am an expert at going a long-way-down an imagined, rocky road. In my mind, I was scheduling biopsies, I was wondering how I would tell my husband and kids. I didn’t have ANY information yet I had packed my bags and traveled far.
I propped myself up on an elbow, scrounged for my phone in my purse and texted Lisa. My phone illuminated me in my cotton gown and my fingers flew as I explained to her what was happening. I told her I was scared. She responded with three words:
i am here.
I swiped a tear.
I recognized the absolute beauty, brilliance and love of those three little words. I. Am. Here.
(The nurse came back in, shortly after Lisa and I texted, and told me I was fine. I could go. That was it. They’d see me next year for my annual exam. Lisa’s outcome was different; her death left a hole in my world. I miss her so much.)
Casseroles for depression.
We (especially women) nourish each other when one of our own hurts. We circle our proverbial wagons and bake chocolate chip cookies, drop off lasagnas, chicken tetrazzini, baked ziti and more, with post-it note instructions, Bake for 25 minutes at 350. Thinking of you. xoxo . Broken legs, surgery, death, heart break, divorce. With our comfort foods, bouquets of flowers and reassuring texts, we attempt to soften the unimaginable, the hurt, the loss, the pain.
I am not good at telling others that I am depressed or anxious. I suck, actually. I’ve said to friends, You know, there are no casseroles for depression. I think we could change that. It must start with those that suffer. It starts with the brave utterance, I’m struggling. I’m having a rough time.
And the equally brave response, I am here.
My wish is that we could tip the conversational model. If someone is struggling with mental illness that they can say it. That someone they choose to tell can receive it. It won’t be easy. Some or many may not know what to say. But may I suggest,
I am here.
I am here.
I am here.
** This week is lighter, brighter and better. Clouds parted and I feel once again like myself. Now I’m flipping depression the bird.
Several years ago, I some powerful essays on this topic by The Bloggess:
Thank you, Jenny Lawson, for paving the way. I am grateful.
the weak spot is considered the
place to strike
emotion to veil
stock to sell
mold to fill
why is the trudging, the opposite of fine,
grief, darkness, depression, pain
admittance, foible, fallibility seen as
What if the softest most tender
What if every expression of emotion/
in all its varied forms
breaks open, waves hitting and
knocking down, mouths filling with salt water
hair mats with the ocean’s foam
and sand in every crevice.
What if with my tears and its tears and every
tear shed like a holy baptism of acceptance/
arms splayed open, pummeled
What if the moment when the tears
hiding in the throat’s middle chamber
in a ball growing exponentially with each
threatening to rip open
the vessel finally free at last.
What if once released and let out of its cage,
rusty hinges creaking their protest
the torrents rage and
throat opens and
a melody so ethereal unfolds in its place.
What if the pain and the truth mixed by the
light of our witness
washes everyone touches everyone/
where we rest our
weary bodies and
rocks cool, smooth on the bottoms of our feet
relief splashing, weights dissipating, strong
from the journey
breathing in the torrents of
I’ll tell you something.
I collect a lot things:
Tshirts, in towering soft stacks in my closet.
Nature’s hearts — rocks, leaves, tiny sea shells–which I keep in a small bowl by my kitchen sink.
Quotes that stun me, stop me, inspire me–written on whatever I can record them on or in.
New words, written diagonally on scraps of paper to Look Up and Remember, tucked in notebooks, library books, surrounding my desk.
Slights, negative words, sentences and thoughts–anything negative about me. This last collection is vast, kept in the daily dredge of my mind.
The Dinner, 1993.
My senior year of college. I’m out to a Really Nice Dinner (not pizza, not cafeteria food, not…pizza.) The restaurant’s rich wood paneling reflecting the soft candle light on our table, which wore a bonafide white linen table cloth. I sat with three men–two men I adored (one, my first love and the other, a dear friend) and my boyfriend’s father. Laughter trickled from our table, our bodies titled toward each other. The wine and the candle light plumed together and pinked my cheeks. I felt–lit up. Pretty. We ate steak and decadent twice baked potatoes. My boyfriend’s father delivered the news from their hometown and family. We learned that his little brother now had a girlfriend. We’re all listening to Mr. Smith, (not his real name) describe Tom’s (not HIS real name) girlfriend and suddenly his eyes fell on me.
“She’s actually a lot like you, Denise.”
I start to fluff up my feathers a bit. I beamed. Then he said,
“She’s kind and nice and not drop-dead-gorgeous.” (Now, in Mr. Smith’s defense, I know my memory has torqued this event, his words. Maybe it was, “She’s lovely and nice and sorta pretty, kinda like you, Denise.” So while I write this as a quote, it most certainly isn’t. But we get his gist: not exceptional, not gorgeous, NOT PRETTY.)
Middle School, 1983.
(Really, I could just end this one here. These two little words stir up such collective angst.) I tell two of my friends that I have the biggest crush on Adam (not his real name, either). Ooooo, they gush and Ohhh, we promise we won’t tell. I swear I can still see his ridiculously long eye lashes revealing his piercing blue eyes. His dimples–OH! his dimples, slices of heaven revealed when he smiled.
One warm spring morning, I walk toward my school. Dewy sunlight spills all around. I realize Adam is walking toward me. ME. My stomach flops and flips and a rush of flush floods my face. He looks into my eyes with his impossibly blue ones and says,
“…Hi,” I reply.
“Do you want to go out with me?”
The sun is now neon bright, all colors are electric and sounds are so loud.
“Yes!” I say. I can feel my smile broaden, lips making that last effort to rise up and over my braces.
A lovely pause, a moment when it’s all true and then,
“Just kidding,” he smiles. He turns away.
Distant giggles escape from behind a cement pillar. The giggles bound off the sidewalk and pavement and hit me like grenades. Adam walks toward that pillar. Two familiar heads pop out from behind the pillar, heads thrown back in laughter. Apparently, the success of their evil plan and my misery are hysterical.
I just stood there. Stunned that the pain was so piercing, yes, but also that this kind of meaness existed.
I’ve even collected negative thoughts that I think people may have thought about me. You may not have known this about me, but I’m a collector of made-up-thoughts-for-other-people.
The Beach, Summer of 2014.
I walk along my beloved ocean’s edge. Hot sun sears my shoulders. I look down and see flabby thighs, pouchy stomach. I see pasty skin and think If I Stand Up Straight I’ll look so much better. Who the FUCK I am to actually wear a bikini at 42? My feet hit the wet sand, I dodge fishermen and pint-sized body surfers. My muffin top jiggles a bit with each step. The air holds salty sea water and Coppertone. A lifeguard stand gets closer; the giant red, wooden structure holds two amazingly golden, gorgeous lifeguards. Brawny. Cool. Indifferent. I walk a bit taller. Maybe they’ll think I’m gorgeous and then BAM My GOD they think you’re a frumpy 42-year-old who should really run JUST A BIT more than the mile it takes you to get the family-owned bakery to eat warm donuts covered in powered sugar with buttercream filling. They see your Picasso-esque face, your deep furrowed brow, wrinkles in stone.
I walk past other innocent pawns, sitting enjoying the shore’s bounty, towels spread languidly on white hot sand. I recruit them into my negative diatribe: the teenaged-girls, the fathers of toddlers, the middle-aged mothers. Because I’m an amazing mind-reader of imaginary thoughts, they all have an imagined insult to add.
And then, there are the times when I feel beautiful. Confident. Sparkly. I may be out with friends and someone snaps a photo. Or, I may pass a store front and glimpse my reflection in its window. In either case, I peer at the image hopefully and instantly wish I hadn’t. Evidence proves, once again, that feeling beautiful and looking beautiful are two very different events. Stupid, I think. Beautiful? Ha. THIS is how you really look. The beauty a mirage, a hoax, pluming away into the air with no way to pull it back.
As I plumb the origins and depths of this habit, I wonder how it began. Of course, life’s events form each of us. But how much? Did these and countless other events, some of which still lie buried in the dark, create this? Did I hoard each negative event, creating this toxic collection? Or, did my anxiety and depression provide the soft, fertile ground for these thoughts to flourish? Which is the chicken? Which is the egg? Somewhere, it all intersects for me and it yields my current reality. A subtle mental fog which alters the way I see my own terrain.
I’ve unwittingly discounted so many lovely sentiments over the years. I brushed them off. Such a disservice, as one wise friend recently told me, to those who took the time to say something kind. I didn’t mean to be ungrateful or rude. Truly. It’s just that my truth lays buried under my collection. I’ve gotten the truth wrong. The negative voice became so ingrained that it impacted how I processed everything. It WAS the process and the filter.
When I passed by a mirror. As I walked down the steps. When meeting someone new. When talking to my children. Or scrubbing dishes. When I glanced at the rows of pants that I haven’t been able to wear comfortably for several months. When I see myself as I step out of the shower, the foggy mirror reflecting an image back to me. Do I know her? Can I see her? Is she me?
I’m slowly clearing the collection and rubble. The dismantling has begun to undermine its authority and power. I’m stepping back and examining each objectively. I stop, shake my head and hold them up to the light.
Windows revealed the wintry night sky. I sat in my flannel-clad bed, duvets cozily tucked all around. My wild curly hair was perched atop my head in a wild bun. I wore my kelly green SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER tshirt and HoHoHo flannel bottoms. Big floppy socks kept my feet warm and happy. My husband walked into our room and over to my side of the bed. He looked at me. The light from my bedside table light illuminated him, warm eyes settled on mine. The thoughts tried to begin, at-the-ready with some mud to sling. Shhhhhh. I refocused. I looked at my husband and then, his eyes. I chose the love I saw there. I locked my own with his.
And I smiled.
“I take a deep breath and sidestep my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet–within the chambers of a quivering heart.”
― Terry Tempest Williams