Lighthouse: The Second Flat Upstairs

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In the next few weeks, I discovered I could return to that quiet connected state whenever I wanted, simply by remembering. Paying attention to what I was doing, doing it as well as I possibly could, that helped, too, bringing in an aspect of internal silence like I experienced that moment down by the seashore when I was nothing and everything.

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I continued reading 77 Truths. I aimed to stay with each one until it became tangible within me, though I admit, some had to germinate inside for decades.

The second truth: I am not my thoughts. That one was easy for me. No graduate from University of Windenburg College of Liberal Arts and Cultural Studies escaped with their thoughts intact: we’d all been deconstructed and reconstructed so many times in our search for the foundations of cultural constructs of gender and identity that we were lucky to ever find any thought we might latch onto and call our own, reflective of our true selves. In those days, especially, when I relished the feeling of stopping my thoughts at every opportunity, and, in doing so, found that I felt more and more alive, it was easy to accept that truth.

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The third truth posed deeper challenges: I am not my feelings or emotions. I’d always found something within me that I clung to when I felt lost or sad or lonely. It was a feeling of home, but not one that came from my actual home, one that I simply recognized as me. It consisted of one part love, one part joy, one part mirth, and two parts melancholy. Decades later, as my hormonal balance shifted with perimenopause, I lost touch with that feeling for close to seven years, until finally, coming out the other side, there it was, waiting for me, like the open door to Grandma’s kitchen when the aroma of oatmeal cookies rushes out in welcome. By then, I’d embodied this truth, and that helped the panic to lessen. By then, I’d learned to be curious about what was there when the glass of my familiar emotional cocktail sat empty. At any rate, that was decades later, and during those early weeks, I simply wondered, “If I am not these emotions that give me my sense of me, then what is me?”

The fourth truth presented an even more difficult riddle: I am not my conditioning. Everything I had learned in college was that, yes, I was my conditioning–as each of us were. Gender, politics, bias, musical preferences, prejudices, beliefs, as well as a significant proportion of personality, and nearly all social identity, derived from familial, social, cultural, and educational conditioning. Strip away that, and what is left? I couldn’t even begin to fathom.

Still, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the blog. Clicking around on the various tabs, I stumbled upon the author’s personal blog, Looking for Love. I laughed at the title–what purpose did an extraterrestrial have for love? Weren’t they all emotionless super-brains, like Mr. Spock?

I read several posts. The writing was sweet, sentimental, and endearing. One post, dated a few years back, reflected on the joys of little things, focusing on his baby brother and the brother’s new puppy. It was surprisingly ordinary and startlingly human.

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I began to realize that maybe I’d been wrong to think that someone not-from-this-planet would not be able to relate to me and the specific challenges I faced as a human. I began to realize that this might be the very person who could help me understand how I could be more fully human. That night, I became a fangirl of Septemus Sevens.

Throughout those weeks, my friendship with Max continued to grow closer. He was always there during my shifts, visiting with me, hanging out with the regulars, befriending Mojo, the neighborhood stray.

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Mojo adored him from the start, and when I watched them together, I could see why. I tried not to feel jealous.

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Max often leaned on the counter while I was filling orders, especially if it was one of those times when I was in the zone, watching me.

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“It’s a joy to watch you at work, byu,” he told me.

“Even when I’m like this?” I asked, giving him my biggest, meanest, toughest scowl. He cracked up, and his laughter made a good day better.

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One evening when I was hanging out there during my off hours, he told me he wanted to show me the flat upstairs, not the one he lived in, but the other one.

“Any day now,” he said, “people might be coming to stay here for a while, and if they come when I’m not around, I might need you to help them get settled in. Can you do that?”

“Sure,” I said. “How will I know who they are?”

“If they say they’ve just come from the cookie store,” he said, “then that’s them.”

The exposed brick walls and simple furnishings lent a cozy feel to the place, bringing back memories of college apartments.

He asked me to make myself at home, and maybe find something we could watch on TV, while he went next door to his flat to check his voice mail. I was flipping through the channels, and when he returned, I’d stopped on a sci-fi movie I remembered from childhood.

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“What on earth is this?” he asked.

I’d been feeling remorseful about the insensitive comments I’d made about extraterrestrials during our conversation a few weeks before and watching the film with him didn’t help.

“Quick! U-bot! Protect us before they freeze us all with death rays!” screamed the actors.

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“This is like every bad stereotype ever made against extraterrestrials,” Max observed.

“I know!” I exclaimed. “This is what I grew up with! Is it any wonder?”

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“Is what any wonder?” he asked.

I turned off the film.

“Is it any wonder that I’m so insensitive and prejudiced?” I asked quietly. He scooted closer and looked at me with half-closed eyes, the way he does when he’s really listening. I told him about my dad and his conspiracy theories. I told him about my mom, who wouldn’t let me go to certain parts of the city, “because they might be there, and you don’t want to mix with them.” I told him about how I always thought that I was open-minded, generous, and nonjudgmental, but that, recently, I’d discovered that prejudices loomed behind nearly every thought, waiting to pounce.

“Did you get to the fourth truth yet?” he asked. “That is, if you’re still reading that blog.”

I told him I had. “But I think I am my conditioning. All these judgments I have–and they don’t even come from me but they’re so tightly wound up inside of me that they’ve become me! I don’t know what to do, how to free myself.”

He smiled. “I’ve been watching and listening, byu. You’re doing a great job!”

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“Really?” I wasn’t sure. I went on to tell him that I’d found the author’s personal blog, Looking for Love, and that it was helping me to see common ground between us and extraterrestrials.

“Did you know that the author is gay?” I asked.

“Pan,” Max answered.

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Pan? I’d thought he was gay. I had a roommate in college who was a panromantic asexual. Every day, he fell in love in an “Aimless Love” sort of way. It made living with him an adventure.

“Panromantic or pansexual?” I asked.

“I’m both,” Max answered, shifting the focus to himself.

“I’m straight,” I replied, needlessly.

“I know,” he said.

“Cishet.”

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I reflected on the tall ladder of privilege I stood on: cishet, white, upper-middle-class background, educated.

Max looked at me with his earnest gaze. “You’re doing just fine, Mallory,” he said. “Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re my sunshine.”

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I took a long walk that evening along the beach. I felt so much. As I walked, I began to notice how I was not these feelings. These feelings stirred within me, threatening to overwhelm me, but I wasn’t these emotions. I wasn’t the guilt, I wasn’t the remorse, I wasn’t this strange giddiness that rose up every time I thought of Max’s gaze, every time I remembered his voice. I wasn’t my privilege. I wasn’t the prejudiced thoughts that battered me whenever the voice of my father spoke inside of me. I wasn’t the lies that movies told me.

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Maybe, I was the girl that looked at the photo of a little extraterrestrial boy holding a puppy and felt, inside of me, the opening of my heart.

Maybe I was the fangirl who was falling in love with the words of someone not-from-this-planet who happened to be able to see into mysteries that somehow beckoned me.

Maybe I was what it was that was seeing this, feeling this, thinking this, experiencing this–and then, it all fled, and I fell into that silence again, where no thoughts tread.

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As I walked back up the trail, a light shone from the window in the house on the bluff.

Someone sat at a computer desk.

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I recognized him from a photo on his personal blog. It was Septemus Sevens, this was where he lived, and my fangirl heart raced.

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Forgotten Art: Norman – Newt 12

A reply to: A letter from Newt

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Newt,

Man. I am so sorry I blew it. Meadow tells me that I should have worked through my feelings first, and then written you. She says it’s OK to write, “Hey, I felt angry when blah-blah-blah,” but that should be written after the anger has been dealt with and dispatched, not in the heat of all the messy feelings.  She said I what I did was “unskilled,” but that’s really her code word for acting like a jerk.

I’m sorry. I’m new at this emotions stuff.

Let’s just put it past us, if we can, and move on.

Congratulations on proposing to Janet. Even bigger congratulations that she accepted! Ha! (Just kidding!)

Also, good move on getting your business plans together! Buying that bar sounds like a really smart decision. Finally, you’ll get out of your dad’s business and do something for you. Makes me happy that we’re both able to rework our careers into something that makes sense for us, rather than simply following our fathers’ plans for us.

I told Ira that you were getting married again.

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I thought it might make her upset, you know, given her past experience with her ex.

She got thoughtful and quiet for a while.

Then, over the next few days, I noticed she became more affectionate than usual. She started telling me what a good thing it was for her and Aari to live here. How she wanted it to be permanent-like. I told her she was a permanent fixture in my heart–there was no getting rid of her. I have become very corny; I’m the first to admit it.

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I noticed her and Aari having a lot of really serious conversations. Once, I overheard her say, “How would you like him as a real dad?”

I got the impression they were talking about me.

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She started dropping hints. Nothing too subtle, because, you know. I’m a guy. Subtle doesn’t work too well on me.

But they were subtle enough that I could pretend it was my idea without getting scared about getting rejected. Ira’s smart that way.

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So I thought about it.

I guess when I learned about Ira’s past, I pretty much kissed any dreams of being legit goodbye. It wasn’t that important to me. Her feeling safe and happy, Aari having a good home–those were the things that mattered to me. And I know, there all sorts of ways to make a family.

But, Newt–I gotta admit! The more I thought about it, the more it brought a smile to my face.

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I realized I should probably talk to Aari first, since it involved her, too. I mean, she and I had a pretty good deal worked out, with me being her designated “PCG” (primary care-giver). I didn’t want to mess that up, and I knew she had all sorts of conflicted feelings about her birth dad.

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But she gave me the green light.

“I know it won’t change anything for bad,” she told me. “Besides, I already think of you as my papa in my head.”

I can’t even express how proud that made me feel.

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Next, I had to be certain that I was sure. Was this really what I wanted for me, or was I just doing it for her, because she’d been dropping those hints?

So I talked it over with an old friend who’s a good listener.

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I realized that it was Ira who’d made me happy all this time. It wasn’t just me, making her feel safe. It was her, and all her magic, making me feel alive.

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I thought of Aari, filling our home with the spunk of a brave and sassy kid, and I can’t imagine this house without her.

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I made up my mind. I’d do it. If you can do it, I can do it.

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Finally, I decided the right moment had arrived.

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I called Aari in to join us. You see, since it involves her, too, I wanted her to be there for the big moment. That way, she’d know I was really taking the whole family, her included, and she wouldn’t feel like she was in the way.

She knew what was up and started giggling like a maniac.

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I got cold feet. Could I really go through with this?

What if it changed everything?

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The old Norm would have left it alone. He would have chickened out and rationalized, “Why fix it if it isn’t broken?”

But the new me thought about what his coach, Newt Murdoch, would say. You’re the guy who encouraged and inspired me to make a change in our business so that it fits me and my ethics, not just my dad’s. You’re the guy who inspired me to get together with Ira in the first place, back when Windenburg’s Most Eligible seemed perennially destined to remain a bachelor.

Heck. I would do it. I thought of you, and I felt brave. Or at least, brave enough.

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I walked back into the living room, and I went the whole nine yards.

I even got down on one knee.

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I made a crazy speech, about collecting toys, collecting hearts, being big kids, being fools. Who knows what I said?

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All I know is that Ira’s eyes went soft and she let out this little noise like a purr, while all along, Aari sat and chuckled quietly.

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I don’t know if it was romantic. It was us. It was goofy and family and so over-brimming full of love, and my heart must have burst about a million times.

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“Catch her, Papa!” Aari yelled, as Ira leapt into my arms, just about knocking me off my feet.

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It wasn’t graceful. It wasn’t smooth.

But it was very, very endearing.

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And pretty silly, too. And so, yes. She did say yes. We haven’t fixed the date yet, but we are engaged. Ira, beautiful, strong, spunky, magical Ira, is going to be my wife, and she is going to let me be her husband.

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Ira told me it was because of you and Janet, moving on and moving past it, that she found the courage to give marriage another try. If the two of you could do it, we could, too.

Newt, can you even think back to our first letter, when both felt like we were living someone else’s life that had been handed to us with a note that said, “Take this, or else?”

Well, my friend, we have kicked those fake lives to the curb. I will say that now, for both of us, we have our lives. Thank you for being my hero, Newt. This is all because of you. You have no idea what a good life coach you are.

Thanks for it all. More than words.

Your soon-to-be-married pal,

Norm

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Septemus 47

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Dear Sept,

You’re back from visiting your sister! I tried not to worry. I didn’t succeed. I worried.

But you came back safe.  You smelled like garlic, but you were safe.

Not every community is as friendly towards extra-terrestrials as ours is. I had no idea what you’d encounter out there. But you seemed thrilled with everything you found.

“Panda’s so adorable,” you said. “So smart, too!”

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I had to ask about the garlic.

“It was Harmony’s doing,” you said. “Do you realize that she’s allergic to the stuff? She broke out in blisters. But she got it to keep me safe when I was travelling back home. And to keep us safe here, too.”

We’ve hung the wreath on the front porch and stored the garlands in the spice drawer. Our home smells like the cellar of an Italian deli now.

“She’s got that quality,” you said.

“What quality, son?”

“That same quality you have. The same as our bizaabgotojo. Where you put someone else’s needs ahead of your own. What’s that quality called, Pops?”

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“That’s called being a parent,” I said.

“It’s the luckiest thing,” you answered. “The luckiest thing in the universe is to have a parent.”

You’re sleeping outside tonight. You said you wanted to be out there where you could feel connected to everybody. You’re such a big kid now, nearly a man, but when I checked on you , curled up on the park bench, sleeping out under the stars so you could hook into the dreams of your pagotogo, you looked like that same little kid who was entrusted to me, over a decade ago.

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I often wonder what’s in store for you, for your future. Lucas has been coming by often, and I’ve seen the way the two of you look at each other, and the way you carefully avoid looking at each other.

I won’t ask if there’s something going on between you. It will become clear soon enough, and I’m not one who feels comfortable talking about these types of things.

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You’re as moody as always. Sometimes, you’ll chuckle aloud while you’re writing, as if life is the greatest thing.

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Then an hour later, I might find you looking forlorn.

Sometimes, I ask.

“There’s a lot that’s not right in the world. And a lot that’s not right in other worlds, too,” you said. “What’s the purpose of the not-rightness? Why can’t everybody just be kind?”

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I asked if you’d read any Buddhist texts during your forays through the school and town libraries.

You hadn’t yet. I think maybe you’re ready. I know I’ve tried to protect you from suffering and from learning about hardship, sorrow, and danger while you were growing up. And I know, too, that it’s foolish to think that someone, even a parent, can protect a growing child from that.

That’s all part of life. Sure, a parent is someone who puts the child’s needs first. A parent is someone who will do anything–make any kind of sacrifice, even his own life–for the child. A parent is someone who will do everything to protect the child.

But no parent, not even Siddhartha’s parent, can protect against suffering, illness, danger, and death. Doing so would be to try to pull the child out of life–and even if we want to do so out of our misguided love, there is no way we can pull that off.

Son, you’re going out in the world now.  It won’t be long before you come back with all sorts of tales and all sorts of questions.

I think maybe I’ll get a few of my own Buddhist paperbacks from my college days out of storage and put them on the shelf. I think you might be ready for them.

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We’re getting to the time where your questions are the sort I can’t answer anymore.

Love you, son,

Your Pops

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Septemus 28

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Dear Sept,

We made good use of your day off. We worked on your school project. You had me read the instructions silently to practice my sintakoo-lacky-si. You seemed to follow along pretty well, so I must be getting better at transmitting.

I was happy with the effect the mental activity seemed to have on you. I know when I’m feeling shaky emotionally, having something to concentrate and focus on usually gives my emotions time to settle.

You were feeling pretty confident by the time we wrapped up the project and you headed in to bed.

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I went back out after tucking you in and added a few finishing touches to it. This is one fine volcano!

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Ms. Swits liked it so much she gave you extra credit, and when you got home you were proud and cocky. You’re an A student now.

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“Aren’t you proud of me, Pops?” you asked.

Of course I am, but not for the reasons you think. A’s are fine and good. But I’m proud of you. I’m proud of the sensitive, intuitive, caring, quirky, funny person that you are. I’m proud that you’re so full of good you don’t even know what mean is. I’m proud that you’re in touch with your brothers and sisters and sending them comforting vibes every chance you get. I’m proud that you have no clue what a miracle you are.

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“Oh, we’ve got someone coming over,” I told you when you pulled out your homework. The school had called. Because you’ve been doing so well, you qualify for a special program where they match gifted kids up with mentors, and your mentor was due to come over for his first visit that afternoon.

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Your mentor is Gunther Munch, Lucas and Wolfgang’s older brother.

I asked him how his brothers were doing. “Wolf made any progress on his college apps?”

“Wolfgang. You two know Wolfy? ” he asked. “I’m sorry for you. Don’t hold it against me, all right?”

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“Wolfgang’s my friend,” you said quietly. “He’s teaching me a lot.”

“Ah,” said Gunther. “What can my brother teach? How to skin a cat? Possibly. Where to pawn ill-gotten gains? Likely. Five ways to explain to Mother where you were all afternoon when you should have been at school? Most definitely. I think, perhaps you learn from Munch Boy, senior, yes, my young friend?”

I’manequalopportunitylearner,” you said real quick. “I learn from everybody.”

You turned back to your book, and Gunther began telling you about Goethe and the The Sorrows of Young Werther.

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“I think one day I will love to fall in love,” you said.

There’s no hurry, son.

–Your pops

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Forgotten Art: Jasper – Alina 2

A reply to: A letter from Alina

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Dear Alina,

What joy to receive your letter! So you’ve come through your trial and made it out the other side.

Not many get the chance to live through the mythic experience of Orpheus and Eurydice–but then, not many of us travelled through the eras past to step into the present day. Nor do we have step-fathers returned from the grave!

And not many of us possess your bravery, Alina, for surely, it’s in finding the strength to trust even when in the grips of fear that true bravery lies.

So now your curse has been lifted, a gift from the strength of your mother, Robin, and your own brave heart.

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What is next for you and Robin?

And how does it feel to have the curse removed?

You asked what it was like to be a professor of literature.

It was my life for a very long time–over thirty years, and before that stretched a decade of preparation.

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There were things I liked, things I loved, things I tolerated, things I rejected, things I railed against, things I professed, things I chafed at, things I adored.

In that way, it was much like any job, I suppose.

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The finest moments centered around the catching-hold of an idea. One year, we all went mad for Thoreau; I nearly lost eight students to “The Walden Effect.”

When a certain type of sophomore first reads Walden, something dangerous can spark. Once it does, this bureaucratic life that muffles our everyday becomes intolerable. And when that happens, the susceptible sophomore turns to me with a bright eye and declares, “I must do something meaningful.” I came to recognize the signs.

“Fine, yes, you will do something meaningful, but AFTER writing this term paper.”

“No! I need to experience life directly!”

Before I lost too many students, I tossed in a lecture on Thoreau’s life: He was a student before he dropped out. Then he ran a pencil factory. He taught. He found meaning in the quiet and loud tasks of a single day: And then he dropped out. But even then, he didn’t really drop out.

His cabin was short walk from Emerson’s home, and nearly daily, Thoreau’s old crowd dropped by to visit, to read, to play chess, to wonder at his quaint life. While all along, Thoreau was studying, reading, writing. He lived deliberately, yes–But one needn’t drop out to live deliberately.

I suppose my quest as a literature professor was to craft my own deliberate life. Literature forges my path through beauty.

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Perhaps that old aphorism applies: You can take the professor out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the professor.

My academic eye has become native by now.

My greatest joy still lies in the alchemy of spirit and word. The other day, a friend dropped by.

‘You know I’ll be thanking you forever,” she said.

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“For what?” I asked.

“T.S. Eliot,” she said.

Four Quartets?” I asked. I recommended it the last time we spoke.

“‘At the still point of the turning world,'” she quoted. “‘Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards…'”

She found Burnt Norton online and we recited together:

“at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

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My friend laughed. “To think I’ve lived this long without knowing these words!”

“Oh, but you have known them,” I replied. For that is the mystery of literature: that is what makes the sophomore rebel when first reading Thoreau, that’s what makes the old one rejoice when reading Eliot. It’s the words we’ve known and lived and heard echoing through our souls. Only it has taken these writers to express it in words that we can share with another, and even with our own inward heart.

Alina, my bookworm friend, may you also know many happy moments hearing your soul’s whispers echoed in the literature you read!

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Wishing love to you, Robin, and whatever whispers may be stirring now that your curse has been lifted!

Your steadfast correspondent,

Jasper

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Aimless: Take a Breath!

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One year ago, I was put in charge of a big project at work that would take this entire year to complete. On the one hand, I felt inspired: It was a project we’d been wanting to do for over fifteen years, and we finally were able to! On the other hand, I felt some dread: This project would demand most of my organizational and creative energy.

My mixed feelings stemmed from realizing that to give the project what it needed to succeed, I’d have to scale back my creative activities with SimLit. It wasn’t a matter of time so much as energy. Before embarking on this project, my work days were filled with detail-oriented work that asked for a tiny portion of my brain power–so while I coded and posted and proofread and resized and optimized, most of my mind was free to wander, and that wandering is how I create my SimLit stories.

In addition to the excitement of the project, I felt a bit of grief: How much of my writing would I have to let go of?

I reached out to my friends on the EA Forums who frequent the Kindness Bench.

The advice and suggestions I received from them filled me with hope, enthusiasm, and faith that I’d be able to make it through this, keep up with my writing as much as I could, and return when the project allowed.

I probably read more SimLit this past year than previously because reading was something that kept me going and fueled me before I headed into the office for the busy, stressful afternoon.

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And I made it through it! Often during this past year, when I was feeling frustrated by the stories inside me that wanted expression–but which I didn’t have the right energy to express–and even by those seed that were waiting to be watered, I remembered my friends and their advice.

If a busy high school student can balance her academic, creative, personal, and interscholastic activities with her writing, I could, too. If some of my friends gained energy and enthusiasm when they had to take forced breaks, maybe I would, too! If one friend is able to take advantage of the little moments that appear for writing each day, maybe that would work for me. If another friend assures me that readers will still be here if I need to take a break, I’ll trust her.  If yet another friend can manage to balance grad school with her creative SimLit activities, then surely I can handle this! And if my virtual sister is there to offer support and step in to help with our forum activities, then I knew I could get through it.

It was a tough year–especially the last few months.

But we made it. I kept writing. I found projects that worked with the quality and quantity of energy I had and that didn’t demand the energy I lacked.

And now, here I am on the other side!

For a year, I’ve been looking forward to this particular weekend! And here I am!

The project is a success overall–still tons more to do with it, and a million-and-one details to attend to, but it will work out, and I will likely not be fired, and the support from a handful of coworkers comes close to making up for the lack of support from the administration. And it makes a lot of people’s lives a lot nicer and it helps families and our organization, too. So, a success overall.

And that leaves me… here. I don’t yet know what I’ll focus on with my writing. My plan is to continue with Forgotten Art (which is part of the Pen Pal Project) and Vampire Code, while circling back and finishing a few projects that are close to completion, like Drifter. I’ve also begun a Murkland Starter Challenge, Through a Glass Murkly, which is hosted on its own blog.

I can feel that my creative well has been pretty well drained, but I can also feel vernal springs bubbling to fill it up again.

What a time for thanks! For gratitude for friends, and creativity, and life, and opportunities.

What a time to pause and breathe!

Vadish!  I look forward to whatever is next, and I hope you’re here to read with me!

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Forgotten Art: Meadow – Kaitlin 6

A reply to: A letter from Kaitlin

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Dear Kaitlin,

Hi! Oh, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could meet sometime? I wouldn’t stop smiling the whole time! All the hugs!

I’ve had so many thoughts in response to your last letter, and I’ll share them with you. But first, I want to tell you thank you!

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In association with my volunteering at House of Hope, I’ve been examining my support system. And do you know what? You are one of my strongest points of support!

We’ve been using the materials available at the Soul’s Self-Help Central, an online resource center. I filled out a grid listing people I know that I thought could be part of my support team and their capacities to offer support. You came out so strongly in every category! I’m not surprised. You are an amazing person, Kaitlin–brave, kind, generous, and insightful! You’ve got a great sense of humor, too. I’m guessing that everyone who knows you has you on their list of support people.

And that makes me wonder. Who’s on your list?

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I would be honored to be, if you felt I had the skills and capacity. I am so inexperienced when it comes to life, and I’m discovering that my interpersonal skills are woefully undeveloped. I’m starting to suspect maybe I’m not very mature emotionally. But, you know what? I am eager to learn and grow and develop capacity! So, maybe if I’m not a very good support person for you now, I will be later, after I’ve developed more skills, maturity, and abilities with people.

At any rate, you can know that all my good wishes and gratitude circle you!

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Congratulations on Leroy’s proposal and your conditional acceptance! I hope soon the circumstances allow you to accept for real. Congratulations, too, on his adoption of Dakota. I guess, in a way, she’s a new daughter for you, too. Adoption is such a wonderful gift–I’m really happy that you get to experience it, too, and what a lucky girl she is to get to be part of such a big, loving, supportive family. See all the good things that have come out of your brave actions?

I can understand your not wanting to claim the word, “victim.” That word carries so much baggage–and none of it good! I’ve discovered that the women in my art group don’t like the word, either. During one of our painting sessions the other day, the topic came up.

Some of them use the word, “survivor.”

Ira says, “I don’t like labels, anymore. I like saying, ‘I’m a person who’s experienced trauma.'” She says that, since all of us living on this planet have experienced harsh situations, and the trauma resulting from those situations, that descriptor connects us with everyone. I like that insight.

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Jasper’s organ teacher uses the word “hero.”

“It’s what we are,” she says. “I am a female hero who’s made it through my journey of trials and tribulations with the help of all my helpers, and now, I shine brighter.”

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She says that when she read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, she wept.

“This was my story,” she said. “All the patterns and steps of my journey, described here in archetype.”

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She and I are going to lead a workshop on “The Hero’s Path,” along with one of the counselors. I’m excited that we’ll be leading it together, because that means we’ll be colleagues, and we can become friends! When I only knew her through the painting group, I had to limit our relationship to “service-provider/client” due to policies of HoH, since I’m the leader of that group. But that restriction stops when we lead a group together!

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I’ve learned that when we’ve experienced trauma–and domestic violence is trauma–that any emotion can trigger it, causing us to re-experience all the fear, anger, and danger-signals we felt the first time we experienced it. It’s because when we feel deeply again, all the emotions can come rushing back. So please be gentle with yourself when you think about all you felt during your recent exchange with Leroy. It takes time to learn to trust again, and letting yourself feel whatever you feel seems to be one of the important steps to get there.

I don’t know much at all, but I’m learning. I’ve been researching trauma, grief, and shame and have discovered that they are very interconnected.

As best I can understand from what I’ve read, when we experience a trauma, our mind switches into survival mode. In that state, the focus is on survival–life doesn’t feel safe. In survival mode, the mind focuses all our energy on getting us out of danger, and so the painful emotions associated with the trauma are split off. We just don’t feel safe enough to deal with them.

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When the system works, later, when we’re safe, we’re able to feel and process the emotions, at a time when our very survival isn’t threatened. But what if we don’t feel safe again? Sometimes, we never reach that point, and the emotions remain split off.

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When that happens, we can sometimes develop guilt and shame, especially if the traumatic event left us feeling helpless. Guilt at least offers some illusion of control.

I didn’t really understand what I read about trauma, guilt, and shame, until I began to apply it to the most significant trauma I’ve experienced: the death of my mom.

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It was my first year in college, during finals week, when she died. I just couldn’t deal with it. I remember thinking that if I felt the pain, I would drown. I’d drop out of college and I’d die. I didn’t think I could survive it.

So I didn’t feel it. I focused on my finals. I aced all my tests.

Then, when I got my grades the next semester, and I saw all those A’s, I felt so guilty. “I shouldn’t have studied. I should have gone to the hospital more. How could I earn A’s when that happened? I should have been with my dad. I should’ve stayed with Norman. I should have dropped out of college.” I thought I could’ve prevented her death if I’d just been there more–if I’d dropped out and taken her to chemo. Or if I’d stayed with her in the hospital. Or if I’d brought her flowers. Or if I’d worn red tennis shoes, instead of black ones.

Then the shame came. “I’m a terrible daughter. I’m a bad sister. I’m such a selfish person.”

For about two years, I didn’t grieve, but I was guilty all the time and I felt so ashamed. I could hardly see my dad and brother because of the shame.

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What finally brought me out of it was in junior year when I took an Intro to Comparative Folklore class, and I discovered fairy tales from every culture dealing with the death of the mother. My favorites were about girls who lost their mothers just as they were coming of age. There are hundreds of these tales! I lost myself in them, and then I found myself.

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Around that time, Norman came to visit. We went to the botanical gardens on campus. When I saw a bromelia in the greenhouse, I began to weep. It was my mother’s favorite plant. Norm hugged me, and he began to cry, too. We slumped onto a stone bench, holding each other, nestled in the humid hothouse air, and we finally felt safe enough to grieve, and we cried until we hiccuped. And then Norman looked at me, and he said, “It isn’t 42.”

“What isn’t?” I asked.

“The answer to life, the universe, and everything,” he said.

“What is?” I asked him.

“Damned if I know.” We laughed so hard. We laughed as hard as we’d cried, and then we laughed some more, and then we cried again, and then we ate ice cream in the tea shop, and my eyes hurt and my chest hurt, and I had a knife through me. I cried a lot during the next year. And then my dad died. And I cried a lot more. But I stopped feeling guilty, and I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt safe enough to feel, especially when I was with Norman or Jasper, even when it was hard.

I’m not saying that grief is the same as domestic abuse. I’m just saying that I’ve experienced the splitting off of emotions and the guilt and shame that follow.

Feeling guilty is nothing to feel guilty about, and there’s no shame in feeling ashamed. It’s all part of how our minds and bodies are constructed to help us survive. Call it socio-biology. And when we understand the process, maybe then we can create the safety that we need to be able to move through the process and back into our healthy selves again, to find our own paths back to being the heroes that we are.

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I hope that I can help to create a safe space for you, Kaitlin, so that you can share with me how you feel. I would like to be able to do that. Maybe our letters can be your hothouse, with bromelias and orchids and roses blooming, smelling sweet, and safe, and calming. And then we could drink tea and cry and drink more tea and maybe even laugh.

Speaking of laughing, I have no idea what’s up with Ira and Norm. She calls him “Babe.” He calls her “Cupcake.” And he told me yesterday that they haven’t even yet shared their first kiss. At any rate, it’s plain to see that it’s love.

Kaitlin, I’m sending you all my thoughts and feelings of admiration, gratitude, and friendship.

Love, love, love,

Meadow

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