After I lost my shoe, I definitely thought a lot about my next steps. One foot walked the same old walk, carrying on as usual, though my sole was worn nearly through; one foot placed itself more knowingly, swaddled in extra socks as if swollen by injury, as if I was doing the best I could – despite my own carelessness that dropped the lost shoe behind my gym locker, never to be retrieved.
But isn’t this the usual price of carelessness? Self-injury? Even when my thoughtless, heedless, mindless actions hurt others, they double back and bite me in the heel, too, like a snake in the grass. Or in the dust of the desert.
The way I know I’m taking a misstep is that I feel as if I’m off my stride, out of balance. If I continue, I feel an ache. But it’s not in my foot or ankle – it’s a heartache, low but insistent, the regular pulsing of regret.
Some people say they will never regret. All well and good; maybe these people never had responsibilities to someone they love, someone small or someone old, someone depending on them in very real ways that tied them to frustrating realities. I have experienced regret. I have limped through mediocre choices, too tired to believe I could be more than what I saw reflected in the bathroom mirror each night. Turn out the light, ignore that image, sleep until tomorrow.
“No regrets” is a shallow motto. It is the battle cry of immaturity. Everyone regrets, if they wise up, grow up. Regret is the key to repentance, which is the turning point for resolve.
Religions have co-opted the word “repentance,” but I want it back – it’s a damn fine word. One definition is “sorrow, shame.” But another is “pangs of conscience.” The Greek root of the word repentance can be translated as metanoia: a change of mind. Some call it a change of heart.
“It implies making a decision to turn around, to face a new direction. To turn toward the light.”
For each of us, a way of living beckons like a light in the darkness. We call it by many names: the dream, destiny, “someday,” or most usually, “You know what I’d really like to do….” The truth comes out over beers, or while changing diapers or pushing swings, or talking about frustrations at the office or the shop. We get down into the dirt, and we get real. We acknowledge those pangs, like a hunger for something we’ve heard of but never really tasted. Or maybe we have tasted it. Maybe the sweet taste of victory has turned to ashes in our mouths.
Such was my feeling stepping into Ash Wednesday. Like I was still walking with one shoe on, one shoe lost. Because despite my best reframing efforts, trying to convince myself this full-time job is a sweet opportunity to stash some cash and get ready for my next travel opportunity is wearing thin. I have tasted the life I want, and I struggle to convince myself that I’m still on my path. I’m noticing a bitter taste as I work to keep my impatience down. It’s a spiritual heartburn, which feels just as stupid as it sounds. I feel like I know better, and I’m kicking myself.
Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. – Job 42:6
Job was a pawn. In the Bible story, God bragged to Satan that Job was “blameless and upright,” to which Satan replied that God had “put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side.” Satan said that if God took away Job’s sweet life, Job would curse Him to His face. So God said fine, give it a go, just don’t kill him; don’t worry, he won’t turn on me. And Satan promptly proceeded to torture and torment Job.
What the hell kind of god is that? While God watched (or didn’t), Job’s blameless uprightness was shredded – his farm destroyed, his family annihilated, his body diseased and inflamed. What doesn’t kill us…makes us stronger? Makes us question if anything we do even matters?
Being ripped out of the hedge flings us far from the familiar, dropping us hard in the dirt of a crossroads of the soul. It can make us so bitter that resentment is all we can taste. We give up and give in, to our worst beliefs and our worst selves.
Or, looking down the other road, it can remind us that this one life is all we have, and we need to quit taking it for granted, so certain that there will be more days, that we can waste any of them. I had touched on this viewpoint when I was traveling, and found it invigorating. Then I ran short on funds, so I snuck back behind the hedge. I’ve been struggling to break free of the more-than-full-time salaried job ever since, especially over the past year. Hence the heartburn, acid frustration eating me alive.
Choice is power. Sometimes, the only choice we can find is how we focus our minds. Which road to look down. Making the decision to turn around, again, face the direction we know we want, again. Turn toward the light. Again.
Ash Wednesday is a holy reminder that we are mortal. It doesn’t matter what religion we follow, if any. Christians take the palm branches used by multitudes to celebrate Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem as the King and burn them to ash to remember how a week later, the same crowds chose to save a thief and crucify their King. We are those multitudes. We choose to follow our best and highest callings, the truth of who we are; and then, a week later, we turn on ourselves and choose the thief, Fear, also known by the names Maybe Later, When Life Settles Down, and That Was Just A Crazy Idea I Had.
Ash Wednesday reminds me of the Upanishads, too. In the Hindu faith, holy ash is applied in particular ways to particular areas of the body, including across the forehead. The sacred ash is bhasma; it is ash from a sacrificial fire. The roots of the word bhasma mean “to destroy” joined with “to remember.” It is generally described as burning away evil to remember the divine.
By applying the sacred ash to their bodies, devotees of Lord Shiva embody both the transience of this life and transformation: a state “beyond perturbance,” with nothing left to burn away.
I was still perturbed. How to get to the point where I’ve burned away fear, with nothing left between me and the life I want to wear across my forehead like a rite of passage? What are the ingredients of my sacrificial fire?
My ridiculous, crazy idea is that I can walk the world in a continuous pilgrimage, learning and writing. Remembering I’m just a guest wherever I go, a stranger just passing through. I’ve started. I completed one route, across Spain. I determined my next route: Japan. I made arrangements, had a trip scheduled – and was typhooned out, airport ransacked, mudslides destroying the paths I planned to take. I looked again this year: a raffle for free plane tickets to Japan was rigged against me by limiting itineraries to just 10 days. I needed weeks. Japan would have to wait while I saved my yen.
Without a destination, I was walking in circles, down the hill and past the train tracks to work, then back, past the homeless people setting up their blue tarp tents under the setting sun, up the hill as the train bells clanged and left me behind, rolling away down the line. I have been regretting my decision around work, knowing I am not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I just don’t know how to do it without money. And I don’t know any other way to get the money to do it.
Like all the best crossroads, I cannot see far down the path I need to take. But I can see where it starts. And I’ve learned that the only way to see farther down the road is to start walking it.
So in April, I’ll walk a local pilgrimage route – to El Santuario de Chimayo, almost 100 miles northeast as the crow (or in New Mexico, the raven) flies. Peregrinos get themselves to Santa Fe by whatever route they can. Mine will be along the Turquoise Trail, a high road between the Sandias and the San Pedro Mountains I have driven enough times for it to be somewhat familiar. From Santa Fe to Chimayo, we join and walk together – highway lanes are closed to let thousands of seekers make their pilgrimage during Holy Week, that time between waving palm branches at our ideals and carrying our cross up the hill.
At the Santuario, el pocito (“little well”) is a sanctified hole in the ground, offering holy dirt famed for healing. The faithful rub it across their bodies, turning their Job-like afflictions into miracles. Canes and crutches are left behind as testament to transformation.
You’re not supposed to consume the holy dirt at el Santuario de Chimayo, but apparently some people do. While no one has determined scientifically the healing components of this soil, it was found to contain high levels of calcium carbonate – the main ingredient in heartburn remedies.
Up the path a few steps farther sits the Santo Niño chapel. I read that here, shelves are lined with rows and rows of pairs of little shoes – all gifts offered to the Holy Child, to make sure his small feet are protected as he journeys to offer comfort to all who suffer. Even Tiny Jesus walks his own Camino.
I need new shoes, as does Santo Niño. I will bring him a small pair. I resolve to burn this old, worn-out shoe that has walked my old, worn-out path. That ought to be a delicious smell.
To destroy, to remember: can’t be one foot in, one foot out. Sacred ash, holy dirt.
“If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles of life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayo.”
How do you know when it’s time to run?
I’ve been running on a treadmill. Literally. Instead of trailrunning across mountain foothills, I’ve been walking down city sidewalks to a downtown gym. There’s nothing wrong with working out in a gym – it’s just that I’m not a gym rat by nature. I’m a nature rat, in fact, when it comes to running.
It’s so hard to realize what you’ve gotten yourself into until you get yourself out. Start getting yourself out, at least: start looking over your own shoulder, seeing where you are, where you’ve been. Get some perspective.
In the locker room, I finished changing from my work clothes into my workout clothes. I sat on the wooden bench just like in the old days, getting ready for basketball practice, softball practice, soccer practice, track practice. Leaning over, I pulled my laces snug and tied a double knot for the twenty-thousandth time.
Twenty-thousand days is just over fifty-four years. Even accounting for babyhood and barefoot days as a child, that shoelace figure is bound to be low.
I know the squeak of my soles on the wooden basketball court intimately, the feel of a cinder track from a rubber track under thin running shoes, the softness of the grass on the soccer field, or digging that back toe into the dirt of the batter’s box, ready, watching for the pitch.
I stood and locked my adult life into the narrow locker, giving the dial on the combination lock a half spin with the practiced flick of my thumb and fingers. As if I didn’t care about ever opening it again, ever retrieving my badge and work keys and the circling weeks of dissatisfying responsibilities moving ever closer to a year. To year after year. I filled my water bottle, then turned and walked to the treadmill.
I start here, I end here, each workout at the gym. Step onto the black rubber loop, hit the Start button, and the machine begins moving under my feet. It always starts too slow; I always find myself annoyed and kick up the speed to my pilgrimage walking pace, arms moving, chest forward, head high.
But it’s not a pilgrimage; my backpack is at home, unused on a shelf in my closet. My walking stick stands idle in a corner. My back is unnaturally light at this pace, and I always feel off-balance.
This day was no exception. And like each day on the treadmill, I brushed off my unease by turning up the pace again. Twelve-minute mile…eleven-minute mile…ten. As the speed increased, I took a deeper breath, adjusting.
The point where my eyes usually landed when I ran outside was inhabited by the red digital readout showing my mileage, pace, calories burned, heart rate. I lifted my eyes; I read the brand name of the treadmill.
I lifted my eyes further. The gym was walled with mirrors. In them I could see my running shorts, moving smoothly like flowing water. I settled my gaze and watched my legs run, and run, and run, these legs that had taken me so many places, that had traveled so far. I watched the muscles pulse and contract, over and over. I felt my heart beating.
I reached forward and adjusted the settings: nine-and-a-half. I looked up over the top of the digital screen and straight ahead. An old, familiar face watched me from the mirror, breathing methodically. Still running, I straightened the angle of my head, as if greeting myself. I noticed how my shoulders remained at different heights, one more forward than the other. I tried to adjust, but it was as if the arms were attached by different mechanisms at different points on each side. My hips do not match either, I know this; my yoga teacher years back helped me to see my imbalance. It’s become interesting to me now, the ways my body has been twisted and reformed by my living. One shoulder dropped from all the years carrying my work bag to the office. Hips distorted by childbirth. Pelvis torqued by the internal scar tissue of surgeries.
Nine. I watched with detached satisfaction as the strong muscles between my shoulders and neck flexed as I moved into a full run. My hamstrings began to remind me of my age. My quads said we could do a little more.
Eight-and-a-half. I like to push myself as I finish my warm-up runs, even if only for a few minutes. Without cues from the natural world, every quarter mile feels like forever on a treadmill, instead of marking a distance so short I’d hardly notice, if outside.
When my stride became a bit uneven, I felt I was probably nearing the end. I looked at the mileage: .84. Unbelievable, how far I had not come. How could I possibly be under one mile? I snorted like a tiny bull and kicked back into gear, frustrated and confined, by my age, by my life, by my job, by this gym, by this treadmill I was running. I pushed myself back into a rhythm and willed myself not to count the minutes. I counted the tenths and hundredths of a mile instead, until .99 kicked over to 1.00. I hit the Stop button. The machine read my heart rate. 179 quickly dropped to 169, to 159, to 135. I huffed, irritatedly shaking my head, then hopped down and took a drink from my water bottle.
It wasn’t the mile or the pace that was hard. It was the treadmill.
The feeling of running on a treadmill is heavy-footed, no matter the pace. Unnatural. It’s the feeling of forcing yourself to do something because you think you should. For me, it feels awkward and frustrating.
Running has always been a way for me to leave my life behind, whether running away from home as a kid, running as part of a team as a lonely adolescent, or trailrunning after work to shake the dead weight of professional restraint. But my running always circled back to where I’d started.
Twenty-thousand days, and I was still running in circles. Twisting my shoulder to wipe my sweaty face on my T-shirt sleeve, I decided I was training for my next journey, my next adventure. Or maybe I remembered; I feel like I keep having to remind myself who I am, why I’m here, what it is I want to do with my life. I keep running the same loop, over and over, working a day job until it works me into the ground, finding the strength and the stamina to keep on running, finally hopping off the treadmill in a leap of faith mixed with huffy frustration at myself – for continuing to expend so much energy going nowhere, when I could have been out in the world all along.
I needed to use running to prepare me to walk away. Which is what I have been saying for six months now. Which I was saying for six years before that. I keep leaving the world of full-time work and then coming back, circling back to where I was before. I keep walking away and then running back to security.
I was thinking all these things after my workout, after weight lifting to build bone mass and balanced support, after resistance training for core strength and quick response, after a cooldown run, hoping to cool my agitation. I sat on the bench in the locker room and took a long drink from my water bottle. I leaned over and untied the double knots, slipping off my old shoes. The tread was virtually gone, the soles nearly worn through, the pavement and the treadmill taking their toll. I stood and stretched in front of my locker, then holding my shoes in one hand, I tried to turn the dial on the lock with the other. The lock swayed and the dial balked. I reached up to set my shoes on top of the locker so I could use both hands – when suddenly, I felt one of my shoes slip from my fingers. I heard a muffled flump.
It didn’t make sense. I looked up and saw only one shoe on top of the locker. I looked at the floor around me, but of course it was empty; I hadn’t seen anything fall.
Taking off my socks, I climbed barefooted onto the bench and stood on tiptoe, peering up onto the top of the lockers.
What seems solid, bound and sealed, often is not. I keep forgetting this ancient truth, and Life keeps reminding me with recurring lessons. How far I have not come.
As the row of lockers met the corners of the locker room, they didn’t fit exactly. So the gym owners had simply angled a couple lockers to cut each corner, and braced them with thin slats screwed across the backs. Leaving triangular gaps just the right size for a shoe to drop, all the way to the floor behind, impossible to recover.
I stood on the locker room bench, looking at my one shoe atop the locker. I imagined climbing onto the lockers – but to what end? I had no tool to hook my fallen shoe. And suddenly, I noticed that it was 8:00pm on a Friday night. The gym was only staffed until 7:00; after that, 24-hour access was maintained by security cameras and by scanning your electronic fob at the locked doors. I realized the man who had been lifting free weights had already left. Everyone had gone out or gone home. I was completely alone.
Up on my toes on the locker room bench, I straightened my cocked head, then hopped down. I started laughing. Spinning the dial on the padlock, I swung the locker open wide and took out my towel, heading to the showers. I found myself humming, steam surrounding me like mountain mist as I took time to loosen and roll my neck and shoulders under the soothing hot water. I turned off the shower, and still the gym was silent except for the sounds of the turning fans. I dried off and got dressed, then scrubbed at my hair with the towel before tossing it into the basket across the room.
Two points. I put on my socks, and my old right shoe, chuckling as I saw myself tie the lace in a double knot out of habit. Then I put both of my workout socks on over my regular sock on my left foot. I looked like I’d just gotten a cast put on, or maybe just gotten one removed. It felt like that – like getting to learn to walk after a healed injury, a little uneven, a little awkward.
But then, tossing on my hoodie and my rain jacket, I picked up my bag and marched resolutely across the empty gym and out those locked doors. One shoe on, one shoe gone. Forever. One foot in this world, one foot striding into the one I want.
Comparisons aren’t healthy, until they are. With age, I’ve come to see the truth for the trickster it is, shapeshifting to avoid being caught. We need to stitch it to the source when we can, like Peter Pan’s shadow.
Like that shadow, when we bring together what we see before us and what we’ve seen behind us, we find similarities so striking as to be twins, repeats, patterns. The human brain, like other animal brains, developed pattern recognition for survival. We learned to rely on the patterns of seasons, weather, animal migration, growth of plants and their fruits and seeds. We watched the sun’s changing position above us during each day. We learned to find our way by the stars turning overhead at night.
We also learned to recognize disruption in a known pattern. Something’s up. What’s going on. We would seek to understand, and still do, because impactful information resides within the causes of disruption.
Our brains are absolute suckers for patterns. Especially familiar patterns. When we are immersed in familiar patterns, we think we know what to expect, and so our internal sentinel relaxes its guard. This is the great part about familiar patterns, when they’re healthy. When we’ve created patterns that support our safety and well-being, our sympathetic nervous system gets a break; no fight-or-flight adrenaline needed here. Our parasympathetic nervous system has no need to rush in and soothe the internal ruffled feathers. All is right with the world. Our brain gets comfortable, dozy. It drives us to work without really thinking. It eats food without noticing. It makes choices that replicate the familiar patterns without real intention or effort. We’re not questioning; we’re not observing, making notes. Because we’re no longer finding the pattern: we’re living the pattern.
All well and good – unless the pattern is unhealthy. When the familiar is unhealthy, troubling unhealthy reactions rise to meet it, to manage it. To make sense of it, somehow. Because what is familiar is what occurs over and over, routinely, even if it is toxic to our physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health; if we have never seen any way that we can change the pattern, or if we have been taught that there is no need to change the pattern, we learn to accept the pattern.
This explains the insidiousness of bad patterns set in childhood. Children accept whatever patterns we lay down before them, around them, and these become patterns within them. They have no power to challenge the patterns we create. Especially when we teach them that there is no need to challenge the pattern. Or when we teach them they will suffer consequences if they even try.
As a kid, I secretly hated Peter Pan. Because the J.M. Barrie book had been made into an animated Disney movie in 1953, when it came to the local theater or was shown on TV or however it arrived in the middle of Iowa in the 1970’s, I got to see it. As if it was a wonderful adventure. Maybe it was, for some kids. For me, it visually represented sick patterns I was living, though I couldn’t have told you that at the time. I couldn’t yet recognize the pattern: I was living the pattern.
A girl in bed in a nightgown confronts a boy sneaking into her bedroom to find her. Her parents aren’t paying attention to her situation. She feels responsible for two younger siblings. The younger siblings idolize the boy, though he is completely self-focused and self-serving. He forces an adult role on the girl, to be mother to himself and the lost boys. Dangers menace in the boy’s world – a pirate, with a hook for one hand and a sword in the other; a crocodile, the unseen threat always following closely behind. The girl is misunderstood and mistreated repeatedly during her “adventure,” which is happening simply because she caught the boy’s attention. In the end, she must save her siblings from his world.
And still, of course, she loves him. So enmeshed was I in my own sexual abuse by my older brother that I could not examine these disturbing parallels. But did I openly hate Peter Pan? Of course not. He’s the hero of the story, the bringer of magic, the guide to eternal youth. As if even one more day in my distorted, confusing, horrific childhood would be desirable. As if his smug demands on Wendy didn’t set my teeth on edge.
I didn’t hate Peter Pan – I decided to put on a play, which should have been billed as “Peter Pan – a Psychodrama,” wherein I myself played our hero, my best friend played Wendy, and we invited our families to our Saturday matinee in her family room. My brother was not among the audience members.
But I did hate Peter Pan. To me, this hatred seemed completely irrational. For years after the play, I felt deeply conflicted about our theatrical debut. I had no idea why, reasoning that maybe I should have let my friend choose whether she wanted to be Wendy or Peter. But even then, I knew there had been no choice. The thought of playing Wendy made my stomach lurch, so much so that I would immediately make jokes about how silly the whole production had been. I assuaged my guilt by reminding her and myself that she got the choice double roll of playing Tinkerbell, as well. Plus Captain Hook. She was an entire theater company. I starred as my abuser.
In my adult years, I made relationship choices that reflected the patterns I had lived in childhood, powerless back then to change them, punished and ridiculed for reacting to them, taught as if following a script to accept them as familiar and normal. My normal led me as a teenager to marry a husband who didn’t care enough to love me or our children – my mother’s patterns, unexamined by me, repeating in my life. Like Wendy Darling, I had chosen him simply because he appeared. Like Peter Pan, he was only concerned with his own agenda. Like Captain Hook, my mother’s relentless vendetta against me for her own misery left me to walk the plank.
My familiar normal then led to a second husband – and here the story becomes even more interesting. Because the first marriage failed, I chose someone who was everything the first partner was not. The first was close to my age, we started college together; he was intellectually superficial but easygoing, tried to be fun but was just irresponsible, plus emotionally absent, physically absent. The second husband was thirteen years older than me, had a master’s degree and a career, was intellectually brilliant – and responsible to the point of controlling, emotionally abusive, and physically menacing. He not only owned a home, he had a wife and a child. Whom he left, supposedly for me. Because of me. Because he had noticed me, and couldn’t stop thinking about me.
I had been well taught to receive attention from whomever wanted me. When Peter Pan comes in the window, you don’t chase him off the sill like he’s trespassing – you take his hand. You go with him, because he’s convincing, and sad, and you’re kind, and neglected, and it fits your patterns, which you still have not examined. Because who wants to sit and look at painful patterns?
Why should I own those patterns? I didn’t create them. Those aren’t mine.
I liked living with him. He was attentive, and I liked the attention. He thought I was so smart, so sexy, so creative. I was magic to him. He was an adventure to me. Plus he did the dishes. He cooked. He talked about philosophy, religion, politics, history. I was interested and young and impressed by his seemingly broad scope of knowledge. We had a lot of sex. He wanted to get married.
I did not want to get married. I had seen marriage and decided it was not for me. But his brilliant intellect found ways to spin reasons in the air for why we should get married. He cajoled. He convinced. I didn’t see it for what it was, at the time: he pressured, like the smoothest, friendliest salesman, to seal the deal, get what he wanted. The clincher came when he announced he’d talked to an attorney, who had said he’d have a better chance of getting custody of his son if we were married. I looked at my own sons, little boys sitting at the supper table. His son fell chronologically right between them. My daughter looked up, watching it all.
“Common law is enough,” he’d delivered his closer. At the time, I was 26. He was 39. The tan line from his previous wedding band had nearly faded. He and his lost boy needed a mother. The sexy, Madonna-whore kind of mother popular in porn and the 1950’s when he was born. So we wrote vows, and in our living room we gave each other suitably smug, arrogant rings with Sanskrit verse written around them: Om mani padme hum. All hail the jewel in the lotus. Look at us, so evolved, becoming enlightened like Buddha. We believed no one had ever had a love as rare and deep and true as ours.
I woke up the next morning after the ring ceremony absolutely furious. Enraged. I had no idea why, except that I had awakened feeling tricked. A feeling I couldn’t shake.
It started only a few months later. He needed the more reliable car to get to and from work, so he drove my car, and left me his 1980s Corolla, with the caveat that it was old and probably shouldn’t be driven too far. I drove it to take the kids hiking; he berated me. My spending became an issue, even when it was for shoes for the kids, which I bought secondhand. My amazing, fantastic poetry was now problematic, because I went to poetry readings too late at night, and was surely flirting with all the poets and would cheat on him. Getting pregnant with his baby soothed his irritable insecurity at first, giving him an opportunity to strut his sexual prowess openly; however, he was furiously jealous when a male neighbor once carried my grocery bags in from the car while I waddled up the steps, out of breath. By the time the baby was a year old, our fighting was intense and destructive.
Because my amazing, fantastic poetry was indeed problematic. It was on those notebook pages, written in pencil, that I was beginning to examine the script I had learned as a child. Vivid, twisted scenes began playing out from the past, and I took these new pages and read them into the open mic on stage like reading them into a court record. As if the power of the truth would set me free. As if that truth would not be stitched to the feet of the truth now, here in the middle of all the old patterns.
But I was out on the far end of the plank now. Once I started examining the patterns and unearthing the abuse I had wanted so desperately not to matter, I realized how much it mattered. It was here, now, the crocodile that tick-tick-ticked from the shadows.
When the familiar is unhealthy, troubling unhealthy reactions rise to meet it, to manage it. To make sense of it, somehow. I careened emotionally, driven into a mania of writing, hysterical at times, exhausted afterward. My husband was pushed to the far end of his own plank by my process. He screamed at me, hysterical himself, waking me up in the middle of the night by ripping off the bed covers and turning on the overhead light: “We’re not done! Get up and talk to me!” Other days he would offer approaches, methods, fairy tales to me who was up to her armpits in the mud and blood and horror of her own personal war. I would reject his post-rant hyper-rationalism; as if reliving my nightmares could be anything but insane, anyway. He was terrified our fighting might lead me to leave him, so he bullied me, blocking the doorway when I wanted to exit a room, grabbing my upper arms when I tried to walk out the front door and holding me against the wall, or shoving me back into the deepest recesses of the house, back into the bedroom, onto the bed. And I would not be held captive on a bed ever again.
Yet worse by far, a thousand times worse, was the incessant chipping away at my sense of self. His pattern included this death by a thousand cuts, and he was a master swordsman, making my mother look like a cartoon caricature by comparison. The man who had loved and desired me, who wanted to marry me and raise children with me, made sure to tell me in small, hardly noticeable statements that I couldn’t manage anything – not money, not grocery shopping, not cooking, not housekeeping, not a job, not a future, nothing. Then he told me I’d never be okay. He meant I was broken, my mind was broken, and he told me I’d need therapy forever. When I attempted suicide soon after, his response was that he felt bad, too, and wanted me to comfort him.
Instead, I went to counseling. That’s where I learned that domestic violence, relationship abuse, takes many forms. I learned that abusers come in all colors, all genders, all orientations, all ages. It is based in insecurity and low self-esteem, so control is a predominant issue. It starts with frustrations, disagreements about how little things are done, like grocery shopping or cooking. Maybe he always needs to choose the restaurant, just so you go somewhere good, or makes the weekend plans, often for activities he prefers, where he drives, he decides, he pays, because that’s just treating you like a lady. Abusers can be quite charming between episodes, even as relationship roles are often seriously outdated stereotypes. Victims experience gaslighting, where your words and emotions are twisted back at you in ways you never intended or expressed, causing you to question what you remember, question your reality. You are “teased” and the butt of “jokes,” being belittled even in front of friends and family, whom the abuser will alienate, attempting to drive them away so it can be just the two of you. You’ll notice you’re being used for things, money, your car, your apartment, while the abuser has plenty of logical-sounding reasons that all just happen to serve his needs. There’s a possessiveness to the abuser’s affection. You’ll find there are topics you don’t bring up, trying not to trigger an unpleasant exchange. It becomes feeling like you’re walking on eggshells, trying not to trigger anger. I learned that educated, middle class men often don’t hit with fists, so they don’t leave a mark. You have no physical evidence of anything. They hit with words, and hook you with emotional daggers to the heart. They throw furniture, like my husband, or a log on a hiking trip, even while he carried our baby girl in the backpack. But he was just frustrated.
These things he did only in front of my older children, never in front of his son when he visited. My husband never tried to get custody of his son, which was supposedly the impetus for getting married in the first place.
My three older children remember. They have their own ugly memories of that time. They know that energy when they feel it. They recognize the shadow coming through the window for what it is.
But our baby girl does not have these memories. And what’s more, when my second husband and I split up, she lived with him every other week until she started school, and then every weekend until high school. All those weeks and weeks in the summers.
Children accept whatever patterns we lay down before them, around them, and these become patterns within them. They have no power to challenge the patterns we create. Especially when we teach them that there is no need to challenge the pattern. They learn to accept the familiar as normal.
Normal…except. Except that poetry prevailed.
Poetry saved me. I. SAVED. ME. By letting myself feel all my feelings, and by noticing the quality of my life. My one and only life. By questioning what was happening, making notes, writing what was hard to say in words. And once I wrote the words, I began to sing them. I sang half brother, half lover, “I adore you, I despise you.” I left Peter Pan behind, because I grew up. I took ownership of my past, my patterns, and the patterns my parents taught me by terrible legacy and by mistake.
If I could tell her anything now, I would say: notice the disruption of your life, the life you had before. Because impactful information resides within the causes of disruption. What seems familiar is not necessarily healthy. See the patterns. The power of your own clear-eyed understanding of the truth will most certainly set you free.
And a warning: this is the adult world. No one is coming to fix this. No one is coming to save you.
You have the power to save you.
In the middle of the night, I got up for a drink of water, trying to decide if my old ulcer was back or if I’m now just too old to eat pizza. Either way, my stomach was reminding me about my choices, a nagging ache of mild nausea and regret.
Last week, after working six days straight, I took a break – which means I took the bus uptown to the laundromat. Slouched in a plastic seat in the corner, I read a book, waiting for the washer and then the dryer to buzz. A young guy stood oddly near me, hugging the corner of the laminated folding table as I shook out my warm clothes, smoothly folded them and packed them into my bag. Once I finally gave him more than a cursory glance, I realized his attention was locked onto his phone screen. He was in his own world and not paying attention to me or anyone else.
After I finished my laundry, I went next door for a gyros sandwich. The owner of the Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery worked the counter. He tried to upsell me a salad, maybe fries, but I knew I didn’t need more. He seemed frustrated with my small appetite. I carried my sandwich on a red plastic tray, my plastic cup of mint iced tea heavy on one corner. The meat was spicy and rich, the cucumber yogurt sauce delicious in the gooey pita mess I held in thin foil between my sauce-covered hands.
Two middle-aged women sat at the next table, commiserating. The owner had advised one woman to move her SUV so it wouldn’t get hit in the small parking lot; they acted like he’d been ridiculously rude to make such a suggestion, but then the second woman went out to move her large car as well. They’d repositioned their ungainly vehicles in the tight corner parking spots.
I licked my dripping fingers, wiping them somewhat clean with paper napkins. Drinking my iced tea down to the bits of mint leaves in the bottom, I took my tray with my dishes to the counter. The man told me I could just leave it on the table next time; he has people to come pick them up, but thank you. He smiled. I smiled back and raised my hand to say goodbye before pushing out the big glass door with my laundry bag.
The bus took me back to my neighborhood. I recognized a couple of homeless people riding in the seats in front of me, but since I’m still pretty new in town, they didn’t recognize me. I hopped off the bus at my street corner and walked home.
I dropped off my laundry at my apartment, and since this was my only day off, I immediately went out again for groceries. At the store, a dark-haired woman in her 40’s kept appearing ahead of me in the aisles I chose. She would pull her shopping cart over tight to the shelves, or around a corner and huddle over it, glancing over her shoulder at me with haunted eyes. I wondered if she thought I was following her.
As I left the store, security checked the receipt of the brown-skinned couple ahead of me. They carried only a few items. As I approached with two full bags and a full daypack, security waved me through: “Have a nice day.” One of the cloth bags was zipped shut. No one checked it.
I crossed at the corner to the central bus stop platform. A young woman asked me the time. I pulled back the cuff of my jacket sleeve to check my watch. “Right at 5:00,” I told her.
“I like your look,” she said to me with interest.
“Yeah – is it easier, to have your hair short like that? Do you have to style it a lot?” Her hair hung in wild waves all around her face.
“I actually ignore it.”
“I’d love to cut my hair like that….” she added.
“Mine used to look a lot like yours,” I replied.
“Really?” She seemed heartened by this news, as if it might now be possible to cut her hair, change her look, maybe change a lot of things. She smiled and walked back to a different woman beside her bags, telling that woman about how she was new in town, but she saw a video of someone being robbed on the bus, and the video went viral, and the city won’t release their transit video to identify the robber, “so you have to take your own video whenever something happens.” I noticed the young woman’s bohemian skirt was torn in a few places, coming unraveled. Her bags were a hodgepodge of belongings. Her boyfriend had apparently been stabbed recently, per my eavesdropping. I was glad I’d given her the time from my watch and not pulled out my phone from the deep corner of my pack. Some people become very interested in where you keep your wallet and your phone.
At my street, I waited for a line of cars to pass the bus stop. The sun was going down and slowly adding color to the sky. After putting the groceries away, I headed out one last time. The movie didn’t start until 7:30, so I had time to get a slice of pizza and a cider at the corner pizza dive.
The Super Bowl was on the TV, so I read the news on my phone while I waited at the bar for my food. Sipping on the bottle of cold cider, I was engrossed in an in-depth story about investigations into the Saudi connection to 9/11 when suddenly the halftime show came on. Half-dressed, Shakira belly-danced, thrusting her pelvis along with a cadre of all-female dancers, each missing a sleeve and a pant leg to their costumes. I thought of the #MeToo movement compared to these movements. As I finished this thought, Jennifer Lopez burst onto the stage, her dancers wearing miniskirts and leather jackets, J-Lo in leather chaps and a leather bikini. As she and her dancers pumped their crotches at the cameras, her body being panned slowly from bottom to top, a group of little girls in white dresses appeared onstage. Shakira came back dressed in a gold lame swimsuit with fringe on the hips, at which point Lopez returned in a pearly white swimsuit with fringe on the hips.
My pizza slice had lost its flavor as it cooled, sitting half-eaten on the plate as I took another swig from the bottle before me.
So much sparkly fringe. So many costume changes. And here comes the next generation, waiting to sparkle. Nothing changes.
Around every corner, you find people making choices. I can have opinions about those choices, but that’s not always necessary, and often it’s counterproductive. Ever since I got the phone call earlier that day, I’d tried to just listen and pay attention. I’d tried to just notice what was happening around those corners. So many corners. So many lives. So many choices.
Sorry, what were the choices again? Because so much of it seemed to be waiting to catch a bus to Destiny, that place where what has to happen, happens. It’s a loop route that circles back every generation, so the wait’s not too long.
I looked up at the Super Bowl in the corner, as the players returned to the field. This momentous battle between champions reconvened every year, utterly meaningless as a result. Different teams, different costumes. Same battle. Nothing changes.
The bar was busy – too busy for good service. Surrounded by people, I watched the waitstaff hustling, trying to keep up. At a large table behind me, some women celebrated one friend’s birthday, loudly and boisterously. A man came in to pick up several pizzas to go. A family asked for a to-go box, while the men at the next table ordered another round of beer.
Another round. I’d thought of my dad when I’d gotten the call. My youngest son had phoned that afternoon to tell me he’d gotten in. He made it. Not into college – into the Marines. Not ROTC – he enlisted.
I knew it was coming. After all, I’d signed the papers.
Just like my dad, he’ll be 18 by the time he ships out to boot camp. Just. He’s not there yet. But with only five weeks until his birthday, I knew it was futile to block him. He’d simply lose the military intelligence assignment he was hoping for. So I signed to allow a 17-year-old boy to enter the Marines.
The papers were sent to the local headquarters in Denver. Once they found out he already graduated high school, HQ said his recruiter couldn’t let him wait for the military intelligence assignment that started in August. He needed to ship out now. He could have a crew chief position instead. A combat airborne position.
He jumped at it – the action, the glory. He signed for it as soon as it opened up.
After adding a decent tip, I paid my tab and stood to leave, waiting as I put on one sleeve of my jacket, paused as people pushed by, then slipped my arm into the other sleeve. The waitress called goodnight as I gave a nod and headed out the door.
I crossed at the corner and entered the theater. One couple formed the entirety of the line. I stepped in behind them.
“Next.” I ordered my ticket. “Choose your seat – any one you want.” I touched a numbered box and took my ticket. I walked down the nearly empty hallway and entered the theater. Alone.
“You’re the only one,” the man at the ticket counter had told me. I stood a moment and looked at all the empty seats, then slowly walked up a few steps and chose a seat in the center.
1917. I’d already made plans to see “1917,” before my son called, before I knew he was headed for combat. I sat quietly, silently, as the lights dimmed in the empty theater. And then I watched the World War One movie all alone, a lone witness to the flickering images, all the people missing from all the seats, dead bodies all over the screen, the horror, the grim camaraderie, the anguish, the devastating loss, the utter waste of war – shared with no one.
So many sparkly medals. So many costumes. Different teams, different costumes, same battle. And here comes the next generation, waiting to sparkle.
I walked home in the dark, hearing my own footsteps echoing under the train bridge, as if I linked the past to the future around every corner, walking an endless loop.