My nails have been breaking. I don’t know if they got weaker while I was going through the most intense parts of my treatment for Lyme disease. Both index fingernails broke. My thumbnail has started to show signs of distress, jagged lines where it looks like the layers of nail haven’t been able to hold together. My instinct is to try to hide them.
I’ll be hiding my toenails for a while. The right big one pulled the trick where it grows over itself every six months-a little like a paper jam in a printer, I end up with two layers where there should be one. I bruised the left one when curcumin was thinning my blood too much and so will lose that one soon. Another I have left the nail polish on from last November to chart for myself how slowly it is growing compared to the one next to it. Closed toe shoes will be the norm. They are so far gone that a pedicure can’t save them this spring. But for all of their flaws, my nails have always been strong and tough. I have never had to worry about them being brittle.
Until now. I worry about nail polish and its removal causing more issues. I felt a twinge of vanity that usually escapes me (I rarely have any idea the state of my cuticles and my nails are never an even length). I’ve been watching my nails with curiosity. Does their breaking mean I am doing worse even though I feel better? Am I skimping on vitamins or macronutrients I need? Did I do something to them as they grew from my body or did they get damaged by something I did afterwards? Are they something to hide? Are they something I need to protect from my impulse to cover up?
On my birthday one of the books I happened to pick up was a National Geographic compilation of some of their best Instagram pictures. I opened to a random page and was immediately struck by a brilliant toucan. The astonishing thing for me that makes photography so spectacular is that there are details that escape our notice when we see stylized versions of the same. A cartoon or painting of a toucan is still gorgeous-but I don’t know that any of them have captured the jagged lines that this toucan’s beak has. I stared and stared because they were the same as my own. I googled what beaks are made of.
The same substance our nails are made of.
When I looked at this bird I didn’t see a creature I was worried about, I saw a creature who has lived. And is beautiful. It may be trite, but I am grateful for little synchronicities that remind me that my experiences and imperfections are not unique, and are not embarrassments, and are not alarming problems to always be “fixed”. And that being seen as who I really am connects me to other creatures in ways I had never thought about before.
I haven’t blogged in a long time. It isn’t for lack of trying-I tried to post something just a couple of weeks ago and a glitch erased it all, pictures, image descriptions, the whole text. Which is probably a good thing as it was kind of pitiful, as in, I was feeling a lot of self-pity. It felt like the universe correcting me, telling me to try again with a little less blah.
Here I am. I started this blog in 2014 as a creative outlet for myself, a place where I could get short essays down and into the world and feel more connected to it. To have a space that was mine to shape and polish and decorate as I wanted, away from the needs of my two kids and the needs of my errant (and in a nod to Roxane Gay, “unruly”) body. I haven’t been able to use this that way for a bit. Oh, there has been self-promotion here and there, but a little essay every other week? Not so much. And that has started to bum me out.
Sure, there are somewhat good reasons for it.
I got warned by ambitious freelancers to never post a piece to your blog for free until you try to sell it. You know, realizing that writing is work and should be appropriately compensated. A great idea in theory-in practice I am absolutely wretched at pitching, and waiting forever to see if a submission has been accepted or if a pitch has landed is bad for my mental health. It was unsustainable for me. And I have discovered that I am really bad at coming up with timely think-pieces that have enough foothold for a broad audience.
Another factor was that I didn’t want to take what little time I had away from actually completing the book I am working on. It’s a work-in-progress, a collection of essays, a memoir about being chronically ill, that is going incredibly slowly at the moment. Part of the problem is that my illnesses, the subject of the book, keep shifting and changing requiring rewrites and reimagining and review. Time is eaten away quickly.
A third factor has been managing my health. I was diagnosed in January with Lyme disease, and I have most likely had it since I was six. The infection just took over when my immune system was under so much stress from two pregnancies and two C-sections and a recession about eight years ago, and I couldn’t cope anymore. So many mysterious and seemingly unrelated systemic problems came from that. Treatment is hard, many hours of the day it feels as if even my individual cells need deep breathes and stillness. Most of the day is spent letting my body rest. I never let it rest before-because I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which has no known cause and no known cure I had opted to play through the pain, pushing through because my life was going to stagnate if I didn’t. I had social media schedules where I planned on Sunday night what Facebook posts I was going to post that week. I tweeted. I participated in every group I could get into. I got a blog post done every two weeks. I submitted and submitted and submitted. Then I got tired. And more tired. And more tired. And finally had to stop. Because I just couldn’t go anymore. I submitted, finally, to my body’s needs.
In the midst of this I asked myself what was it I wanted out of writing and getting published. I really thought it through because moving the goalposts was wearing me out. With the election of 2016 I wondered if what I wanted most was to be a voice for change, an activist. I asked myself if what I wanted was to be famous, like David Sedaris, or Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess), having fabulous fun book tours and interviews and the like. Did I want respect, to have the approval of the upper echelon in the literary world? Did I want to have a followers who can’t wait to see what I say next?
Then it hit me. All those things are wonderful. Any of those goals fulfilled would be rewarding. When those goals are achieved by other people I feel envious and there is a tendril in my heart of longing-especially on days when illness and treatment make those goals dance further and further away from my grasp. My real goal? I will do anything in my power to keep being allowed to tell what the world looks like from my point of view.
To achieve this goal, there are barely any gatekeepers. I can do that here, any time I want. I don’t have to wait for editors or agents or the Submittable queue. I don’t need to have an MFA to be allowed to do this. Nor do I need to wait the six months after I enter a contest to find out if the judges enjoyed my work. I don’t have to start my own literary magazine. What I want to be able to do, I already can do. It’s rare that that is true, especially in my body. What I really want to do is what I already am capable of doing.
This is my digital home. If I want to write about what Vanellope Von Schweetz means to me I don’t have to wait until I find just the right quirky paying home for that essay. If I want to talk about my son’s broken ankle and how people think he is perpetually miserable about it when he isn’t, I can do that without fighting for a spot in the Washington Post Talent Network, pitching the idea and hoping it doesn’t end up with a misleading title.
I want a place to show the peonies in my garden, and a little girl refusing to play Duck, Duck, Goose just to give the appearance of friendliness. I have that place. I just forget that I already do.
The other day at Ulta I found myself looking at every shade of lipstick, drawn again and again to the reds, which is unusual for me. I almost shelled out 35 bucks for a lip liner and lipstick. Then I realized that although I hadn’t used it since a gala fundraiser in 2015, I had an almost identical red at home. Here’s to using the clothes and the makeup and the utensils and the tools we already have before going out and buying more. Here’s to remembering that if what I want to do is be allowed to tell my stories, I already have a way to do that.
Here’s to putting up siding, painting the hallways and redecorating my digital home.
It’s been a bit since I posted, huh? I am really happy to be able to, to let you know I have a new essay up at Full Grown People today called Spectator. It is about living life watching instead of participating, because often that is what I am able to do. It is also about parent participation night and third grade basketball. It’ll all make sense, I promise!
I am very proud to be a voice in the Disability March II, a virtual movement of solidarity with the Women’s Marches this January 20 and 21. If you are also disabled (my chronic illness people who may be invisibly disabled, you know you count too, right?) please consider joining in by sharing your story as well. My entry is called Enough (a click on the title will take you to the link), and the more people we can gather the more we show the world that we exist and we won’t be silenced. Last year we had more than 3,000 participants by the end of January-I think we can get even more. Making disability visible.
A couple weeks since I wrote up our Christmas letter, which we still haven’t sent out?
A New Year’s post January 4th?
New Year’s Resolutions (at least for me) have generally been equal measures guilt/self-flagellation for not being better AND an expression of a commitment to more things that make me happy. For the first year since I can remember making resolutions I haven’t felt the guilt of not being enough at a deep fundamental level.
Normally I would have set up a new strict schedule for myself to maybe blog each week with a fully formed essay, go back to my regimented social media blitzes, finish four essays a month, exercise every day, wash my face and dry my hair, finish my book by March, read all the books I have bought but haven’t finished, suddenly be perfect. I had convinced myself that as long as I had a concrete plan I would finally be able to be “successful”. I am awesome at making plans that will be abandoned almost as soon as they are committed to paper. I also would get down on paper fun things that I had denied myself that I would finally get around to doing. I had a little higher success rate with those goals, though they we still based on me being “bad” at being happy.
I didn’t this year, and I didn’t abandon my old models as a conscious decision. I just didn’t. Going back and writing what I might have done other years is making me feel anxious again, like I am late for an appointment-but it’s an appointment where I just yell at myself for all the things I could do better.
I have always thought of myself as someone who does things half-assed. Never doing things totally right, never finishing important things, dropping one good habit as soon as I pick up another needed one. But you know what? I have done a lot of amazing things one ass cheek at a time. I read something this year that turned a particular idea on its head. A man was cursed, it would seem, with only being average at everything he tired. Someone else posited that being average at EVERYTHING one tried is still amazing-the average mountain climber on Everest still climbs the mountain, you audition for a Broadway show and you aren’t the brightest star on the stage but the average Broadway performer is amazing, you try your hand at being a teacher and you still help students even if you aren’t a Golden Apple recipient. We disparage accomplishments and good done in the world in the quest to be the best, we feel like we need to go all in for everything or we fail. It isn’t true. Half an ass is still more than no ass. An absolute ton of good is done a cheek at a time because that is what we can do. I was angry at myself for so long not finishing my book “on time”…ignoring the nearly 50,000 words I did write already. That’s a hell of a lot more than zero.
I feel generally good about myself-I still have bouts of guilt when I really could have or should have done more and didn’t, but I’m finally recognizing that for most of my life I really have done my best-I have put intense effort in to so many parts of life. I’m finally honoring those efforts instead of disparaging them. We tell kids that we just want their best effort, that if they try we will be pleased. Either I’ve been lying to children or I need to really believe, at my core, that that is true. I think long and hard before lying to children for any reason (mysterious holiday gift-bringers cause me a lot of stress) so I need to reconcile this one way or another.
So this is a bit of a half-assed post, but it is still a post. It exists. I took time to articulate something that felt important to record. I am going to recognize that this is the best I can do at this exact moment in time, and I did it, and am happy I did.
We are currently in the middle of renovations on our new house and aren’t living there yet. As of this writing this is what my kitchen looks like.
Countertops are covered in sawdust, there are trim pieces and a table saw in my living room and bag chairs in the family room. We need to set up Wi-Fi and cable, and do not have any toilets upstairs. Our kitchen table, sofa and entertainment center are still in a storage unit.
We are less than a week from Thanksgiving and my ridiculousness has insisted that I still want to host Thanksgiving. It’s been our thing for years and years. Since graduating from college my husband and I have hosted a Thanksgiving dinner every year. We made pasta and turkey for just the two of us in Tennessee, and the next year there my brother-in-law came and visited. We’ve had my mother- and father-in-law over in Texas when our oldest was just three weeks old (though I did very little cooking that year). The ten years we’ve been back in Illinois we have added in my brothers and significant others, my parents, friends that became family and aunts and uncles and cousins. Like, it’s a whole thing. I have a collection of recipes and timetables and serving platters and autumn leaf-colored plates and a stuffed turkey and gold and brown tablecloths and a Tiffany-style pumpkin lamp. Like, it is on. This is happening.
My mom has teased me that this really isn’t necessary. My husband stared at me with wide eyes this morning, one of the few times in our twenty-one years together that he has admitted we probably have bitten off more than we can chew. My youngest was sad that every year we decorate a cardboard box that we then fill for the food pantry and that we might not get to this year-I told him we have a million moving boxes and I just grabbed some construction paper from Target. I’ve got Hawaiian rolls in my pantry, a pound and a half a pecans in the freezer, cranberries in the fridge.
My deviled egg plate, immersion blender and portable cupcake holder are out of storage. The big ass square stuffing bowl is ready.
This may be the most ill-advised Thanksgiving we have ever held. But, this is one of the ways I show my gratitude for some of the people I love, and who have been there through this whirlwind process.
I wrote this several years ago. Every winter day when I drove my children to school after Sandy Hook, I felt my chest tighten wondering if this would be the last time I saw them. I wouldn’t turn and walk away until I saw them safely in the building, knowing I would never live past the regret of not looking after them until the last possible second if they should die that day. I parked on a different street, walked a different route after that Friday in December, anxiety and magical thinking working together to make me believe that I was somehow protecting them by avoiding the things I did that day, the day small children were murdered in their school. A few months later the incident described below happened.
I think a few differences have happened over the last few years that make this story a time capsule of fear and hope that don’t carry over to today.
When this story took place, though I was scared, I felt that many good people were trying to figure out how to prevent mass shootings from happening again. I felt confident that every other mother and father in the country was feeling the weight on their hearts as I was. I was wrong. There were some very evil people who value money over children’s lives who have been operating covertly assuring that nothing-not even prior domestic abuse charges-got in the way of gun manufacturers selling more guns. Concealed carry became the norm in even blue states like Illinois. Open carry became the norm in red states like Texas. There is little to prevent any American from gathering as much ammunition and as many guns as a terrorist organization might procure. The mass shootings got even worse.
When this story took place I thought that we were starting to dismantle toxic masculinity. I thought we were turning a corner on how we raised our boys into men, that we were starting to assure them both that they were allowed to feel pain and that they were not allowed to use violence on their fellow human beings-that it wasn’t weakness to have feelings and it wasn’t a show of strength to abuse those within their world. Maybe this is a violent death rattle that will destroy so much more before these toxic ideas finally expire. I was a teacher. I had a firm belief that we had power to help change the lives of young men who could have turned to violence and enacted interventions to stop them. I still believe we can, but I do not believe there are enough people who want to find out how anymore. The young boys we had a chance of changing are now violent young men with more capacity to kill that we did nothing to dissuade.
When this story took place, I thought my fear could be contained by the idea of a school lockdown, that if I pinned my fears to this one location in space and time it wouldn’t infect the rest of my world. That the healthy white blood cells I had would route my panic and grief if I could stop it from spreading. Shootings have happened everywhere and the infection has spread. My white blood cells have given up; the infection has spread so far that I have forgotten what it was like to be fighting for my health and almost winning.
This story is both tinged with more fear than I now feel, because resignation has subsumed my alarm, and more hope than I now feel, because change I thought was coming was never on its way at all.
I never thought I would wish to be able to have the feelings in this story again. Once I get something so ugly on paper I hope to have flung the feelings that inspired it far away from my body. I now wish they still felt like they were a part of me.
There are red and white lights flashing as I pull into the parking lot, but no sirens. I go to stand in the cold with the other parents, waiting for our preschoolers to be released. They are not. A police car has come to silently join the fire truck and ambulance that are already here, and we realize that the children are in lockdown. This isn’t a drill.
“I knew they shouldn’t have put the little ones in a junior high.” The first parent among us starts to express our fears. I nod, almost imperceptibly, as I always thought it was strange to put three to five-year-olds in the same building as teenagers. It was a temporary solution to a space shortage, but an odd one. One that had already scared us, but we couldn’t protest as we were lucky to be getting services at all with so many budget cuts.
We sit stand quietly, tensed and staring at the door that won’t open.
“It’s been five minutes.”
I try to steady my breathing and hope against hell that the children don’t suspect that anything unusual is happening. That they are huddled in their coats and mittens and backpacks in a corner, following their teacher’s directions to stay silent and still. I am able to calm myself for a moment knowing that they always listen to her, even though they are squirmy tiny people.
“It’s been ten.”
We shift lightly back and forth on cold feet, trying to warm ourselves. Or maybe we are getting ready to spring. There are about forty of us who are realizing what it means to be the ones locked out: we can’t do anything to protect them. I fantasize about scooping up my thirty-five pound child and running, though I know that isn’t what you are supposed to do. And where could I possibly go to get far enough away? We are all listening, hoping that nothing unusual punctuates the silence inside the school.
The woman who first spoke up has a little boy who, at the end of each school day, runs straight for her laughing, yelling “Mommy!” She catches him up and swings him high into the air and lets him fall into her arms. Every day. She speaks again, “He had a twin sister. She had a hole in her heart and she died, as a baby.” More quietly she adds, “Nothing else can happen to him. To us.”
I finally use my words to dampen the panic in my throat. I say something about how it will be all right. I say something about how I know about these things, because I was a teacher. I was a teacher who handled these hormonal, dangerous teenagers for a long time. I knew they could be good and kind, and lonely and angry and confused. I tell them about how we handled a six-foot tall boy who brought a very large knife to school. Without injury. Without harm. And that the boy eventually came back and was welcomed and never hurt anyone. I say something about protocol, and drills, and empathy, and vigilance, and dedication. And redemption.
“It’s been fifteen minutes.”
I want to shatter the glass of the doors that won’t open and run to the room where I know my youngest is and be there with him. In case anything happens, it won’t happen without me. It can’t. I want to whisk him away from everyone else in the world forever. I want to put myself between him and everything. Where no one can get to him except through me, and he will not get to anyone else without my intervention.
Doors far from us open, and one slim boy is escorted out by four police officers. Silently, they box him in. He is in handcuffs, but his arms are not held to keep him from running away. He won’t. His face is the same as my six-foot tall boy’s.
The doors in front of us swing open and my preschooler is at my side. I grab his face in my hands to see that he is smiling, not worried. I hoist his thirty-five pounds against my hip, and realize how hard it would have been to run carrying him. And how impossible it would have been to know that I was locked away from him, and not even given the chance to try.