Archive for June, 2011


Classes hadn’t started yet, I don’t think. We were all just moving into campus housing, barely settled. One afternoon we were getting ready for dinner and she came downstairs sobbing. A man who was obviously a relative was with her. He walked her out to the street and they left in a car.

I never saw her cry again after that. We made friends with different people and I didn’t get to know her well.

Many months later, amid a conversation about her and how Okay she seemed, someone said, “She and her father must not have been very close.”

From another conversation about the same person: “She needs to…let it out already.”

“A violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks. It satiates our craving for arena-style pathos. We want to cheer our gladiators for bravery while they hack themselves to bits in the ring. If a woman chooses not to play, but to find her own private way back, we say she’s ‘in denial.’ If we don’t see her fragment, we say that she’s not ‘dealing with it.'”
Vanessa Veselka, “The Collapsible Woman”

I’ve thought many times about the woman I talk about above and how to write about her, even though I knew her very slightly and more than 10 years ago, even though I can’t imagine the pain and rage she would feel at discovering that not only had people gossiped about something as private as her grief, but to see that I’m gossiping about it myself, and about their gossip, to my very tiny public. And while those conversations struck me as strange even at the time, and in memory seem almost unutterably cruel, I have to remember that they were had by young women, college students, unlikely themselves to have experienced any major loss. The only thing more surreal than staring at a box and realizing it contains the body (embalmed or burned) of someone who stroked your hair when you couldn’t sleep at night, is going home and realizing that there are still boxes to unpack, still tests to take, still deadlines to honor.

Places I have broken down weeping: my desk at work. The bathroom at work. My boyfriend’s couch. The Pied Cow. The sidewalk in front of the Starbucks.

I am the woman who ended a relationship, lost a job and compromised most of her close friendships and family ties in the throes of grief. I am the woman who went days at a time without changing into normal clothes or eating regular meals. I am the woman who fell apart.

Veselka, in the essay I quote above, is writing about how women in our culture are expected to react to sexual assault. She also writes:

“If you have been raped or abused, you’re scarred for life. You will never be as you were before the experience. This is also true for falling in love, getting your heart broken, going to war, having a child, or reading a great book. Everything that cuts deeply marks us. We’re all scarred for life the second that we intimately relate to the outside world. With rape, the difference is in the nature of the wound.”

As one who fell apart, I have wondered how people talk about my grief (um, and this isn’t an invitation to tell me). Now that I’m starting to feel a little more like a person I recognize, and I’m working again, and the work is in social services, I am now able identify my 2008 self as at risk for poor coping. Meaning the timing was really, really bad. Meaning it might not have been inevitable that something nearly everybody goes through tear me apart. Meaning the losses and miseries I am bound to experience in the future won’t necessarily take a chainsaw to the entire rest of my life.

I do know what people said to my face, the only one of which I’ll share with the present audience is a man’s surprise (expressed months after ending a fling with me) that I would have been interested in sex At Such a Time. The general trend of many conversations I had in the months after Mom died was that any time someone starts a sentence with, “There’s no wrong way to grieve,” the last half of the sentence is going to be, “except the way you’re doing it.” The therapist I saw briefly was fond of that platitude, adding the seemingly incongruous observation that I hadn’t really grieved the friend I lost in high school, because I didn’t know how.

I feel pretty safe saying, anyway, that rape survivors aren’t the only women whose emotional lives are public property. I feel safe saying that a single, visible breakdown followed by months of public stoicism is just as much Doing It Wrong as spiraling as far out of control as possible without dying oneself. I suspect the more accurate platitude is that there is no right way to grieve, and I don’t mean this even remotely in an “I’m OK – You’re OK” kind of way. I mean that if the universe has just sucker-punched you in some way, prepare for the assumption that whatever grief is, you’re not doing it.

I decided to blog every day for the rest of the month of June. Tomorrow I’m going to post a small and cheerful story about irises. Apparently tonight it was necessary to remind myself why I still find it necessary to be so unpleasant at times. And right out in front of everybody like this, especially now that most of my days are pleasant and I’m no longer living in a way that I’m completely ashamed of. Now that I’m no longer walking around wondering how anybody really manages to do anything, because it’s not even remotely true that I’ve suffered more than most people. Yesterday I saw a woman on the bus ever so discreetly wiping tears from her face, quite possibly looking at the rest of us wondering how on earth we manage to do anything without falling the fuck apart. If you’re that person, know that someday you actually will be all right, without having to pretend that it is or dramatize how much it isn’t.

which of the two I should find funnier:

Peanuts with the last panel removed
, or

Standalone Peanuts images with random quotations from Twitter inserted.

Both were brought to my attention tonight (though I was aware abstractly of the former). The latter is, to my understanding, newer. As we all know, the Internet regresses to the new. (Actually I’m pretty sure there is no possible class of “we all” that knows or believes that, since it makes no goddamn sense. I just really want to lead a seminar called “regressing to the new” at the next SXSWi.) Anyway, Peanutweeter has more Your Mom jokes right now.

Dear 20-year-old self,

The first thing I have to say to you is that nobody else has to live your life.

You already know this in your head. Still. I worry about the friends you’ve collected who treat you like a younger version of themselves. (I am allowed to do this because it’s true.) By the time you turn 25 you’ll have heard the expression “when I was your age” so many times it will have lost all meaning. I mean, it really will have. Through the latter years of your 20s, as you reach the ages these friends were when they first met you, you’ll notice yourself on a very different arc from theirs. The predicted marriages and children and rehabs and their attendant epiphanies are not as inevitable as everyone says they are. Nor is anything anyone tells you about your career. When I sit down to work on my resume, I think about you sitting on the floor of your study room with a magazine, some cardboard and an X-Acto knife, obsessed with collage, thrilled at trying to turn an about-to-be-recycled mess into some sort of cohesive image.

You’ll figure out soon enough that the things you’re figuring out are rather different from the things everyone told you you would figure out soon enough. Stop trusting those people. I also don’t recommend taking too seriously the advice of anyone who treats you like a slightly goofier or more glamorous or meaner or quieter version of themselves. Not that it isn’t flattering and charming of them to see you that way. Not that you can’t be friends with them.

Just remember that if someone sees you as a younger or dumber or cooler version of themselves, when they talk to you, that’s who they’re talking to: themselves. They’re just doing it in a context that makes them get to feel insightful and sound like an oracle. And they’re not oracles. They’re just people talking. And you, by the way, have a better handle on your life than you think.

That said? When I think about you and the next 10 years of your life, I think about the Aesop’s fable about the dog with the bone in its mouth, who crosses a bridge over a pond, sees his reflection in the water, and decides to go after its bone, losing everything. Try to be a little more patient with yourself and with the universe. Stop being so willing to chuck everything just because something else seems like a slightly better idea, because things aren’t exactly working out right now.

Conversely, don’t let your pride boss you around. Don’t stay in terrible situations for stupid reasons. Don’t say, “Well, this job is a nightmare, but I can stick it out for another year and then get the hell out of here.” Take the job if you have to (by the way: you have to, and don’t ever kid yourself that this is not the case) and start sending out resumes anyway. When you see the storm clouds rolling in, don’t stay outside and get soaked to prove a point. Buy a fucking umbrella. Get under a tree.

Don’t stay in relationships or pursue them just for the sake of making something stick. Don’t worry so much about your inability to make things stick: it’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Make friends constantly, even in places and circumstances where you don’t intend to throw down roots. Take a year off in the middle of college to establish residency, work and travel. Drink a little more now and a little less later. And stop making yourself so busy that you don’t have time to clean your own goddamn room.

One of the more amusing side effects of getting older is that when I remember myself at certain ages — or just stumble across material evidence of all those people I used to be — I’m less and less likely to recognize them, and quite a bit less likely to be mortified by the strangeness of their ideas and the foolishness of their outfits.

When I was 15 I tried to write a play called The Conference of the Selves, about a young woman who had tried to kill herself. But her soul got pulled into some purgatorial board room with the souls of herself at various ages, with a mediator who would help her try to integrate them all into one whole identity. If the selves all came to some sort of agreement, this girl would get her life back. See.

I was thinking about it recently and for the first time since I had the good sense to be abandon it (that is, about three pages in to the actual writing), I was more impressed by than annoyed with the brain that would think of something like that.

Sure, it’s silly and solipsistic, but here in the silly, solipsistic 21st century, people imagine conversations with their younger selves all the time.

I just walked past a car with a bumper sticker that said, “The next time you think you’re perfect, try walking on water.” Which brought up the memory of passing angry notes in second grade with my best friend after a fight. “Nobody’s perfect,” I wrote. I have no clue now what action I was defending.

“Well, some people are,” Sara countered..

I wrote, “Not even God!” which totally shut her up.

Later, I told someone else about this conversation, someone whose religious education was a little more coherent than mine, and I was rapidly informed that I was wrong. It turns out that not only was God perfect, that was sort of the entire point of God, really, if you thought about it.

The thing is that it’s rarely occurred to me that I’d even want to walk on water, except perhaps on particularly wet days when I’m wearing nice shoes.

Of course, I also don’t think I’m perfect. In fact, per the instructions I’ve been given since birth, I take a little time every evening to catalog the day’s failings and then to chide myself for being far too insecure.

So at the risk of giving my childhood self too much credit when she was really just trying to win a fight (though hey, props for the bitchiness, too), I’m impressed than an eight-year-old had, I think, some notion of life being far too messy for perfection to even be a meaningful concept, really.

At 30, I’m so set in my agnosticism that colloquial talk about God is a little off-putting to me, particularly when it’s eight-year-old me doing it. But then, I sometimes revert to a suspicion that someone is in charge of the whole shebang after all, and that he ought to have been kept out away from the liquor cabinet. I mean, he isn’t sleeping it off for weeks on end, he’s out crashing his car into things and prank-calling evangelical preachers to tell them the world is ending a couple of weekends from now.

If God exists, he’s the exact sort of person I would have dated a few times two years ago, then ended the relationship with a shouting match wherein we each accuse the other of being needy. While she lived in the same house I live in now and knew a lot of the same people, I’m as alienated from my 28-year-old self as I am from the person I was at four. Both were to some degree impaired, one by blinding grief, excessive drinking and an imploded sense of entitlement, the other by a short-lived but deeply-felt desire to one day own a horse.

The assumption driving my play and other hypotheticals like it is that when two versions of the same person sit in the same room together, some sort of wisdom will be imparted. I see no reason this has to be the case. My 15-year-old self thought her three-year-old self might have something to teach her, but my three-year-old self thought your clothes grew with you.

I see no reason I shouldn’t inform three-year-old Christen that actually your stuffed animals DO come alive when you fall asleep at night, but they never talk about anything interesting (“mostly taxes and stuff”).

My 16-year-old self was pretty highly strung and paranoid and it makes a lot of sense to me that I should have just told her that it’s not that everyone finds her boring or annoying like she imagines, just that she is literally invisible to everyone but her parents and a few teachers, and should test this theory by driving naked to school one day.

Like most twentysomethings, I made as many good choices as bad ones (and failed myself in some situations by not choosing at all). Clearly the best I could do my past self is to tell her to do everything just slightly and arbitrarily differently. “Don’t sleep with that guy. He’s a douche. Sleep with THAT one, for he is a slightly different kind of douche and will fuck you up in a slightly different way. This crummy job will take aaway a completely different piece of your soul than that one. Give it a shot, then quit with no notice. Also, wear less flattering clothes and dye your hair a color that really, really doesn’t suit you.

“I’m thinking black.”