17 October 2017

My Girl Hillary

I love Hillary Clinton. That's not a popular opinion, even among Democrats, but I proudly cop to it. I don't mean I voted for her or that I think she'd be a good president (though both those things are true). I mean I love her. I have a Funko Pop doll of her on my mantle (granted, it's in the basement, but still). I admire her. I think she's strong. I think she's smart. I think she's a bitch, but that's okay because, in the words of Tina Fey (another woman I love), "Bitches get shit done." Y'all, I love her.

Most of all, what I love about my girl, Hillary, is the fact she is unapologetically Hillary. She owns up to her mistakes, but she doesn't apologize for being strong, or opinionated, or doing what she thinks is right, even if it turns out to be wrong later. I truly believe one of the reasons so many people dislike Hillary is this very lack of apology. A lot of the criticism leveled at her is, in reality, dislike of the fact she doesn't back down, and she doesn't apologize. Because in the US, women apologize. For being loud, for being ambitious, for being assertive, and sometimes, just for taking up space. Study after study has shown that women apologize more than men, and often for relatively silly things. It's a cultural epidemic.

And in the past three months or so, I've been infected.

I admire women like Hillary who are unapologetically themselves, yet I find that lately, I'm apologizing. For everything. It's a relatively new development for me, so I find it profoundly uncomfortable. Suddenly, I'm constantly fighting the urge to apologize for being myself.

I somehow got locked into a cycle where I let other people's opinions and actions make me second guess everything about myself and my relationships. I started feeling guilty for mundane things like asking questions, sending a text, needing a friend... basically for taking up space in people's lives. These were people who claimed to want to be in my life--friends and family--so the sense of shame and insecurity was (and, if I am honest, is) unsettling. I felt ashamed of myself for trying to connect with people, for having emotions other people found inconvenient. I was embarrassed, too often, for being an imperfect person. So I started to apologize. And it's been a hard habit to break.

And let me just say, I used past tense a lot in that last paragraph. And maybe present tense is more accurate. But that's another post.

This weekend, I made a decision: I'm banishing the word "sorry" from my vocabulary. (Spoiler alert: I've already failed a few times.)There are just some things that I won't apologize for anymore. So I made a list (yeah, I'm that kind of person--I'm not sorry):
  1. Contacting or reaching out to people--I am allowed to take up mental and emotional space in someone's life. If someone chooses not to answer or to ignore me--if they refuse to give me that space--then I don't need to be in their life anymore; I need to learn to walk away, not apologize.
  2. Feeling whatever it is I am feeling in a moment, even if that feeling is inconvenient or uncomfortable for other people.
  3. Expressing what I am feeling, even if that feeling is inconvenient or uncomfortable for other people (notice a theme?)
  4. Failing to live up to other people's unrealistic expectations of me. Sometimes I am messy, and always I am imperfect. I'm okay with it. If other people aren't, again, I need to walk away.
I've caught myself starting to apologize multiple times. I've started a text to apologize when someone ignored a previous message for hours--but then I had to remind myself--there's nothing wrong with contacting someone. If they don't want to respond to my delightful banter, clearly there's something wrong with them, not me. And in all seriousness, ignoring someone is rude; guilt shouldn't lie with me but the person doing it. I have no reason to apologize. I've felt the urge to apologize when someone tried to police my language. I had an apology all crafted before I managed to stop myself, and remind myself that the person was being manipulative, and I didn't need to apologize for that. Sorry is a word that should be reserved for actual remorse, not as a crutch because other people are rude or seem to feel vaguely inconvenienced by me.

"I am allowed to take up space--whether emotional, mental, or physical" is my new mantra. I think it should be every woman's mantra. It's something we all need to be reminded of. It's so easy to forget.

But there is one person I feel I owe a huge apology to: me

For expecting myself to be all things to all people; for carrying around guilt and blame that weren't mine to shoulder; for caring more what other people thought about me than what I thought about myself. For somehow letting someone else make me feel I didn't deserve validation or acknowledgement.

But no more apologies. People make mistakes--me included--and I'll live with it. I've had to suppress a lot of natural instincts--"sorry it took me so long to get back to you," "sorry to bother you," "sorry to ask, but . . ." These are ingrained in my daily conversations. And they shouldn't be.

It's too early in my new campaign to tell if it's making a difference in my interactions. But I'm going to keep reminding myself Hillary has been blamed for a lot in this country that isn't her fault
--everything from her husband's infidelities to Weinstein's harassment of women--and she doesn't back down, and she doesn't apologize for what isn't her fault. The truth is, often, I'm not really sorry. I might feel insecure. Uncertain. Even angry. But none of those are reasons to apologize. Far too many times, I'm offering an apology when one is owed to me. And that, frankly, is fucked up.

And by the way: No, I'm not sorry for swearing.

15 October 2017

Cheat Codes and Free Will: What the Sims Taught Me About Life

Perhaps my worst kept secret is that, for years, I unabashedly loved the computer game The Sims. I was never a Sims City fan--that required far too much work and even at a young age I had no illusions that I should be, in anyway, in charge of running... well, anything. But The Sims was different. In the game, you built houses, decorated them, and then created families to move in and live there. The premise is your Sims need to build skills so they can get jobs, make money, and improve their houses. But y'all, Sims are stupid. Left to their own devices, they leave their babies outside in the snow because they wanted to watch TV; they don't go to work because the house is too dirty and it depressed them. And they never study. But there's a little switch in the settings of the game that makes all this a moot point: The free will button. See, you can turn free will off, and then your Sims can't do a damn thing unless you tell them to.

I mean, the ability to be totally in charge of someone's life? Sign me up.

I could play that game for hours. Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Sim--you want to watch TV? Tough. You burned toast last night and set the kitchen on fire; go read a book to improve your cooking skills. Mrs. Sims wants to sleep? Neat, but your baby is crying and the game comes with built in CPS, so suck it up buttercup and go sing some nursery rhymes. Oh, and there are bills to pay but neither of my Sims have jobs? Well, good thing the game also comes with a cheat code to get them unlimited money because I don't have time for work.

I mean.... I might have some control issues.

There is no clearer illustration in my life of my love of control than the way I played The Sims. I've always been particular about the way I want things to be done. I hate uncertainty. I need to have solid footing under me at all times, otherwise I go crazy--seriously, batshit crazy; I can give you names of people who have had to witness this. Uncertainty is, really, at the root of pretty much any fear and anxiety I've ever had. I need to know where I stand. I need to know what's going to happen and how and why. My control means that, in general, my life is organized and run well. But there are some things that elude my control. And those things tend to piss me off.

I've never been terribly adept at handling change and uncertainty, and the past few months have brought plenty of that. It's difficult for me to interact with people who try to control my emotions and interactions. I don't like have "rules" about what I can express or when. It's hard for me deal with situations and relationships when the ground keeps shifting beneath my feet.

Mostly I've just come to the conclusion that those situations and people who leave me feeling powerless are situations and people I have to avoid. I'm learning there's a difference between relinquishing control in a healthy way (#yolo) and someone wresting it from you against your will in an attempt to take advantage of you or manage your reactions (#ass). I've let too many people exert control over my life lately. Some have done it unwittingly--frustrating but forgivable. What's harder to accept is that there are a few who have done it purposefully--who have used my weaknesses against me. I'm working slowly to shut those people out of my life. Or, at the very least, to shut down situations where I find my words, reactions, and feelings being policed by them. I've decided I'm done feeling guilty, embarrassed, or out of control. To quote Maxine Waters, I'm reclaiming my time. Or my control, as the case may be.

Of course, I backslide a lot; for a control freak, I have shockingly little self- control, as anyone who has seen me crack open a bag of Doritos can attest to. But I'm working on it.

So the world isn't my personal game of The Sims, much to my dismay. Most days, I can handle it. I am, after all, slightly more adept at life than any of the Sims I've had to play on the computer. I've never left a baby in the snow, fallen asleep in a plate of burned spaghetti, or electrocuted myself fixing a toaster (seriously, if you don't play this game, you're missing out). So, I suppose I have to navigate this world, constantly bumping into those people whose free will keeps getting in my way. I'll just I have to live with that.

But, just saying, some cheat codes would be nice.

08 October 2017

Crotchety Old Bitch

In August, my husband and I adopted a dog named Ellie; then we immediately turned into insufferable millennials who talk about said dog way too much. It's amazing.

Ellie is a bundle of contradictions: She likes her own space, but she has to be in the same room I am. She's sweet and likes people, but only on her own terms. She's skittish around strangers and loathes kids. She gets cranky if she's not in bed by 8:30, hates to get up in the morning, and is relatively sweet until someone gets in her face, at which time she'll snarl, growl, and--in the case if my in-laws' dog--attack with teeth bared if you don't back up. She's sweet and cranky at the same time; cuddly and stand-offish; loves walks but gets winded after 6 blocks.

Y'all. Ellie is me.

Let's review:  Dislikes strangers, children, and exercise. Always wants to be in bed. Sweet, but will attack you right in the face if you tick her off.


We ended up adopting Ellie because her previous family--who had her for nearly ten years-- surrendered her. They had a toddler and another baby on the way; Ellie's penchant for snarling and snapping at kids when she gets scared meant she couldn't stay with them anymore. She needed a house without children or other pets. They loved her (I'm sure), but it just wasn't the right place for her.

Yet, as much as I love to ramble on about my dog, she's actually not quite the point here (though using her as a metaphor is a fantastic excuse to plaster her face all over this post). See, Ellie is perfect for us, and sometimes I'm sort of dumbfounded anyone could give her up. But she's not for everyone. She's not perfect and her family couldn't handle her issues. She is, in short, a crotchety old bitch.

Do I really need to say it again?

The past couple months haven't been the easiest for me. The past three weeks forced me to spend a lot of time thinking. One day, I hit a point where I was carrying around a lot of blame. I was angry at myself. And then a wonderful, intelligent woman I know (hi Sarah!) sent me a message and reminded me that sometimes we fit in people's lives, and other times we don't. Sometimes people don't appreciate us. Sometimes people find us annoying or messy. Sometimes we do the best we can, and it's still not right.

Sometimes, all of that just still means we're just fine the way we are.

See, Ellie isn't perfect, but she is who she is. All she needed was to find the right place--the right people--for that to be okay. Her previous family loved her, but they weren't that place so they let her go. And when I look at her sprawled out next to me on the couch, I remind myself I have my place too. I have my people. And sometimes I can care about people but still know those people aren't my people. That's not always an easy thing to accept. It's broken my heart in a million different ways, but it doesn't change that essential truth.

There are things about ourselves we will always be working on--I'm trying to be more patient, less judgemental, and more tolerant of middle-aged women (partly because I know I'm teetering awfully close to being one). But there are things about myself I just can't change: I will always be prone to emotional reactions and sentimentality, uncertainty will always make me crazy, and slow drivers in the left lane will always send me into a blind rage. I might not love all these things, but I no longer see them as weaknesses. They just are, just like Ellie--try as she might--just can't handle kids, other dogs, or staying up past 9:00 pm. The best I can ask for is to surround myself with people who can accept the good with the not-so-good, people who don't see those things as flaws but just part of who I am; people who are my people. Because they're out there. They're all around me.

So Ellie found her people. I'm learning to recognize mine. We've bonded over this shared journey, I think. And I think we're both at peace with it.

We'll be the first to admit--we're just a pair of crotchety old bitches.

But see, we're just okay with it now.

27 September 2017

My Confession

Even when I was young, I thought Confession at my Catholic grade school was suspect. I get to be awful, and all I have to do is go in a little box, say I'm sorry, maybe a couple prayers, and everything is forgiven? And even if I do the same awful things again, I just need to repeat the process? That's it. Forgiveness: eternal and unconditional. 

Christ, that's not how any of that works. 

I actually pride myself on being a fairly forgiving person. Actually, really forgiving. To a fault. Sometimes I forgive where others think I shouldn't. And the truth is I'm okay with that. It is a trait that has occasionally frustrated other people in my life, especially when it means I maintain relationships others think I'd be best without. Yet of all the crappy things I've forgiven, I've never regretted giving someone a second--or third, fourth,or even eighteenth--chance. In the end, it's always been the right choice. I'm okay with forgiving.

But lately I've learned there's one person I can't forgive. Ever. 

See the past few weeks have been... rough. I've been told, in fairly brutal terms,  I'm....well...an annoying mess. As someone who has spent her whole life trying to help others, it was gut wrenching to be described as a weight on someone's chest. And at the end of the episode, I was told quite plainly the friendship was done, permanently, and that was that. The whole incident was roundly wrapped up with me being unfriended and blocked on social media. And in a world where people have hundreds and thousands of friends on Facebook, that last one really got the message across. I mean, you gotta be pretty messy when your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feeds are too much for someone.

Y'all...it's been a week

But here's the thing: I'm not mad at this person. Because everyone has a right to feel what they feel. Everyone has a right to decide who gets to be in their lives. There's nothing wrong with it. So that's actually not who I can't forgive.

It's me. 

My real issue is I can't stop being angry at myself for completely failing to be the person I thought I was, for being weaker and all around worse than I imagined myself to be. I'm mad at myself for seeming messy when I'm usually meticulous. I'm angry I seemed sad when I'm usually sassy and spunky (a word someone else once used that I love).  I'm disappointed I let anxiety get the best of me when usually my humor-as-a-defense-mechanism means I can get through difficult situations and be charming and hilarious in a dark sort of way. And in all seriousness, I'm furious I ever became a burden when I've devoted my life to trying to carry other people's weight with them. I probably could've forgiven the person for what they said--if we were still speaking--but I'll never forgive myself for being someone they would want to say it to.

I know everyone is messy sometimes and that we don't owe apologies for going through hard things. And we don't owe anyone apologies for how we handle those hard things, even if we fail to do it with as much grace and aplomb as we might have liked. But as for how that translates into forgiving myself? Well, I'm still working on that. 

I don't think I'm alone. I think too often we don't extend to ourselves the same kindnesses we extend to others. We expect from ourselves what we'd never expect from others. And when who we think we are doesn't match who others see, that can be devastating.

It's not as if I'm sitting around being sad; I have my friends, my family, my dog, and more than enough 90s rap music to get me through (God bless you, Luda). I'm doing just fine. But in those quiet moments when the rush of the world dies down, a whispering voice sneaks in:"You really messed that up, and there's no fixing it now." It's not what I messed up--though that sucks; it's the fact that I messed up at all. There's no little box I can go to, no absolution someone can give me. I don't know how to atone this time. I consider myself to be good at forgiving people, but suddenly I'm stumped at how to forgive when the people is myself. The right answer probably has to do with accepting our failures and moving on, trying to do better the next time. When someone figures out what the hell that means, be sure to let me know. I have no clue. Because instead of any of that, I'm in a cycle of replaying every criticism I've ever heard throughout my life--I seriously had a stress dream about a nasty incident involving locker sharing in third grade--and then beating myself up for totally failing people--and totally failing myself. I don't know how to forgive myself for being the person I am--a person who is a burden sometimes. Who is messy and broken sometimes. Who makes people so crazy they need to cut them off.

Or block them on Twitter.

Because y'all, I think my online presence is a goddamn riot.

Making peace with who we are--especially when we are at our worst--is the work of a lifetime. And it isn't going to happen in a little box. There will be no old man (my priests were always old men) sitting on the other side of the screen offering penance. There are no quick prayers for absolution because it turns out the person who's doing the forgiving this time is worse at this than she thought.

Maybe I'll forgive her for that someday.

17 September 2017

My 90s Anthem or How Not To Stay

I love Lisa Loeb, completely and unabashedly. Okay, I love the one song from her I know. Her song "Stay" is, without a doubt, the anthem of the 1990s. Recorded for the movie Reality Bites, that song was my jam (yeah... I was 10... what of it?) To this day, the whole world pauses for me when it comes on. I hear the opening chords and I freeze. And then, I sing (loudly and badly).  But there has always been one part that drove me crazy:

"I thought that I was strong
I thought, "hey, I can leave, I can leave"
Oh but now I know that I was wrong
'Cause I
missed you."

See, the implication is that if you miss someone--if it's hard to walk away--then you're weak. You were wrong to leave. You'll never get away.

Lisa. Come on.

Because the truth is, if it's easy to walk away, if it doesn't hurt or make you sad, then it doesn't require any strength. You don't have to be strong to walk away from someone you don't care about, and you don't have to be strong to say goodbye to something you won't miss. But to leave something you know isn't good for you? To leave something that you love and care about and are invested in? That takes strength.

See sometimes I run into people who I just can't handle. I run into people who make me feel uncertain. Insecure. People whose love, for whatever reason, I can't read. They're few and far between, but they're out there. And those people, no matter how much I love them, are crazy-making for me. I've fallen into a pattern in the past two months with one such person. And the level of crazy in my life has sky rocketed.

The person isn't a bad person.... well okay, they're kind of a bad person, but I knew that when I became close to them, so that's on me. But they don't communicate in a way that works for me. They don't relate to people in a way that works for me. They don't work for me. It's no one's fault; it just is. And, as a result, they made me start to doubt everything about who I am. I began to doubt every conversation, joke, or emotion. And it'd be one thing if it was just with this individual, but it bled into every relationship I have. I apologize constantly for things as mundane as sharing a story or asking a question. I second guess situations and conversations. I'm quick to assume people are angry. I beat myself up for every emotion. Of course, this has pushed away other people I care about. It's a cycle that's made doubt everything about myself.

And you know what? I'm 33. I'm just too damn old for that sort of shit.

So I had to walk away. And it hurt. Well, present tense. It hurts. It makes me anxious and sad. I cry when I think about it (when I'm not cycling to blinding rage, of course). And there are times where that pain makes me feel incredibly weak. Times when I break and want to check their social media, even though I know it's a bad idea. I've feel sometimes like I am in shambles, and that's embarrassing. But I've tried to remind myself that it takes a lot of strength to walk away and weather the negative emotions. In some ways it'd be easier to stick around and wait it out, to try to repair the damage. But it wouldn't be the best choice. I was right to walk away. Sometimes you have to close the door, no matter how much you'd rather not. So I closed it.

So, while Lisa begs her man to stay because she misses him, I'm going to keep walking. I'm going to keep missing my friend, but I'm going to keep reminding myself that missing someone is okay. That you can miss someone and still be happier without them. That I won't feel sad forever. That it'll fade.

And that these feelings? They definitely don't make me weak.

10 September 2017

A Little Black Stool

This worn, chipped, dusty stool is probably the single most important thing in my entire classroom. It means more to me--and to many of my students--than any of the hundreds of notes, pictures, or even cards that line my shelves and walls. It's more important to what happens in my room than the laptops, the pens and pencils, or the books. This battered black perch is why I teach.

This stool has been privy to a lot over the past ten years. Every day, students drag this stool to the edge of my desk and settle in. Sometimes they have their laptops open, sometimes a notebook, sometimes just their hearts and stories. But as they sit there, that's where the real joy of my teaching begins. I love the moments in front of my classroom, watching my freshmen read Romeo and Juliet out loud and giggle at Mercutio. I love watching my sophomores fume over Daisy's betrayal of Gatsby or my seniors as they tear up as Hamlet takes his last breaths. These moments with my entire class can sometimes feel like the stuff of movies, and they are magical. But it's the quiet moments, the one-on-one moments that take place on that little black stool, that really remind me why I do this job.

When I read through the cards my seniors left me as they headed out into this world, more than one mentioned pulling that stool up to my desk, and more than one proclaimed the stool to be theirs. This week, my proctor marched into my room and hovered, agitated, over a friend who was sitting there, chatting. When her friend scurried off to class, my proctor grabbed the stool, dragged it next to me, and said defiantly, "Sorry, [name], but this is my spot." I know that for more than one student, their strongest memories of my classroom will have happened sitting there.

During workshop weeks, that stool feels haunted. It sits empty and I swear I feel the ghosts of the hundreds of students who've sat there before crowding in. My room often feels forlorn during that week before school starts, suspended in the sad limbo between what I've lost and what's about to come. The echoes of the voices that filled the previous year still seem to whisper during that week.

And then--then it all begins. One hundred and eighty new students stream into my classroom on a warm Tuesday in September and they drown out the echoes that seemed so loud just a few days before. New students unceremoniously drag the stool to my desk, and suddenly new voices crowd in. I find the spirits that just a few days ago haunted my room fading as new college essays demand attention, as new thesis statements need approval, as new anxieties and hopes and fears and gossip swirl around me. There's only so much noise a room can take.

Thursday, as one of my seniors and I labored over his college essay, laughing and trying to find the right words to impress NYU and UChicago, I glanced at my desk and saw a post it a past student had stuck on my bulletin board. I was jolted into the previous year momentarily, remembering sitting there with him, writing the college essays that spun him away from Elk River nine months later, lead him to the dorm room he was probably sitting in at that very moment. A momentary flash of loss, and then it was gone.

That's the nature of teaching. So many stories fill our lives, but in the end, they're always temporary. I get older, and yet the voices that fill my room are forever suspended in time--perpetually worried about college and careers and the exhausting drama that makes up life from the ages of fourteen to eighteen. There's something so beautiful about that. It makes it easier to let go, in the end, knowing that it'll all be back next year. Knowing the haunted feeling will be crowded out and new students will take up their places in my heart.

Knowing that little black stool will always find its way back to the edge of my desk.

As it all begins again.

04 September 2017

What I'm Left With

Spoiler Alert (that will surprise approximately zero people who know me): I am horrible at letting go of things.

I don't just mean slightly worse than average. I mean awful. Appallingly, shockingly awful.

Ever since I was young, the idea of losing something--losing people--has preoccupied and terrified me. So, when confronting a potential loss, I have the super awesome (ahem... read: annoying and pathetic) tendency to hold on as tightly as possible. I mean, who doesn't love clingy, amirite? But the flip side of this is I've never been a person who lets others in very easily. In high school, my best friend of three years told me one night, "You know, you're really hard to get to know. But once you let someone in, you're for life."

It's 16 years later and she's still my best friend. So, you know. She wasn't wrong.

I don't let people in easily, it's true. I invest a lot of energy in people, but at the same time, there's usually an emotional distance, at least on my end. I love, but I keep a safe cushion that allows me to let go easily when I need to. And, as someone who doesn't like letting go, that's a good thing. My screening process means that rarely does anyone get past my defenses who isn't going to take their position pretty permanently. But every once in a while...
letting go

This year, my screening process went completely haywire. I invested, and then I let down my defenses. And, inevitably, the time came to part ways.

Did I mention that I'm awful at this?

And that, due to my lack of experience, I have very few coping mechanisms for it?

It's been messy.

But this is love letter, not a lament. Make no mistake, I hate losing people and letting go. It is the goddamn worst. And there are many times over this summer I have complained to anyone who will listen, "I wish I didn't care so much!" I've complained about feelings and said repeatedly that I want to go back to not having any. And you know what, that's true.

Loss hurts and letting go sometimes feels impossible (if you're like me). But loss in an inevitable byproduct of loving. And while I could do without loss, I could never do without loving. I hate letting go, but I'm so grateful to have things in my life that are worth holding on to. I'm grateful that people let me in to their lives to love them. I'm grateful for the time I get with those who have to leave in the end. I'm grateful that, no matter how bereft I might feel after all is said and done, I have been loved in return. I am, at the end of it all, grateful.

So I don't really know what to do with myself. I'll be crabby for a few days. Probably cry. Hopefully not to Biggie's "Big Poppa" (see last post), but I can't rule out Ludacris or Eminem bringing me to tears at this point. But I also know that I'll move on. I know that I'm softer than I was before, but that's because I have been loved, and love changes us. Time marches on and gives us no choice but to march with it. The past fades and the loss becomes less sharp, less all-consuming. It never goes away, but the intensity lessens.

And if you're lucky, all you're left with is the love.