I go overboard.
Twenty-seven years ago I watched a production of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnnie at the Claire de Lune night after night recognizing myself in the moment Johnnie admitted, “I hold on to new things too hard…” the same way I recognized myself in Jane Eyre hiding in the library from the anger and meanness of the house where she lived.
I fling myself headfirst into the joy of a new friend, my admiration boundless, relentless. It’s something to do with how I haven’t yet unlearned what always seemed to be true: that nothing good lasts. Not because all things good and bad end, as I now know they do, but because I fervently believed (I fervently had to believe) that there was something slippery and dark in me that didn’t deserve to hold onto people or to have people hold onto me. I know differently now yet feel the same as then.
I forget I have more of value to give of myself than just devotion, that I don’t have to earn my way into getting someone to stick around. I forget that it is not a question of whether or not I deserve to be liked, much less loved. I forget that I should pause to recognize myself in the moment when Mark Darcy tells Bridget Jones, “I like you just as you are.”
I forget too that there’s nothing wrong with going overboard once no laws are broken, or no bones are broken as I fling myself full-body into whatever my newest affection. Who doesn’t want to be extravagantly admired, at least for a little while? And since I no longer do the thing where I show up at someone’s house as they’re sitting down to dinner and insist on waiting because the joy I feel when I’m near them trumps all common sense…?
I am not saying any of this well and I confess I’m annoyed at myself for feeling that I owe anyone–myself included–an explanation. Sometimes I just want to feel–wildly, boundlessly–without wondering, “Too much? Too much?” I don’t expect to be entirely free of everything that was broken in childhood. Why would I want to be when it’s the broken bits–for better or for worse–that make me who I am? What I do want to be entirely free of is feeling bad when those broken bits surface, especially since these days, at worst, they may cause someone else a paper cut or too, a small price to pay for connection.
I want to hold onto new things too hard, and have that be the exactly right thing to do.
…. And today, as I start year 45, I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve found some quality people to connect to, people who—to borrow from Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary because, well, Colin Firth—like me just as I am. And that is both glorious as hell and profoundly uncomfortable, don’t you think Marc?
(I wrote that last bit when I got home from my birthday revels last night, which consisted of tapas, two margaritas, and a solo shot of tequila for sipping. Which isn’t to say I was drunk. Or tipsy. But things were a little shaky moving from the couch to my desk and so forth.)
I’m thinking about what I mean by the fact that being loved “just as I am” can be profoundly uncomfortable. What is so scary about someone loving us even with all our flaws intact? Is it that if they accept us no matter what we don’t have an excuse to escape when feelings get too intense? Is the fact that knowing that someone accepts my flaws can be a catalyst to work on them problematic because my perfectionism kicks in and I live in constant fear of disappointing them even though I’ve already established that they’re going to love me anyway? There’s some sort of pressure I feel with close relationships that I can’t quite explain or articulate. When I feel myself getting close to a person, it can feel like a vise closing, like asthma attacking my lungs.
I want to write this in the past tense—when I felt myself getting close to a person—and I do think that feeling has grown more muted over the years, but there are definitely times when a maelstrom of doubt rises up regarding whether even my closest friends really care for me, and, of course, I’m always the bad guy. “It’s because I said that thing at breakfast.” “It’s because I didn’t go to that party.” “It’s because I told that joke.”
That doubt, that overdeveloped willingness to take the blame—isn’t that how I survived childhood?—has led me to cling on to some very toxic friendships. I’d blame myself for all the bad feelings, all the bad times, and keep hold of them and never notice how that person was undermining me, never supporting me, never going out of their way for me. Which I’ve slowly and painstakingly had to learn is what a normal relationship is like. I’ve also slowly and painstakingly had to learn that even the most devoted friend can’t show up every single time. And that’s also what a normal relationship is like.
I say “had to learn” but the truth is I’m re-teaching myself that lesson more days than I’d like. You asked once on air why you always seem to have to relearn the same shit. My answer? Just because. I think maybe that it might not even be because you or I are particularly broken—though we are broken in a particular way. For all of us, maybe, there’s some lesson we need to learn over and over again and maybe we are still learning even as we transition to the next life. What do you think?
To be continued…
1. Dancing is equal parts rhythm + joy. Rhythm makes the dancing look good, joy makes the dancing feel good. A person in the throes of joy is infectiously beautiful irregardless of the downbeat and their appreciation or ignorance of it.
2. I can only dance when I love my body. I think swan or hawk or eagle. I don’t think albatross. The more I dance, feel each individual muscle stretch and bend and glide and hurl itself toward the waiting air, the more I marvel at my body, the more I think “home,” the more I think “blessing.”
3. Each day I know more and more the truth of youth being wasted on the young. The gaggle of twenty-somethings on the edges of D’s 60th birthday dance party mutter “I’m not a good dancer” when we try to tug them onto the dance floor. Dance now, I want to say, before you discover the price of joy, before you learn it’s not always a gift, but a prize hard-earned. Dance now while your body is still just a body, not a warning or a stop sign or a penance.
4. I think love is that moment of joy exploding because though you are in a room full of strangers, there is your dear friend, your home, exploding + exploding + exploding till the room is littered with her joy.
5. Songs to dance to: “Thrift Shop” — Mackelmore and Lewis; “Get Lucky” — Daft Punk; “Moves Like Jagger” — Maroon 5; “Tightrope” — Janelle Monae; “Rock Wit You” — Michael Jackson; “Lonely Boy” — The Black Keys; “Don’t Hold the Wall” — Justin Timberlake; “Hips Don’t Lie” — Shakira; “Hey Ya” — Outkast;
Reasons why I can’t see my friend Philippa Hughes anymore:
1. At the artist salon she hosted last night, I made contacts with a performance artist who I hope to interview for my day job, an art consultant who I’d like to learn more about, and reconnected with an arts PR person who I’d met briefly several years ago who I think will be a good colleague in organizing some sort of regular meet-up for arts PR folks in DC.
2. After the presentation, when I was talking to Philippa, she reminded me that I’d been talking about starting a magazine for nearly a year, encouraged me that there did need to be a space focused on post-40 “late bloomers,” and offered to start the magazine with me. So today, in between getting my regular work done, I’ve been starting to think about my action plan for getting the magazine started.
3. When I arrived home from the artist salon, although it was nearly my bed time I wrote a list poem/blog post inspired by something the performance artist said and put out a call on Facebook for other poets/writers to join me in a month-long writing marathon on the subject of “place.”
4. I then stayed up until nearly midnight listening to a couple of episodes of the radio show—the Van Gogh Sessions—Philippa does with her good friend Karen Yankosky, which not only made me laugh but reminded me of how important it is to dare.
In other words, after a few hours with Philippa I was inspired and fired up!
I’m joking, of course, about not hanging out with Philippa anymore. But as I was thinking about last night’s burst of creativity, the old adage popped into my head: “You are the company you keep.” In other words, if you want to live a more creative life, if you want to have the courage to dare when you’d rather sit on the blue couch, then you have to hang out with those who are also daring and dreaming.
I’ve been fortunate that throughout my life, I’ve had groups of creative friends around me. In Chicago, it was my writing group—the Divas—most of whom I met because I dared to sign up for a poetry workshop on the very last day that registration was open. In the last couple of years here in DC, I’ve dared to do things like go to artist salons and performance events. I’ve dared to join virtual groups, like the online writing group I do poem-a-day challenges with several times a year. I’ve dared to reach out personally to artists I’ve met professionally and with whom I’ve especially clicked. And when I saw that in January, Philippa and her friend (and now my friend, yay!) Karen were doing a blog-a-day challenge, I invited myself to join them.
I think I’ve written before about the true meaning of networking: it’s not about finding the person who’s going to get you your next job with a big promotion and tons of perks (though that’s always nice). It’s about finding those people who are traveling down the same path as you so you can help each other—with advice, with encouragement, with support, with wisdom.
The older we get, it’s harder to meet those people. In my 40s, it feels so much more intimidating to even say “hello” to someone I don’t know at a gathering. It can be uncomfortable, you can spend time feeling like an outsider, and it can be a little dispiriting if the coffee date with the person you met at that cool event turns out to be a dud, or if you send out e-mails to the folks you met at the event and no one even wants to have coffee. But it’s worth it.
In the poetry world, they say that if you have a folder full of rejection letters, you’re doing it right. It means that you’re engaging, you’re trying, you’re putting your work out there because there’s no chance at all of publication if it just sits in the drawer. I think the same is true when it comes to building a creative community around you. Not every interaction will be a success, but eventually, if you persist, you end up with a friend—and hopefully a group of friends—who inspires you, challenges you, and keeps you going when it feels like the creative well is going dry. Friends who remind you of your goals, your dreams, and will do what they can to help you get to wherever it is you’ve decided to go. And that, I’ve learned, is absolutely worth the risk of rejection.
I went to hear Bill Drayton, CEO/Founder of the Ashoka Foundation, speak the other night. And he said that what’s holding us back from all being change-makers (or artists, or creative people or whatever your particular goal is) is that we just don’t give ourselves permission. So go ahead, give yourself permission to talk to that artist at that party, comment on that blog post, politely barge into that conversation because you know you have something to offer. Go ahead, I dare you!
p.s. IMHO you should sign up for the Pink Line Project mailing list so Philippa can inspire you too.
p.s.p.s. The performance artist from last night is Kathryn Cornelius. I believe she has a couple of shows up right now, and you can learn more on her website.
The scar from my abdominal surgery is six inches long, snaking vertically upward from the top of my pubis, listing left diagonally across the twin fatty folds of my belly, just missing my navel before petering out. The skin is puckered, that dull shiny pink of new scars. On either side of it, my belly fat hangs misshapen, one side hanging much lower than the other, a graphic ghost of where the tumors used to be. The incision itself doesn’t hurt, though the areas around it seem always on the edge of soreness. Still, it’s sound. I’m all knitted together and no longer in danger that lifting the wrong thing, or stretching too high will undo the surgeon’s work. True, when I overdo it, I do get sore inside, but it’s uncomfortable not outright painful.
I’ve been thinking about this scar a lot. How, somehow, my belly has knit itself back together. Sure there has been help from the surgeon, rows and rows of stitches inside me, and surgical glue to hold the very top layers together, but within this scaffolding, the cells have known to grow back toward each other, not the same as before, messy and not pretty, but whole. I can’t help but think of other scars, the ones made by harsh words, broken promises, all those that walked away or refused to show up. We all want to “return to normal” after these wounds, but I’m realizing that every wound permanently scars us, and some show more than others.
But though we may have scars, we don’t remain broken. We may not always be pretty at the wound sites, and there may be residual pain, but—with God’s grace, with the willingness to be scaffolded by the love of those who persistently show up—we can, like our bodies, return to whole.
Went downstairs to check the mail on my daily walk. Turns out the disco mirror in the foyer is perfect for a selfie.
This morning as I reclined on the blue-and-white couch, my mother sweeping my bedroom, the sun momentarily blaring through the scrim of clouds, I felt acutely the loss of my “real” life. I wanted to be bundled up on my way to the farmer’s market, or puttering from one end of my apartment to the other putting away this and that, or reading the day away because I wanted to not because it’s the only option. i realize this situation is only temporary, but I feel 10 years old again when five or six weeks of waiting for freedom might as well be a lifetime.
I also feel like a bit of a fraud. True there is a very ugly incision running from the top of my pubis, slanting around my belly button to an abrupt end. When I look down at it, I can’t help thinking that it looks a bit like a disappointed butt-crack. Still, even after the Percoset wears off, I can get up from the couch by myself, I can walk the hallway five-ten times a day, and I’m no longer crippled by gas pains that hobbled me in two. I’ve made my breakfast two mornings in a row, and it doesn’t seem right that I’ve asked people to bring me food once a week or come do my laundry. True, I could barely stretch to the top shelf of the shower caddy to reach the hair conditioner this afternoon, and true if something falls on the floor, I either have to sit down or try and do a combination plie with a slight bend to pick it up, and true the physician’s assistant told me that the incision would be weak for at least two weeks and someone else told me a horror story about a woman who ripped open her incision because she was secretly doing housework while her family was asleep.* Still…
I know all the reasons why I still need help. I know that by 9pm I can barely keep my eyes open after a day of mostly lying on the couch. But still, I sometimes find it hard to be okay with people wanting to do for me. It was all fine in the theoretical before I had the surgery, but now that I know I don’t have cancer and everything turned out just fine, I feel less worthy somehow.
You would think we’d need grace only to be willing to give of ourselves, but it turns out we need grace to receive for ourselves as well. And we especially need it, I think, to be willing to accept the kindness of others even when things are not as bad as they could be. Our lives don’t have to be tragedies for us to accept help, to accept love, just being—in whatever state—is more than enough.
*Uhm, we know that would never be me, right?
by Kathleen Kirk, Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Kathleen Kirk. Photo courtesy of Ms. Kirk
I’ve been thinking about friendship and its surprises. And Emily Dickinson. I’ve recognized in myself both her intensity—the thing that was sometimes too much for her friends and acquaintances—and her shyness, her impulse to withdraw. If we give ourselves wholly to someone, in friendship and trust, and we are rejected or betrayed, it’s successively harder to give oneself wholly again.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Now, Emily may have been talking about poetry or spiritual truth or ultimate reality here (her glimpses of it), not the confidences shared among friends, but I think her poem can apply to any of these things quite easily and well.
The meaning of “confidence” (I learned by looking it up in the American Heritage Dictionary) is actually “trust or faith in a person or thing.” After that, “a trusting relationship” and next “that which is confided; a secret.” These things all apply to friendship. It’s only the fourth meaning, “a feeling of assurance, especially of self-assurance,” that relates to what we often mean by the word “confidence,” but it seems reasonable that we acquire self-confidence from a secure and trustworthy relationship with the world and with other human beings, notably family and friends. If we haven’t had happy friendships, our confidence might be shaky indeed.
I’ve always been a writer and loved writing letters as a child. It was my way of maintaining connection with those close childhood friends I had to leave when my family moved from Florida, then Nebraska, and then went away for a year from our home in Illinois. I wrote long, newsy, frequent letters, and responded quickly when my friends wrote to me, which was much less frequently. I would wait and wait, longing for a response. Finally, weeks or months later, a letter would come, and I might respond to it that very night! One day I told my mother that I had written back right away to a friend I’d been waiting on with yearning, and she shook her head, letting me know my friend might feel bad, unable to write back quickly, that what was easy for me might be very difficult for her. My quick response might be more a slap in the face than the fond caress I intended. What a wake-up call at twelve. (And I was not quite ready to wake up!)
My mother also advised me not to tell secrets to my friends, nor to gossip, as anything one said was likely to get told to others and, if about someone else, back to that someone. This took me a while to learn, as I was always hoping for that true confidante, that dear, trusted friend, the kind one read about in books. As an adult, I have a few close friends, but I am more and more withdrawn in most social situations, noticing that the conversation is too often about people who are not there! Or the relationships are about getting something from the other person, not giving something—that there may be plenty of “networking” but little true reciprocity of a deeper sort.
What a delightful surprise, then, to find my friendship with Paulette growing deeper and closer than it ever had a chance to be when we happened to live in the same city. We met in poetry circles, and I was perhaps still working out my yearning to connect and my need to be quiet then, sensing that not everyone in a particular circle was someone who really wanted friendship but pushing for it, anyway. But both Paulette and I are writers and bloggers, private in our beings, public with our words, able to reveal ourselves to the world, to strangers, in a kind of trust that there are others of our kind out there, even if not always available to us in person.
It’s as if when I shine a light on something in my writing, some people can handle it better from a distance, or diffused through cyberspace. I’ve “met” many wonderful readers and writers through my own blog, people who seem to delight in my goofy humor and quirky insight, people who respond to my bouts of melancholy and occasional cry from the heart.
Paulette is one of these people, and I hope I am that to her. I remember when (at an AWP Conference in Chicago) she first mentioned her blog, thehomebeete, as a place where she’d write about cool and artsy stuff for the home, and I realized I might be too shy and technologically challenged to find it, read it, and figure out how to comment on it. But I did, and here I am now, guest blogging at thehomebeete!
Paulette’s blog has also evolved, and, while I still find beautiful and useful things for the home here, I also find beautiful and useful things from the heart. And hey, home is where the heart is!
Thank you, Paulette.
Allowing yourself to be loved is scary. Last week I sent out an e-mail to a group of friends asking for their help with various tasks—grocery shopping, laundry—while I’m recovering from surgery. After hitting “send,” and waiting for what felt like a long time for a response, I had some terrible moments of, “Well, no one really cares.” “They have just said they want to help cause that’s what you’re supposed to say.” I had to remind myself that not everyone checks their e-mail every five minutes like I do, that my friends had to check their calendars, and that surgery was still three weeks away and some of the tasks I was asking for help with were even farther out than that. But it took a certain self-awareness—that I still look for any excuse to prove that people don’t really love me—for me to take a deep breath and realize the spiral I was allowing myself to fall into.
It’s almost easier to expect—and perhaps even to want—disappointment than it is to expect people to show up. With disappointment you get to eschew your responsibility to others. If they don’t love me, then I’m not responsible to be loving back. And if I don’t have to be loving back, then there’s no possibility of me disappointing them when I’m mean or cranky or thoughtless. There’s no possibility of me feeling unworthy of their love, their care, their tenderness.
Given that risk, I suppose the question is: Is being loved worth it? And I don’t mean someone loving you just when you’re your best self, but being loved head-to-toe, inside and out, through misunderstandings and misapprehensions, through mistakes and flaws and disappointments and disconnects. Is love worth letting someone close enough to you to see you as you are?
I suppose if you think there’s nothing in you worth loving, which is the story I told myself for decades to understand why my parents were so emotionally selfish, then you’ll always want to keep people at a distance. But the reality is, the only way to discover/embrace/ understand that you are worth loving, even in brokenness, the only way to see that there is no monstrous something lurking at the heart of you that disqualifies you from being loved, is to somehow find a shred of bravery to let people in. And to also be courageous enough to keep looking until you find those people who are quite willing and able to both see you as you are and to love you as you are.
There will be many false prophets, so to speak, along the way. My experience has been that brokenness attracts brokenness, and, in some ways, no matter how perfect the childhood, how loving the family, we are all broken simply by virtue of being human, and having “fallen short of the glory of God.” But if you can find the courage to let yourself be loved, I think, I hope, you’ll eventually start to see that while there are those who try to get a fingerhold on your cracks and crevices to break you further, to keep you in the club of the mean and the scared and the closed-off, there are also those who are willing to pour into you what they know of wisdom, of their own healing. There are those who will take from their own stores of the balms of kindness, of understanding, of forgiveness and deploy them in service of your healing. They are the ones who will seek out your cracks, your crevices, your jagged places because they know those are the holy places where love can begin.
I had big plans for what I was going to write today. But now at 9:23, I’m a little tired, and—truth be told—a little drunk after starting my birthday celebrations in the company of four extremely wonderful women. This morning I tweeted about networking—how the word has come to mean meeting that person who will give you your next step toward advancement, but really what networking is about is finding a support system, a group of people who will push you and pull you toward your goals, who support you through your steps forward, but also your steps backward. I had planned to try again to blog this year every day, but I wouldn’t be getting off to such a strong start if it weren’t for the fact that Phillipa and Karen are with me, virtually pushing, prodding, applauding, and setting the pace. As for my dinner companions, there’s Maryrose who when I headed back to work after pneumonia, able to walk only with the aid of a walker, decided that she and her husband would come pick me up at my new apartment every morning so I didn’t have to stress about climbing the steps of the Metrobus and so someone would be there to watch over me as I braved the subway every morning and every evening. There’s Mary Margaret who bravely left her day job to excel as an arts consultant, who is the best schmoozer I know because she is so genuinely interested in and supportive of others. There’s Jillian who’s whip smart and funny as all hell and who understands what a great adventure it is to check out the old-school bra shop so one can get “organized.” And there’s Meaghan who has weathered more physical challenges than most anyone I know with grace, a sense of humor, and the most amazing style. My little sister Debbie is also blogging every day this month and every day with her I learn more about what it is to love and be loved. And then I think about all the women I’ve known—Ronica and Angelica and Patty who never quit on me in college no matter how many times I stopped to pee behind the Dunkin Donuts on the way home from soccer parties and “The Divas,” my writing group in Chicago who taught me how to write, how to be brave enough to send my work out into the world, and without whom I never would have dared to apply for fellowships and residencies and even graduate school. There’s Joyce, one of my sisters in the Lord, who loves pink as much as I do and thrift shopping and who has healed my heart broken by careless friendships in ways I don’t think she even knows.
I guess what I’m saying in this litany, as I drink one last chocolate martini and contemplate the dishes in the sink and when tonight’s premiere of Downton Abbey will be up on the PBS website, is that I’ve been so utterly blessed by the company of women. My sisters, my friends, my beloveds. There’s no moral to this story, only the wish that you find and treasure your own networks, whether they’re networks of two or twenty. I wish for you that you will embody E.M. Forster’s maxim and “only connect” because it’s in truly knowing others and allowing them to know us that we truly apprehend the world and who we are called to be in it.