by Karen Yankosky, Splat-ospheric
I separated from my now ex-husband in late July of 2011, after a mere ten months of marriage.
In those ten months, “Mark” and I had torn down my old rambler in Falls Church in September of 2010 and had a new one built in its place. The process of building the new house exposed major cracks in the foundation of our relationship. The structure “we” built—a 6,000-square-foot box that I later dubbed the “Yuppie Prison”—didn’t have a whole lot of me in it.
By the time it was finished, not only did I dislike the house but I disliked what it stood for: for our inability to make joint decisions, to compromise, to resolve conflict in other than win/loss terms.
Mark and I never occupied the new house, but that didn’t bother me because it never felt like home to me, anyway. The fact that I had no home to go back to, however, did trouble me.
My sister, her husband, and their two kids solved that problem in short order by opening up their house and hearts to me. While at age 40 I might not have chosen to move into a basement with eight and nine-year-old “roommates,” within days of getting there I knew I was in a better place, in every possible way.
A couple weeks after that, a good friend invited me to meet her at a photography show at a gallery in Bethesda. The artist, a friend of hers, photographs sculpture.
I wouldn’t describe myself as an art connoisseur—I’ve spent very little time truly studying it—but I do admire and appreciate it. I approach it much in the same way I do wine, which I also enjoy but haven’t studied much: I know what I like when I encounter it, and I consume what I like without apology.
I accepted my friend’s invitation and arrived a while before she did, which gave me a chance to stroll through the show on my own. I liked most of the images I saw, but this one stopped me in my tracks.
I can’t explain my visceral reaction to it. I just know I connected with it as soon as I saw it, without knowing what the sculpture depicted or what the piece was called. (I later found out the sculpture was a temporary installation in Charlottesville. I had gone to college there, so I even connected with the setting.)
I liked the composition of the shot, the lighting, and the way the perspective of the photo changes the way the viewer experiences the sculpture.
Then I saw the title of the piece, which was also the title of the sculpture: “This is something I had to go through.”
Realizing that I was looking at a person-sized hole in a huge hunk of metal sent me into a fit of laughter.
This piece of art within a piece of art captured exactly how I felt about the dark, unpleasant process I had just started, along with my certainty that I would bust my way through it and back out into the sun. And that, however improbably, I would laugh along the way.
I kept that piece in my mind’s eye for the next nine months of unpleasantness. It soothed me, amused me, and inspired me. And it still does, because it now graces the wall of the house I bought in April. We all have our reminders of what we’ve gone through, whether it’s a souvenir, a scar, or, in my case, a piece of art.
More bad family news tonight so I’m just holding onto the belief—the fact—that God never gives us more than we can bear, and also whatever comes to us—good or bad—is meant for us.
I’m also holding on to this quote from A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” It’s part of a longer quote that you can read here.
This is a lightly-edited version of what I found myself journaling about this morning before church…
I love my life, but still, there are sometimes those moments when I wonder how I’ve made it to 43 without the expected benchmarks—a husband, kids, a few heartbreaks. Truth is my heart was broken so early, so repeatedly before I was even a teenager by people who should’ve known better that I couldn’t see past the wreckage for a really long time in order to let someone in. I’m wondering why it seems the only men I can ever expose all of myself to are married or gay. Is it because they won’t demand anything of me more than what I’m willing to give? Or is there just a certain type of courage I lack?
With a married or gay man, I can have a deep and intimate friendship but I still retain—I’m not sure what the right word is—is it my identity that’s at stake? Is it my selfhood? What is it that we give up when we enter into an intimate, romantic relationship with someone?
I have platonic friends of both sexes who have seen both my best self and my worst self. They’ve known me to be kind and generous and sweet, but they’ve also known me to be arrogant and jealous and mean. So, if I’m okay with giving all of that to my women friends, my married male friends, what is it that I’m withholding or scared of showing possible romantic partners and why? What is it that I’m afraid they’ll demand of me that I haven’t already willingly given to my friends?
I’m fairly certain it’s not just sex. Will it be fumbling and awkward given that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve even made out with anyone (and didn’t have much practice before that)? Sure—but I also know without a shadow of a doubt that it also will be so much easier than before cause I don’t intend to sleep with someone (or marry someone—they go hand in hand for me) until I feel utterly and completely safe.
Is it possible then that I’ve kept myself closed off from true romantic love not because I’m unwilling to open myself up but because I was raised with the deep knowledge that men are in fact bogeymen, that the most tragic thing that can happen to a woman is heartbreak, is being abandoned with mouths to feed and school fees to pay? What if I’m not actually afraid of romantic love but rather I’m scared of its aftermath? What if the real bogeymen is the dread of heartbreak turning me into a reflexively controlling woman who lives her life from a place of fear, becoming more and more impervious to receiving and giving love as I get older?
Growing up in my family of strong-willed women, I saw few happy endings. I learned that men always cheated and women (and the children) always suffered. As an adult, I can look around and see the relationships that have lasted, where there is mutual love and respect and tolerance, but those stories came a little too late.
So my real challenge is, I think, not just learning to be open, but convincing myself down to every fiber and cell, down to the DNA level, that the story of my mother, the story of my grandmothers, are not my own. That a happy ending for me is not only possible but is absolutely and positively worth the risk. The challenge is remembering that even if I do suffer a broken heart, I am resilient. That a broken heart or a string of broken hearts won’t make me brick myself up again unless I let it. I can not only be free to love, but I can be free to heal and free to love again, wounded, maybe, but also wiser, with a heart broken open to let love in, not keep it out.
Okay, it’s time to begin…
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.