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…
“That dawn is my final picture of Rachel, her round little face screwed up in anger and hurt as I make her promise not to tell anyone I was there. Her arms are folded so tightly that her t-shirt rides up and you can see that she’s wearing white panties. She just listens while I talk, her eyes seeming to become darker and darker. She knows we’ve come full circle to where she takes up a lot of space but isn’t really there. But I don’t let myself know that; I just wheel my bike down the hall and out into the morning.” — from “Rachel,” circa 1998
I’ve been rifling through my file cabinets trying to find something to write about tonight. I was watching the Christmas special of Vicar of Dibley where Geraldine finally gets married, and I thought I might write about weddings, but then I knew I’d have to ask the question, “Do I not want a big wedding because I really don’t want one or because I think I don’t deserve one?” and tonight I just want to drink wine and watch Netflix and not stick my hand down my throat and root around for my heart.
In the Miscellaneous file I keep a lot of false starts and fragments and finished poems that weren’t very good but I can’t bear to throw out. I’m not one of those artists that can blithely discard old work just because I don’t want anyone to find it. Even though the writer I am now knows it’s not good, when I read the old poem or story, I remember how proud of it I was then, how each was its own risk, its own achievement, and that’s what I’m holding onto, promise and risk, the failure part of it isn’t very relevant other than as a sign that I was willing to take a risk.
I’m also reminded how self-conscious I was as a writer, how worried I was about being honest versus hurting someone’s feelings. These days I know that the people whose feelings might be hurt by what I’m writing don’t actually read my work—there are perks to having a family who’s not into the arts. And anyway, would they even recognize themselves? Living the same life doesn’t mean you remember or feel or even actually do live it the same.
I wrote a story in my late 20s called “Rachel.” It was my attempt to understand what had happened between me and the one who got away in college, who was also the one who was but wasn’t. My big idea was that if if I wrote it from his perspective, I’d maybe understand if I’d loved him, if he’d loved me, what had broken between us, if there was even anything there to break. I was still in touch with him a little then, and I faxed him the story (or maybe I e-mailed him) before I started submitting it to journals because I wanted to make sure he was okay with me revealing so much about our relationship. So many of the scenes I wrote about were barely disguised fiction: the time I was the a/v tech when his English class watched The Red Balloon, the time he tried to kiss me on his bed and I panicked and ran, the time he came by my apartment our senior year for a booty call.
Nearly two decades later I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t have recognized any of those scenes. There was no reason for him to hold onto them, playing the filmstrip frame by frame searching for meaning, for connection, for love. I think I was important to him, but not the way I wanted to be, not the way that makes you remember every detail like that. I thought I’d written the story from his point-of-view but, really, the way I’d seen it kept getting in the way.
Sometimes I think I’d like to see him again but we couldn’t have the conversation I’d want to have, the one where he could tell me if the whole thing was in my head back then or not. The one where I could explain all the ways I used to be numb, and what a relief it was to be with him because I actually felt something, even if it was anger half the time.
There are answers I’ll never have. And really, I don’t need them because they don’t matter now. We wouldn’t have worked out even if I hadn’t been awkward and numb and fumbling. I still had decades of growing up to do. At 19, 20, 21, I still had no idea how closed I was, and I certainly didn’t understand that there was, in fact, another way to be in the world. He really wasn’t the one that got away, I guess. He’s the one who was a really smart, good-looking guy, who sometimes made me feel pretty, who got tired of how often I hung around him and his friends but didn’t know how to say it, and the one who introduced me to Patsy Cline. And that’s enough.
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.