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Letter From My 48th Year (Jan 20)

Just back from the first read for Forum Theatre’s production of Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis. Just hearing two extraordinarily talented actors reading an extraordinarily well written script was transformative. And it’s only going to get better once the director and designers layer on their vision. I am quite excited to see it up on its feet. I wish it wasn’t time for me to start getting ready for bed because it’s the kind of work that’s so good you want to come home and work on your own projects. Instead I’m going to de-fuschia my lips, hang out in the shower luxuriating in the hot water for far too long, and then slather myself in coconut oil so I smell good when Jon Hamm shows up in my dreams. (One of these things may not actually happen.)

But that’s enough about me. Mostly tonight I wanted to share this response from Jason V. to this blog post I wrote about vulnerability. (Rumor has it he and Andrea O. are starting a blog soon and I’m soooooo here for it and I’ll make sure to share the news when it happens. Did you see that Andrea and Jason—I said “when” not “if.” I’m just saying….)

So without further ado, here’s Jason…

I want to take care of you but you first have to let me.

I’ve always found this to be one of the most difficult parts of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. The part where you love someone, and you need them, and you need things from them… emotional and physical and maybe even financial things… but you can’t bring yourself to let them help you. Whether it is a conscious decision/choice you’re making or something in the back of your mind and heart that prevents you from accepting help… you just can’t bring yourself to let them help you.

It’s a scary concept – the idea of needingsomeone. You feel vulnerable. You feel helpless at times. You feel as if you should have it together enough to never need anyone in these ways, no matter who it is. This becomes more pronounced the older we get. Accepting help is a very big deal for many of us. Especially those of us who carry forth certain (often very toxic) personality traits. Traits like pride. Ego. Guilt. Shame. Low self-worth. These characteristics tend to work to our own detriment, especially when we really need the help of a friend. We’ll hide the need for help. Even when we accept the help, we’ll hide the fact of that too. Or we’ll resent the person offering the help, like it’s somehow his or her fault that we need it!

And what can easily happen is we don’t accept the help we desperately need. Usually for reasons that are so unimportant to our overall health. We reject people who love us and want to see us do well and genuinely want to help us for… well, for what exactly? What does accepting help we need do to us or make us feel that we so often reject and avoid it?

It can make us feel weak. Weak in the eyes of others and in our own eyes as well. No one wants to appear weak to the outside world or to the people they care about. So we’ll reject help to prove our own strength except… the need for the help is still there. It hasn’t gone anywhere so in reality we’re no stronger than we were before we rejected the help.

It can make us feel like failures. Like because we don’t have enough money to pay the rent this month, we’re failed providers. Like because we need someone to put together our resume for us, we’re failed professionals. Like because we’re single parents and need someone to stay with our kids one night, we’re failed parents.

It can make us feel ashamed. Ashamed at ourselves for taking from someone else. Ashamed of ourselves for falling our household or spouse or child.

I’ve refused help I needed because I thought it proved my strength. When I went through a divorce there were friends and family who reached out, genuinely, to offer money or advice or just an ear. For many reasons I rejected most of their offers. I told myself it was because they wouldn’t understand my situation or because I didn’t want to burden anyone with my problems. That was partially true but the bigger truth was I was afraid to look and appear weak. Afraid to look like I couldn’t handle it. Even though the truth was just that – I couldn’t handle it all alone. And I shouldn’t have handled it alone. Even though I wanted to. Even though I tried to.

I didn’t realize it at the time but this refusal to take help I needed had become a personality trait of mine as an adult. As a man, I was always taught to be the rock – to be the backbone. Men are tough and don’t cry. Men stand on their own two feet and don’t ever need or ask for help. In my household, a man is not allowed to need help because if you do it means you’ve failed to do your job as a provider or protector. That was my mentality and it made tough situations even tougher because when I needed money or advice I wouldn’t seek it or accept it. And when I divorced and took on twin 5 year olds basically by myself… I needed help. Help that I didn’t know how to ask for because I’d never really asked for it before. Help with money, going from two incomes to one. Help with childcare so I could get some rest. Help with coping with the loss and help with coaching my children through it too. What’s worse, I had plenty of good people around me, friends and family, who were willing, able and wanting to help me.

I had to change that. And honestly, I only realized this after I felt I was hurting my children. I felt like I was letting pride and ego keep them from receiving help we all needed. I was prioritizing my own feelings over their well being. After I realized that, accepting help became a lot easier. I told myself “this is what’s best for the kids.” And maybe it was a sell job – maybe I was telling myself what I needed to hear to accept the help we needed. But it did allow me to be able to receive things that I needed at the time and that I wouldn’t have accept otherwise.

I learned from that to prioritize what was most important – our overall mental and emotional health and well being – instead of prioritizing my feelings and hangups. Admittedly, this is a lot easier to do when it involves my kids than when it’s me alone. I still have trouble identifying the times when I need help, which makes it more difficult to accept it. I still have a hard time saying the words “yes, I need you.” I still have a hard time accepting that I can’t, or shouldn’t, do everything alone. That whether or not I’m capable of doing it all alone is not nearly as important as doing what’s best for me and my kids.

But I’m getting better.

 

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Letter From My 48th Year (Feb 14)

Happy Valentine’s Day y’all. Like every singleton in the free world, I used to slump deep in a funk each Valentine’s Day bemoaning my perpetual free agency. I did have a boyfriend one year for the big day—the one year I actually had a boyfriend—but he was not gifted in the gifting department and it just felt a bit perfunctory. (Given that in that relationship I was, if I’m honest, more interested in performing love than actually open to falling in love,  that was probably par for the course.) But then one year, maybe a decade or more ago now, I decided to send Valentine’s Day cards to all the people I loved. Which broke the woe is me spell.

These days I think it’s sweet when people wish me a happy valentine’s day, and February 14 no longer sets off a spell of pining in me. I realize it’s a completely manufactured holiday, but hey, if we’re going to make shit up, I’m down with making up a sweet (albeit completely consumerist) holiday.

Speaking of love, at dinner with L. the other night we started talking about that idea that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. Which is not bullshit exactly, but it’s not entirely accurate either. The idea behind that sentiment always seems to be that everything will be magically wonderful if you just commit to celebrating your own awesomeness. Which is always a good idea, but will only get you so far. And will probably make you try to measure up to impossible standards like having your shit together all the time and all at the same time. Which, let’s face it, is not a thing that can actually happen. For anyone.

Love, real love, isn’t only about the good bits; that’s the kind of love that comes with conditions. (We actually need some other word for that.) What we’re hopefully striving for in a long-term love relationship is unconditional love, and that’s where we need to start with ourselves if we want to end up having that with other people in our lives, whether or not they are people we want to make out with. We need to get comfortable at looking at all of who we are in this given moment. Without judgement. Without guilt or shame. With compassion. With empathy.

This doesn’t mean we have to like everything we find. And we probably won’t. But we do have to be able to say, At this moment, this is who I am and I’m going to embrace myself without judgement. Which is both excruciatingly hard, and excruciatingly necessary, even if we’re quite happy being our own valentines for the rest of our lives.

Let me leave you with this, which is so much more a true thing than that “You complete me” nonsense…

Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 7: The Aunts

Me_Deeb_The Aunts_Blog

Debbie, me and The Aunts in Trinidad circa 1974.

At Christmas, when I say I go home, I mean I go to New York, but not the house in Laurelton, Queens where I grew up, or the Cambria Heights one my mother and sister moved to when I was away at my freshman year of college. I go home for Christmas to my Aunt Francis’s house in Long Island, the house where I sleep on the couch so I can snuggle with the cat and where there’s always room for everyone no matter how many of us are crammed in there and where my childhood piano takes up half the living room cause we can’t figure out how to get rid of it now that my 20-something year old cousins no longer use it.

In my own 20s, I didn’t go home for Christmas for years. It was too painful. At my mother’s house, no matter how long I’d stayed away, I was always once again the girl made awkward and stupid by fear. I always lost my voice, I always lost my bearing the moment I walked in the front door. Whether I was in a fat phase or a thin one, I rarely managed to feel pretty at my mother’s house. I knew she disapproved of how I dressed, which was neither provocative nor frumpy, but was merely not the way she dressed. I felt like an outcast because I loved all the wrong things—going to the movies, literary novels, art museums—too much, and I didn’t like the right things—going to church as often as possible, long drawn-out Bible studies—enough. So I avoided going home, saying I couldn’t make the trip from Chicago because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.

But then I moved back East and decided it was time to join the family again. If Maracas Valley is the heart of my mother’s side of my family in Trinidad, Uniondale and Baldwin have become the heart of our family in America. My mother’s never there with us for Christmas. She stays in Charlotte, sometimes with her husband, sometimes on her own. I am both angry and relieved that she never joins the rest of the family—her younger sisters, her nieces and nephews, her cousins—for our holiday revels. When I visit my mother, I know she is happy to see me, yet even as I hug and kiss her, I can feel her holding me somewhat at arm’s length. My aunts and cousins, on the other hand, burst into wide smiles when they see me. They draw me into close hugs. They text or call me several times before I arrive to find out when I’m coming, if I’m on my way, how soon I’ll get there. I know my mother loves me, but with the aunts and by the aunts, I feel beloved.

According to the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one of the definitions of beloved is “dear to the heart.” And that’s how I feel with my aunts, that the entire time I am with them, they are pulling me close to their hearts. My mother loves me, I know, but that love is intricately wound with distance, a distance only occasionally bridged by tenderness, and never for very long. On the couch at my aunt’s house, someone is always sitting next to me, or throwing their legs across my lap, or trying to share my blanket. At my aunt’s house, I am always safe.

My aunts weren’t always “the aunts.” I didn’t always say or think that phrase with unbounded affection. The aunts—my mother’s two youngest sisters—lived with us when they both emigrated from Trinidad, first Fran and then Maria, the baby of the bunch. They were barely out of their teens. They’d been raised by a mother who compensated for all the ways she’d been emotionally broken with rage. This rage was often leavened with humor, and my grandmother could also be quite tender when she wanted. But she was also mercurial, and strong-willed, controlling and unaccepting of the idea that someone could have a life other than the one she dictated and planned for them. Her three sons all stayed in Trinidad, but she made sure all of her daughters made it to the United States, even if she had to bully them and wreck their romances to do it. I think my grandmother saw her daughters as problems to be managed, with terror if need be. And that’s how my aunts saw my sister and me, as targets for their own incipient rage. One particular favorite game of theirs was to feint that they were going to hit us, and then as we braced, to laugh and ask, “What are you breaksing for?” breaksing being Trinidadian vernacular for “fending off blows.”

But as they met other women who did not parent their children with slaps and sarcasm, they promised themselves to do differently. And they did. My sister and I delight in telling our cousins how awful their mothers used to be and how they’re so lucky to have the new and improved versions. This tattle-taling is done not with malice, but with great gratitude that they somehow escaped at least this aspect of their emotional DNA. And this parenting is not just for their own daughters, but extends to my sister and me as well. The same is true of my aunts’ first cousins, who always say the same thing when they see Debbie and me, “Oh, these are our first babies,” as they hug us close, show us we are beloved.

My mother has changed in some ways too, but there are so many ways she hasn’t that I find it hard to accept the affection she tries to give me now. I have added my own distance to hers and I’m not sure if what is between us is actually love, or not quite love, or almost love. Or if our love is like the moon on the night before it’s full, when at first glance, it looks whole, but if you peer closely, you can see the slightest sliver still missing.

When I speak to my mother on the phone, I have to anchor myself firmly in the present, remind myself to receive and revel in the affection she’s offering in the here and now. If I let even a wisp of the past creep in, her affection rings hollow. The coldness and constant criticism and lack of praise I remember from my childhood, chills the warmth of whatever loving words she’s trying to offer.

I do not know if there was a time I was ever beloved to my mother. I’m fairly certain that she knew even as I grew in her womb, that just as soon as she could—which turned out to be when I was three months old—she’d leave to start our new lives in the States, though I wouldn’t be part of that life till I was nearly three years old. I have always wanted to ask my mother how she could stand to leave me. What part of her did she have to bury? What did she have to excise? When she tourniquetted her love for me so she could survive the wound of leaving me, did she know she was risking a permanent amputation?

This wasn’t just a mother going back to work after maternity leave. This was a mother allowing an ocean to come between her and her child. Perhaps it’s that ocean that I sense in the shade of difference between being beloved by my aunts and being loved my mother. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to figure out how to cross that ocean completely. We seem to do well muddling around somewhere in the middle of that ocean, even though it’s not all that satisfying, and neither one of us ever feels safe enough to remove our life jackets. I don’t know if it’s giving up or accepting what I cannot change to never call my mother home. And if I do have a place where I am beloved, and people by whom I’m beloved, maybe it’s a question I don’t have to answer.

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 20 (on rage)

 

I read this blog post by my friend Jonno and I started to respond by writing this:

“We are told to let it go, whatever it is. Childhood abuse, a broken marriage, a friend’s betrayal. We are never told to go at our own pace. Or that letting go is a process. Or that letting go is a convoluted kind of thing that happens only in pieces. That it’s a dance where you never quite learn the steps.”

Jonno had found himself still enraged by abuse that happened decades ago, and was struggling with the idea that that rage was still roiling inside of him though he thought he had worked through all of it. I was angry on his behalf at that idea that our processing of trauma had some kind of time limit on it. At least I thought that’s what I was angry about.

My blog post petered out after 16 sentences. I told myself it was because I’d been doing so much writing and editing—as I was on the verge of being out of the office for two weeks—that I just didn’t have any mojo left. I was out of words. I was out of space to think. And maybe, to be kind to myself, I should say that that was partly true.

But what was more true was that I recognized in Jonno’s post a similar anger in myself. He wrote:

“I see it all the time in my work. I teach actors I try to prompt them, try to get them to lose their fear of that rage I see in so many of them. I tell them it’s okay to give in to it, that the fire they are so afraid of will not, cannot, shall not consume them.

“But I’m lying. My own chest contains a bomb. I am terrified of its power.”

I am terrified of my own bomb ticking, my possible detonation. I am terrified that the engine of these poems about my father is not a need to understand nor a need to forgive but sheer rage. I know that without the poems, I would ignite and each time I run out of words, the ticking asserts itself, its volume undiminished by the years, by the poems. My rage is rarely heard by the outside world, yet it never decrescendos.

I do not want anyone to see my anger. If they do, I might learn that the story it took me so long to untell myself—that I carried deep inside a monster, a feral creature of black and pitch that made it impossible for anyone, particularly my parents, to emotionally care for me—may be true after all.

I tell myself it’s better that I stay alone. Sure I can exist in civilization for short bursts. Sure I can have friends and I can love and be loved. But I’m not sure I can let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I am not sure I want to let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I do not want to indelibly bruise anyone with my anger because I’ve been indelibly bruised. Sure, I’ll show you my bruises, but I’m not sure I can let you close enough that you might accidentally graze them. I cannot let you touch me with your accidental trigger finger.

One last thought from Jonno:

“I have finally had to admit that I contain so much anger, so much atomic fury, that I fear if I let it out I’ll never come back to myself.”

Without that rage-built metronome, what will I write about? If I run out of that anger, how will I know that I’ve survived and I’ve not been broken entirely? When that trip wire finally snaps, who will I be? What if I can’t find the words to put myself back together? What if even all of the hands of every single person in this whole world who loves me even a little just isn’t enough to heal me? And if the detonator is pushed and nothing at all happens, who am I then?

 

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day Two

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.

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 9)

…. 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…

Writing About My Father, Day 11

PauletteGuyanacirca1972

Here’s me in Guyana circa 1972, back when I used to be “tall for my age.” Sigh…

If you partake at all in the Facebook world, you may have seen the meme going around where someone tells you a random number of equally random facts about themselves. If you comment on the post, you are given a number and encouraged to create your own random list of that number of items. In that spirit, with a number provided by Katrina M., here are 8 random facts about my father.

1. My father didn’t meet me until I was approximately six weeks old. (My parents lived in Guyana. My mother went home to Trinidad—against my father’s wishes—to have me. The way my mother tells it, my father was so angry that he didn’t go to Trinidad for my birth and waited to meet me, instead, until my mother and I flew back to Guyana.)

2. My father was one of the smartest boys in his class. The high school he went to was known for producing future prime ministers and members of Parliament. When my father moved to the States, he decided not to go college because he was making good money at the phone company.

3. When I asked my father for his financial information so I could apply for financial aid for college, his answer was, “I have a new family now.”

4. My father took my sister and me on a bus trip to see the World’s Fair in Tennessee in 1982. That was the summer roadtrip on which we met our first brother who’s younger than me and older than my sister.

5. My parents were officially divorced when I was nine years old. They sat us down at the dining room table with my mother’s two youngest sisters, who lived with us at the time, and told us what was going on. After the family meeting, going upstairs to our bedrooms, I asked my father why they were getting divorced. He told me I was supposed to have asked all of my questions at the table.

6. I first learned about sex when I was in single digits through my father’s Playboy magazines and my mother’s Harlequin romances.

7. My father followed my mother to the U.S. when I was around six months old. To my knowledge I didn’t see them again until I was around two-and-a-half and moved to the U.S. with my father’s mother.

8. The first time I ate a veggie burger was in the mid-1980s when my father took my sister and me to some sort of “health fair’ in Manhattan during a weekend visit. All I remember was that there were lots of alfalfa sprouts.

Something I had to go through…

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.

photo (6)

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.

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