I unpack the bag and pluck out my fears—
used tissues pinched by fingertips—
the truth of me smeared and hidden
lest anyone see I’m leaking.
Cringe and flinch at the caricature
my husband’s ex must make of me,
the time she caught me coveting her
well-lit composition and poise.
My finger tap, a signal
she was neither out of sight nor out of mind.
My envy was lint in the side pocket
that, unballed, began as threads
from past betrayals and itchy scabs
I picked until they oozed.
In youth I feared deep loneliness,
the loss of power in a room of men,
a roving eye that paused for me but never
Now the vows babies mortgages
bind me tight just as I wished.
In exchange, my solitude, a price I paid
with loose pennies from my purse.
I The circle looped in on itself no start and end but the numbers on the houses, crabgrass plots back to back like brothers in a hotel bed. We ran barefoot on the new tar road run wince hobble walk with gravel between our toes. We roamed free, no collars no fences like the transient dogs that wandered in. Salt-brined babies in the Texas bake, we hid and sought until the sun went down.
II Mailboxes welcomed us, red flags aloft in soldierly rows saluted, guards to hopeful letters. We played postman to hand-scrawl on white pages, blue lines. Check yes or no and flattened cootie catchers passed from hand to hand. A dry breeze whipped the stripes and stars atop the neighbor’s pole. No purple mountains, no amber waves Just us at the end of the road before our parents called us home.
The Uses of Not
Artists and interior decorators know the meaningful impact negative space can make. It is the high ceiling, the white canvas around a complex shape, the emphasis of that which is not the center of attention. And sometimes, they play with this concept. What can the piece be if the negative space is the focus, when more is actually less, when the absence centers us and brings us something we hadn’t expected? It is Rubin’s vase, Escher’s tessellations, the Japanese garden.
I reflect today on what Ursula K. LeGuin translates from the Tao Te Ching as “The Uses of Not.” I am often focused on what I need to do, who I need to be, the things I must provide. My best friends share, half with laughter and half in lament, about their chronic exhaustion. They are the best and brightest among us, and we are all tired. Why? Who whispered in our ears that to be of value we had to give it all? I question if we should want the brass ring if the contest emaciates us in the process.
I was very tired yesterday evening. I pushed through a long day of work and back-to-back meetings with that five o’clock hour shining like heaven from my pit of darkness. That peaceful light was an illusion, however, since leaving work means clocking in as a mom, holding down the fort as my husband, Alex, walks the dog, planning for dinner, sneaking in some laundry or dishwashing, and also choosing between quality time with Alex, relaxation, reading, writing, and exercise. I squeeze so much of my favorite parts of life into the last hours of the day. Most of what I live for happens after the sun has already descended.
Somehow, I pushed myself to a yoga class. I knew my body needed to move after sitting still for so long. In those sixty minutes, our teacher led us through a series of asanas, or poses, designed to help us reconnect our minds with the reality of our bodies. She encouraged us to set down the busyness at the edge of our mats and, each time our minds reached out to pick that busyness up, to gently bring our attention away from there and back to our breath.
I found myself expending effort to unweave exactly the mindset I’d worked all day to knot together. The efficiency and rapid multitasking I used from 8:00 to 5:00 were crowding into the rest of my life. I felt guilty when not accomplishing two things at once or missing items on my personal To Do list. I constantly calculated the opportunity cost of choosing one priority over another. I needed to carve negative space back into my day. The air moving in and out of my lungs was the focus.
Hollowed out, clay makes the pot.
Today, as I plan my day and week, I am working to protect moments of rest throughout my schedule. In those minutes where I am not obligated to do anything, I can replenish my resources and strengthen my mental acuity for the realities of my professional life. I bring my best, most empathetic and strategic self when my wick isn’t burned down into the candle wax.
What about you? Does rest feel like a luxury that you need to deprioritize for more urgent matters? Is it a reward that you crave once the work is done? What if the work is never done? Perhaps you, too, could be sustained by the reminder that rest is not a reward, and it’s not meant for occasional self-care. It’s a basic human need. And living without it is diminishing our creativity, our empathy, and the core quality of our lives.
Hope and a Future
Several weeks ago, my husband snapped a photo of our family’s new nightly feeding routine. The scene is set around 3:00 am, the dead of night, and my back is turned toward the camera. I lean over to adjust the breast pump. In the frame, the half of the bedroom we fashioned as a diaper changing station and nursing oasis is dimly lit by a single, soft white bulb. My husband holds our infant son, Charlie, as he greedily suckles a bottle, the contents of which were donated by some other mother with more than enough breastmilk to spare. I sit bathed in white light and attempt to increase my own supply, as the rest of the bedroom glows red. The night light casts bloody shadows across the wall. We are exhausted.
Prior to parenthood, I knew the breadth of change that a newborn would bring: sleepless nights, ringing ears, tested patience. I watched other mothers navigate the early weeks and months, and I thought, “I am up to this challenge.” What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the emotional rawness of the experience. I thought perhaps Charlie’s birth would be a clean slate, a new beginning. His would be a fresh life as yet untouched by the secrets and pain of his ancestors’ trauma. And, in some way, I thought my hopeful focus on the future would seal the jar on my own sadness and loss.
Instead, the experience of bringing a new child into the world was not isolated. I could not wall it off from the past year’s events. Charlie continually reminded me of the DNA discovery–a biological father I would never meet and my mother’s half truths and omissions. I stared into Charlie’s tiny face and big, expressive eyes, and I saw my own eyes reflected. Would I have been so upright if his financial stability and childhood were on the line? If I knew the truth would push him into the same cycle of broken relationships of the family’s previous generations, would I still swear allegiance to it?
I began to see the threads of connection between my own parental experience and my parents’ messy lives. Even though my biological father was no longer alive, his DNA lived on in the tiny human I held in my hands. I had yet to discover which traits of his Charlie carried, and the truth was that I might never be able to distinguish them from the genetic gifts of my maternal line. Would Charlie love dogs and travel? Would he wield a charismatic directness in his older years? Would his almond eyes remain as evidence of Japanese ancestry even as his hair turned my mother’s shade of strawberry blonde?
There was no perfect answer to these complicated questions–no new life blooming except through the roots of the old. Just like the photograph, the legacy of loss glowed red alongside the hope of an unmarred future. There was no separating them. New parenthood taught me that living fully means embracing the reality of what came before.
What the camera portrayed and what my son’s face reflected was this: death is just the beginning of hope.
Reassurance Alice Walker I must love the questions themselves as Rilke said like locked rooms full of treasure to which my blind and groping key does not yet fit. and await the answers as unsealed letters mailed with dubious intent and written in a very foreign tongue. and in the hourly making of myself no thought of Time to force, to squeeze the space I grow into.
Oh god, the ship lap. The careful, muted walls covered in shades of gray, or rooms baptized in splashes of whitewash. For years HGTV proselytized the gospel of earth tones with home renovation shows. It was an aesthetic reborn over the years as farmhouse or shabby chic (even when the homeowners lived in the suburbs and had no agricultural experience). The original goal for decorators was, no doubt, to design spaces that felt organic, homegrown, and natural, but now the rustic trends were just tired and overused. As I traipsed through the drab housewares collections in home decor stores looking for a spark of inspiration, I could only ponder, Why did we erase the visual variety and spice from our homes?
The Pantone Color Institute, an organization that influences global color trends for fashion and design industries, announced two colors would share the title for 2021 Color of the Year: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. That’s right—gray and yellow. After a year of worldwide illness and death, economic loss, and collective suffering, even the trendsetters had one foot in the grave.
I, for one, saw my share of loss and sadness over the course of the last year, and these depressing hues reflected the sentiment back to me. In the mornings I stood in the closet vacillating between a worn hoodie or a pale sweater. What goes best with stained sweatpants? The options were bleak. And then, I had a revelation: I’m too interesting for this shit. I want color back in my life.
Cultures the world over embrace a hodgepodge of vibrance—from traditions like the Hindu festival of Holi to Japanese New Year, Ghanaian kente cloth to Indonesian kebaya. So many people celebrate the sumptuous messiness of bold color, and yet here we were in the United States buying prairie dresses in faded taupe to match our exhausted souls.
I needed a refresher on how to color clash. I turned to the Internet’s sartorial sherpas and began to collect photos of Instagram influencer Baddie Winkle and the iconic Iris Apfel. I pinned snapshots of playful street art and crafting kits. I’d had enough of the constant sadness, and as I scoured online stores for their chunkiest acetate necklaces, I decided I’d like to dress like a veritable birthday cake.
Give me the beaded earrings that look like multicolored sprinkles. I choose the shoes emblazoned with lemons. I proudly donned a turquoise scarf with a peach jumpsuit and ordered a loud, overstated botanical print blazer. More is more, I thought as I looked around for other ways to infuse joy into my surroundings.
My husband had recently completed some drywall repair in our dining room as part of ongoing home improvements, and I came to him with a request: Give me your blessing to paint a wall pink. The other accents and color schemes in our home included blue, white, gray, green—cool tones traditionally associated with masculinity. I argued that the right shade of pink could also be neutral, that it wouldn’t be the chalky Pepto Bismol pink he feared. I was cooped up with a husband and a male dog, pregnant with a baby boy. I’m surrounded by penises! I exclaimed. Let me have this wall! He reluctantly agreed.
I waltzed out of the house to retrieve paint swatches that afternoon. After carefully contrasting them against the blank white space, I chose a color that would both act as a statement and coordinate well with the adjacent art in the room. A quick call to our neighborhood hardware store confirmed they could have the shade of blush available within an hour.
I prepped the space with painter’s tape and drop cloths, and I removed my festive summer scarf to protect it from inevitable drips and splashes. After pressing play on an upbeat Spotify soundtrack I cracked open the gallon of Creamy Peach. And as I submerged my paintbrush, I also dipped into a brightly-colored well of hope.
The pandemic came to town over a year ago. Like the rest of the community, I drew inward to decrease the threat of microscopic invaders ravaging our nation. We all know the stories well. The weekly happy hours and backyard barbecues? Canceled. Stolen moments around the office water cooler? Defunct. Giant wedding parties and dance floors? Obsolete. I, and so many others, staved off total despair by searching for new hobbies—painting, knitting, baking, reorganizing our bathroom shelves. As we surpassed the twelve month anniversary of collective isolation, however, I felt the loss of those little social leisures keenly.
Before the pandemic, I constructed my world around external relationships. I wove silken webs of connection among college classmates, work colleagues, neighbors, friends old and new. My chosen family. These connections were my support system, my entertainment, my first and favorite priority.
My husband, Alex, and I frequently hosted large gatherings. Jovial Halloween house parties, taco dinners before a night out on the town, casual grill-outs, and rolicking New Year’s Eve soirées. During these affairs I loved to smash disparate social universes together to see what conversations arose. These interactions thrilled me when neighbors and acquaintances discovered their shared love of a podcast or bonded over an obscure band they followed.
Then the pandemic winter froze out any hope I had of simulating this level of socialization out of doors. Not even socially distant park picnics or walks beside the lake could survive the freezing temperatures. After months of sitting behind computer screens, even the facsimile video gatherings lost their shiny sheen. I hit a wall.
Meanwhile, Alex joined a Discord channel with several male friends. Each Thursday night, he and twelve other men used the virtual platform to play online games, video chat, and participate in trivia. My heart swelled when I heard his raucous laughter from the other room, but I was also jealous.
Jealous, not of his newfound friendships or the joy he fostered in the midst of a global crisis, but of his unavailability to connect with me. Despite the relative independence we enjoyed prior to the pandemic, I realized he was my last lifeline to human contact. In the before times, I’d supplemented my social appetite with micro interactions—the wave and how are you today at my local gym, the small talk with the bartender when she had a lull between serving rounds. I craved the idle chatter at the bus stop that used to annoy me. Every time I took the dog for a stroll around the block, I yearned to let the leash go long when we met passersby.
To make matters more complicated, I was pregnant with my firstborn. The novelty of planning baby showers and shopping for empire-waisted dresses was dampened by the isolation. I thought of friends in their maternal glory who coordinated photo shoots and birth announcements while I sat at the laptop and pushed Buy on my online shopping cart. Friends and family had only seen me from shoulders up on our video calls. The lack of witnesses to my physical transformation made it feel like an illusion, somehow. I was large and round and stuck at home, a waxing moon locked in the Earth’s gravitational pull. I was a homebody.
Every few months I attempted to recapture some element of spontaneity. I learned how to create lavish cheese plates. I built a makeshift yoga studio in a spare bedroom nook. I ordered takeout and enlisted Alex to eat it with me as we sat in the car across the street from the restaurant. These self-styled car-picnic dates only served to make me more depressed.
My belly continued to expand, and I photo documented the growing girth in the full-length mirror. Tiny flutters from within became more pronounced, and I no longer had to play the game, “Is it baby kicks or digestion?” The spontaneity I searched for had been delivered to me in the form of a wildly changing physique.
If there was anything that could bring specialness to the mundane rituals of my pandemic life, it was the concept that I was housing a tiny tenant. Perhaps this unwilling house arrest could be more of an exclusive party. I began to find joy in the babe’s growth and development and celebrated the wonders of my own adaptation to facilitate life.
This revitalized daily focus brought new questions to mind. What are the things I do for this life inside of me that I’ve neglected for myself? What would I do for my own body if I loved it in the way that I do my friends, my family, my colleagues? After all, this body has supported me for decades longer than it has the stranger within. I began a mental inventory of the ways in which I could nourish and care for both of us, pandemic or no.
I blocked time on my work calendar to stand up, drink water, and stretch. I held forth the boundary that no other meetings could usurp the water break unless there was another open slot in my day to preserve it. I sought new and exotic tea-time snacks. As I bit into chocolate-dipped Pocky sticks or savored Biscoff biscuits with a steaming cup of tea, I banished lingering guilt and shame about the indulgence. The practice was imperfect, but I began to look forward to my oyatsu, a tiny Japanese tea break.
Slowly, these small touchstones illuminated the darker days. They inspired me to explore other self-care—new bath salts and longer bathtimes, slow-moving yin yoga instead of frantic calisthenics, and the freedom to get in bed at any hour of any day, even if just to sit and read. These little crumbs led me away from the abyss and back to myself. Amid the days of hardened isolation I realized the truth: I was not just a homebody. My body was this baby’s home.
I ran until air was a precious resource. Each breath, a pickaxe in my chest. Surely this time Chase would choose me. The leggy boys outpaced those of us in the remaining pack. They pivoted to face us, arms aloft. “Here, here!” they chanted.
I ducked and darted around them, determined to render my shortcoming of height irrelevant. I propelled my body into the emptiest green space down field. “Here, here,” I joined their chorus.
Chase’s eyes panned horizontally. I marked the turn of his head as he jogged back and forth. He saw me—the air was clear between him and I. The makeshift end zone was a breath away. As Chase turned left, he severed the link I imagined between us. In an instant the football spiralled skyward to Armando, our 5th grade Goliath. Armando scooped the ball inward and swaddled it with his body. He danced el jarabe tapatío around the fingertips of ten boys and into the end zone. In celebration, he spiked his precious cargo against the ground. The boys cheered.
The next time our loose alliance gained custody of the ball, we regrouped. I lined up left of center. Chase shouted, “Hut!” and I weaved frenetically through the forest of beckoning arms. I juked to the right and lost my ponytail holder. A brunette tangle of curls unfurled behind me like a comet’s tail. One completed pass, and I could be the Emmitt Smith to his Troy Aikman, I thought. But the day’s recess elapsed, and I made no catch. Wednesday and Thursday saw slower boys receive Chase’s passes. By Friday I knew I was permanently on defense. Even though I couldn’t see the cloth with my eyes, this playground team already had matching jerseys. And no matter how fancy my footwork, I was wearing the wrong color.
Traffic around us accelerated. A glimmer of silver approached from the onramp. I watched the vehicle carefully through the passenger side mirror. I felt Adam Smith’s invisible hand push cars to surround my navy Honda Accord. Pop music blared from the radio. I matched the speed of the other cars and steered the sedan deftly into the left lane.
Matt peered over his shoulder to joke with Dylan and Ben in the backseat. I enjoyed the company of these male friends. I fancied myself relatable, drama-free, and funny, and they must have agreed with my conclusions. The four of us were exuberant about the night’s activity: a local band would play an 18 and up show at The Underground. Our admittance was only contingent upon a wad of dollar bills and the black, Sharpie marker X’s on the backs of our hands.
I’d navigated this interstate many times under Dad’s watchful eye. My sixteenth birthday delivered both a driver’s license and a prohibition: Dad forbade me to drive on the highway until he personally signed off on my merging skills. Now that I held his approval, I volunteered to drive during group outings. I liked independence. My friends liked the affordable gas bill.
As I signaled my intent to swoop between moving cars, Dylan chirped from the backseat: You drive like a guy! I responded with a Thank you. Pride welled inside my chest, and I took the exit with a swiftness. It wasn’t necessary to ask what he meant. This was an endorsement of my prowess. Dylan felt I was strong, capable, assertive. At ten years old, I practiced the bob and weave on the playground yard. I learned to contort my body and adapt to make space for the boys. Now, my informal gridiron lessons paid off. I held the keys to a powerful new tool—I knew how to make men comfortable, even when I was in the driver’s seat.
Twelve months. The Midwest job I accepted the previous year was a golden road to financial stability. I no longer needed to pick up childcare shifts and manage reservations at The Whiskey Kitchen to supplement my salary. The god of industry required a sacrifice, however. It compelled me to exit my tight-knit community of Nashvillians and relocate across the country. Twelve months passed before I could arrange a homecoming visit to see old friends.
Now, we perched at a high top table on the patio of Mafiaoza’s. The 12th Avenue spot once served as our favorite Nashville rendezvous point for pizza and beer. My friends and former roommates, Lauren and Yves, sat across the table. I recounted the rigorous project management and software training I completed in the time since we last connected. Yves inquired about the role’s requisite domestic travel.
Between sips of beer I leaned forward energetically, elbows on the table. I missed my friends, and the conversation was comfortable and warm. I first met Lauren in the cinder block hallways of our alma mater. She rode a folding bicycle maniacally through the building, and I was enamored of her offbeat humor. We then shared an apartment during the early days of her relationship with Yves. The housing situation came full circle years later when I rented Yves’ spare bedroom for a time. And when they eventually married, I officiated their wedding.
Despite years of history together, I noticed Yves’ face change. He observed my casual posture and assertive gesticulation. You sit like a man, he interjected. The comment surprised me. I’d known Yves for years, even lived with him. He knew I loved big earrings, Joni Mitchell, and a well-timed makeover. I knew his bluntness. But when I inquired about his meaning, he could not articulate it.
I ruminated on the exchange over subsequent days of the trip. The comment followed me onto the return flight home. I formed a mental checklist of the evening’s elements. I had worn women’s clothing during dinner, and my haircut was a traditional curly bob. I sported lipstick and jewelry. I had not premeditated conversation topics nor made an effort to rebrand myself. To my mind, whatever personality changes I experienced over the year had been gradual.
I closed my eyes, and I heard the words. He said I sit like a man, but he meant to say that I sit like a woman in power. I had not noticed the self-possession and confidence I accrued from my adventure in a new city. In my new work world pressure was a privilege, and I had more professional responsibility leading teams and high dollar projects than ever before in twenty four years. And men, even male friends, were startled to find these traits separate from their gender.
I presented myself, newly actualized, enthusiastic, and wearing lipstick, and Yves’ instinct was that I had inherited his tribe’s persona. In actuality, independence merely sharpened the tools I always possessed. I no longer skipped and jumped around men to prove my belonging. I didn’t need to wave my arms and chant, “Here, here!” for their consideration. I stopped the chase, picked up the ball, and threw it. I’d always worn the right color.
Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage
It’s easy to feel like a fake. The voice in my head injects its unsolicited input: You’re overdoing it. Stop trying so hard. If it’s not natural, you’re doing it wrong. Do something else. Somewhere along the way I collected an inventory of ideas like this—gleaned from neighborly advice, books I’ve read, newspaper headlines, offhand comments from friends. I’ve even used this arsenal of judgments to silently criticize others. The tone-deaf troubadour singing off-key tunes in the coffee shop? It’s just not natural for him. The woman wearing leopard print spandex at the grocery store? That outfit is….a lot. The guy in class I just couldn’t find attractive? He’s so desperate.
I struggle to articulate why, in those moments, it feels urgent that I distance myself from others who I deem too much or not enough. Cognitively I support equity and justice for all. I love Lizzo and Jameela Jamil and all the other women pushing body positivity forward. I care about black and brown folks and those who are differently abled or neurodivergent or under the poverty line or living in bodies that don’t match their gender. I truly want all of these people to thrive. But if someone doesn’t have an obvious label that reminds me to be kind, why do I still recoil when watching them fail?
Whatever that reflex is, I also use it violently against myself. I am afraid of coming on too strong or seeming overly confident in abilities that others deem inferior. I know from conversations with female friends that we all grapple with impostor syndrome to some degree. Every new creative endeavor or project idea or clothing choice, for that matter, comes with a caveat. I’m new. Please be gentle. I wouldn’t qualify my choices, even laughingly, if there weren’t some imminent threat of judgment.
Earlier this year, I discovered that I am 25% Japanese. I have a biological grandmother from Japan who married a GI during World War II. This news came after a lifetime of socialization as a white girl. I was German and Irish, as far as I knew, and I could count on two hands how many people of color attended school in my rural Texas town. The majority of those folks were Hispanic. I’d always passed for white, with the exception of a few confused inquiries from people over my lifetime. A childhood boyfriend once told me I looked Chinese when I tanned darkly in the Texas sun. I told him he was stupid. The African grill cook at my college restaurant job asked me if I was mixed—maybe part Asian? No, I laughed, “But thank you,” and walked away.
With this DNA discovery, I was suddenly cataloguing any Asian person I’d known or cultural experience I’d witnessed. Were there any clues to this secret ethnicity that I missed along the way? I’d never been to Japan, and I’d never met any of my Japanese or Japanese-American relatives. I’d never had an affinity for broadly Asian culture other than loving sushi. I can’t count that—everyone loves sushi. That shit is delicious.
I mean, sure, DNA technically puts me in this category, but I don’t have any of the other street cred. I don’t know the language, the clothing, the music, the food. My life is devoid of the lived experience that many Asian-Americans know. Am I a fraud if I suddenly check the Asian/Pacific Islander box in my demographic information? To add to the sense of isolation, all of this information came to light during a pandemic. I couldn’t attempt to meet my newly discovered relatives and, even if I could, they might not want to connect. Cultural festivals were canceled, in-house dining at restaurants was closed. What should I do? I resorted to the Internet.
I found Eve Sturges’ podcast of other people who had discovered secrets in their DNA. One of the podcast guests mentioned a private Facebook support group, and I met others whose ethnicity was different from what they’d been raised to believe. We each shared our stories and traded frustrations. We recognized our deepest fears as headlines spread about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. We didn’t want to be fakes. We weren’t pretending to be BIPOC for personal gain. Please, god, don’t let us trample on the cultures we’re just trying to learn. How proudly could we, or should we, claim ownership of this heritage?
Someone in the group affectionally called me a “hapa”—a Hawaiian word used to refer to someone of mixed Pacific Islander or Asian heritage. I read blogs by others of varying racial backgrounds. Someone coined the term, “quapa,” meaning a combination of “quarter” and “hapa.” Is this me? I thought. I kept researching. I discovered NPR’s Code Switch episode, “Who Gets to Be ‘Hapa?‘” Nope, I was not Hawaiian. Maybe I should use a label that didn’t offend the people who invented it.
A friend connected me with Jo Oyama-Miller, the woman who leads Madison’s sister city relationship with Obihiro, Japan. She explained that the Japanese use the term, “hafu,” which is a transliteration of the word “half” from English. Even in Japan, where they value homogeneity, people of mixed race are considered inauthentic. I wouldn’t be considered Japanese by my grandmother’s country, either, even if I had been born there.
So where does this leave me? I can’t write Japanese kana, I never learned how to make miso, and I’ve only ever seen one Studio Ghibli film. Sure, I can take cooking lessons and read books about aspects of my culture. I can watch documentaries and listen to the Asian Enough podcast, but there will always be the risk of seeming like an overzealous white girl. Then again, maybe the most authentic thing I can do is to do it anyway, internal voices be damned. Perhaps the experience of being too much and not enough is what it means to be Asian in America. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.
Rocks in the Riverbed
Ask yourself about your childhood. Was it a happy one? When you recount the story of wiggling your first loose tooth with your tongue or the time you got the chicken pox, is the sun shining in the background? What about the trip to the park where you flew kites with a neighbor kid? Or visiting Santa at the mall? Or falling off your bike? Or the stray kitten you found in the alley?
I realized recently how often I recite stories about my past beginning with, “I had a pretty happy childhood.” The stories I tell are often accompanied by a rye, self-deprecating humor where I retroactively giggle at the failures, the scrapes, or the desperation with which I navigated the world as a six-, ten-, or fourteen-year-old. I have many a joyful image stored away of tromping through the underbrush in our rural backyard with a gaggle of friends, dancing to Ace of Base albums with the neighborhood girls, or dressing in homemade Halloween costumes expertly crafted by my mother. The girls that lived across the invisible property line from our tan brick-and-stone house used to say that our family was “All-American.” Two parents, still married, one son, one daughter, all churchgoers and involved in the right amount of extracurricular activities.
That image of us as the perfect, normal family used to hang in my mind like a postcard on the fridge. Of course, I knew it was a generalization and would humbly say, “Nah, no family is perfect.” However, even that response was part of the glossy print I’d composed of our life. Polite people don’t brag, I thought, and besides, my brother and I had just been fighting over who could use the desktop PC in our family’s dining room. How human. No one close to me had died. I wasn’t battling betrayal or divorce or abuse. I had opportunities to hone musical skills, compete in spelling championships, read books, play sports. I was #blessed.
However, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Life, uh, finds a way.” As I graduated from teen to adult, the reality of complex wounds, bereavement, and guilt began to crack its way through our family’s smooth shell. Drama and in-fighting among church leadership cast shadows on my belief system. I formed adult relationships and navigated the pain of infidelity, molting the chaste innocence that my mother had wished for me. I supported my boyfriend (now husband) through his father’s untimely diagnosis and death from malignant brain cancer. I helped my mother coordinate an intervention for my alcoholic father. I discovered via DNA test that I am not biologically related to the man who raised me, and that the man who passed me his genes also passed away before I could meet him.
After the intensity of the last decade and a half with grief building in new, creative ways year after year, I adopted stoicism as an advanced guard against fear. The longer I live, the more grief I will see, I quoted to friends on multiple occasions. I thought of that mantra as my form of the Doris Day song, “Que Sera, Sera” — that it wouldn’t keep me from living life, but perhaps I wouldn’t be so taken aback by pain if I knew it was waiting for me in the wings. I became bold and forward with my feelings, keeping no secrets and defiantly opening my arms to the world, sharing my authentic woundedness with friends and acquaintances alike. I saw myself as a rock protruding from an inevitable river of grief — holding forth bravely to fight against its slow, steady erosion of my being.
This approach sparked a fascination with family secrets — so much so that I imbibed every word of Dani Shapiro’s podcast of the same title. I listened to it in the car while running errands, while jogging around the nearby lake, while walking the dog in our Midwest neighborhood. I read books and watched documentaries about them. And then, amidst the stories of others who have uncovered life-altering revelations, I heard the words of Dr. Gabor Maté:
“Trauma isn’t what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”
The world stopped. I paused the recording. I rewound it and heard it again. And again. And again. My vision of the rock in the middle of the river, whittled and smooth, blurred into a fine mist, and a new image took its place. I am not the rock. I am the river. I am in constant forward motion. I cannot change my origin, and the path where I have been is set. Instead it is grief that is the protrusion, the sudden push displacing me from where I’d intended to go. I will tumble around it, regrouping and coming back to myself, and grief will be the one that eventually sinks beneath the surface, worn to a pebble in my riverbed.
These boulders of grief are part of my story, but they are not my destination or definition.
I am the whitewater. I am the rapids. I am the river.