It starts with comparison. I pull the measuring tape taut, square it off, count the hashes. Pencil the number on a crumpled receipt and chant the incantation: Money back within thirty days.
Discrepancy makes me a sorcerer’s apprentice multiplying not brooms, but yardsticks. All things transmogrify in service of appraisal: The floor length mirror. The business card. The photographs of Rome. The published byline. The summer cabin. Trust fund disbursement. A baby’s push up. The marathon stamina. The youthful skin. The influential family name. The bullish trade. The glowing skyline. The time, the time, the time.
It is tiresome to carry the scales of justice door to door. To feel a thing blindly, to evaluate its heft by the space it occupies and the space it does not. My arm shakes, the muscles fail, and in reluctant setting down, the graceless letting go, amid the shards of expectation I inherit the wealth I am due:
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.
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.
When I started spotting, the rust seemed surprising but potentially harmless, according to what I read on the Internet. I felt a little crampy down low in my abdomen, the familiar ache of my lower back, like the monthly rites I’d observed since I was twelve. Another unexplained pain that I’d inherited from the mothers of mothers before me. Most of my wider social circles didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex, and I had only begun to tell close friends and family the weekend before. I wanted to eschew the convention of waiting until the end of the first trimester to spread the news. After all, if I lost the pregnancy, I’d be telling the people in my life anyway, and I felt the traditional silence during the first three months contributes to a misunderstanding of how common pregnancy loss really is. I’m not superstitious, I thought, and pregnancies are not gained or lost by words.
Over the weeks that passed, I was observant. I know my body well, but I’d never known my body under these conditions. So when the cramping started I tried to give it grace. I chanted silently, please, please, please, as I applied the loving heat of my warm palms to the full throb underneath my belly’s softness, pressing against the pain. I talked to the unknown person inside me, the person who was doing the hard work of becoming.
I was sweaty, sticky like the late summer heat that hung in the air, as I sat across the patio from friends and shared our good news. No I haven’t been experiencing morning sickness, and I feel very fortunate, but they aren’t kidding when they say you’ll be exhausted. Yes, we are excited. Thank you.
No one told me that I would politely excuse myself, barricading the bathroom door to discreetly take stock of what was happening down there. When I saw the first blood clot, I gasped Oh no reflexively, before my brain understood what I’d said. I returned to the table outside, resumed the friendly small talk, quietly tapped out a message to my doctor on the smartphone under the table.
When I finally got the call in the morning from the nurse, she was the first one who needed me to speak the truth of the situation into the world—to describe the timing, the color, the consistency. I hadn’t even mentioned the symptoms to Alex yet, hoping the conversation would be moot before I’d need to share. But the nurse needed to know, so I began. She was polite, professional. “The doctor does want to see you at 6:00 tonight, given your symptoms. It’s not a bad idea to do more than just order some bloodwork to be done, but no need to panic.”
My first prenatal visit would be two weeks earlier than scheduled, and it would be to hear the OB/GYN walk a verbal tightrope as she explained the possibilities. “The abdominal beta test will likely be inconclusive, it’s too early to tell, but we will do it just in case it could offer reassurance.” Alex sat nervously as she palpated my lower torso, looking for any signs that indicated the embryo had attached somewhere outside the designated area where babies grow.
They scheduled additional lab work and a Friday morning ultrasound, at which point I would have more conclusive answers. No one told me that I would manage several work calls and a training seminar while I waited for results, pretending professionally that the world I’d hoped for wasn’t crumbling around me. The stuffed dinosaur I bought, the one baby toy I gave in to purchase this early in my pregnancy was the only witness when I cried during my lunch break. Later, Alex would find me weeping as I cleaned the bathroom, coaxing me to lie down, letting me cry into his shoulder as I talked about my feelings of grief and loss and frustration at having to start again.
No one told me this, so I will tell you. At least one in four pregnancies end in a loss. 25%. One quarter. That number is so much higher than is publicly understood. Although people use the term miscarriage, I find the word itself is a misnomer, a lame attempt to describe a complex event in a single word. As if the person whose body carries the baby has much control over the intricate assembly of DNA occurring within. As if that potential life has been misplaced or mismanaged. As if it were simply a mistake made.
The truth is that many early pregnancy losses are unexplained. According to Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” roughly 90% are due to chromosomal complexities that cannot be tracked at this stage. The genetic building blocks aren’t piecing together correctly and the system shuts down—the foreman says gruffly, “Start over,” and hits the button to halt the assembly line.
What I didn’t know until I experienced this myself is that it would take several days before my body was done clearing the debris, and during this time I’d get to experience the creative ways my brain deals with grief. It’s not an instantaneous moment of trauma, like a car wreck. It’s more of a tsunami that leveled my town. I still had to wade through the ankle-high water as I went about picking up the pieces, worrying about aftershocks and flooding even once the damage was done. It was an exercise in endurance, where eventually I stopped thinking about how sad I was that I was losing the pregnancy and started waiting for the moment when the pregnancy was fully lost. At least then I could grieve without the abdominal pain. At least then we could start over.
Before the loss, Alex and I sat around a backyard fire with a couple who are expecting. We had just shared our good news, excited to be in the same cohort with them as first-time parents. As we stared into the flickering glow, we shared our concerns and fears about bringing a new and vulnerable life into the world in the midst of a pandemic, in a society awash with violence, selfishness, greed, and resultant political unrest.
We thought about the ways we had been wounded in our own lives, our complicated relationships with our parents, the tools we wish we’d had on hand to navigate the hardships of life. And there was one thing on which we agreed: to bring a child into the world is the physical manifestation of hope. It is the tiny step forward, a whispered vow, an existential contribution to the greater beauty that could be amidst the pain that is. We can offer up our best efforts to imbue a sense of empathy and bravery into a child beyond simply wishing for high test scores, physical prowess, or creative acumen. But true courage is in knowing that we will not be able to control the world around them or the choices they make and choosing to move forward anyway.
Despite the abrupt collapse of our expectations for a child in the next 40ish weeks, Alex and I are already parents. It’s just that our journey to embody hope in a broken world starts with how we move through grief to begin again. We’ve been forced to live the kind of brave that we hope our future children will be—to lay a foundation before we know who will live in the house or when they will move in. It’s scary. It sucks. But, it can also be beautiful.
If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, please know you are not alone. Below are a few resources that have been helpful for me.
“To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”
“Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
These are difficult days. It’s been said multiple ways by many people over the last six months, but I cannot get away from the fact that this season in American history and culture feels dark. We are suffering, collectively, from both known wounds—systemic racism, wealth inequality, and a general capitalist scarcity mindset, for example—and new ones, like the life-threatening nature of COVID-19 and our country’s lack of empathy towards the elderly, the differently abled, and the immunocomprised. Some in our circles are demanding angrily that the government relax restrictions on group gatherings, citing the massive impact on the economy and their offended sense of freedom, while others are terrified for the lives of their friends and families who could be killed by reckless individuals passing on the invisible death.
This isn’t news to you, I know. You’re feeling exhausted, too.
For me, the darkness has me turning inward more frequently—I have an altered sense of what feels urgent and important as compared to this time in March. In the early months of the pandemic, there was concern for my fellow man, but there was also a sense of adventure—that I would have the chance to test my mettle, like a child playing war. And when the novelty wore off, along with the affirmations that I would maximize my time at home to advance my own enlightenment, I could no longer hide the fact that my life, our lives, are and will be irrevocably changed.
In the previous post, I mentioned the concept that trauma is not what happens to us, but within us. This is doubly true, but the reality is that some days I still feel resentment at how many craters life has left in the lives of myself and my friends, in rapid succession. The meteor shower falls disproportionately, and some of my loved ones are still scaling the residual bluffs created by giant, falling debris. It’s disheartening to be in the process of deep personal transformation just to have more trauma interrupt the journey.
I have one dear friend who survived the loss of a child just to have this damned virus take her father from her way too soon. Another had to fold her business just as she was taking the leap to take additional professional advancement courses. Several friends who had to scrap their plans for weddings and baby showers, canceling or delaying the well-deserved celebration of life’s joys. Folks laid off in droves or working part-time hours, grateful for some small paycheck while also balancing homeschool education for their kids. Teachers wearing themselves ragged to adapt their curricula, trying to hit an ever-moving target of in-person, then remote, then partially remote scenarios. It goes on. Pain is surely creative.
Nothing is right or just, and I am angry. I feel helpless to protect the people I love. And I know that this righteous anger is also a convenient distraction from my own worries and fears; a new job prospect collapsing into dust, searching for a new job and training remotely, the emotional rollercoaster of familial and ethnic identity discoveries, and maintaining important relationships despite physical and geographical barriers.
My husband and I have been telling each other our dreams lately, usually right after we’ve stopped snoozing our alarms on alternating schedules, and we have a few minutes to lay in bed, awake, warming to the idea of consciousness. It’s been a melange of fantastical scenarios that scream STRESS! Missing the train for an international trip due to lost passports, gaining consciousness in an unfamiliar house and learning you’ve been drugged, running from violent dissidents with explosives, horrible scenarios in which we lose our beloved dog. Our hearts are full of loss (both real and imagined).
As Glennon Doyle would say, “Feelings are for feeling.” So, I’ve given myself space to feel the anger and the hurt, but I also hear my inner child, the optimist, the one who is usually out front waving the “Hope!” flag. She’s been quarantining, too, and she needs some time in the sun. A chance to dance like a goof in the front yard just to make the neighbors laugh.
In late 2019, I read “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” It is compiled based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it was enlightening to hear from two spiritual thought leaders on the ways they approach hope and happiness amidst the shifting sands of fortune. I discovered the quotes above from that book and jotted them down in my Notes app, unaware that they would come in handy in this moment.
There are little things I’ve attempted to do to harness this chest-baring bravery—thrilling in the casual conversations shouted across backyards and parks with friends who distance socially, working on loving my body for its abilities and intuition, as opposed to how it appears in photographs, investing in new books and media subscriptions to continue expanding the diverse, creative ideas in the world, buying stamps to send postcards and books to pen pals across the country. I’m learning that hope is an exercise in endurance. Refusing to only feel the sad feelings or the hard feelings, and scraping the barrel for the remnants of joy. Savoring them when they are there. Lapping up gratitude where I didn’t know it flowed before, and trying to give others the opportunity for thankfulness, as well.
So far, it’s kept me breathing. I hope it keeps you breathing, as well.