I Carry It All


I am 5-feet-8-inches tall and I weigh 138 pounds. But I’m heavier than that because of the weight of what I carry as a woman.

In my eyes I carry the terror of being followed on a run by two men in a pickup truck. They drove by just as I was leaving my driveway and I saw them take me in as they passed. The running shorts, the tiny tank top. That wasn’t unusual because I am a woman and my body is a thing that is ogled, judged. But then I saw them again on the next street, driving slowly. And when I turned a corner, they did too. I cut through a churchyard into another neighborhood and my pulse was way up but they were gone and I felt smart — until I eventually jogged back home, and then every nerve ending in my body erupted. They had backed into the next-door neighbor’s driveway, which sat just behind our house.

What were they waiting for?

I had left the garage door up. I hit the button and it closed at a snail’s pace. I locked my sweaty, shaking body inside and then in a fresh panic strained to remember whether I had seen both men in the truck. I called my boyfriend at work. This was before cell phones. He told me to get a kitchen knife and go into the bathroom and lock the door, then he hung up and called the police. I remember chastising myself. Stupid garage door. Stupid tank top. The police came in minutes, my boyfriend right behind them. The men tried to pull out of the driveway as the cruiser pulled in; they were stopped and questioned. They said they were waiting for the homeowners, whom they couldn’t name.

In my eyes I carry the terror of knowing I can be watched, followed, caught. In my nerve endings I carry the feeling of being prey.

In my stomach I carry the trauma of being molested when I was a little girl. I do not remember what day it was or exactly how old I was. Five, maybe? Six? I didn’t know then that he was a longtime child abuser who had destroyed other girls before me. I remember the sound he made as he tickled me, and what that turned into. I remember staring at the sliver of light coming through the crack in the doorway to the spare bedroom where I lay, wondering why no one was coming in to check on me.

In my stomach I carry the feeling of being treated like an inanimate object, a pillow or a plaything, not a living being with tears and value. For much of my life that feeling was a black hole.

On my face I carry the indignity of being spit on by a jealous boyfriend. He followed me to a bar one night, a bar my friends and I had invited him to but he’d turned it down. He watched from afar as I ran into an old high school friend and shouted a few happy pleasantries above the din of the band. The friend asked if I was dating anyone. “Yes!” I said. “For two years now. I think he’s the one!”

He congratulated me and we hugged goodbye; I turned around to search for the friends I’d come with and there was “the one” suddenly coming toward me. My face broke into a smile because What a coincidence, I was just talking about you! And then he spit in my face. “You gonna go fuck him tonight??” he snarled, his baseless accusation dripping from my nose. A moment of humiliation and disorientation, and then absolute clarity. I knew I couldn’t react in anger or it would get worse. I wiped his spit off my face while people watched, their beers frozen halfway to their lips. I tried to turn away but he grabbed my arm and pulled. “We’re not done here” he said as he yanked me toward the entrance — and the bouncer. “Get your hands off her,” the beefy dude working the door said, and “the one” was kicked out of that place and out of my life.

Behind my forehead I carry the understanding that a man’s insecurities, general unhappiness or anger can be weaponized against a woman he “loves” with no justification or any real consequence to him. In my jawbone I carry the defensive will to defuse, not alight.

In my calves I carry the shock and shame of being sexually harassed by an employer. He came into the small office kitchen where I was stooped over the water cooler, one hand on my bottle, one hand on the tap filling it. My boss was the owner of the company; he was dating the newly divorced sales manager.

We were alone in the kitchen, and he suddenly bent down beside me and started rubbing my legs. “If you’re not ever gonna wear shorts or a skirt to work, I’m gonna have to feel what you’re hiding under these jeans,” he said as his hands slid up and down my calves and above my knees. I stood there paralyzed, pouring water. What? What is happening? It was over in a few seconds. “Damn, girl,” he said as he stood up. “You really should show those off.”

He had never said anything like that to me before. It was the first job I really liked. I was 23. I walked back to my side of the building, sat down at my desk and stared at my screen. Why didn’t I kick him? Why didn’t I pour water on his god damn head?

In my calves I carry the painful knots of objectification and disrespect in the workplace. In my hips I carry the weight of shame and second-guessing my responses to it.

In my shoulders I carry the trauma of having a man I care about take what he wants despite my wishes.

I cannot write about it yet, but I carry it. I carry the inner disappointment of not having been forceful enough with my words or my body.

We tried to watch a movie afterward but I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t sit next to him, this person I’d known so long and liked so much. I couldn’t sit still. I perched on the edge of the sofa, one leg bouncing up and down continually. I had an overwhelming desire to take a shower. I needed him to leave so I could take a shower. And when he started to cry and apologize for ignoring all my signals I shriveled up inside myself and said nothing, so he left. The next day I sent him an email apologizing for not being able to comfort him when he was feeling so sorry for what he’d done.

In my shoulders I carry the resignation I felt when a man’s wants superseded my needs. In my mouth I carry the bitter betrayal of my spirit and all the words that in a moment felt too powerful or too entitled for me to say.

In my heart I carry the enduring love I have for men, the gentle understanding that they bear their own set of unique burdens I can’t see. I carry the acute and abiding love for the men in my life who have treated me well, the men who have sheltered and cared for me, inspired me, challenged and pampered and really listened to me. The good bouncers and good officers and good boyfriends and good co-workers of the world. The men who have made me a better person and a better friend, a better writer and a better lover. The first man I ever trusted, whose big calloused hands still make me feel safe even as they grow wrinkled and weaker, and the two young men I carried in my womb who are making the world better because they’re in it.

In my heart I carry the love and hope and expectations I have for men, the young ones and the old ones who are doing the best they can every day, and the broken ones who desperately need less privilege and more accountability.

These things I carry are personal yet also universal. I am not unique, and these incidents are not rare. Some may call me a victim, others say survivor, or maybe just another melodramatic female who can’t let go of the past and writes long-winded blog posts. If you think that then you don’t understand how memories like these work, how they stay locked in your body, leaking out in weird sideways reactions when someone tries to tickle you, or your own precious baby suddenly sneezes on your face, or you hear the quivering voice of a brave woman in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing describe a dehumanizing trauma she suffered.

In those moments all the extra weight I carry is magnified and I can’t hold it anymore. It’s too heavy and it spills out in rage and tears and resignation and shame and confusing emotions I can barely identify that don’t seem appropriate yet somehow are. These last several days this happened more than a few times. And I know a lot of other women were similarly crushed by the relentless reminders of what they too carry silently all the time, along with the willful ignorance we are up against. So we acknowledge one another’s experiences. We listen, and we believe. We get back up; we always do. We share so that our burdens might enlighten, and be lightened.

I am 5-feet-8-inches tall and I weigh 138 pounds. But I am so much more than that. I am a woman.

 

As The World Turns

My little sister won’t endure my spinning anymore, but she still pushes me (and her daughter) to spin faster…

My sisters and I were taught about miracles just about every week in Sunday school. A few loaves of bread and a couple of fish multiplying to feed 5,000. Jesus healing lepers, making the blind see, bringing Lazarus back to life. An empty tomb and a risen savior.

Once I hit second grade, though, I learned something that made me think the biggest miracle was a current phenomenon that, incredulously, nobody ever seems to marvel over—the fact that the Earth, the very ground we’re all standing on, is spinning at about 1,000 mph, and that means we are all moving, all the time, even though we can’t feel it happening.

My little 8-year-old brain exploded at the thought.

My sons and I were recently talking about this on an evening when the moon was a glowing crescent, the kind of moon that would cradle you as you sat and cast a line off its tip, and they asked what it looked like to the people on the other side of the world. So with the help of my frequent co-parent YouTube, we watched the trajectory and phases of the moon, and learned how the Earth spins on its axis. We also saw how “our” planet is moving around the sun at about 67,000 mph and our solar system is moving through the galaxy at about 515,000 mph, and how we’re along for those rides, too.

It’s dizzying to think about all that moving we’re doing as I sit here, still and silent, on my couch.

When I was a kid my favorite thing to do was spin. My favorite toy was my Sit ’n’ Spin. My favorite amusement park ride was the one in which you could spin yourself inside each rickety “cup” while the whole ride spun around on the metal platform. My favorite thing at the playground was a big tire swing, hung parallel to the ground. I would sit on it, preferably with my apprehensive little sister, and dig my toes into the sand beneath it, turning us faster and faster and faster until she begged me to stop so she could get off before she threw up.

I loved spinning. I loved seeing the whole world blur around me until the only things I could see clearly were my own limbs and the person directly across from me on the tire or the ride or the toy, their smile wild, their laughter infectious, their insides being tickled the same way my insides were being tickled.

Now that I’m older I see more clearly that apart from the same ride we’re all on together on this third rock from the sun, each of us is also spinning in our own orbits, following the unique trajectories of our lives at different speeds. We turn from darkness to light and back again, from helplessness to hopefulness, from love to loss, all the while bumping into or crossing through one another’s orbits as we go, trying like hell to straighten our paths, to slow down or speed up, treating others like they are moons to our existence rather than planets of their own.

And despite our best efforts at selflessness and compassion, the rest of the world often blurs so that we see only our own flailing limbs and persistent dreams. It’s human nature; it’s the desperate call of our fragile hearts; it’s all of us doing the best we can with what we’re facing at any given point in time.

I am amazed as I watch you all spinning, facing the darkness, feeling the light, waiting and praying and digging your toes into the sand to change your direction or speed or perspective. Navigating parenthood and marriage, failed businesses and failing relationships, addiction and recovery and illness and death and a hundred other things, some of them too dark to even imagine myself enduring.

This, too, is the same for the people on the other side of the world.

Gloria, a 21-year-old college student from Rwanda, was recently telling me about the lingering effects of the 1994 genocide in her country, a mass killing of 800,000 in a matter of 100 days. Half of her mother’s family and almost all of her father’s were slaughtered. Gloria was born three years later, but her life has been altered and defined by her parents’ pain.

“There wasn’t time to process their emotions when everything happened. They had to rebuild. They had to dig graves. They had to find bodies. There was so much to be done. So the assumption was ‘After we clean up, after we rebuild and get to a good place, then we can deal with our emotions.’ But that time hasn’t come yet.”

For those three months their lives had spun out of control. Terror and evil had flung them into chaos. And the ensuing nausea of persistent grief has since slowed their individual orbits to a crawl, their hearts adjusting to the dark side of the moon rather than pushing toward the light around the bend.

“Most of my friends are struggling to deal with parents who have been through so much that they don’t even know how to love anymore,” Gloria said with a kind matter-of-factness that broke my heart. “Not because they don’t love their kids, but they’ve seen some of the most horrible things you can ever think of, and the whole idea of love has died. The point of love can become a terrible experience.”

I don’t know how to process that level of pain and loss. I don’t know what I’d do if three-quarters of my extended family were slaughtered. Would the mere thought of loving someone wholly, freely again become too painful a thing to put into practice? How would I will myself to keep spinning at all?

Maybe that’s where the miracle comes in. We are all moving, regardless of whether we feel up to it. Despite our failings and our fears, when we think we can’t go on we actually are going on. When I sit down and sob, I’m still moving forward. When you close your eyes and breathe and pray for guidance, your answer is in the sunrise and the seasons.

The Earth turns. The gravitational pull of the sun spins us around it. The solar system glides forward, one jumbled mass of planets and stars and moons and heartbreak. How comforting to know that when I think I am alone in my pain, when I believe my pace is wrong or my trajectory is off, there is a part of my existence whose pace and movement is always a mirror image of yours, and yours, and yours, and it is perfect— just look at the sunrise and the seasons.

At 1,000 mph, we spin together. Nobody is alone. We are all on the ride, myself and Gloria’s mother, the addict I love and the friend whose wife just moved out, the woman who recently lost her dad and the mother who miscarried again and the father of four who’s battling cancer and the kid at the park today who’s pushing off on that old tire swing with all the power he’s got in his little legs. May he always be as confident and adventurous as he is right now. But if he ever falters, it’s OK.

He’s with us.

 

Your Song

I wonder what song will make my kids think of their mom after I’m gone.

Not even gone gone, just not in their daily lives anymore. When they’re grown and off to who knows where, what familiar yet distant strains of which random tune will come on in the grocery store and call me to mind, the way “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” instantly conjures up my mother, her permed hair framing her smiling face singing to me in the wallpapered kitchen of my childhood home.

I’ll be fine when you’re gone
I’ll just cry all night long
Say it isn’t true and
Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

My mind is a twisted mess of lyrics and people, and if someone laid them out in two columns, songs on the left and faces on the right, I could draw lines connecting them faster than my third-grader connects continent names to their land shapes on his social studies worksheets.

The magical thing is that they’re mostly hidden; I don’t make the connection until I’m driving home after dropping off the kids at school and “Fade Into You” comes on the radio. Then suddenly within the song by Mazzy Star there’s Amy, with her golden locks and gorgeous smile, from a friendship that was once so intense and all-encompassing I’m pretty sure we were closer to each other for a time than we were to our spouses.

I want to hold the hand inside you
I want to take a breath that’s true
I look to you and I see nothing
I look to you to see the truth

“Fade Into You” plays and I remember Amy and I sharing sordid secrets, boozy late-night talks around countless bonfires, road trips and sailing excursions and football games and baseball games and theater performances. Amy holding my hand while I wait in the ER in the wee hours of Jan. 1 for an X-ray on my separated shoulder, a crazy end to an epic New Year’s party. Me holding Amy’s hand a couple years later as she lies in a hospital bed, her eyes watering through another contraction. “Just breathe … you’re doing great … he’s almost here …”

I get home and send Amy a message, telling her of the song I just heard on the radio and how it had her face in the notes, and later I wonder whether my face is in any notes for other people. I wonder if there are songs they remember me liking, or songs that played when we were together, or songs whose lyrics somehow match the time we shared.

For some I bet it’s a band. I can see my friend Shawn’s face in a mental collage of parties and bars over the years from our college friendship and well beyond, whenever the first notes of “Black Dog” or “Ramble On” or “Traveling Riverside Blues” hit the room and he scans the crowd and points at me. “ZEPPELIIIIIINNNN!” he yells in a way only Shawn can, dancing toward me, swinging me around, his Zep buddy for life. I hope these days when he’s driving to work listening to some classic rock Pandora station and Robert Plant’s high-pitched wail bleats through the speakers, my smile is there with it.

And if you promised you’d love so completely
And you said you would always be true
You swore that you never would leave me, baby
Whatever happened to you?

 


When I pick up the boys from school Evan hands me a piece of paper. On it he has scrawled two song titles: “Beat It” and “The Final Countdown.” I smile. “This is for the ride,” he says. Their music teacher is always introducing them to new songs, which are old songs, and so we queue them up on the way to and from school and they marvel in the backseat at how I already know the lyrics to songs they just learned.

We’re leaving together,
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back
To earth, who can tell?
I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground (leaving ground)
Will things ever be the same agaaaain?

I beat on the steering wheel and belt out the chorus to a song I never liked but right now sort of love, because this time it’s different, this time it’s ours. And then it occurs to me how possible it is that someday this could be the song. “The Final Countdown” could be the thing that brings me to mind, dear god, and for a moment I freeze, no please not this song, not something as cheesy as Europe’s poor excuse for a Space Oddity.

But we don’t choose these things, do we. It’s completely up to the way a random moment gets wedged into our memories, the way our subconscious finds a connection to a string of notes or lyrics that just feel like someone we love. Or lost. Or miss.

There are so many people I have loved and so many I miss, in so many ways. They are in “Respect” and “Tangled Up In Blue” and “You’re My Best Friend,” “Take Five” and “Budapest” and “The Greatest Sum.” They’re in “Get It Together,” “My Backwards Walk” and “The First, The Last, My Everything.” “The Beauty of Gray,” “Two Princes,” “September,” “The Aspidistra Flies,” “Call It Dreaming” and so many more. They are embedded in The Wall and Soulrocker and New Jersey and Everything Now and Nebraska and in the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Singles.

They live inside the music of Lyle Lovett and U2, The Killers, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Uncle Tupelo, Muse and Edith Piaf and Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers and Peter, Paul & Mary and on and on and on, and they will be in those singers’ hooks long past the day I’m not around anymore to hear them. Music is bigger and louder and stronger and longer than any of us, and it bears far more than we know how to hold and express on our own, thank god. All I can do is keep listening and, when someone’s face appears, smile at them, sing to them, send an intention of love and light in their direction and, whenever possible, reach out and tell them, like I did with Amy, that I see their face in the notes.

I bet that, too, is a nice thing to hear.

A few days after “The Final Countdown” car ride, Kostyn and Evan start up a dance party in the living room after dinner. They don’t go for Europe, much to my relief, instead opting for the not-much-better “Cotton-Eye Joe,” a ’90s remix of a folk classic. They pull me in and teach me the line dance they’ve learned to the song, and we tap, tap, tap our feet and spin to the left, spin to the right.

If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married a long time ago
Where did you come from,
where did you go,
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe?

It takes a few times for me to get it right, but that’s because part of me has pulled away and is standing off to the side of that makeshift dance floor marveling at how they’re choreographing the dance parties now, quite literally, instead of the other way around.

Our dance parties used to be carefully choreographed by me. Not the moves, but the timing, the setting, the props. I’d break open a bunch of glow sticks, get the kitchen and living room cleaned up, turn off all the lights. In the early months of separation, of two homes and split time, I was desperate to build traditions and make memories they’d remember as fun and happy. I wanted to give them the feeling of wholeness when we were all a little broken.

And man, it always worked. Jumping and spinning, they’d fly into my arms, first taking turns and then challenging me to hold them both, my arms and back and core straining to “Jump In the Line (Shake, Senora),” the dog repeatedly darting out of the way.

After we master the moves to “Cotton-Eye Joe” they choose “Beat It,” and then I pick another MJ classic, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Our moonwalks are sorely lacking but it doesn’t matter, we’re working up a sweat now as they queue up old dance party favorites like Maroon 5’s “Sugar“ and Eels’ “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Livin’).”

Have you ever sat down in the fresh-cut grass
And thought about the moment and when it will pass?
Hey man, now you’re really living

Now you’re really giving everything
And you’re really getting all you gave
Now you’re really living what
This life is all about

Eventually my attention is pulled back to the messy kitchen and dirty dishes, but they want to keep going. Kostyn is asking for a particular song but he doesn’t remember the words and I can’t place it based on his valiant attempt at speaking the beat. We try a few but he nixes them all, and my enthusiasm for the whole thing begins to sag.

“You used to play it when we were littler and we would dance. Before the last house we lived in.”

I search my memory for songs from their toddler days, before glow sticks and line dances. “’Thank God I’m a Country Boy’?”

“No, it’s a rock song. The guitar starts it like this – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du…”

I squint at him, trying, searching, blank.

“That singer you love sings it too, with the band,” he says.

Singer I love? A rock song. Du-du-du-du-du–

“‘The ’59 Sound’!” I yell triumphantly. I dash to my laptop and search for it. The guitar starts – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du – and then a drumroll spills in and the bona fide rock song crashes through the tiny speakers on my desk.

“Yes! This is it!” he exclaims. I used to play a video of The Gaslight Anthem playing this song live, and in the clip the band introduces Bruce Springsteen to come onstage and play it with them. That singer I love. We perfected our air guitars to that video many moons ago.

“You guys were so little then. That was in Palmyra, so you were about 2 and 4,” I marvel. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

But they do, and I notice their air guitars are still in tune. I smile then, realizing for the first time that maybe my face is in these notes.


Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.

‘Cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life,
The chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on grandmother’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

The Best Way to Lose Weight in the New Year

You can exercise
and watch your calories
and say no to dessert
and count your steps
and be diligent and vigilant
and self-castigate over cellulite
but
if you are like me
you continue to put on weight
year after year.
Because if you are like me
you are spending your life
dragging things behind you.

 

Holding onto old hurts.
Regrets.
Unfinished business.
The inner disappointment of untapped potential.
That time you drank too much and did that thing.
All the other times.
Insecurities, real and perceived.
Ideals you cannot reach but cannot relinquish.
The pain of not having been loved well by that one person.
The shame of knowing you let them treat you like that.
Anger.
Wistfulness.
Nostalgia.
Traditions.
Expectations.
The self-imposed prison of needing to be liked.
Religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Contempt for the religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Fear of death.
Fear of what will happen if you live the way you want to live.

 

If you are like me
you have so many small burdens
known only to you,
like invisible weighted plates tied together with nylon rope
that you drag dutifully behind you,
year after year,
the rope cutting into your skin
as you trample the ground you cover,
your heavy existence
leaving ruts and grooves in the land
where your footprints should be.

 

Next year,
if you are like me
you will try letting go of something.
Untie one knot
and keep walking,
glancing behind you to see
Anger
or
Fear of death
or
The false perception of not having been good enough
getting smaller as you go,
leaving it alone to rot into the earth,
still and useless and discarded.

 

That sight will embolden you and,
if you are like me,
you will try loosening your grip
on the whole damn rope.
Breathe,
and be brave enough to acknowledge
that the weights only exist if you want them to.
The burdens are perpetuated only by your fragile heart
And the mind that fights for you and against you.

 

If you are like me
you will keep inhaling
and exhaling
until you have the courage to live
without the weights
without the rope
without the destructive ruts created by your mind.
Maybe for just a minute at a time, at first.

 

And then you will realize the irony,
that dropping the rope
is harder than lugging it.
It is not a single freeing act but a repetitive exercise.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Over and over and through time and persistence
that exercise will help you lose more weight than you ever dreamed possible,
until finally you see only your footprints behind you,
unique and unspoiled.

 

Drop the rope.
Drop the rope
and step lightly, joyfully
into your
new
year.

Photo by Steve Shockley