*There have always been dark days.

Days that feel bleak and heavy-hearted and steeped in a tired knowledge that nothing will ever really change.

Days that brim over with dark red anger, the color of spilled blood, the smell of sulfur, an electric charge on the air.

Days that hold only resignation, a soft sigh for what might have been, a slight shaking of the head at all the things unfolding before us.

Days that hold the hard diamond of revolution in their hand, cut-edge potential and harsh brilliance, the machines of war taking up a hundred different shapes on your doorstep.

There have always been dark days, but we haven’t always had immediate access to the details; where once there were whispers on wagons and letters on horses, bold printed papers and treasonous pamphlets, now there are twenty-four hours news cycles and an endless sea of opinionated blogs, breaking stories about broken hearts and half-truths propped up on the stilts of speculation.

We want to know all the things, all the time, even when the knowing is a blow we always see coming.

We never duck. We stand still and take it in the gut, again and again.

There have always been dark days. Yes. These are no darker than any other.

Historically speaking, we are living in an age of immense light, but it’s so hard to see it sometimes, isn’t it? There is still such crushing tragedy at every turn. There is war at noon, terrorism at five o’clock, crippling poverty at nine; there is maybe some pestilence for your breakfast hour, racism at lunch, and an unending trampling of the human spirit for dinner. It is a wonder we can manage to pull ourselves out of bed some mornings.

Still, though, we live in the light.

We are marvelous animals with opposable thumbs and indomitable spirit.

We walk upright in the sun and we lay down to dream under uncountable stars. We know the touch of a stranger’s hand when we fall, the feel of a lover’s thumb on our lips, the contagious joy of a dog who knows you’re home; we have sunrises like the sleeping breath of God, we hear the lonely whistle of a train and know an ache for home, we can look at a piece of art and feel the world expand underneath our skin.

We have bones that move to give birth to the future, we hold new life to our breast and understand hope, we live out the smallest lives in the grandest ways and every story we have is important to someone.

Sometimes I want to run away from it all.

I want to find an abandoned farmhouse at the edge of a forest, and fill my days with simplicity and silence. But that isn’t the world I live in anymore. That isn’t the world we have now.

What we have is a platform to endless knowledge, and the ability to spread awareness, and kindness, and understanding on a global scale. My responsibility as a citizen of the world is to take this unbelievable gift, and to use it wisely; to use it as a tool, and a treasure, and accord it both the respect and the perspective it deserves.

I can be aware without becoming oversaturated.

I can care without becoming despondent.

I can fight against the black edges of humanity by seeking out the best of it, by championing the light-bringers, by holding my own torch as high as my arm will stretch.

I can be both hopeful and realistic; in an imperfect world created by imperfect people, sometimes evil does triumph, sometimes the good guys don’t win.

But I’m not going to write about them.

I’m going to write about you.

And you.

And you.

And me.

Because there are dark days, but we are bright lights.

 

*written exactly three years ago, proving my point, which makes me both sad and grateful. 

I’m a self-identified xennial, but in spite of being a bit of a late bloomer, I still consider myself fairly savvy where social media trends are concerned. I can meme like a pro, and I speak gifs like they’re my native language. Every once in a a while, however, a “thing” comes around that has me metaphorically standing on my lawn, shaking my fist. Currently? It is this weird passion for pettiness sweeping my social media landscape.

There are over a thousand results for “petty” when you search Giphy. I get it! We all have little things that annoy us in big ways, and I’m not beneath pointing that out using a Petty Betty shout-out.

But.

I’m not talking the occasional indulgent walk around the pettyhood here. Everybody loves a good moment of unnecessary ire, but I’m seeing, like, ticker-tape parades for it. Women high-fiving each other over it. Long conversations of mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the pettiest of them all? Pettiness is, at the heart of it, embracing our inner asshole. Which, I’m all for that as long as we recognize it for what it is, but what I’m seeing goes beyond a mere moment of acceptance and ventures into some weirder territory. It’s not just poking fun at our inexplicable moments of irritation, it’s celebrating it.

It’s especially troublesome to me to see it coming from so many women. Pettiness is part of a group of longstanding stereotypes we keep trying to overcome – along with how we’re weak, nagging, backstabbing, game-playing bitches who can’t be trusted. I get wanting to reclaim words with negative connotations for ourselves, but not at the expense of, you know, actually being a petty bitch.

There’s a lot of truth to the idea that we are our own worst enemies. Have you ever heard of the crab mentality? If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, and one begins to climb its way out, the others will pull it back down before it can escape. I think about that a lot when contemplating how we interact with each other as women.

Why wouldn’t you want a fellow crab to find freedom?

Not to out myself as a flaming feminist or anything, but I think this, like so many other things, has its origins in the patriarchy. From our first breaths, we’re conditioned to fight like we’re Katniss fucking Everdeen for whatever scraps of validation our male-centered society decides to toss our way. Along with our mama’s milk, we grow fat on her knowledge of the myriad ways in which the world can be unkind to little girls, to young women, to mothers and women who choose not to be mothers, to grandmothers, to eccentric old cat ladies. It’s not that we’re inherently more catty than men are, it’s that being a bitch is often viewed as our only means for getting ahead, for grabbing the same kind of success our male counterparts enjoy without struggle. When you don’t have it easy, it’s easy to become a part of the system holding you down. 

To back off from the deeper stuff and dive back into pop culture, you don’t have to be a Regina George to Regina George somebody. It can come in many forms, and pettiness is a driving force in most of them. I can accept that my brain is sometimes going to automatically go to a shitty “you can’t sit with us” place, but that’s when I need to summon my inner Ms. Norbury the most, not ignore her.

It goes beyond those words of wisdom, though. Most of us aren’t calling each other sluts and whores, but we’ve all been that asshole crab pulling another crab back down into the bucket. So what if we just…stopped? What if instead we offered our shoulders for a sister to stand on? What if we cheered her on as she cleared the top instead of grabbing at her feet to pull them out from under her? What if we quit looking for reasons to be offended and aggrieved by each other, and instead found the kind of common ground that helps us grow as human beings?

What if we just let our BEC enjoy her damn crackers? 

I’m not perfect, you guys. Believe me, I’ve accumulated enough material for a Burn Book or ten over the years. But I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to be better. I’m trying to embody all the qualities I want to see in my daughter as she grows and finds her own friendships. I don’t want her to see me being petty and think that’s something she should aspire to. I want her to see me being kind, and fair, and giving. I want her to see me investing in strong female friendships. I want her to see that those strong female friendships are possible, and not some kind of rainbow unicorn that only exists in myth. I want her to grow up and be the crab that holds the other crabs up, helping them over the side, even if it means she’s the last one in the bucket. Especially if it means she’s the last one in the bucket.

And a lot of that means setting my own silly shit to the side, for the sake of showing her a better version of myself that’s worthy of inspiring her. I’m okay with that. I’ll fake it til I make it if I have to. Here’s to being the crabs we wish to see in the world, for our daughters, for our sisters, and for ourselves. ♥

 

 

 

Last night, I stayed awake until 4 a.m., working. Then I stayed awake until 5:32 a.m., the baby asleep in the infant jogger instead of on top of me, and the emptiness of my arms, the open space on top of my chest, feels so alien that I can’t settle down.

We all stay up way too late, and sleep in til noon, in these early days of summer. This is what I do now, it’s become a thing. The blackest hours of the night feel like an old friend, the kind that doesn’t expect you to talk, or crack a joke, or wear clean clothes. Still, when they’re sleeping, so much of my world simply winks out of existence. They are a persistent, annoying, insanely beautiful collection of bright lights, and however welcome the limpness of their dreaming forms, I grow uneasy in the temporary darkness.

cassie fox fox & fauna summer girl pond creek

Our trees keep falling. One came down last week, perched precariously on the roof of the shed, changing up the landscape of my view from the back porch door. When my husband began cutting through it, removing it piece by heavy piece, we saw a large splotch of darkness running through the heart of it, a slow death we never suspected. My mom loved cardinals, loved them the way I love crows, and for a similar reason — in a flash of red, in a black wing against blue sky, we remember that our souls soar endlessly in those fragile borrowed bodies. But the yard stays full of cardinals now, sleek and fat, and like saying a word over and over again until it loses all meaning, their symbolism has been buried under the weight of being ordinary. I don’t see her in them anymore.

 —

A friend once told me that making the leap from two to three children was the hardest of all. She said it led to her and her husband arguing more, shooting words across their kitchen table and from opposite sides of the couch like trained snipers. I admit that deep down inside, I smugly thought that would never be us. But here we are, in the thick of it, a veritable jungle of “how the hell did we get here?” Most days are okay, but I miss the way it was before, when we could get through dinner without someone practically collapsing out of exasperation. I can’t be certain, but I think the way I breathe has become an annoyance. He snores more than he ever did before, and it feels personal, a sinus-initiated insult. Our five year old refuses to sleep anywhere but in between us, and I’m sometimes secretly glad to see her knees jammed into the small of his back.

 —

If I post a picture of my kids on Facebook, I have this moment of anticipation where I can’t wait for my mom to see it, before reality reasserts itself like a punch in the gut. Basically, everything is awful. Suicide bombers, active shooters, refugees, Donald Trump. Racism, misogyny. My mom is dead and now I’m an orphan. I’m still wearing maternity jeans, and I ate 900 calories worth of cookies today. We’re all living on a steady diet of death and destruction, and ugliness has become a worldwide screensaver. Depending on who you ask, the future will either be a dystopian nightmare, or a burning apocalypse, but some days it kind of feels like we’re already in the middle of both. I’m on level 642 of Candy Crush Soda because I play five lives every time I get a breaking news alert.

 —

I love summer storms, hot clouds bumping up against hot air, heat lightning like fireflies, thunder like hoof-beats. It’s the only time the heat feels bearable, in the wild wind that summons the rain. I feel the most like myself when the sun isn’t shining, when the breeze has a bite to it and the whole world is draped in shades of grey, so it’s stupid that I live in the South. Today it’s 87 degrees with 84% humidity and I’m cranky and fragile and also Facebook is killing my soul. Black bodies litter the landscape of my consciousness, and words fail me, and fail me, and fail me. What can I say, that isn’t empty. What can I say, that isn’t useless. What can I say, that anyone would hear and heed. I hate myself for staying silent, it feels complicit. It is complicit. I’m complicit.

Level 643. Level 644.

 —

This isn’t a mom blog. It’s more a “you’re not an island, this is a forest” blog. Sometimes the weight of what the world is capable of is a rock tied around our ankles, and we forget that every knot can be undone. Sometimes our sorrow is so all-encompassing that we forget joy can be as simple as bare feet in a cool pond, as easy as redefining love daily. And sometimes, we get so busy surviving our loneliness that we forget we don’t have to be alone. Politics aside, religion aside, whoever you are and whatever you believe in, we are all living some version of each other’s lives. You, me, everyone we know. I created this blog as a place to leave any expectation of isolation at the door. Every one of us is going through something — why not go through it together?

Dear Son,

I have been waiting for this nondescript envelope for weeks, checking the mailbox Monday through Saturday with a little catch in my throat as the door dropped open, momentary disappointment when it failed to appear. And then today, finally, it arrived. It took all I had to not throw the car in park right there on the street and tear it open while people impatiently tried to maneuver around me. I had half the flap ripped open before I was all the way into the garage, flipping through the pages like a hurricane, scanning for “diagnosis” —

and there it was. Page 15.

After three years of testing and suspecting, hoping and waiting, anticipating and dreading, here it was in black and white.

Autism.
Sensory processing deficits.
Anxiety.
Delayed language pragmatics.
Fine Motor Dysgraphia.

So many terms and words, 22 pages of them, dense forests of Calibri size 12 seeking to define you. Much of it does describe you:

“a sweet child who struggles with communication skills and social awareness”

“significant anxiety symptoms in multiple areas”

“extremely sensitive nature.”

There’s no denying what my heart has known for longer than I’ll admit to myself, even now. For almost nine years, we wrote things off as you being sensitive, quirky, marching to the beat of your own drum, your mother’s child. And I mean. You are all those things as well. Your heart is as wide open as the sky. You experience things in a way that is uniquely you, and you’re not afraid to be yourself when expressing that. You have my hair and my eyes and my spirit. But there’s other stuff, too. There’s inexplicable meltdowns. Rage like a tsunami that you turn on yourself, angry fists on a shoreline of flesh. Noises that are too loud, food with too many tastes, awkward navigation through a social scene you just don’t get. Desperate tears and pleas for an answer to the heartbreaking question of “Why am I like this?”

At least now we have an answer.

And you know what? I’m so glad we do! I’m not sad about this. I’m grateful. This means we can make the years you have left in school so much more enjoyable and successful. Having a concrete diagnosis was just the first step. Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can make life so much better for you, which is what I’ve wanted all along. This was never about pasting a label on you. It was about finding ways to make this world work for you for once.

When I sat you down this afternoon to talk all this over, you got very quiet and your face looked very sad. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m…..autistic,” the last word almost a whisper. I started to give you a speech on how you can be an autism ambassador….but I had to back that up real quick when I actually thought about what you were saying. Ultimately, this is your journey. I’m here to help you carry your bags, and make sure you get to the airport on time, but autism is your plane and I don’t have a ticket. That means I don’t get to tell you how to respond to this news. I don’t get to push an agenda of acceptance. I don’t get to decide who you tell and who you don’t tell, outside of teachers and doctors. But let me tell you a little bit about why I want people to know you have been diagnosed with autism.

First of all, you are such a wonderful human being. I know a lot of people don’t get you, including me sometimes, but even misunderstood, you are amazing. You soul has been old since your first breath, and probably before. I read a quote once about how having children means forever walking around with your heart outside your body, and that’s right but not exactly right, because it’s really more like transplanting a part of your soul into another body, a spiritual graft, and for the rest of our lives, we’re just waiting to see if it takes. Except with you, I know we got it right, I know I never have to worry about you rejecting the best parts of us inside you.

Also, you’re different, but in the best ways. You like the things you like and our palpable disinterest doesn’t deter you in the slightest. You are honest to a fault. Whoever said that kids with autism can’t empathize clearly never met you, because you’ve inherited my overactive empathy gene, and feel things far more deeply than many people your age. I’ve never seen somebody try so hard to be funny, just because you want to bring a little joy and laughter to someone else’s day. You will meet any child right on their level – I’ve seen you play with kids from two up to twelve and beyond. You don’t run fast and you aren’t very coordinated, but that doesn’t stop you from running, hooping, hiding and seeking. You are incredibly concerned with fairness and justice, which the world could use a whole lot more of, if we’re being honest. You want to be heard, and you will fight for that right until we listen. You are so smart. Sometimes, the things you say, I just look at you and think, “I made that,” with a complete sense of disbelief. Your brain is big and beautiful and a fascinating landscape of topsy-turvy imagination, logic, creativity, and about seven million obscure facts.

See, the thing is, there are parts of you that are from me, parts from your dad, parts from like, a great-uncle three times removed, probably. And there are also parts of you that are autism. Does it make your life a little bit harder? Yeah, undoubtedly. Does it make our lives a little more difficult? Probably. But all those parts of you, even the stuff you might be embarrassed to talk about, it all comes together to make you who you are, and who you are is freaking fantastic. I am so glad I get to go through this life being your mom. So much of who I am today is because of you.

Yeah, these 22 pages have been a lot to take in, I’m not going to lie. But somewhere around page 12 or 13, tucked in among a bunch of big words exploring bigger concepts, I saw this:

“Quite positive is that David indicated that he likes himself, is a good person, and feels happy.”

And that’s when I knew this was all going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. Better than okay. I love you. And I like you! I truly do. You add so much to our lives. And I want you to know that your dad and I, your friends, all of your family who love you beyond measure, we will work and fight and stand up for you and your rights every single day to ensure you continue to like yourself, to feel like you’re a good person, and to be happy.

We loved you yesterday without an autism diagnosis. We love you today with one.

Always and always.

XOXO,

Mom

I love men.

I have had good men in my life. I have good men in my life. Men as deep and open as the ocean floor, their strength sanding my rough edges. Men so warm and golden that lying beside them was like bedding the slow rising sun as it creeps over the horizon. Men as giving and good as human nature allows us to be, with reassuring hands and voices that bend without breaking, with patchwork souls made up of wit and gentleness and grace and realistic expectations.

These men were fathers, and friends, and lovers. They are teachers, and siblings, and artists. They’re #notallmen, if that were a real thing, and not a movement created by EXACTLY the #allmen we were bitching about to begin with. They are excellent people who are beautifully flawed and flawlessly human, and each and every one of them has played a role in molding me into who I am today.

And who I am today is a woman who is feeling fiercely protective of the women in my circle. Who I am today is a woman writing love letters, not to the good men, not to the men I have loved who have loved me well in return, but to my girls, to my tribe, to my sisters. Who I am today is a woman tired of seeing downcast eyes and coats pulled close and emotional bruises just under the skin, gathered like storm clouds at the furthest edge of the sky. Who I am today is an angry woman, an impatient woman, a woman who wants to beat her bare fists against crumbling brick until that wall of excuses falls down around feet kicking out against the stupid stereotypes perpetuated by men enabled to be boys. Who I am today is a woman talking to you, another woman, my comrade in this crazy world, and keeping my fingers crossed behind my back that you’ll listen to what I’m saying.

Because you don’t deserve this, you know.

I know that right now, just reading that, you’re going to come up with eighteen different reasons for why he’s the way he is, pulling from your playbook, used so often and with such fervor that the pages are dog-eared and sweat-stained, the words highlighted and underlined and spoken out loud like a prayer. I’m no stranger to what you’re saying. I’ve played defense before, blocking concern and shouldering compassion down to the ground. I’ve worn that helmet and those pads and I know how small you feel in there.

Take that stuff off for a minute. Set it down here. Breathe.

It might seem like I’m mad at you. I’m not. I’m not even a little mad at you.

I’m mad at him.

I’m mad at the guy who dims your shine, cupping your flame so it has just enough oxygen to burn but never enough to get brighter. He’s afraid to exist under the light of your full illumination, not wanting his secrets exposed to air, and he knows if he keeps you turned down low enough, he can still creep around the shadowed corners.

I’m mad at the guy who looks at you as a given, as an entitlement. You’re blooming right beside him and he barely glances at you. It’s not even that you’re invisible, it’s that you’re just there. You’re part of his scenery and he hardly sees you anymore. You’re drifting like a ghost across porn on the laptop, the right swipe on Tinder, the secret texts he’s too stupid to hide; you haunt your shared space with half a heart, blowing through the shrugged off hand, the face turned slightly to miss your kiss.

I’m mad at the guy who feeds your insecurities, sneaking treats to the monsters under your bed and in the closet. Don’t tell me he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he’s standing there with empty wrappers in his hands. He thinks he’s a mirror, tells you he’s reflecting back reality, and mirrors don’t lie, right? Doesn’t every little girl grow up knowing that? And maybe they don’t lie, but they can be broken, can’t they? They can be shattered into pieces, a hundred different versions of the story of your face, lying on the floor like a rainbow. A hundred different pieces that can be picked up and put together again to reflect who you really are, not who somebody tells you you are, or tells you you aren’t.

I’m mad at the guy who uses words as fists, words as punishment, words to withhold. The guy who throws punches with his mean mouth and deflects blows with his ego. The guy who tiptoes the line between asking and demanding, suggesting and insisting, talking and preaching. The guy who holds you hostage with his emotions, a rope of unresolved issues biting into your wrists and ankles. The guy who wears two faces and you can barely even remember what the nice one looks like anymore. The guy who would rather give you a withering glance than a helping hand, who expects perfection instead of humanity, who will passive-aggressively do the dishes since you’re obviously “too busy” being a mom to keep things cleaned up. The guy who is constantly bumping into you with his cold shoulder and the chip that sits on it. The guy who’s just trying to be nice, just trying to do you a favor, just trying to help, just trying to undermine the validity of your feelings, Jesus, he just can’t win.

Okay, and yeah. I’m also mad at the culture we live in that treats all this behavior as some variation of normal, as if all men have not only the tendency but also the freedom to act like petulant children. This is enabling, and it’s also insulting. Understand that I’m talking about patterns of behavior here, not the occasional bad day or mood swing, not the odd bit of pettiness, not the random papers-flying-in-the-air-fuck-it-all moment. I’m talking about grown men who make a daily decision to act like an asshole to you; subconsciously or with malicious intent, on more days than not, these guys are using you as their emotional whipping post. Men are not babies. They’re fully functioning adult members of society. We can’t infantilize the people we expect to be our equal partners. We have to give them the grace to be human, while giving them the responsibility of being a good one.

I’m not mad at you, though. How could I be? We are the products of all that’s come before us.They wanted Marilyn Monroe, but we’re Norma Jean. They wanted Donna Reed, but we’re Roseanne. They wanted lovers like prostitutes and mothers like Mary, and we keep turning ourselves inside out to let down our hair and wash their feet with it, seeking redemption but expecting rebuke. We’re taught to be pliable, to let their rough hands make us over into the image they desire, to fold ourselves up small enough that we don’t take up any space. They fill us with fear, then encourage us to settle –so we settle because we’re scared. We don’t know how to be alone. We don’t know how to take up an entire bed on our own. We don’t know how to run our own small, soft fingers over the curves and the folds and be okay with what we feel there.

But we have to get okay with that. We have to learn our own worth. We have to not only tolerate our own company, but enjoy it, nurture it, look forward to it with love. We have to unlearn the lessons that have shaped us our whole lives. It’s OKAY TO BE ALONE, through choice or because you’re already alone with someone in the same room anyway. It’s OKAY TO USE YOUR VOICE, to ask for what you need and to demand what you are deserving of. It’s OKAY TO SAY THAT’S NOT OKAY, when someone uses love like a blunt force weapon. It’s OKAY TO TAKE UP SPACE, because you are allowed exactly the same amount of air as everyone else. It’s OKAY TO SAY NO, politely or fiercely or shyly or angrily, because we all have equal rights to that word. It’s OKAY TO FEEL HOW YOU FEEL, and nobody else gets to invalidate that for you because how you feel doesn’t work out in their favor. It’s OKAY TO WANT MORE, because breadcrumbs shouldn’t be enough for anybody. It’s OKAY TO GET MAD, just like I am, and IT’S OKAY TO CRY, just like I have, and it’s OKAY TO LEAVE if that’s where you’re at. It’s also OKAY TO STAY, but I want you to know it’s OKAY TO DEMAND CHANGE, if that’s the only lifeboat left without a hole in it.

The other night, I made soup. My husband set out the bowls and spoons. After I got the kids settled, I went back into the kitchen to get mine. And he had laid out one big soup spoon for him, and one small spoon for me. He thinks I am a complete weirdo for not using the big soup spoon, and in over thirteen years of marriage, this was the first time he got it right without me specifically asking. So I took a picture of those spoons, because seeing them lying there almost moved me to tears. He might think it’s silly, but he listened. He did this really small thing, something he probably thought was totally inconsequential, that ended up being a big gesture to me, and if my eyeballs came with a heart filter, there would have been a giant one around those spoons. What I’m saying is, go with the guy that gets the spoons right. Go with the guy that wants to get the spoons right. Don’t be okay with the guy who gives your a fork to eat your soup with.

That’s the guy I’m mad at. You should be mad at that guy, too. YOU DESERVE THE SMALL SPOON IF YOU WANT IT.

When I got my two year old out of the shower this morning, her teeth were chattering with cold. Once I had her dressed, I wrapped her up in the big blue blanket. She let me hold her there for five minutes or so, not moving, not talking, just looking up at me with the thousand mile stare of a soul who’s still closer to wherever they were before than where they are here. She’s never so silent for very long, never so content to simply be with me – she moves like the sun on the sea, like dragonflies in August – and it was an odd and unexpected gift, the weight of her like a world in my arms, light like pearls, heavy like love.

There’s a picture of me that looks like the ghost of my still living mother. It’s dark, and there’s a fire, and I’m wearing a white dress. The lines of my body are a map of her terrain – the gentle hill-like slope of shoulder, the lush jungle of hip, the oblong glow of moon across the plain of my face – and I follow them, an intrepid explorer of familiar foreign lands. She used to lay in the bath for hours, my mom, sweating in that steamed up room with seven kids’ worth of laundry smelling up one corner, and I would always interrupt her at least once; I think it was because I had to make sure her head was still above the smoky water.

I watch the way I float now, how much more of the tub I take up, the melted butter spread of belly and thigh. The lapping at the soft fat folds, the unapologetic overripeness, a split plum in the palm of a summer-warmed hand. The sweet unfurling of hair, the way it sways in the underwater wind. An abandoned Venus at the bottom of the ocean, blooms cracking open the place where the ribs would lay, a skeletal staircase to the first floor of the heart. I lay here, expanding under one missing light bulb, the empty buzz of it skipping across my skin like a dying fly; this is an altar, this is a pyre.

In the family records my grandma kept, there’s a notation about a girl on fire in the fields. I think about her all the time. I wonder when the flames made the leap from the arid earth to her fertile flesh; I can see her run as her brother’s shout hangs helplessly in the air between them, I can describe the detail of that last snowflake ash settling on her skin. I think her sigh must have sounded like September, a timid candle lit up like a comet against the backdrop of October. I think, did it rain as she lay there, a black lash wet on her cheek? Is this the hot ache of a dying star?

Freedom danced for us with bells on, her breasts spilling from a corset laced with lies, her eyes bright with knowing. We looked away, down at our shoes, up at dirty old cracks in the ceiling, into our drinks; we left wet rings on the tables, wet spots in the dark places we went to forget the way her face was fire, to forget the way it burned on the backs of our eyelids, a velvet revolution we tried to press into submission between our bodies. I saw her behind the building after everyone had left, the collar of her coat buttoned up at her throat, her hair shining under the streetlight. She was sitting on the steps, breath collecting above her in the fog, and I guess I must have made a noise, because she turned toward me and winked.

“You can’t even do the bare minimum, can you? You can’t even do that.” She looked at him, tears rising into her eyes.

“Yes, I can,” he said softly.

“What?”

“The bare minimum. That’s what I can do, Claire.” Once he spoke the words, they exploded in his chest, so true he almost wept.

— “Torch” by Cheryl Strayed

I always wondered what I would do when my dad died. I imagined various scenarios over and over in my head, through the years where we didn’t talk, and the years where we did, and I could never quite get a clear picture of it. Would I even cry? What would it feel like inside? Would it overwhelm me, the kind of sick grief that feels like being pushed over the edge of a cliff? Or would it just….happen? Would I feel anything?

What happened was

I walked into a room that smells like every hospital room, except this was the one they kept for dead people, and I saw him there, still and cold and stupidly small, and I collapsed inside, folding in and in and in on myself, until I was the size of a speck of ash, until I was as invisible as a solitary atom, and the room around me and everything in it grew to giant proportions, and his feet, his arms, his face, his face his face his face

What happened was

Time didn’t just stand still, it flew backwards, and I was thirteen and wore a ridiculous belt buckle with my initials and had a cheap cowboy hat made of felt and he took me to hear live music and we took a road trip somewhere anywhere and the windows were rolled down and country music twanged and popped from stations we could barely pick up and we were singing along into the wind and constellations caught in between my fingers as I held my hand up to the moon, waving hello, waving goodbye, and I was sure for one brief, shining moment that there would only ever be good things but of course in the end

What happened was

He looked like he was carved from old gray rock, unearthed and ancient, faded from centuries of sun and snow and starlight brighter than we’ll ever know, and my purse fell to the floor and I touched him, tentatively at first, because dead people always feel so terribly wrong in the first moment your skin meets their skin, and then I pressed my forehead to his, so hard that my glasses left an indentation, a scar of my sorrow across his brow, and I cried so hard that it hurt my face, an explosion of exhausted emotion pushing at my cheeks and jaw, splitting me down the middle, surprising me, shocking me, and over a thousand tears was a broken litany of brute honesty, a meaningless collection of words that meant everything in that moment, i’m so sorry i’m so sorry i’m so sorry daddy i’m so sorry i didn’t hate you i didn’t hate you i’m so sorry i did love you i did love you i did love you i didn’t hate you i’m so sorry daddy i’m so sorry daddy oh daddy oh daddy i’m so sorry daddy and I couldn’t breathe because it hurts because it really fucking hurts and I cried for so long and so hard that at the end of it, my body felt feather-light, like I could float up and away from what this was, from my dead dad lying dead in front of me, but instead I picked up my purse and I got in the car and I drove us home.

Tonight, I lay in the bath, and I read and read and read, over a hundred pages, finishing up a beautiful book on life and death and life after death, and the last twenty pages, I could feel it building behind my eyes, deep in my chest. I once watched a video clip of a tsunami wave as it approached and then crashed into the shoreline, and that’s how this felt – magnificent and terrifying and mesmerizing. I held out until the next to last page, and then the wave pummeled into the shore and I was knocked over by the force of it; I sat up in the bath, half in and half out of the tepid water, and I sobbed the kind of sobs that have no sound, just ugly faces, the kind that make you hold yourself around the waist to keep from breaking in two, and if I’d been alone, I would have howled to get through it, but I wasn’t, so I didn’t, I just cried the way you have to when you have children.

And still, my son, my sweet, empathetic son, he knew: he came into the bathroom, saw me there, hunched over, my eyes small and swollen, and he asked me if I was okay, and I told him I was, that I was just sad about some things and needed a good cry, and he said, sometimes we think we’re crying because we’re sad about something, but really we’re crying about nothing, and he said, sometimes the world can be good and sometimes the world can be not good, and when he left me alone again, I cried even harder, because that is the kind of wonderful shit I have in my life, and what a gift, what a surprising gift to have children who are so special and so funny and so exactly everything that is right with the world, and what a gift to know this now, while I am still here, while I can still kiss their sweaty heads that smell of sea air and sunrises, while I can still thank them for existing, for just being, and I saw my face in the faucet, distorted and bloated and sad, and in that place after grief has gut-punched you, where the air is too thin and everything is just far too real, and just far too much, I know that

what happened was

my dad could only do the bare minimum. That’s what he could do. And maybe that just has to be enough.

There are over 7 billion of us humans here on Earth, but how often do we feel as though we are entirely alone? Right now, I am sitting on my comfortable couch in my second favorite room of the house, and it’s the kind of grey misty day I love, and it’s an unbelievably cool day for mid-July (I am wearing long sleeves! On July 18! In Memphis!); one kid is two feet away from me, yelling at the Playstation 3, and the smaller kid is methodically dumping out on the floor every single small toy she owns, but my heart — today, my heart feels small and shriveled, all drawn up the way my skin gets when I step outside in winter, and it’s like there’s this giant bubble all around me, and it’s made up of loneliness, and a quiet ache inside my chest, and a persistent sadness. Everything in my life has to pass through that bubble to get to me, so the day takes on a muted quality; words come wrapped in cotton wool, touch comes through a tunnel, and at the center of it all, I sit with just myself, both unaware of and acutely tuned in to the world happening on every side of me.

But this is the thing – we’re not alone. I’m not alone, and neither are you. The internet has the capability to bring us closer together than ever before, so why do so many of us feel stranded on these islands of inhibited emotions? Why are so many of us afraid to admit to the very things that bind us together, the flaws that make us human, the unsaid stuff that could provide a safety net of shared experiences if only we would give it a name, a voice? What if we shook all that isolation off, what if we let it collect in our fingertips and on our lips, and then typed it all out in a stream of relief on a stark white screen, or spoke it out onto the wind, or into the ear of a listening friend? If you knew it wasn’t an island, but a clearing in a forest, with small but brightly burning fires all around you, just past the trees? I’m not alone. You’re not alone.

You’re not the only one who has stared down at two lines in wonder and fear and excitement and dread, who has had to eat two crackers before moving out of bed in the morning just so you don’t throw up in the shower, who has stretched and bloated and bled; you’re not the only one who has had cramps in between the emptiness on the screen and the kindness and cold hands of nurses at the end of their shifts, who has curled up in a ball under the covers and and wrapped your arms around breasts that are no longer sore or heavy, who has stared into the black eye of the night and seen infinite possibilities snuffed out by one bright red mark on the toilet paper; you’re not the only one who has had cramps in between the soft flickering of the screen and the matter-of-fact reassurance of a midwife in shining armor, who has marveled at the head-down hiccups at midnight and the rolling waves of elbows and knees, who has stared into the black eye of night and roared one body into two, everything you know condensed into an armful of messy wetness and a single breath.

You’re not the only one who has tried to measure formula by the microwave light at 3:14 in the morning, eyes almost crossed from lack of sleep, spilling powder onto sticky countertops and an unmopped floor and leaving it until morning or for the dog to lick up, and you’re not the only who has fumbled with the flap of a nursing bra at 4:17 in the morning, the maddeningly small hook just outside your range of sleep-deprived ability, milk soaking through the fabric already and your baby’s miniscule window of contentment shrinking rapidly by the second. You’re not the only one who has been judged for the way you feed your child, why they still have a bottle, why you’re still breastfeeding, why you don’t just do things the way someone somewhere says you should do things. You’re not the only one who has cried because you couldn’t breastfeed, or told someone to fuck off because you don’t want to breastfeed, or rolled your eyes inwardly over shaming framed as mock concern.

You’re not the only one who has walked the floor with a screaming newborn, crying quietly into the blanket you’ve wrapped them in, wondering what on earth you did and what in the world you’re going to do, waiting for things to get back to normal and finally accepting that this is your new normal, who has laid awake listening to the sounds of their breathing and desperately prayed that no harm ever come to them, not only for their own sake, but because you don’t know how you would survive without them; you’re not the only one who has tried for years to become a mother, then sat on the floor in the middle of a pile of toys, dinner burning on the stove, the dog scratching to be let out, the bills you keep forgetting to pay under the diaper bag you keep forgetting to clean out, staring around you in disbelief that this is your life, wanting to simply stand up and walk out the door, to stand on the shoulder of the highway and hitch a ride to somewhere where there’s snow and silence, who wished for this with all your heart but for those five minutes, feels the heart-bursting panic of a small animal caught fast in a trap.

You’re not the only one has navigated parenthood blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back, each year full of laughter and tragedy and heartache and triumph, each day more certain that you don’t know what you’re doing but that as long as you’re loving, the kids will probably be okay; you’re not the only one who has been on one date in the last nineteen months, who barely remembers what kissing feels like, who hasn’t had noisy sex in like seven years, who takes hour-long baths because it’s the only time you can read uninterrupted, who only gets to take a solitary pee four out of every ten times. You’re not the only one who finds most of your nine year old’s jokes entirely unfunny, who has days when the only time your two year old is cute is when they’re sleeping, who tells them both to just stop.talking. because your ears have a headache from listening to them for literally ten hours straight; you’re not the only one who has been awake for forty-two hours in a row, who looks down at your screaming newborn like a foreign object, who abstractedly thinks in the smallest inner voice “I hate you” and immediately regrets it because you know it’s a lie and you’re horrified you could even think it.

You’re not the only one who never lost all the baby weight, who rubs absentmindedly at the silvery stretchmarks that cover your belly like a rosary, who has gone up and gone down three bra sizes in the last four years, whose body is traveling ever faster towards middle-age in ever more noticeable ways; you’re not the only who buys jeans a size larger and wonders if you’re still attractive, wonders if your husband still looks at you the same, wonders if you’ve let him down by not looking the same now as you did ten or fifteen or twenty years ago. You’re not the only one who has an abstract plan in place in case he cheats on you, who has a tiny place inside that thinks you wouldn’t blame him, who hates the plan and that voice and fights against both at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night when you didn’t have sex again; you’re not the only one who looks in the mirror and barely recognizes the face that greets you, how she’s you but she’s not, how she looks more like your mom and how your smile is becoming more like your dad’s and how you look like a grown-up, and you’re not the only one who holds in your stomach 80% of every day and who barely remembers what a full breath feels like in the presence of others.

You’re not the only one who sometimes leaves dirty diapers on a little longer than you probably should, who gives the kids chicken strips and macaroni and cheese more often than you probably should, who doesn’t always (ever) buy organic, who gets fast food and then feels guilty for it, who doesn’t sweep every day even though you have dogs and their hair makes soft little piles all over the house; you’re not the only one who lets clean laundry pile up like a wrinkled mountain of lavender-scented laziness, who doesn’t scrub the toilets and the bath tub nearly as often as you ought to, who sometimes simply turns off a light and closes the door rather than look at and acknowledge the mess of a bedroom you’ve asked your kid to clean up at least three times. You’re not the only one who reads another chapter of the book instead of vacuuming, who has a cup’s worth of crumbs in the back seat of your car, who lets them watch TV instead of playing a game with them, who sometimes takes shortcuts because it’s the only way to keep your sanity intact.

And you’re not the only one who is scared of losing yourself in this journey; who hasn’t written a single word in months, who hasn’t picked up a paintbrush or knitting needle since you had a baby, who hasn’t held a pencil in so long that it feels like you’ve forgotten how. You’re not the only one who feels like you’ve been bled dry by the end of the day, like a bleached jumble of bones laid out on your bed in the moonlight, with nothing holding you together except someone else’s need, and it’s all you can do to just stay there in one spot; you’re not the only one who wonders what else there will be for you, what will be left of your heart once they’re grown, how you can sustain yourself in this current space. And you’re not the only one who finds fulfillment outside of motherhood, who needs to move and create and comfort outside the square feet of your home; you’re not the only one who has a wide-open spirit and a need to be just a little bit wild, just sometimes, who wants to drink too much and dance too dirty and lick honey from the fingers of a lover.

You’re not the only one who looks at them with awe, looks at your life with the most profound gratitude, takes in the mess and the noise and the chaos and the sheer scale of it all and feels it like a punch to your solar plexus, all this incredible disarray and the way it fills your body like sunshine. You’re not the only one who thinks you would die without them, or who knows that you would go on living but living like a shadow, or who knows that you wouldn’t live in the shadows but feel them like clouds passing over you, like stars settling on your skin; you’re not the only one who breathes them in, memorizing the way they smell, like warmth and earth and the brine of the sea, like pine trees and the ground right before winter. You’re not the only one who’s helpless in the face of the force of their love, their need, and you stretch yourself around it, mold yourself to fit, shedding skins where you must.

You’re not the only who’s been trying to read this for over an hour, who has to keep stopping to get snacks and drinks and tie a shoe and wipe a nose and kiss a scratched knee; you’re not the only one who’s been trying to write something like this for months, who has to keep stopping to change the channel and make them dinner and take them swimming and run their bath and tuck them in.

You’re not alone. We’re not alone. It’s not an island, it’s a forest — just look for the closest campfire. xx

Roland let me die. That is the truth.
I still love him.
That is the truth.
When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar, and that is the truth.
Blaine is the truth.
Blaine is the truth.
What has four wheels and flies? A garbage truck, and that is the truth.
Blaine is the truth.
You have to watch Blaine all the time, Blaine is a pain, and that is the truth.

— excerpt of Jake Chambers’ final essay in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King

______________________________________________________________________

What is my truth?

My truth is this: I am the adult daughter of an alcoholic father who died one year and three months ago and sometimes when I dream of him, I can still smell his drunk smell — leather and smoke and ninety proof. He took his last breath with very few things left in this world — a sweet woman who tried her best, a trailer with a sink full of dirty dishes and an overflowing ashtray, an unwieldy wheelchair leaving tracks through the side of the yard that never gets enough sun — and my last memories of him are steeped in the sadness of a pissed-in camper bed and empty vodka bottles hidden in dresser drawers and boxes shoved under tables and into corners. When I see him in my sleep, he is never one-legged, but he always sways where he stands, as if a wind follows his footsteps. I can feel compassion there, in the world behind my closed eyes, and I hold forgiveness in the palm of my hand, like a sugar cube, like a treasure. I never ask why because reasons are unimportant in the hushed halls where the dead live on — what would it change, to know? — and true acceptance means not having all the answers but still moving your feet. So I move my feet. I shuffle forward to find what I can offer the ghost of my father that lives in my face now, and somewhere, there is an ocean of grace that I will fall into and drink up until I lay on the bottom with a belly full of salt and sand, a shipwrecked heart about to be plundered for the cargo it had no business carrying in the first place. Stripped down to bare boards, it can once again catch the current, rise back up through the fish and the fathoms, into the waiting face of the sun, into the stars that spell out his name when I’m not looking.

What is my truth?

My truth is this: I am thirty-five years old, and my life is so full that I fight against how fleeting it is. I’m not afraid to die. It doesn’t matter what comes after — something, nothing, somewhere in between — because the idea of an afterlife feels like a consolation prize to me. Heaven is outside my window, right now, right this very minute — the willow tree with its delicate leaves, the wild way the weeds have grown up while the lawn mower was being repaired, a fat bumblebee bumping up against the glass, the bamboo shoots of the garlic growing in a pot over the sink, the way the lavender turns itself toward the sun. It’s the smell of banana bread baking in the oven, the dimples above my daughter’s elbows, the scent of earth on my son’s skin when he comes in from climbing his favorite tree. It’s in wildflowers that taste like the beginning of time as they sit on your tongue, and strangers who wave you in ahead of them in line. It’s the constellations that explode into the black behind your eyelids the first time you say yesand really mean it, and hands on your hips guiding you home. It’s the sound of seagulls and the smell of sunscreen, the spaces in between the shadows, the screaming brakes of a subway train pulling into Grand Central Station, setting foot in a brand new country and knowing it’s where your bones belong. No. I’m not afraid to die, but I am terrified to give these up, to let go of the truths that tie together the atoms of my very existence. I clench my fists unconsciously, curling my fingers tightly around the tiny speck of my mortality, baring my teeth at a universe blind to how beloved it is to me. I hope I get to go down fighting, clawing around every corner of death for one last glimpse of all the good and glorious and ordinary moments.

What is my truth?

My truth is this: I am a mess. We all are. I am deeply damaged all along the soft underbelly of me — maybe more than you, maybe less, perspective is hard when you’re trying to examine the levels of your own pain. Words like atomic bombs that have obliterated me. Shattering loss that left me sobbing into the floor, curled up around myself, compressing all that pain into the tiniest chip of bone at the bottom of my sacrum. Inexplicable acts of abandonment, wandering the wasteland of an orphaned spirit; a trespasser, stealing apples of emotion from the orchards of another, sleeping in the soundly constructed stables of someone else’s dreams. Broken. Laid open. Gutted and thrown at the feet of the common gods we call upon with a single breath, skin shrinking back from my bones under the heat of a sun bigger than the sky. But this, this, it’s still so beautiful. My life, your life, the life that comes with being human, being so stupidly fragile and so tremendously strong, being so exquisitely awkward and so breathtakingly graceful. Being in these bodies of dead starlight, rubbing against each other, souls sparking, supernovas in reverse. This life, our lives, are the truth. You have to watch life all the time, life is a pain, and that is the truth. Life lets us die, a hundred times over in a thousand different ways, but we still love it. I still love it. And that is my truth.

So here you are. 6:34 a.m., reading important emails in the bathroom, birds chirp-chirping outside the window, waking up with the world. No. Wait. Here you are. 12:48 p.m., waiting for the eggs to reach room temperature, wondering how you’re going to keep these impossible ants out of the cake batter when you’re not looking, oh damn it, hold on. This is you, here, 2:18 p.m. Birthday cake in the oven, thunder banging around outside in that empty aimless way you feel down the insides of your thighs, smelling like vanilla and pondering parallel universes while hand washing the mixing bowls.

I once heard someone say that there is no such thing as fiction, only non-fiction that has been written in the wrong universe, and if that’s true, then there are multiple autobiographies of us out there in the expanse of intersecting invisible worlds. That means that

somewhere, you knelt before the altar often enough that you finally got up and left all your freedom behind, there between the boxes of tissues and the wood salted over by thousands of teardrops. You married one of those four boys and let your hair stay long and curly and baptized your babies on a Sunday morning, the different pieces of Jesus casting colors on their brows, reborn under rainbows. You only listen to country and Christian and you have a cross tattoo on your ankle. You finished nursing school and you work three twelve hour shifts every week; as soon as the weather turns warm enough, you live on the river, floating down the Mississippi, dreams slipping past your fingers in the muddy water, but mostly you’re content so you never try to catch them, all those bottled up old wishes that wash out into the ocean.

somewhere, you never left New York and you never left him and you didn’t willingly walk away from the haunting — you just unzipped your skin and let all those ghosts come right in. You could never scrub the smell of ashes out from your hair and you learned to live with the reminder of how close sixteen blocks is from death falling out of a clear blue morning. You don’t cry when you find a nest of baby mice in your closet anymore, when you move the Christmas stockings and unsettle a colony of cockroaches, because your bones burned up and your body is a desert wasteland that can’t spare the moisture, your root system collapsed in on itself like one hundred and four stories. You walk five blocks for the D train and don’t speak to anyone on your way into work, you walk five blocks home and barely hear the old men outside the bodega stroke your body with mongrel words; you write books in your head as you look out at the window lives of the people who don’t eat cereal for dinner, and on the nights the dogs won’t settle down, you imagine there are spirits more restless than yours in the room with you, and scoot over to make space for them beside you.

somewhere, you ran the car off the road, you didn’t drink too much and wake up to his insistent hips behind you, you learned a lot sooner that it isn’t noble to have an unguarded heart but sheer stupidity and you locked that shit down, you lost yourself in the cloud of her honeysuckle hair and touched her blackberry lips back when it still wouldn’t have mattered but might have meant something anyway, you never stopped asking for forgiveness for the sin of possessing a human heart, you didn’t tell him you hated him, you stayed here instead of going there, you didn’t write to him, you didn’t get drunk and tell him you loved him with your face half hidden under a pillow, you planted your heart inside a beanstalk and made your home in the loneliest corner of heaven.

All of those somewheres, none of them here, here at 9:23 p.m., listening to the soundtrack of lives that never happened, notes made up of sweet nostalgia and bitter relief. Here at 9:32 p.m., minutes disappearing like dust in the sunlight, fingers still — a, s, d, m, k, l — summoning up the words, a spell for forgiveness-clarity-forgetting-grace, a tribute of sounds under the beginnings of a blood moon. She is two today, and learned how to say “rain.” His freckles are one-third of a universe. I will go to sleep tonight with my lips just past the place his hair meets skin, breathing in his day, the solid shape of his back a promise against the springtime softness of my belly. It is unseasonably cold, and the rain smells like everything green, and I will dream of growing things deep underground. A hundred somewheres, a thousand, but this is the one I would pick, every time. Every time.