Fresh Kill

My cat Valentino has a nightly ritual — one that he has had his entire life. He “kills” something for me while I am sleeping and then carries it, meowing in a series of wild howls, into my bedroom. In his early years, his kill was what was lying around: socks and dog toys. These days, he has a wide selection of stuffed animals to choose from. His favorites are a monkey who plays music when you pull his tail and a soft bowling ball dressed up as a monster.

Every night, this triumphant, invented death that has imprinted my sleep for nearly 15 years. I was single when he joined my family with his two littermates, a puffball of bravado. I am single again as he limps a little up the stairs with his strange, ferocious wooing. I pull the covers a bit higher and marvel: so many things change, so many things stay the same. This small ritual has been an invisible net weaving so many slender nights together. The deaths a private and unspoken thing, like so much of what takes us apart in life and then puts us back together again.

 

 

 

Separation before the age of story

The world, it occurs to me, is woven together in story. We create our context and our identities through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what our lives are meant to be and mean. Family, too, is a net of story.

When ours gave out, our son was a year and a half old. His life then was a perpetual dream-state of immediacy. Adults who loved him revolved around him like planets. Because we had never spent time together as a family, even when we were a family, but instead each took turns “on duty” so the other could get his or her deluge of work a little more done, the precedent was already established.

When the experience of Mommy-with-child and Daddy-with-child just stretched out a bit to include two different households, the experience was qualitatively not much different for any of us. We renamed the house where he lived with Mommy “Theo’s house” and the apartment where he lived with Daddy “Theo’s clubhouse” and that was all the story modification necessary to give context to our family relocation. Pete and I made sure the transitions were smooth and friendly. Just as they had always been.

A few years later when my son was age three and a half,  I started a sentence with, “When Daddy lived here…”

“Daddy lived here?” My son interrupted me with mild curiosity, as if he was confirming that once before we had eaten the same cereal we were now eating. “Yes,” I explained, “Daddy and I were once married. We all lived here together.” He met the news of my prior marriage to his father with the same neutral and brief interest.

My child of two households was once a story of heartbreak for me. These days, I have the same mild curiosity that my son has been modeling. Who are we becoming? I ask into the absence of absolute, into the merciful blank page. I let the story answer.

The One Thing You Cannot Live Without

People who suffer from the rare condition CIPA, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, can’t feel physical pain. While this might seem like a kind of advantage, it actually puts these people at risk of seriously hurting themselves without getting the warning signs that help protect the rest of us.

Through my divorce, I discovered I had a similar liability–though an emotional one. My strung-out-on-rage chapter awakened a nerve receptor in me that I didn’t know I had, for it had never operated properly–one that recognizes and filters out disrespect. In some primary way, I had always registered disrespect as love. It took divorce to untangle these two threads.twit-bird

As love and disrespect were somehow righted to their separate camps, what came undone along with my marriage were my friendships with almost every man in my life. In a grand sweep that was heartbreaking then and seems comical now, each of these men stepped up to behave in such absurd and unacceptable ways that our pattern of disrespect was illuminated like a constellation in a sky I’d only viewed before in daylight.

As I broke up with each one in turn, I started joking about “voting them off the island,” my tenuous and absurd link with men seeming more a reality show than like reality. When married Brad proposed that we have an affair because “he wanted to comfort me,” when James spun out into an antagonistic rage because I was unavailable to speak with him two days after my miscarriage started and one day after Pete and I had decided to end our marriage, when David took Pete aside and, for reasons I will never understand, shared with him in his own flawed interpretation my most intimate and personal pain, each one left the island for good.

Suddenly and strangely, the island of my life was spacious and open. Disrespect was now a filter I could count on when making my most important decisions. The few men left standing were the kind of people I knew for sure I wanted to be seasoning my life and my son’s with their integrity and kindness.

Note to Self: Do Not Marry Tom Cruise

I bought my first People magazine ever when I saw Katie Holmes’ escape from Tom Cruise plastered across the cover. This marriage had always been symbolic to me of that precipice where the fairy tale leaves off and Happily Ever After is a free fall.

While I’ll never know and am not too concerned about what actually happened between those two people, I found their public trajectory representative of one of the most primary themes (for women) that gets played out in a romantic relationship–moving from enchantment to entrapment to escape.

We think a man is going to give us something necessary to complete us or even save us. We don’t understand the kind of helplessness and hopelessness this agreement establishes. We don’t understand that we actually already have what we’re looking to the man to give us. It takes walking in heels for a decade to get over his idea of beauty and our willingness to sacrifice to achieve it.

It takes leaving him to find that we had the damn glass slipper in the back of the closet all along. twit-bird

When I learned of Katie’s secret plot, her secret phone, her secret little pilot light of a self still flickering deep within her–despite the light that had gone out of her eyes–I felt fierce. For all of us women who literally had to kill ourselves off in our marriages to get ourselves back, wizened, tattered, in divorce.

I’m sorry Tom Cruise, but my answer is no. You can jump on Oprah’s couch till the cows come home. You can stun the world with your exponential romantic gesture. My cup is full. I’ve arrived with both feet on the ground at Happily Ever After. I’m not buying what you’re selling.

The Surprising Gift of Office Life

I was working from home by day, mothering by night. My big outings were walking the dogs and taking my son to school — neither of which required showering, dressing, or interacting with humans for more than a brief exchange. I had been depressed and exhausted for so long, I had lost my reference point for how a happy and balanced person might feel. I knew I needed to make a significant change. After 15 years of thrilling self-employment, it all seemed suddenly too much: running a business alone, running a household alone, mothering alone. It was clear that I needed to be a team player in some arena of my life–doing my part, but not all of the parts. I needed to know how much would be going into my bank account every two weeks. And, I needed to circulate with adults. It was time, I decided, to get a job.

For a year, I half-heartedly looked for employment in an immobilized job market, knowing I needed to apply, but also quite scared to let go of my independent identity and lifestyle. Then I came across a job opening with one of my clients — work I loved in a workplace that I had never imagined wanting to be a part of full-time. The job was offered to me, and I took it.

Gratefully, I found the work challenging and interesting. Surprisingly, I really liked and could relate to the people. Having the same amount of money show up in my bank account every two weeks was an eternal miracle. But the most interesting find in this new office environment was this: My desk sat in a sea of desks, without even so much as cubicle dividers; in each direction I swiveled my chair: a man. I was surrounded by interesting, smart, hilarious, well-dressed, happily married men.

Because I had worked from home for so long, most of my relationships with men over the years had involved a few friends, a few bandmates, and whomever I might be dating, if anyone. In retrospect, this had been a very small pool with very occasional contact. Now, being in the company of 25 or so men every day seemed to give me a hormonal contact high. I would occasionally get lost in reverie at the sight of arm hair or facial hair.

Simply being in the company of men I enjoyed, with whom I did not have an intimate bond, was clearly a significant part of my healing process. There were men on the planet I liked! This revelation lifted some kind of burden I didn’t know I was carrying. And it let me return to a more inclusive sense of myself as a woman (not just a mother and worker) that was a critical step in coming back home to my body and my self.

Prince Loving

What fairy tale genius decided that the answer to a woman’s prayers was Prince Charming anyway? When a woman is immobilized from a C-section, supporting the family financially without any help, too exhausted to take her own shirt off, what good does Charming do her?

What if little girls today were raised on a new archetype: Prince Loving? twit-bird

The guy who finds a way to vacuum and spoon all in a single bound. To kiss that broken open belly with tears of awe. To take care of what needs doing without being asked. To co-compose a mosaic of parenthood from the shattered pieces of the last life.

Prince Loving shows up for the messy work of parenting his children and partnering with his wife. Honor is his kindgom, and gratitude jewels his crown.

Saying it and meaning it

The way I talked to Pete when I was upset never served me–or us, or the problem I was trying to solve. My constant disappointment, carried far and wide by my tone of voice, served primarily to cement alienation in our marriage. And things weren’t improving much in divorce.

It became obvious that if I wanted our dynamic to change, I was going to have to change my attitude and my interpersonal style. I understood that my unhappiness was no longer Pete’s responsibility (and, in fact, it never was his responsibility). So, I made a decision to align my behavior with this truth. I would live by the platitude, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I would not give feedback if there was any risk of whining in the transmission. And I would not make a request if there was any risk of it coming across as a complaint. Nor would I allow myself to blow off steam by bitching about Pete behind his back to my friends. My disparaging days were over.

The extreme difficulty of this discipline was almost immediately rewarded. When I was clean, clear, calm and self-responsible in my communication, Pete was genuinely happy to help, apologetic, responsive–whatever the situation called for. Each positive communication with a positive result released another knot from our tangle.

Soon, I had a new center around which to organize my thinking and my behavior. When I got triggered, heartbroken, blindsided, I knew I could count on myself to do whatever needed to be done to communicate without blame, and take the next powerful step toward freedom.

Sick

My body makes its own memorials. When I am ravaged by a sadness I can not solve, eventually I go to the calendar where I find a fact to back up the ache.

Two years after the second baby I will never have left me–taking me with her right out of my marriage, I become deeply infected with the grief I had thought excavated by now. Down to the roots of my teeth, through the rattle of my shallow lungs it travels me.

You should be over it by now they would say if I’d let them. But I know better than to confess the truth of this illness. I will not be wronged or shamed for circling this sadness as many times as is necessary until I am released from its orbit.

I am wrung out: a wet sheet on a wet day that will not resolve. The bed becomes the ultimate in hopelessness: horizontal and going nowhere, as I am. We are twins of oblivion. My muddled and feverish brain makes a snow globe of the facts then shakes and shakes and shakes, as if somehow things might settle differently this time.

It is too hard to be alive, I would say if anyone was listening. But I am alone, everyone I know ossified in their own homes. So I eat food I can not taste then take the medicine that shows no evidence of working and give my body back to its catastrophe of holding onto falling snow inside the invention of what could have been.

What the Heart and Stomach Will No Longer Hold

He walks onto the bus, and the 12-year-old girl in me leaps to attention. Everything about him is wrong for what the middle-aged me wants and needs–it’s obvious in everything from his posture and his grooming to his Converse high-tops, but my body is responding to different cues. I tell myself, “Yes, appealing. No, you may not engage.”

When I get to work and I’m standing in front of the fully stocked refrigerator, I have the same conversation with myself, “Yes, you want it. No, you may not engage.” Except this time I am weeding out the foods that are no longer an option for either my waistline or digestive system.

I have always loved “bad” men and bad food. There are ways in which taking someone or something in and punishment and love were all tangled up and undecipherable in my central nervous system for most of my life.

But not now.

There is a moment in the movie A Beautiful Mind where a man from the Nobel Prize committee asks the schizophrenic mathematician how he’s overcome the voices in his head. He answers, “I haven’t. They’re all right here, right now. I’ve just learned not to engage them.”

There is something so peaceful about becoming the adult in relationship with oneself.twit-bird

To allow the desires to exist, to allow the voices to tell their predictable tales. And to interrupt our compulsive responses to them. I can admire the man on the bus every morning, and stand for a long as I need to in front of the Pop Tarts box at work. There are choices to be made and I know how to make them. I will not fill up on what can never truly fill me.

I Wish Someone Had Told Me

I wish someone had told me: You will throw up before and after every divorce negotiation call for a year. You will lose half of your hair, and it will grow back gray in a halo of friz. You will go into unbelievable, unprecedented debt. Your son will ask you to see “the happy face,” and you will see in the mirror of his eyes how unconvincing you are. You will not sleep for two years. You will stand far to the side of your body, not trusting its capacity to bring you pleasure. You will blame him, and then you won’t. You will be devastated, and then you won’t. You will forgive yourself, and then you will forgive him. You will find a practice and then a path that starts with simply dealing with the dishes in the sink and moving on from there. You will go on a lot of stupid dates. You will slowly come back into focus as yourself, though a fiercer and gentler version. You will have learned how to allow what is. You will have learned how to become who you are. You will look back at the ocean you have struggled across, flopping and gasping, and you will see how strong and clear you have become. You will kiss the dry ground.

The Foreign Country of Dating

Pete had been gone for about a year when my friends and family delicately started asking if I was dating again. I was about as interested in dating as being set on fire.

Before my marriage, I considered sex my primary language. I never questioned my desire –or ability — to find a way to do that dance with some regularity. In my marriage, fairly quickly, sex was the last thing I wanted. My body withdrew its drawbridge and made a moat of tears.

Now, a year after the fact, that most intimate language remained unspoken. I had friends going through breakups who seemed to need the opposite: to be out there immediately, getting attention, making connections. I felt grateful for my middle-aged, roll-around-the-middle, lugging-10-bags-and-a-sippy-cup invisibility. I could not tolerate being looked at or spoken to by a man.

My body had been betrayed — by C-section, by miscarriage, by my husband and by me. It was relearning trust, and the journey was solitary and slow.

Dating seemed like a foreign country, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to travel there. Eventually, the mere sight of a man’s arm hair would stir me to my core. But not yet. I couldn’t see that future, and I didn’t need to. I was doing what needed to be done to grieve, to heal, to return to the pleasures of the body.

Unmasked

I meet Pete and Teddy at the party supply store. It’s their weekend together but I have proposed that we repeat last year’s successful collaboration and select Teddy’s sixth-birthday-party schwag together.

When I arrive, Teddy is gleefully fake-stabbing Pete with a variety of plastic swords, scythes, arrows and chainsaws with a gusto that reflects his complete deprivation of such play objects in both of his homes. I stand in the bright light of the store’s open doors and watch my son at play in the other half of his life.

As Pete and I wander the aisles, choosing matching paper plates and napkins, discussing the plan for food, balloons, cake, and party favors, Teddy tries on hats, wigs, costumes. He chooses a secret gift “to play a trick on me” that Pete helps him hide in our cart. Scanning the selection of knick-knacks at his eye level, I am pretty sure I’ll soon be encountering a pile of fake poop that expands with water.

Pete cracks a joke about the party favors we could offer our guests, and I laugh so loud that people lean in from their aisles to look. Teddy puts on a knit Rasta cap complete with fake dreadlocks and looks so completely altered that we erupt in another round of laughter.

The thought flashes through my mind: we are by far the the people enjoying themselves the most in the store.

We eventually all end up in front of a bank of Moulin Rouge-esque masks which all of us take turns wearing. Pete is my mirror. He gets increasingly excited with each mask I try. Finally, he chooses a delicate and elaborate gold mask. He tells me it goes well with my hair. He dares me to wear it out some night. He wants to buy it for me.

Next, we are in front of a wall of stockings from which I select the tiger prints and he selects two pair for his partner Cindy — one that will make her look like a schoolgirl, and one that will make her look, shall we say, a little older.

At the cash register, an employee comes up to me and starts raving about the brand of stockings that Pete has selected for Cindy.

“Should I tell her the stockings are for your girlfriend?” I ask Pete under my breath, and we laugh again.

At my car, we divide up the loot. I take the party fare, Teddy takes his secret fake poop, and Pete takes Cindy’s new wardrobe. Our little tribe divides.

At a stoplight, I put it the mask up to my face and consider myself in the rearview mirror. I think of how marriage and divorce are each their own kind of mask. We hold our happiness or grief close like a shield. When really what happens between people over the course of many years is far more flexible and elusive, like the sheen of glitter that has been left behind on Pete’s cheeks and mine.

When I was a child, my father and I listened to Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” more times than most humans could tolerate. These verses have stayed with me.

Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone

Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather.
They’re the faces of the stranger,
But we love to try them on.

It occurs to me that Pete and I have seen the full repertoire of each other’s masks and that this has somehow freed us, in this life chapter, to simply be ourselves.

I smile at the gold-eyed version of me in the rear-view mirror. Then I place the mask carefully in the passenger seat and drive home.

 

CEO of Pleasure

I met a man I liked. Sitting across the table from him, a surprising, pre-marital version of me surfaced in tact and ready for action. I was radiant, relaxed, turned on.

After our first date, we voted this man in as CEO of Pleasure. After our second date, we decided not to see each other again. This left an open position at the executive table. One that had only been invented a week earlier, but was suddenly of extreme importance.

Four years earlier, as a divorcing mother of a two-year-old, and then single parent to a pre-schooler, pleasure wasn’t critical to survival and therefore didn’t make it to the hierarchy of needs. If I slept, I was grateful. If I managed to cook a decent meal, I was euphoric. If my enormous list of household to-do’s was diminishing, this felt like hitting the jackpot.

But now I had a school-age child. He slept through the night often, and so did I. Much like my C-section scar, my divorce had quieted down and now blended in with the backdrop of my life. It was no longer shaking its fists and insisting at every crossroads, “This is where we divided.”

I am driven to do good work. To live responsibly. To parent well. To cultivate a self that is resourced to be of service. Somewhere along the way, I had locked down inside of all of this effort and forgotten that pleasure is my jet fuel. For the first time in many years, I was ready to face that exquisite vulnerability.

So I swore myself in as CEO of Pleasure. I promised myself that I would show up for adventure with the same kind of rigor that I show up for the work of running my business, my household and my family. And I gave thanks for this man who had set a place at my table for pleasure and shared a brief feast with me there.

If divorce had taught me anything, it’s that every person who doesn’t line up quite right with us awakens us to a need or a desire that we then have an opportunity to meet. twit-bird

As CEO of Pleasure, I declared the mission of my enterprise to be making the leap from surviving to thriving. I purchased my first, post-marital sheets. I threw away every sad pillow. I got a pedicure. Bought a pink and orange dress that feels like a second skin. I said to myself: YES, there is pleasure in the body. In the bed. In the world. Yes I said yes I will yes!

Four years

At the state-mandated parenting class that my husband and I took as a precursor to divorce, I heard a number that still rings in my ears. The therapist in front of the projector insisted that blending a family (as in, getting established with a new partner in a new home and integrating all of the kids) takes four years.

Four years. My low-expectation talisman of the labors of love.

What the therapist didn’t say was that unblending a family also takes four years.

At my son’s first day of kindergarten this week, almost four years to the day after his father moved out of our home, the administrator hands me a key fob for the school’s front door. I tell her, Oh, we’re a two-home family. My co-parent will need another one of these. The cost of this particular freedom is $10. I’ll take it.

As I am driving home with the key fob dangling from its new place on my keychain, I register in my nervous system that I have managed to make an administrative request about our little constellation of a family that does not feel like stabbing myself in the eye. I realize that who we are has settled from story into fact. There is nothing left to solve.

I’ll admit, I am slow to let go. Slow to understand certain things about love and loss. Slow to be able to recognize the places where I wander off the path of my highest self into the shadows that need my attention and my care.

It took me more than 60 hours to birth my son and nearly four years to birth my co-family. But I got there. And I got to see what I was made of along the way. Today my slowness is looking to me like courage. My investigation into my deep grief and disappointment all these years has clearly become a power source. My heart’s ground is spacious and clear.

In these years, our son has risen up from a fierce little toddler to the confident grace of an elementary-schooler. Along the way, I have re-learned love, trust and respect of my co-parent and come full circle to seeking (and finding) his greatest good. Together, we have cultivated a family system that is a source of joy and collaboration and true care—in ways we just couldn’t manage under one roof.

It’s a work in progress. And there will always be more work to do. But we know we can count on each other to do it together, with kindness and respect.

Four years. I’ll take it.

Peonies

BY MARY OLIVER

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace,
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?