I’ve always been a fan of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. They were like Jiminiy Cricket encouraging me to let my conscience be my guide, to avoid traveling alone, and to be wise when cute boys showed up. Some lessons I learned better than others. No matter how hard I worked, how much I read or listened or asked or researched, some lessons did not sink past the first inch of topsoil in my soul. But I still love the classics – stories of ragamuffins and wise old foxes with CS Lewis, MaryRose Wood, and Cornelia Funke adding their voices to the Greek chorus of my thoughts and imagination; Happily Ever After, further on and further up, and all that.
Savoring those stories and reading and driving and earning my way wove into real issues this summer when I understood my vision was failing. Identifying what was worth keeping and adapting to with what was best left behind occupied me for six long weeks. People, running, yoga, swimming, hiking, holding hands, listening, meeting people and exploring all made the cut. So did writing and reading and skiing…somehow.
But a few surprising things did not make the cut.
Once I learned that I’d been reeling from the wrong diagnosis, I repacked my life bits and continued on with the plan-of-before. Before the stripping of excess expectations, the sleepless nights, when feeling all alone in the universe was done with vision rather than the threat of total darkness.
Then last week came. And during noontime Wednesday, I put my sandwich and work down, and decided to have a few minutes lunch while poking about social media. A story featured how our sister university in Kansas is hosting an art show called “What were you wearing?” which seeks to address sexual assault and rape. Hmmm, thought I. “What were you wearing? my favorite plaid dress, thick white stockings, and those white shoes little kids wore in the 70s…a wedding ring, a tee shirt, and shorts.”
And then they descended, the terrible twins – flashbacks of that first childhood rape and the last under Houston humidity. Damn.
The funny thing about trauma is that the memory – as in a flashback triggered by thought, smell, sight, taste, wind, whisper, or any other damn thing – does not just skip in and blow out the back door. Flashbacks are like having that terrible fear – the event – revisit and make itself at home – eating your sweets, disrupting your sleep, and calling you ugly names as if it were happening for the first time.
Fortunately, I’ve done a lot of work to walk this out. Asking for help was the worst and last and best thing ever. So though I felt dazed…punchdrunk for a few days, I was able to keep going. Except for a few things.
When your brain is occupied with making sense of incomprehensible loss or violation or disaster, its capacity is carved out into odd chunks. One-fourth chunk for life and work, three-fourths chunk to processing the event(s) with capacity succumbing to a capriciously variable ratio.
What requires my capacity? I have a job among people I respect. I have family and friends in a quirky mix that makes it hard to tell who is friend or family. I may still have a fella in my life though I am not sure.
And flashbacks have lives of their own. This particular brand of piggybacking memory left my soul as if a burglar had entered my life, ripped out all of the files and drawers AND LEGOS and tossed everything in pieces onto the floor. One heap. No two papers or Legos left together. No roadmap for restoration. Just get to it.
“So then what?” you may ask. Are you a wobbling jello mess on the floor?
Thankfully, no. But I have been for a few months when safely exiting Texas was my only job.
I had hours on the road to think this weekend. Hours of quiet and windy cornfields. I thought about this summer wrestling with what to keep and what to adapt. I thought about the condition my soul had too recently been left and how – this time – how I can use this pile of rubble to sort out even further what is worth keeping and what is worth adapting to. What do I keep and what do I let go?
It changed me.
The rememberings of long and not-so-long-ago actions changed me again. I cannot fight it, I just have to finish clearing out the debris and find out what is left and in what condition.
Panic tried to take hold, but people and foolish hope fought back in ways like running, phone calls, snarky memes, yoga, and cackling in the rarefied air over beers with friends after yoga. Quiet and a psalm*.
Tuesday I sent the following letter to my favorite kids:
Kids, I am going to withdraw from grad school. The 6 weeks this summer of sorting out what I would try to keep and adapt to if I lost my sight did not include keeping grad school. I have been tired keeping up with all of the shoulds and expectations-my own- and my everything is tired, exhausted. Last week’s flashbacks took so much of what I thought I knew and – like having your office ravaged in a burglary- it forced me to go through the “files” or understandings/processes/contents of my inner life and begin to sort it out again, discarding a few things here and there. I love to learn. I love to read and be challenged. I am better…best with taking people and wonder where it is and introducing the two. I never fancied myself as a city manager, but as one who leads from behind. I want to live a good life, smile at people, hold puppies and babies, love them and work hard for good- in that way – and loving you and the people in my life – change the world. My superpowers are people-related and I have been trying to change the world by mimicking the patterns of people unlike me. Trying to be the One or a one. I cannot do it all, so I am going to carve space…create space for the most important part of my living- you, pals, strangers, puppies, babies, improving what I am doing now professionally, running, yoga, swimming…wonder. And if I am lucky- as lucky as the days you came into my life- maybe I’ll be a fortunate fool enough to share this life with a man who rises early, plays well, learns and loves me well-who lets me love him, too. I am both sad and relieved. The work was not too hard. The end goal is just not for me. I love you kids. And this frees up a bit of time, attention and resources to invest time in exploring with you and cheering you on. I am at peace with this hard-fought decision. Mum
And let’s hope this terrible tale leads to a happily ever after for the mermaid with the quill…and every other one who remembers what they were wearing.
* * * * * * * *
I’m going to post here what I posted the day after the first “What were you wearing” day as it is all part of why I have made the decision to withdraw from grad school – something I loved and was not too hard:
“After posting “what I was wearing” yesterday, I had a huge honking flashback. Two actually. Layered one over another. Today, I feel punch drunk. The brain…the soul is a wonderful thing. You may wonder why I speak openly about something that causes so much harm and mis-directed shame. Because if survivors don’t run to the battle – we who know – who will? It is not sex nor pleasure. It is terror and using another human being as a commodity of one’s own cowardly need for power and control. I will tell you #WhatIWasWearing and I will run to the battle.”
I will run to the battle, though not as spectacularly as this, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlwHKphUU_Y&feature=youtu.be, as I am no wonder woman.
*Psalm 65: 1-2 and the next four lines in the Message version