Comb-over, Do-over

I work out a lot of stuff while I’m sleeping. I’m not one of those people that can sleep for ten-twelve hours, but I cherish the eight hours I do get, time willing. Sleep is underrated as a therapeutic tool. Real sleep, not pass-out after a night of drinking or a quick six hours before the alarm rings for work.

My father died when I was young and there were a lot of things left unsaid and unhealed. There wasn’t time and I was too immature to understand the issues left dangling. Over the years he visited me in dreams many times. We talked and he listened and after a while I understood him and myself much better. I no longer felt quite so hurt or haunted by his passing. I felt grateful and connected to him. This could just be my subconscious helping me out, or it could have really been him stopping by when I was in a state to be able to receive. I believe it was the latter, but I don’t care either way. Healing is healing and I’ll take whatever I can get to move forward.

Because we are not speaking and there is a lot of grief to process, I have dreamed about Drew every night for months. Sometimes in the dreams we’re experiencing day to day activities, most of the time we are arguing about our split. Sometimes I’m talking and he can’t hear me. Sometimes I can see him but he can’t see me. Sometimes I’m so mad or sad I wake up with a start, shaking, or with tears in my eyes. It’s not fun, but I understand myself well enough to know that sleep is helping me process in ways that I can’t always do when waking. I let it go as best I can, get out of bed and get on with my day, which is generally full of enough love and laughter that I forget to be disturbed for too long. 

This week I dreamed that I was explaining to some faceless stranger, for the hundredth time, what happened. I was saying, “I just wasn’t doing well. I was crazy, I was bad, I didn’t mean to cause so much damage, it’s all my fault…” And my own voice interrupted this terrible litany that has worn a groove in my brain and said, “This is not your story. Why are you telling it?”

I woke up immediately, stunned.

It’s so simple. We decide something about ourselves and we tell it over and over again as if it is the only truth, as if it is the reality and breadth and depth of who we are. It isn’t. It’s just the story we choose to tell ourselves and others.

Our stories are formed by things we believe about ourselves that were once true but might no longer be, or were perpetrated on us by others, or are things we want other people to believe.

One of mine is that I’m crazy and as such am unlovable. So I spend all my time trying to prove that I’m normal, whatever that even is, and as soon as a crack appears, which, lets face it, is often, I suffer major anxiety while scrambling for damage control. My other favorite story is that I only deserve love if I give everything and expect nothing, which eventually leads me back to the first story. I give too much of myself with diminishing returns, eventually becoming so drained and hurt that I over react explosively to something small, thus appearing crazy. And then of course I get to tell myself that I’m too angry/volatile/demanding to deserve the love in the first place. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s a tad circular.

These stories we tell ourselves are one reason that people get sick:  “I am old now; it is time for me to deteriorate.”

Alone: “There is no one out there for me to date.” “All men are terrible.” “I will never get over my divorce.”

Miserable: “I am doomed to stay in a job I loathe because I am not smart or creative enough to learn or do anything else.”

On and on. These stories are lies. Or at the very least they are half-truths. They are not the summation and depth of who we are. These stories are the reason that people continue to dress or do their makeup the way they did thirty years ago. These stories are responsible for bald comb-overs. We carry these shitty stories from home to home, job to job, relationship to relationship like lead weights in suitcases with broken wheels.

 

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As mentioned constantly, I am a huge fan of Dr. Christiane Northrup and she talks quite a bit about the aging process and how the mind-body connection affects our health and well-being, often more profoundly than genetic predisposition.

Paraphrasing here, but the gist is that Dr. Northrup says that she no longer tells anyone her age, because that number writes a story for the person telling it–how they are supposed to look, behave, and feel. Then when that number is expressed to others, those same others help enforce the truth of that story. When she has to write her birth year on documents she tells herself that number has nothing to do with her. In her head she is 33 years old.

I love this, partially because I’m vain, but primarily because I like the idea of having more power of choice over our own life story than we are accustomed to wielding. It’s half Baby Jane, half creating a new destiny for body and soul. If that seems like too much magical thinking, maybe it could be simply creating a new mindset so the day seems a little brighter and the nightmares come less often?

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I haven’t had any heavy sadness dreams since those words came to me in my sleep. I still have regrets and coulda woulda shoulda moments, about all kinds of things, but I feel like I discovered a shiny new piece to the puzzle. I am ready to let go of the dialogues that no longer serve me.

I hope this helps some of you as well.

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Dads

Life is so intense right now, isn’t it? Some say it’s the energy of the shift, I’d like to believe that and certainly it seems that way. But life is always intense, so I can’t tell for sure.

Drew’s father died this week in a very heavy and unexpected manner. This comes on the heels of his grandfather dying three weeks ago, which was more expected and age-appropriate, and our friend Don Hill who I’ve already written about.

It is Drew and his family’s private story, so in fairness I can’t elaborate as much as I would if it were my own. I can go as far to say that they are devastated, and it is a great marking point in all of their lives.

My own father died suddenly of a heart attack at a young age. He was 47. I was also very young, had just moved to New York, with his help, and was completely distracted by the city. Most regretfully, I hadn’t talked to him for a month or two and I don’t remember the last time I had told him that I loved him. I had been talking to my mother on the phone, my dad was just annoying old dad, sending the checks. 

I was shattered in a way that wasn’t immediately apparent. I kept a diary then and the page on his death contains a paragraph about him dying, and then a much longer portion outlining a date I went on the day before. I read it years later and was horrified. There was my deepest fear confirmed in black and white: I am the worst person on the planet. Luckily I had the presence of mind to get a therapist (for other reasons) and he told me it wasn’t that I was evil or vapid, it was that it was so big that I shut down in order to be able to cope.

And indeed, throughout my “deep end” years, I would find myself going hysterical or ballistic over situations with the men in my life, and the rocky road would always lead to dad. As I lay sobbing and drunk on the kitchen floor or smashing my face into someone else’s mirror, it would start with a meltdown over a bad romance and inevitably end up pleading into the air for my father’s help.
Oooohhh. It’s not really about the guy. So that’s how that works.

I don’t lay on kitchen floors drunk anymore and it’s been quite a while since I purposely slammed my head into anything. It’s been over twenty years since my dad died and I have made my peace with it. I worked through my pain and confusion over time, and eventually, when I was able to open up and listen, he came to me in dreams, and in one very crazy meditation I was able to talk it out with him. His life and his loss still color my life, but in a much gentler and sometimes comforting fashion.

So what do you do while you are watching your partner lay his head and hands down on a coffin and sob that broken-hearted and primal sob of deepest pain and frustration? How do you walk someone through an experience where the answers are simply not good enough, and where the people they counted on the most to shape their world just couldn’t be there the way they needed them to be? And now they’re gone and the hope that they will one day repair the damage is shattered. Hope has left the building. It’s a gaping chasm that many of us have to walk through on our own, and it is a long and lonely trek. 
I can only kneel next to him and hug him. And sit back and allow him to connect with his family and even friends that I might not be crazy about. I have to shut the fuck up and listen. I am stoic in most painful times in a way that I am not during lesser dramas. Maybe because I shut down when things get too rough, or maybe this time because I can feel the warmth of my own father standing next to me as I sit in a folding chair in a room full of flowers, watching my guy’s family melt down in front of a coffin. 
We are not really alone. It just feels like it sometimes in the most excruciating of manners.




The YMCA and Gifts We Can’t Keep

So I’m in therapy…again, after nearly a decade of being out. Yes, people, it turns out that I am not as sane as those of you who only know me from a distance would like to believe. Ha! I decided it was time to go in for a tune-up and my former and now current therapist returned my call very quickly, sounding pleased to hear from me again. He set up an appointment for the very next day. Hmm…it’s like he was expecting my return or somethin’…

And of course we’ve been talking a lot about my dad and my childhood…again, which reminded me that I wrote this down a while ago.

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Once I finished high school I decided, with enthusiastic encouragement on the part of friends and family, to go into fashion design. I secretly believed that my real career would eventually be pampered rock wife, but in the meantime fashion seemed a natural progression for a person who was always drawing and constantly overdressing. I chose Parsons School of Design because it was in New York, and because I liked the brochure better than the one from the Fashion Institute of Technology. I thought Parsons looked classier. It should have, the bloated tuition nearly broke my parents. But I didn’t have any concept of things like that, I just wanted to get the hell out of Michigan and into New York City.

In the Fall of 1983 my father and I packed all my New York worthy belongings into his big black Chrysler 80’s dad-mobile, one of those long luxury gas-hog cars they used to make with velour seating and an overabundance of space. This one just happened to be vampire colored—black with a burgundy interior— perfect for my arrival into the city. I had so much crap—hatboxes filled with hats I never wore, vintage shoes of every shape and color, three or four fur coats, milk crates jammed with vinyl, photographs, drawings, drafting table, art supplies—you name it, I took it, convinced that I would need it all. It packed out the trunk of the car and a small U-Haul trailer attached to the back.

My father warned me that the description of the room I was to stay in did not bode well for the containment of so much stuff. The Parsons dorms were filled to capacity so the school rented out a floor of a dilapidated YMCA on 34th Street and 9th Avenue. The lucky students relegated to this charming locale were given an 8′ x 12′ room (small bed and wardrobe provided) to sleep in and another room of the same size to share with another student as a workspace. But I was a child of the Midwestern upper middle class and I had no concept of the space constraints that came along with living in a crowded city, or of exactly how small an 8′ x 12′ room really is.

Once the car and trailer were packed to capacity we set out for a 15 hour drive—my father, myself, and a young man not much older than me who worked for my father. I can’t remember his name now but I do remember that he was a typical Michigan boy—naïve, outgoing, and incessantly cheerful. He and my father sat in the front seat and talked man talk about their work in the oil business while I sat in the back grinning that I was finally getting out of Dodge and on the verge of starting the fabulous and famous new life I knew I was meant to have. Everything that had happened up until then was just filler as far as I was concerned.

After a day of driving, a night in a motel, another day of driving, and an hour in the hellacious traffic that surrounds the city, we made it to 34th Street and 9th Avenue late in the afternoon. My father and I left the boy to watch the car and stepped into the lobby of my new home, which turned out to be the interior of what was essentially a seedy flophouse, a phenomenon which I had never seen before. Where I came from everything was kept clean and neat, all pastels and freshly scrubbed faces. In this building everything looked old and covered in a layer of grime and the people walking back and forth did not look fresh-scrubbed or happy to be there. Still, it was NYC to me and I was excited, and I could sense that my father had hope that the student floor would be better.

We signed in with a remarkably surly staff and received the key to my room—a novelty as I’d never had a key to somewhere to live before because our house was always unlocked. We waited for an eternity for the elevator, which then creaked up slowly and stopped on every floor before depositing us on a floor where student types were moving around—some carrying boxes and bags with purpose, others standing in the hall holding towels and toothbrushes and talking to one another as if they’d lived there forever. It wasn’t exactly the cheerful mayhem you see in teen movies about college dorms, but at least everyone looked clean and young and hopeful about life, not like the depressed down-and-outs on their last legs downstairs.

I could feel my father’s relief as we walked down the ratty carpet looking for my room, which was situated right across from the shared bathroom (flip flops a must!). I turned the key and opened the door wide and we stood side by side in the doorway in speechless awe at my new room. It was tinier than I ever imagined possible; it could barely fit the bed and the small wardrobe, which clearly wasn’t going to fit all the clothing I had packed. The bed was really just a cot and the mattress was stained and dubious-looking. The walls were institutional blue and grimy. Directly across from the door was a grease-covered window, with equally greasy Venetian blinds (two broken slats), facing another dirty and anonymous building. The floor was covered in dingy beige tile. A single cockroach trudged lazily across the width of the room towards the underside of the bed.

Up until that moment I had not known that I was a child of privilege, not of great wealth, but simple upper middle class privilege. I came from a place where people owned their own large houses containing large bedrooms in which to store as many items as one might choose to own. My mother’s floors and walls were always very clean, the beds warm and inviting with crisp cotton sheets, and there was no such thing as a dirty window with broken blinds. There are no cockroaches there and no one I knew ever lived alone in a tiny, shitty room like this one.

I was very tired from the drive and facing the job of packing all my stuff into this hideous, tiny space. And now I was really scared, but I didn’t want my father to worry. I held back tears and my eyes burned, and without turning to look at him I said with false cheer, “Well…this is what I wanted!”

He put his arm around my shoulder and said quietly, “It looks like you got it then, Mare.” My father was a strong Italian man who had never refused a request from his daughter and he wasn’t going to do it now, although I knew this was a particularly difficult wish to fulfill.

Back downstairs I leaned against the car, guarding it while the two men used a dolly to lug the records and excess clothing and books and crap that I obviously wasn’t going to need. It took a few trips but fairly quickly the car and U-haul were empty and it was dark outside and time for them to start on the long journey back. We stood on the sidewalk and my dad hugged me tightly and said, “It’ll be okay, kiddo.” I knew he was reassuring himself as much as me. He got in the car and waved out the window and I stood on the sidewalk of 34th Street, feeling very small and very alone as I watched the car pull away.

It was the last time I would ever see my dad.

By the Spring of 1984 I was far more interested in going out than going to school. On one particular night Michael Schmidt dropped me off at 3 am from a night at the Pyramid and as soon as I got in my room there was a knock on my door. There was a call on the house phone. I padded down the hall to the big pay phone still wearing my evening finery (stone sober, I didn’t drink then) and picked up the dangling receiver. I heard my mother crying and she said,

“Dad’s gone.” This was completely confusing to me and I asked,

“Well, where did he go?”

My father had suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed of a heart attack and died at age 47 at a time when I was completely preoccupied with my own world and not paying any attention to him whatsoever. I probably hadn’t spoken to him over the phone in a couple of months. When I think of that night I am always reminded of the line that Cher spoke in Moonstruck: “How was I supposed to know that he was a gift I couldn’t keep?”

But the suddenness of his passing left me with one other gift: I am completely unafraid to say “I love you” regularly to the people I love. I don’t care if it loses meaning to them because it’s repeated too often. Because you just never know which gifts you can keep, and which ones you’ll be forced to let go of in this life.