The title of this blog post is outright and unabashedly plagiarized from The Shins 2001 album. Did I like the album? Yes. Did I love the album? No, love is too strong of a word. Did I love the title? One of the best I’ve ever seen. Does it sum up these past few weeks?
Without a doubt.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of life, in all its forms–good and bad–tumbling and crashing and exploding in great bursts of energy and insight and awareness and quite frankly, pure terror. It’s like everything I know to be true about my life has somehow been turned upside down. Oh, it’s an inverted world I’m inhabiting. A different world. But I think, I hope, I’ll be just fine.
It all started with almost four entire days of no kids. Luke went with his dad to Seattle and my parents and Aunt Judy took Maddie. From Saturday around noon to Tuesday, 3p.m. I had no one to be responsible for but myself. I had been looking forward to this little break for a month, and I dreamed of how absolutely wonderful it would be to have time to myself, time to write, time to play with friends. I had a lot planned and I took advantage of every minute during this time period. What I didn’t expect to happen, however, was a full blown self-awareness attack of who I am. The long days of freedom gave me time to think, to let the past few months of introspection and therapy come blasting through me with full force. Which kind of beat me up and knocked me down for a while. But, like any true fighter, I got up again, dusted myself off, and realized how thankful I am for the change, this new inverted world.
But first, the freedom without kids began with a night out with my friend Jenny. She left her kids and husband and joined me for some dinner and drinks and conversation. The coffee shop I love (LOVE!!) was having a grand opening of their new, bigger location and it was invite only, but since I’m a regular (and habitually buy their $3 coffees), I got a ticket to the party and took Jenny. It was such a cool party. We felt very VIP.
Besides meeting some new people and seeing some friends, I also got to hang out with Reese, one of my favorite people.
Reese played a set for the grand opening and even though Jenny and I missed seeing her perform, we still had a blast talking. Plus, since I got there after her set, Reese promised she’d play for me at my house. And Reese, I’m holding you to that promise. I see a party at my house in the near future with you as the headlining band.
But the greatest part of the night was hanging with Jenny, my love of a friend if ever there was.
The following day, I went up to Big Sur to relax and write. Initially I had planned on just camping ,but my dad and sister annoyed me so much with their fears of me being raped or eaten by a bear while camping alone in Big Sur (silly, since in the middle of summer you’re really never alone in Big Sur. There are always a million people camping right next to you) that I started looking for a possible cabin to rent but there were none available, so I went back to my decision to just camp. But then I decided that I really wanted to spend my time away writing rather than hiking and reading and with that came the realization that I’d need electricity, so I called again and again until I lucked out and found a cabin the someone had just canceled on. Their loss. My good luck.
So away I went to Big Sur Campground and Cabins.
And checked into a cute little cabin:
And before I even started writing, I did take a walk along the river and in the river:
I think Big Sur is my favorite place on earth, and while I haven’t been to that many places on earth, I just know deep down that no other place can compare. There’s something so remote and quiet and tranquil about the area. And when looking up through the trees, surrounded by natural beauty, I just feel awe stuck.
But as the light began to fade, I went back to the cabin, plugged in my lap top and started writing. It was so quiet: no cell phone reception, no distant laughter of a neighbor, no kids calling for me, no cars driving through my neighborhood, no internet to distract me.
And maybe it was this quiet stillness that inverted my world because suddenly I kind of understood the path I’ve been on. Much of this has to do with having a good therapist, writing out a semi-autobiographical novel (I use that word loosely), and even having some pretty emotional, deep, tear-filled talks with Garth about our relationship. It also has to do, I’m sure, with having a significant amount of time without my kids, but in a matter of two minutes, I felt incredibly vulnerable.
Which is so vague. And it’s been something that I’ve been wondering about and have even written about in this blog. I know I’m not vulnerable. I know I put up walls. I know where this stems from. I know this is something I have to change. But it’s like I said in my post here when I asked my friend Melanie, “well how do I be more vulnerable?” and she gave me an amazing answer that I wrote about. Because I really don’t know what being vulnerable means. And I’ve asked everyone: my friends and therapist, “what do you mean by being vulnerable?” And for a while I thought it just meant being willing to get hurt or taking a risk. But I still wasn’t quite sure. After all, as a woman, a single, working mom, aren’t I already vulnerable?
But sitting in Big Sur, I realized that none of that is what being vulnerable is about. For me, at least. For me, to be vulnerable is to let someone else take care of me, to be willing to be taken care of. This is the big mystery for me. When I stare at cute married couples and wonder how they do it, what I’m really wondering is how does that woman let that man take care of her and her kids and her problems. How do you give that up? And what this is also all about is letting go of control for me. And I never thought I was a controlling person and I’m definitely not controlling in the “my way or highway” kind of way, but I have taken absolute control of my life. I don’t have to share with anyone, I rarely have to compromise, and in many subtle ways, it is my way or the highway. I have sheltered and structured my life so that no one can come in.
As I sat in the cabin, drinking a cup of tea, I started looking back on my life and I saw that since I was a little kid I was taking care of myself and then at 23 I was taking care of Maddie and now I’m taking care of Luke too. And then it hit me, who’s been taking care of me? And I don’t mean this in a feel-so-sorry-for-me kind of way because I have lots of friends and family who love me and surround me and help me, but that is not the same as letting people really into my life and letting them take care of me, hold me, care for me. I abhor having to reach out and say I can’t do something, and I always thought this was just my pride. My pride at being a kick-ass single mom, a working woman who gets shit done, a can do anything if I set my mind to it person.
But really what this has made me is incredibly lonely and empty inside, and that’s how I felt as I got into my car the next day to drive home: lonely and empty. Like I hadn’t been filled up in so long that I didn’t even know how dry my well had become. How absolutely exhausting it is to care, care, care for my children and my house and my pets and my students and to come home at the end of the night and not have someone to care for me. And the biggest kicker is that I’d done this to myself. Ask Garth, he’ll tell you how hard he tried to be that person, but I would never let him in. In fact, ask almost any past boyfriend, good friend, or even my family. They’ll attest to this truth. The walls I put up may have protected me from a lot of past childhood pain, but they haven’t helped me in becoming a healthy person, a woman really.
So that is what being vulnerable is for me. And when that realization hit me, I just felt so beaten up and deflated and confused and really, really just sad. So I got back from my trip, went out to dinner with my best friend Denise, and did some more writing. But everything felt surreal and hazy and confusing.
And I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I always do when I’m confused, I got the hell out of dodge.
I got my babies back, kissed them both a million times because I really did miss them, packed up the car, and headed down to southern California to visit some good friends and family.
I stayed with my best friend Jill and her husband and son.
We spent a lot of time talking and catching up because I haven’t seen Jill since my birthday and I don’t think I’ve seen Greg, her husband, since last October. We also went to the beach, the one thing I miss about southern California. Jill decided to take me to Strands, the beach that I spent most of my summer days as a kid. It’s in Dana Point, and to get there, we would park (or take the bus) our cars on a cul-de-sac, walk across an empty field, climb through a hole in a fence, and walk down a windy, steep trail until the sand touched our feet. The great, warm ocean spread out in front of us, and there were few people there. Mostly just surfers and younger kids, like us, who didn’t mind walking back up that steep trail when our beach day was over. The only houses were up the hill, across the street, and they were pretty modest town homes.
But when Jill took me to Strands what I saw was a completely different place. Long gone is the steep cliff and windy trail. Wealth and commercialization have taken over this once sacred spot of my youth. Now, instead of walking down, you can take an inclinator. I’m not even kidding.
Yes, there are steps for people to take down as well, but it’s like California wants to keep people out of shape since most beach goers seemed to be waiting for the free ride. And the beach! The once empty beach now has million dollar homes right on the sand. There’s still public access, of course, but when I look behind me and see monstrous homes, pangs of nostalgia for an empty cliff side purl in my stomach.
Regardless of the homes and the destruction of natural beauty, we still had a wonderful time at the beach, playing in the sand and the warm, warm water and meeting up with some old friends.
(My good, good friend Kurt. I’ve been friends with Kurt since I was 15, and I haven’t seen him in over a year. And he’s getting married in April to a wonderful girl, and while I’m happy for him, I’m also feeling sorry for myself. Kurt’s always been my go-to guy when I need a date for a wedding, a reunion, a party. And now he’ll no longer be my date. He’ll have a better date always–his wife. But I’m feeling a bit elegiac about this. Selfish, I know.)
While we were in the O.C., I dropped Maddie off at her grandparents’ house so she could spend some time with them. They are truly the best grandparents ever, and as my unofficial in-laws (since Maddie’s dad and I never married), I feel so fortunate to have them in our lives. They have been living in Italy for the past year (for business, though they’re also having tons of fun), and we haven’t had a chance to see them since October. Maddie stayed with them for 2 days and they took her to Disneyland and she got to play with her cousin, Leah, now 8 months old.
Luke missed Maddie so much that I spoiled him: I took him to Toys R Us and bought him some new toys. Toys can’t replace his sister, but they do help distract him.
After a great couple of days with Jill and friends, I packed the car up and took the kids to L.A. to spend some time with my family, and generally just enjoy relaxing.
It was especially important for us to be down in L.A. because my cousin Hana was visiting from Japan and we only get to see her once a year if we’re lucky. I still remember when she was born, but she’s 18 now, and my God, she is just gorgeous.
We had a big family BBQ that was fun.
Big props goes to my Aunt Jo who is, and always has been, the family photographer and takes amazing pictures.
I left L.A. on Monday with a heavy heart, not quite ready to go back home. Mostly this was because I had to teach my first class on Tuesday evening and not only was I not prepared to teach, but I didn’t feel mentally prepared to go back to work. I also wasn’t really feeling like I wanted to face some of the feelings I had wrestled with in Big Sur. Getting out of Dodge was awesome and really helped me clear my mind, or ahem, ignore it, but I had a long drive ahead of my with nothing to do but think. And I really didn’t have the energy to go there.
So I didn’t. Instead, I thought about my class. I made a scary decision toward the middle of summer, but also an incredibly good decision. I dropped a class at the community college. This is scary because community colleges are getting hit hard with budget cuts and while I’ve been safe for the past few years, I really don’t know if there will be classes for me in the Spring, so teaching 2 classes in the fall seems not only like a blessing, but also a good way to save a little money just in case I don’t get classes. On the other hand, though, I was scheduled to teach 2 classes at the community college and 4 classes at the university: that’s 6 composition classes total. I did this last fall and I about had a mental break down. Plus, I had no social life what-so-ever. My entire life revolved around grading. Even my kids were often pushed to the side as I read essay after essay. Furthermore, I got a terrible schedule this fall, and I basically was teaching Monday-Thursday from noon-8p.m That’s just ridiculous with two kids.So I gave up one class at the community college (the terrible 6-8p.m. class), and even though I’m a bit worried about money, my stress level is already down, and I feel like my work load will allow time for my kids and my social life.
But I also made another huge decision. I decided not to use a textbook in my class. I’m so tired of the high prices and they all seem so prescriptive. If I tell my students NOT to repeat their thesis in their conclusion (and you never, ever should…uless of course, your essay is going to be over, say, 30 pages long…and even then I wouldn’t advise this.) inevitable every writing textbook will tell them to repeat their thesis. And that’s just ridiculous.And it pisses me off. At the beginning of summer, when I made this decision, I felt all confident, like, “of course I can do this. I’ve been teaching writing for almost 10 years. I don’t need a textbook!”
But then, on the drive home, I had a serious panic attack. What was I thinking? What was I going to do for 18 weeks with these kids without a textbook? And why, why, why do I always wait until the last minute to plan out my semester???
So I thought and had Maddie jot down some notes about what I was thinking and I just drove. I dropped Luke off at his dad’s and I dropped Maddie off at my sister’s and I took a shower, opened my computer and got to work. I finished my syllabus, my August calendar, and had a pretty good plan of what to do for the first few weeks.
On Tuesday, I set out to campus to teach.
I walked into my class, and I took roll and went over the syllabus, and answered questions and then I did something I’ve never done before. I wrote the word “reading” on one white board and the word “writing” on another white board and told my class to get up, go to the board, and write one thing they hated about each word. This is what I got.
While I took pictures of their comments, I asked them to take 5 minutes and write–anonymously–what they feared most from this class (at least what they feared after hearing me describe the class and read the syllabus). Their responses are pretty typical: fear of failing, losing interest, missing too many classes and getting dropped (I have an attendance policy), etc.
I’ve made a list of the top 6 or 7 writing and reading dislikes as well as what they fear from the class. I think I’m going to structure my class around this. I think I’ll tackle each fear/dislike and show them how to tackle it. Well, I’ll give them tools to help them. It’s a new way for me to teach a class, but I feel like it’s much more student-focused, like I can answer their questions and fears without first imposing what I already know to be wrong with their writing in general (and not that I’m all so knowing or amazing, but after teaching the same class for 7 years, I know the general writing problems they have).
Oh, this inverted classroom, we’ll see if it works. but I guess if I fail, at least I can say I tried something new. I hope.
So my teaching methods have changed and I will stand in a classroom later today with no clear map and I will feel fear and anxiety, but I think this may be good. For me and the students.
And as I sat in therapy, and explained to my therapist all that I had realized while in Big Sur and all that I had ignored while in Southern California, he just looked at me and smiled and nodded.
“I’m on my fucking edge, Tom,” I said. “I’m on my fucking edge.”
And I was crying. And I believe this may be the very first time I cried in therapy with Tom. And he just kept smiling.
And then he said, “Good.”
And I looked at him like he was crazy and I said, “But Tom, I don’t like being on the fucking edge.”
And he said, “O.K. then stop.”
And then I realized that I couldn’t just stop. Nor did I want to. How can I have this great feeling, this great scary feeling of being alone and being unsure and knowing that I can blame no one but myself, and then go back. Go back to being sheltered? And controlling? And closed off? No, I can’t do that. Letting myself open up, allowing myself to be cared for by friends and family, now that’s really difficult. But it’s also better than the alternative.
Even if I feel unsure and fucked up and kind of off balance.
And as Tom sat there smiling, it dawned on me that he knew this about me the whole time, probably since our second meeting and that he had guided me, gently at times, roughly at others, to this point. My edge. And I kind of wanted to hit him because why couldn’t he just have told me this months ago. But then I also realized how many people in my life had been telling me this for years–how hardened and impenetrable I was–and I had ignored them. No not really ignored them. I had listened, but I didn’t understand what it meant.
Now I do. I had to get there on my own. So then I wanted to hug and kiss Tom out of gratefulness, but that would be wildly inappropriate, and I’m also a little peeved because I’m still on this fucking edge and I’m not sure where to go from here. And maybe I won’t go anywhere. Maybe I’ll just reside here for a short while and see how it feels. I won’t, I hope. creep back from the edge.
My world may be inverted, and I may have to finally deal with this overwhelming sense of loneliness, but it’s definitely more interesting and more unfamiliar and ultimately more untouched than anything I’ve ever had in my past.
I think I can deal with that.