INTO DEEP WINTER

A visual expression of the mixed emotions of the holiday season.

mixed emotions at year’s end

December is a month of layers. Not just the warm shirts and sweaters of my Northern Hemisphere locale, but layers of feelings and memories, love and loneliness. In 2019 it brought resurrection, when I smiled my first genuine, spontaneous smile after nine months of wearing a public face and privately drowning in a black lake of tears and despair. The feeling of that smile, the difference of that smile, broke over me in gentlest waves of astonished pleasure and hope for the future.

While my brain was recovering from its neurological crisis—medically described with the worrying language of lesions and the –oma suffix that sounds as though it should be as warm as a childhood friend’s grandmother, but instead bodes ill—a neighbor’s actual brain cancer was worsening, her confusion and dependence advancing. She was only about twelve years older than me. The last time I saw her, her face seemed transformed, broad and blank where she was once focused and lively with extroversion and kind wit, as her husband slowly walked her up the sidewalk near their house. His right arm around her shoulder, his left hand clasping her left arm. That was before the darkest dark, balsam fir and wood smoke suspended in cold air, the extra cars parked up and down the street and the telltale lit windows of that same quiet house, seeming kindled as if all the light of their lives together were gathered there, where friends and family gathered after her memorial service.

I’ve been wanting to write about that smile, that neighbor. I was going to try today. Then I learned that a beloved mentor who has been battling cancer is now preparing for hospice and death. Someone who, after that resurrection, helped me find the ground under my feet and a path forward, in the space of one long beautiful conversation in February 2020. I met him in person for the first time late this summer, among people who’d known him much longer, at a party whose theme was “Why the Fuck Not?” I’m an introvert and had to compel myself to stay three hours until his speech, then left when the dancing began, music and voices rising above the grass to the roof-line and beyond. My windshield needed replacing, so it was better to drive the hour north before dusk and the refractions of oncoming traffic. That was my official logic. —And here I feel I should have more to say, but I see no way, I really see no way, to uncouple the joy and the pain, the love and the hurt of this life, and no way to capture it whole. Layer upon layer, wave after wave.

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YOU HAD ME AT “GOODBYE”

Watching romantic comedies and dramas through a feminist lens* is a deeply concerning experience. The notion that romantic relationships are acceptable, in the ways they’re typically depicted, teeters on a familiar, vertiginous premise of “true love,” orchestrated by blocking and lighting and wardrobe and makeup and cameras and score, all of which recruit and coach our attention. Those are the things that tell us that the person frantically ringing the buzzer to the apartment, waiting outside the workplace, showing up unannounced with a gift, running to catch the same train, or declaring the night is young, is the hero(ine), and not someone overbearing, unbalanced, or even dangerous. As for gaslighting? Rampant. “You don’t mean that.” “You’re scared to let yourself be loved.” Etc. Such things slip past our censors precisely because they’re so familiar, and because we’ve decided in advance—that is, it’s been decided for us—that in the case of the chosen couple, such presumptuous statements are perceptive and accurate. I used to be a projectionist and had big plans to write about the occupational hazards of so much exposure to culture through film, all the dramatic speeches thrown around (not to mention the overt violence and interpersonal ugliness). But the truth is that the average American in most walks of life has been exposed to as much as I was, if not much more—occupational hazards of being alive here and now. We are collectively gaslighted by culture, and that shows up in therapy offices. Certainly there are gestures, small and grand, that are, in fact, romantic—that do, in fact, show love. There may be someone you’d be glad to see hoisting a boombox beyond your window to play your song. Ultimately, it’s your body that knows the most about who’s safe and welcome for you, and who’s not. If you feel you lack such discernment because of past trauma, which can certainly happen, there are ways to cultivate it. Notice your preferences and bodily responses to foods, beverages, volumes, scents, textures, temperatures, times of day. Honor your senses. Someone who’s not right for you isn’t ipso facto a villain; being clear with yourself and others isn’t about vilification. Nor are our emotions necessarily simple and straightforward, I get that. But resistance—for example, feeling uncomfortable if someone offers to walk you to your car, or suggests you meet on purpose if you’ve met by chance—is a powerful instinct. It warrants attention.

*I’m not a scholar and can’t speak in a scholarly way about the history and current meaning(s) of feminism, which I perceive as signifying different things to different people. My use of “feminist” is meant to imply the endeavor to think critically with care for the well-being of all persons; as such, for me, it is related to environmentalism and to good therapy.

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Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. I’m contemplating adding a donation button; stay tuned. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.

NEVER HAVE YOU EVER?

Felt exuberant. Felt defeated. Felt physical or emotional pain. Felt confused. Forgot a name. Wondered if someone liked you, if someone hated you. Wondered if someone was thinking of you. Hoped. Felt repulsed. Felt betrayed. Felt disgust. Have you ever? Shivered in response to an unexplained sound. Felt someone’s eyes on you. Thought of someone lost to you through death or departure. Missed him/her/them. Grieved. Wondered about the universe, the meaning of life. The possibility of a hereafter—what it might be like. Felt empty; felt like a cliche. Had a ritual. Had a good luck charm. Felt mistrust; felt superstitious. Couldn’t get a song out of your head. Have you never? Cherished something. Cherished someone. Felt lonely. Felt loved. Experienced self-loathing, however brief. Saw a shape in a cloud, in the frost, in peeling paint. Anthropomorphized. Struggled to get out of bed. Felt different from other people. Felt transparent. Isolated, wept, couldn’t weep. Sought comfort, rejected it. Waxed nostalgic. Held one position so long that you couldn’t tell where one part of your body ended and another began. Felt that with a lover. Felt aroused. Climaxed. Obsessed. Pledged fidelity; changed. Felt rejected. Felt foolish. Felt your thoughts swirl, your heart race. Felt shamed by an internal critic. Struggled to draw breath. Saw or heard or felt something so beautiful, it hurt. So beautiful, it was almost intolerable. Been seized by fear. Said the wrong thing; spoke in anger. Struggled to find words. All these common experiences, these ordinary workings of the brain, differ from what we call “mental illness” not in substance, but in amplitude and harmonic impact. By that I mean: the brain is the organiest organ—synapses firing together form chords. Press the wrong keys, or too many at once, you get dissonance, cacophony—and deafening, at that. Even silence, in a compromised state, can roar. If you think you’re immune, think again. Be compassionate.

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Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. I’m contemplating adding a donation button; stay tuned. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.