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The big suck

23 Jun

Some time after the holidays, the muse left. I don’t know what scared her away. Or why she has stayed hidden for so many months. I only know that I suddenly had a deep hatred of every photograph I took and an even stronger resistance to taking new ones. My work sucked. It wasn’t worth paying for. My camera sucked. My business model sucked. My follow through sucked. My budget problems sucked. My ability to make this work…sucked.

Talking about it sucks, but here I am, talking about it.

I don’t know why I encounter creative blocks like these (and always have). Nor why it is so hard for me to break free of them once they occur. I haven’t quite broken free of this current funk. The muse has not returned. But, it’s possible, she may have booked her return flight and is on her way home.

Attempts

25 Feb

birds in tree

1.

Her hair is matted stiff and crusted with drool (vomit?). It’’s a nest woven by three days of sleep. She is making eye contact, but her pupils are still large, like an anime character. Her shaky fingers are grasping at the wires in her arms.

The voice coming from her is at an unusual octave. It’s between notes and sounds made up, like a sci-fi alien from television. She makes a constant stream of staccato gestures. Only vowels come out.

It would be comical, if it weren’t so terrifying.

But this is the first time we’ve seen her awake, heard more than a snore scape her lips, since she downed a bottle of antidepressants as a final cure for her omnipresent ache. And we have nothing to compare it to. We assume this new voice, this parrot head on an old woman’s body, is the new normal.

And my mind drifts forward to a fictional year from now. And I picture this woman and my toddler carrying on a babbling, sing-songy conversation that no one else can understand. And wonder what it will be like, when my toddler moves on to real words and this old person is stuck with her alien language, shaking and gesturing, and completely oblivious to the fact that, like today—like 72-hours ago when she tried to leave us for good—we can’t understand what she’s trying to tell us.

So this is that happens when you fail.

2.

He tells me about the tar. We are nineteen and I am knee-deep in the worst year of my life, I am wearing it in fifty pound of extra weight. I am failing half my community college courses.

He says they made him drink it in the ambulance. It was black and tasted like asphalt.

He’d swallowed a whole bottle of something to end his heart ache. His reward was a gravel cocktail. He’s telling us this matter-of0factly while lying in his hospital gown. he’s the youngest person I’ve ever visited in a hospital, we’ve known each other since second grade.

I don’t remember what I say to him. I only remember feeling both relief and envy: at least he’d had the guts to try. I was empathetic that it didn’t work out.

If I had tried it, I would have failed, too. And there are people who would have been grateful for my failure, as I was for his. The possibility of winding up a vegetable, or deformed—a suicide failure, miserable, yet alive—had always kept my death fantasies from ever becoming action. I just wanted to lay down at night, and have tomorrow never come.

And I didn’t want to have to drink and asphalt cocktail.

Nine years later, at our ten year high school reunion, he brought two of the most prescient pieces of high school ephemera I never imagined existed. It was the only thing that made me well up that night, as I remembered how sad we once were, and how large the angst of adolescence can loom, long after you’ve survived it.

3.

It is my third time breaking up with him. I’ve never been able to make a clean break. He needs me too much, and there is a sick loneliness inside me that needs to be needed.

But this relationship has suffocated me, deprived me of all oxygen. His needs are too great, extinguishing my own. He’s left chaos and destruction. I am a wreck.

We have sex almost exclusively in cars, because he’s been homeless for a year. Last night I found my voice for a while. I tell him it is over.

Now he is on the phone, sobbing. He cries more than any person I’ve ever known. He is the first man I’d seen cry openly. In the years we have been together, I have lost count of the times he’s broken down. He is calling himself a loser, manipulating me into saying he is not. He tells me his life is worthless without me, that he will never find anyone who loves him like I did.

I have cared deeply about him, but I have never loved him. I loved that he needed me. And those needs have cost me a lot.

He bellows, but he is cunning. He takes loud gulps on the other end, tells me he is swallowing Excedrine. He cries because it is burning his stomach. He tells me he’s too embarrassed to call 911. He asks me to call for him. I don’t.

I am half-terrified, half-hoping that he will die that night. At this point, death is the only way I can actually imagine being free from him, having failed to break up with him for the third time.

In the morning he calls me, before he leaves for work. He just wanted to let me know he’s okay. But we both knew he would be. Just like we both knew I’d answer when he called.

4.

It’s 8th grade, he’s my best friend, and I am deeply in love with him. Maybe he knows this, but it never once comes up. Though, we drown each night in phone conversations (he uses his one-hour allotment on me). We talk about everything and nothing. We gossip. I laugh. A lot. Some times we pretend to work on math homework together, so that we can talk a little longer.

During the day we exchange notes between classes. We sit in the same desks at different periods and scribble each other cartoon faces and jokes. Often, we exchange short stories we’ve written, trusting each other’s feedback above anyone else.

But lately his speech has taken a dark turn. He doesn’t really tell me what is bothering him, but something is. He hands me a story that has been folded into a tight origami envelope. It says it is for my eyes only, the equivalent of a pinky swear.

I read the story and my heart pounds. I start to cry. It’s a first person narrative about man who is preparing to end his life. In the final paragraph, he shoots himeself in the head with a gun.

It is Friday. my friend spends his weekends with his dad. There are guns in the house. he and his brother are trained to use them. They shoot for recreation. I have a few hours left to see my friend alive. I know what his story is telling me.

I bring the story to a teacher with whom I’ve developed a close relationship. Though I hadn’t fully anticipated it, she does what a responsible adult does when a child sends out a cry for help. I am brought to the office. I am talking with a counselor.

I am still in the office when the vice principal and another counselor come in with my friend, who is angry and yells, Thanks a fucking lot! when he sees me. And I am sobbing. I am crushed.

I have sold out my best friend because I couldn’t imagine a life without him. And now I’ve lost him.

I spend the remaining period of the day sitting on a bench in our school courtyard. I see my friend emerge shortly before the final bell. His face is swollen red with sobs. His mother is walking next to him, her hands on each of his shoulders. He doesn’t look at me, nor say a word. My stomach sinks.

When they are a few yards away, his mother turns around and moths the words, Thank you. There are tears in her eyes. I bite my lip, nod.

On Sunday my friend calls me and we talk about nothing, or Married With Children, or how much we hate PE. On Monday I pass him a note after First period. He passes me another after Second…

Vapid

10 Feb

Lyra, black and white

I can feel the woman’s eyes locked on us and I am immediately embarrassed. She is standing with her own toddler, several months younger than mine, but more inactive and timid on the play equipment than Lyra was at that age. Children are different. I know that. But this woman’s look is one I’ve seen before. It starts as curiosity, but then the lips tighten, the brow furrows. Judgement sets in.

Lyra has shouted out, “Ring finger!” and she is pointing to the correct digit on her father’s hand.

“And what is this one?” he asks, because we always engage her when she’s so proudly telling us what she knows about this world.

Her reply is, “Index finger!” and she is correct. She does this for all of the fingers, unsure about the middle finger, unable to pronounce thumb. It’s quirky that she can name the parts of the body in this detail. Before that moment, I didn’t know she knew anything other than pinky and thumb. But this is who she is, has been for a long time, a child who knows and understand more than I expect her to.

And it frightens me.

This woman at the park, on this day, is staring at us like many have stared before. She is staring like the one at Michael’s, when Lyra sang a full verse of Jingle Bells (loudly) as I shopped for patterned paper. She is staring like that woman at the swings, when my child counted to forty with me as I pushed her back and forth. She is staring at me like a classroom full of my 3rd grade peers, annoyed that I’ve scored 100% on a spelling test, again….

—————

When stranger after stranger stops to tell me how stunning, how beautiful, how cute my daughter is, I purse my lips, I bow my head, I respond matter-of-factly, “So nice of you to say that.” Though the truth is that I am humiliated that they’ve noticed, that they’ve brought attention to it by saying it out loud. They are trying to compliment me, to suggest I’ve done some sort of good work by bringing an aesthetically pleasing creature into the world.

Lyra laughing

But her beauty is not something I’ve accomplishment. I am so very aware of it. Sometimes awed by it. But I don’t take pride in it. If it had been up to me she’d be the most ordinary-looking creature you’d ever seen. I have never had fantasies about raising a beautiful girl.

I have had nightmares.

—————

But unlike her face, her brain has mostly been my carefully-guarded secret. Even as I type these words, I am anxious, terrified of how shallow it must come across. Ours is an achievement-oriented culture. And I have never been comfortable with the appearance of winning. What parent doesn’t want their child to be the smartest in class? The most likely to succeed? The best-dressed or most-desired?

Lyra flying

Me.

—————

When I was in 7th grade I failed a social studies test that required us to fill in a blank map of Africa with all of the country and capital names. I had easily conquered similar tests on North America, South America, and Europe, along with every other quiz and assignment we had in that class. But something happened the week we were preparing for the Africa test and I didn’t manage to memorize the entire map. So, I turned in a paper with only my name filled in, and nothing else.

For the first time ever I was sent to the retest group (students who failed to get a C or better) and succeeded in scoring 100% the second time. When I picked up my graded test, Ms. Zweiback said something unexpected to me, “I think you are one of those people who sometimes has to fail on purpose, just to keep other people from knowing exactly how smart you are.” Her insight chilled me to the bone. I was naked. I bit my lip to keep from crying.

—————

I have never had a 4.0. I’ve never been ranked first in my class. There is certainly some part of me that has wanted to be. But there is a bigger part of me that has always been happier more comfortable being unseen and unnoticed. Compliments unnerve me.

I have distinct memories of the IQ test I took before I was identified gifted in second grade. I was in the unfortunate early stages of puberty and a failed eye exam had revealed I didn’t see well. I remember stacking blocks and completing puzzles and reading a short story to a stranger and talking about it. And I remember how seriously my mom took it when the letter from the school district arrived and told her I was exceptional. She went to several meetings for GATE parents and would eventually have me transferred to an elementary school with a GATE program.

Shortly after my diagnosis I remember watching Gary Coleman in some made-for-television movie called, The Kid with the 200 IQ. I don’t remember exactly how much of this movie I saw, other than the fact that like all nerds in popular fiction, he was bullied and made fun of. And the prospect of my life turning into one long tauntfest terrified me. I was smart. The test said so! The district sent a letter! And that intelligence was one-way ticket to freakhood. My mom found me in the living room sobbing. I was in grief. She turned off the TV, but the image was already burned in.

———————

But my daughter is only two. I seek solace in the possibility (probability?) that she will slow down and her peers will eventually catch up. She has a good memory, is all. That is why she can count to 40 and recite a dozen nursery rhymes and seven books from memory. So what if she knows left and right? It doesn’t mean anything.

Not to me.

But when other’s notice, I feel panic. I feel judged. I don’t want them to think I’m winning at a game I’m not even playing. So I hide. I shush her when she recognizes her own name on preschool artwork and shouts out, “That says Leeeeaaaaarrrr-UH!” I don’t acknowledge her reading the word PLAY on playground equipment signs if there are onlookers. When she points out the number of cash register (and all of the surrounding ones) at Target, I nod and give an “Uh-huh.”

Lyra pride

And none of it has anything to do with her, her abilities, and her own pride of knowledge. It has to do with my insecurities, my feelings of inadequacy. My terror of being seen. My deep-seated fear of jealousy—not my own, but others’ toward me. And more than anything, I’m frightened that my fear, all my feelings of less-than, are keeping her from being all that she could be, despite how amazing she may be right now. And that some day, I may be looking a shrunken, self-loathing twelve-year-old who fails math tests even though she knows the material. When that happens, I will not have to wonder what happened to that happy two-year-old who loved her own brain more than anything in this world.

Because I will know.