Merry Christmas Mess

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A few weeks ago I sat at a big table for a committee meeting, and we went around the table from person to person for “Check-in” before the meeting began.

One woman said: Things have just been so crazy. I’m accepting the fact that there aren’t going to be any Christmas letters this year, and that’s okay. They tell a lie anyways, right? [we all break up laughing] Like, ‘Everything’s greeeeeaaaaat! Except it’s not, I’m freakin’ out over here, but I hope you’re having a good time…’

We are all familiar with the uncommon pressure that the Holiday Season puts on us: to be happy, to make nice, to at least appear as though we have our sh*t together even though nobody ever does.

Christmas letters are one of the most tangible ways we are pressured to put a perfect foot forward for the Holidays. There are certainly wonderful things about the Christmas letter. They provide a chance to celebrate together, even across great distances, our successes of the year. It is an opportunity to check in, to stay in touch and maintain our loving relationships. But when I read a Christmas letter, I cannot help but see between the lines and wonder what all was left out and why.

Last year about this time, a friend and I started joking about what our Christmas letters that year would say if we wrote them. We had both had uniquely difficult years, filled with struggles and failures, and we just about peed our pants laughing over the parody Christmas letters. I liked the thought so much I went home and actually wrote one:

This year, Lauren left her abusive partner after she discovered she was pregnant and moved back in with her mom. Her ex, after following her back to her hometown and stalking her for several months, finally left and stopped calling. To date, he has sent her $43 in child support, and it doesn’t look like there’s any more coming.

It’s less painful to write about the failures of that year because they are further away, and easier now to laugh about.

This year, there are plenty of joyous things to share: Like getting a job that I love and then and then a second job; like moving into this really wonderful little apartment in a neighborhood where I have always wanted to live; like celebrating my son’s first birthday, first steps, first teeth, first day at school, his budding beautiful personality; like my growth into writing, starting a blog, publishing my first piece and then my second; the brilliant and loving community I have here and the new friendships that have been born, the old friendships that are still steady and strong.

But there’s plenty of things I’d want to leave out: Like how we’re still not quite making ends meet, or how my jaw is always sore because I’m having nightmares again and grinding my teeth in my sleep, or how lonely I am in this little apartment by myself or how I have been hurt by people I love and how I have hurt them, or how futile it feels to try to build a barrier, however temporary, between my child and the world we live in, or how I do not always have hope. Even the little things, like how I still can’t make a decent pancake and I never put the laundry away without letting it sit for a few or five days, or how sometimes I look at the dishes in the sink and just can’t bear to wash them, or how many cups of coffee it takes to get me through from dawn to bedtime, or the fact that even as I am writing this I am eating chocolate cookie dough directly out of the refrigerator with a spoon.

Even as I write the list of things I would leave out of my Christmas letter, I am leaving things out. Things that are too shameful and disappointing to write down, even in a post about sharing the shameful and disappointing parts of life.

A Christmas letter is something like the rest of social media, it is a chance to share a carefully curated version of your life. But if we only ever show the perfect parts, we create a false and destructive reality for ourselves and for everyone else. What I have been asking myself is, what am I leaving out and why?

There are many good reasons to leave things out. We have boundaries, we have parts of our lives that are personal and private. It is as though we know that not every part of us will be safe with everyone, and so we show only the parts that have been burnished to a hard and shining surface. It’s okay to protect yourself this way. It’s also okay to admit that everything is not always great, even at Christmas.

This is the closest thing to a Christmas letter I’ll write this year, and if you must know the truth: this year has been a mess. It has been a beautiful, terrible, mixed-up, full, lovely, awful mess. I have grown, and I have just barely survived. I have loved mothering, and I have hated it. I have been filled with hope, and I have been filled with the emptiness of despair. I have learned patience and I have learned where it ends. I have felt surrounded by love and support, and I have felt the ultimacy of my isolation. I have not been certain that I could do it, I have been certain that I could not do it anymore, and I have done it, somehow, anyways.

Perhaps my greatest achievement this year (and it is a tenuous grasp I have on this knowledge) is the acceptance of the fact that we will always have both, that the hope and the despair run right alongside each other and are mixed up all together, and that if we are to have a full life we will just have to accept the mess.

Communion and Record Keeping

In 2005 I climbed in to a tiny metal boat on the sea near Baja, Mexico with my mother and 10 other people. We all balanced our seat bones precariously and pretended we got into tiny metal boats every other day, with our chests squeezed by scratchy orange life jackets. I was 15, and my mom was turning 50. We had come to see the grey whales, and after a motored ride out into the sea, our guide killed the engine and the boat just drifted. There was a time of waiting. Two other boats were small dots on the rolling sea. Then the whales came. As one after another surfaced next to our boat, revealing a smooth barnacled nose, skin grey like the stone on the floor of the creek bed, every person in that boat started snapping photos. I sat sullenly, wanting to touch the whale (and I did, and so did others), furious in that way you can only be as a young teenager that all these people had come so far only to refuse the experience, only to take a pile of photos that we all knew weren’t going to come out very well anyways.

This is how we rank value in the western world: what matters most is the prize you bring home, the evidence that supports the case, the line in the resume or the photo in the album.

We have forgotten how to sit in a tin can on the surface of the ocean while the great grey whale surfaces. We have forgotten how to reach out our hand, how to place it on the cold barnacled nose, how to accept an offering, how to take communion.

Earlier this week, a friend gave me an old smartphone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice one, and it works great. Up until this moment, I had only ever used clunky and near-obsolescence ‘dumb phones,’ or ‘basic phones’ (if you talk to a Cellular Sales Agent). I still use a ‘basic phone,’ for phone calls, but now I have a smartphone camera  and an Instagram feed (@lwhulse) at my disposal and let me tell you, it has changed my life in only a few days.

With a camera constantly in hand, everything becomes a documentable moment. Joseph in the window, Joseph in the rocking chair, Joseph scribbling on a sketchpad with a pen, Joseph asleep for his nap.

But the choice between experiencing and documenting is ever present, especially with my son: when he sees the phone, everything stops for him to try to get it. When I ultimately won’t let him have it, he dissolves into tears (greater or lesser depending on his sleep and hunger levels). He always recovers quickly, but the offering of communion is long gone. To make the choice to document means to actively destroy the experience.

I would never go so far as to say that you should not photograph your children. Part of our work as parents is to hold the memories of their early lives for them, until they can be gifted into the child’s hands when they care old enough to carry them themselves. And it is custom to document our children at every turn: in photos and on growth charts, in footprints and handprints and scraps of paper with first drawings, first letters, first words. We keep baby books, irregularly perhaps but earnestly, frantically, between nap times we record their first words, first foods, first adventures.

I have not learned yet how to tread the line between communion and record-keeping. I know that I love to look at photographs of our life and to remember. I also know that I love to wake up in the morning with my son next to me, and to just lay there next to him marveling at the inexplicable numinous.1209160746a

A Red Dress

Once you live in a place long enough, you don’t just walk down the street anymore. You walk down the street accompanied by the memories of every other time you walked down that same street. You live in a place long enough and you start to walk down the street trailed by the past versions of yourself and imagining all the future versions. Sometimes I imagine us as a graceful promenade, behind me the people I once was, and before me the ghosts of the people I might become. Other times I imagine those selves as so many tin cans, tied to my ankle by twine and rattling along with every step.

Every once in a while, a person or a place or an object will cut so suddenly through the layers that you wind of confused about which part of your life you are actually in after all. One of these such experiences happened because of a red dress.

The fall after I finished High School I spent one semester at the small private school Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York state. The reasons I chose not to stay warrant another story, but while I was there I became very close with my dorm-mate Diane, and so the year after I left I planned a visit.

While I was back in New York, we went to a thrift store in the rural small town nearest the college, and that was where I found the dress. It was red, with white flowers all over it and big mother-of-pearl buttons down the front. It falls in to a particular genre of vintage dress that I loved then as now, short-sleeved rayon with long skirts and laces in the back to draw it in at the waist. In Diane’s dorm room, I cut the skirt off unevenly and put it on.

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Diane and I at our friend’s birthday party.

We went to a party in someone else’s dorm room that night, a mutual friend’s birthday. There was pyramid of green glass beer bottles stacked on the ground against the wall – 100 bottles of beer, they told us proudly. Our friend had painted a David Bowie lightning bolt on her face.

I wore the dress for the rest of that visit, and most of the next few years. When I departed on a bike tour from Knoxville to Savannah, Georgia, I packed the red dress along with a similar dark green one. Worn over bike shorts it was the perfect uniform – lightweight and comfortable. I believed that I was more visible to cars wearing red, and in the evenings I would change into the green dress to be less noticeable as we set up illegal camp spots in the woods at the side of the road.

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On bike tour, with our new friend Garrett (center) who put us up on his farm. 

We rode for two and a half weeks, all day in the sun. The dress became stiff with dried sweat and road filth. We washed our clothes only once during the trip, when a couple put us up in their camper and the wife offered her washer & drier. By the time we returned from that trip, I was tanned dark gold and newly muscled, the dress was ragged at the edges with seams beginning to pull thin and the roughly cut hem fraying wildly.

Clothing becomes a part of our identity, and for years after it stopped feeling quite right to wear that dress, it hung in my closet. It had become more than a piece of clothing, it had become a relic of an era. It connected me to a part of my life and a person I once was that had faded away to make space for the new version of myself. I couldn’t just get rid of it.

It wasn’t until I was moving out of my house on E. 5th Avenue, the house I had lived in for the last three years – most of the time I was working on my degree in painting – and purging my belongings down to what would fit in my VW Jetta for the trip cross-country to Idaho, that I held the dress in my hands for a moment and then tossed it into the garbage bag of clothes to bring back to Goodwill.

A lot of things didn’t survive that purge: clothing, old sketchbooks, journals, photographs, furniture, books. I brought only enough clothes to get a new job in Idaho, a pile of blankets, a crate with a skillet and a few dishes.

That move took place just over two years ago, at the beginning of October. A few weeks ago I was digging through the dresses on the rack at an AmVets in West Knoxville, and I almost jumped out of my skin when I saw a corner of a very familiar red and white flowered fabric sticking out of the racks. Seeing that pattern was like hearing your favorite song from eighth grade on the radio at the grocery store, it cuts right through where you are and transports you completely and instantly to another time, without asking your permission.

I pulled the dress off the rack. It can’t be. Oh my god it is. It was the exact same dress. Short sleeves, mother of pearl buttons, laces in the back. I tried it on in the dressing room, laughing at myself and at the same time knowing I’d have to buy it, if only to recover the lost link to that past self.

In the last few years my identity has been broken down to nothing and built back up again, stone by stone, twice: Once at the hands of an abusive partner and the second time through the process of giving birth to my son. The separation between the selves I have been seems complete, and yet when I turn around I see that I am holding yet on to the same threads that have tied me to them all along: graceful promenade or rattling trail of tin cans.

Staying in your hometown is like this: parts of you, your community, and the fabric of the city march irrevocably forward, and other parts remain obstinately exactly how they have been all along. I write these words from a table at Old City Java, in the very same room where I danced in my first ever mosh pit, in the very same room I have been writing for the last decade.

But this time I didn’t cut the hem of the dress, it just seems more right to wear it long.

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Like A Walking Skinned Knee

Yesterday afternoon a church member walked in to the office. Our talk turned immediately, as it does so often these days, to the despair at the events in the world around us. This day we talked of wildfires.

 

We both did a lot of rubbing our eyes, spreading our fingers across our faces, pressing the pads of our fingers agains our temples. One of the signs of our times is that I am becoming more and more familiar with my friends’ mannerisms of desperation.

And then she said, But blessed are those who bring children up in this world. They’re the ones who are going to grow up and change all this.

I hope so, but more often than not I ask, ‘what was I thinking bringing a child into this broken world?’

Yes, well, it takes a lot of heart. A lot of heart. She clasped her hands together at her chest and smiled at me before she left.

I like to think that the word heart and the word courage are interchangeable. It is often noted that the etymology of “courage” can be traced to the latin “cor” meaning “heart.” Courage comes from the heart, and yes, it takes a lot of courage to be raising a child in the middle of these fearsome days.

Sometimes it is crippling. I once told my counselor that having Joseph feels like I have a raw nerve, like a skinned knee, just out in the world bumping in to things. I am so much more deeply affected by the pain of the world than I was before I had a child. I am forced to feel it because now, through Joseph, I am irrevocably in relationship to the world outside my body, my self. Now there’s a part of me that’s out there, literally physically bumping into things, interacting no matter how hard I try to disconnect. That kind of rawness makes you guarded, makes you protect your wound with your hands, makes you try to keep the pain out. I recall the time my bike tires caught in the grooves of a train tracks and I found myself suddenly on the side of the road bleeding and cursing, holding my knee and gritting my teeth just trying to feel a little bit less.

At the same time Joseph’s birth has forced me to keep my feet on the ground, forced me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, in a powerful way I never could have before. The weeks since the election have been increasingly strenuous, and this last week is no exception.

The mountains burning, our neighbors losing their homes, Charles passed away, confronting partner abuse in our community again, a live shooter at OSU where my youngest cousin goes to school, Dylan Roof goes to trial for the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Zion church in Charleston, four of my friends get arrested in a protest in downtown Knoxville. On the phone during the protest I hear the words I’ve never seen the police behave like this, Lauren. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

The post-election adrenaline is wearing off, and I am left staring at the pain around me with no defenses. Each morning I have woken up and thought I couldn’t take another day of it, I’m just not ready. I wasn’t ready when this week started and each day has been more than I know I can bear. And yet each day has come and each day I have borne it and done what I could and gone on anyways.

Last night I went to my book study group and when our facilitator asked us what we wanted to during our meeting that night, I was tempted to pull my sweater over my head like I did as a child, close my eyes tight and try to reach deep for that safe place that I once believed in. Instead I breathed in and then out again, and we went on with our meeting, each of us speaking candidly to these feelings of wearing-thin. Afterwards I took my son home, dressed him in pajamas, read him a story as he fell asleep.

These are dark days, and there is not much light ahead. I would much rather write that things are going to get better real soon, but we all know that’s not true. I would much rather write a rallying cry, and maybe another day I will be able to do that. But today I know that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and we might not be lucky enough to see that turning when and if it happens.

I am not a brave person. It is not easily that I find strength to do the next right thing. I don’t always find it. But in these days, I find that I must have courage. Courage is what we have when we love, and in these days to love is to have skinned knees. I know I am lucky in so many ways. One of the ways I am lucky is to have my son Joseph. He brings me back constantly into the present, forces me not to unravel when all I want to do is pull my sweater over my head or sit on the side of the road bleeding. Because I love him, I get up in the morning and make breakfast even when the hills are on fire around us.

I don’t believe that you have to have a child to have this kind of courage. I see it also in so many of my friends who choose day after day to keep their hearts open when they could be closed, who choose to love each other when they could choose instead the relative safety of distance. We keep our hearts open, and we suffer the consequences, but I can’t see any other way.