real love endures

So, I was texting, late at night. I got condolences from my third-favorite ex boyfriend,  who had seen my tweet about a family elder’s passing on. By mutual agreement, third-favorite ex-boyfriend and I have friendzoned each other. He is a part of my tribe; some people just are. They become a part of our story, our heart, and whatever wacky things happen just don’t matter as much as the good stuff. Like a condolence text that turned into a conversation about some idiot that I am literally never talking to again, and perked me up greatly.

“And you still hang out with ME,” third-favorite ex-boyfriend observed, cannily, of the idiot in question. “What in the HELL did he do?!”

Third-favorite ex-boyfriend has a way with words. He is dreadfully, brilliantly funny in the very worst and best ways. I adore him for it. He has a way of snapping me out of my funks and making me laugh and live in the present moment. And he was the first man to cheer me after I pretty much got dumped right before the actual altar.

This week, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the past, about the ghosts in my head. 

“You love that dead man more than me,” my altar-dumping ex-fiancé informed me at the beginning of the end of our relationship, when I fell into a deep depression upon the death of another of my tribe, whom I loved dearly, with all my heart. How could anyone not love a man who was one with nature, who knew every rock and tree and spider and violet in the woods, who trekked through raging snowstorms to save egomaniac tourist hikers from themselves whenever he got a call from the forest service. He was a man who always showed up, loved, and cared. He died too young when cancer ate him up. I did love that dead man more than my ex-fiancé, and another dead man, too—one he didn’t know about, my very first crush, whom I knew all my life, and dated, and who died in college. 

Only the good die young. I suppose this means my ex-fiancé and Keith Richards will inherit the earth some day, along with the cockroaches, long after the zombie apocalypse. I’m sure they’ll have a great time singing together and blathering on about all the fun times they had when the world was still lit by electric lights and humanity. But I’m being a bitch now, and I digress.

This is the third anniversary of the week I would have been married. But the ex-fiancé called off the wedding and said that he couldn’t say for certain he would ever marry me. So I took my toys and left, so to speak, and expressed upon facebook my wish that he would get hit by a bus. (That was not appropriate. I see that now; it was the wounded pride and the copious French wine talking…)

But I never acknowledged the pain he said he felt upon what (for him, anyway) appeared to be my surprise exit. I see that now. And I acknowledge and release it, the last link to that relationship, that relationship in which I did enjoy many moments, in which I did grow.

So I’m sober now. And it’s also, more importantly, the first anniversary of my godbrother’s death. The timing contorted my feelings. Enmeshed in the strangeness, the emotional discomfort of both anniversaries, I was confusing the grief over my godbrother’s dying too young with the memory of the loss of the marriage and the life I once thought I wanted.

I haven’t wanted that life with the ex-fiancé since I got sober. Many merlot-soaked moons ago, all I wanted was to be rescued from the academic gulag, and the ex-fiancé seemed like the perfect fairy-tale pumpkin coach out, across the ocean, into my old home, the music business. But he wasn’t a fairy-tale hero; he was just a guy with strengths and flaws, like anyone else. 

It turned out, I had to save myself—or really, let God do it, which is sort of the same thing, but better.

So, now I can’t remember the exact date of the cancelled wedding. I do remember that my fabulous former girlfriend purposefully helped me turn that dark anniversary into a new experience: a river-tubing trip through the North Carolina mountains. So that date was reborn, and she helped me heal. 

But I am going to put flowers on my godbrother’s grave this week. And I will carry my godbrother with me, the memory in my heart, always. He wouldn’t want me to weep for him, but to celebrate his life, the glorious moments, the lakeside laughs. His effervescent smile.

And so I remember: all love that is true endures—whether it is for family, or friends, or a favorite tree, or even my third-favorite ex-boyfriend. We carry the real love of our tribe in our hearts forever, no matter how long or short the duration, never mind whether it was familial, platonic, or amorous. 

“I carry your heart with me. I carry it in my heart.” – E. E. Cummings

The Curious Incident of the Toe in the Coffee Shop

I am now home early with my leg propped up on three pillows because of The Curious Incident of The Toe at the Coffee Shop. I shall explain.

First off, I am a firm believer that every coffee shop needs a kooky punk girl to add character–and I am that girl. I have taken the purple ombre hair and run with it. Full-on black liquid liner and wild red lips are my thing, today with tight buns on each side of the top of my head. It goes with the black uniform, it’s a good look for me, and whenever high school acquaintances come through the line, it totally camouflages the fact that I am a 35 year old nearly-phd’d writer serving coffee in her hometown.

I wore makeup I bought in Brooklyn, New York, and shoes I took with me to the Amazon jungle. I carry my travels—my life in the world—with me always.

Today, carrying recycling boxes, I managed to split my toenail open kicking the shop door. It bled everywhere; my sandal looked like a prop from a zombie film. The first aid-kit, however, was well stocked, and I fixed it. My boss worried over my injury, like I was an actual human. I assured her I was fine.

Somehow, I feel like a kid again. Maybe it’s the purple hair, or the fact that I’ve always wanted to work in a coffee shop, or the fact that I am earning money from a community hub, doing work that makes people happy, instead of slaving away for indentured servant wages in the academic gulag. But I am free.

I played a video game tonight, with money earned from tips. It was silly, frivolous. But it made me HAPPY. The endorphins were pumping. The colors and dazzling stars and movement did their job—way to go, programmers! And as I sit here with my toe split in half, healing after being propped up all day, in my high school bedroom, with my pink lava lamp on, I realize. This is actually pretty good.

The best part? I didn’t have to go corporate: I get to be a writer.

I have always wanted to work in a coffee shop—not a Starbucks, but a weird little place with its own drinks and a community. Today felt like a scene from Mystic Pizza. Three girls, in a little shop with an owner who cares about her product and her people, filing orders. Granted, one was in high school, one was in her twenties, and I’m the 35-year-old, purple-haired writer. But there was a camaraderie untainted by competition. Working beside each other, earning our keep, laughing and sharing makeup tips (and tip money), I realize: there is a whole world out there where your coworkers aren’t at each other’s throats. Small businesses are fun. Not only are they a brave last stand against corporate America, but they’re the heart of communities—from the Brooklyn neighborhood restaurant to the coffee shop in a tiny town, population 2,192 (or so I last I heard from the mayor, via Daddy).

The academic gulag isn’t like that. You compete with your best friends for the same national fellowships—and the same company-store-wage, resume-line, in-house indentures. Why? All to earn another resume bullet, so you can win more fellowships, get your credentials stamped, and continue competing with the same winners for the same jobs. Academia is a tiny world.

But the real world is huge.

And there is better coffee.

Take heart, have faith, and create the life you want. Namaste, darlings!

-Maggie

A Handbook for Processing Cultural and Personal Trauma

Many people are emotionally reeling right now. In addition to the turmoil in the world, we all have our own stuff. My great-uncle passed away this weekend, and I loved him dearly. He was a hero of the Korean War, beloved by all, full of laughter and light and stories—and love. All he had seen, all he had experienced, made him more loving, more empathetic, and more compassionate. He cared deeply for all life. With my emotional red alert raised already by the refugee crisis, my uncle’s death was harder to process. This is normal; we’ve all got our “stuff.” And in times like these, what might have felt like ordinary obstacles can become full-on roadblocks, and traumas seemingly insurmountable.

Seeing refugee children torn from their parents’ arms and placed in cages and tent cities is terrifying. Perhaps it is even more frightening seeing people we know (or thought we knew) supporting this horrific violation of human rights.

When I taught the Holocaust, my students would ask me, “How could this happen?” There is no simple answer. Indifference, fear, hatred, and bigotry are the big ones. But the choice to be a bystander is in itself a choice. Do you look, and face the darkness, or do you turn away, barbecue something on the grill, change the tv channel? Do you believe the propaganda, because it’s easier than facing the darkness and then having to make the choice about actually doing something about it? Or do you find a way to stay kind, to stay aware, to stay good, and somehow remain sane despite all the madness around you?

These are hard questions. And I’ve thought about them for seventeen years. As a scholar of war and human rights, watching or reading the news is never simple.

Anxiety is running rampant in these dark times.

But there are some strategies I learned in my years studying the Holocaust, slavery, and genocide, that help me to stay sane.

The first is the most important. It’s about perspective. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard hundreds of hours of accounts of the worst violence, torture, and cruelty—what Victor Frankl described after the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Oprah (yes, Oprah, legit!) asked Tutu years ago how he handled it. Tutu said that most people are like vacuum cleaners; they suck all of horrible things they see inside of them and it just stays there. Tutu said that we have to be dishwashers: to witness, to help others be seen, to process their stories, and to clean them.

It’s hard to be a dishwasher. Reading concentration camp memoirs and stories from the Warsaw Ghetto and U.S. State Department documents turning refugees away, such as the story of the SS. St. Louis, in which refugees from the Holocaust were literally on the coast of the USA, yards away from safety, but were turned away. They died.

I fell into a deep depression the first time I was studying these things, and understandably so. But I had to learn that the act of witnessing, of listening, of not turning away, is itself a good deed. It’s the right thing to do. When we don’t turn away, we can educate others.

When we don’t turn away, we have to process the grief and the horror and the compassion fatigue. It’s hard, but it can be done.

MEMOIRS

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Reading memoirs of trauma and violence can be overwhelming. But they can also be sources of hope—many authors stand out in this category, transmuting their experiences into stories that can uplift us after they make us cry. Organized by going backward in time, here are a few to get you started:

  • Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom (Mandela’s memoir of Apartheid)
  • Ruth Minsky Sender’s The Cage (on surviving the Warsaw Ghetto in the Holocaust)
  • Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography (American slavery and freedom from the perspective of escaped slave—and greatest orator of the nineteenth century—Douglass)

HISTORY

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And reading books that explain how ordinary people either let terrible things happen—or how they chose to fight them—is also helpful. Alphabetically, these are excellent:

SELF-CARE

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It’s also important to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself!

  • Go outside and look at nature, whether that means visiting the flowers in a park a few blocks away, or out your backdoor at the Chesapeake Bay, just DO it! Here’s more on “Why Connecting with Nature Elevates Your Mental Health.”
  • Read a favorite book, one you already know and love. (Check out my Goodreads here!)
  • Watch an old comedy that always makes you laugh. Lifehack has a great list of 10 Movies You Should Watch to Boost Your Mood and Energy. An IMDB user made a comedy list of movies that cheer you up.
  • And seriously, laugh! No, really. Even fake laughter releases endorphins that are very real for your body. If you can’t make yourself laugh, take a gander at “laughter yoga.Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long time.
  • Call the people you love and tell them how much you love them.
  • Send snail mail along the same lines.
  • Look at beautiful pictures—faerie eyries, mountains, the beach, puppies–to destress. There are ACTUAL STUDIES on this.
  • Make yourself a special mocktail (here’s my mocktail recipe board).
  • Order your favorite meal.
  • Take a hot bath. Use candles. Add bath salts. Music helps too. Go wild. Add a boat like Chandler Bing from Friends if you need to make it feel more manly. (Actually, here’s a whole fun thread about Friends!)
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  • Listen to slow, soft music that slows down your brain. Here’s Peaceful Piano on Spotify!
  • Take deeeeeeep breaths. In to the count of three, out for the count of five. This gets your body out of fight or flight mode, and lets it normalize itself. Let the Berkeley scientists teach you mindful breathing here.
  • Play: pick up an instrument, lift weights, play video games with your kids or friends, toss a ball for your dog, annoy your cat by removing them from whatever box they are currently sitting in and cuddle.
  • Exercise—just 20 minutes of cardio releases seratonin in a big way. The Runner’s High is REAL, folks.
  • Get in touch with the Higher Power of your understanding and ask for help.
  • Work on mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite writer on this topic, and this is my favorite book of his. He even has a great quote on the magic of washing the dishes:

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace Prize Winner

OTHER RESOURCES

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And please remember: it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out. Ask your loved ones for a little extra TLC or a hug. Talk to a trauma therapist. Send up a flare. Let someone see you, really see you—so they can know.

We are all in this together. Keep fighting the good fight and take care of yourselves. And love each other. Love each other fiercely, because life is short. But hang in there, because together, we dishwashers can help heal ourselves, hold each other up, and continue the great work of doing good wherever we can, however we are able

And as always, Namaste, Darlings

—Maggie

hope, change, trucks

Hope.

It matters.

And we must not lose faith in people’s ability to change. We can make good decisions or bad ones. Today at the grocery, I saw a truck. A big, macho, green, shiny, expensive, deer-decal-ed bubba truck. The bubba in question swaggered out with his facial hair and muscles and marched into the store. I looked closer.

Amongst the hunting decals, there was a space where something that had been ripped off. Something about the size of a Trump bumper sticker. Lately, I haven’t seen those around, even here, in red-state redneckland.

Bubba’s truck gave me hope today. People change.

Growth is a big part of recovery.

Namaste, darlings!

Maggie

we can only change ourselves

“In spite of our desires, changing others will never be an option, whereas changing ourselves takes only a decision and is a choice always available.” ― Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women Hazelden) 

We can only change ourselves! This is good news, though, because it frees us from the overwhelming burden of having to fix ALL THE THINGS for EVERYONE–as if we actually could…

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I love my 90s kid cultural references (and if you haven’t seen Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, you should, because it’s my favorite adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, like, ever).

But on a serious note, part of recovery is recognizing that the only part of our mental health equation we can control is ourselves. Our reactions, our choices, our outlook. We got this. God’s got this. And daily meditations like the one from THIS FABULOUS BOOK (quoted at the top of the post) help immensely.

May you find joy, and grace, and life today.

Namaste, Darlings!

-Maggie