When I was a kid, I wrote a lot of poetry, but this is the first one I’ve done in decades. If you are a poetry buff, a word of warning: this poem follows no rules or structures, because I don’t remember any of them from high school. This has been sitting in my “drafts” folder for months because I was afraid it wasn’t “real poetry.” But if ee cummings can write without any capital letters or punctuation, screw it. Here’s my pome:
Back when my maternal grandfather was still here and the last of my living grandparents, I wrote, The Fighter Still Remains. With diabetes and heart problems, his health was poor and his morale was even worse. On the way home from seeing him, The Boxer, by Paul Simon was echoing in my head.
I was driving back from visiting and caring for him. The thirty-minutes of travel was enough for me to mull over his life, our generations, what the future holds, and by the time I was halfway home, I was sobbing.
When I got home, it came pouring out of me in the only way I know how to cope effectively. I wrote this essay. It’s been edited, but it’s not far off from that first, emotion-laden waterfall of words.
That was five years ago. I’ve just now entered “The Fighter Still Remains,” in an essay contest. Winning entries are based on writing quality and votes/likes/comments. Please read and like or comment if you enjoy the essay and don’t hesitate to share it with others. Thanks for your support, friends.
“If you don’t want to watch me fuck it up, then DON’T WATCH ME!” my best friend shouted at me as I hovered over her shoulder micromanaging her filling out an application for a Blockbuster card. This was 20 years ago, which you probably guessed by the video store reference.
Back in the college days I’d rather put a fork in my eye than admit I was wrong, but I walked away without another word. It’s hard to defend yourself when you’re trying to tell your super-intelligent friend which line to write her name on like she’s a kindergartener. (Maybe that’s why I majored in child development…hmmm.)
Kelly and I occasionally bickered, but we mostly got along. We’d been close friends since mid-high school, and by the time we parted ways in our mid-twenties, we’d lived together for almost five years. And we still liked each other. We were prone to long strings of free association that sent us into hysterics but baffled the rest of our friends who thought our fascination with Beavis and Butthead was juvenile and beneath them.
We were weird, we were sometimes (often) obnoxious, and we were even depressed together that first year living in Jester Dorm together. Who wouldn’t be? It was designed by a prison architect and looked like something out of the Eastern Bloc in the ’80s. We who lived there had a specific odor even outside the building. It was a uniquely horrific combination of industrial Lysol and urine.
Kelly and I had a complex yet solid relationship. She once threw books at the inside of our dorm room door because I was sitting outside, talking loudly with a bunch of people from our floor while she was trying to sleep. While she passive-aggressively hurled literature instead of coming out to ask us to pipe down, I inconsiderately and passive-aggressively ignored the thunks on the other side of the door instead of taking the hint and moving somewhere else.
She once confronted me (which took a lot of guts back then since I was never wrong) about the fact that I couldn’t take any criticism whatsoever and it made me hard to live with at times. She did it in the gentlest way. I was embarrassed, but I knew even then it took a lot of guts and a true friend to say something like that. And she was 100 percent right.
Best Worst Movie Choice Ever
We once went to see a movie together because we were both bored and a little depressed. We went to see Seven, because you know, Brad Pitt. Bad fucking choice. So then we were even more depressed together, which is a lot better than being depressed by yourself.
More Misplaced Literature
Once, bored again, we gathered up all the unread newspapers we had accumulated whilst paving our road to hell with the good intention of being more well-informed and dumped them on our former roommate’s doorstep, ding-dong ditched him and drove off giggling. We thought it was hilarious and promptly forgot all about it until we ran into him several months later. ‘Turns out we had really freaked out his new roommate.
Call Out the Cavalry
One time I ran off to San Antonio on a whim one Thursday afternoon with a boy and forgot to tell her where I was going. Running off with boys was a habit of mine, but it was usually just around the corner at a party, not two hours away. By the time I got back that evening, she had half the dorm looking for me. I had no idea she’d be so worried. I felt warm and fuzzy and also guilty.
Another Great Use For Fortune Cookies
When her boyfriend broke up with her, I drove her around while she cried. We went back to my house and stuck fortune cookies up our noses with my sister and took pictures until Kelly laughed. When that same boyfriend got back together with her and then broke up with her again, I almost killed him, even though I did actually like him, just not for her.
Growing Closer Apart
Kelly and her family came for a visit last weekend. It had been four years since I’d laid eyes on her, but we’ve become even closer. We told our old jokes and made a few new ones, but we also reflected on who we were back then and who we’ve become. Somehow, we have grown together, despite being states apart. Somehow, we’ve both evolved into writers, feminists, people who are real about the not-so-shiny side of mental health and motherhood.
I do not know why this happened — why she and I are so alike and yet different and fit together so well on a primal level, why we are able to stay friends across the country, why I am always able to learn something from her — but it is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
When we come home from vacation, I am fifty percent likely to unpack right away, put everything where it goes and start a load of laundry. The other fifty percent…I leave my bag on the floor of the bedroom for a week and a half where I paw through it every time I need something. Either thing is just as possible.
I am wildly inconsistent about most things. (I can’t say “all things” because I’m not even consistent at being inconsistent.) I’m obsessed with Facebook until I decide I hate it and ignore it for three weeks. I exercise regularly until I decide life is too short to spend it working out and my running shoes start to grow cobwebs. I like routine very much until I start to get bored and want something novel until I feel overwhelmed and crave routine again.
Jason says I’m a complex person. I’m starting to think this isn’t a compliment. It’s confusing, even for me. Especially when I plan something when I’m in “do all the things, be with all the people!” mode but the actual plans fall in a “people suck, I don’t like to shower phase.”
My mother-in-law once asked me if I liked to shop, which seems like a simple enough question. My answer (Yes, when I’m in the mood to, but a lot of times not because of capitalist bullshit, you know, and it can be soothing to wander through a store but stressful when you feel you just HAVE to get a birthday present for someone and it can be overwhelming when you can’t decide what to buy and just end up putting everything you picked out back and leave the store in tears.) is stupidly complicating.
Today I think, You know what’s wrong with me? I need to be more social. Tomorrow it’ll be, You know what my problem is? I don’t have enough alone time. I need to be busier; I’m bored. I’m overwhelmed; I need more downtime. Like seriously, could I land at just one end of the spectrum of a problem just once? Like for more than a few days at a time?
How is it that I can be equal parts people-pleaser and stubborn, “You’re not the boss of me, I don’t have to if I don’t want to even if I know it’s good for me”? How can I have BOTH of those feelings inside me simultaneously?
I need every day to be a choose your own adventure book, so I can adjust my life on a dime. Do you, A, go to the meeting? B, take a nap? C, drive to Mexico? Take a random day like next Tuesday, and given the option, I might pick any one of those. You can’t predict it. More importantly, I can’t predict it.
I’m going to go upstairs and read now or maybe play Rocket League badly with my family. Or perhaps I’ll invent a time machine so I can go back and talk to Einstein about the theory of relativity and hope that, in person, he can explain it to me. Really, any of that’s pretty likely.
I’m in a great mood right now. Surprising, huh? I usually write when I’m depressed, pissed off or at least lethargic. Never fear, because the other day, I wasn’t in a great mood. I was in a horrible mood, but necessity dictated I go out into the world, so I did.
As I went, I was determined not to tell people I felt “fine.” I’ve gone out with this decree in my head before. When people ask, “How’s it going today?” I think, I’ll tell it like it is. Though I fantasize about responding with, “shitty, actually,” I know I’m not confrontational enough to pull it off; I hate making people uncomfortable. But I figured I could say, “Not great,” or at the very least, “Meh.”
It turns out, it is a physical impossibility for anything other than “fine” to escape my lips. The clerk at the grocery store asked how I was, and I said, “fine.” I didn’t even realize it until thirty seconds later:
Wait, did she ask me how I was? Did I say “fine?” Crap, I did. Damnit!
It’s like breathing. I don’t think about saying “fine,” it just happens; I’m barely aware of it coming out of my mouth. Bottom line is, people use it as a greeting and aren’t actually interested in how you are (unless you are indeed “fine” or “great” or “fabulous.”)
The thing is, though, what are they going to say when I give less than, “Gosh, gee, ain’t it great to be alive?” They will probably…
A. Be sorry they asked.
B. Ask what’s wrong even though they don’t want to know.
C. Be baffled when I shrug my shoulders and say, “Just one of those days, I guess.”
I’d like to be honest about my feelings when people ask, even if it’s a stranger. I don’t want to pour my heart out to them; that’s part of the reason for the knee-jerk “fine.” I just want to be able to use an adjective that actually applies to my mood and/or day. In my ideal world, where everyone admits they’re not “fine” all the time, it would go something like this:
Stranger: How are you today?
Me: Not great, actually.
Stranger: Oh yeah? I’m sorry you’re having a bad day.
Me: Meh. It happens. How are you?
So here’s the question: Have you ever answered “How are you?” with something other than the expected positive affirmation when talking to a stranger? How did it go?
I am great at starting projects. I have started writing a book at least six times in my life. In the past several years I have begun learning to knit, gathered pictures for a collage I never finished, and started a quilt using old fabric. Okay, I gathered the material in a big kitchen bag beside my bed, but I don’t actually know how to quilt, so it just sat there until I got tired of Jason complaining about all my unfinished projects lying around, and I hid it in the closet where it still resides today.
Sometimes I just lose steam. That’s what happens with writing. I’ll get this great idea, usually while I’m lying in bed on a weekend morning. I’ll run downstairs and tippity type away, banging out several chapters. That might happen a few more times until I get a quarter to a third of a novel…and then I quit. I used to think I was just lazy, but then I realized it’s that I get cold feet. I start to think the idea sucks or I can’t think of what comes next without it feeling contrived. Several months of hesitation go by where I find every excuse not to write. Suddenly, whole closets need to be cleaned out and rearranged. Suddenly, I need a Twitter account. Then I lose the thread of the story. Half a year later, I have another blinding flash of genius whilst lying in bed, and the cycle begins again. I am really good at starting stories. Is there a career in that?
As time went on, I doubted I was capable of completing a novel. I couldn’t even finish knitting a pot holder, after all. So this last time I got an idea, I told myself I would finish, no matter how doubtful I was and no matter what steaming pile of inconsistent plot and shallow characters I ended up creating. I had to know I could finish, quality be damned.
As I wrote this last story, there were days I was inspired and tippity typing at my fastest, but there were more days when I sat, typed two halting sentences, deleted them, then went for a walk. But, I finished the damned story. At this point, I’ve been over it so many times, I think it might be crap. I don’t know; I really can’t tell anymore. And there are problems with it that I don’t know how to fix.
I enlisted my sister as a beta reader because despite being my sister, I know she’ll tell me the truth, which is why I am scared to read her feedback. It’s dismaying to think the thing you’ve wanted to do pretty much your whole life, the thing you’ve finally accomplished, might be awful. I also know I have more stories in me, but finishing that first one was like wringing the last drips from a washcloth. I’m not sure I have it in me again.
But, I did it. I wrote a novel. It might be a steaming pile of crap, but it’s my steaming pile of crap. And it’s finished.
I ordered a book the other day, and then I forgot I ordered it because it took longer than the customary speed-of-light Amazon delivery. Then I remembered yesterday and thought, Where is that book? It was in the mailbox this morning, and it showed up exactly when I needed it.
They’re building a new shopping center down the road from us. I don’t know what will be in it, but it nicely complements the half-empty one less than a mile from it. I read a blog the other day about consumerism and how advertising is always trying to convince us we need stuff, pointing out our supposed flaws so they can sell us eye creme, Spanx, and protein shakes. I would’ve been pumping my fist in solidarity if it hadn’t been for the pop-up ads on the post making me wonder if the hypocrisy was totally lost on the author.
There is so much shit wrong with this world politically, socially, environmentally. It seems capitalism is failing us, as businesses act with self-interest — build more stuff, sell more stuff, convince people they need more stuff — instead of what is in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes it is clothed in a disguise of altruism, which is either intentional misdirection on their part or self-delusion and rationalization, but it always results in the making and buying of stuff.
I look at all of this, and I have a feeling of despair, of helplessness. I can clean out coffee pods to recycle them all day long, I can compost every last banana peel we make, I can avoid driving to reduce our carbon emissions. But what real difference is that going to make when industries, the biggest purveyors of environmental pollution of all kinds, aren’t following suit? Because it’s more expensive or a pain in the ass or people just don’t like change, they aren’t going to do it. Because industry is self-serving, and I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say they don’t give a shit about the future of our planet or humankind. They *might* care on an individual person level, or they might give lip service to it, but those who could implement real change through business policy aren’t going to.
And then I get You Are Here in the mail, and I read these lines:
You send out needed ripples of greatness and kindness in unexpected and accidental ways. You won’t always see the wonderful ways in which you shift the world. They may be invisible to you. But I promise you they are real.
This isn’t empty platitude from a self-help guru or motivational speaker. It’s an honest accounting by the author, Jenny Lawson, who suffers from anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease. Most of the things she writes are darkly humorous accounts of her childhood and her struggles with illness. Coming from her, it reads less like someone trying to cheer me up and more like a sister in suffering giving me a hug, shoring me up, and telling me to keep the faith.
My mother’s guiding principle in life is to “leave things better than she found them.” Mine, I guess, is similar. I want to recognize what is real and raw, emotionally, for so many of us. I don’t need to offer mind-blowing advice or shout it from the mountain for all of humanity to hear. But if a few people read what I write and it makes them feel less alone, makes their lives just a tiny bit better, that’ll be enough, coffee pods and banana peels be damned. Thanks, Jenny, for reminding me.