|All photos in this post by Jolie Griffin*|
I’d rather not say
weak or tough
alright or crushed
giving up the ghosts or hiding them away
– Cannonball by Amelia
In this city, self-preservation is a full-time occupation
I’m determined to survive on this shore
– Talk to Me Now by Ani Difranco
More than once in the last week I have been shocked awake by radiating back pain – so intense that it wakes me in the wee hours of the morning. Each time, I bring a heating pad to bed and try to wrap it around my waist so that I can fall back asleep. That tactic has only worked once – the first time. Every time after that, I give up and just get up early, irritated at the lost sleep and tired of fighting for sleep. I even go to work early so that I can maybe get done early and make up some of the lost sleep. But instead I just repeat the process. The second morning this happened, in lieu of rushing to the hospital to confirm that I was not dying from a tragic kidney disease, I did what any modern girl does – look online and try to self-diagnose.
I found many, many possible causes for my pain – ranging from too much office work to a kidney tumor. The most common cause if this is indeed kidney pain and not disguised muscle or spinal pain? Physical trauma. Like a punch or a kick to the kidneys. Even though I know that can’t be it, I still find myself trying to remember, making sure I haven’t been pummeled right in the kidney (actually, evenly on both kidneys), really really thinking back to make sure I didn’t just forget. Before I can even pass the half a minute I spend doing that memory hunt, I am already lost in the image of two footprints on my lower back – my kidneys kicked as though my back were the seat in front of an impatient child in a car or a movie theater. As if I walked away from someone very, very angry at me who can lift both legs up at once and slam their feet into my back. As though their feet were dipped in black paint and the soles of their shoes are perfectly shaped and flat, like the footprints of my childhood Saturday morning cartoons. It’s an image I can’t let go of.
I’ve been leaning a lot on metaphors lately. We all need them. They are not the frivolous seasoning of short stories and literature classes. They are how we understand things – how we feel things, how we come to comprehend the things that are beyond words. Magic. Tiny little passports into something else. Impossible to live without. Like blood or air or water. See? Necessary. To live is to simile. I know that for certain.
My heart has been the one hogging the most seats in my brain’s metaphor plane lately. I have had all sorts of ways to imagine my heart in order to try to grasp what I am feeling and to imagine what I can do to change that. I am nursing a heart that is fractured in several directions, but I am most recently overwhelmed by trying to coddle my second broken heart of the year. Not fair. Not at all. And so I whine about it to myself, stomp my feet and complain to my own heart that it is doing me wrong by being so vulnerable, so susceptible to things it should not have even tried to want right now, so soon after. Too much love lost in too short a span of time. And then I tell myself to quit being a fucking crybaby and suck up. Bootstraps, my friend. Bootstraps. I actually have them and should be using them.
For months, I have felt that I want to fashion a heart made of steel – a steel drum of a heart that you can beat out a rhythm on but that won’t break or even dent. A warrior heart. An alleyway campfire heart. An industrial strength pumper that’s built to last. That image has been failing me for weeks now. It’s cold. It’s hollow. It doesn’t breathe or move or live. As much as I might think I want that – it will never be me and I can never make it me. And nothing I am doing is turning even one small cell of my heart to steel. None of it.
The phrase that kept coming to mind over the week that fully undid my steel heart dreams was tender hearted. I was feeling very tender hearted. No other way to put it. I felt as though just living, just walking and standing in the world was pressing on it too roughly, way too roughly. I kept picturing a freshly harvested liver or kidney – pushing your finger tip into it, gently, and still blood would ooze out and pool around your finger tip. My heart: a soft, swollen thing to be prodded. When that visual image hit me, I had an urge to squeeze my eyes shut and erase that image along with a simultaneous urge to shut the doors and pull the blinds, to turn off the computer and dim the lights. Make my world smaller. Cocoon my tender heart.
It was then that I decided I needed a break from Facebook, of all things. I am not one to bemoan lost time or some sort of lost connection because of the book. That wasn’t it at all. It was that I suddenly needed to be in control of what I saw and not only who I talked to, but who talked to me. Control. Not surprises. Less noise. Not so many voices. So I did. For the first time since joining Facebook. I wasn’t isolating myself – I still emailed and texted and went places with friends. I still wasted plenty of time online and bantered back and forth with people on the computer or on my phone. I met with friends for drinks and food and trivia and laughing and crafting. I went to derby class and stood in the cold, wet parking lot talking with a close friend before parting ways. I talked to friends and family on the phone, at length and about all types of things. I was not shutting myself in and hunkering down in some sort of lonely cocoon. But no blue screen. No red box of notifications. No pressing the little f on my iPhone to see what everyone else was up to right then.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this came immediately following a visit by my ex-in-laws and the loss of any quiet solitude in my house – something I have come to depend on. Immediately after taking the first, gentle steps to start the real severing of this love that is breaking my heart, again. Immediately after the void of my mother opening up like a canyon wider than the horizon. I realized I was getting dangerously close to losing my words, to not knowing how to say what needed to be said, to not having a way to feel it all with meaning. The idea of all of those hands, and so many other grubby fingers, pressing into that soft, meaty, waterlogged heart that was so not steel, so not tough, so not safe was triggering survival mode.
Almost fifteen years ago exactly, I moved back home to Fresno from San Francisco and I was in a very similar state of mind. I was sorting out a lot about who I was – I was coming out of all kinds of different emotional turmoil: a tragically fucked up romantic relationship (I needed to decide on giving it one last chance or jumping ship), a loss of friendships that had meant the world to me (I needed to decide if there was any hope in reaching out more or if I should just wait for time), a total re-envisioning of my future (jobs, education, location). And for the very first time in my life, I lived alone. My own place. No one else around unless I let them in. I could sit in silence or I could crank the stereo up. I could sit and cry and no one would be concerned or need explanations. I could scatter painting supplies across the kitchen floor and have no one to worry about. I could sit up all night writing without waking anyone.
I cocooned myself. Not in some hope that a beautiful butterfly would emerge. That’s never been my dream, or even a useful metaphor for me. I just needed that warm, small place to rest, to just be, to think and feel and sit with it all – painful or not. I still went out with friends. I still worked and had dinners with my family. But I shrunk my world and hid out, in the coziest of ways. I fully understood the extent of my hiding out when I went to see an artist friend months after moving back – to have him work on a tattoo for me – and he asked me how San Francisco was treating me. I had been so quiet, so successful at narrowing my world that a whole group of old friends had no idea I had even moved back into town. When I think back to that time, when I make a mental picture of it, it looks as though I took the largest, softest blanket and pulled it all the way around me, over my head and under my feet and laid in that warm, dense air – occasionally fighting off the fear that I might suffocate – in order to rest and feel and ache. It was one of the most spontaneously creative and loneliest and loveliest and highly restorative times of my life.
The urge my tender heart inspired felt the same. The very same. Close the blinds. Step away from the window. Draw a smaller circle around myself. Let fewer people in. Sit with the discomfort, the hurt, the ache – really sit with it. Figure out how to give up on my steel drum heart dream – figure out how to mend this tender heart. If I can’t have that steel heart, then I need to stop letting the elements slam against it, stop acting like it will stand up to that and then being surprised when it gives, when it bleeds, when it hurts and hurts and hurts. Wise up. Step back. Find a new metaphor, because this tender heart one sucks. It’s not a keeper. It needs to be edited out of the story, quick-like and with precision.
Giving up on the book made me twitchy. For a day. I had to retrain my arm to not reach for my phone while standing in line, while waiting somewhere, while getting ready to settle in for sleep, while eating my cereal in the morning. I missed everyone. Even the people I stayed in contact with – I hate missing out on things. I was reminded of one of my oldest childhood memories – of how I handled being sent to bed while the adults were still up and talking. I would crawl, so quietly, out of bed and stay low to the floor while I made my way to the door. I would lay down on the carpet, with my head jutting out into the hall and turn my head so my ear was facing the living room, so I could still hear what was going on even if I could not see it. I would piece together the conversations out of what bits of sentences I could hear. Make sense of them as well as any seven or eight or nine year old could. I wonder now if I ever fell asleep like that and had to be lifted into bed later. If my parents knew but didn’t have the heart to tell me the jig was up.
I had to come to peace with not knowing what everyone else was posting, what they were doing, what people were saying in response. It was odd hanging out with friends and knowing they would be commenting about the night or posting a picture and I would have no idea. But really, all I missed after that first day were my friends – the ones I communicate most with on the book.
I really made peace with my phone, too. I came late to cell phones and only begrudgingly started carrying it around with me until I became a business owner. Then I had it with me all the time. On the nightstand while sleeping in case the alarm company called or an employee was sick and I would have to jump out of bed at four a.m. During that spell, I also found the use of texting (something I used to think I was too old to learn to do well or even to enjoy). Because of all of this, my phone often feels like an extension of my hand. And because I don’t always like being reachable, I sometimes feel conflicted about how reliant I am on this gadget.
During the week I was off the book, I touched it less, held it less, used it less. Even checking email, my detox drug when I would reach for my phone those first couple of days, dwindled. There are a lot less emails in my life when you subtract out Facebook. Unexpectedly, completely apart from my need for space, I got my hands back. The phone is again something apart from my body. Not human. Not finger. Not palm. At least for a while.
Sitting in this quieter world was calming and terrifying. I had to deal with this weak, crybaby heart that won’t toughen up. I let myself cry – hard – if that’s what I needed. And I let myself go out with friends and cry laughing if that’s what I needed. But I wasn’t disarmed midday by too much – too many pictures, too many faces, too many people just popping up on the screen. I felt like I was returning to an olden time, before the interweb-age, and I could sit in my living room and just read or think or feel – sit with my achy heart and try to understand it. I was (am) repulsed by that raw liver image of my heart and so I played a slideshow in my head of how I could replace that with something other than the lovely, etched, steel heart I have come to lean on, however useless it has been.
I started to imagine thick pieces of felt and children’s yarn. Big knitting needles with eyes just like sewing needles. I could see myself threading one of those clunky needles with that chunky yarn and patching the felt together. Bright, textured pieces of fabric stitched together like the old hanging envelopes we would make in elementary school for Valentine’s Day out of construction paper and yarn. A blanket stitched pillow to replace my heart. I could see it encasing my heart, protecting that tender mass of blood and emotion, sewing it closed Coraline-style, messy and bulky and soft. I like that image. It’s imperfect – but soft and cushioned, stuffed with enough batting to make it lumpy in places, just enough to absorb impact, but breathable, able to let small enough particles in and out. Living, pumping, breathing – but not tender. Not oozing. Not raw.
It’s hopefully a sign of the kind of wisdom that comes with age that it only took a week of semi-hibernation to restore enough to come back fully to the world. That I didn’t need months and the kind of soul searching and gut wrenching decision making I needed at twenty-two. That I did not opt to follow this line from one of my favorite albums that week (After All by Amelia) – misery loves gin, to wash down all the vodka. Maybe I have learned some things, maybe I am better at handling this stuff. Time away did exactly what I needed it to: allowed me the space from images and faces and names and words, the time to really feel what I need to feel, think about what I need to think about without distraction, to hurt if that’s what this is, to ache if the pain is too much, to be unable to escape it, but also to be in control of how the ache comes at me.
I am already back to crackbook and loving every minute of it. I have missed many of my friends and have missed the laughter even their virtual selves bring to me. One friend that I was in contact with during my Facebook Fast, when I told him I was coddling a broken heart, said: We’re too good for that – we should be breaking hearts. I agreed, (I’m pretty sure I said Damn straight) but I know we both know we don’t mean that, not really. I think instead that we should be breaking our own tender hearts into as many pieces as is necessary to reshape them. Hold that tender muscle and craft it into something else that is resilient, but not hard and cold and hollow. Find a way to think of that crucial organ – a container to pour it into, to label it and break down its ingredients – that doesn’t involve pain and bruising and sawing your ribcage open.
Take the steps necessary to narrow your world. Turn off the phone. Pull back. Get out whatever supplies you need in order to craft a new metaphor. Stitch your ribcage so it doesn’t crack open when you breathe. Pull that needle in and out of your chest wall until your heart is a thing you can understand and make peace with – a thing that stands for another thing, sure, but something useful and safe and able to regenerate. Kiss your friends goodbye for a while and get to working. Let go of that impossible image, the one that only helps you keep breaking your own heart. Stop talking, because the words are running out anyway, and close your eyes to see what comes across the back of your lids. Pull all of your walls in and sit in the chair with a blanket. Wrap it around your shoulders and make yourself small so that you can protect your core, shield your organs. Get out of everyone’s way before they run over your fingers and your toes.
I will keep picturing this oddly stiff and flexible felt heart with its colored yarn seams and sutures that would make any plastic surgeon cringe – because the scars will be there, whether you sew like an artist or a hack, and so why not see them and make them part of what’s lovely, or at least try to. My Coraline heart with too much batting that will surely compress over time, surely by the time I will need to feel more acutely again. By the time those feet have vanished from my kidneys and my words seem endless again. My aching back to hold myself up regardless of feet and trauma and pain. The language to name it all and then to rename it and rename it until it feels right. Until I can find the image to explain it all to my cells when my words fail to fix any of it. My crafty heart with zig-zag lines and mismatched colors – soft and pliable and ageless. My stitch-witched heart that fills up my chest and holds my ribs in place – a comfy, old-fashioned core to soften the blows.
*This post is another in the series of photo collaborations. My good friend Jolie Griffin is always taking pictures, wherever we go, and I have often imagined a dream-blogging-life where Jolie populates my posts with her photos – guaranteeing good pictures and allowing me to focus only on the words. Within a day of mentioning this to her, I was gifted with photos she took with this particular post in mind. She is not only a great friend with a lovely eye, she is my fairy godmother. Thank you, Jolie.