Oh God, I am sorry

My childhood nemesis was murdered.

I don’t mean that exactly how it sounds. For one, I had several childhood nemeses, our relationships growing progressively hostile as we grew older. But this was an early one, my second. And for another, he wasn’t murdered when we were children. It was many years later, when we were adults and living in different cities—from our hometown and from one another—and hadn’t seen or spoken to each another in over 8 years.

So why did I care so much when he died?

Maybe because I always had, or try to have, compassion. Even for my enemies. Not that we were really enemies.

Maybe it’s because he was alive, and now he’s dead.

Maybe it’s because murder is terrible.

We had a lot of fun times together, actually. But only when it was just the two of us, waiting for our moms to pick us up or working on a project together or sitting at the same art table.

I remember once asking my mom why he and I couldn’t get along except when we were alone. She told me that when we were older, maybe in high school, things would be different and maybe we could be friends. I moved to a different school a couple years later and we never got that chance, but the optimism of what our future relationship could have been colored my memories until I saw him through the lens of that never-realized friendship. I don’t know if I still harbored any bitterness toward him when I left that school at age twelve, but I know I’d long-since lost it when I got the email from my mother, his name as the subject line.

It might have been something innocuous. Mom had bumped into old friends and even other nemeses of mine at the grocery store, and spoken with their parents in the store where she works. I expected a fun update from him or his mom about how he was doing, all the more welcome because it’d been so long.

I had to read the article’s opening paragraph four or five times before I began to understand.

It was October. I’d been for a walk at some trails and was catching up on emails in my car before driving to Bible study. I felt closed up, insulated and alone but exposed, realizing how terrible a thing had been done to him.

And my next thought was of his mother. His kind, loving, hardworking mother. His mother who had already lost her husband in another act of violence.

If you think about famous nemeses, you might think about Joker to Batman or Moriarty to Sherlock. You’ll think about dastardly villains on the wrong side, foils in specific ways to the protagonist, but also compliments in vital ways. The Joker and Batman live their lives by similar but polar principles. Joker believes that anyone could become what he is—the worst of villains—if their circumstances were bad enough. And Batman believes that no matter how bad your circumstances, you too can become a hero. (Or, at least choose not to be a villain.) They work so well as nemeses because they are determined to prove themselves right to the other, but neither can destroy the other without abandoning their defining principles.

Moriarty and Sherlock are fantastic nemeses because they are so well-matched in intelligence and skill, and have similar enough vices that you can see how they very easily could be the same person or even best friends. But their moralities are just different enough that they have chosen to use their intelligence and vices and needs in entirely opposing ways.

Where Joker and Batman cannot destroy each other because of the nature of their ideological battle, Sherlock and Moriarty fear how they will cope if one should kill the other. We admire Sherlock not for the murder he commits, or believes he commits, but for his willingness to finally end this dangerous feud. He does so for everyone else’s sake, since doing so poses a real risk to his happiness and well-being.

Alex and I were good nemeses in part because we were so similar. We were both smart, analytical, logical, sassy. We enjoyed arguing and bantering. And we were both proud. When no one else was around, the pride wasn’t much of an issue so we very rarely fought. Our similarities aligned and we had a great time. But allow even one other person into our proximity and we begin to compete, to spar, and to wound. I don’t think we really meant to hurt each other, just to avoid being on the receiving end. But I remember feeling hurt, so I know I hurt him. And that, I regret almost the most.

I probably should regret inflicting pain the most, and yet children are cruel. That was the duel and the deal until I bowed out and went to another school.

I didn’t reach out to him after his father died. I regret that the most.

He didn’t need me, but I wish I hadn’t withheld my offer of support and comfort. We were similar, had history, and had been connected. I told myself I didn’t know how to reach him but I did. I just didn’t try. I repeated, “He doesn’t need you” and didn’t dwell on “But what if it could help him?”

And, oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for inflicting pain. I am sorry for withhold support. I am sorry for his fear and his death. I am sorry for his mother, his friends.

After Bible study the night I learned of his murder and the finding of his body, I stayed up for hours in the dark writing every memory I had of him. Most I hadn’t revisited in years, but they were still there, once I let my brain sift through its back rooms. My personal pain from those years of the bullying was gone in the echo of his taken life. Late, late, late, sifting and writing and sitting and grieving. The next night, I wrote more, wrote them all out, and now I have them. And I will keep those memories on paper, a back-up for my mind.

A year and a half later, the week my aunt passed suddenly of a heart attack, I wrote to the judge so he would know the man who’d been taken before passing sentence on the murderers. I sat in the dark of a Dallas hotel, my coworker/roommate asleep behind me, too far to comfort my family or be comforted by them. But I could speak for my childhood nemesis. I could advocate for his memory. And I could pray, for the thousandth time, for his mother.

His name was Alex. He was aware, so he must have been afraid when he died. I hate fear.

I tried and tried to find a way to reach his mother, to tell her how sorry I am and to share my memories of her son and husband, but she retreated and I respect her boundaries. I’m sharing about this now because, with one gunshot, October was smeared with gunpowder. Even though Alex’s birthday was in summer and I first met him in January, I think of him in October. I remember him in October.

Not only in October. Also in sunlit pools and when I see a figure through the rain and when I feel spattered paint under my fingers and when I see a pale blue polo over broad shoulders and when I hear a football being caught.

Oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for Alex. Please comfort his mother.

Three Red Dresses

In the business and legal worlds, so taught my high school debate teacher, red is a power color. My dance teacher taught that less is more when trying to stand out. But red dresses are designed to attract attention and are worn to make statements, to distract, or as a disguise.

Think of the (often ill-fitting) red dresses you see characters wear in movies. In “Music & Lyrics,” Drew Barrymore’s character borrows a red dress to help her feel confident enough to confront a former lover. Rhett forces Scarlett O’Hara to wear a red dress so she’ll look the part of the homewrecker she tried to be. Julia Roberts’s “Pretty Woman” character wears a red dress to go to the opera with her John, as if they’re a normal couple who do this often. Peggy Carter wears red to let Steve Rogers in “Captain America” know she’s interested in him. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Downton Abbey,” “She’s All That,” “The Princess Bride,” “Titanic,” “Outlander,” “Clueless,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Arrow,” “The Princess Diaries 2,” countless Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and countless other movies and TV shows feature women wearing red dresses for one of these purposes.

I love the color red, but I’ve only worn a few red dresses over the years. Here are the stories of three of them.

The first is a dress of my mother’s. She wore it in high school, but in middle school I was playing Queen Isabella de Castille in a school play and needed something floor-length and regal. The dress my mom remembered, and which my grandmother mailed me, is a somewhat muted crimson with a deep V-neck. It’s not inappropriate, but lower than anything I’d worn thus far. The skirt billowed as I moved and the draping at the shoulder skimmed my upper arms. It was the first time I felt mature and beautiful at school. I was playing a queen. I made a headdress and veil and wore my mother’s red dress. I’d been in at least half a dozen plays or musicals to that point, but I had never before played someone whose voice carried such weight, who was always listened to. I certainly didn’t feel that way at school. I was awkward, anxious, and had been bullied. I had forged together some good friends and had good relationships with most everyone in my class. Still, that dress. Sitting on a throne, surveying my classmates in my mother’s red dress, I projected a confidence I’d never been able to display before. And if I could do it once, I could do it again.

I wore a floor-length, mermaid-style neon green dress absolutely covered in sequins to my junior prom. If I ever had a teen movie-style standout moment, it was in that green prom dress. Every single day of school, I wore a personal uniform of jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, and hoodie, but in my neon green gown, glittering as I moved, I felt light and relished the looks of surprise I received. Near the end of the following summer, my mom and I found a backless, wine-colored prom dress left over from the previous season. This dress was more mature, more romantic, than anything I’d ever put it. In the green dress, I had been vivid, effervescent, but in the red dress I would be daring, mature, desirable. My classmates would remember me differently. This was senior prom, after all. I think we paid $30 for it and I wore it, strappy and gauzy and slinky, in my room, trying to take pictures in the mirror that would capture what I felt while wearing this dress. But it didn’t fit perfectly, and by the time we got to March, I’d decided not to wear it. I was ready to leave high school. I loved my small circle of friends and planned to stay in contact with them forever, but everyone and everything else I was ready to leave. I didn’t care as much how they remembered me, or if they remembered me at all. So I chose to buy a new dress, one that made me feel my best and that befit the new era of my life I would soon be entering: a huge white princess dress, strapless, and overlaid with blue beaded flowers. I donated the hardly worn red dress, along with my green one, to a children’s hospital for their patients’ prom. I like to imagine the girl who got my red gown, and hope it helped her step forward boldly, and helped her say all she wished to that night.

Several years ago, one of my friends from college and his girlfriend broke up. A few months later, she had a new boyfriend but he’d chosen not to date anyone else until he graduated law school and moved back home, where he’d join a small local practice. But first was “lawyer prom”, and my friend’s ex had a new boyfriend, so he asked me to be his plus one. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of notice for this event, but I happened to have a bright red, strapless dress with deep pockets tucked in the very back of my closet. I’d bought it several years earlier on sale, but had never worn it. His friends hadn’t met me before, as it’d always just been the two of us when we went to the movies or out for lunch. I got the sense that he wanted to escape the constant drumbeat of law school for a while and we’d been friends and classmates all four years of college. So the night of lawyer prom, the red dress to dinner with his friends said, “I am a force you know nothing about.” In the ballroom, where we bumped into my friend’s ex and new beau, my dress said, “Look at me; he’s doing fine without you.” I kept thinking about my senior prom, how ready I’d been to leave and what I had wanted to say, and felt honored that I got to help my friend say it. Plus, going alone to couple-y things sucks (I’d been to enough weddings to be absolutely sure of that).

There’s visual power to a red dress, or they wouldn’t be onscreen, let alone in our lives. There’s also the Jessica Rabbit factor, the woman in the red dress as a seductress or just arm candy. To that point, I’ll leave you with the words of the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, an on-screen fashion icon whose mysteries I’ve been rewatching lately: “A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure. If these things happen to appeal to men, well, that really is a side issue.”

Rainy Brain Lies

I give a weather report for my brain when I have a bout of depression or anxiety (often both). It usually sounds like “scattered showers” or “pop-up thunderstorms” or “overcast” or just “rainy.” This past weekend, it was scattered showers. I could feel fine, not notice a problem, but twenty minutes later be sobbing in the bathroom. Between rain showers, Tyler asked me what it feels like. One of the first things I thought of was, “Rainy brain lies.”

Depression lies. Depression tells me I’ve failed, I’m worthless, I’m unwanted and unloved. There’s no convincing my brain to stop lying, or stop raining. It’s weather, you can’t control it. The best you can do is dress for it. Depression lies like a bully. After a while of saying “No” and “Not true” you realize that your arguments aren’t making a difference to him and they aren’t going to. But it’s important to keep telling the truth and to not let yourself believe the lies. That’s hardest to do, of course, when they are based on an element of truth.

I told Tyler that rainy brain lies because mine had just told me that I’ve wasted the whole summer. All the warm weather and hot dogs and baseball games and swimsuits and light dresses I’d had the opportunity to enjoy, I’d wasted. True because I didn’t meet all my goals for the summer; false because using my time differently than I had planned isn’t wasting it. False because I did thoroughly enjoy aspects of the summer, even if, truthfully, I never did buy a new swimsuit.

So I know what my brain is telling me is, ultimately, a lie. One meant to hurt me because rainy brain is a jerk and a bully. I catch the lie, then tell myself the truth.

Except, my emotions are brown water barely contained behind a levee. The surging rainwater fills it to the brim, leaking down the earth and cracking the stone. My emotions react to the lie instantly, causing water to burst out as if a huge bar of soap had been dropped into an utterly full basin of water. I tug back against the lie, and there’s no getting back the water that’s spilled over, but the rush lessens. The water goes back to it’s overfull, dangerous, roiling place, lapping at the edge of the levee. But it’s back.

And then my brain lies again.

If I lean into one lie, even for a moment, the water gains strength and my mental levee is that much harder to shore up. That much more water escapes.

Of course, this is when I have access to a range of emotions. In longer, deeper episodes of depression, I don’t. I have the lies. I have fear. I have self-condemnation. I have exhaustion. And I have the rain. Emotions like joy and silliness and contentment and anger and irritation are the chimneys on houses, occasionally peeking over the waves. And the lies are worse. This weekend, the lies were “You failed” and “You can’t do anything worthwhile” and “You’ll never accomplish your goals.” But in longer periods, the lies are, “You’re useless” and “You’re worthless” and “You don’t deserve any of the good things or people in your life” and “No one really loves you and no one ever will.”

One of the weirder things about depression in my estimation—and I’m by no means an expert on depression or anxiety or surviving either—is that because the rain is in your mind, things in your mind can help you. It’s not like breaking your leg and putting an ice pack on it. The ice helps with the pain, and that’s important, but your leg is still just as broken once the ice pack is off. With depression, the ice pack itself helps you heal.

Or, as Andrew Solomon says in one of my favorite TED talks, if you have brain cancer and feel better if you stand on your head for 20 minutes each day, “it may make you feel better but you still have brain cancer and you’re still probably going to die from it.” But if a depressed person does the same thing, and it makes that person feel better, “it’s worked because depression is an illness of how you feel, and if you feel better, you are affectively not depressed anymore.”

Watching a gif of a fox on trampoline can help. Sitting on the porch with your roommate’s dog can help. Listening to your mother’s favorite song can help. A single song isn’t going to suddenly end your depression, but if it helps, you do it over and over. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

Sometimes the point is that you really, really should brush your teeth if you at all can manage it. Sometimes the point is that you know you’ll feel worse if you don’t eat, even though you aren’t hungry and even though getting up sounds like the most unpalatable thing that you could possibly do. Some things just need doing, and there are people who suffer such extreme mental illness that they are completely incapable of doing them. But for me, during my longest bout of depression, I cut out everything possible so that I could make sure I ate at least twice a day and brushed by teeth twice a day and showered once a day.

Late Sunday night, I watched three back-to-back episodes of Modern Family because it was raining in my brain. Immersing myself in the show, which was familiar and made me laugh without requiring a lot of brain power, helped. So did the end of Look Who’s Talking?, which I hadn’t seen in years. When I got into bed, I played music for a while so I wouldn’t feel so alone and so I could focus on something other than the lies my brain was trying to tell me. And those things helped the rain to stop. But if inclement weather is troubling your brain, when you can’t find a way to make the rain stop, I hope you can find the umbrella and boots you need to keep sloshing through.

The Burden of “Happy Clothes”

The other day I was reading a book, and I’m not going to tell you which one. But, after an anecdote about the author’s mother, she wrote that adults “have the opportunity or maybe even an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit.” She followed that statement by saying adults must “show we can rise above winter’s chills by wearing happy clothes.”

I wanted to curse at her. I wanted to throw the entire book. The author’s a Christian, a long-time Bible study leader, and I wanted to shout “Is this what you teach?!?! Those poor people!”

The world isn’t entitled to a good mood from me. I don’t expect that from others. And I don’t demand that the world look “pretty” or put together or wear “happy clothes”. I’m not just talking about self-expression, which is important. I’m talking about the idea that women are pressured to present themselves, to have it all together, to show no emotion but gratitude, to never make a mistake or need a break. Men face it too.

According to the CDC, white men in this country are three times more likely to commit suicide than white women. Black and Hispanic men are only twice as likely as white women to commit suicide, but they are four times as likely as black and Hispanic women. Black women and Hispanic women are the least likely: half as likely as white women and twelve times less likely as white men. Society is built for white men. They have the most privilege. So why are they so much more likely to commit suicide? A big reason is that we don’t teach boys and men to deal with their emotions and we don’t allow men to appear weak. And it’s killing people. The burden to “convey an upbeat spirit” is killing people.

I’m sure the author, who I really don’t want to rake through the coals, wasn’t thinking in these terms. She was thinking about neuro-typical Christians exuding confidence in their faith to the outside world. Which I also have serious problems with. But I want to talk about the heavy burdens “an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit” and wear “happy clothes” place on a person’s well-being.

Let’s talk about spoon theory. It’s a concept generally used to help people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental illnesses to describe what their day is like. I’ll link you to the whole explanation here, but below is the short version.

Think of the spoons in your kitchen. You have a certain number, and that’s all you have. You cannot wash and reuse them. You can’t use a fork instead. You start every day with a specific number of spoons, and everything you do costs a spoon. Getting out of bed costs a spoon, brushing your teeth costs a spoon, flossing costs a spoon, cooking lunch costs a spoon but skipping lunch might cost two or three spoons.

When you’re well, you have a nearly unlimited number of spoons. But when you’re disabled or ill in one way or another, you have far fewer spoons. You might can borrow a spoon or two from the next day to help you get through your friend’s birthday party or a blown tire on the interstate, but you will go from 15 spoons tomorrow to 13.

Last year when I struggled with depression for two months, the four-minute task of putting on moisturizer, foundation, and eyeliner (what I consider to be my minimum makeup regimen) hardly ever happened. I didn’t have enough spoons. It wasn’t worth it to me to use a spoon to put on makeup for work. I knew it wouldn’t take long, but for once I cared more about the effort involved than I cared about the time it took. I might need that spoon to go to the grocery store later, or to take my car by the mechanic to have a light checked, or to wash my hair (another spoon for conditioner, a third to blow dry). Every spoon counts. Everything costs a spoon. Every email I read, every paragraph I wrote, getting out of bed, arranging a meal cost a spoon. My life whittled down to the bare minimum. I wore the same outfits—incredibly soft, comfortable outfits—over and over. I went to work, went home, laid on the sofa, ate at least twice a day, showered, went to bed.

I literally thank God that my coworkers didn’t bring up my lack of makeup, fifth day with a pony tail, or the third consecutive week wearing that outfit. The conversation would have cost an unexpected spoon and would have increased my anxiety and guilt for weeks about my limited number of spoons.

It’s not an act of service, and it’s definitely not an obligation, to smile and look pretty for the world. Those things cost spoons, and whether I’m struggling with depression or not that day, I may well decide that I don’t have the time or energy to bother with it. Everyone should be free of the same burden.

When I started dating Tyler, I had the energy but chose not to spend the time. Instead, I stayed up later than usual so I could spend those hours with him, and shaved off makeup time in the morning to help me recover some of my sleep. My choice was not an assault on the world. I don’t owe the world a painted face or a fake smile or a yellow blouse. (I’d also like to point out that men aren’t expected to wear makeup because we haven’t been trained to think that men need makeup to look “presentable”. Same with shaved legs.)

I don’t owe the world “presentable” anything. You don’t owe the world makeup or a smile. Other people are not entitled to the facade it expects. Do I care about people and want to be a good representation of my faith and my God? Yes. But inauthenticity drives away the hungry and gathers the shallow. I’m not going to knowingly hurt myself to make a few other people feel more at ease. And I want hurting people to know it’s okay to be hurting. That’s the kind of Christian I try to be.

***

I thought I was done with this post. I just needed a photo of a spoon, which I planned to take at my boyfriend’s, before we went to dinner and a worship service in which I was reading the opening Scripture (Psalm 145:1-3, 10-13). Even before I got to his apartment, though, my plan flew out of my head. After a busy day with little sleep, I was listening to an audiobook, reminding myself to read the Scripture passage a few more times aloud before worship, and carefully planning my nutrition intake so I’d have enough energy to stay alert through the late-starting service without sugar or caffeine crashing. I’d originally planned to go home and nap after work, then to get ready and leave from there, but I was too wired. So Tyler suggested dinner instead.

During the song immediately after I read, I realized that I hadn’t put on eyeliner. Or lipstick. Or even foundation. I’d been in too much of a rush that morning and I hadn’t gone home after work like I’d planned to, so I hadn’t remembered. And I was wearing my comfy work pants—a little high-waisted, a little baggy in the hips—instead of the skinny jeans I’d planned to be in. My loose floral top is exactly something my grandmother would wear if it only had sleeves.

So is presentation more important than the words I’d read? I hadn’t been worried about my appearance when I’d walked to the microphone. I hadn’t noticed my lack of makeup in the bathroom a few minutes earlier. During the song, though, I’d noticed someone else’s eye makeup and all the comparisons rushed to me, all my intentions I’d forgotten just like the spoon photo. I felt God nudging me, Do you owe the world “presentable” or don’t you?

I thanked God for not letting me realize until after I’d read. That’s very God and I. God teaches me something, but not when it might mess with other people’s worship. God often waits until the perfect moment, like when I’m singing the words of a praise song, to let me wrap myself up in my own self-consciousness. Then God reminds me of truth, and in this case of the words I’d written a few hours before. I asked for forgiveness, for my pride most of all.