The Renewing of Vows

A strange thing has been happening lately. People have started interacting with me—people I don't know from life outside the computer, I mean—and being nice to me. I don't know why the sudden influx, but the fact that it's all happened at once has made me a little bit paranoid. I've tried analyzing what these people might want, tried chalking it up to the politics of social media and my chosen profession, even decided that it was probably all some elaborate joke that I'm not in on.

It's weird to be paranoid about someone saying something nice to you or talking to you at all. It makes you feel like an even worse person who should be kept even further away from society than you had originally thought. The instinct is to disappear for a while, give it all time to blow over. My husband and best friend have both been trying to help me be less crazy, but for all their good intentions, the craziness just keeps escalating. To the point where I've tried to convince myself that even they have ulterior motives for talking to me. This is how I know the situation has gotten out of hand. I've always been a little bit suspicious of people who are nice to me, but never of Josh. He is the one person I trust completely. God put him in my life to show me what unconditional love looks like and Josh has never once betrayed that bond. I shouldn’t be wondering why my own husband wants to be around me.

Then the other day, as crazy people sometimes do, I wondered, "What if everyone else is just being normal? What if I’m the one with the ulterior motives?"

I once told my friend that just because a nerve was deadened didn't mean it was gone. Sometimes you feel the pain from dead nerves in other parts of your body. So if something else is hurting and you don't know why, maybe you should check your dead nerves for cutlery.

In May, that friend chose to stop living. Since then, my life has been spent earnestly praying that my remaining friends won’t do the same. And little by little, seeing a change in myself that I never would have expected. While I’m trying to show as much love as possible for my friends and family, do anything I can to keep them happy and alive, I’ve been slowly preparing myself for the worst. Every time the phone rings, I know it’s bad news. Every time I get an email I’m sure it will be too late. I don’t want to hurt like that again, so a little bit at a time, I’ve been closing myself off from everyone.

Maybe that’s the real reason I’m trying so hard to be suspicious of everyone—because I don’t want to get so deeply invested in someone else’s life that I can be hurt like that again.

That feels like a very cliche, very self-centered thing to write. My friend killed himself; his wife and so many other people who loved him so much are fighting their way through existence in spite of the pain, and the only person I’m worried about is me. But it’s true. All this time, while my brain has been telling me, “The people who are being nice to you either want something from you or are playing a joke on you,” my heart’s been screaming, "Shut off! Get out now, before it's too late!"

I used to think that thing about building emotional walls was just a cop-out. People who were afraid built walls and, by God, I would not be afraid of anything. I once told my friend, "For the record, I think you know that you could love someone like she said she loved you, but you're choosing not to. […] People always act like love is this big, uncontrollable thing when really it's just a series of conscious decisions."

Look who’s eating their words now, right?

Last week, I was sitting in the truck with the boys and we were talking about their friends at preschool. Oak said, “I want everyone in the whole wide world to be my friend.” Bear immediately said, “I don’t.”

For me, both of those things feel true. I write for a lot of reasons, but the deep and abiding one is that I want to be able to reach people. In fact, in a sort of manifesto-rant I sent my friend once in response to his musings on suicide and existentialism, I said,
“I think a lot about existential meaninglessness. Like when I realize it's Thursday instead of Monday and that even if it was Saturday it wouldn't matter because nothing is different about this day of the week or that one. In two months, probably a year, I will be doing what I did today. […] What is the point of this? I wonder. Nothing is ever going to be different. I'm just killing time so that time will be over, not so I can get from here to anywhere else. […] All I really want to do with my life is make other people's hearts hurt less. Not a realistic or measurable goal, but I do have a few specific hearts in mind. Yours is one. I've been given a whole lot of love I don't deserve, enough second chances to exonerate a serial killer caught in the act, and that kind of thing shouldn't stop with me. The phrase pay it forward grates on my nerves, but it's an accurate description. […] The truth is that existentialism doesn't really apply because the world we live in isn't absurd or meaningless. Sometimes it seems like it is when we can't see past what we're taught is the big picture—the one that just involves our lives—to the real super-big picture of all the lives ever.”

I ended the email by saying, "Well, here we are. Where are we?" like Henry from The Extra Man because my friend was a fan of Jonathan Ames and because I was hoping it would make him laugh. When I can’t do anything to help, I try to make people laugh. Like Stephen King, I’m not proud. I’ll go for the gross-out.

I want people's hearts to hurt less. I want them to know that they're not alone, that there is meaning, that life isn't just time killed so it will be over. I want them to know that God loves them and that I love them. But like I told my friend, I'm not entirely sure how to do this.

Maybe losing my friend launched me into a sort of crisis of faith. Not faith in God, but in love. I mean, I loved him so much—so many of us did—but it didn’t help. Maybe at some point over these past seven months, I decided the risk of being hurt wouldn’t be equal to the gain of loving someone, so I stopped trying.

This is something important, something I think I've been trying to forget: Love never was about me. It’s about reaching out to someone who might never have felt this kind of thing before. Maybe me loving someone can’t save them—as my sister pointed out, saving people is Jesus’ job, not mine—but maybe it can make their time on Earth a little better.

I made a promise once. I said that I would stay like this, with the barriers down, naked and vulnerable, with my hand out. Because if I can't be completely honest with you, my readers and my friends, how can you believe me when I tell you something about God or Jesus or love? I wrote that it hurts to exist like this—and back then, I didn't even know the half of it—but that I wouldn't pull my hand back because what if I did and no one else reached out to you? I said I would rather let myself be hurt than take that chance.

So, I guess the long and short of it is that I have a choice to make. I have to decide whether it's worth more to me, whether you, you who are reading this right now, are worth more to me than the pain and humiliation of loss and rejection. Whether I'm willing to risk the possibility of getting hurt or being made fun of or humiliated or rejected or whatever so I can be honest with you and love you and show you that you're not alone.

I swear I'm going to try. With all my heart, I'll try. I'll do everything that I can. Because you are worth it. God thinks so, and so do I. If you don’t have anyone else, you have Him and me.

Something else that just occurred to me: What if the people whose friendliness I’m obsessing over are doing the same thing? What if where I am right now is on the opposite side of that stretched-out hand, the “you” these people are trying to show isn’t alone? Maybe there isn’t any rejection, not really. Maybe there’s just paranoia and fear and self-hatred and the inability to believe that someone else would want to be nice to you enough that they would take the chance and reach out.

Whoa. I think I just gave myself a brain tumor.

Well, here we are. Where are we?


When is a computer not a computer?

For those of you who can't view the image, this is a picture of pure love and support. For those of you who can't view metaphors, it's a picture of my new computer.

Near the beginning of the summer, my old computer began having what people in the tech biz refer to as "freak outs." The screen would go black and the Caps Lock key would start flashing, which it turns out is really bad. (Don't worry. This isn't a horror story about losing tons and tons of files. After the first twenty times my computer freaked out, I wised up and transferred everything from my computer to a secure location.) Last month, my computer finally gave up the ghost for good.

Now, it just so happens that September, October, November, and December are the only months out of the year where all of our biggest bills are due, the months when we actually plan to have no money and scrape by eating all the weird stuff that accumulated in our freezer and on our shelves over the previous eight months.

But this year, not only did we not have the money we planned not to have, we also didn't have the money required by several surprise things that popped up. Replacing the bald tires on our truck, getting a new part for the furnace, and so on. No matter what kind of fancy fund-work we tried, there just wasn't a way to replace my computer until Josh got his Christmas bonus.

Four months without writing. In the self-publishing world, that's a death sentence for your career. In my world, that's a death sentence for me. Writing is how I live. It's how I cope with reality. It's how I measure all of my self-worth.

For a while, I tried to figure out typing on my phone. After that, I went back to my high school days and wrote in a notebook. (Imagine!) But not being able to write the amount that I'm used to writing in the time I'm used to writing it in a good ol' fashioned word processor was killing me. I didn't complain or throw any overt fits, but Josh noticed I was depressed, upset at myself, and entirely at loose ends. When you share something as deep and meaningful as a nightly tour of Skyrim, it's hard not to learn to pick up on your spouse's moods.

Last Tuesday, Josh came home and slapped a check on the counter.

"We're buying you a new computer," he said.

"What?" I said. "How?"

"I asked if I could work the next four Fridays and get paid up front," he said.

To fully understand this, you need to know that near the beginning of the year, Josh started going in at five every morning and working through lunch every day so he could come home at three and have Fridays off. He did it so he could spend more time at home with the boys and me. For him to sacrifice four of his Fridays to buy me a stupid computer was too much.

All I could do was ask him why.

He shrugged. "I want you to be able to write."

Q: When is a computer not a computer?

A: When it's physical proof that I'm loved and supported by one of the best men in history, a man who is constantly sacrificing for my dream. Something I already knew, by the way. But now you know it, too.


Goodbyes Come in Twos

You were crazier than anyone ever and your name was accurate. You made Brooklyn a little more bearable and La Plata unsafe for small game. Thanks for tearing through our lives like the eight-foot, two-ton monster you were, Gypsy. Rest in peace.


The Inherent Problems with the Present Tense

There’s no laundry left in my house to wash or to fold. No dirty dishes. No toys to put away. The kitchen countertops are sparkling clean. Every floor in every room has been swept. I even scrubbed the bathroom sink. The boys are taking a nap right now. I know when they wake up, they’ll start spreading the sticky, crumby mess little kids somehow create out of thin air, but for now there’s nothing left to clean here.

Obsessive housekeeping isn’t one of my compulsions. I count to and divide by four. I replay the last sentence I hear spoken over and over again until someone says something else. I don't clean.

This is how I know I’ve gone into a tailspin. This goes beyond binge drinking and having mini-breakdowns while singing along with “Last Dance with Mary Jane” (both of which I’ve done in the last twelve days). Cleaning everything in my world as if never slowing down or sitting still will keep my mind off of what happened reads too much like a literary shortcut some pretentious tosser (the kind of tosser who was born and raised in the US, but who says things like “tosser”) would use in a New Yorker-bound story. And then at the end, the tosser would deliver “the big reveal” or “the emotional payoff” by having the housewife break down in tears when there’s nothing left to clean and finally let you, the reader, in on what happened.

This is what happened: My friend shot himself.

Now I’m going to jump back in time to give you a picture of the person who died, to make you understand why his loss should hurt so much. Another literary device used almost exclusively by tossers.

Casey was the first person at Pratt to be nice to me. Freshman Week, when I was drowning in homesickness, loneliness, and a growing sense of intellectual inadequacy, Casey absorbed me into his sphere. I don’t know why he even bothered talking to me. I wasn’t cool enough or smart enough to hang out with him or his friends. Maybe because I seemed like a stray and because Casey never in his life met a stray cat that he didn’t have a full conversation with.

However it happened, he and I got to talking about Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Casey said he had a comic I had to read.

That set the tone for the rest of our friendship. Comic books and graphic novels functioned as a faux glue, holding us together over the years. Even during the times we fell out over the real glue, one of us could email the other and ask, “What did you think about Incognito? The end of the war would’ve been a more natural ending point for Fables. I Kill Giants made me cry. Did you see this Francesco Francavilla joke?” and suddenly we would be back to normal.

I wish I could’ve told him about this tweet I saw the other day: “Cool Batsuit, Daredevil!” I know he would’ve appreciated it. Daredevil was Casey's favorite corporately-owned superhero. (I have to say it like that, with specifics because he was also dead-set against the principals of the corporate comic book companies and preferred to buy creator-owned whenever he could.) He thought Daredevil would adapt perfectly for television—a blind lawyer who fights crime in the courtroom by day and on the streets by night.

I wonder where this post is going. It feels like it’s started to wander. But if you’re going to talk about Casey, you have to talk at least a little bit about comics. That might be the only facet of him that I can halfway capture. There were sides of Casey that I never saw, and sides of him that were so complicated that I can’t possibly put them into words, but I want to get as much of him written down here as I can, so that someday I can look back on it and not cry.

I wonder if that will ever happen, the not-crying.

What really sucks is that for all of his openhearted kindness and weirdly Connecticut brand of humor, Casey carried a lot of darkness and pain around inside. He didn’t think he deserved to get rid of it, but he couldn’t stand to let someone else hurt like that.

One weeknight, a few years after we graduated, Casey talked to me into the wee hours of the morning, until he had convinced me not to take the rest of the painkillers from my son’s birth and wash them down with the rest of the scotch in my house. “Don’t get down with the darkness, eden,” he said. There were other times, days when I begged Casey not to run his car headlong into traffic, nights when I tried to talk him out of hanging himself.

I wanted so badly to convince him that he was more good than bad. I bet a lot of people wanted that. We just couldn’t. If someone ever got too close to that truth, Casey would either ignore them or tell them something awful in attempt to push them away. I don’t think he ever realized that those confessions just underscored how amazing it was that the light in him could shine through in spite of the world’s attempts to destroy it in the worst possible ways.

Maybe that’s where this post is going. One of Casey’s favorite complaints was how unfair it was that he’d made it to his twenties without ever manifesting superpowers. But he did have a superpower—that goodness inside of him refused to lay down and die, even in the face of insurmountable evil.

I think under normal circumstances, I would want to get some distance and perspective before I wrote about something like this. I’d want to see what new light six months would cast on his decision to leave. It would be nice not to feel this—whatever this is. Even though I knew somewhere deep down that it couldn’t end any other way, I hoped and prayed that it wouldn't. Like, seriously, Casey? The expected unexpected? That’s literary wankfiction and we both know it. You should’ve turned into a zombie or gotten eaten by a T-Rex.

More than anything, I feel like I failed Casey. I thought we were both going to make it out of the dark. I thought somehow, by the grace of God, we would both be okay. I thought if I prayed hard enough and loved Casey enough, that if I was a good enough friend to him, if I convinced him that he wasn’t alone…

If I'm completely honest, I'm angry with God. I know Casey doesn’t hurt anymore. I know he’s finally able to enjoy all the things that were stolen from him in this life. And I know this is an irrational and selfish and short-sighted way of looking at things, but right now it feels like God put Casey in my life and in my heart just to tear him out.

I can’t keep writing this. Mostly because I can’t stop crying. I think I only have a certain amount of real emotion I can express and feel each day—thus the obsessive cleaning—and Casey’s death has put me well over my limit for the next several years.

In the last few months before his death, Casey and I had broken down to an email every couple weeks, punctuated sporadically with godawful jokes by text. The last text he sent me was, “What does a fat nerd call his stomach? Middle Girth!” I sent him, “That was worth the weight.”

I keep seeing and reading things I wish I could talk to him about. Then I remember that I was going to email him the day before he killed himself to tell him I started reading The Shining (one of two King books he gave me because he thought it was ridiculous I hadn’t read them yet) and finally saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I put it off. The next morning I got the call. How’s that for a lesson in not procrastinating?

This is maybe one of my favorite stories about Casey. It makes me laugh every time, so I think it’s a good place to end this monstrosity of a post.

One day in studio (I think it was junior year), Casey was asked to start the workshop on my story. This came immediately after he slammed another classmate's story for everything from poor verb choice to illogical sentence structure. Everyone had tried to contradict Casey and tell him he was being too harsh on our classmate's story, that he was nitpicking at technicalities, that he wasn’t even acknowledging the positives. Eventually he just said, “Fine,” and sat back in his chair. Not in that way people do when they mean “I agree with you” or “Okay, you have a point.” He did it in that way people do when what they really mean is “I know I'm right, but you wankers won't see reason, so fuck it.”

So, on the heels of this, our professor asked Casey to start my workshop. Maybe our professor did it to see if Casey would take the easy way out after having been forced to defend his last critique until he was exhausted. Or maybe our professor just enjoyed the last fight so much that he or she wanted to see what would happen with this one. Other than inter-studio tension, there can’t be that much interesting in the world of teaching writing to pretentious undergrad douchebags.

As Casey shuffled my manuscript to the top of his (always coffee- and food-stained) pile of papers, you could feel the anticipation hanging in the air. Everyone was preparing to jump all over the first thing he said.

Casey looked down at my first page and sighed. “Where to start? Well, aside from the inherent problems with the present tense—”

“I love you, Casey,” I interrupted.

He laughed—everybody did—but I meant it. I still do. I love you, Casey. Thanks for never pulling any punches. Thanks for trying to make me a better writer. Thanks for introducing the phrases “literary wankfiction” and “pretentious tosspots” into my life. Thanks for being my friend. I could go back and tighten this post up, fix the problems and try to string a unifying theme through, but I don't think I will. Sometimes it was really funny to do the opposite of what you considered good writing. I love you.


Everything I Need

It was beautiful out this morning—temperature got up to eighty, the sun was shining like there was no tomorrow, and the boys were at their grandparents' house—so Josh and I drank our coffee out in the camper and talked about all the things that have to be done before The Move.

For those of you who don't know: Josh and I have spent the last year or so preparing to move from our 800-square-foot house to a 200-square-foot camper. This has obviously required a lot of going through stuff and getting rid of stuffwith Josh doing most of the downsizing and me doing most of the procrastinating.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want stuff. I love the weightlessness that comes from having no things. But some junk I feel like I just can’t get rid of. (My granny gave me this. Somebody, somewhere, could probably use this. Okay, this isn’t useful, but it isn’t broken, either. And this is from that one time, remember?) So I’ve put off working on this for as long as possible.

For the last month, there have been three totes stacked up in our living room next to the entertainment center. The final three totes that need to be gone through. And they’re all full of my crap.

Sitting there in the camper this morning, staring our totally awesome future in the face, it occurred to me: I only really need four things—four actual, physical objects—to be happy, and none of them are in those totes.

Ready for the list?
  1. Coffee (this assumes all related objects, like the coffee maker, coffee cup, creamer, filters, etc)
  2. Something to write on
  3. Something to read
  4. Cookies

I know I can survive without any of that stuff, but those are the objects that I feel enrich my life.

Obviously, I’m not talking about the emotional fulfillment I get from playing with Oak and Bear, the intellectual stimulation of talking to my husband, or the peace and contentment that comes from my relationship with God. That stuff doesn’t take up any physical space.

What I am talking about is how every night I go to bed looking forward to that first cup of hot, sweet, creamy coffee I’m going to drink when I wake up—and the nirvana of actually drinking it in the morning. How I can lay awake for hours thinking through the scene I’m going to start writing on tomorrow—and the feeling of finishing that scene and knowing it’s just right. How time disappears when I’m possessed by a good book and how I never want to stop reading. And cookies. Because duh.

Those four things are the only objects I really need in this life to be happy. Everything else is just stuff.

Which isn’t to say that I’m going to run inside and start working on those totes. It's still beautiful out here and procrastination is still my favorite way to deal with things that need immediate attention. But I feel like I hit on a truth that will help me when I finally can't put off going through those totes any longer.


Night Drive

Nothing takes me back to my childhood quite as powerfully as long drives after dark—especially if it’s Saturday and the Country Gold is cranked up loud.

It was the only time I wasn’t afraid of watching the night sky. I would lay in the back seat, staring out the window at the stars, listening to the radio blast “Feed Jake” or “There Goes My Baby.” I wanted to know all the words to every song. I never wanted to get home, but somehow I always fell asleep just before we did.

I wonder if our boys will think back on night drives when they’re my age. If the world in that memory will shrink to the green glow from the dash, a black sky full of white stars or maybe rain, and favorite song after favorite song on the radio. If they’ll remember waking up as they’re carried inside and feeling sad that the music is over, but too comfortable in Mama or Daddy’s arms to complain.


Coping Mechanisms as Story Generators

Finding a story to tell has never been a problem for me. I attribute this to a coping mechanism I developed as a child. When I'm too hurt, scared, or angry to deal with what I'm feeling, I let my imagination wander off for a while. I put myself in the shoes of someone who can take a lot more punishment than I can, then I give them a completely different set of problems. Ignoring the psychological implications, that kind of escapism makes for a lot of fun stories.

The actual process goes something like this: Wake up in the middle of the night, scared to death? Imagine you live in a world where you're only awake at night and you're not scared.

Why is the world like that? Because after the revolution, dichotomous political parties came to power and the country has been in a tense power struggle ever since. At present, things are so divided that they've literally become night and day for the people aligned with the opposing parties.

Why are you, specifically, awake (and not scared) in the middle of the night? Because I'm a former child soldier who still takes contracts from the general who was my commanding officer during the revolution. The whole country can feel another war coming, and right now this second, I'm helping smuggle kids out of the country before the outbreak under cover of darkness.

Does your former CO know? No, he would want the kids around because if they're trained young enough, they become the most effective killers, like I did.

Then why are you doing it? Because the girl I love wants to protect as many kids as she can from turning out like we did.

This coping mechanism/method of calming myself down/story builder works for me because:
1. It has nothing I'm currently trying to avoid (monsters, nightmare stuff, etc.).
2. It pretends that one of my enemies (the dark in this case) is actually my friend.
3. It has all of the story elements I like (an unfamiliar world, danger, romance, and a main character who is a badass).

Is this a healthy way to deal? I don't know. All I know is it helps me go back to sleep and it's one of the reasons I never worry that I'll run out of stories to tell. Heck, I have a 10,000-story backlog from childhood to now, all I have to do is pick one.

Whether or not I'll be able to do those stories justice is a whole other post.