The Dressing Room Narrative: Changing the Story

There’s got to be a way to change this narrative.

That’s what I’m thinking when the door swings shut with bang so loud it startles me.  Already on edge, I do that thing where I scream in my head. Fuuuuccckkkkkkk.

I take a deep breath and introduce myself to the four walls.  “I’m Christie.  If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.”  To the mirror, I mustered a smile as a truce:  Let’s leave the past behind us, ‘kay?

 

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Outside the door, I hear a young girl call after her mother.  “Grab the extra-small,” she says.  “The small is too big.”

Deep breaths.   We’re doing this differently, remember?

I start with the easy stuff.  Black.  Then navy.  I work my way up to actual spring-colored clothes.  I think about my rule for looking at pictures of myself: If I can’t look with love, then I stop looking until I can.  I rarely look at recent pictures of myself.  It’s safer to go back in time– graduations, honeymoons, four months after my first baby.  Something about the here-and-nowness of my body makes me want to look with something darker and more acrid than love.

Two years from now, I’ll look back at a picture of this time– oh, Easter 2014– and I’ll think of myself, not bad.  Not bad at all.  But in the moment, my eye scans for flesh.  Then magnifies .  Distorts.  I can’t breathe.  This is my eating disorder at 40 years old.  It’s not furtive heaves over a toilet after dinner or skipping meals before a long run.  It’s a steady picking, picking, picking at my physical appearance, a stash of shame and misery so potent I consider it my “nuclear option”.  It’s guaranteed to ruin my mood; all I have to do is push the red button.

I pull a dress over my head.  A multi-colored shift– Banana-Republic-does-Pucci.  I take a deep breath.  I do the full-body scan.  I step back from the edge of disgust and the accumulated debris from all my bad habits in small spaces like this.  I’m desperate for distance, thirsty for a larger room without a mirror.

If this is going to be different, I have to do something different.

I smile at myself with compassion because even though this whole process erases my entire IQ, I never lose sight of my gnawing need for compassion.  I dare to check the side view.  I keep smiling, even though I’ve gone too far.  I’m ready for side angles.  Not with the substandard bra I’m wearing.

“How’s everything going in there?”  A chirpy sales woman asks, still shiny on this holiday weekend.  I mumble that I am great and hope she never ever comes back.

We were going to change the narrative, right?  After all, what happens to me in those moments is that I fall under the spell of a story.  A story that yanks down my serenity with such force that it leaves scratch marks, deep grooves that sting to the touch.  The story is worn and frayed, like a library book that hundreds of kids have taken home and tried to feed to their feral pets.  But I’ve memorized it: You should be skinnier because then you would be prettier, more in control, more loveable, more secure.  Just somehow better and, however illogically, smarter and more successful.

I take off the Pucci-esque dress, because, honestly, where am I wearing that? To swim lessons and to the grand opening of the new grocery store down the street?  I put on something that doesn’t trigger me quite so thoroughly– a colorful blouse with black pants.   I opt against the full-body scan.  I look myself in the eyes and stand up a little taller.  My mind, unable to spit out some soothing new narrative like you’re a beautiful woman, remains blank.  But that’s a miracle considering all the negative things that have marched through it over my lifetime.

It’s not a new narrative, but it’s a start.

 

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Should I Run To Target Right Now For Half-Priced Easter Crap?

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Ya’ll, I can’t think straight right now.  My brain is so addled with guilt that it feels like I have cotton balls where my gray matter should be.  Instead of having a thinker that can hum with solutions and solve complex problems, all mine is good for is removing nail polish.

I’m distracted because I keep thinking I should run over to Target and buy my kids proper Easter baskets filled with chocolate and jelly bellies.  It’s probably half price by now, and it’s only just a few blocks away. 

The thing is all I did for Easter was have my kids dye hard-boiled eggs and find them in the morning.  There were no baskets, no bunnies, no sugar, no plastic, no damn bonnets.  Nothing that I recognized from my own childhood Easters.   I’d stopped by Target twice last week to get the stuff, and both times I walked out with nothing.  I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for spending money on crap they’ll either (1) fight over, (2) devour and then feel sick, or (3) complain that it wasn’t enough.

And when you are the parent who was raised Christian in the family, Easter falls on your shoulders.  I can’t expect Jeff to cook an entire Passover Seder meal and then go out and wander among the Easter aisles one week later.

I couldn’t find the spirit or the fun in it.  And on the consumer-minimalist I most certainly fall on the consumerist side, which is why I am fighting the urge to remedy my super lame Easter performance by trolling the discount aisles and begging for a do-over tonight.  I spent half the morning thinking that I did a good thing by not contributing to the parade of shitty sugar stuff offered to my children as a substitute for meaningful celebration.  The other half I spent chiding myself for being such a buzz kill for demonizing fun stuff like chocolate and edible farm animals.

So, which is it? Did I do a good thing  or a lazy thing?  And most important: Should I spend my lunch hour at Target?

 

On Having a Two-Year-Old Manuscript

Here’s a list of things I’ve done for more than two years for free on my own volition that require nothing from any other person other than myself (marriage and motherhood don’t count because those vaunted roles requires a spouse and children, respectively):

Exercise

Brush my teeth

WORK ON A NOVEL

2-year-Anniversary

Last week was my manuscript’s second birthday, and so I’m pausing to reflect on what exactly it means that I’ve stuck with this story that hitherto existed only in my head.  Writing and revising a manuscript is not like exercise or brushing my teeth: for one thing, it doesn’t make my ass look more toned, nor does it freshen my breath.  The value of working on a manuscript is intrinsic– I feel amazing when I open the current file and compare it to that wobbly first draft, that wasn’t so much a novel as a string of expository ramblings designed to help me work through a number of resentments (law firm life, law school culture, the glass ceiling, mental health care).

I’m not sure exactly how to characterize the draft I have today, but it’s at least not that.  Or it’s not just that.  There’s other stuff that’s supposed to be there.

Since April 9, 2012, I’ve actually read books on how to write a novel.  I went to the Yale Writers Conference to meet other writers, both aspiring and established.  I’ve showed up for writing group every single month, then, in a fit of insanity, I joined a second writing group so for the past six months I’ve submitted my work to peer review twice a month.  I still can’t believe I’ve done that.

And ohmylord I’m so grateful for the women in my writing groups.  They’ve performed CPR on my manuscript, rescuing it from languishing in that deeply flawed second draft.  They’ve challenged me (“This would never happen”), offered invaluable suggestions (“Tell us what happens as soon as she finds out”), and they’ve pissed me off (“You know, it takes seven drafts to get to publication”).  Oh how they’ve pissed me off as they’ve found every fissure and cracked it open with their iron fists.  They were the messengers I wanted to shoot for highlighting weaknesses I knew were there, but hoped were invisible to readers.  And without them, there’d be no third draft, no beating desire to reach the summit of publication.  Hell, without them, there might not even be story arc, for Plato’s sake.

Today, I’m almost done with my third draft.  Sometimes I open the document to a random page and read a few paragraphs that I haven’t worked on in some time.  More than once, I’ve found myself shaking my head in disbelief: Did I really write that? That’s funny. Or That’s not half bad.  And sometimes, dear readers, I think to myself: Damn, that’s good. 

Sure, there are plenty of passages I read that disappoint me because they don’t shimmer on the page like they do in my head.  I burn with frustration when I can’t bend, arrange, or control the words to make the story do what I want it to.  Sometimes I pick up a new book and find the prose and story so gorgeous that it seems like a criminal act to continue to plod along on my pedestrian path. (Ahem, Ms. Tartt, I’m looking at you and your Pulitzer Prize.)

But I continue plodding along because I can’t stop.  I haven’t found a more suitable passion or a more satisfying way to spend my spare time.  And now she’s two.  Terrible twos.  So begins the era when she’s going to start wanting to do everything on her own– there will be tantrums, flailing arms, screaming fits in public places.  She’s going to start to separate from me and assert her autonomy, in that long individuation process that will ultimately result her going out into the world uncleaved from me, her creator.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to do what’s been working since the beginning: When the kids go to bed, I’m going to sit down and keep writing.

 

 

Who’s Got Time For Stitches?

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The onion was slippery and the knife was dull.

You know how it went from there.  Crimson-splotched wads of tissue paper littered my counter while I paced the kitchen with my finger raised high over my head.  A perverted victory march.

Because all of my medical knowledge comes from Gilligan’s Island, I reflexively searched for a coconut to apply pressure and The Professor to give me advice.  My kids were worried enough to stop fucking bickering for four hot seconds and Jeff was pulling out ointments and tapes.  I was in good hands.

The problem was that it was already 5:40 PM, and I wanted to get my vegetable-filled dinner in the pot, the kids in the bath, and go on a run before the sun went down.  Oh and Simon needed to eat something STAT so he could take his medicine so he could get well.  The next day his classroom was having a Seder.  I wanted to be there.  It would be awkward if I showed up without him.

Jeff wrapped fancy medical tape around my finger and promised that I’d be fine to run in ten minutes.  But two minutes later, wooziness clouded my eyes and the floor pitched.

No run for me.

My surrender was a slump in the chair.  Damn. I can’t get the timing of anything right.  I heard the faint tinkling of pity chimes.  If only I’d decided we had plenty of vegetables and didn’t need the onion.  Pea pods would have been just fine.  If only I knew how to sharpen a knife, then my heart would be pumping from soul-stirring cardio–  (I’d just downloaded two Beyonce songs; I meant business)– and not from the pain of having sliced the Christmas out of my middle finger.  I once heard on NPR that dull knives are ten times more dangerous than sharp ones.  Mental note: donate money to public radio.

The bleeding stopped long enough for me to take a walk before dinner.  I put on a black glove and walked the whole way with my hurt finger on my shoulder, thinking surely it’s true that I should keep my injury above my heart.  The Professor must have been right about that much.

Maybe rushing around doesn’t work, Jeff said once the lights were out.  Grateful to be soft enough to hear that as an observation and not a criticism, I agreed.  My finger was throbbing because I stacked too many planes on my tarmac– cramming must-do’s into the 5-7PM slot is lunacy.  Asking for trouble.  Inviting in heartache.  And apparently physical pain.

I haven’t looked under the bandage.  It’s been almost twelve hours.  I’m afraid I should have gotten stitches, but who has that kind of time?

 

 

Core Discovery: Sorrow’s Underneath All That Rage

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Witty.  Sharp-tongued.  Snarky.

Later the B-word.  Somtimes the C-word.  Each label a partner to dance with– we do-si-doed, took turns leading– then we went our own ways to find other partners. 

I’m always in search of words that fit me better, tighter, like cashmere, only not as hot.

I’ve always imagined that I am comprised of layers that sit uneasily atop one another like those diagrams of the Earth’s layers in my sixth grade physical science textbook .  I never once doubted that like the Earth, my core was pure magma– raging, roiling and molten.  A rage that could clear hundreds of acres of forest and a dozen subdivisions in a single rush.  How else do you get to be as “snarky” as I am if you aren’t angry as hell way deep down where no one can see?

I’ve hung my hat, staked my claim, and bet all my chips on my anger.  Because it’s powerful– it’s a heart throbbing.  A protective shield that makes me feel alive, each mitochondria bursting with kinetic energy.  Kill or be killed.  I’m tightly coiled around a maypole of boiling rage.

That’s me. That’s who I am.

I thought it was immutable. 

Then one day, a sharp word pierced me like a spear.  I sat, cheeks burning and pulse revving like a Mustang.  Here we go.  Except I didn’t.  I sat waiting for my core self to expel the lava like an active volcano.   The deep breaths I took plunged me deeper into myself.  Something beyond that vast expanse of anger.  I didn’t put up a fight.  I let the wound throb and ooze.  I went deeper still.

Turns out there’s something beyond all that anger.  There’s a deep, quiet space below that.  It’s solid sorrow.  On its banks, I felt the rage swirling above my head aching to spring out and defend, fight, condemn, justify.  I let it roil and sat down.

It’s quiet in sadness.  There’s no frenetic energy longing to spout.  There is sorrow and ungrieved losses and goodbyes.  Warm tears dripped on my hands folded in my lap.  The innermost core of sadness is a place of no words.  I don’t feel sexy or inviolable or strong.  I feel soft and little and vulnerable.

I miss my barrage of words and hissing anger.  The power of anger feels farther away than the Middle Ages.  Like a balloon that lost all its air, I’m no longer swollen with rage.  I steeping in grief and stepping closer to you.

What’s the word for this?

Two Kids. Two Different Spring Breaks.

The best part of spring break so far: This.  Fucking this.

The best part of spring break so far: This. Fucking this. And for the record, this is not Switzerland or Park City.  It’s the park by my house in Chicago.  It was our spring break destination.

 

Let’s play a game.

Okay.  Sit up.  Put on your thinking cap, your listening ears and your big girl pants.  Think long and hard before you answer this question because valuable prizes await you.  Deep breaths.  Do a few push ups to really get your blood flowing.  Beat your chest.  Brush your hair.  Toss back a breath mint.

Ready?

Okay.

Question: What is the best part of having two kids with two different spring breaks?

If you guessed abso-fucking-lutely nothing, then you win.  Pat yourself on the back and tune in to QVC right now– whatever they are selling, buy it.  You deserve it.  Give them my credit card number.  My password is FckSprgBrk

Because spring break, can so suck it.  And I’m not even mad at the weather, though I have every stinking right to be.

Here’s how spring break is going down in my house.  Sadie went first.  Of course her spring break was really a winter break since it snowed every other day, but I digress.  (What the world needs now is a few more bloggers complaining about the weather.  Amiright?)  Anyway, each morning I had to drag her out of bed and explain that no, she wasn’t going to school, but Simon was and she had to get in the car with us.  Then, both of them would burst into spasms of devastation: Sadie because she wasn’t going to school; Simon because he was.

It made our normal, both-kids-going-school routine seem like a morning at my favorite spa, the one where Enya plays nonstop and some hot Cuban guy hands me fresh strawberries and cucumber water.

Oh the keening of my children for the other’s experience.

To survive the break, I planned wonderful activities for me and Sadie to do while Simon was in school.  As I explained those to Sadie, Simon choked on his own grief.

It was terrible.  All of it.

The good news is that we can relieve all of those special moments in two weeks when Simon’s spring break starts.  Extra bonus for all: Simon’s spring break lasts for two weeks.  Whatkindofschoolbreaksfortwoweeks?  When I think of ten more days of the uninterrupted strife I will endure as I try to parent two people who seem more like soap opera stars than little children, my mind goes blank.  Like that blue screen that shows up when your computer is trying to tell you to go fuck yourself  in its mute, computer-y way.

There must be a way to do this better.  But I can’t think of it.  All I can do is see that blank screen in my mind and feel my body shaking with dread so strong I think I might give myself shingles.

Someone please help me.

 

Signs Your Downton Abbey Binge Is Unhealthy

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“Jeff, if I die, please don’t have an affair with Jose.”

That  is not a sentence I ever would have said (out loud) if it wasn’t for Downton Abbey, which, is quite possibly ruining my life.  We’d just watched the episode where Tom the chauffeur, still grieving Lady Sibyl, slept with one of the house maids.  Jose is the man who cleans our house, hence the warning for Jeff not to sleep with him if I die of eclampsia in childbirth.

Jeff and I have watched all four seasons in the past few weeks right before bed.  You know what that means, right? It means that I pick up the plot points during my dreams and wake up speaking with an English accent.

Sometimes I wake up a ladies’ maid like Anna, and I spend the morning calling Jeff “Mr. Bates,” periodically asking him where his cane is.  Other days, I wake up asking for my valet to come and help me put on my sports bra and skinny jeans.  On the best days, I wake up as Lady Mary Crawley and spend the morning scowling, talking shit about my sister Edith, and shooing away suitors with luxurious heads of hair.  Those days my actual family members run away when they see me coming.

The other day I wanted a cup of tea (of course)  and rooted around the drapes for that bell you can pull to make a footman appear with your cuppa Earl Gray.  I didn’t find anything there except a petrified piece of string cheese and a dried out marker.

Life has become a constant set of disappointments now that I believe that I am either a Countess or a high-ranking servant to landed gentry.  I looked on Craig’s List for a blonde Labrador retriever that I planned to name Isis.  That was alarming because I fucking hate dogs.  Then I thought about getting a fish to name Mr. Pamuk, since I work his name into a conversation Every.  Single.  Day.  (“Jeff, can you pick up some bananas at Costco, and OMGdoesn’tthatguylooklikeMr.Pamuk?”)

As of this week, this little “problem” has bled into my work life.  Imagine how annoyed my co-workers are that I constantly tell them what Downton character they remind me of?  Yesterday I told our deputy that she was being a Miss Patmore for refusing to embrace a new courtroom technology.  Having never seen the show, she was amused until someone told her that Miss Patmore is the “short, fat, irascible house cook with bad red hair” on a PBS period drama.  Now, she’s not speaking me.

I imagine it could be worse.  Come to think of it, this doesn’t bode well for the next binge we have scheduled.  Breaking Bad.  Does this mean I will wake up craving heroin and acting like a bad ass?