For Henry, Ashley, and especially, Mark
We often talk about how people don’t change. Or can’t change. I think we can, but it often requires a scary process of awareness, which inevitably involves digging into the past. How many experiences, conversations, relationships have we buried? I can answer this for myself: many. I can also acknowledge that I’ve dug up a lot. And without patting myself on the back too much, that’s kind of brave.
In my life I’ve faced abuse, an eating disorder, a near breakup of my marriage, pregnancy loss, and depression. Whenever I re-start therapy, I have to go through the same discourse: “Why do I deserve therapy? I only have first world problems. It seems so selfish to talk about myself.” An ex-boyfriend once told me that he went to therapy to be a better friend, a better son, a better brother. I was astonished by that totally reasonable explanation. There wasn’t any drama or trauma necessarily; he just wanted to keep growing. I did have some trauma to confront, but I also wanted to be, well, better.
As we age our skin literally begins to thin. I’m 37 and already I’m beginning to notice that if my hand nicks anything it bleeds. Now that’s thin skin. I think aging also brings a more acute awareness of our bodies. They’re not as resilient, nor are they as forgiving. I am a runner, and no amount of ironman or marathons can completely diminish the soft layer of skin around my waist. But change, maybe even love, happens when we accept and embrace our softness.
The writer Glennon Doyle talks about wanting to become smaller throughout her early life. Like me, she was born with an extra bit of sensitivity to the world. I held onto words and memories, and then took shelter from them by trying to disappear. I was a senior in college when I attempted total disappearance. As clothes began to fall off of my jutting hips and bony back, a jolt of serotonin told me that I was succeeding. Whether this came from ancient feedback loops in my brain from times of ancestral famine, who knows, but I skimmed above the surface of my depression on the calculated, fastidious rhythms of starvation. How did I escape? Softness.
The first softness of my adulthood led me out of the throes of anorexia. It came from a man named Henry. I named my first child after him. What I learned from Henry is that I could be loved. Even in the worst condition of my life. He just kept on liking me. And I was completely, and utterly, astonished by that. This happened again to me when Mark and I moved to Portland, Oregon. I met Ashley. And she just kept on liking me. And then it happened again, and again. And I realize now that something in me must have shifted to allow this to happen.
We cling to resentment, grudges, addiction, and fear with fierceness, hoping that we can isolate and protect our softness. But when we give way to it, through therapy or AA or even forgiveness, we welcome love, and with love comes acceptance.
As I think now about children being ripped from their parents’ arms I can feel that old fear creep in: disappear, disappear, disappear. The world can be so much, too much, at times. But my friend Nan told me recently, this, this here, it’s meaningful. Whether we’re writing from our hearts, flying to Texas to help reunite parents with their children, voting for change, calling a sister we lost along the way, or forgiving ourselves, we can find the softness to heal.