on rape narratives

For Bethy and Dr. Ford

I was a senior in high school when two, male classmates tried to rape me.  It was the year after my serious boyfriend and I broke up.  He left for college and I was stuck with one more year of school.  I missed him terribly, and alcohol made me miss him less.  I was also insecure, which in retrospect was definitely a theme among my mostly privileged, affluent, white classmates.  There were lots of parties in big houses, with some hooking up, and some bad, drunk dancing.  There were also old rumors of “non-consensual” sex from past years, but there was no condemnation or outrage.  These stories were brought up as part of a list of possible outcomes.


The night of this particular party, I drank too much.  I danced with friends, and we jumped in the pool.  We ate junk food until very late at night, and as people started fading—either falling asleep or partying elsewhere—I tripped my way around the house looking for an empty room where I could sleep.  I found a bedroom, but I didn’t make it to a bed.  Instead, I curled up on the floor.


I remember voices.  Men’s voices.  I remember hearing laughing.  I remember someone tugging at my pants.  I remember whispered giggling and more pulling.  Laces, zippers, buttons releasing.  I remember serious, lower whispers, and another yank of clothing.  It was at this point that I remember my brain telling my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t.  I was too weak to move.  I also remember thinking this isn’t really going to happen.  They’ll stop.  It’s not actually going to happen.


And it didn’t happen, because moments later the lights went on in the room and I heard a woman’s voice, but I couldn’t understand her.  I felt hands release my body and there was shuffling and footsteps.  I remember a blanket resting on my skin with a safe, heavy weight.  I felt enclosed and concealed.  And I fell back asleep.


I woke up the next morning—only a few hours later—with none of my clothes on, but the blanket still wrapped around my body.  My underwear was around my ankles; my shirt, bra and pants were in a pile.  I didn’t immediately remember what had happened, but as I dressed, I remembered the woman’s voice.  And then the rest came back.


I left the house without talking to anyone.  I went home, showered, and went back to sleep.


I woke up with a start, and a tightness in my chest that left me gasping for air.  I let out a sob as I relived the night.  They hated me so much that they wanted to rape me.  And now they would be disappointed that they hadn’t, which would make them hate me more.  I was trash.  Garbage.  The kind of woman that men don’t love.  I would never be loved.


It wasn’t until the following Monday that I heard from a friend that everyone was talking about me.  The two men had boasted about it to their friends on the soccer team.  They told everyone what they almost did.  And that the mother of the host of the party had stopped them.  There was no embarrassment or shame that they had tried to rape me.  They were proud and were telling everyone.  Their only embarrassment was that they hadn’t succeeded.


I never said or did anything about it.  I just held my breath until the rumors ended.  At home I couldn’t speak without sobbing so I hid in my room watching television shows that I hoped, desperately, would transport me away.


Things became worse.  I was the blindsided recipient of new, character-shattering labels.  I was called a slut; I became a guilty, albeit unwitting, actor in their assassination of my identity.  There was no shelter, no mask, no protection from an emotional and psychological assault that eventually usurped the actual, attempted sexual assault.   In my class year book, I kid you not, I was voted “most likely to sleep with Bill Clinton.”  I’m sure on a scorecard of unkindness that has to count as incalculable.


And yet, I, we, persist.  We do not yield to the cruelty entirely.  We struggle and strain against it; we find moments of clarity and we lie down in the sweet comfort of knowing that there might be another narrative.  There are people who see us, entirely, and at first we do not trust their kindness.  It feels foreign and we are hesitant, perhaps weary of its permanence.   Eventually, through years of work, we learn to love, and trust.  We also look back and think of that young girl.  She’s so tender-hearted and scared.  I want to say to her,  “Oh, honey.  You are so brave.  You can stand, even all alone.”




Rape stories, especially in schools, leak into the cracks of the walls and settle on the dust in the floor boards.  These insidious reiterations enter the victim’s marrow like cancer.  They become embedded in the subconsciousness of cliques and teams, clubs and carpools.  They even make it to the teachers and administrators who know, but don’t want to know.  And this culture doesn’t just condone the behavior, it acquiesces to a level of fear and a desire for stasis that relegates women to the sidelines as victims of “alleged” rape narratives.  Women, crawling on their hands and knees—waiting for a hand to pull them up and into the arms of being known, are cast aside.  We are told there is a “bigger” narrative.  We are not a part of it.


Here is my wish.  The mother rescues the girl, then softly says, “Come here, sweet girl.  We will never let this happen again.” And the boys apologize, maybe even twenty years later.  And they teach their sons about the sanctity of bodies and choices.  And my daughter, and hers—they never have to wake up in silence.

on airing dirty laundry

I’ve been thinking about sharing and over-sharing recently. I’m a pretty transparent person nowadays. I like to feel connected to people through narratives–happy or sad, triumphant or despairing.   Another way of saying this: I don’t like small talk or trivialities. There is a distinction, however, between connecting and gossiping, or sharing stories that aren’t mine to disclose. In my writing groups this is sacrosanct. We do not share our peers’ writing, directly or anecdotally, ever.

There is a woman’s blog that I follow, off and on, that has a tendency to over-share. By this, I mean she will write about others’ stories—fully disclosing heartbreaking details of, say, her mother’s earlier life. I’m caught off guard when I read these posts, sometimes feeling like I want to ask, “Did you ask your mom if you could share this?” I suppose part of it is context, too. Is the nature of the blog to share devastating narratives of people in her life or is it mostly a Waldorf homeschooling blog? See what I mean?

I worried about that after my first two writings. Did they catch people off guard?   Were they too personal? Too revealing? It’s strange because I NEVER would have shared them before I started writing again in Utah. Only a handful of people knew about my eating disorder, because there’s an impression I felt I needed to maintain: I’m a mother, I’m healthy, I’ve got it together. And then the real reason: I.Do. Not.Want.To.Be.Judged. Eating disorders are very touchy, mostly because they’re grossly misunderstood. But then I learned from my friend M that no one’s judgment has any power over me (I can’t tell you what internalizing that nugget of advice did for me), and additionally, maybe I’ll make someone else feel a little less judged by sharing. When I first told my best friend about the eating disorder, we had been the closest of friends for over ten years. It was the ONE thing I’d never told her. Why? It’s complicated, for sure, but I think it had to do with a friend that she lost to an eating disorder, and I didn’t want her to worry about me. When I did tell her over a year ago, she looked at me with her misty, green eyes and hugged me, “Oh, Aggie. That just makes me love you more.” Sigh.

I’m curious about your decisions to share personal details either casually or with caution. Has sharing ever backfired or does it usually bring you closer?

I haven’t yet asked for specific responses on the blog, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot and would love to know. x

on inclusion

Yesterday I stopped at Tulie, a wonderful bakery in SLC, to pick up a few loaves of banana bread for my neighbors. They have endured the hideous PODS in front of our house for the past week so I figured it would be nice to express some gratitude. While I was there I chatted with the barista, a lovely guy from Texas, who is one of the few persons of color I see on a regular basis. I asked him if I should still give bread to the neighbors who called parking enforcement on us. His response, “F**k them!” I love him. I bought the grumpy couple across the street a loaf anyway.

Behind me in line was a friend, a pulmonologist. She was in her scrubs, pager clipped on, so I figured she only had a few minutes, but we ended up talking for a while. I told her we were moving to Toronto, and that we were looking forward to living in a more diverse city. She quietly nodded. Our conversation then steered to updates on our close-in-age kids, vacations, summer camps, etc. She mentioned that she was moving all three of hers from one school to another in the fall: private to public. I asked her what prompted the change, and she hesitated. “Well,” she said, almost reluctantly. “We felt like they were often excluded from social engagements with classmates.” I watched tears gather in the corners of her eyes. While both the private school and the public one she mentioned are in progressive neighborhoods of Salt Lake, I can’t say that I was surprised—although this did not in any way remedy the sickness I felt. She explained that in addition to her children being repeatedly left out, they were also often asked by other kids, “what are you?” Tears were streaming down her face. We embraced in the bakery for several seconds before she grabbed my arms and pulled back. In her eyes I saw such utter and complete sadness.

My friend is Indian-American and her husband is Mexican-American. She calls her children, “of mixed race.” I have never been asked in my life, “what are you?” I’ve been asked about my heritage. A coded word that denotes: you’re white, so tell me about your nuanced European lineage. When someone asks where I’m from, they’re asking which city or state I was born in. No one is ever trying to “figure me out” or identify what kind of “foreigner” I am. I don’t think that people’s questions are necessarily coming from a mentality of overt racism, but there’s an identification of “otherness” when we demonstrate a desire to make meaning of someone’s “other” identity.

My writing mentor describes herself as being able to blend into many cultures. She loves it when people embrace her as one of theirs, but she feels offended when someone is trying to “make meaning of her.” Often, this is done in a condemnatory way. She can be “identified” and written off in the blink of an eye. While being a woman can certainly lend itself to being easily written off, there is a collective narrative from early America through #metoo that provides white women, in particular, with the resources and, honestly, jurisprudence, to take aim and fire back. Does the woman of color have the same archives of social, historical and political power? She does not—despite the fact that among our earliest activists were valiant women like Sojourner Truth.

Regardless of the intention of her kids’ classmates, what my friend experienced (experiences) delineates a certain cultural and social narrative that remains scattered and undefined. We talk to our kids about celebrating difference, but are we simply amplifying the seed of separatism? I don’t know, but it’s something that Mark and I talk about a lot, especially as our moves have taken us to predominantly white, albeit liberal, places: Missoula, Portland, Vermont, and Salt Lake City.

I believe the adage, listen more and talk less, is spot on. I gave my friend the space to say, I don’t want my kids to feel hurt anymore. Again, I’m not patting myself on the back. I should probably just shut the hell up more often. In our schools, in our homes, and in our culture, how do we make inclusion the focus? How can we nurture origins of culture and heritage without abetting patterns of ignorance? I’m all ears.




on work

Americans have a strange relationship with it.  We work a lot.  We’re taught about work ethic from a young age, we value dedication and long hours, and we often have a strained push-pull with taking time off.  We know from tons of data and research that self-care is critical to health and happiness, but culturally we can’t quite develop a collective relationship with the short- and long-term value of balance.  Look no further than our mostly punitive maternity contracts, and it’s clear that you really need to get back to work ASAP.  Consequently, most of us have unhealthy or at least complicated feelings about working.

In college my major was called the Program of Liberal Studies. This sounds like an amorphous humanities program, but in fact, it was an amazingly specific one.  It was mainly a Great Books major with our reading list including every great tome from antiquity to about 1950.  We read all the classics, plus some more unusual titles, with an integration of mathematics, sciences, music, art history, philosophy, and religious studies.  It was pretty awesome.  When I applied and was accepted to the program I found myself among the Book Nerds of all book nerds.  I was psyched.

One of the more unusual titles we read was a philosophical text by German author Josef Pieper entitled Leisure:  The Basis of Culture.  I loved the book, and especially the way Pieper viewed work.  According to Pieper, leisure is a condition of the soul.  Oh my goodness I love that phrase so much.  His idea was not that we need a piña colada on a sandy beach to restore ourselves (although I believe that might be debatable), in fact we can find both meaning and leisure regardless of whether we’re in work mode or not.  My professor at the time gave a great analogy of the construction worker.  While the construction worker is toiling in the hot sun, where is his mind’s eye? If he is engaged in a loving search for an understanding of Being and Eternal Wisdom, is this not the primary action and purpose of man?  My professor explained, we are made to work and philosophize (among other things), though the mix will be different from one person to the next. But philosophizing is the loving search for an understanding of Being and Eternal Wisdom, and it is the primary action of man.  Wowzers.

Now, I can feel some eye rolling.  I get it, you can’t think about Plato’s cave while you’re working on a legal brief.  So, let me give you a better example.  My dear friend owns a beautiful children’s clothing company.  About a year ago, a shipment of her dresses arrived with many missing buttons.  Like 300 of them.  I felt horribly for her because this sounded like a ton of work.  I don’t know how to sew on a button let alone 300, so I imagined the awful and tedious work she had to undertake.  Interestingly, when I asked her about it in her office, while she was sitting next to the sewing machine, she was elated.  She said she hadn’t been back doing this kind of work since she started the company, and she loved using her hands again.  This is exactly what Pieper is talking about.  No, she wasn’t philosophizing about the meaning of life, as far as I know, but she was finding pleasure and meaning in her work.  In many ways I feel like Pieper is hitting on the same thing that Buddhists hope to ascertain: enlightenment.

My kids were in a Waldorf school when we were living in Vermont, and one big part of the school’s practice is having the kids do some form of work.  This is a pretty foreign concept to American parents of my generation.  Our kids play.   They may have iPads or phones.  They may make their beds, maybe.  They do homework, but we shy away from having them work… Until they graduate from an Ivy League School, and then they’re expected to work 80 hours a week in their careers.  Wait, that sounds terrible.

Waldorf schools familiarize children with the idea of finding meaning in work from a young age.  Why do they grind their own oats for snack?  Why do they clean up and wash their own dishes?  Why do they plant their own gardens and tend to them?  Because each act is celebrated as a critical and meaningful part of the community.  Teachers can say, “Josie ground these oats for our oatmeal today.  Thank you, Josie.”  “We planted these carrots; aren’t they delicious?”  “Thank you, William, for washing our dishes so that we have clean plates to eat on today.”

A spirit of generosity, community, and purpose becomes the most prevalent aspect of the classroom.

Imagine if that condition of the soul became a part of our work environments?  Sign me up.


on social inequality

I watched a documentary tonight about a neighborhood in New York City where a relatively new prep school was opened across the street from the Chelsea-Elliott Houses.  The statistics in the film were incredibly disheartening, but not surprising.  When the high line was constructed on the abandoned, elevated railways on the west side, no developer, architect or resident predicted the shockingly high appreciation in real estate the neighborhood experienced.  The vertical growth is impressive, as are the new buildings with private pools and car elevators.  The projects remain in the neighborhood, for now, although low-income housing in New York has dropped by forty percent in the past ten years, so I’m sure many developers lie in wait.

The film explores the relationship, or lack of relationship, between the residents of Chelsea-Elliott public housing and the students at Avenues: The World School.  Mark and I both rolled our eyes when we saw the colon in there.  Good grief.  It’s hard not to dislike (another double negative, sorry–sometimes they’re affective) this school off the bat.

The kids from public housing are from hard-working families, most of whom have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives, and they all seem on the brink of some form of disaster.  One little girl in the film steals the whole show.  She’s spunky and precocious, wise and creative, imaginative and unstoppable.  I fell head over heels.  Her name is Rosa and she’s eight years old.  She says, “I can tell you for a fact my family is not going to be living in the projects for ten more years. They think they’re comfortable living where they are — my mom’s been living there for twenty-five years already — they think it’s fine, but honestly if we face reality, it’s not. New York, for me, is one of the places your dreams come true. Don’t get me wrong, when I leave the projects I’m not going to forget where I come from, but I want to succeed in life.”  She has sparkly eyes and curly hair, to boot.

While the students at Avenues come across as smart and likable, too, there’s a weariness among them about how they’re supposed to feel or respond to their $50,000 per year education.  A female junior decides to cross the boundary between her school and the projects, and create a community project.  She calls it 115 Steps, referring to the number of steps between the two buildings.  I admired her intrepid action; it felt authentic and investigative, but I’m not sure the kids who crossed onto her turf experienced the same satisfaction.  They had to go back to their side of the street when it was over.

I taught with Teach for America when I graduated from college.  I started with kindergarten in Washington Heights, then second grade in the South Bronx.  In many ways my experience was quite similar to the juxtaposition of Avenues and the Chelsea-Elliott projects.  I lived on the Upper East Side on 77th between 2nd and 3rd, in a charming studio subsidized by my parents, and I took the 6 train to the Bronx each morning.  I was earnest in my desire to help my students, like the junior from Avenues, but like her, I had the underlying safety net of a roundtrip ticket.

In the summer of 2003, I started TFA training at Fordham University.   Within several weeks there were rumors of class and racial tension among corp members.  My roommate, an amazing woman from Puerto Rico, asked me to participate in a town hall-style conversation among teachers.  Apparently there were a lot of insensitive comments being made in some of the training sessions.  I did not personally experience this in my group, but I wasn’t surprised that there were issues.

The tricky part about organizations like Teach for America is that predominantly privileged, college graduates go into impoverished regions of the country to “make a profound impact on low income rural and urban communities.”  There are  many assumptions made in this statement.  Additionally, much of the language from TFA is incredibly loaded with words like “equity,” “justice,” and “unwavering commitment.”  Let’s start with the problem in the last statement, “unwavering commitment.”  Well, the commitment is actually only two years, and this poses a problem for the teachers who have committed to their students for decades.  When a privileged, white woman, like me, shows up in the Bronx to confront the injustice, finally, how does that impact the community who has been striving for justice all along?  You can imagine how offensive the organization can come across to veteran teachers.

So, here’s what happened at the town hall meeting.  I arrived, was given a chair on stage, and was pointedly asked in the first five minutes:  “Where do you live?” “On the Upper East Side.”  “Who do you think you are?  A white girl like you traveling to the ghetto for the day?”  “Why does it matter where I live?  I’m here to help these kids.”  You can probably imagine how the rest of the conversation went. I left in tears, defeated, embarrassed, ready to call it quits.  The thing is, she had a point.  It’s one thing to dedicate your life to the injustices in our country; it’s another thing to stride out of college debt free, rent a quaint studio apartment to teach kids for a couple of years, then decide what you really want to do with your life.  She was totally right.

I left the meeting, and my dear friend, Henry, was there to comfort me.  And when the rest of the group left, I was called back in by one of the TFA administrators.  I was kind of expecting a “How are you? Sorry you had to take all of that heat alone.” But, I was in for a different scolding.  “Aggie, at Teach for America, we’d really appreciate it if you’d avoid words like ‘these.’ As in, ‘these kids.'”  While I was too young to fully absorb the significance of that evening–the nuances of privilege, institutional racism, social inequity, etc.–I was aware of what was fundamentally problematic about her takeaway from that whole discussion.  She missed the fact that I did care about the kids.  A lot.  Many of my former kindergarteners and second graders are now college graduates, and I still talk to many of them.  Tamia is now a professional ballerina (I was her teacher when a ballet school came to do an informal evaluation); DeJane went to Harvard and is now studying to be a veterinarian; Tomas is starting law school at, believe it or not, Fordham University.  What she heard was semantics, and while I think words are important, she missed the whole point.  I needed to learn to fill in the grey area between my apartment and my school.  What happens when the two years of commitment are up?  What happens when you build a school in a community that’s been there, fighting for its life, and you never acknowledge its presence?  Those were the questions I needed to strive to answer.

Indeed the widening social inequality is among the most challenging we face as a country–now more than ever.  In the documentary a family watches Barack Obama give a speech regarding the status of undocumented parents whose children are U.S. citizens.  He says, “You can come out of the shadows.  If you pay taxes, you can stay.”  This statement, a relief at the time to millions of families, seems like a distant memory.  The family, whose father is undocumented, cries tears of joy because they will be together.  I can’t begin to fathom that being one’s constant fear.

The divide between the projects and Avenues school is indeed far greater than 115 steps.  As invisible boundaries and imagined borders close indefinitely, how will children like Rosa cross the divide?  And how will we meet her there?

on moving

I wish I were writing about my favorite type of moving: running.  Alas, this post is about the other, way less fun, moving.  The kind when you leave one home to go to a new one.  This time we’re off to Toronto.  Well, Mark is, and we’ll be there mid-August.  What is it exactly that’s so awful about moving?  First, there’s the wrapping, boxing, taping, and lifting that is laborious and incredibly rewardless.  I’m always sweating through my clothes and instantly filthy.  I shudder about how dirty my house must have been all along.

I remember our last move and thinking about twenty-six times that everything must be finally packed.  But then we’d find a shoe horn under the bed and an oil dipstick in the garage.  A deck of cards and a second blow dryer in the bathroom.  At that point, things started getting thrown straight in the trash can.

Second, there’s the question of what to keep, what to toss, what to store.  I can be ruthless when it comes to tossing, but it is very difficult for Mark.  He’s so much better than he used to be, but when we first moved in together I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of cables he thought he needed in life.  Blue cables, yellow cables, brown cables, white cables, black cables; cables for cable, cables for computers, cables for televisions, extension cables.  And did he have the first clue what ANY of these cables were for?  The answer is, maybe, so we should probably keep all of them, just in case.  When he wasn’t looking I threw all of them in the garbage.  I admit, I am also guilty of bringing certain items along with us on multiple moves.  For example, when my grandma died and we were going through her house I found a stack, fifty to sixty high, of old Life magazines.  I had just gotten my graduate degree and I could hear the postmodern literary critic Foucault whisper, The archives of our cultural history! You’ll do a significant piece one day on the captions of Life 1969.  Yeah, that hasn’t happened.  But doesn’t it seem like a shame to throw them all away?!

Back to the current move.  We’re planning to put everything in storage while we live in Canada for the year.  So, we’ll be essentially possession-less for the next year.  Okay, I’m bring a sh*t ton of clothes, and some of our favorite things, and games and stuff, and we’ll buy mattresses, maybe an IKEA couch, and a card table, but that’s about it.  Are we crazy?  Especially with kids, am I insane to move without their things?  It kind of sounds romantic to be super minimalist, almost Scandinavian or something, but the reality is we’re not Scandinavian.  We have a lot of stuff.

Mark said to me today, maybe we should give it all away.  And the idea hasn’t left me.  I’ll keep you posted on that.

Third, moving is also emotionally difficult.  Each time I found out where we were moving I’d cry.  There’s such sadness in leaving behind a community.  When we moved from Portland I was leaving Ashley, the gals at Alder and Co., the friends I made at St. Andrew School, medical school pals, and the fantastic city itself.  I was also a new mom and we were moving across the country.  It was a lot.  I never quite settled completely in Vermont.  I don’t know if it was a west coast-east coast thing, but my kids were very small while we were there, I had a job at the community college at night, and Mark was gone a lot.

Utah, however, has been another story.  I found my people here, like I did in Oregon.  I joked with one of my friends the other day that there’s more intelligence among the moms in my son’s kindergarten class than any department at NASA.    Beyond intelligence I’ve found the transplants and the locals alike to be in love with the landscape here, the beauty and the opportunities it provides.  The people here are pretty mellow, and kind, and happy.  There’s a lot of sunshine in Utah and incredible seasons.  Finally, it’s really an amazing place to raise kids.

There were some challenges for me here, too.  I taught at a state school south of Salt Lake City, and I found myself in the extreme religious minority–meaning I’m not Mormon.  That’s not a non-issue here (sorry for the double negative).  There is judgment.  A lot.  And I felt it often, but I put on my big girl pants and decided, hey, this is who I am.  And do you know what?  It worked out really well.  I think students, especially women, found some safety in a neutral, even supportive, outsider.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the social and cultural implications of any place. Indeed there’s no perfect city or state, and Utah certainly isn’t perfect, but I sure as heck would be happy to live here forever.

I hear Toronto is great.  It’s supposedly the “New York City of Canada.”  I’m not crazy about the analogy because New York IS unequivocally the greatest city in the world, but a year of city adventures sounds fantastic.  I’ll keep you posted.

So, back to moving.  It’s happening, and I’m okay.

Fourth:  we are running out of tape again.


on paths

I’m going to begin by addressing a personal ineptitude: direction.  Examples are helpful.  I’ve lived in Salt Lake City for three years, and until about six months ago I didn’t understand why the streets running north-south were labeled east and west.  I blame my third-grade teacher for insufficient, differentiated instruction when we were supposed to learn longitude and latitude. Ha!  I digress.

It’s funny because my “path,” so to speak, hasn’t been linear or straightforward.  I teach college because, well, I like teaching.  And teaching writing is rewarding because most of my students don’t show up ready to write at the college level.  Most of the time, I feel like they are by the end of the semester.  At least by May I don’t get emails anymore from students that read:  “Whats the homework.”  I remind them that salutations, punctuation, and proper tone are important, especially when they’re trying to get a job.

But so often I question my work.  Is it worthy?  Why don’t I just finish a PhD?  Shouldn’t I have, like, a real career by now?  Shouldn’t I be making more money at this point in my life?  All of that fun stuff.  Ultimately, I’m pretty okay with letting go of all of these unhelpful questions.  And here’s why.

Based on my lack of spatial awareness, it probably does not come as a surprise that my gifts are not math- or science-related either.  Strangely, however, when I was writing my thesis in graduate school I found myself neck high in physics.  I was researching the works of both Spanish-writer Jorge Volpi and Argentinian-writer Jorge Luis Borges.  Their writing, though over fifty years apart, engage in large part the early modernist era of both literature and science.  Both authors were intrigued by the complexities of the World Wars, and both touched on, either directly or inadvertently, the theories of physicists at the time.  Remember, while Hitler was murdering Jews in Europe, German and American physicists were busy building the atomic bomb.  To say that this era sparked metaphysical and psychological upheaval around the world would be a vast understatement.  For most, disillusionment ruled the post-war world.  In literature, form and function took on new meanings.

In one of Borges’s most famous short stories, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the narrator tells a story of a what every step, every choice, every direction means, and the infinite possibilities open to each person, at each moment, at once.  Bear with me here.

At the end of the story he says, “The explanation is obvious. The Garden of Forking Paths is a picture, incomplete yet not false, of the universe […]. Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.”  As Borges identifies here, authors and scientists began exploring other narratives.  The current one was too painful, too disheartening, too evil.  And much of this exploration took place within the human heart.

I needed to learn some basic quantum physics to write my thesis, which was surely painful for my physics advisor, but I grew to love it.  The wonderful thing about advanced science or math is that it takes on a very literary quality.  Numbers become characters, equations are narratives, and creativity and imagination hold great value.

This is important because I think it tells us a lot about the universe and ourselves.  Regardless of your beliefs, there’s something, to me, very comforting about the idea that the same atom can be two places at once.  Einstein was right!  The implications of this concept are tremendous.   What if in the moment that I walked into my thesis defense I simply tore up my paper and walked away?  In some parallel universe, according to Einstein and Borges, I did!

This does not fill me with a sense of despondency; rather, our future, and our choices are infinitely, limitlessly possible.  I feel great comfort when I think about every version of me taking every forking path, at once.  This makes having a sense of direction vastly over-rated, right?!



on marriage and medicine

IMG_0515Mark is in the last year of his medical training.  He leaves Monday for a year of pediatric electrophysiology in Toronto.  We’ll join him there at the end of the summer.

We have been apart quite a bit over the last eleven years of our medical journey (note the pronoun our–it’s well deserved). Henry was born the day after Mark graduated from medical school.  While I recovered, Mark drove with my dad from Oregon to Vermont to begin his pediatric residency.  During those three years, Mark did a month-long away rotation in California, and spent countless weekends and nights away from us at the hospital.

I gave birth to Gracie in Vermont, then between residency and fellowship in Utah we spent a summer apart again, and repeated the medical toil for three more years of endless nights and weekends apart.

Medical marriages are given an extra difficult hand.  Mark and I were married for three years before he started medical school, and yet our solid beginning did not prepare us for the pressure of tests, board exams, 100+ hours of work each week, and last, but definitely not least, little pay.  Granted, residents and fellows make a starting salary of around $50,000, which is roughly the average American’s pay; however, residents begin making this salary after earning advanced, doctoral degrees.  Not to mention the fact that they are earning less than minimum wage per hour.  Yes, this is true.

The real rub, however, is the antiquated (although at no point acceptable), hierarchical, hazing-based system.  You can think of it as the “I went through it, so you have to go through it, too” mindset.  I will never forget the day Mark came home from his first clinical rotation in medical school.  He said to me, defeated, “I’m not supposed to ask questions.”  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “Well,” he said. “The attending physician said ‘medical students are meant to be seen not heard.'”  It took him at least an hour to convince me he wasn’t joking.  This scolding was not an anomaly.  My inquisitive, curious, and spirited husband was repeatedly quashed in his earnestness time after time after time, until, he stopped.  He stopped asking questions.  He stopped wondering why.  His light went out.

I am not being melodramatic here.  Mark went from a bass rocking, squash playing, rock climbing, book reading, avidly snowboarding, and unabashedly joyful man, to a tired, hollow shell.  And it all happened so terrifyingly quickly I nearly lost my bearings as well.

The thing about medicine is that it’s scary.  And this is totally understandable.  People are sick; kids are dying; and there are doctors who are supposed to fix everything while wearing white coats that shout “Hey! I’m in charge and I know what I’m doing!”  A lot of super smart people go into medicine because it’s either what their parents did or they have ambitious and altruistic interests.  I think most of us agree at this point that it’s not for the money.  There are indeed much easier ways to make a lot of money.  In medicine though these super smart people who mostly have no real world experience (because they are in school forever) haven’t worked out who they are, what they believe, or why they’re in this business to begin with.  Enter:  INSECURITY.

Mark is not insecure.  Or at least, he wasn’t.  He asked a lot of questions in medical school because he genuinely wanted to know answers.  He likes to understand things.  But, a lot of people in medicine don’t like being asked questions because when you’re dealing with life and death, and academia, you get scared, and anxious, and those feelings beget defensiveness and, sometimes, anger.

Amidst this unhealthy cycle of needing to learn but being afraid to ask questions, Mark’s psyche took a huge hit.  And at the time I didn’t know what to do.  So, we started to fight.  And then, we were mostly silent.

In March of 2011 I went away to a wonderful resort in Arizona with my sister.  I left Portland knowing that Mark was in a very, very bad place.  I thought maybe the break would help him regroup.  While I was gone,  Mark saw a therapist, and I started to feel like something awful was going to happen.  When I said goodbye to my sister at the airport I clung to her and cried.  I didn’t want her to leave and I didn’t want to go back home.

When I arrived at the airport, Mark was there to pick me up.  We didn’t speak the entire car ride home.  When we arrived home he told me he was leaving.  And he left.

We were apart for exactly two weeks. During this time we saw a marriage therapist, a man named Michael.  He took us on a sliding pay scale because we were broke, and then he saved our marriage.  He told us it was worth saving, and incidentally later told us that he had never said that to a couple before.  He also never charged us a dime.

I learned during our sessions with Michael that while I was hiking and swimming in Tucson, Mark’s therapist had told him to leave me.  I still do not understand the brashness of her direction, but I believe that if she had said, you should just tie a noose around your neck, he would have.  Perhaps she thought our marriage was over, or that by leaving me he could actually process his life.  I’ll never understand, but I don’t blame her for what happened.

In Michael’s dusty, book-filled office with layers of antique rugs and cluttered rock specimens, Mark and I relearned how to talk.  How to see each other anew.

This is what I know about my Mark.  His is the fiercest love.  He can read every expression, every glance.  He believes in me with every bone in his body.  And his every action, his every word, is good and true and real.

This post is not about therapists, or even medicine, but it is about navigating the world when you are scared and vulnerable.  It is an extremely difficult thing to do.

And here’s the craziest part of all.  We’re pretty damn happy.  We’re entering the final stretch, and Mark loves what he does.  We’ve got a little debt, Mark’s bald, and I’ve got some killer wrinkles; and TWO beautiful children, and a favorite saying:  We’re killin’ it at this life thing!!! High five.

on softness

 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.